53: aberrant, eyes and all
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He doesn’t manage to repair the car.

It should have been expected, really, for such a rundown car to be nonfunctional. After a few rough smacks to the engine, Yang Rong had proceeded to channel all strength into his kicks, desperately hoping that a miracle would occur. Noah should have also expected that the man intends to solve everything via brute strength – after three kicks, Yang Rong had pulled out a knife and started disassembling the entire thing.

It isn’t so much a disassembly as it is a destruction, the knife being used to pry off the cover, the gasket, the pulleys, everything down to the last screw – Noah wasn’t even aware that there were so many miscellaneous parts.

“Stop trying,” Noah tells him. He’s leaning against the side mirror, staring off into the distance. When assigned the role of lookout, it’s difficult to not zone out. Only the continuous clanging keeps him from nodding off. “Handyman Yang Rong, it has been half an hour since you’ve started dismantling it.”

“I’d like to correct that it has been twenty-three minutes,” Yang Rong says with a groan, his head still buried inside the hood. “Cut me some slack, little kitten. Your Rong-ge is working with a sprained shoulder.”

Noah sighs. “Don’t bother. The truck doesn’t have gas anyway. Even if you get it working, the fuel’s been long expired. Assuming it’s petroleum-based, the shelf life is three years at most, and the vehicle looks a century old – old enough to be a Model T.”

“While I am unable to understand that reference, you may be onto something. I guess we have no choice.” Yang Rong finally stands upright. The frown on his face is apparent, but he’s adamant to find the best of the situation. He knocks on the hood of the vehicle, grabs Noah’s attention and motions a hand toward the passenger seat. “Get on.”

Noah stares at him in perplexity. “Why? It won’t work.”

“Well aware, Noah,” the man replies. “Hence you’re getting on and I’m pushing the car from the back.”

“…” If Noah thought the colonel functioned on one braincell before, he now wholly believes the braincell has been discarded. “…Colonel Yang, why are you so insistent on this vehicle when I’ve told you countless times in the past ten minutes that my destination is but a few more hours of walking?”

“A few hours?” Yang Rong narrows his eyes and does a quick elevator sweep, tracing Noah from head to toe. “Little kitten, you look like you’re about to collapse in the next minute. Your face is basically glowing in the dark and you want me to let you walk another three or four hours?”

Yang Rong taps the truck again. “So? Get on. I’ll have you know that my inertia is comparable to a luxury sportscar.”

“…I am impressed you know what a sportscar is,” Noah says. “But I am fine. It would be rather embarrassing to see you do such a thing. It would also be good if you retain a bit more of your… reputation, Colonel Yang, though I suppose it is a tad late.”

“Embarrassing?” Yang Rong raises a brow. “How am I embarrassing?”

“…” Noah only sighs and changes the topic. “I am fine. My face is naturally lighter than the average—"

“If you look at me while saying that with a straight face, I just might believe you. Your steps are averaging zero point six seconds slower than when we first left. Your posture is tilted two degrees forward, your shoulders are more hunched, and you are favoring your right side. My conjecture… your stitches?” Colonel Yang flashes him a knowing grin. “I’m never wrong, of course.”

“You… are uselessly perceptive and even more uselessly arrogant,” Noah replies begrudgingly. “And you aren’t uninjured yourself. It was extremely senseless of you to trip on a rock while lifting a tree—what in the world were you distracted by?”

“Obviously I was distracted by y—scenery. The scenery.” Colonel Yang stutters strangely mid-sentence. “The borealis. In the sky. You told me to catch it, so I was waiting for it to fall.”

“…” After a very long while of silence, Noah throws him back his jacket. He doesn’t want to bother entertaining him anymore, lest his own brain circuits be affected. “Well, if you’re done waiting, we should get a move on. Stop tossing your jacket for me to hold.”

“What?” Yang Rong frowns as he shrugs it on. “Didn’t you like wearing my—"

Just then, a slight rush of wind. An almost soundless click of metal – not the small clicks by the truck engine – then a rustle of a branch. It’s a brief, extremely light movement caught by the corner of his eye and Noah immediately bolts forward, grabbing the colonel by the shoulder and slamming him onto the ground. His actions were in the blink of an eye, not enough time for the other man to react.

