Heero whirled on the stranger, excessively perturbed at having the matter mentioned so abruptly by an outsider — not least because it sounded so absurd. He paused at the sight of the man, however, taken aback by an appearance so odd and an expression so earnest he couldn’t help giving him his attention.
An outdated suit wasn’t the only thing strange about the man; there was also an unnatural, unhealthy-looking paleness, almost a greyness, to his skin, and an unusual brightness to his eyes that reminded Heero of descriptions he’d heard of certain types of drug addicts. He seemed discomposed, restless, worried, tense — and at the same time trying very hard to conceal or subdue it.
Quatre had let his arm fall from where he’d been reaching for the door, and now was examining the stranger alongside Heero. Not quite as willing to be rude to people as Heero was, however, he answered the question. “Yes, that’s us.”
The stranger drew in a deep, quiet breath, apparently tensing even further. “Please,” he said, “may I talk to you?” He repeated, “Please,” with an almost desperate intensity that seemed to coincide exactly with his extreme but repressed agitation.
Heero glanced at Quatre, who raised his eyebrows in an expression as much Why not? as What the hell is this?
“Sure,” Heero agreed. “Let’s go inside and get a table and talk there.”
The stranger nodded and accompanied them through the door. Heero noticed that his coat had tails.
Once seated and once soda orders had been placed by Heero and Quatre, the latter two settled into staring at the stranger across the table, waiting for whatever he had to say.
“I won’t waste your time,” the man began. “Has this doll you found told you his name?”
“Yes,” Heero nodded. “Duo Maxwell.”
At these words the man seemed to crumple as if invisible strings holding him taut had been abruptly cut. He leaned forward with a trembling sigh, evidently too weak all of a sudden to remain upright, put his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. “My god…” he whispered, then repeated the phrase two or three times at lower and lower volumes.
For a moment Heero and Quatre could only watch in fascinated pity, but presently Quatre put out a hesitant hand and touched one of the stranger’s. “Are you his friend?” he guessed. “The one who cast the spell?”
The gentleness of Quatre’s tone must have been a good choice, for the stranger raised his face with a deep breath. There were tears on his cheeks. “Yes,” he replied weakly. “I’ve been looking for him for eighty-seven years.”
Heero tried to soften his stare, but feared he was failing. “You’ll have to forgive me for being a little skeptical of everything you say. You’ve got to be aware of how crazy this all sounds.”
The man nodded, wiping the moisture from his face. “And you will have to forgive me for not caring whether or not you believe what I say.”
“That sounds fair,” Quatre put in quickly. “You look like you could use a drink; what can we order for you?”
“I…” The man shook his head as if to clear it and get back on track. “I would not mind a glass of wine. Thank you.”
Their waiter had by this time returned, ready to take their dinner order, so the drink was requested along with the meal. Heero assumed either that Quatre was paying for this or that whatever the stranger had to say would be worth buying him alcohol on a split check.
Another staring silence fell while the man finished getting himself as under control as the situation permitted and the other two simply waited. Heero wasn’t even quite sure what he was waiting for, but he waited nonetheless. He didn’t doubt the man had more to say than simply seeking confirmation of Duo’s identity and whereabouts, but whether this would confirm the whole thing as a hoax or continue skirting Heero’s full disbelief he was eager to see.
The wine, which the waiter brought out immediately, seemed to help. It didn’t exactly put color into the pale cheeks of the stranger, but a few sips granted him a certain increase in steadiness. When he next spoke, however, it still wasn’t to offer explanation or introduction, but, rather, continue questioning the other two. “Is Duo all right?”
“Other than being a doll?” Heero couldn’t refrain from a touch of sarcasm. “He’s fine.”
“He isn’t… damaged… in any way?” the man wondered. “It’s been so long… he’s still in one piece?”
“I couldn’t pull his leg off when I tried,” Heero shrugged. The man winced.
“He’s not happy about being a doll, if that’s what you want to know,” Quatre put in quietly.
The stranger’s brows contracted beneath his face-shadowing hair, his unusually bright eyes cast down. “That’s only natural,” he murmured, in a tone of such helpless misery and guilt that Heero heard Quatre beside him catch his breath. Even Heero, whatever he might or might not believe about this situation, found himself moved to pity. There was no way to reassure the man, however; Duo had barely mentioned him or the exact circumstances of the curse, and Heero hadn’t wanted to press the doll on what, if it was true, must be a painful subject.
Quatre obviously wished to reassure, however, and therefore gave what little information they had that might: “He didn’t sound angry when he mentioned you. Even if he was upset with you back then, I’m sure he isn’t anymore.”
This did little to clear the unhappiness from the man’s face. He took another sip of wine and a deep breath, then said slowly, “I never meant for it to happen at all, and god knows I’ve been paying for it since.”
“How did it happen?” Heero wondered. This was one of the things he’d been supposed to ask Duo — the specifics of the scene that had purportedly caused all the trouble back in whatever year forever ago — which, once again, he hadn’t wanted to bring up for fear of bothering the doll.
“I’ve never told anyone before.” The stranger looked at him a little unsteadily. “You won’t believe it.”
“I’d like to hear about it too,” Quatre said.
The man transferred his gaze to Quatre, where it remained for several long seconds. Finally, nodding, he swallowed the last of his wine and began to tell his story.
Heero notes that Trowa’s coat is old-fashioned, but in reality men’s suit coats have changed so little in the last hundred years — at least from the front, which is where Heero’s looking — that this is somewhat of an exaggeration of his powers of observation. Oh, well.
Also, it amuses me that Heero hasn’t asked Duo how the curse supposedly came to be in fear of saddening Duo in case it might be true, but he doesn’t have any qualms asking Trowa the same question.