Wufei leaned against the far side of the Arena and watched as other Talents, some he’d known half his life, were met by their Others and left the Arena. No one even looked his way, let alone approached him, and they hadn’t all day. He didn’t know why it was bothering him, it was like this at every gathering he’d ever been to.
Ah, well. Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.
He pulled his cloak firmly around him, drawing the hood over his face against the bitter wind. It was time to leave, there would be no more Matches made today and he had a job to get back to. He was in for a jolly round of teasing, too, from Alvis and his friends - though he’d noticed that none of them had been Matched, either. It wouldn’t matter. They were ‘waiting for their perfect Others’, while he was just pathetic.
Life wasn’t fair.
He stepped out of the Gathering Arena and into the street. Instantly the wind was trying to steal his cloak and his breath - he was certain it was after his very soul. It was so strong it seemed to be pushing him towards the inn, like his feet were taking steps twice as long as usual. He slid inside the door with an unusual feeling of relief - he hated coming back here, but escaping from the wind dulled the usual sullen throb of anger.
“About time!” Harris, the innkeeper, bellowed at him. “I been waiting all the evening for you! Alvis done told us you weren’t chosen. Again.” He snickered, and half the crowded room echoed him. “Don’t see why you bother going. No self-respecting Talents are going to choose you! Might as well choose a donkey out of the stable!” Now the whole room howled with laughter.
Wufei just hung up his cloak, doing his best to ignore the jibes thrown his way, and moved around the room, lighting the fires in the huge fireplaces with his Fire Talent. Alvis and his friends were sitting around the main table, candles set up around them as they practiced their own Talents. Alvis was a Fire like Wufei, and delighted in showing off by lighting the candles and snuffing them out in elegant patterns. His friend Gordon was a Water Talent, who was teasing his friend by soaking the candles, making it harder for Alvis to light them. Alvis just sneered and stepped up his Talent, drying the wicks before they flowered into flame.
Wufei ignored them, taking trays of pewter mugs around to the tables, trading the beers for coopers that he tucked into a pocket on his apron.
‘Another month.’ he thought despairingly, ‘Another month until the next Gathering and my next chance to get out of here.’ If some poor fool of a Talent would just Choose Alvis - he didn’t have to be Chosen, himself - without Alvis to carry the news that he *hadn’t* been Chosen, he could escape, leaving Harris to think that he
was. The thought of never having to come back to this hot, foul-smelling place put the trace of a smile on his usually tightly-clamped lips.
One of the strangers from Outside, here for the Gathering, noticed, and when he came to his table with the beer tray, he felt a hand slip up his thigh toward his rump. With the ease of old practice he managed to twist away and make it seem like he was just moving on. The man scowled after him, then signaled for the innkeeper.
This was a bad thing - it was illegal for Harris to sell him like that, but he knew the man had been tempted before - it was only a matter of time before someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and this man looked well-off. He’d just have to hope that the rest of his unattractive person would cancel out the effect of that smile. Harris wouldn’t risk a fine and a public out-calling for a handful of coppers.
He just had to hope the man wouldn’t think he was worth more than that.
He saw Harris shaking his head - must have been a low offer - and the man’s eyes turned to appraise him again. He tightened his lips firmly and twisted his features into a scowl. It worked, thankfully - the man shook his head and turned back to his beer and dinner. Harris snorted and went back to the bar.
A little of the starch went out of Wufei’s shoulders, but he was careful to keep the scowl on his face the rest of the night.
“This is hopeless.”
Heero turned to gaze at his Second, his Water Talent. “Duo - it can’t be.”
“I don’t mean completely hopeless, Hee-chan. I mean hopeless here. There isn’t a decent Talent in the place. I don’t feel anything. Do you feel anything?”
“No,” Heero was forced to agree. “What about you?” He turned to his Third and his Fourth, who both shook their heads mutely. He sighed. This was the thirteenth Gathering they’d journeyed to since the Oracle in Helia had told them their long-awaited Fifth was somewhere to the North. The enthusiasm they’d begun with had rapidly faded. Too many disappointments were wearing them down.
“There’s no point in even staying here,” Duo grumbled, curling his lip as a plump female Fire Talent tried to catch their attention.
“I agree.” Quatre said softly. “If our Fifth was here, we would have sensed them already.”
Heero sighed again, and looked to his Third. It was just as well to get everyone’s opinion.
Trowa just nodded, agreeing with the others.
“Let’s go then.” Heero said.
“Back to Helia?” Duo asked, sadness in his voice. It had been a long, hard journey, but they’d been so eager to find their Fifth, the missing piece of themselves and the key to finally becoming a WarCraft. Their Commander had given them as long as they needed, knowing that when they finally found their Fire, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. Not that they were easily dismissed now, even as an unfinished Four, but he had high hopes of their powers once they were Complete.
Now it was over - this was the last town they knew of on this road. Any further and they’d be in enemy territory, where no Talents were even permitted to live - they were killed at birth.
“No, not back to Helia.” Heero said, surprising them. “I heard a soldier speak of a small town off to the East of here. It’s still North of Helia - as long as we are here, we may as well visit. Next week is their Gathering.”
“All right. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Duo tried to get his old cheerfulness back into his voice, but it was a hard fight. They were rapidly running out of hope.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to try again,” Alvis sneered as he watched Wufei put on his ragged cloak. “No one ever picks you. I would think you’d be tired of the humiliation.”
‘I would think you would, too.’ Wufei thought to himself, keeping his head down so the other boy couldn’t read the thought on his face. It wasn’t a good idea to anger the Mayor’s son, after all. Wufei had carried bruises from his fists before.
