“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

His Own Humanity: Plastic

Part 0

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”



1>>

Part 1

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

Part 2

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”

Part 3

“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”

Part 4

Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”

Part 5

“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.

Part 6

Business important enough to force a meeting to convene on a Saturday would always be sufficient to drive just about anything else from Quatre’s head, so he’d mostly forgotten about the talking doll. However, the moment he got out of the airport and into his car (for the second time that day) and his cell informed him that he had missed calls and voicemail, he remembered everything.

The message was from a friend, inviting him out this evening, and Quatre deleted it without even listening all the way through. The other caller, as usual, hadn’t bothered leaving a message, and Quatre immediately returned the call.

“Are you coming back over here or going straight home?” Heero wanted to know.

Quatre laughed, his mind again full of the enthusiastic interest Duo had inspired yesterday evening. As if he would go home at this point! “Have you figured out that doll yet?” he asked eagerly. Then, realizing he hadn’t answered the question, appended, “I’m definitely going there.”

“No,” Heero answered Quatre’s badly-placed query. “Not exactly. But I’ve got something to show you.”

“I’m just getting on the highway,” Quatre informed him. “I’ll see you in about fifteen minutes.” And the rest of his trip to Heero’s apartment was conducted in mighty impatience.

“How was your meeting?” Heero greeted him at the door when Quatre arrived.

“I think we may have things straightened out over there,” answered Quatre. “But I can’t think about that right now; what did you want to show me?”

Wordlessly Heero gestured him to follow.

As they moved through the living room, Duo spoke up from where he still sat on the end table wrapped in a paper towel. “Hey, Quatre.” He was watching TV. At least, Quatre assumed he was watching; it was difficult to tell.

“Hi.” It felt strange to be casually greeted by what was essentially a Ken doll, and even stranger to return the greeting as if it were perfectly normal.

Heero didn’t stop, but led Quatre through to the second bedroom, where he pointed at the chair that stood out from the desk. “Last night I tried searching for talking dolls, and didn’t find anything,” he stated as Quatre took the seat as instructed. “But look at what I found today.”

He’d left a number of sites open in multiple tabs, in addition to a search engine, and dutifully Quatre rifled through them.

“Magic?” he wondered. Heero had searched for magic on the internet? Heero Yuy had looked up sites about magic?

Glancing over one after another, Quatre grew more and more interested and surprised. Because these weren’t the type of sites he would have expected on the subject — badly-constructed personal pages hosted by giant, disreputable free servers rattling on with poor syntax about cosmic mysteries in dark blue text on starry black backgrounds. These were articles and journals and archives such as he might have found if he’d searched for knitting or golfing or sudoku or a thousand other hobbies, and they looked every bit as legitimate.

“‘Magical cooking requires less kitchen space,'” he read aloud. “‘The fallacy of magic/computer incompatibility.’ ‘Magical security systems: cheaper than traditional alarm systems, but are they as effective?’ ‘How common artifacts form and what they’re used for.’ Well.”

“Yeah,” Heero said.

Still staring at the screen, Quatre sat back in the chair and ran his hands through his hair. “Well,” he said again. “Either this is the biggest and most dedicated collection of nerds in the world, or magic is the worst-kept secret of the twenty-first century.”

“Yeah.”

Quatre continued to gaze almost absently at the list of ‘common artifacts,’ trying to decide how he felt about this, while Heero stood behind him without moving or speaking.

Finally Heero said, “I still don’t know that I believe him.”

Slowly Quatre shook his head. “Me neither. But this certainly is… interesting.”

“Yeah,” Heero said a third time. Another few moments passed in silence before he spoke again. “Let me show you one more thing.”

Quatre relinquished the chair and watched as Heero pulled up something he’d evidently bookmarked earlier. Without a word he stood again and gestured Quatre to resume the seat and look.

“‘Magical Help Forum,'” Quatre read. Looking past the moderators’ note advising new members to read the rules and check the ‘Frequently Miscast Spells’ list before posting, he clicked on the first thread.

Help! the post said. My dog wouldnt stop barking at the guy fixing our sprinklers so I cast a silence on him and now I can’t get it off!! He tries to bark or whine and no sound comes out! I tried a spell to clear out other spells, and one of those ‘Put this back to how it was a certain point spells, even just a spell to make things louder, but nothing works, what am I doing wrong?

The first reply read, do u use artifacts? The second requested the exact wording of all the spells attempted by the poster so far. The third remarked, Sounds like artifact interference to me.

Quatre didn’t read any farther, but rather turned to look at Heero again. The latter was watching with arms folded and a dark, pensive expression; Quatre knew exactly what he was thinking. “It couldn’t hurt,” he agreed with the unspoken sentiment.

They switched places again, since Heero seemed even more interested than he professed in writing the post. He certainly was getting into this; Quatre didn’t think Heero had ever posted anything in an online forum in his life. Actually, he wouldn’t have thought there was anything in the world that could ever induce Heero to post anything in an online forum. Quatre leaned over his shoulder, watching as he went about setting up a new account.

“Screen name?” Heero prompted.

“Just shove some random words together,” Quatre shrugged, “and throw some numbers on it.” He started listing unrelated words as they came to mind. “Space… heart… wing… zero…”

Heero muttered something about not wanting to spell out a number and then put digits after it, and entered ‘spaceheart4321.’

Quatre nodded his approval. “Better check the ‘Frequently Miscast Spells’ list before you post.”

“I looked at it earlier,” Heero replied, starting a new post. “It’s all domestic stuff: hair-dyeing and clothes-washing and…” He trailed off as he began typing.

Have found talking doll that claims to be cursed human from 1800’s. Please advise.

“I think you’re going to have to give more details than that,” laughed Quatre.

Heero frowned, and mumbled, “I feel like an idiot going into detail.”

“Nobody knows who you are,” Quatre reminded him. “If this is for real, they’ll want the details anyway… and if it’s all a joke, they’ll just think you have a great imagination.”

A little reluctantly, Heero nodded and began rewriting his message. This time, with some prodding from Quatre, he managed to include everything relevant besides names and places — including the specifics of Duo’s story and their own skepticism on the subject. Even after proofreading it twice, though, he hit the ‘post’ button rather hesitantly.

Quatre stood straight, looking around at the door and listening to the sound of the television from the next room. “I guess that’s all there is to be done right now,” he said.

Heero nodded slowly; as he rose from the desk, his eyes seemed locked on the monitor. Quatre noticed this was the only part of the computer he turned off before moving into the hall.

They sat on the couch in the living room for approximately two minutes, not quite long enough to ascertain what Duo was watching, before Heero stirred and made a movement as if to rise.

Once again Quatre knew exactly what he was thinking. Smiling and putting out a hand to stop him he said, “Give people a chance to respond.” Heero subsided.

“What are you two up to?” Duo wondered. As Heero opened his mouth to reply he added hastily, “I know, I know, none of my business. But you never realize the value of being able to just get up and walk into another room whenever you want until you lose it.”

Maybe Heero was right; maybe Quatre was starting to believe all of this. Whatever the case, he found himself far less inclined to laugh at this just complaint than he would have been yesterday.

Part 7

Quatre had been right about giving people time to reply, but Heero realized now that he shouldn’t have waited quite so long. He’d returned to the message board the next morning just a little too eager, too hopeful, after that interval, as if expecting a set of detailed, specific answers waiting for him in the replies — either a general consensus that this must be a hoax, or… well, nothing else, really. What else could they possibly have said?

A lot of nonsense about artifacts, that was what.

Heero wasn’t even really sure what an artifact was in this context, but, according to just about everyone on this forum, no single person could have cast a spell this effective and long-lasting without at least one.

Can you get more details from him about the type of magic his friend used? one person asked. And what kinds of artifacts he used?

I once turned half my skin into leather mixing three artifacts by accident, another supplied, and those were just the usual household arties. I can see someome doing something like this if he had something bigger.

A third briefly wondered, What divinations have you tried on him? proving immediately that they hadn’t actually read the original post as Heero had specifically mentioned that he and his friend had no knowledge of magic themselves.

Not that everyone took the reputed curse seriously. Sounds like a trick to me, said one skeptic. I mean, like people said above, there’s no way to cast a spell like that especially for so long without a couple of people working on it AND probably a strong arti or two. You should check that thing again for wires and speakers.

Another didn’t even take the post seriously. Oh great, another troll. You people who come around here making s*** up really ought to look up how magic actually works before you come posting this s***. Better yet, find something better to do. Like diaf.

This last made Heero rather angry, and served as a reminder of why he didn’t hang out online, but his overall mood was one of frustration. He was convinced by now that most of the people on this forum believed in magic and had at least a general knowledge of how it supposedly worked. But what the hell were these artifacts they were all going on about?

He found he was too irritated to look this up, or to answer any of their questions at the moment — even if he decided he was going to in any case, which he might not. After all, though he hadn’t gotten any terribly useful responses, what he had gotten pointed rather decidedly to the original theory that Duo was full of shit. Or perhaps s***. Even if all these people weren’t roleplaying or crazy and magic did exist, they seemed to agree that what Duo had described was impossible — which was exactly what Heero had believed all along.

At the end of the hall he paused, once again looking at the strange little figure on the end table in the living room. The television had probably, in the last two days, aired the Syfy channel for longer than it had in the last two years.

What if it wasn’t impossible? What if Duo really was a — he could barely entertain the thought without shaking his head — human cursed to live forever as a Barbie doll?

Heero didn’t even feel like thinking about that.

“Doesn’t it get boring?” he wondered with an effort, moving forward into the room, determined to distract himself. He wished Quatre hadn’t gone home and left him here alone with Duo.

“Star Trek?” the doll replied in a shocked tone. “Never!”

Heero sat down at the end of the couch nearest the little table, and examined the doll. Quatre the soft-hearted had evidently been more moved by Duo’s complaints than Heero had, and had combed and braided his hair at some point. That was just like Quatre. Heero still couldn’t quite figure out whether his friend was slipping and really believing Duo’s nonsense, or just being nice, the way he usually did, to anyone and everyone.

“I mean watching TV all day and night,” Heero said at last.

Oh, yes.” Duo nodded his stiff nod. “It’s better than nothing, but, god, it gets old. It gets to the point sometimes where I even prefer having tea parties with Barbie and then having to pretend to make out with her.”

Repressing a laugh Heero said in the most serious tone he could command, “Should I go out and buy a Barbie for you, then?”

“I’d like to see you do that,” Duo replied. “In fact, we could make a date out of it: dinner, a movie, and Toys’R’Us.”

“A sci-fi movie, I assume.”

“Definitely. Is Avatar still in theaters? I wanted to see that.”

“It may still be at the cheap– wait. You’re a doll. Why do you need a theater when my TV is like a big screen to you?”

“So rent it for me. I like that kind of date better anyway.”

“I am not dating you,” Heero said flatly, though he was honestly more amused than anything else.

“That’s OK,” replied Duo in his ‘shrug’ tone. “You can just take me straight to bed.”

One of Heero’s brows went down and the other up. The result was a sort of skeptical scowl. “Maybe if you’re a really good boy. Doll.”

Duo laughed.

Part 8

Quatre was lucky he had his own office; otherwise he would have been continually looking over his shoulder in some embarrassment when the very first thing he did on Monday was to email Heero about the doll. He couldn’t imagine how Heero — whose ‘private cubicle’ on the sales floor lived up to its name only by having walls six inches higher than the other cubicles on the sales floor — was going to get through the morning.

Instead of answering Quatre’s question about whether he’d learned anything useful from the people on the message board, Heero responded simply with a link to the thread. The promptness of his reply made Quatre laugh; that Heero had the URL ready without having to go looking for the place meant he’d come to work fully intending to check on the answers to his question during his shift.

A situation such as this, Quatre thought, was a perfectly viable excuse for browsing an online forum to the exclusion of all other work before he really got going on a slow Monday morning. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was paid by the hour… or his father didn’t own the company or anything. And this artifact stuff seemed so interesting.

He was having a rather difficult time grasping exactly what artifacts were in this context, and hadn’t bothered to look it up, but the general idea he got made it clear that they were essential to the spells these people supposedly cast on a daily basis — and probably the cause of Duo’s problem, assuming Duo wasn’t lying. Unfortunately, though so far there was a good deal of back-and-forth in the lengthening forum thread as to whether or not the cursed doll predicament was possible, there were no concrete suggestions as to how to deal with it if it was.

Between his legitimate items of business, Quatre spent the day emailing Heero. The latter seemed reluctant to request the further information the magic people wanted from Duo, and therefore needed to be prodded — and beyond that, the topic was so interesting that they just couldn’t stop discussing it even when there was really very little to be said. They were both keeping a constant eye on the forum, too, and had to confer on every new post added to the thread; but by the end of the day they hadn’t made any significant progress.

That Heero was exceptionally emotionally invested in this was the only aspect of the situation that seemed certain to Quatre. Whether or not magic existed, whether or not the people on the message board really practiced it, whether or not Duo was what he said he was, Heero was taking more than just entertainment from all of this. Why this might be, Quatre wasn’t sure (though he planned on finding out), but it was undoubtedly the reason for the restless irritation Heero evinced as he sat in Quatre’s office after his own shift was over, waiting for his friend.

“Let’s go get dinner,” Quatre said at last, stretching so that his chair creaked.

Heero nodded and rose wordlessly.

“And then go interrogate that doll,” added Quatre pointedly.

Heero frowned, but didn’t protest. Neither did he object to the suggestion that he drive, nor even ask why, which was the last proof Quatre needed of his level of distraction. Quatre always drove when they took one car somewhere, simply because he made more money than Heero did (well, and also because Heero’s car was something of an ancient wreck).

“All right,” Quatre demanded as soon as they were underway, “time to come clean. I know this is all very interesting, but I think you’re getting more into it than really makes sense.”

As Heero was driving, he couldn’t turn and give Quatre a look of some kind — at least not for longer than a few seconds — and therefore had to answer verbally, which was part of the reason Quatre had suggested this arrangement. But, “I am not,” was all he said.

“Yes, you are,” Quatre insisted. “You’re totally wrapped up in this, more than I think I’ve ever seen you in anything. Did you get any work done today?”

“Of course I did.” Heero sounded just the tiniest bit guilty, though.

“Of course you did,” Quatre echoed in a soothing tone. “Whenever you weren’t busy obsessing over that magical message board.”

“I’m not ‘obsessing,'” Heero protested. “You said it yourself: he’s just really interesting. I want to find out what’s true and what isn’t.”

“So you’re starting to believe in magic!” Quatre concluded, amused.

“No. We don’t have enough information yet to make a positive statement.”

Quatre laughed. “The fact that you admit there even is information that might allow us to believe at some point shows just how into this you are.”

“I’m surprised you’re not,” Heero replied, changing tactics with unusual warmth (which, Quatre thought, just helped to prove his point). “A talking doll who might actually be human? Magic might actually exist?”

With a shrug Quatre said, “I’ve already admitted it’s interesting. I just think you’re a lot more interested than I am.”

Heero snorted. “All the different interesting aspects of this situation, and none of them are enough to get you really interested.”

“I think my attitude is more logical than yours,” insisted Quatre. He would have continued, but just at that moment the precise wording of Heero’s earlier statement belatedly struck him: He‘s just really interesting.” But that couldn’t possibly…

Heero had pulled them into the parking lot of the restaurant they typically preferred after work, and Quatre was still contemplating the odd idea that had occurred to him as they got out of the car. He had only a few more moments to think about it, however.

They didn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the man by the door, just as they would have ignored any other restaurant patron they didn’t know. Quatre, in fact, didn’t so much as glance at him as they moved past — that is, until the man reached out a hand and touched Quatre’s arm lightly. “Excuse me,” he said softly. “Are you two the ones with the talking doll?”

Part 9

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.

Part 10

“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.”

Part 11

“I would have to see him.”

It wasn’t exactly a request; it wasn’t even a demand; it was a command. And, whether magic was involved or not, Heero thought it would take a brave man to look into those bizarre eyes and tell him no. At the same time, he couldn’t exactly bring himself to tell him yes either.

“Quatre,” he said, rising abruptly, “can we talk?”

Quatre slid out of the booth after him, but didn’t follow until he’d pulled out his wallet and found a card with which to pay the bill. Leaving this on the table, he walked after Heero.

The latter made his way out of the dining area and into the corridor leading to the bathrooms. “Are you sure you want to leave your debit card sitting on the table with that guy?” was what he said first.

“What, you think he’ll steal it?” Quatre laughed, sounding a little surprised at the question.

Heero frowned.

“If he didn’t use magic to find us, he must already be an expert at getting information. One message board post, and he shows up two days later? He could probably steal either of our identities without needing my Visa.”

“That isn’t exactly comforting,” mumbled Heero.

“Do you think he’s dangerous?”

“I just don’t know that I want to invite him to my apartment. He wants to see Duo, but…”

Quatre stared at him. “But you heard everything he said… he has to see Duo.”

“I heard a good story,” Heero agreed darkly, “with absolutely no proof, still. Throughout this whole thing, there hasn’t been one single bit of proof.”

“But do you at least admit that, if his story is true, he does have to see Duo?”

“Of course, but how could it possibly be true?”

“Earlier you didn’t seem to think it was so impossible.”

Heero gave a half-angry sigh. “I don’t know what to think. Except that it would be stupid to let some stranger into my home on nothing more than some crazy sob-story about magic. A talking doll is one thing, but this…”

Thoughtfully Quatre gave a brief glance around them. Evidently he was not, as Heero would have been, checking that nobody else was nearby and listening to their insane conversation; rather, he seemed to be deciding whether or not to say something he had in mind. Finally he did. “You know what? I believe him. I don’t think he’s crazy, and I don’t think this is a hoax anymore.”

“I thought so.” There was just the tiniest bit of sourness to Heero’s tone. “You always did go for the emo type.” He probably shouldn’t have said that — at least not like that — but the symptoms had been unmistakable all through the stranger’s story, and now this declaration of belief after less than an hour…

Quatre’s eyes narrowed, but he smiled as he said sweetly, “At least I don’t go for the plastic type.”

“What do you mean?” Heero demanded as if he didn’t know perfectly well. He felt his face growing warm.

Quatre’s smile was triumphant for just a moment before it opened out into a more real, sympathetic expression. “The bad news for both of us,” he said a little forlornly, “is that those two are obviously long-lost…” He shrugged slightly. “Lovers, I guess, is the best word. ‘Boyfriends’ doesn’t seem to fit.”

“You think so?” asked Heero, startled.

Gesturing impatiently, Quatre didn’t expand on the subject. “You have to let him see Duo,” he insisted instead.

Heero ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “I just don’t want to be robbed and murdered,” he said. “Is that so unnatural?”

Quatre let out another surprised laugh, but sobered immediately. “I guess I see your point. I think we can trust the guy, but better safe than sorry.”

Heero nodded. “Maybe we can go get the doll and meet him somewhere.”

“Good idea.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, as if there was more to say and neither could or would be the first to say it, before, with almost simultaneous sighs, they turned to head back into the dining area.

As Quatre signed the receipt — the stranger hadn’t stolen his debit card and bolted, it turned out — Heero stared at the man. Still seated, the latter was finishing his glass of wine and gazing blankly at the table. When Quatre was done, Heero simply said, “Come on.”

Outside, as they approached Heero’s car — why had they come in his car, anyway? — he began to explain the intended plan: that they would go retrieve Duo and meet the stranger somewhere with him, preferably right here or in the vicinity. But, despite Heero’s brevity, the man interrupted him before he was halfway finished.

