“Duo and I grew up together,” the man began. “I don’t remember a time when we weren’t best friends, until… well, we had been friends since we were children. I had run away from my family, and he was an orphan…”

Quatre found himself unusually riveted on the stranger’s words. Whether this tale was true or whether this was simply a phenomenal actor adding onto the hoax, there was just something so interesting about the man. Heero had marveled that no aspect of this situation was interesting enough to get Quatre really interested; now one seemed to have appeared.

“We did whatever we could to scrape up money… lived together in one room, shared everything we earned…” In a nearly inaudible tone of nostalgia almost unbearably sad the man added, “We shared everything.”

He shook his head and went on. “We’d always known that magic was real; one of our neighbors when we were young was a fortune teller, and it was something we’d simply always accepted. But it wasn’t until years later that it occurred to us to try practicing ourselves. The old woman had died by then, but we managed…” Again he shook his head, this time apparently in self-reproof. “But you don’t need to hear all about how we learned magic.”

Quatre thought that he would very much like to hear how they had supposedly learned magic, but agreed that it was tangential to the overall story.

“By then I had a job at a factory where I made better money than either of us ever had. Duo refused to come work with me; he couldn’t stand that kind of repetitive work.” The man’s tone held a retroactive fondness for his friend, and once again a nostalgia so strong and pathetic it almost seemed too personal for others to be privy to. Quatre suddenly began to wonder what the precise relationship between the two had been.

“We had enough money, for once; the Great War had ended; and magic kept us entertained. Everything in our lives seemed to be going well.”

Here the man was interrupted by the appearance of food. As their meals were set down in front of them, the waiter promised refills on sodas, and in conjunction with this asked whether the stranger would like another glass of wine. Observing hesitance in the stranger’s look, Quatre volunteered, “I believe he would,” with a friendly smile at both parties. The waiter took himself off, the stranger thanked Quatre, and the story continued.

“Late in 1922 I was promoted to general overseer at the factory, and suddenly I was in possession of more money than I’d ever dreamed of having when I was a newsboy on the streets. I thought it was a good thing at first. I believe even Duo thought it was a good thing at first. But it changed things.” He fell silent for a moment, pensive. The waiter reappeared just then with his wine; after giving him a nod of thanks and seeing him gone again, the stranger went on.

“My new salary bought me a place in a higher level of society than I’d ever moved in. It was a different world back then; society wasn’t what it is now. I was never much of a society person, but it was entertaining to be asked to parties and luncheons I could never have attended before. But once Duo saw what it was like, he wouldn’t have any part of it. He wouldn’t move into the new apartment I rented, wouldn’t ride in the new car I bought, and, though he was often included in invitations extended to me, he wanted nothing to do with what he called my ‘new shit-heel friends.’ Until…”

The man pursed his lips slightly, looking perturbed. “I’ve forgotten her name,” he murmured. “She was what started all of this, and I’ve forgotten her name.”

“You argued over a woman?” Quatre asked. Why this should be so surprising he couldn’t guess, but he was definitely startled.

The stranger nodded. “He only started making himself pleasant to her after I’d shown an interest; it was clear — to me, at least — that he wasn’t actually interested in her… but he had a gift for making himself pleasant, which you may have noticed.”

Heero had been sitting, stiff and silent, at Quatre’s side all this time, and, though he still said nothing, at this point he did nod almost imperceptibly.

“I confronted him about it,” the stranger went on with a sigh, “and accused him of toying with her solely to diminish my chances with her. I accused him of being petty and fake and… I believe my exact words were, ‘It’s as if you were made of plastic.'”

With an swift indrawn breath of understanding, half excited and half horrified, Quatre interjected, “And that’s why…!”

The man nodded. “He accused me in return of not caring about him anymore — not caring about anything anymore, except money and what it could buy me. He believed it, too; he really thought I didn’t care about him. My best friend, whom I’d grown up with, who was closer to me than anyone, who knew me better than anyone…”

An expression of pain took hold of the pale face opposite Quatre, twisting the stranger’s handsome features pathetically for several moments before smoothing gradually out again. “I’m not trying to justify what I did,” the man insisted quietly, “only what I felt. It upset me so much that he could think that way, I wanted to force him to feel what I felt, to know exactly how much I cared. I thought I could put together a spell that would do that, that would let him share my emotions just for a few moments. But I’d forgotten…”

“Artifacts?” Heero guessed, speaking for the first time since the story began.

The man nodded. “You’ve been paying attention to that message board, I see. Yes, I’d forgotten that I had recently acquired a new artifact, though I didn’t know its power yet in any case. Some of my shit-heel friends practiced magic as well, and… but, again, you don’t need to know the story of how I came by the artifact. All you really need to know is that it was an extremely powerful one.

“We were in my apartment at the time, and it was in the room. It twisted my spell into something I could never have wanted, and made it more powerful than anything I could ever have cast… and I was just amateur enough not to realize what was happening. If I’d only realized, I might have stopped it…” Bitterly, quietly he repeated, “I might have stopped it.” By now he was on his third glass of wine, and Quatre got the feeling that this entire conversation was a much-needed release for him. After so many years, finally to be unburdening himself… well, assuming it all was true.

“Duo was standing at the window, leaning on the sill,” the stranger went on at last. “When he… when the spell changed him, he fell… he hit the windowsill and fell out… My apartment was on the third floor, and he fell all the way to the ground. I could hardly understand or believe what I’d seen… I thought I’d simply seen him shrink, but the sound he made hitting the windowsill…” He grimaced slightly as he relived the misery and confusion of that scene, and evidently, once again, decided not to go into excessive detail. “I saw him on the ground when I looked out the window, but by the time I got out of the building to the street, he was gone. Someone must have picked him up. After that I… never saw him again.”

“So you–” Horrified as he was at the implications of this, Quatre had to pause until the waiter had taken their plates, promised another glass of wine, and left them in peace. “So you only saw him for a second? You’ve been looking for him all these years without even being sure what he looked like? Or even if he was still alive?”

“I knew he hadn’t died,” the man replied. “I heard him shout as he fell, and he was moving on the sidewalk when I looked down at him. But, yes, I haven’t been certain of much.”

Quatre shook his head. “It must have been terrible,” he murmured.

“I’ve spent my time following any and every possible rumor that might be Duo, and, when there weren’t any, trying to master the artifact so that if I did find him I would be able to undo the curse.”

“And can you?” Heero asked, sounding suddenly a good deal more interested than before.

“I don’t know.” The stranger fixed them each in turn with a very pointed look. “I would have to see him.”

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These storytelling moments, often where a normally fairly taciturn character opens up and relates a sad history, are just so much fun to me; I don’t know why.