Yang Rong is only surprised for a sliver of a second before his instincts take over. Battle-hardened, trained and ready – he is primed to move even when unaware. Yang Rong has the kind of veteran capability that is only honed through tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of battles, and no ordinary foot soldier could come close. He exudes as much competence as he does ruthlessness – hence why Noah is… was so deathly afraid of him.

The two of them topple roughly onto hard asphalt. Already, Colonel Yang has a secure grip around Noah’s waist. When a sudden bullet whizzes by their bodies, Yang Rong is prepared to roll them both out of gunfire. The first shot ricochets dangerously by his sprained shoulder and the second shot cracks through gravel, a mere inch away from his head.

The assailant, unknown, is an incredibly good sniper. They have full advantage of the terrain and is probably familiar with it too, considering how accurately they can gauge the bumps on the road, the small obstacles that may otherwise hinder. The third shot is followed by a low hiss – a child’s voice – and then silence overtakes the area.

In such an open space, Yang Rong and Noah can only rush to hide behind the pickup truck. The two had exchanged zero words and even the retreat is entirely tacit, Noah crouching by the wheel and the other following suit. There is stinging pain on his abdomen again – how utterly inconvenient for his body to be this frail.

The colonel taps him on the shoulder. The frown on his face speaks on a telepathic level – ‘are you alright?’

He nods once, steadies his breathing and flicks his gaze across the vicinity. His brain processes information rapidly – a child sniper, quick on his feet, extremely acute eyes. Night goggles or a scope, perhaps.

He can gauge the distance too – at least fifty meters away, judging from the velocity of the shot and the initial pull of the trigger. The gun isn’t the standard military-issued one either. The bullet is less destructive than an ordinary one. Slower and more rubber than metal. Personally crafted for sure.

Heteroclite eyes drill past countless browned shrubbery and tree trunks, zeroing in on a person’s silhouette. Behind an inconspicuous evergreen stands a black-haired child no more than twelve years old. It would be near impossible to spot him if not for Noah’s frighteningly acute night vision. He stares into the rifle scope the same time the boy moves to aim at him.

Noah’s pupils are glowing, vertical slits. Perhaps it’s the sheer abnormality of them that evokes a surprised gasp from the boy. He instinctively presses the trigger, though his hands shake so much that the muzzle veneers off course and the bullet goes straight for Colonel Yang’s head.

Noah also instinctively lurches himself to shield.

The colonel’s eyes widen. “—Noah!”

The shot rips through two layers of clothes and skids across his triceps, traveling further to graze Colonel Yang’s cheek in collateral. It ruptures through the door of the truck and embeds itself into the next surface. Handmade bullets but lethal nonetheless. Noah lets out a pained hiss and crashes into Yang Rong. The man immediately catches him.

“Noah,” the man calls out to him frantically. He cradles him in his hold, one hand roaming to stop the bleeding. “Noah, look at me. Let Rong-ge take a look…”

“…Mn,” he breathes into the man’s chest. “It is a scratch, Yang Rong.”

Crimson blood flows out from where a vessel is ruptured, streaming down the fabric of his clothes. The wound itself is not deep, but the flow is heavy. Noah’s breathing is ragged but his vitals remain normal. Nothing life-threatening, though Yang Rong’s reaction is borderline livid.

The small scratch on his cheek only adds to his murderous aura. He turns to the direction of the unknown assailant. Pitch dark eyes drill forward into the forest, so devoid they catch hints of manic red. Yang Rong when provoked has an unbearably frightening visage. The subject to the gaze is frozen in place, unable to run nor hide.

“If you don’t come out, I will kill you.”

His tone, too, is utterly terrifying. The words are spoken clearly and calmly – they only hint curbed danger.

“Two seconds,” he orders in that voice, the one reserved exclusively in the battlefield. “I am not opposed to hurting young children.”

He leaves zero room for negotiation. The tree branches crack as the person steps forward tentatively. His footsteps are light and fleeting – undoubtedly, he’s trained to survive such an environment. Noah lifts his head to see a boy even younger than he’d guessed – ten years old, perhaps eleven, though the malnourishment makes it harder to ascertain.

The black-haired, brown-eyed youth remains alarmed as he stands five meters away from them. Yang Rong, currently downright murderous, doesn’t care for introductions. Hostility overtakes the air as the colonel bores holes into him. “You have another two seconds to defend your case, but whether or not I accept it is a whole different matter.”