“You don’t trust me. I understand. Would it help if I could prove that everything I’ve been telling you is true?”

Heero turned to face him, meeting strange sober eyes with his own hard stare. After a moment he admitted, “Yes, it would.”

The man nodded. Turning to Quatre, who walked by his side, he said, “Please excuse the liberty.” And to the extreme surprise of both Heero and Quatre, the stranger put an arm around Quatre’s waist and pulled him a half-step closer to himself. Quatre was evidently too startled to break away as the man said something else under his breath; and the next moment, with a slight flash, they had both vanished.

Part 12

Quatre had told Heero that he believed the stranger’s story, and he’d thought he meant it. Even before, when they only had Duo’s word on the matter, Quatre had, if not exactly believed, at least been ready to believe. But the truth was that, until this very moment, he hadn’t known what it was to believe.

Dizzy and extremely startled, he was clinging to the stranger with both hands as if he would fall when he released him. Thinking that he actually might, he didn’t let go for several moments after it — whatever it was — had ended, despite his embarrassment at suddenly finding himself clutching a man he’d just admitted he was attracted to.

They stood now in the grass in a park that Quatre recognized only after almost a full minute of astonished confusion as being across the street from the restaurant they’d just vacated. Deep shadow cast by a grove of trees, which hid that street from sight, surrounded them, and their advent had startled (besides Quatre) at least two rabbits into bolting.

Evening had set in, and their current unexpected location was far from any of the street-lights that made the edges of the park glow; as Quatre looked up into the stranger’s eyes, however, he thought they caught some inexplicable light source he could not see and reflected it in uncanny green. There seemed to be a strange glow about the man’s face, too: a pale, sickly luminance coating his skin like moisture. Oddly, this did nothing to diminish the attractiveness of the face, only increased its pathos somehow. The man smelled not unpleasantly of old books.

The stranger released him, gently disentangling himself from Quatre’s grip, and stepped aside. “Excuse me,” he said again.

Quatre, still almost stunned at what had just happened, could not stop staring at him. It took him some time to find his voice, but when he did he asked, “Can you go anywhere like that?” There was an almost childlike admiration in his tone, to which he wondered how the stranger would react.

“There are limitations,” the man replied simply. “I was ready to bring one of you here; I thought it would be easier to convince you if I took you with me instead of simply vanishing myself.”

“Why me?” wondered Quatre before he could stop himself.

“You seemed less likely to attack me if I touched you,” was the excessively logical answer.

“Well, I’m convinced,” Qutare assured him.

“Good,” the man nodded. “I have to see Duo.”

With the warmth of the man’s arm still fading from Quatre’s waist, Duo’s name was a timely reminder and warning. “Of course,” Quatre said. “I’m sure Heero’s convinced too; let’s go back.”

“Shall I take you back?” the stranger proposed.

“Yes!” replied Quatre, perhaps with just a touch too much excitement.

The man didn’t seem to notice that Quatre might be flirting with him a little, however, and, stepping forward, again put an arm around him. Quatre tried to catch the words he murmured this time, but they were too unfamiliar and quick to make out. Then, with another flash and that same strange sensation as before, they had relocated from the cool of the park to the concrete of the restaurant parking lot.

Heero was as startled to see them appear as he had undoubtedly been to see them disappear. He made an inarticulate noise of surprise, and seemed ready to take hold of Quatre and drag him away from the stranger. Restraining himself, however, he merely asked, “What was that?”

“Magic,” replied the man, releasing Quatre.

Thoughtfully Heero nodded, his look of surprise fading quickly; he’d had their entire absence to get over the bulk of his shock. Quatre speculated that, beyond that, he was reflecting on the implications of what he’d seen: this essentially proved that Duo was a real person, after all.

Finally Heero looked up from where he’d been pensively staring at nothing, and met the stranger’s eyes. “Well, I believe you now,” he stated, and actually smiled a little. “So let’s go see Duo.”

The stranger seemed to relax a bit. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

“We need to go back to work so I can get my car,” Quatre reminded his friend.

“I’ll take you to your car,” the stranger said.

“Really?” Quatre turned toward him eagerly.

“If it will speed things up.”

“Why not just magic all three of us to my apartment?” wondered Heero, the dryness of his tone clearly a mild reproof directed at Quatre for being frivolous.

Quatre would have had a good comeback, or at least made a face at him, if the stranger hadn’t been present with more important matters to think of. “Because we’ll both want our cars in the morning,” he replied levelly. “So we’ll meet you at home, OK?”

As Quatre turned again and took a step toward the stranger, he saw Heero shake his head as he agreed.

Once more the stranger put an arm around Quatre’s waist. This time, he leaned close to Quatre and murmured into his ear, “I need you to concentrate on the place we’re going to; picture it as clearly as you can.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Quatre closed his eyes, cutting off his view of the stranger’s, and imagined the parking lot at work. He felt the man pull him just a little closer, and then, with the same bizarre sensation of momentary weightlessness as before, they were gone.

Part 13

Heero reached for the lock on his front door, then let his hand fall. Staring down for a moment at the key he held, he found he couldn’t bring himself to open the door just yet. After all, how did you prepare someone for the fact that a friend they’d thought long dead, a friend that had turned them into a doll, was actually alive and guilt-ridden and maybe a trifle weird after all these years, and would soon be here? Especially when you might have just a little bit of a crush on that someone, and the nature of their relationship with their friend wasn’t entirely clear to you at the moment?

How exactly was that man alive, anyway? Heero hadn’t asked because he’d still been assuming the whole thing was a hoax until having the wits startled out of him by the man’s proof; now he wondered. Presumably the answer would have something to do with magic, but Heero was by now getting a fairly good idea of what magic could and couldn’t typically do — and he didn’t think anything that would grant immortality was on the list of frequently miscast spells. Perhaps it had something to with that ‘extremely powerful’ artifact the man had mentioned.

Putting his back to the door, he settled in to wait. He didn’t have long, though; the work lot wasn’t much farther from his apartment than the restaurant, and evidently the teleportation (or whatever it was called) was instantaneous. Quatre and the stranger were soon approaching him down the hall, and at the sight of them Heero finally turned and put the key into the lock.

Again, “Thank you,” said the stranger — what was his name, anyway? — as Heero opened the door and gestured the others to enter in front of him. The man seemed to radiate tension now, and the atmosphere immediately pervaded the apartment. This was lit only by the television, which of course was still on, until Quatre flipped the switch. Heero closed the door and watched with interest — not uncolored by some assimilated agitation of his own — to see what the stranger would do.

Duo, fairly clearly visible on the end table, greeted them with, “There you are! I thought you’d be home around six or something, not halfway into Deep Space Nine. How late do you guys–” He’d turned his head while speaking — slowly, as if reluctant to look away from the TV — and cut off abruptly as it swiveled far enough to take in the little group in the entryway. In a tone quite unlike the previous he choked out, “Tr… Trowa?”

The stranger was stumbling forward now, circumnavigating the sofa only with difficulty. When he reached the end table, he snatched up Duo, whose little arms were waving wildly, paper towel skirt and all, and pulled him against his chest. After a moment, he sank to his knees on the carpet as if he were too weak to stand.

At first the conversation, already muffled on the stranger’s side by tears and on Duo’s by the stranger’s suit-jacket against which he was pressed, was almost completely inaudible, but once Quatre had turned the TV off Heero found he could make out some of the words.

“Holy shit, Trowa, it’s really you, isn’t it?” was the first coherent sentence from Duo.

“Duo, oh, my god, Duo,” was the bulk of the comments put forward by the other man. Trowa, apparently. This formed a sort of undercurrent to Duo’s next several statements:

“Trowa, stop hugging me; it’s pointless; I can’t feel it. Let me see your face! How the hell are you still alive? It was 1923, for god’s sake! How did you find me? How long have you been looking? Where have you been? Why aren’t you dead? I’m so fucking glad you’re not dead. I’m so glad to see you. Are you crying? Hell, I would too if I could.”

Heero and Quatre stood silently in the entryway, watching as Trowa finally gave Duo a little breathing room (as it were) and discontinued his repetitive murmur. The first coherent sentence from him was, “Duo, your hair… it’s real… it’s just like it always was…” And he stroked Duo’s hair so thoroughly, so desperately almost, that it began to come out of its braid.

“Yeah…” Duo replied. Unlike his friend, whose face was streaming with tears and who seemed to be shaking a little where he knelt on the floor, Duo’s thoughts and emotions could only be guessed through his voice — though this was a little shaky too. “I’ve never really understood it.”

“And your eyes…” Unable to finish this thought, Trowa bent so his brow rested on Duo’s head.

“It’s all right,” Duo whispered. “It’s all right, Trowa.”

“I’ve been looking for you for so long,” Trowa replied at the same volume.

“It’s over now.” Duo seemed to have much better hold of himself in this situation than Trowa did. Apparently ninety years of being a child’s plaything was better on the brain than ninety years of penitence, fruitless searching, and solitary magical study.

Finally Trowa looked up again, examining Duo in despair. “I never meant for this to happen…”

“If you had,” Duo laughed weakly, “I’d totally have to kill you.”

Trowa was not amused. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I can’t even ask forgiveness for something so horrible.”

“I forgave you back in, like, the forties,” was Duo’s impatient, still somewhat shaky reply. “So stop crying.”

This seemed to lighten the mood just a touch, though Trowa did not smile. Instead he raised a free hand to wipe at his face, and said, “I’m sorry. I’m a little drunk. And I haven’t seen you in eighty-seven years.”

“And, seriously, how are you still alive?” Duo wondered. “You look half-dead.”

“The curse. The artifact. It’s a long story.”

“I was keeping track all along, you know,” said Duo softly. “I’d look at the date and think, ‘Trowa’s thirty-seven this year,’ or whatever… until finally in the sixties I started to hate seeing calendars… because I’d see the year and think, ‘He might be dead by now…'” His voice sank even lower. “In the eighties it turned into, ‘He’s probably dead by now,’ and then…” He shook his plastic head. “And then here you are, still alive, in twenty-fucking-ten.” Bad language seemed to be part of his way of dealing with severe emotion; Heero hadn’t heard him swear this much before.

At this moment Quatre touched Heero’s arm. Heero, who had been somewhat hypnotized by the scene and hanging on every word as if it were something fascinating on a stage, started and looked at his friend. Quatre gestured him to follow. Only casting a brief glance back at the man and the doll that didn’t even seem aware of their presence or their departure, Heero did so.

Quatre led him out onto the balcony at the end of the hall, and, when the door was closed behind them, explained, “I think they deserve some privacy, don’t you?” Slowly Heero nodded, and Quatre leaned onto the railing and sighed. “We probably shouldn’t even have been in there that long, but I felt like I couldn’t move.”

Again Heero nodded, and came to join Quatre at the railing. “So what do you think about them?” he asked a little darkly.

Quatre smiled wanly. “We never had a chance.”

Part 14

Trowa couldn’t remember ever feeling so weakened and overcome in his considerably long life. He’d grown so accustomed to false leads and disappointment, to having his crime thrown back into his face by fate again and again, that he’d reached a point where he simply no longer believed he would ever find Duo; somewhere in his subconscious, he saw now, he’d been under the impression — not unjust, he thought — that he would spend the rest of eternity on a vain search for the friend he’d damaged beyond repair.

He hadn’t even been aware that he’d felt this way. When he’d heard Duo’s name again after so long, been informed that the doll the strangers had reported on that message board was, in fact, the one he sought — he’d felt the emotional impact, he’d thought he believed, but even then it had not been real. No, until he’d actually seen Duo, held Duo, heard his voice and looked into his painted eyes… until then, he realized, he hadn’t known what it was to believe. And now he was almost in shock.

Somehow he’d made it onto the sofa, where he sat at the very end next to the little table that seemed to be Duo’s personal space, but he had no recollection of moving there, nor of setting Duo down. The world was at once shadowed by a haze of confusion and the lingering, cloying sorrow of the last eighty-seven years, and ablaze with a brilliance of unexpected, undeserved joy and sudden hope.

Duo had been telling him about a few of the people he’d stayed with over the decades, more as a method of tracing his path around the country than to give any real indication of anyone’s character or habits. It was no surprise that the first had been a child on vacation whose family had left town the very day of the accident. Trowa had scoured that city end to end by every means available to him — magic, social connections, and just plain legwork — and, finding no trace of his friend, had been forced to conclude that Duo had somehow left its boundaries. His despair at the realization that his search must now encompass the entire nation and perhaps beyond had for a while almost completely subdued him.

“I am so sorry for you,” Duo remarked with the uncanny headshake that made Trowa feel alternately guilty and very disturbed. “I was in someone’s suitcase being hauled cross-country at that point. At least I had plenty of time to relax and think about what was going on… you were just going nonstop.”

“I was still in the middle of everything I knew,” Trowa replied, shaking his own head. “Still at home, still… human…”

“Yeah, well… it does suck to be a doll,” admitted Duo, “but there are a few good things about it. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, since I can’t eat; or where I’m going to sleep every night, since I can’t sleep, or freeze to death; I can’t feel pain… There are worse things to live as than an immortal talking doll. Like probably an immortal magical human.”

Trowa shook his head. He didn’t believe for an instant that it hadn’t been far worse for Duo than for him.

“So tell me about that artifact,” Duo pressed, evidently tired of competing to ascribe more misery to Trowa than he’d felt himself. “I didn’t even know you had one that could do something like this; it must have been something you hadn’t shown me yet.”

Trowa nodded. “Albert Payater — if you remember him — he had just given me a good price on it the day before, because it was unpredictable and almost impossible to control. Nobody knew much about it, so he didn’t give me details; he did warn me that it could be dangerous to keep lying around, but I didn’t take him as seriously as I should have.

“When I researched it later I learned that it belonged to an old moon-worshiping cult in the 1700’s. They used to feed their own magical energies into it when they were still active, so it’s very powerful, and it does have some connection with the moon.” He indicated the skin of his face. “That’s the reason for this. It took me almost fifty years to be able to use it as I wanted — and half the time I feel more like it’s using me.”

“And you still have it around? You still use it?”

“I thought about destroying it, but I was afraid that might lock you into this form forever.”

“And you too,” Duo pointed out. “Since it obviously turned your spell into a curse and you got hit with backlash.”

“The skin isn’t the worst of it.” Trowa reached up and removed one of his contact lenses. The desire to surprise his friend a bit was probably the closest thing to a playful impulse he’d felt since he’d last seen him almost ninety years ago. When he turned his eyes on Duo again, allowing his friend to see one of them as it really was, he prompted a startled cry.

“Whoa! What is going on there?”

“Just another part of the backlash,” Trowa said. “I used to have to wear sunglasses everywhere, including indoors, which made me look like an idiot… the invention of color contacts practically saved my life.”

“I bet!” Duo laughed. “Though you’re probably pretty impossible to kill these days.”

“I’ve never tried,” Trowa answered, completely serious. “I had to find you; dying wasn’t an option.” He added more quietly, “Don’t think I didn’t think about it, though.”

“Trowa…” Duo sounded horrified and sympathetic.

“But now that I have found you,” Trowa hastened on, unable to stand Duo’s pity when Duo had been the real sufferer, the real victim, all along, “I can try to break the curse and put you back to normal.”

“I certainly wouldn’t object to that.” The caution in Duo’s voice did little to hide a rising, desperate excitement, and Trowa felt his throat constrict.

“I don’t know if I can. You know how curses work.” It pained him to say this, to admit that he wasn’t certain he could do what they’d both been waiting almost a century for… but Duo had been without hope for so long; false hope now might end up breaking his heart, and Trowa would rather die than hurt him again.

“But it wasn’t a curse at first.” Duo obviously knew his own danger, and was trying to speak levelly, trying not to get his hopes too high. He was failing, but at least he was trying. “It’s possible just a normal counterspell can reverse it.”

Trowa stood up heavily, not entirely certain of his ability to do so until he managed it. He moved to stand before the table on which Duo sat, and looked down at him. “All we can do is try,” he said.

Part 15

The first thing Heero noticed when he entered his living room on the way to the kitchen on Tuesday morning was a door newly set in what had previously been a blank wall. Aware though he was that he needed to get used to magic, if not necessarily actually used to it yet, this sight was still so surprising that he was forced to stop and stare.

It looked like the front door to a house; it was dark grey-blue with a bronze handle, and had a segmented half-circle of little glass windows set into its upper third. As he approached and peered through the glass at an improbable front hallway that, had it actually been there, would have cut right across his neighbor’s apartment, he heard Duo’s voice behind him.

“Don’t worry; it’s not permanent.” Heero turned a little reluctantly from the strange, interesting sight to where Duo sat, as usual, motionless on the end table. “It’s the door to Trowa’s house.”

“I guessed that much,” said Heero, moving to stand before Duo and look down at him. “Why is it in my wall?”

“I didn’t think you’d mind,” Duo replied apologetically, tilting his small plastic face upward and responding to Heero’s skepticism rather than his question. “He wanted to get your permission first, but it must have been two in the morning by then so I told him to leave you alone.”

“I don’t really mind,” Heero said slowly, glancing back at the door, “as long as I never have to explain it to my landlord. But why is it here?”

“Oh, because he lives on the east coast and it’s easier for him to have the door here than to jump back and forth.”

“Why didn’t he just take you with him?” Heero asked. Duo didn’t immediately answer, and it struck Heero belatedly how the question might have sounded. “I’m not trying to get rid of you,” he hastened to assure him seriously. “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want. But I got the impression from him last night that, once he found you, he wasn’t going to let you out of his sight again.” He had been going to say ‘to let you go again,’ but amended his intention at the last second. It annoyed him that he had a crush, however undeveloped, on someone that was taken — a circumstance he generally tried to avoid — and he didn’t want to think about it right now. What he did want was his morning coffee, under whose influence he would speak a little less impetuously.

“Yeah,” Duo was agreeing, “he had a hard time leaving me here. I think he was afraid I’d be gone when he came back, and the whole thing would start all over.” His voice lowered and softened a trifle as he added, “And can you blame him? God, I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for him all this time. We talked for hours last night, and he told me plenty about it, but I get the feeling there’s plenty more to say.”

Though not unsympathetic, Heero had to point out as he moved into the kitchen to start the coffee, “That doesn’t explain the door.”

“Oh, sorry. He cast a few spells last night to try to put me back to normal–”

At this point Heero interrupted him in surprise, “Here?!” Why it should be so startling that spellcasting had taken place in his own apartment he wasn’t quite sure, but it seemed almost impossible somehow. Evidently he was farther from getting used to magic than he’d thought.

“Yeah,” Duo replied, and went on somewhat bitterly, “not that it worked. Obviously. Not that I blame Trowa,” he added in haste. “This whole thing is crazy, and without actually having me around he had to just guess all along what he should be getting ready in case he met me. It’s no wonder he couldn’t come up with the right spell.

“So he went home to look some things up. I wish he’d gone home to sleep.” Now his tone was one of irritated concern. “Really, you people who actually can sleep never value it enough. He was dead on his feet by the time he left, and how much wine did you guys give him? And that ritual to link his door didn’t help, but I bet he’s been reading old books ever since then, and he’ll come back in here later even more tired and want to try more magic. And I’ve tangented again, haven’t I?” Duo laughed a little. “You can’t really blame me, though, since he’s–”

“No, I can’t,” Heero broke in, not terribly eager to hear the rest of that statement. “Go on.”