‘Please, please let him be Chosen this time.’ He begged the gods as he trudged down the cold, muddy road to the Arena again. He’d long ago stopped asking for himself, but he’d never give up hoping that Alvis would be Chosen and taken far, far away from here. If he was just Chosen by a local Talent life wouldn’t change enough. He’d just be strutting around the village prouder than ever.
Wufei slipped into the Arena and let his eyes run over the Joined Talents and the Singles who were waiting inside. Not many different from last time, and no one who Called to him. Ah, well. At least a few of them were looking at Alvis. Perhaps today would be his lucky day, after all. He tightened his arms around the small bundle of belongings he’d hidden inside his cloak and waited, hoping hard.
He was watching as a prosperous older Water Talent spoke to Alvis when there was a sudden commotion near the entrance. One of the younger Talents, not old enough for Gatherings yet, came rushing inside.
“There’s a Four coming!” He gasped, setting up wondering cries among the unChosen inside. “A WarCraft Four, searching for Fire!”
Alvis drew himself up haughtily, as if he were already Chosen by so prestigious a group. The other Fires, except for Wufei, began detaching themselves from friends and Possibles and drifting toward the door. Wufei shrank back into the shadows, clutching his bundle tighter as
hope blossomed in his heart. Surely this would be the ‘Perfect Match’ Alvis was always going on about?!
He could almost taste his freedom.
Outside, Heero and his Others swung down from their horses, gazing around at the dilapidated little village with obvious distaste.
“Ugh. At least if our Fifth is here, they ought to be glad to leave,” Duo snorted, staring at the refuse piled in the streets.
“This place is disgusting.” Quatre agreed, wrinkling his nose as the breeze carried the stench to them. He didn’t usually use his Air Talent for such frivolous things, but he couldn’t resist sending the breeze in the other direction.
“Whew. Thanks, Quat.” Duo said as they started for the small Arena. “I was really going to be...” They all stopped short as a dull surge of warmth welled up inside them, burning hotter and hotter as someone inside the building anticipated their coming.
“That’s our Fifth.” Heero’s voice was reverent - as one unit they broke out of their trance and raced for the building.
Inside, Wufei reeled and nearly fell against the wall as several unknown sensations roiled up inside him - he didn’t know what was going on, but he was sure he was about to be sick.
The Four shoved the big wooden Arena doors open and stalked inside. The sense of their Fifth grew stronger, although they toned down their own reaction to it. They knew they were probably overwhelming their inexperienced Fire Talent. They expected to see someone prostrate on the floor as they came in, with worried friends and family around them. That was what it had been like when they found Quatre, their Fourth.
They didn’t see it, though - there was just a crowd of country yokels, gawping at them. One redheaded boy with a round, cruel face sauntered forward. They could sense that he was a Fire Talent - but he wasn’t their Fire Talent. They stood regally waiting, their eyes searching the room for someone else to come forward.
Alvis stood in front of them for a long moment, scowling the longer he waited for them to Choose him. He tried to meet their eyes and failed. Finally he stalked up to the one with chocolate brown hair in an artful mess, who had the emblem of a Spirit Talent on his armor, and forced the blue eyes to look at him. He smiled.
No response. The beautiful blue eyes stayed blank, not even a question in them.
“Alvis!” His father called, worriedly. “Come away!” It didn’t do to bother a Four - they might not be WarCraft yet, but they were powerful enough to flatten the village as they were. He didn’t want them provoked, and even he had to admit that Alvis was provoking.
Alvis ignored him, turning back to Heero. “You’re my Others!” he said sharply, watching smugly as all four pairs of eyes swung to him. To his surprise, the First didn’t speak - but the Second certainly did.
“Man - not even! We can barely tell you’re there - and you're hard to miss! You look like a fat weasel!”
The rest of the village guffawed.
Another Talent moved forward, a slim blond girl with starry eyes fixed on Heero. “I’m Relena,” she breathed, gazing at him with a look that screamed, ‘I have found my one true love!’ “I’m a Fire Talent - you see?” A flame danced in her cupped palm. Again, it was Duo who answered her.
“Sorry, princess. You’re not the one we’re looking for.”
Her lower lip wobbled, but she didn’t give up. “You can’t be sure of that - it sometimes takes several hours for Talents to recognize one another, you know!”
Duo shook his head. “Like I said, sorry, princess, but our Fire has already Spoken to us.” His gorgeous violet eyes searched the room again, and he called out to everyone. “Why are you hiding? We know you felt us... come to us!”
The four boys waited, but no one moved. Heero huffed.
“Where are the other Fire Talents? Bring them forward.” He spoke for the first time, ordering the Mayor. The man obeyed him instantly, motioning to the two Fire Talents left, a cowed looking brunette girl and a young Fire who was at his first Gathering and wasn’t quite sure of what to do. The Four stared at them for a moment, then their eyes were going back over Relena and Alvis.
“No!” Quatre cried, losing his patience. “No, none of them! Aren’t there any more Fires here?”
“No... oh, wait, there’s the little inn boy. Where is he?” The Mayor replied, ignoring his son’s sudden furious scowl. Everyone turned to look, and someone finally pointed to the far wall, where a small figure sat huddled on the floor, with his head on his knees.
Wufei had barely registered that something unusual was happening - the odd feelings in his stomach had toned down, but were still too much for him to handle at once. He was sure he was going to pass out or be violently sick. Hating his weakness, he’d slid down the wall to the floor and huddled in on himself, folding his arms around his stomach and resting his swimming head against his knees. He vaguely realized that there were footsteps coming toward him, but he didn’t react until a hand stroked his hair.
He lifted his head, dark eyes black as night in a face drained of color, and stared at the four pairs of eyes that were nearly devouring him.
‘I think I’m in trouble...’ he thought, then blackness filled his vision and he faded away.