Yang Rong threatens a gun-wielder while barehanded and somehow, his words carry absolute control. The black dagger is sheathed onto his belt, a mere inch away from his fingertips, and he’s a thread of self-control away from piercing the child’s chest.

The boy opens his mouth. A thick, foreign accent. “You… have car.”

“I said to defend your case.” Yang Rong narrows his eyes. “Perhaps you don’t understand, but I am not patient enough to hear nonsense.”

“You have food,” the boy says, raising his rifle again. “Food and car.”

Yang Rong moves Noah to the side, hoists himself up from the ground and sneers, “Very brave of you to threaten me. Why don’t you give it another try—"

“—Yang Rong,” Noah cuts him off. “There is a misunderstanding.”

“What misunderstanding, Noah?” Colonel Yang asks darkly. “He shot you.”

“It is… common,” Noah says as he leans against the wheel of the truck. “The slums are unregulated and plagued with crime. Its residents are simply desperate to survive, even if it means they have to kill.”

“How magnanimous of you, Noah,” Yang Rong says. “But it hardly means I am willing to let it go.”

Before he’d finished speaking, Yang Rong had already sprinted over to the boy. The colonel disarms the child swiftly and ruthlessly, his actions so quick the latter hadn’t a chance to blink. The rifle drops to the ground and gets kicked meters away at the same time Yang Rong slams the child onto the ground. A deafening crack sounds as the boy’s arm is bashed against gravel, the force rendering him unable to move nor resist.

The colonel doesn’t hold back strength whatsoever, ruthlessly kneeing his spine and grabbing onto his neck. Noah hadn’t seen him ever this aggressive and the sight is… discomfiting.

“This is a robbery as well,” Yang Rong says coldly, pressing onto the nape of the young child’s neck. It’s a warning that he carries in kind, his fingers clenching firmer onto adolescent skin. “I don’t ask for food but rather, all the medicine you have. Hurry it up before I get more angry.” He leans forward and continues even more dangerously, “And I can assure I am difficult to deal with when angry.”

The boy lets out a choked wail as Yang Rong almost cuts off his breathing. It gets even more serious when the child starts to convulse on the ground, his frail body struggling to handle the weight of the man. Noah shakily stands up and makes his way over.

“Colonel Yang,” he tries to say. “It is enough.”

“Sit down, Noah,” comes the colonel’s curt command. “If you bleed another ounce, I will not hesitate to decapitate him.”

“It is not a serious wound.” Noah tugs on the man’s clothes, trying to appease. “Yang Rong, you are being unreasonable.”

He is being unreasonable and Yang Rong is aware himself. It takes a few more tugs for the alpha to quell his overpowering scent, his pheromones spreading darkly in the vicinity. Noah has to cover his nose to not lose his mind.

“—Yang Rong,” he says again, his brows furrowing in distress. “Calm down. Your scent is…really… hard to handle.”

Colonel Yang sighs and finally he lets go of the boy, though his expression indicates he isn’t pleased in the slightest. “Fine, Noah,” the man says, his eyes returning to a more agreeable shade of green. “I will let him go, but I dislike it.”

As soon as he eases his grip, the child scurries a meter away. There is an angry mix of fear and pain on his face, and his dominant right arm is dislocated into a harsh position. He doesn’t say anything else, yet his glare is enough to send a clear message of hatred. It isn’t certain who the emotions are directed at entirely, however, because for all that he looks to Colonel Yang with contempt, he stares at Noah with utter dread.

Yang Rong returns the look with twice as much brutality. “Are you done staring at him?”

The boy, although not fluent in English, is cognizant enough to perceive his words. “He is infected. Need to kill.”

Suddenly, Noah is all too aware of the blood running down his shoulder, the crimson streaks that are almost luminescent in the dark. The boy is watching him as though he were an otherworldly phantom too dreadful to exist here. Noah thinks the designation isn’t off the mark. He pulls his hood even further down his forehead, covering his ghastly face.

“Not normal,” the boy says again. “Strange eyes.”

“Another word and I’ll break your other arm,” Yang Rong says coldly, jutting a thumb to the opposite direction. “Run along, because I really will change my mind in a second.”