“Well, he’s afraid the artifact — did he tell you it was an artifact that caused all of this? Well, he’s afraid that having me around it will just make things worse, so he didn’t want to take me home just yet. Not until he’s figured out some arrangement. He mentioned renting a room where he could put either me or the artifact so I didn’t have to keep taking up space around here, but neither of us was really sensible enough to make actual plans last night, and now you say I can stay as long as I want…”

“Yes,” Heero agreed, in lieu of nodding since Duo wasn’t looking in his direction. “You’re not exactly much trouble.”

And I’m decorative,” Duo added complacently.

Heero was not about to agree with this aloud, especially since on the surface it seemed so stupid to be concurring about the physical merits of a doll. But after a short silence, shifting the subject, he asked, “What is an artifact, anyway?”

“An object that’s constantly exposed to magic and starts absorbing it,” Duo replied succinctly. “They’re really useful when you need more power, but you have to watch out for them. Magic performed around them is always affected, so if you have one and you’re not specifically using it for the spell you’re casting, it’s usually a good idea to put it in another room so it doesn’t interfere.”

“Well, that answers a lot of my questions,” said Quatre, entering from the hall. He was ready for work, neat and professional as usual, dressed in some of the clothes he kept here against situations like this. Well, no, there really were no situations like this. Heero poured him a cup of coffee.

Accepting this with thanks, Quatre went on, “Your Trowa told us a little last night, but I think he forgot we don’t know anything about magic ourselves.”

Duo laughed. “I don’t know how he’d even know that. How did he find you — me — us — anyway? We were so busy being incoherent last night I never got around to asking.”

“He didn’t exactly tell us either,” replied Quatre, “but it seems like he saw a post we made about you on a message board, and used magic to come to where we were going to be yesterday evening.”

“He really has gotten good,” Duo murmured. “Figuring out where total strangers are going to be takes some doing.” He brightened slightly. “And you guys were posting about me on a message board?”

“We wanted to know if your story was possible,” Heero answered.

Quatre turned to him suddenly. “You’d better go get dressed.” He gestured at the microwave clock, and Heero started. His dalliance here, where he’d only meant to come for a moment to start the coffee, was now in a fair way for making him late to work. “Do you want some toast?” Quatre called after him as he went.

“If you’re making some, sure,” Heero replied over his shoulder. Quatre burned toast and had no concept of the appropriate amount of either butter or jam, but it was better than nothing.

The last thing he heard from the living room and kitchen before entering his own room was Quatre’s interested, “So, what’s with the door?”

Part 16

Yesterday had been difficult to get through at work, but it was nothing compared with today. It particularly didn’t help that Quatre had two long meetings — one of them at the downtown office — where he really did have to pay attention and during which he couldn’t email Heero.

Poor Heero. He’d been agitated and impatient yesterday; he must be going crazy today. His disappointment must be greater, too, though he would never admit it; Quatre had had only the course of a single conversation to develop the beginnings of an interest in Trowa, but Heero had had Duo around for a few days — weekend days, too, when they’d been free to spend a lot of time together — before the truth became apparent.

Quatre was lucky he enjoyed his job (or at least had the ability to be absorbed by it); he couldn’t say he was perfectly distracted from thoughts of what might be going on with Duo and Trowa, but the day passed more quickly than he might have expected. It was five o’clock precisely when he locked up his office and headed for the car, and he started automatically for Heero’s apartment without thinking.

When he did think, he reflected that he couldn’t stay the night there again unless he went home first for more clothing, and that if he went home he might just as well sleep in his own bed. But for the moment he was definitely going to see what, if anything, was happening at Heero’s place. He had a key, though he rarely used it since he was usually there with Heero; today, arriving before his friend, he didn’t scruple to let himself in.

“Hey, hottie,” Duo greeted from his table.

“Hi,” Quatre replied, setting his briefcase down on the kitchen counter and draping his jacket over it. “Still a doll, I see.”

“Yes,” agreed Duo sullenly. “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure.” Quatre made his way over to the doll.

“See this key next to my shapely cross-dressed legs?”

Quatre laughed as he picked up the key.

“That opens Trowa’s door. He said that as long as he was invading Heero’s home like this, Heero should have access to his too.”

“OK,” said Quatre, amused at this concept of fairness.

Duo waved an arm up and down, probably in a gesture that wished it could be pointing at the object of their discussion rather than straight ahead of him. “Can you go check on him for me? He hasn’t been back in here since he linked the door, and that was about fifteen hours ago now.”

“Sure,” Quatre said sympathetically, turning toward Trowa’s door. He laughed a little as he admitted, “I’m really curious what it’s like in there anyway.”

“So am I,” said Duo, sullen again, “but there’s that whole artifact thing…”

“I’ll tell you about it,” Quatre promised as he inserted the key into the deadbolt lock. “Be right back, I guess.”

Through the windows in the door Quatre had been able to get some small idea of what at least the front hallway was like, but only from inside could the true eccentricity of the place be appreciated. The decorations and furnishings were sparse, but even so managed to form a sort of gradient of decades spanning almost the entire last century. Quatre’s own house having been in the family for quite some time, he was no stranger to a somewhat unusual combination of styles, but this was beyond anything he’d ever seen.

In the entryway alone his eyes ran over a dreadful hanging light fixture straight out of the 70’s, an actual grandfather clock from who knew when, and a tall brass hat rack with attached umbrella stand. It came as something of a surprise to Quatre that he even knew what an umbrella stand was. When had he ever taken note of the existence of such a thing in his life? Sure, its intended purpose was blatantly indicated by the presence of an umbrella within — one of those old-style gigantic black ones with a curved wooden handle — but since when had the words ‘umbrella’ and ‘stand’ converged so easily in his head? Not that it was terribly important.

This seemed a very small house; a narrow staircase led up to what was probably an attic and down to a tiny cellar, but other than that there only appeared to be a few rooms on a single level. The largest of these, to which the entry led, was a dining/living room and kitchen that stood in complete darkness until he found a light-switch. If Quatre hadn’t already been reminded by the grandfather clock that this was a different time-zone, it would have been confirmed by the starry night sky visible through the dining room windows (between checkered curtains from the 50’s, if Quatre was any judge, and possibly as old as the house).

As there was no sign of Trowa in here, Quatre satisfied himself with only a single look around at an oak china cabinet with stained glass in its doors, and a laminate-top chrome dining table with matching chairs, before moving on. He found, for some reason, that he was taking care to step quietly and make as little noise as possible, but it wasn’t out of nervousness or embarrassment — rather, it was the same hush he would have affected in a library or even a sickroom.

Given that the magician had found them via the internet, Quatre supposed he shouldn’t be surprised at seeing that Trowa had a computer in the room to the left of the entry — nor at learning that the chaotic computer desk was not a phenomenon limited to modern generations, even when the desk itself was an antique probably a century old. As this room was also unlit and uninhabited, he crossed the hall and opened the door to the third chamber.

Here was light, and it was here that he found what he sought. The room was lined with bookshelves on both sides — only one of them a good-old-fashioned solid oak affair, and the rest of a decidedly do-it-yourself variety no older than he was. The relatively narrow remaining space between was somewhat cluttered by a couple of similarly mismatched tables littered with books, papers, and miscellaneous objects. Another room, evidently a bedroom, lay past a door that stood ajar at the far end, and beside this sat Trowa in an armchair — this one, Quatre thought, dating back to the 60’s, to judge by its awful pattern.

An open book lay in his lap, and several others were stacked on a table within arm’s reach beneath the antique lamp that was the room’s only illumination, but Trowa certainly wasn’t reading at the moment. How long he’d been asleep was anybody’s guess, but it was probably for the best; he’d appeared from the moment Quatre first saw him to need a good deal more sleep than he ever got. Even like this his face was serious and sad, and, though its unhealthy color did not look quite so bad in the low light, exceptionally pale against the colors of the cushion behind.

He didn’t so much as change the rhythm of his breathing as Quatre approached, nor stir as the book was removed from between his limp hands. Before placing this on the table with the rest, Quatre glanced at the pages Trowa had been perusing. The language was unfamiliar to him, so he didn’t look long. In setting it down, he noticed a half-empty cup on the table — a genuine teacup in an actual matching saucer — whose contents were long since cold. Quatre gathered this up and switched off the light before leaving the room.

There was a dishwasher in the kitchen — a surprisingly not-ancient-looking one at that — but Quatre wasn’t sure the little cup and plate were safe to be put into it. They were definitely too old to have the answer printed on their undersides, too, so in the end he just rinsed them and set them next to the sink. Then, with one more brief glance around, he made his way back to the front door and thence into Heero’s apartment.

He was greeted by the sound of Duo’s hearty laughter. Heero was apparently relating some amusing tale of a co-worker in that dry way of his. Goodness knew he had enough amusing co-workers on the sales floor to furnish a lifetime of anecdotes; Quatre was never quite sure how he put up with them most of the time.

They both looked over as he entered, which was a good deal less disturbing in Heero’s case as Heero’s head didn’t swivel quite so distressingly. “He’s asleep,” Quatre announced.

“Really?” wondered Duo in pleased surprise.

“Well, in a chair,” Quatre allowed. “He still had a book in his lap. He didn’t look very comfortable, but I didn’t want to wake him up.”

“That’s a relief,” said Duo sincerely. “He sure looked like he needed it.” He proceeded without a pause. “So what’s it like in there? How’s he living these days?”

After the enthusiastic interest in the doll’s tone, Quatre wasn’t much surprised when, as he began describing Trowa’s eclectic house, Heero got up and slipped out of the room.

Part 17

Trowa had reappeared in Heero’s living room the next morning, looking, if not exactly healthy, at least a good deal better for the sleep he’d gotten. He didn’t seem much happier, though; evidently yesterday’s research hadn’t accomplished much.

“Breakfast?” Hero offered as he got the coffee started. Today he’d made sure to dress before emerging so that, if Duo distracted him again, he could at least dash out the door the moment he realized it had happened.

Trowa looked at him a little blankly, as if he’d forgotten what ‘breakfast’ meant, and Heero was half-hoping he would decline the offer. Heero didn’t make bad money, but it would probably put a strain on his budget if he had to start feeding someone else full time. He’d pretty much only offered because he was attempting to keep jealousy from marring his treatment of Trowa.

Yes, you want breakfast, Trowa,” Duo prodded. He was turning out to be something of a nag where Trowa was concerned, and Heero was trying his hardest not to find this adorable. “I’d like some breakfast too, thanks, Heero,” he went on, “but only if you hand-feed it to me while I recline on a silken divan and Quatre fans me with one of those big leaves.”

“You want me to hand-spoon cereal onto your head?” Heero wondered dryly. Not giving Duo a chance to answer he said to Trowa, “I have honey Cheerios or Frosted Flakes, or toast, or maybe–” he glanced into the freezer– “yeah, toaster waffles.”

“Oh, and dancing girls,” put in Duo. “I want dancing girls too.”

“Toast sounds perfect, thank you,” Trowa said.

“What do you want on it?” Heero asked as he put the bread into the toaster and then looked for his own breakfast.

“And live music,” Duo continued. “From Spain, maybe.”

“Just butter, if you have it,” said Trowa.

Heero poured himself a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and, leaning against the counter, simultaneously watched the toaster and began to eat.

“And I want a swimming pool of SG-1 boxed sets to swim in, and, Heero, you are so not listening to me.”

With a slight laugh Heero turned to deal with the toast. “No, I’m taking careful notes,” he assured Duo. “Trowa, do you want coffee?”

“No, thank you.”

“You know what you could get me, though?” Duo said next. “Some real clothes. Not that you haven’t done a great job with the paper towel, but it isn’t very sturdy, and I don’t really think it goes with my fabulous hair.”

Despite the frivolity of this word-choice, Heero got the feeling Duo was serious about this request. It seemed strange on the surface, but he supposed it made sense, really; a lack of proper clothing was probably just one more way for Duo to feel less like a person and more like an object. Heero wished he’d thought of it without having to be asked. As he came out of the kitchen to the couch, bringing Trowa his butter toast on a plate, “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

On and off throughout his nine hours (including lunch) he pondered this issue, and by the end of the shift had decided that he wouldn’t go home again without clothes for Duo. As he wasn’t entirely certain where one went to buy doll clothes, he waited for Quatre to finish being a workaholic for the day so he could ask him.

“Wal-Mart?” Quatre suggested with a tilt of his brows. “Why did you expect me to know this?”

“You have more sisters than I do.”

Quatre gave him a skeptical look. “Well, we’ll try Wal-Mart.”

In the back of his head Heero had always been aware of the existence of that all-pink aisle that seemed to be found in every Wal-Mart in the country; even just walking past the toy section it was impossible to miss. He hadn’t really given it much thought, however; if he had, he probably would have decided he never, never wanted to go there. But here he was entering the headachey lane of brightly colored doom, half determined and half embarrassed out of his wits.

“So I guess this is it,” Quatre was saying as they looked around somewhat helplessly at the aisle’s unfamiliar products and one other shopper. The latter, a little red-headed girl, had obviously been watching them since they stumbled into her territory, but was pretending she hadn’t.

Heero nodded, feeling increasingly out of place with each moment that passed and trying to get his eyes to focus on something — anything — on the racks in front of him.

“I feel like I’ve accidentally walked into the ladies’ room,” Quatre murmured. And it did feel very much like that… they weren’t welcome here.

“There aren’t any Barbies in the ladies’ room,” the little girl said, sotto voce and disdainful.

“They’re all staring at me,” Heero muttered, having got his eyes to focus and not liking it much. They just hung there in their boxes, unmoving, identical, and looming.

“They’re just dolls,” the red-headed girl replied, again under her breath but a bit louder this time.

“This was a bad idea,” said Quatre, seeming to shrink into himself as if to get as far from either side of the aisle as he could. “We should never have come here.”

“Duhh,” said the little girl.

Heero looked desperately from one blank, vapidly-smiling face to another, feeling as if he was going colorblind. “They’re all female…”

“The Kens are over here.” The red-headed girl was now speaking at a normal volume, still utterly contemptuous, and pointing to a spot on the shelf a little further down. Wordlessly, hesitantly, Heero and Quatre approached to look where she indicated.

Seeing that here was, indeed, what they sought went a long way toward lifting the glamour of terror and inadequacy that had fallen over them the moment they set foot in this alien world. But as Heero stared at the single Ken outfit for sale — some type of powder-blue polo-like affair with a grey-and-white sweater-vest attached and matching blue loafers — he felt with sinking heart that this whole dreadful experience might have been a dreadful waste of time.

Quatre reached for the outfit, but Heero stopped him with the stony announcement, “I can’t see him wearing that.”

Quatre seemed glad to pull his hand back empty, but he did protest, “It’s the only one.”

“Well, the dolls have to come with clothes on…” Heero crouched, putting himself face-to-face with the only actual Ken the store seemed to have. The doll stood stiffly, grinning foolishly, in a narrow box that looked for all the world like a pink coffin. If Heero hadn’t already gotten past his disbelief that Duo had once been human, this might have done something to convince him; there was a frightening soullessness to Ken’s eyes that was, thank god, entirely absent in Duo. Also, he was wearing a pink suit coat.

“No,” said Heero.

“You notice he doesn’t even rate an actual tie…” Quatre remarked in a hushed voice, horrified and fascinated. And, indeed, the purple tie adorning Ken’s chest was painted onto a shirt-front that Heero didn’t think was even a separate piece from the jacket. He imagined taking this monstrosity home to Duo, shuddered, and pulled out his cell phone looking for Mapquest.

“You should go online,” the little girl was advising. “There’s a much better selection there.”

“We kinda wanted it right away,” Quatre explained.

Heero wasn’t looking, but he could almost hear the expression the girl was giving them both.

“It’s for a birthday tomorrow,” said Quatre weakly. It wasn’t like him to make up pathetic excuses; moreover, there was a wariness to his words that sounded like it could blossom into panic at any moment. Clearly the aisle was getting to him.

“You’d be better off getting a Barbie horse or something,” the little red-head replied wisely, though there was still a hint of suspicion in her voice. “Nobody cares what Ken wears.”

“But…” Quatre faltered.

“Come on,” Heero declared, not entirely free of panic himself but with a brief thrill of triumph as he found what he was looking for. “There’s a Toys’R’Us on 32nd street.”

Part 18

When they made it back, scarred and triumphant, to Heero’s apartment, Duo again expressed his surprise at their lateness, and this time got through his question about their work hours that had been interrupted the other night.

“We were clothes-shopping for you,” Heero explained.

“Oh, really?!” Duo’s words were a good deal more indicative of excitement than the slow, awkward movements of plastic limbs by which he shifted his entire body to face them.

Heero went toward him, holding out the package so Duo could examine the outfit. The doll made an appreciative noise at the button-up shirt and khaki shorts, and reached his arms out as if he wanted to hold it, though that was clearly out of the question. “Blaine was the best thing to ever happen to Ken,” he remarked complacently.

“What?” Heero wondered.

“Blaine was Ken’s boyfriend during Ken’s bi-curious phase in the mid-90’s,” Duo explained. “Ken came out of it with much better fashion sense.”

“Seriously?” asked Heero.

“Definitely.” Duo nodded his plastic head. “Blaine was a surfer, and he taught Ken not to dress like he had a stick up his ass.”

“No,” Heero said impatiently, “I mean, did Ken really have a bi-curious phase?”

“Yeah. I guess Mattel figured they’d made Barbie do everything they could think of, so they might as well give Ken a turn. It didn’t go over well with parents, though, so they dropped it pretty quick. I think that’s why Barbie doesn’t sell as well as she used to; people still aren’t over it.”

“That’s understandable,” said Heero. “I mean, predictable.”

“He’s messing with you, Heero,” Quatre put in, laughing. “I think Blaine was Barbie’s boyfriend for a while while she was broken up with Ken or something; I remember hearing about it somewhere. And Ken did not come out of it with better fashion sense; we know this; we were just at the store.”

“Well, they did re-image him,” said Duo, grinning as widely as his frigid mouth would allow at Heero’s subsequent grumbling about having no need to know this kind of thing and that Duo should be grateful for the present since he had no idea what Heero had gone through to get it. “He got a few better outfits out of it.”

Heero broke off grumbling to ask, “So you like it?”

“Yes, definitely,” Duo said emphatically.

“Good.” It was that gruff tone of Heero’s that indicated slight embarrassment; Quatre recognized it, but doubted Duo did. He thought that this time it was more because Heero had bought clothing for a guy he liked and not had his offering rejected than because he’d bought doll clothing at a toy store.

As Heero began trying to tear the package open, Quatre inquired casually, “Where’s Trowa?”

Duo waved an arm; although this movement was always the same, contingent upon the configuration of limb and shoulder, Quatre was beginning to recognize the different intents Duo put into it. This one was, Oh, somewhere over there… “He’s researching again. Hopefully he fell asleep again. I get the feeling he hasn’t slept more than half how much he should have over the last eight bazillion years.”

“I’ll go check on him,” Quatre volunteered with alacrity. Heero made a noise that might have been a snort and might only have been a sound of frustration at the difficult package. Quatre ignored him and moved toward Trowa’s door.

The little house was again dark and quiet, but this time as Quatre entered he heard Trowa’s voice from the room to the right: “Who’s there?”

“It’s Quatre.” He pushed through the door, which had been open just far enough for a line of dim light to shine out across the entryway.

From the horrible chair at the other end of the room Trowa looked over at him. His expression was vague, as if his thoughts were still primarily elsewhere, and he repeated, “Quatre…” slowly and as if he didn’t at first understand what was going on. Finally he seemed to shake himself, more mentally than physically, though he did sit up a little straighter, and said, “Did you need something?”

“Actually,” Quatre said, moving farther forward into the room and the lamplight, “I was wondering if you needed anything.” He smiled. “I don’t know anything about magic, but if there’s anything else I can do to help you while you work…”

Trowa stared at him somewhat blankly. “Such as?”

“I don’t know,” Quatre said with a slight shrug. “It looks like this room at least could use some straightening up. Your teacup’s empty — can I get you some more? Or how about dinner? Have you eaten?”

Trowa’s attention seemed to drift even farther from Quatre as he echoed, “Eaten…?”

Quatre sighed. Even if this man didn’t already have an extremely interesting cursed boyfriend, what chance was there for someone that couldn’t even get himself noticed?

This reaction, at least, Trowa seemed to observe. “I’m sorry,” he said, setting aside the book he’d been reading and standing. “It’s very kind of you to offer.” He stretched slightly, and Quatre noticed that the button-up shirt he wore was, in fact, buttoned all the way up to the neck, though no tie adorned the collar. “I don’t mean to ignore you.”

“That’s all right,” said Quatre charitably. “You’ve been lost in those old books all day, I bet.”

Trowa frowned slightly as he glanced at the one he’d just put on the table, and said nothing.

“No luck yet?” Quatre assumed. This conversation was proving rather tough going.

Trowa shook his head.

“Well, some dinner will do you good.” He turned toward the door.

“I… don’t think I have any food here.”

Quatre turned back. “No food?”

“There… may be some… lettuce…”

Both of Quatre’s brows rose. “Some lettuce?” He supposed echoing each other’s words was as effective a way to communicate as any.

“I don’t remember–” Here Trowa was interrupted by the sound of an old-fashioned and rather awful doorbell ringing in the entry. His frown instantly grew into a scowl. “Would it be too much to ask you to answer that for me?”

“No, not at all,” Quatre said automatically, turning, but hesitated before taking even a single step. “Is it the real door? How do I open it onto the real outside?”

“Just concentrate on it.” Trowa was already walking back toward his bedroom, as if to put as much distance between himself and the unknown visitor as possible. “If they ask for me by name, tell them they have the wrong address.”

Shrugging as Trowa disappeared, Quatre moved out into the hall and toward the door. Even as he approached, thinking about opening it onto whatever actually lay outside, the view through the little windows shivered and darkened, altering so that, instead of seeing into Heero’s apartment where his friend was berating a talking doll for convincing him that Ken had been gay even for a little while, he made out a wooden porch with peeling green paint in the yellowish glow of an old porch-light. And there were two people waiting.

Part 19

On occasion — a very rare occasion — someone would ask Duo why he flirted so outrageously with every adult he talked to. The real answer was that he’d spent so much time with children — played with by children and taking part in their games, watching children’s television and movies, listening to children’s music and their books read aloud, and even being considered an object designed exclusively for children — that any opportunity to reconnect with the adult world was welcome. There were more meaningful ways of doing so, of course, but pointed and often suggestive flirtation, he’d found, was quick and reliable.

He never actually gave that answer, though, since he hated the question so damn much. It seemed to imply that, from a doll, any expression of romantic or sexual interest in a non-doll was unnatural and out of place. Therefore he usually answered by flirting even more outrageously than before.

So when their discussion of bisexual Ken led Heero eventually to ask him, “Since when does a doll care so much about gay issues anyway?” Duo was less than pleased. Heero was a reasonable sort, and would undoubtedly understand if Duo pointed out seriously that being a doll really made very little difference in his interests and concerns — but Duo didn’t feel like answering seriously.

“When I’m surrounded by so many faaaabulous gay men,” he said flippantly, “of course I care.”

“How do you know we’re all gay?” Heero wondered.

“Well, Quatre I’m not so sure about,” replied Duo pensively, “but you’re obvious.”

“Am I?”

“Come on, man, you’ve got an end table. Do straight guys buy end tables?” Duo was able to tap his plastic hand against the table, which was very satisfying after so many gestures that didn’t even begin to indicate the desired object.

“It was a present from my parents,” Heero replied a bit stiffly.

“Oh, do they know you’re gay too?”

“Why are we talking about this?” demanded Heero.

“Isn’t it part of the gay agenda?” Duo responded lazily. “‘Sit around talking about how gay we are?'” This won him a slight laugh and a certain amount of relaxation from Heero. “You’re right about one thing, though,” he went on a little more seriously. “A doll doesn’t really have to worry much about discrimination. Well, parents might get rid of me for being a bad influence on their kids because I’m gay, but they’d probably already have gotten rid of me just for talking in the first place.”

“So you do actually identify specifically as gay,” Heero confirmed.

Heero was odd… he was certainly a nice guy, and a lot of fun to talk to, but just beneath that outward friendliness there was a sort of coldness or hardness that Duo couldn’t seem to get past. It was as if he was only superficially involved in the situation, doing what he did out of actual altruism rather than any real interest. It was a shame, since Duo thought he might otherwise have had a real interest in Heero.

“Ever since…” Duo paused ponderously. “1969. There wasn’t really a ‘gay identity’ for gay people back when I was human — though there were plenty of us wandering around — but I got to watch the whole culture change. The 60’s sucked,” he added thoughtfully. “It isn’t necessarily a good thing when you can’t openly be identified as part of a certain group, even when that group is the butt of some horrible decade.” His voice sank lower as he remembered. “When you want to help… when you want to stand up for something… you’d rather…”

He trailed off; this was becoming far more serious than he’d intended. Heero was behind him, in the kitchen, probably getting some of that food stuff that Duo, even after all this time, tried very hard not to miss desperately; so Duo couldn’t see him or how he might be reacting to the uncharacteristic solemnity of topic and expression. Nor was Heero saying anything. Well, he would just have to say something; that was all. “So what about you?” Duo demanded brightly. “How long have you been out of the closet?”

The silence behind him went on for a few moments, though the sound of cupboards and dishes indicated Heero’s continued presence. Finally Heero said, “I’m not sure you could exactly call me ‘out of the closet.'”

“Well, your parents obviously know,” Duo pointed out, “since they gave you the end table.” And he patted the table beneath him again with satisfaction.

Heero laughed faintly. “Yes, my parents know. They don’t like it much, but they know.”

“And Quatre obviously knows.”

“What do you mean, ‘obviously?'” wondered Heero a little suspiciously.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” Duo replied innocently.

“We have a couple of friends who won’t stop trying to hook us up, and if you start doing it too I will…” He paused, evidently searching for a suitable threat. “…take you to Goodwill.”

“No!!” Duo cried, trying not to mar the drama by laughing. “I mean, OK, I won’t. So Quatre is definitely gay too, then.”

“I thought he was more obvious than me,” muttered Heero.

Duo laughed again.

“Actually that’s part of why we were friends in the first place,” Heero went on reminiscently after a few moments. “It’s scary to realize you’re gay in high school, and having a friend helps. He was braver than I was; he was out to all his friends by the time we graduated. I didn’t go out with anyone until my sophomore year of college.”

“Well, you’ve got me beat,” Duo said encouragingly. “I never ‘went out’ with anyone ever. Or to college, actually. I’ve been to elementary school, though. Usually in someone’s backpack, but at least I got to hear about times tables and The Voyage of the Mimi.”

This made Heero laugh once more, less faintly than before, as he came to sit on the couch beside Duo with his dinner a little more comfortably than he’d been moving or speaking for the last few minutes. This was the reason Duo had changed the subject; Heero obviously wasn’t entirely easy talking about gay issues — which was probably what he meant when he said he wasn’t exactly out of the closet — and Duo didn’t think it advisable to push him. Though if he’d been human, perhaps…

For the moment, Duo reached down to the remote control that was conveniently positioned next to him and turned on the TV. “It’s about time for Ghost Hunters, I think,” he said.

Part 20

Trowa’s bedroom window was tiny, the home of more than one spider’s web, hidden by a dingy old curtain, and not positioned well for any good view of the front door. Despite all of this and despite being almost certain he knew who was probably on his porch on a Wednesday night outside of normal visiting hours, Trowa was looking through the window trying to see what was going on. He may actually have looked because he didn’t want to know, and would therefore derive some satisfaction from not being able to see; that was definitely the reason he didn’t use magic to find out.

Eventually he wandered away from the pleasantly unhelpful window and sat down on the bed, and it was there that Quatre found him on entering the room. The gift basket in Quatre’s hands and the puzzled expression on his face confirmed Trowa’s assumption. He did pause looking puzzled for a moment, though, long enough to glance curiously around the room.

“How many were there?” Trowa asked.

“Two.” Quatre’s baffled expression returned as he fixed his eyes on Trowa. “Teenagers, I think, a boy and a girl. They shoved this at me before they said anything–” he held up the basket a little helplessly– “and then asked if Mr. Barton was at home. That’s you, I assume.”

Trowa nodded.

“I said no one with that name lived here, and they apologized about ten times and were backing away like I was going to do something awful to them. I couldn’t even give the basket back because they were so busy apologizing.” He smiled a little as he looked down at the object in question. “There’s food in it, though; at least it’s some dinner for you.”

“Was the girl wearing a low-cut shirt or a short skirt?” wondered Trowa.

“Yes…” Quatre looked over at him. “Do you know her?”

“No,” said Trowa, then added simply, “but they all wear that.” He rose and made his way out of the room, leaving his visitor to follow. If Quatre was determined to feed him, it might as well take place in the dining room as was appropriate.

“Just as I was closing the door,” Quatre was saying as he trailed Trowa through the house, “I heard one of them say something about their dad getting a spell wrong. So they obviously knew who you were and that you’re… magical… Who were they and what did they want?” He was obviously immensely curious; at least some of it was going to have to be explained.

“I am a hundred and eleven years old,” Trowa said with a slight sigh, turning on the lights in the dining room and kitchen. “I can do nearly anything.” So far the line seemed to be drawn at breaking the curse on Duo. “Among magicians that makes me a… sort of… celebrity…”

Quatre grinned admiringly; Trowa had seen him do that once or twice already, and it didn’t bode well. “And your fanclub brings you fruit baskets?” The latest example of such an offering crunched slightly as Quatre set it down on the table and began pulling oranges out of it.

“They bring me a lot of things.” It was fairly useful on the rare occasion that he wanted to eat, or when the hopefuls had the presence of mind to give him something more useful than food… but it never came free. First it was, “Oh, Mr. Barton, you did such a nice job charming Rebecca Thomas’s garden for her back in 1973!” — because the magical community had dreadfully accurate memories like that — “You have to tell me how you did it!” But this turned into, “Wow, what a complicated spell! How do you keep that level of energy up?” Which became, “Well, can you teach me?” and eventually, “I could be your apprentice! Would you train me? I could work for you… I’ll clean your house and bring you anything you need and make all your meals for you!” Then they got a little bit older and it was more along the lines of, “My daughter’s really good at fire spells, and she’d love to hear any tips you have on the subject… she’s a nice girl; I’m sure you’d really like her.”

And now here he had one that he couldn’t ignore or dismiss. He hadn’t worried about leaving a key to his house at Heero’s apartment because Heero obviously didn’t like him very much; he hadn’t realized Heero’s friend might be the one taking advantage of it. Of course he was grateful to both of his new acquaintances for their kindness to Duo and the fact that they’d posted on that message board in the first place… but that didn’t mean he was eager to have one of them in his home being admiring and helpful.

“Either you really like oranges,” Quatre was remarking, “or someone really thinks you do.”

“I do like oranges,” said Trowa. At least he was fairly sure he did. His followers tended to remember what he liked better than he did these days.

Quatre bustled about the kitchen, occasionally exclaiming in wonder or amusement at what he found there, and Trowa felt somewhat powerless to stop him. It was ironic, really; he could jump instantly to just about any place in the world, fix complicated machinery without having the faintest idea how it worked, and essentially destroy anything that annoyed him… yet it seemed that, in the few areas of his long and empty life that actually meant something to him, he was consistently helpless.

Not that it was any more than he deserved.

But he would find a way to restore Duo’s humanity. He would figure this out if it killed him (which seemed more than likely, when he thought about it). No standard counterspell had worked, and no divination had given him any hint as to what he should be doing instead, nor the specific mechanics of the curse… but there had to be something. He refused to believe this was destined to go on forever. That might be an appropriate fate for him, but not for Duo.

During the course of these reflections he’d lost track of what Quatre was doing, but now found him at the table gesturing and smiling. He’d set a place for one, and now stood behind the chair like a butler welcoming his master to supper.

“It’s a strange dinner,” he said ruefully, as if he had been personally responsible for the selection, “but there really isn’t anything in your fridge. Not even lettuce.”

Trowa looked down, observing orange segments and apple wedges on the plate next to three cookies and some slices of what seemed to be some kind of cake or bread with raisins in it, and a glass of water. It was a strange dinner, but he might as well eat it, since it was here. “Thank you,” he said, and sat down.

Quatre just smiled and leaned back against the kitchen counter.

“Don’t stand there watching me eat,” Trowa ordered.

“Sorry.” With a slight laugh, Quatre began moving around the room, examining things he must have missed while preparing this little ‘meal.’

“You’re welcome to eat some of this too,” said Trowa eventually, a little less rudely (he believed).

Quatre turned to look at him, mildly skeptical. “I have food at home. You can save the rest of that for tomorrow.” Yes, he was obviously going to be one of those… the ones that insisted Trowa ‘eat properly’ and ‘get enough sleep’ and always wanted to make sure his linens were clean.

In an attempt at nipping this in the bud, “I don’t need food,” Trowa stated flatly. “I have a part in Duo’s curse; I can’t die.”

Quatre nodded. “Yes, that was the impression I got,” he said calmly. “But eating can only be good for you.”

Trowa considered pushing the plate aside and leaving the table to make his point, but he’d caught the smell of the orange segments by now, and his stomach had remembered, as it did at times like this, what food was and that it liked it; so he really didn’t have the option of walking away at the moment. Without a word he started to eat.

This burst of sensation always took him by surprise. He did like oranges. He liked food. It was just so explosively, unexpectedly enjoyable… which of course came with its own problems. Because he could never start enjoying something this much (or at all, generally) without an immediate kickback of guilt and self-loathing. He, who had doomed his best friend to a life without this kind of pleasure, did not deserve to be taking any pleasure in it himself. So what started out as quick and eager ended up tedious and forced.

And Quatre was watching him again.

“Stop that,” Trowa commanded. What he really wished he could say was, ‘Leave me alone,’ but he was aware of how little good that generally did. Once they got into the house, it was next to impossible to get them to leave; the trick was to keep them from entering in the first place… but this one had a key.

This one also appeared better able to take a hint than most, for he stood straight and said, “Well, I’ll get out of your hair now that I know you’ve eaten. Duo will be relieved to hear that, too.”

“Duo sent you?” Trowa wondered, relenting a little.

“Not exactly,” shrugged Quatre. “Last I saw, he was getting an earful from Heero for fooling him into believing Mattel had made gay Ken dolls. But he did say he hoped you’d fallen asleep, since he doesn’t think you get enough sleep.”

Trowa was silent under a fresh weight of guilt. Duo, who couldn’t sleep, who had specifically mentioned how much he hated his inability to sleep, whose inability to sleep was entirely Trowa’s fault, was worried about how much sleep Trowa was getting.

Quatre stood in the doorway leading to the entry as if waiting for an answer, and Trowa got the feeling that, if he could just give one, Quatre would go away. So with an effort he said, “Tell him… tell him I’ll sleep tonight.”

Quatre smiled and nodded and was gone. Trowa listened to the front door open and close, then looked down at the plate whose contents he doubted he could finish.

Perhaps he really would sleep tonight.

Part 21

Heero’s official job title was Pacific Division Sales Coordinator, but a better one would have been The Guy Who Fixes All The Mistakes Of A Third Of The Company’s Sales Staff. Normally this didn’t bother him too much; there was something about redoing a really shoddy piece of work to a higher standard, then taking a good long look at the finished product from arm’s length, that satisfied him intensely. But this entire work week had been an impatient nightmare from beginning to middle, and he almost felt he couldn’t get through the two more days of cleaning up after his co-workers that lay between him and the weekend.

Not long ago, if anyone had asked him what he would have been looking forward to doing on this particular evening, he would have (besides wondering why they cared) mentioned the first of the NCAA regionals. But things were different now that there was a wizard (or whatever Trowa preferred to be called) with access to Heero’s living room. Duo could be human again any time, and then he and Trowa might be off without a word.

Heero was curious to see more magic, and more specifically he would very much like to see Duo’s curse lifted. He wondered what Duo would look like as a human. Sure, the doll face gave a fairly good idea, and Heero imagined the hair would be about the same… but living flesh, more nuanced facial expressions, body language… How tall would he be? Were his eyes really that intense and improbable shade of blue-purple? Heero was exceedingly interested in all of it.

So the work days had been dragging, and today’s tedium was an ominous indication of what tomorrow would be like when the current situation was compounded by the usual impatience of a Friday. At least, though, between today and tomorrow (provided he could survive today) there was Duo. And it didn’t matter how often or how vehemently he reminded himself not to think that way.

Most of this he relayed to Quatre in a grumble at lunch, and found Quatre more than ready to agree. Though Quatre’s reason for wanting to be away from the office was more along the lines of, “Do you know that Trowa doesn’t eat unless someone’s there to make him?”

“That explains his reaction to breakfast yesterday,” muttered Heero.

“By the way, how’s the tenth for tennis?”

It took Heero a moment to shift gears, and another to try to remember what he might or might not be doing two weeks from the coming Saturday. But finally he said, “Fine, I think. I’ll tell you if it turns out I’m doing something that day.”

Quatre nodded.

It seemed strange to be making plans to do normal, non-magical things with their normal, non-magical friends. It was like they’d started living in another world and were scheduling a step out of it for a day. Which was stupid, since barely anything in their actual lives had changed. Sure, there was a talking doll on the end table in Heero’s living room, which room also contained a door that opened onto a magician’s house across the country, but what difference did that really make?

Or so Heero kept trying to tell himself.

Having satisfied the tennis question, Quatre’s thoughts had also undoubtedly gone back to the matter of their new friends, for he said pensively after swallowing a mouthful of turkey sandwich, “We could use some time off, I think.”

“I certainly wouldn’t object,” Heero replied.

Quatre nodded again. “I’ll see what I can do” — reminding Heero yet again that there were benefits to having the Pacific Division Regional Manager as your best friend.

Even after what felt like the longest four hours of Heero’s life — really, this was not boding well for tomorrow — he still couldn’t quite go home yet; it was his turn to provide the snacks, so he had to stop at the grocery store this time. And as long as he was at the store already, his overriding logic wouldn’t let him leave until he’d done all of his grocery shopping (though admittedly somewhat in a hurry). But thereafter, finally, it was time to go see Duo. The game, that is. The basketball game. It was time to go see the basketball game.

He had high hopes of making a true college basketball fan out of Duo. The doll remembered not only the rules, but the general workings of the tournament and that their team was already out of the running. In fact, he required very little further tutoring to seem like he had a fairly good idea of what was going on at any given moment. And his cheers, necessarily rather quiet though they were without a real diaphragm to support them, were always properly timed and must have bolstered the team had they been there in person.

“You know I have never eaten pizza in my life?” Duo said a little wistfully during a commercial break.

Quatre stared at him. “That is so sad,” he said in perfect seriousness. “This stuff you get at the grocery store and cook yourself isn’t as good as the stuff you order, though.

“But it’s a lot cheaper,” Heero put in, defending his frugal snack choice.

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” said Quatre hastily, “just letting him know. We wouldn’t want poor impressionable Duo getting the wrong idea because we’re eating inferior pizza.”

Heero rolled his eyes and turned away from his friend back to Duo. “As soon as you’re human again, we’ll feed you all sorts of things you’ve never had before.”

“Is that a promise?” Duo grinned.

“Sure,” said Heero.

Trowa wandered in near the end of the game and stared blankly at the TV as if he’d never seen one before — though in reality he had witnessed the evolution of television. What a strange life he must had led, Heero thought without much sympathy. At least his appearance spared Quatre the trouble of going to look for him, once the game was over, to make sure he ate or whatever.

“Oh, hey, Trowa!” Duo said happily. Duo was always far too happy to see Trowa; it was a consistent and irritating reminder. “Come watch basketball with us!”

Trowa moved to stand beside the table where Duo sat, still gazing somewhat uncomprehendingly at the television. Heero thought about offering him a seat on the couch in the empty space between himself and Quatre. Quatre probably would have liked that, but Heero had no real desire to sit next to Trowa — so he said nothing and let him keep standing.

“He may not know what basketball is,” Quatre was saying in a teasing tone. “I don’t think he even has a TV.”

“No TV?!” Duo demanded in horror. “Trowa, when did you become such a godless heathen?”

“When television was invented, apparently,” replied Trowa.

“Well, at least have some pizza,” Quatre offered, holding up the plate that contained what was left.

“No, thank you. When is your game over?”

“Maybe about ten more minutes.” The proffered pizza was retracted with, Heero thought, some displeasure.

“I’ll come back,” said Trowa with a nod. “There’s a spell I want to try.”

This caught everyone’s interest, but Trowa was already moving toward his door again, evidently not planning to offer any more details. So they all turned back to the game until such time as he should satisfy their curiosity. Heero thought Duo’s attention span for basketball had significantly waned, however. Which was really for the best, he supposed, at least for Duo; what was the point of having a boyfriend if you didn’t find him more fascinating than television?

Part 22

Quatre had intended to leave immediately after the game, but the opportunity to watch Trowa working magic was not one to be missed. This entire business really was wreaking havoc on everything Quatre needed to get done at home.

A large square board of some sort, carried very carefully under one arm, and a box full of candles accompanied Trowa when he returned. Quatre and Heero watched in silence as he knelt down, laid the board on the floor beside Duo’s table, and set the box next to it. Heero didn’t look entirely pleased at the idea of something to do with candles taking place on his carpet, but evidently didn’t think it enough of a concern to say anything yet.

Duo was also watching, from the table’s edge to which he’d painstakingly levered himself, but not in silence. “That’s really familiar,” he remarked when the network of careful lines on the black-painted board became visible. After a moment he added thoughtfully, “It looks like our end of the Wade.”

Trowa nodded, and picked up the first of his candles in one hand. The other held a piece of chalk. He tapped a spot where two lines converged. “This was where the first grocer in the district opened his store.”

“I remember that!” Duo agreed. “Took ’em long enough, too… that racist guy on 7th street wouldn’t serve half the people across the river, so they had to go clear to the south end market to go shopping.”

“It was convenient for us, too,” Trowa said, drawing a circle around the spot and setting the first candle in it.

“Yeah,” laughed Duo, “finally someplace that was close enough for the vegetables not to wilt by the time we got them home!”

“Not that we bought many vegetables.”

Duo laughed again.

“And here–” Trowa tapped another spot– “was the printers’ that put out that awful rag for so long.”

“Hey,” Duo protested, “I loved that paper!”

“Their ‘news’ was always at least two days old,” Trowa reminded him emotionlessly, “and it wasn’t always true.”

“Welllll…” Evidently Duo couldn’t argue with this. “We still wouldn’t have survived without them, and we got to know the city really well selling those things. Besides, that was the only paper most of the waders could afford most of the time.”

Trowa nodded, circled this second spot, and set a candle on it.

“I bet the next one’s that church that used to give us lemonade if we came around on Sunday afternoons,” said Duo eagerly.

Quatre had been watching and listening in almost breathless interest, and now he really did catch his breath as Trowa looked up at Duo again and actually smiled. It was a faint, sad smile, but it was the first Quatre had ever seen on that face and was, as he had anticipated, enchanting. He had a feeling, though, and not for the first time, as Trowa and Duo reminisced about their early years, that this was all a little too personal for him and Heero to be listening to. It was nothing like what he’d expected when Trowa had said ‘spell.’

“Yes,” Trowa was saying, indicating the point where lemonade had evidently been served to pious urchins. “Do you remember the woman with the peacock-feather hat?”

“Yeah, I was just going to say!” Duo cried. “And how we always tried to wait ’til she was gone because she’d always make us tell her what the sermon was about, and most of the time we hadn’t actually been to it?”

“And you always looked up at her with your eyes wide and said, ‘God, ma’am, and the commandments.'”

“And it wasn’t a lie because that’s what all the sermons were about,” Duo chortled, “but she’d get so annoyed because she wanted to hear us say we were miserable sinners!”

“I believe the building is still there,” said Trowa as a third circle and a third candle took their places at his hands, “but I don’t think it’s used as a church anymore.” And his chalk moved on. “And here was where Jaelle Petulengro lived.”

“Yes! With her fifteen dogs!”

“Only five,” Trowa corrected.

“Whatever,” said Duo, his little plastic mouth stretching into a grin. “She still had to burn all that incense all the time because the place smelled like pee. I don’t know how she ever had any business in there.”

“By catering to people like us.”

“Yeah, but she hardly ever charged us.”

“Only because she thought of us like her own children.” Trowa drew a circle around the old woman’s spot and stood the second-to-last candle there. “And this?” he asked as he tapped a fifth point on the chalk-marked board.

After considering for a moment Duo said, “That house we always used to want to live in.”

“That’s right.”

“And it took us ten years to realize that it wasn’t really anything special,” chuckled Duo, “just bigger than the ones on our street.”

“It did have its own yard,” Trowa reminded him, circling it and setting down the final candle.

Duo made some comment about the house in question having seemed like a giant mansion to them when they were ten, but Quatre was distracted from his words by the brief glow that rose from the board as Trowa withdrew his hand: faint lines connecting the five candles, soft but brighter than the chalk-marks they topped, had shone out for a moment and then faded. That was more like what he’d been expecting, and the fact that Trowa had formed a pentagram by linking together memories from the days before the curse interested him quite a bit.

“And here is where we lived.” Trowa tapped a spot in the center of the five candles.

“Well, this looks very solid,” Duo said in a tone of commendation as Trowa rose up and took him in his hand. “Is this to scale, though? I mean,” he explained as Trowa set him down on that last-referenced spot, “were those things all exactly that far from our place?”

“Close enough,” Trowa replied.

“Well, that’s good enough for me,” Duo grinned. “What do you want me thinking about this time?”

“Those days. What it felt like to be human.” And without even the slightest change in his level, emotionless tone, he went on in a completely different language. At his words, the candles all simultaneously lit, startling the two non-magical watchers but not seeming at all to surprise Duo.

“Can do,” the latter was saying. “Actually, it’s getting me to stop dwelling on that stuff that’s the hard part.”

Trowa sighed quietly, doubtless at this reminder of a suffering for which he still felt responsible. Then he held out his hands over the pure white flames of the candles as if gathering warmth into his palms, which he subsequently rubbed slowly together. Quatre shifted a half-step closer as Heero at his side also moved slightly. Both of them were looking down in silent interest, extremely curious about what would happen next.

Again in the unfamiliar language from which Quatre couldn’t pick even one single word he could have imitated, Trowa began to speak. The phrase that formed his spell did not seem terribly long — though this was little more than a guess on Quatre’s part — but Trowa spoke so slowly as to draw it out for more than half a minute.

As he finished, the lines of the pentagram flashed into being again, brighter this time, and suddenly everything — the entire room? the entire world? certainly Quatre’s entire field of vision — filled with an indistinct brilliance, a sort of glowing haze that momentarily blinded him. Beside him, Heero made a surprised noise and took a step back.

Shapes and colors came slowly into view again, and Quatre saw that Trowa was still kneeling on the carpet and now had fists clenched on his knees and a decided frown on his face. Even as Quatre’s eyes sought him out he spoke again: more words in the strange language, this time a shorter phrase and discernibly agitated. But their only effect, as far as Quatre could tell, was to extinguish the flames and make all the lines on the board — the magical ones and the chalk-marks — disappear. Duo was left sitting in a field of black in the center of five unlit candles.

“Dammit,” Trowa murmured.

Duo sighed quietly. Then, in a tone that was obviously meant to be cheering, he said, “You’re going to have to specify next time, ‘And don’t just show me the stupid moon, OK?'”

Trowa’s hand moved to cup around Duo’s back in a movement almost caressing, and then he slowly lifted the doll back onto the end table. Without a word he began replacing the candles in their box.

“Trowa,” Duo insisted, “it’s all right.”

With an indrawn breath, Trowa opened his mouth as if to reply, then closed it again and shook his head. He stood, lifted the box, pulled the board up under his arm, and turned.

“Trowa!” said Duo again, and now there was a touch of desperation to his voice. “This one didn’t work, but maybe the next one will. Don’t–”

“I’m not giving up,” Trowa broke in harshly. He’d already pulled his door open, and without looking back he was gone.

“I wasn’t going to say that!” Duo yelled futilely after him. His yell wasn’t much louder than his regular speech, but the tone was angry and unhappy. “‘Don’t blame yourself,’ I was going to say, dumbass!” He made a frustrated noise, and then his voice sank to a miserable low. “As if I’d ever think you would give up on me.” And then complete silence fell.

Part 23

Heero was staring at Duo. Quatre was staring at Trowa’s door. None of them were saying anything, and it was dragging on. Intense curiosity and the desire to be comforting and the awareness that there really wasn’t much to say that could comfort someone in such a situation and a tight, unhappy feeling in the pit of his stomach in response to Duo’s last words all warred inside Heero, and he felt it safer, at least at first, to say nothing at all.

It was Duo himself, in fact, that eventually broke the silence. “Well, that sucked.” He added with a sort of false cheerfulness determined to put a good face on a bad situation, “Another day as a doll, here we go!” Before either of the others could think of anything to say in reply, he went on in a more genuinely pleased tone, “He’s really gotten good, though! I wonder how long it took him to come up with that ritual…”

This remark sounded very much like permission for them to ask questions, if not in so many words. Heero got his in first, moving to retake his previous seat on the sofa next to the end table: “What was the point of remembering all those places?”

“Oh… well… It’s kinda hard to explain.” Duo’s tone seemed to indicate he would have been scratching his head if he’d been human. Heero had never met anyone with such an expressive range of vocal inflection, and wondered if it was a skill Duo had always possessed or whether he’d developed it over the long years of having such a limited array of other forms of non-verbal expression.

“See, that was actually a divination trying to find out how to change me back — so I might have had another day as a doll anyway even if he’d gotten his answer, depending on what it was. Anyway, there’s another kind of magic I could never do — I can’t do divination either; I could only ever do your basic making-things-happen kind of magic — but this other stuff’s all about the mind: communication, mind reading, getting power from thoughts and memories and stuff. So he was using memories of before the curse to help divine how to get back to that — making a sort of connection back to those days to grab some extra power.”

“OK…” Heero nodded slowly. “That makes sense.”

“Really?” Duo grinned. “Awesome.”

“What did you mean about the moon?” was the next question, this one from Quatre.

“Oh, that’s the answer that keeps coming back on all these divinations. Not very helpful, since we know it was that stupid lunar artifact that did this.”

“You know,” Quatre said thoughtfully, “I’ve been over there a few times now, and I don’t know if I’ve seen the thing. What exactly is it?”

Since Quatre had posed his question, Heero had been puzzling over it in the back of his head even as he listened. He’d thought Quatre’s experience watching Trowa’s spell had been the same as his, but in that case why should Quatre need to ask this?

Duo was saying, “I think Trowa said it was–” when Heero broke in:

“Quatre, didn’t you see the moon?” He made an apologetic gesture at Duo for his interruption and went on, “After the first thing Trowa said, didn’t you get a sort of vision of the moon blocking out everything else?”

Quatre stared at him. “No, just a bunch of light. Did you?”

“Yeah,” replied Heero a little uneasily. “It was very clear.”

“What does that mean? That you saw it and I didn’t?”

They gazed at each other for a long moment, then as one turned to Duo for the answer.

The doll didn’t have a great variety of facial expressions. There was his default blank look, which reminded Heero disturbingly of the Kens he’d seen at the stores, and there was a wider and far less creepy grin; then he could wink either of his eyes, but that was about the extent of it. At the moment, however, it looked as if he was trying very hard to give an amused, interested smile as he replied, “Off the top of my head, I’d say it means Heero has magical abilities and Quatre doesn’t.”

“Really?” Quatre turned a grin much like the one Duo was attempting toward his friend, apparently not at all bothered that he might be left out of the magical loop.

“Me?” Heero wondered in surprise at the same moment, almost certain he didn’t like the idea.

“I could be wrong,” said Duo in his ‘shrug’ tone. “But that’s usually what it means when you get a vision during a divination.”

Quatre looked very much as a proud parent might after a child’s successful musical recital, and also a little as if he found the revelation rather funny.

Heero, on the other hand, couldn’t quite accept it. “Is this magical ability anything like Ken’s bi-curious phase in the 90’s?” he wondered, a sardonic tone covering up his continual unease.

Duo laughed, half reminiscent and half rueful. “You’re never going to believe anything I say ever again, are you?” He grinned. “If you can find another explanation for why you got a vision that’s only supposed to appear to magicians…”

Heero frowned. “Shouldn’t I have noticed a little earlier, though? Can you have magic for twenty-four years without knowing it?”

“You have to be around magic for your own magic to wake up,” Duo explained. “So presumably you could go your entire life without knowing it. For me and Trowa it was this old gypsy lady in our neighborhood — the one with the five dogs. For you, apparently, it was yours truly.”

This silenced Heero utterly. He didn’t really disbelieve it, and the thought that it had only come about because of Duo made things a little better. At the same time, however, there was something disconcertingly… intimate… something far more appealing than it had any right to be when Duo was so unavailable… about the thought that Duo, by his mere presence, had awakened something heretofore unknown inside of Heero… and this made things, in another sense, much, much worse.

Quatre the perceptive friend jumped right in to rescue him. “Well, that’s exciting!” he said brightly. “You can learn to do all sorts of cool stuff, and maybe some of those message board posts will start to make sense!”

“Yeah,” Heero replied gruffly.

“You don’t have to, though,” said Duo reassuringly, evidently misinterpreting the discomfort Heero had been unable entirely to hide.

Heero forced a faint laugh.

“Well, I’ve got to go home,” Quatre said, somewhat reluctantly. “But I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Heero rather wished Quatre could have waited until they’d come up with a change of subject before leaving, but understood this wasn’t necessarily possible. “OK,” he said.

“More basketball tomorrow, right?” Duo wondered eagerly.

Quatre cheerfully confirmed this assumption as he located his briefcase, and then he was gone. Heero was glad the subject had been brought up — now he could talk about tomorrow’s game until he left the room to go to bed, and leave thinking about Duo awakening his magical potential until he was alone.

Part 24

An entire week off at such short notice for two employees that everyone knew were friends and many suspected were more than friends was something only a Regional Manager could procure, and then only with the understanding that said Regional Manager would still be on call for every little emergency that upper management (nearly all of whom were relations) wanted dealt with at his level. Quatre was satisfied.

He also didn’t consider it in any way inappropriate to leave just a little earlier than usual today. If anyone had asked him why, he could easily have made the excuse of wanting to beat traffic and get to Heero’s apartment before the game started. Which was true. And which would have caused some speculations among those that had an incorrect idea of his relationship with Heero that he would have considered inappropriate. But nobody asked him.

It hadn’t been an easy day to get through — even just reaching lunch time was more along the lines of ‘nightmarish’ — but when he saw how much worse Heero was taking it Quatre could at least be pleased with his own powers of concentration. Of course, he didn’t have to deal with the sales floor. Yes, some time off was exactly what they needed. A week should be enough for them to get things sorted out, and then they could come back to work and be productive employees again.

Admittedly this sorting out might well involve Duo’s curse being broken, and then he would undoubtedly be off with Trowa, and then Quatre and Heero would never see them again and would be left in the ‘getting over an unrequited crush’ stage and be very mopey productive employees… but the result, and hence the basic concept, was largely unaltered.

Though the same thought had evidently crossed Heero’s mind, he also seemed quite pleased at the prospect of a week off. And the moment he was back home and with Duo, he seemed fine in every respect. He’d evidently even gotten over the discomfort of last night regarding the magic thing, and could talk cheerfully to Duo about basketball and whatever else came up.

Quatre, however, was not nearly so at ease. It wasn’t that he paid no attention to the game… it was just that his eyes were on the door in the wall almost as often as they were on the TV. How likely it was that Trowa would come in here two nights in a row he didn’t know, but he could hope. Heero noticed his behavior and gave him a look or two, but Quatre couldn’t stop himself. And the very moment the game was over, he was off the couch and headed for Trowa’s door.

“Oh, are you going to go check on him?” Duo wondered. “Good.”

Reflecting on the absurdity of ‘checking on’ someone that had gotten along for ninety years without this service, Quatre replied that he was, and Heero gave him another look. This Quatre ignored, and went into Trowa’s house.

Once again, the moment he stepped into the entry, he was greeted by Trowa’s query, “Who’s there?” from what Quatre was coming to think of as the study.

“It’s me,” he replied as he entered that room.

Trowa didn’t look up from whatever he was doing at his table, nor did he have anything at all to say in response to Quatre’s identification of self, and it occurred suddenly to Quatre to wonder exactly why he had a crush on this man. As he went closer, into the globe of soft-edged light from the single lamp, and saw the disarray of the table and once again the now-cold remains of a cup of tea, he considered that pathos definitely had something to do with it. It had always been his habit — rather unfortunately, he thought — to assign greater importance to early impressions than they probably deserved, and Trowa had certainly been pathetic during that first meeting. And it had also always been one of Quatre’s habits to feel a greater-than-usual interest in anyone he pitied.

Other than that, though… an attractive face and body, a mystique consequent upon being a taciturn hundred-year-old wizard… and what else was there? It was true there was something to be said for instinct, but Quatre couldn’t help feeling a bit shallow. What did he really know about Trowa?

As he came to stand beside the table and the armchair drawn up to it, Trowa finally looked at him — sluggishly, as if his eyes were reluctant to release what they’d been studying and move elsewhere. But when they rose far enough for Quatre to see them, he took an inadvertent step backward in surprise.

From the first, Quatre had noted the unnatural brightness and vibrant hue of Trowa’s eyes, and if he’d thought about it would have realized that this was probably caused at least in part by color contacts. These were obviously absent now, baring the two glowing moons, nearly at the full, that Trowa had in place of the more traditional irises and pupils.

“Yes,” Trowa said impassively as Quatre stared, “if you come in here without warning, you may see things you won’t like.”

Quatre shook his head, as much to clear away his startlement and break off his riveted gaze as to deny the implication. “Well, they’re definitely a surprise,” he admitted, “but I don’t think…” He trailed off.

For Trowa had stood abruptly, taken a step forward, and put his pale face much closer to Quatre’s than anyone that wasn’t flirting or instigating a fistfight generally did. “Take a good look,” he said emotionlessly, “so you won’t have to stare again later.”

It didn’t really matter that it might be a little shallow to be infatuated with someone without knowing much about him; the infatuation was there whether he liked it or not. And it was evident that Trowa had rather fallen out of synch with the rest of the human world in the last however many decades, since leaning like that was a blatant invitation to be kissed and he obviously didn’t know it. Quatre would gladly have enlightened him, in a very practical way, if Trowa hadn’t been someone else’s boyfriend.

Quatre also managed, while these thoughts were passing through his head, to take the adjured good look at the eyes in question. They were nicely-shaped eyes. The strange glowing moons were somewhat disconcerting, especially when they moved as irises and pupils would have done, but they were also very interesting: peering intently, Quatre could make out a familiar pattern of craters in tiny detail on each one.

The moons didn’t really detract from the overall picture once you were accustomed to them, either; a more remarkable feature, in fact, was the lashes. Funny he hadn’t noticed before… Trowa had the thickest, most obscenely long and beautiful lashes Quatre had ever seen on a man. They swept down over his eyes when he blinked in very much the same way his hair fell across his face: a sort of soft veiling motion that almost invited more than it concealed.

Abruptly Trowa broke their locked gaze, turning back to his table and picking up his teacup and saucer with a clatter. Then he moved past Quatre out of the room.

Quatre took a deep, steadying breath, and moved slowly to follow.

Part 25

Trowa was rinsing out his cup in the kitchen sink without looking at it. In the back of his head arose the vague thought that he could do with some more tea, but it never jumped the synapse to the next concept over of making more tea. So he dried the cup, again without looking at it, and put it away. Then he rested his hands on the counter and continued to stare blankly across the dark room — he hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on when he came in here — thinking about nothing. He would have liked to think he was thinking about spells and what he’d been working on all day, but what he’d been working on all day had been practically nothing.

“So…”

Oh, yes, and Quatre was in his house again. The fact that Quatre was still in his house again despite having seen his eyes was interesting, apropos of nothing.

“Yes?”

Undoubtedly Quatre was going to ask, and Trowa was going to have to explain. Curses were arbitrarily cruel things that would stab you in the heart just as readily as they stabbed you in the back, and the necessity of explaining this particular effect of this particular curse had become just another effect of the curse. And now Quatre would ask, and Trowa would have to talk about it.

But what Quatre actually asked was, “Do you know how to play Blitz?”

Trowa looked over at him, broken from his empty stare by the unexpected nature of this question. “No.”

“I’ll teach you, if you want to play.” Quatre held up a pack of cards that Trowa recognized as his own. He occasionally played solitaire to regulate his thoughts, and, though he didn’t remember when he’d last done so or where the cards had been, Quatre had obviously spotted and seized them.

Turning fully to face his guest, Trowa wondered, “Why?”

Quatre reached out to the light switch and brought the room to better visibility. “Last night’s spell was really interesting,” he said, not exactly answering the question. “And Duo said you’ve gotten really good, and wondered how long it took you to come up with that. I’m sorry it didn’t work.”

Trowa felt his mouth tighten, and he left the kitchen and went around the dining table toward the windows at the far side of the room. As he stared out into the darkness of his overgrown little yard, he heard Quatre moving toward him.

“You’ve been working on magic stuff for god knows how long without a break,” Quatre went on matter-of-factly, “and it would probably be a good idea to think about something else for a while.”

Quatre had evidently stopped at the table. There was the sound of cards being shuffled, and Trowa pondered the situation. He couldn’t quite figure out what Quatre was after. He hadn’t asked for anything yet, not even some pointless display of magic to gawp at; he seemed genuinely concerned with Duo’s predicament, and Trowa’s state as it related thereto; and he hadn’t wondered, at least aloud, about Trowa’s eyes. Any one of these things by itself Trowa might have been able to deal with, but all together they formed a sort of barrier to comprehension.

Then there was the fact that Trowa had no idea what to do next for Duo. His hopeless, rambling research since last night’s failed attempt at getting information had been slowing more and more as the day progressed, until by the time Quatre had entered he’d simply been staring at a book without any real idea of what was in front of his eyes. At a point like that, Quatre was absolutely right: it was about time to think of something else for a while. And why not some inane card game he’d never heard of with his enigmatic new fan?

“All right,” he said, turning, and took a seat at the table across from Quatre.

It wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d been anticipating. The rules were just simple enough to make the game relatively mindless, the sort of soothing, repetitive exercise that calmed the nerves and put the brain back into some sort of ordered channel without too much effort. Then, Quatre did not require him to speak except as the game demanded, and in fact filled the silence himself with talk that was a good deal less tiresome than Trowa would have expected.

For example, as they played Quatre told him, “I’m the youngest of ten, and my two sisters — the next ones up — we used to play a lot of card games when I was eight or nine. They were just enough older to take advantage of me every single time, and I was just young enough to be completely unable to catch them or to ever prove anything even though I was suspicious. They would announce rules they ‘forgot to mention’ in the middle of the game — usually whenever things were going my way — to make sure I lost, and, when I protested, they’d back each other up and act all innocent.

“And then they started betting things. I don’t even really know how they kept getting me to play with them, when I knew I always lost and they’d end up taking my stuff. I guess it was because they would bet things of theirs that I really wanted — things they never would have really given me even if I had won — things I was too dazzled by the prospect of owning to be smart about not playing made-up card games with sisters who cheated all the time. Eventually my parents found out, and it became a new family rule that dad or mom had to be present for all card games between minors.”

To his own surprise, Trowa found himself asking, “Did you get your things back?”

Quatre grinned. “Not only that, but the next game, under mom’s supervision, I won an entire Deadpool mini-series off my sister fair and square. I still have it, too.”

Trowa wondered, and not for the first time, what it would have been like to be a child, instead of an antisocial young elderly man, in the 90’s.

Quatre went on to tell him about that same sister’s successful career in an advertising firm and ongoing unlucrative side-projects as a ‘real artist’ — all of which was moderately interesting, required no comment from Trowa, and got them through a number of games of Blitz.

When the clock struck three, Quatre looked around, startled. Then he shook his head. “I forget it’s three hours ahead here. Where are we, by the way?” Trowa told him, and Quatre nodded. “I should come around in the day some time and see the town.” He stood and began gathering the cards, both from the tabletop and from Trowa’s lax hands. “For now I’ll let you get back to work.” He smiled.

If Trowa had been a bit more flippant, even just inside his own head, he might have started a countdown at this point. As it was, he was simply satisfied with knowing it was coming.

“But you should probably get some sleep instead,” Quatre said, precisely as expected. “Reset your brain, and then you’ll work better tomorrow.”

And the worst part was that he was right. At least he hadn’t said anything about food this time. Trowa just nodded.

Quatre set down the pack of cards neatly filled and closed. “Good night,” he said, and smiled again before turning. He had a remarkably warm, welcoming smile, especially for someone that hadn’t asked for anything yet — so much that Trowa thought the room actually seemed a little darker once he was gone. Not that it really mattered.

But then the moment he was alone, Trowa found himself wondering what in the world Deadpool was.

Part 26

Heero was not a morning person. He did what he had to, of course (part of which was being to work on time at eight every day), but in general the world before ten o’clock seemed to him something like the setting of a horror movie — and the monsters were those perky people that could do equations and complicated analysis and be polite to obnoxious others at only the slightest notice upon awakening. On Saturdays he made sure to stay safely in bed until the coast was clear.

The problem with sleeping late, however, was that, no matter how nice it felt to awaken in his own time without an alarm, he was always rather sluggish for a while unless he had some specific task to see to immediately. Most weekends this didn’t bother him, but right now, with Duo around, he preferred to be a little more alert. So as soon as he was out of bed, he turned on some music a little louder than was his habit, and headed for the kitchen to start his coffee immediately.

“Good morning!” Duo greeted him cheerfully from his end table.

Before replying, Heero reminded himself firmly that Duo couldn’t sleep and therefore could be neither night person nor morning person at this point. “Morning,” he finally said.

Duo had muted the television with the remote lying by his side; as Heero got the coffee going he asked, “So what are we listening to?”

It occurred to Heero that he was a little too accustomed to living alone; he hadn’t even considered that his wakeup music might inconvenience Duo. This, of course, sent his thoughts out to the happy field of ‘living with Duo,’ whence he quickly reined them in because that kind of thinking wouldn’t do anyone any good. “Prisn,” he answered the question.

“Never heard of it,” said Duo promptly.

“Yeah, most people haven’t,” Heero yawned. Turning his back on the gurgling of the coffee-maker, he leaned against the counter and looked at Duo. “So what kind of music do you like?”

“Mexican circus music,” Duo replied after a moment’s thought.

Halfway through another yawn, Heero felt his brows contract in confusion. “What?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s really Mexican or what…” Duo waved an arm vaguely. “In one place I lived, there was a Mexican family next door, and they used to play this stuff really loud so we could hear it too. Drove my kid’s parents crazy. It was this really cheerful, upbeat stuff that sounded like what you hear in circus scenes in movies, and it was all in Spanish. I think.” As a sort of aside he added, “I speak maybe ten words of Spanish, and that’s Wade Spanish anyway.”

“And that’s…” Heero stared at him. “That’s your favorite music? Something you heard through a wall and didn’t understand?”

“You asked.” It was Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, but there was a grin involved as well.

“But…” Heero couldn’t quite explain why this baffled him so much. How could someone over a century old be so lacking in any decisive opinion about music? “Didn’t you live through the jazz era? Didn’t you pretty much live through the development of all modern styles of music?”

“Well, yeah, but mostly with kids! I mean, if you had to listen to things like Mr. Green Jeans and Muffy Mouse and Hanna Montana for seventy years, you’d appreciate some Mexican circus music too!”

Heero laughed. “OK, I see your point.” Then he moved forward, picked up Duo in the hand that wasn’t holding his newly-filled coffee mug, and headed for the hallway. “But I think this is something we need to fix.”

“Onward!” cried Duo in his small voice as he was carried away from the place he’d occupied for almost the entire time he’d spent in Heero’s apartment.

Entering his bedroom, Heero felt a slight, unaccustomed embarrassment about its state. It was true that he only tolerated mess up to a point, but he knew that sometimes that point was farther along the clutter scale than others’ — certainly farther along than Quatre’s. However, the only thing Duo had to say was, “Ooh, I finally get to see your bedroom.” Which Heero really should have been expecting.

“Yes,” replied Heero calmly, and then just couldn’t help adding, “Remember what I told you about being a very good boy?”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Duo said in a deliberate tone of pleased surprise. “I mean, that’s definitely something we need to fix too, but I thought you were talking about music.”

Deciding that he probably couldn’t get away with the response he was considering, Heero just chuckled again as he set Duo down on his dresser next to his CD player. The doll began swiveling his head back and forth in a wide arc, examining the room. “Oh, you’ve got that cool hands-drawing-each-other picture,” he commented, waving an arm.

Heero nodded, unzipping the binder that held his CD’s and beginning to flip through it. Duo turned his painted eyes in that direction and watched him. “So what do you call this stuff?”

“What stuff?” Heero looked up at him, forgetting that there would be no facial expression from which to obtain a hint about Duo’s meaning. Not that he minded looking at Duo: it was always thought-provoking to see the plastic body in those little clothes Heero had bought beneath the long and bizarrely realistic hair, and Heero still liked to imagine what Duo would look like as a human.

“This music that’s playing,” Duo said.

“Oh. Well, this group’s ten fans,” replied Heero ironically, “call it ‘experimental-hard-rock-slash-neo-classical-fusion.'”

“How pretentious,” remarked Duo in his ‘grin’ tone.

Heero shrugged. “It sounds better than ‘our orchestra has electric guitars.'”

“You know how weird it’s been to watch this whole ‘genre’ thing develop?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s half a million different kinds of just ‘rock’ now, aren’t there? I mean, I remember where all there was on the radio was ‘pop’ — and for a while they were calling all of that ‘rock’n’roll’ — and ‘country-western.'”

“Really?” Heero had found the CD he wanted, and was spinning it somewhat absently around his finger while he waited for the song currently playing to end. “No classical or jazz or anything?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess there was that… But you didn’t hear people talking about ‘trance’ and ‘thrash metal’ and whatever the difference between ‘hip-hop’ and ‘rap’ is… which, by the way, what is it?”

“I’m…” Heero grimaced. “…not really sure…”

“Can’t be important, then,” declared Duo.

Heero’s expression needed very little alteration to go from grimace to grin. “OK, you’ve heard enough Prisn; now listen to this.” And he switched the CD.

“All right,” Duo agreed jovially.

They might not have found Duo a new favorite, or even broadened his musical horizons to any great extent, but Heero at least was enjoying himself so much that he rather lost track of the rest of the world for a while. He was only brought back to it, with something of an unpleasant jolt, when Duo remarked eventually, “Trowa really likes jazz.”

Because it always came back to Trowa, didn’t it?

When Heero had nothing to say in response to this, Duo went on a little wistfully, “At least he used to. He was pretty good at clarinet back in the day. Of course he was almost completely self-taught… we sure couldn’t afford music lessons. I wonder if he still plays…”

So Trowa was musical as well as magical, was he? Heero restrained himself from remarking sourly that he bet Trowa did still play, and had been practicing for ninety years and was now a virtuoso — whereas the extent of Heero’s musical inclinations was occasionally singing along with something when he was absolutely certain nobody could see or hear him.

He looked around, letting life come back into focus, and realized with a start what the time was. “Oh, Quatre’s going to be here soon to watch the game,” he said. “I’d better get dressed.”

“Aw, you’re going to change out of those sexy pajama pants?” Duo complained.

Feeling his face go abruptly hot, Heero glanced down at his cotton pants and their repeating pattern of Optimus Prime’s face. “Yes,” he said, and was pleased at how levelly he managed it.

“Well, do I at least get to watch?”

If Duo’s tone hadn’t been so clearly joking, Heero did not doubt that his own face would have gone even more red than it probably already was. In any case, he took care not to let Duo see it as he picked him up. “No,” he said in the same level tone.

Duo made an exaggerated sound of disappointment as Heero carried him back into the living room and replaced him on his end table. A moment later, before Heero had even reached his bedroom door again, the sound of the TV coming back on floated down the hall. And Heero went to change contemplating how frustrating words could sometimes be that otherwise might have been exactly what you wanted to hear.

Part 27

So he liked Heero.

Duo had unmuted the television, it was true, but he wasn’t paying it any attention. His view of the hallway was mostly blocked, but he thought what he was doing could still accurately be called ‘looking after Heero.’ And if he’d had the luxury of a facial expression, it would have been pensive indeed.

The last time he’d been even remotely romantically interested in anyone had been eighty-seven years ago. Oh, sure, he’d always been able to recognize attractiveness when he encountered it, and there had been that whole coming-out thing in the 60’s… but it had all been almost more clinical than anything else — observations that led nowhere. And he’d never really thought about why he’d spent so long without anyone specifically catching his eye. But he was thinking about it now. Why exactly had this been the case? Surely over the course of nearly nine decades he should have met someone to interest him…

Admittedly he’d spend a good percentage of that time with children, but he’d gotten to know his fair share of adults as well. Also, he was a doll, but so what? His mind was the same, wasn’t it? Or had Trowa been right, all those years ago — was Duo really so petty and superficial that he couldn’t even fathom liking someone without the possibility of attendant physicality?

And, more importantly perhaps than why it had been like this for so long, what had changed now? Because something had. Was it Duo? Was something inside him maturing to allow a new interest after so long without any? Or was Heero just that overwhelmingly attractive? Perhaps it was more that Duo had some hope of regaining his humanity sometime soon, and so was allowing himself to notice humans in that light again.

He laughed helplessly at himself. This was all just another observation that led nowhere, since Heero was still clearly uninterested. Which hadn’t been a problem when Duo was idly reflecting that he might at some point start thinking of Heero as more than a friend, but could prove somewhat annoying now that he actually had.

Little time was available for him to dwell on this (which was probably for the best), as a knock sounded on the door and Heero reappeared, fully dressed, to let Quatre in. Evidently it was Heero’s turn to provide snacks again, for Quatre was empty-handed. Duo was getting the hang of these sports-oriented get-togethers.

That Duo had gone over a century without ever learning the joys of basketball seemed incredible. It was always interesting (and, to be frank, somewhat annoying) just how many things he’d never seen or done. Immortals were supposed to be knowledgeable and experienced, weren’t they? In the vampire movies, they always spoke a dozen languages and had contacts everywhere and loads of money. Duo spoke only English, could have counted his friends on one hand if his fingers separated, and didn’t even have any way to make money.

But he did like basketball. Movie immortals never did that. And they didn’t know what they were missing.

He liked Heero, too. This fact was rapidly becoming inescapable. The way Heero shook his fist and half-growled out commendations at the team he was supporting, a much less obtrusive celebration than Quatre’s cheers or the victory dances Duo would undoubtedly have done if he’d been capable, had an intense, subtle sort of happiness behind it that Duo enjoyed seeing almost as much as the skillful plays that inspired it.

Perhaps as a direct result of this, Duo was struck with the thought that playing basketball with Heero might be even more fun than watching basketball with Heero. Of course, the idea of playing anything was pleasant, for obvious reasons… but basketball in particular, especially with Heero, seemed like fun. He couldn’t be sure, of course — it had still been a relatively new sport back when Duo might have had the option to play it, and limited mostly to venues he didn’t frequent — and besides that was a pipe dream at this point anyway, but even so he had to express his curiosity on the subject.

During the next commercial break, therefore, he asked, “So do you guys ever play this game?”

“Sometimes,” Quatre replied, while at the same moment Heero said, “Every once in a while.” And they exchanged a look, the spontaneity and mutuality of which was comical even if the expression itself was not.

“What?” wondered Duo, amused.

“Two-on-two is more fun than one-on-one,” Quatre explained with a smile, “but we have a hard time persuading our friends — the friends we play stuff with — to play basketball. They’re fine with tennis–“

“As long as they can use racquets that cost at least $300,” Heero put in.

“–but they don’t think much of basketball. I think they find it a little…” Quatre trailed off as if unsure of the word he wanted.

“Ghetto,” Heero supplied.

Duo laughed, but could question no further as the commercials were over. Once a new set arrived, however, he pursued the subject. “So these snobby friends of yours who won’t play basketball… they wouldn’t happen to be the same ones who are always playing matchmaker at you guys?”

Quatre threw him a surprised look. “Yes, they are.” And he glanced at Heero as if to ask, “What have you been telling him?”

Pleased to have put these pieces together, Duo sat back (figuratively speaking) to enjoy the rest of the game.

Thereafter, Quatre announced his intention to check that Trowa had eaten something today before he went home, much to Duo’s satisfaction. It was silly to worry about not having seen his friend since Thursday when he hadn’t seen him for almost ninety years and Trowa had been just fine, but that didn’t make Duo any less pleased that Quatre was going to check on him.

“And I need to do my laundry,” Heero said as Quatre disappeared into Trowa’s house.

“Ooh, can I come with?” Duo requested.

Heero gave him a very skeptical look and said, “Why?”

“Just to spend more time in your scintillating presence,” Duo replied in a tone that indicated this should have been obvious.

“I don’t think you pronounce the ‘c’ in ‘scintillating,'” Heero said.

“Yeah, maybe not,” Duo allowed. “So can I come with you?”

Heero’s face took on a pensive expression that Duo knew very well. It was the look that said he was pondering the logistics of carrying a talking doll to wherever it was he did laundry — never very promising. What, then, was Duo’s pleasure when Heero suddenly grinned and said, “Why not? You can sit in the laundry basket.”

“I get to sit in the laauundry basket, I get to sit in the laauundry basket,” Duo sang cheerfully as Heero went to fetch what he needed. He had a feeling this was going to be a good weekend.

Part 28

Quatre awoke on Monday morning at about his usual time, and for a good ten seconds was somewhat distressed and disoriented because his alarm hadn’t sounded. Then he remembered the last-minute plans for a week off, and relaxed. Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, he thought for a while about what he meant to do today, then finally got up with a smile.

Although the purpose of these days off wasn’t to waste a lot of time doing nothing, Quatre had no objection to adopting a leisurely pace in what he did need to get done. This included jogging, some tidying up at home, his laundry, playing with the dogs for a little while, and, eventually, a trip to a grocery store. But he was anything but leisurely when, late in the morning (EST), he marched into Trowa’s house with his grocery bags and an expression of determination.

“Who’s there?” called Trowa from the study as usual, but Quatre did not enter that room this time. Instead, he identified himself and went straight into the kitchen.

At the store, he’d concentrated on finding things that wouldn’t go bad quickly — crackers and canned food and microwaveable frozen stuff — and was pretty pleased with his results. They certainly made Trowa’s almost completely barren cupboards and freezer look a little less forlorn.

“What are you doing?” Trowa had emerged so quietly that Quatre hadn’t noticed he was in the room until this moment. Quatre turned, a little startled, to find Trowa staring blankly at where he was trying to decide on a good place to put microwave popcorn.

“I brought you food,” Quatre answered.

“Yes… Why?”

Quatre had come prepared for this question. The argument that Trowa would feel better and work better if he ate regularly had thus far been entirely ineffectual, so Quatre had specifically planned on approaching this from another angle. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “what Duo said yesterday when I told him how often you don’t eat?”

He was beginning to recognize the tiny signs of discontent Trowa gave on occasion, and now saw clearly the very slight drawing-together of brows at his question. “He complained about not being able to eat,” Trowa guessed dully.

“Well, yes,” Quatre conceded. “But he also said that somebody needs to come over here and force you to start eating on a daily basis. Obviously he can’t do it,” he added with a bright smile, “so here I am.”

Trowa stared at him for a long moment, and finally said, “Fine. What’s for lunch?”

“Um…” Quatre reopened the freezer and pulled out the first box to hand. “Looks like… shrimp scampi.”

“Fine,” said Trowa again, his entire demeanor now subtly, indefinably defeated. Then he added, “But you’ll have to join me. You cannot stand there and watch me eat again.”

“OK,” Quatre said happily, and opened the cold box in his hand.

The wisdom of this particular purchase was confirmed in the ease of preparation, though the flavor had yet to be ascertained. Once Quatre had figured out the buttons on the excessively dated microwave, he leaned against the counter and again looked at Trowa, who hadn’t left his place at the edge of the kitchen. “So how’s your progress?” he asked. “Any new ideas for Duo?”

Trowa turned abruptly away and moved toward the table. “No,” he said shortly.

After a few moments of contemplation during which the microwave was the only sound, Quatre said, “So tell me about curses. What is a curse, exactly?”

“A curse,” Trowa answered slowly, flatly, “is a malicious spell that causes a set of circumstances to take effect and can only be reversed when another set of conditions is met. Cursing is considered a branch of command magic.”

“You sound like a textbook,” said Quatre with a smile.

Trowa made a faint, sardonic sound. “I’ve had quite some time to think about the nature of magic, especially curses, and organize my thoughts on the subject.” He paused, then went on more quietly, “I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book… but I haven’t felt motivated to do so.”

“We know what you’ll be working on once you’ve cured Duo, then!” said Quatre cheerfully.

Trowa was silent.

“So there’s an entire branch of magic dedicated to curses?” Quatre was determined to keep this conversation going.

“There are five branches of magic. Cursing is a subcategory of one of them.”

“‘Subcategory,'” Quatre murmured as he began pulling out the dishes they would need. “That makes it sound so organized.” And he knew so little about magic that any question he could think to ask on the subject was essentially a shot in the dark. That didn’t matter much, though. “So are there… specialists in these subcategories? Experts at cursing who’ll curse someone for you if you pay them?”

“Yes. They’re not very nice people.”

Quatre laughed. “Really?”

“Not just because they’re willing to curse others for money,” Trowa went on seriously. “A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

Under cover of bringing dishes to the table, Quatre stared surreptitiously at Trowa. The unhealthily pale skin, the strange eyes, the overall sickly glow… were these parts of Duo’s curse, as Quatre had vaguely assumed prior to this, or did Trowa’s knowledge of the nature of curses come from more extensive experience than just Duo? It would make sense, he thought, for Trowa to have experimented with curses over the years in order to be better prepared for meeting with Duo again… but what a miserable thought. Quatre wasn’t entirely certain he would blame him, but also wasn’t entirely ready to know for certain.

So instead he asked, “So what is it about Duo’s curse that’s giving you trouble?”

Trowa sighed faintly. “Someone who deliberately casts a curse has a limited control over and understanding of what is required for the curse to be broken. But this wasn’t meant to be a curse; it was the artifact that twisted my spell into one. I have no idea what needs to happen for Duo to be human again.”

“And your divinations haven’t answered the question,” Quatre finished for him, “and your research hasn’t given you any answers either.” He’d finished spooning shrimp and sauce onto two plates, and was now bringing these back to the table.

Trowa nodded in response to Quatre’s words, and turned his eyes to the food in front of him. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Quatre made a noise of acknowledgment, and sat down nearby — not too near, but not at the opposite end of the table, either. And it soon became evident that, as far as microwaveable frozen food went, he’d made a good choice on this. He noticed after not long, however, that Trowa was staring down at his plate without moving. Bracing himself for another debate, Quatre asked, “What’s wrong?”

Trowa looked up, then over at the kitchen. “Did you buy all of this?”

“Yes,” replied Quatre, raising his brows slightly and wondering what Trowa thought the alternative was.

“How much did you spend? I’ll pay you back for it.”

Quatre shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Trowa set down the fork he’d picked up but hadn’t yet used. “I am perfectly capable of doing my own shopping.”

Matching Trowa’s flat, steely tone, but laying a sheen of cheerfulness over the top, Quatre replied, “Of course you are. But since you don’t…”

Trowa stared at him hard for a moment, and Quatre got the feeling he had other arguments he would have produced if he felt like continuing to argue at all. Instead he simply said, “Half, then. I’ll pay you half.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Quatre said, “OK. It was about sixty dollars.”

Trowa nodded, then finally began eating.

After several silent moments Quatre asked thoughtfully, “Where do you get money, anyway? You don’t seem to have a job…”

“No.” At least Trowa appeared to be enjoying his lunch, whatever he might say. “Eighty-seven years of investment and interest.” He went on in a ‘before you ask’ sort of tone, “According to official records, I am Trowa Barton the third and was born in 1970.”

“You’re your own grandpa, huh?” Quatre grinned. But as the reference seemed to go right over Trowa’s head, he added, “Well, you certainly look good for someone who was forty at last count.”

To his surprise, Trowa actually smiled. It was faint and sardonic, yes, but it made Quatre’s heart leap. “And a hundred and eleven at a more accurate count,” he said, and bit into one of his shrimps.

Quatre left Trowa’s house later feeling that this endeavor had gone very well. Admittedly it was a little difficult to tell, but Trowa had seemed to be in a better mood after eating than before. And Quatre was obviously going to have to come back every day this week and make sure Trowa ate again in order to get him into the habit, but it wasn’t exactly a task he minded. Indeed, the memory of that little smile, brief and ambivalent though it had been, would undoubtedly have bolstered him through any number of much less palatable undertakings.

Part 29

“I really don’t know how you stand this,” Heero remarked conversationally. “Some TV is fine, but this is insane.” They’d essentially spent the whole of Monday in front of the television, and Heero didn’t think he could handle a repetition on Tuesday; he wondered how Duo could.

“Oh, I have a special power,” replied Duo mysteriously, “which allows me to watch TV for days on end without doing anything else.”

Heero looked over at him, curious.

Duo explained. “It’s called ‘having no other choice.'”

Heero winced. There were just so many ways being a doll must be miserable; it didn’t quite seem fair that even Duo’s primary source of entertainment formed one of them. Remind me never to piss Trowa off, was Heero’s immediate reaction to this thought, but he forebore from saying it aloud. Duo had been complaining lately that Trowa hadn’t come to see him for so long, and Heero didn’t feel like bringing the subject up if it wasn’t already on Duo’s mind.

Instead, he stood abruptly and said, “No. We’re going to find something else to do.”

“‘Something else to do?'” Duo echoed in an eyebrow-waggling sort of tone.

Firmly, Heero took the remote control from where it lay next to Duo on the end table, and turned the TV off. “Yes,” he said. “Anything but more TV.”

“‘Anything?‘” said Duo in that same suggestive tone.

Heero gave a monosyllabic laugh and rolled his eyes. He was already pondering what kinds of pastimes besides television-watching were available to someone that couldn’t hold, eat, or drink anything, couldn’t stand under his own power, whose knees and elbows didn’t bend, and who would be considered more than a little bit anomalous to the world in general. (He couldn’t deny that a little voice in the back of his head added, ‘and whose entire groin is a solid piece with no movable parts,’ but he did brush the thought away as entirely unhelpful.) He hadn’t come up with anything yet when his reflections were interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to cell phones,” Duo remarked as Heero dug into his pocket.

It was one of his parents calling. Heero took a deep breath, bracing himself mentally, before picking up.

His mother always greeted him, “Heero?” in a questioning tone, as if someone else might be answering his phone.

“Yes,” he replied. “Hello. How are you?”

“We are very well,” said his mother with her usual businesslike, almost brusque cheerfulness and faint trace of disapprobation. “Relena and Colin are coming over for dinner on Sunday, if you’d like to come too.”

Heero counted the days since he’d had dinner with his family, and saw very plainly that he could not turn down this particular invitation. If only they’d planned this for Monday, so he could plead Final Four… Stifling a sigh, he said, “Yeah, that would be great. Six thirty?” Because no dinner at the Yuy household had ever happened at any other time.

His mother confirmed this, then proved that, as usual, she didn’t have much else to say besides what she’d specifically called for. She wasn’t very good at chatting on the phone, a trait Heero had inherited from her — but at least he didn’t try. She asked what he’d been up to lately without really wanting to hear the answer, which was good, since he didn’t really want to give the answer.

He could just imagine telling his mother, “Well, I found a talking Ken doll in the gutter and have since developed a crush on him, but he’s already got a 100-year-old boyfriend.” She might, at least, be glad to hear that Quatre was chasing someone else; she was just sure that, any day now, Heero was going to announce he’d started sleeping with his best friend.

They exchanged a few more somewhat stiff comments, and finally hung up, with the reiterated promise of a meeting on Sunday that Heero wasn’t particularly looking forward to. A couple of months ago he wouldn’t have minded, but at the moment there were few places more awkward and uncomfortable to be on a Sunday evening than at his parents’ house with his sister and her fiance.

“I didn’t know you were bilingual!” said Duo, sounding impressed, as Heero put his phone away.

“Oh. Yeah.” Heero shrugged slightly. His family tended to speak Japanese among themselves, which included phone conversations; Heero didn’t really think much about it.

“Well,” Duo went on matter-of-factly, “that is extremely sexy, and I am totally jealous.”

Heero laughed briefly. “Didn’t you say you spoke some kind of Spanish, though?”

“I said I spoke maybe ten words of Wade Spanish, which doesn’t even start to count.”

Looking down thoughtfully at the doll, Heero said, “You keep mentioning this ‘Wade.'”

“That was what they called the neighborhood Trowa and I lived in growing up.” Duo’s plastic head was swiveled upward to return Heero’s gaze, and his eyes blinked with unnerving regularity, like an animation in an old video game or something. “See, the city was right up against this shallow river, and there was this big old sort of shantytown on the other side… a bunch of poor people lived there, mostly non-white, the kinds of people that got kicked around most back then.”

“Has that changed?” asked Heero with light dryness.

“It was worse back then,” promised Duo somewhat flatly. “Anyway, it was quicker for them to wade the river than walk a couple of miles to a bridge to get into the city, so they got called ‘Waders’ and the part of town where most of them worked — hell, it was practically the only part of the city a lot of them could get work — but that part next to the river got called ‘the Wade.’ I mean, this all started before I was born; I always knew it as the Wade.”

“And what was it like?” Heero asked curiously.

In response to this question, Duo laughed. “You know, there’s this thing I see happen on TV,” he began in an amused, pensive tone, “and you probably know about it too, if TV hasn’t been lying to me like it sometimes does.”

“Yes?” Heero prompted, returning to his seat on the couch and facing Duo.

“Someone’ll find out that someone else speaks another language — say, Spanish — and they’ll say, ‘Oh, oh, say something in Spanish for me!’ And the other person suddenly has no idea what to say.”

Now Heero laughed too. “OK, yes, I do know about that.” He was certain, however, that Duo, if he found himself in that situation and did happen to speak Spanish, would be one of those smartasses that just translated the words ‘something in Spanish’ into Spanish.

“Because you know about a billion words in that language, right?” Duo said. “And how are you supposed to decide just at a moment’s notice which ones will represent the language and how it sounds to someone who doesn’t speak it?”

“Are you sure you haven’t experienced this personally?” Heero asked, eyebrows raised.

“Well, I think that’s about what it feels like when you ask me what the Wade was like.” Duo said this in some triumph, as if he’d just made an irrefutable point in an intense debate.

“Oh,” said Heero, understanding, and laughed a little again.

“I mean, I could tell you a million things about life there, but there’s no quick and easy way to tell you ‘what the Wade was like.’ What would you say if I asked you what this city was like?”

“All right, I see your point,” Heero conceded. For, while there were a lot of concise answers he could have given to the proposed question, none of them would really paint a reliable picture of the city in general. “How about this, then: do the movies get it right? I guess that’s more about era than location,” he admitted immediately, “but still…”

“Well, sometimes…” Duo went on in a ‘scratching his head’ sort of tone. “As right as anyone can get it when they’re trying to cram all the social changes and attitudes and stuff of an entire decade into an hour and a half. They always try to capture ‘the spirit of the times’ in movies, but that’s something you can only do after the fact, I guess. I mean, I don’t think I ever did anything that embodied the progressive and inventive spirit of the 1910’s, and I definitely never looked around and thought about it. But sometimes the movies do get sets that look pretty good.”

Again Heero nodded his understanding, and couldn’t help thinking about how movies a hundred years from now would portray this decade; what ‘spirit’ might they attempt to capture? “OK,” he said. “Then tell me one of the million things you could tell me about life in the Wade.”

And as Duo obeyed, leading them into a fascinating, lively, and long-lived conversation, Heero wondered why he’d ever been under the impression that they lacked interesting things to do.

Part 30

Evidently Trowa was getting used to this routine Quatre was imposing on him, for, when Quatre came over for lunch on Wednesday, he found Trowa closing the book he’d been reading as if he’d been specifically waiting for a reason to do so. Actually, that wasn’t at all uncommon; Trowa seemed to be more than pleased at any excuse to set aside his research. Given how many hours a day Trowa was spending buried in books or on the internet, and to no avail, Quatre found this completely understandable.

They had some kind of breakfast-like affair involving sausage and potatoes — not the best of the frozen meals with which Quatre had stocked Trowa’s freezer — and their conversation somehow found its way to hiking and the local opportunities therefor. Local to Quatre, that is, but since he was the one that did most of the talking this was not inappropriate. Trowa always seemed to listen somewhat grudgingly to what Quatre had to say, as if he’d rather be doing or thinking something else but couldn’t help being interested. This simultaneously amused and bothered Quatre, but, as he wasn’t really sure what to do about it, he simply continued as he had done.

After lunch, Trowa returned to his study and, as far as Quatre could tell, the same book he’d been perusing before, but instead of reading it he only sat still in his horrible armchair and stared at the nearby table. He had that pensive little half frown on his face again, and Quatre decided to make him some tea before he left him to his work.

Almost the only food-like item present in Trowa’s kitchen before Quatre had forced half a grocery store on him had been a package of cinnamon orange tea. Having observed this, Quatre had bought him some more, but had also picked up a couple other flavors he thought Trowa might like. Of course someone that generally didn’t eat or drink anything, and that quite possibly had an entire century’s worth of tea experimentation under his belt, could probably be trusted to know of his one culinary indulgence what flavors he did and didn’t like without help from anyone else… but Quatre speculated — it was just a feeling, really, but an instinct he trusted — that it was the caffeine Trowa really sought, and the taste was irrelevant.

Wild mint seemed a good choice for today, so Quatre got a cup of that ready and returned with it to the study. There he found Trowa continuing to stare at nothing, the book evidently untouched in his lap, a slight frown still on his otherwise unreadable face. The magician did not even seem to notice when Quatre set the teacup in its neat little saucer down at the other end of the table.

Was Trowa staring at nothing, though? As Quatre’s eyes left the object he’d brought into the room and roved over the others on the cluttered table, he began to rethink this assessment. Trowa’s gaze seemed to be directed at an old, tarnished silver candlestick devoid of a candle that stood among the books and papers and other items. It occurred to Quatre that it had always been there, but he had never really taken notice of it before; and simultaneously that, even in a house full of mismatched articles from a variety of eras, this particular piece looked out of place.

He leaned closer to examine it. It was obviously very old, much too old to be any relic of the early twentieth century, or even — though he was far from an expert on the subject — of the late nineteenth. And then, with a faint, quick intake of surprised breath, he noticed the pattern of tiny moons, progressing from the merest sliver to round and full, carved delicately into the sides of the square base.

“Is that…” he began, and found his voice coming out in a murmur, almost a whisper, as if he were asking Trowa to divulge some serious secret.

For a long moment Trowa did not move or speak, as if he hadn’t heard Quatre’s beginning of a question and had, in fact, forgotten he was there. But finally with a deep breath he tore his eyes from the candlestick and turned them on Quatre. He wasn’t wearing his contacts today, and Quatre had already noticed that the moon must be starting to wane at the moment. Now the moons in Trowa’s face regarded him emotionlessly for a moment before returning to their previous object of scrutiny.

“Yes,” Trowa said.

Quatre also turned back to peer intently at the artifact. “It’s a… candlestick…” he said at last.

“Yes,” Trowa said again.

“I’d expected it to be… something…” Quatre shrugged and laughed faintly. “Something more, I guess. Something that seemed more magical.”

“Any object can become an artifact,” Trowa reminded him, “if enough magic is performed around it.”

Quatre nodded, then murmured, “So it was Trowa in the study with the candlestick.”

Here was another reference that seemed to go right over Trowa’s head. “It was created by a group of moon-worshiping magicians around 1760 in France,” he explained seriously. “It’s been difficult to find records of its history, but, as far as I can gather, it was created by accident — most artifacts are — when the group used to cast spells at an altar where this and another, matching candlestick stood.”

“So there are two of them.”

“I don’t believe so. Apparently both became magical artifacts, but when the group noticed how much magic the candlesticks were absorbing, they began deliberately channeling their own power into one of them; so it became extremely powerful, while the other remained a standard artifact. Well, perhaps a little more powerful than a standard artifact, but nothing in comparison to this one.” Trowa gestured at the candlestick on the table, from which Quatre’s eyes had wandered to his companion’s much more interesting face.

“Why did they put their power into it?” Quatre wondered, looking back at the candlestick as seemed to be indicated by Trowa’s movement. “I can see where such a powerful artifact would be useful, but did they know that’s what would happen?”

Trowa surprised Quatre by snorting in derision. “I doubt it. I can’t be sure, but the feeling I get is that they did it just to see what would happen. Just for fun.”

“Really?” wondered Quatre, amused. “Not to… appease the moon spirit… or something?”

“The changing nature of this group is interesting to watch in retrospect. I would let you see the records, but you wouldn’t be able to read them.”

“I’m fairly good with French, actually,” Quatre informed him.

For the second time that week, Trowa smiled, just a little, and again Quatre’s heart-rate seemed instantly to increase at the sight. “I’m not,” he said simply. “I can’t even pronounce the name this group called themselves. But one of the conveniences of magical skill is the ability to understand the magical language, which is universal to everyone who also has magical skill.” Now he gestured to the book in his lap, across whose pages were marked the indistinct and unfamiliar characters Quatre had noticed a few times before in books here. “Almost all of the records of note are written in the magical language.”

“Ohh,” Quatre said, a little disappointed. “Well, what do they say that’s so interesting?” He was pleased at getting Trowa to talk to so much, but also had to admit that the subject was not without interest in its own right.

“The group was not a serious undertaking at the beginning,” answered Trowa sardonically. “They were all or almost all magicians, yes, but they were not people who used magic for anything. They were aristocrats: rich, idle people who thought it would add some spice to their pointless lives to start a secret society and pretend to worship the moon in made-up ceremonies. I gather that it was mostly an excuse to show off useless magic and have drunken orgies.”

This startled a laugh out of Quatre, and inside he couldn’t help reflecting that, while he’d certainly never expected it, hearing the word ‘orgies’ from Trowa’s pale lips was every bit as pleasant as he would have thought it might be if he’d ever thought about it at all.

“But there were a few who took it seriously,” Trowa went on, unaware of the fascinating train of thought onto which he’d put Quatre for a few moments. “The second generation of members, you might call them — people who actually felt a connection to the moon which they wanted to enhance. They were the ones who wrote all the records, and they were the ones who transformed the group into a real cult after it had been nothing more than an exclusive club for several years. They continued pouring their energies into the artifact, and using it in rituals related to the moon and its cycles, which eventually gave it an affinity with the moon.”

“What happened to the cult?” Quatre asked.

Trowa shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any records later than 1785. As I understand,” he added a little wryly, “that was a bad time to be an aristocrat in France. I’m lucky to have found any records at all.”

“How long have you been researching this?”

After a moment’s thought Trowa answered, “Sixty-two… no, sixty-three years. I thought if I could find something that would tell me more about the artifact, I might learn something that would help break the curse.” He sighed faintly, and said nothing more, though the lament was clear: he had learned more, and it had been fascinating research, but so far it hadn’t helped. He reached out a pale, slender hand to the candlestick and ran one long finger up and down its tarnished side.

Quatre watched without blinking. Trowa had a sort of stark, lean sexiness about him that was only augmented by his strangeness and sadness, and which Quatre could really do without noticing at moments like this. He was afraid he’d caught his breath just a little, too, as he watched Trowa’s cold, almost caressing movement toward the artifact, for Trowa looked over at him again abruptly.

Blushing as if Trowa were able to read his thoughts — Quatre assumed Trowa couldn’t read his thoughts, anyway — he said quickly, “Well, I made you some tea,” realizing even as he said it that it probably wouldn’t be hot anymore… not that Trowa ever seemed to care… “Maybe today will be the lucky day when you find your answers.”

Trowa returned to staring at the candlestick beneath his fingertips as he murmured, “How many times I’ve thought that…” The hopelessness in his tone was almost overwhelming.

Quatre wanted very much to hug him, but still didn’t quite dare. Instead he smiled as brightly as he could and said bolsteringly, “Well, it has to happen sometime — why not today?”

With a faint sound of doubt that was almost disdainful, Trowa turned his eyes downward to the book in his lap once again, and Quatre reluctantly deemed it time to leave. Without a word of goodbye, which was becoming customary at the ends of these visits, he moved toward the door. A look back before leaving the room showed him that Trowa’s gaze had already strayed from the book and was once more riveted on the artifact on the table, staring blankly into the past.

Part 31

“If only my thumbs moved,” Duo complained, “we could play cards or something. I wouldn’t even need the rest of my fingers to separate even, if I just had one opposable digit.”

Heero laughed sympathetically. They’d been discussing things to do besides watching television, and, while discussion itself sufficed for the moment, this particular topic had already been so thoroughly canvassed as never to last long anymore.

“Why did you take a week off, again?” asked Duo next, partly because it seemed natural in the current conversation and partly because he liked hearing Heero’s answer.

“Because all this magic stuff is so interesting it was distracting us at work,” Heero replied as expected. “We hoped things might be worked out by the end of the week, or at least we’d be used to it, and we could go back to work without all the distraction.”

“Mmmm,” said Duo in a tone of revelry, “I’m a distraction.”

Heero gave another of his cute monosyllabic laughs. “Yes, you are,” he agreed. “But you’re not distracting enough and Duo, I swear to god if you turn that TV on again while I’m in the room, I will–“

“Take me to Goodwill?” Duo broke in, stealing all the thunder from Heero’s threat.

“Yes,” Heero agreed.

“Can it be a date?” Duo wondered.

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, what do normal guys do when they’re bored?” Duo asked.

“All sorts of things,” Heero answered in some exasperation, “most of which you can’t do.”

“‘All sorts of things,’ huh?” Duo echoed, but by now he’d approached this type of statement from this particular angle so many times that the suggestive tone was starting to sound a bit stale. “Well, how about…” But he trailed off. The truth was that he really didn’t know much about what normal guys did when they were bored. He knew what children did when they were bored, but apart from the fact that he couldn’t do most of that either, he didn’t think Heero would be terribly interested in any pretending games of that sort.

They’d spent the first half of Heero’s week off talking, trawling YouTube for music videos and generally interesting stuff, talking, and, yes, watching a lot of TV; apparently Heero had reached his breaking point when it came to the latter, and was absolutely determined to find something else to do. Duo was honestly touched that Heero was so bent on doing things with him, and didn’t mind at all that Heero’s insistence was making him miss all his favorite shows.

“You know what we could do…” Heero said eventually into the pensive silence.

Based on Heero’s already somewhat hesitant tone, Duo decided not to respond to this with a suggestive remark that would have been a repeat of something he’d said earlier anyway, and just prompted, “Yeah?”

“If you wanted,” Heero went on, still slowly and a little warily, as if it was something strange or unpleasant he was about to suggest, “I could read a book aloud to you.”

Duo’s first thought was that it was absolutely adorable that Heero was so shy about such a thing. His second thought was that he had no idea why it should be so adorable, nor why Heero should be so shy about it in the first place. His third thought was that he would very much like to know, and would definitely have to keep his eyes open. And his fourth thought was that he’d better answer before Heero decided from his silence that it had been a bad idea and retracted the suggestion.

“That is a thought,” he said, in appropriate thoughtfulness. “Do you have any good books, though?”

With a skeptical look as if to ask, “Would I have suggested it if I didn’t?” Heero rose from where he’d been sitting, as he had been quite a lot these last few days, on the couch. His inexplicable and wholly welcome determination to do things with Duo during his week off had led him to start carrying Duo around with him much of the time, so it was no surprise when he picked Duo up now before he headed down the hall.

But when they entered the room where the computer and bookshelf and spare bed lived, Heero stopped for a moment in the doorway, as if pausing in thought, then reached around behind him with the hand holding Duo so that the doll was facing the opposite direction Heero was and held against the small of his back.

“Is this like making me sit in the corner?” Duo wondered as Heero moved into the room. Heero was clearly perusing the bookshelf, but Duo was now looking at the computer desk and the opposite wall.

“It’s more like not letting you see what kind of awful taste in books I had when I was younger,” Heero replied evenly.

“What?!” Duo yelped. “Now you have to let me see!”

“No, I don’t.”

“Did you read the Babysitters Club, or what?” Duo was flailing his stiff limbs in impotent rebellion. “Come on, put me back around there!”

“No,” Heero said, and there was some laughter in his voice.

“You know, I could have seen them any time yesterday when we were looking at stuff on the computer,” Duo pointed out. “How do you know I don’t already know everything you’ve got up there?”

“Because you were facing the computer, and I notice when you turn your head all the way around,” Heero answered logically and with a slight shudder.

Duo began spinning his head around and around and around.

“Stop that,” Heero commanded; he could undoubtedly tell what Duo was doing by the feel of the doll’s braid rhythmically running counterclockwise over his hand.

“Let me see your books!” Duo replied.

“No!”

“I am going to make it my life’s work to find out what you have on your bookshelf, Heero Yuy,” Duo declared, finally ceasing his spinning. “You just wait.”

Heero chuckled triumphantly. “All right,” he said. Then he added, “How about the Oz series? Have you ever read those?”

“Aren’t those, like, kids’ books?”

“Um, yes,” Heero admitted, sounding a little embarrassed. “That’s mostly what I have.”

“What else do you have?”

“Well, there’s also the– wait, are you asking because you don’t like the idea of the Oz series, or are you just being sneaky?”

You just wait,” Duo repeated, then laughed evilly. When he was finished with that he said, “But I have no objection to the Oz series. I’ve seen the movie, of course, and some other version that was a horrible, horrible cartoon with these hilarious songs in it…”

“OK,” said Heero, and a moment later they were returning to the living room. Heero replaced Duo on the end table, and himself on the couch, and now Duo could see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in his hand. Heero too looked at it, at the very ugly illustration on its old paper cover, and smiled slightly. “I used to love these books, but I haven’t read them for years. I’m still pretty sure they’re not nearly as bad as any of the other series I used to read, though.”

“Other series such as?” Duo prompted.

Heero laughed, and made a great show of settling more comfortably into the couch cushions and opening the book. “‘Chapter one,'” he read: “‘The Cyclone.'”


Part 32

Trowa was a little surprised, on Friday evening, to see Quatre in his house again despite the fact that he’d been there earlier for lunch. He supposed this shouldn’t have been much of a shock — Quatre was proving excessively tenacious — but he somehow thought he’d met his quota for the day. Or was Quatre going to start insisting Trowa eat dinner, too? Surely not.

He’d essentially given up trying to understand Quatre, who, while clearly a follower like the rest of them, didn’t quite behave like the rest of them. He still hadn’t ever asked for anything, and yet he fussed; he interrupted and intruded, and yet wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have around. It didn’t make sense, and Trowa had other things to think about.

And now Quatre was walking the room slowly, coming to stand beside the table in front of Trowa, with arms crossed and a frown on his face. “I had a feeling…” was the first thing he said.

From his chair, Trowa looked up at the other man in vague curiosity.

“I’ve been watching you all week,” Quatre said, in a tone that suggested the delivery of bad news, “and…” His frown deepened. “You aren’t really working on anything, are you?”

Startled, Trowa blinked, and at first had nothing to say. It was a blow, and probably more than it should have been coming from a follower. On top of everything else, on top of the guilt and the sorrow and the hopelessness, now Quatre had noticed…

“I’ve seen you really working a couple of times,” Quatre went on, and by now he sounded almost apologetic, “but most of the time — especially these last few days — you just sit there staring into space.”

Trowa lifted his gaze the final few inches necessary to meet Quatre’s, and found there a strange mixture of accusation and pity. This did nothing to help with the weight on Trowa’s heart, which had only been increased by Quatre’s words. Feeling his lips tighten, Trowa stood abruptly, letting the book that had been on his lap — which he never had really looked at today — slide unheeded to the floor, pushed past Quatre, and left the room.

Through the dining room windows he could see the failing light of evening. He noticed as well in the glass the reflection of Quatre immediately behind him. “It’s none of your business,” Trowa said preemptively.

“It is my business,” Quatre replied at once, firmly. “I consider Duo a friend — and you too, no matter how you feel about it. Neither one of you is going to have a decent life until this curse is broken, so I want to know why the only person who has any chance of breaking it seems to have given up.”

Trowa frowned. A friend? Quatre considered him a friend? Was that why he expressed concern without making demands? Why he kept coming over here? Actually, it would explain all of Quatre’s behavior fairly well; Trowa remembered that some people did do things like that sometimes.

It was certainly more than he deserved.

“Being my friend can be unhealthy,” he said stonily, still staring out the window, tackling this secondary issue while he evaded the main one. “It’s best avoided.”

“You haven’t had any real friends since back then, have you?” Quatre guessed in a quiet, pitying tone. “Just those people who wanted magic from you.”

“You’ve seen what I did to my last friend,” Trowa explained a bit harshly.

“Trowa…” Quatre had taken another step forward and put his hand on Trowa’s shoulder, causing the magician to go stiff. “That was an accident. It was a bad combination of circumstances. Duo’s forgiven you for it.”

Although at least part of him didn’t want to, Trowa shrugged Quatre’s hand off. “That’s because that’s what Duo does.” It came out almost in a hiss. “He gets angry, and then he gets over it. But there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven that easily.”

“That’s why you’ve stopped working, isn’t it?” Quatre wondered next, in the same soft, sympathetic tone as before. “You can’t forgive yourself for what you did to him, and it’s driving you crazy. So instead of trying to solve the problem so you can move past it, you’re just sitting around being miserable doing nobody any good.”

It was many years — decades, perhaps — since Trowa could remember being truly angry, but now the agitation he felt at this conversation was close enough that he thought it counted. He couldn’t deny the truth of what Quatre had said, but he felt that the other man didn’t — couldn’t possibly — understand him. He whirled on him, fixing his cursed eyes on Quatre’s face. “Do you have any idea,” he demanded, “how it feels to know that you’ve destroyed the life of someone you love?”

“No,” said Quatre quietly, steadily. “But I have done things I regretted, and–”

“You haven’t done anything like this,” Trowa interrupted harshly. “Something like this hangs over you forever, so you can never think right or feel like yourself again, so that every single moment of every day you’re…”

He trailed off, and not just because it was so strange to be putting into words how he felt, how he had silently felt for so many years, to someone else. He realized even as he said it that it was no longer entirely true. It wasn’t ‘every single moment of every day’ anymore. Because lately… somehow… with Quatre around… there had been moments…

But that didn’t matter. The fact that he hadn’t been entirely miserable at certain points during the last couple of weeks didn’t change anything.

Realizing that Trowa wasn’t going to continue, Quatre said, “I’m sorry. I can’t claim I know exactly how you feel, but I see what you’re saying. And normally I’d say that you need to get yourself straightened out before you can try to help someone else. But in this case, I think breaking the curse is what will help you. Giving up or slowing down is the worst thing you can do.”

It was sound advice. Whatever his motivation, he should be focused entirely on breaking the curse. But this thought only made Trowa feel worse. He said nothing.

Quatre’s face hardened slightly. “Even if you can’t do it for your own sake, at least think of Duo,” he said flatly. “I assume you haven’t come to see him because it’s painful for you… but it’s hurting him. He acts very casual about it, but he’s obviously unhappy that he hasn’t seen you all week.”

Trowa turned hastily back to the window, unwilling to let Quatre see his face crumple as it was now threatening to. The thought that he was prolonging Duo’s suffering by his own weakness was the worst of it, and made the rest that much harder to bear.

Finally, after several moments of silence, “I don’t know where else to look,” he said in the soft tone of absolute despair. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Again Quatre put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing this time as if eager to give what comfort he could. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I could help you.”

And it occurred to Trowa that he didn’t have to understand Quatre to know that he wasn’t like the followers — that perhaps he wasn’t like anyone Trowa had ever met. He genuinely cared about Trowa and Duo and their situation, and he honestly wished he could help… and at the same time wasn’t afraid to risk Trowa’s displeasure by confronting him with unpleasant truths Trowa needed to hear. That was something friends did, wasn’t it? God, it had been so long. He’d been alone so long… it was no wonder he’d forgotten what it was like not to be…

“Maybe you can,” he found himself saying in a low, unaccountably level voice. “Will you stay here?” He thought there was a faint hissing breath behind him as he spoke the question, as if the latter had come as a shock to more than only himself. “Just… stay here with me while I work? I think it would help.”

Whether or not Quatre was surprised at the request, however, all he said, in a tone very much like Trowa’s, was, “Of course.”

Part 33

Quatre had never in his life found himself so distracted from a basketball game, especially not at the beginning of April. He’d done a little better paying attention to today’s earlier game, but after that he’d gone to force lunch on Trowa, and now his thoughts had so overtaken him that he noticed only about half of what was happening onscreen.

He’d sat in Trowa’s study yesterday for hours, doing almost nothing besides watching the magician work — honest, genuine work, if Quatre was any judge — joining in the occasional random brief conversation, and struggling with a mixture of emotions.

The idea that Trowa found his presence helpful in any way was elating, to the point where Quatre had been hard pressed not to sit there grinning the entire time; but he felt guilty too. He hadn’t recognized the depths of Trowa’s unhappiness, despite their being so understandable as to be almost predictable; and surely he shouldn’t be so damn happy about Trowa wanting him there when that stemmed simply from the fact that Trowa had no friends.

He wasn’t sure that Trowa had actually accomplished anything yesterday, but he’d definitely been working — first researching, then setting up another complicated divination ceremony — and that alone felt like a triumph. That alone seemed to make the whole week off worth it, even if the original wish that Duo might be human again before the time was up remained unfulfilled. Just to know that Trowa’s crisis of hope had been averted, at least for now, made everything worth it.

Quatre had been reacting only sluggishly to everything in the game he was supposedly watching, and he was sure Heero had noticed. Uncertain whether he wanted to relate to Heero or Duo what had happened yesterday, Quatre took a deep breath and tried to pay better attention to the TV. So when, not long after, a failed layup was saved by two of their players at once moving in such close synchronization that it was almost impossible to tell which had actually made the dunk, Quatre was able to respond appropriately and in good time.

He noticed when he’d finished cheering, however, that he wasn’t the only one reacting oddly today. Duo’s little voice, usually the most enthusiastic of the three of them, if not exactly the loudest, was even more excited than usual at the moment for some reason, and had transitioned from expressing great appreciation for what he’d just seen to shouting incoherently. It wasn’t long before both Quatre and Heero were staring at him, and a moment after that Heero had jumped to his feet, evidently losing all track of the basketball game.

“What is it?” Quatre asked, watching Duo flail his little plastic arms and swivel his head from side to side. Then, finally, he saw it too, and, like Heero, jumped from the couch.

Heero had picked Duo up and was staring down at him in agitated wonder. The doll was still waving his arms wildly, not as if he was struggling but simply for the sake of the movement itself — for, inexplicably, for the first time that Quatre had ever seen, his elbows were bending. And though Duo was no longer shouting, he was still making noise: babbling almost as incomprehensibly as before, he was exclaiming nonstop about his elbows and how long it had been since he’d had any. Heero, meanwhile, kept interjecting incomplete congratulations and broken questions as to how it could possibly have happened.

Abruptly it occurred to Quatre how utterly absurd this looked, and he laughed out loud. This seemed to break through the ongoing incoherence in front of him, and two heads — one with stiff, messy dark brown hair, the other with a tiny chestnut braid — turned toward him.

“This is wonderful, Duo,” Quatre said, smiling broadly. “I’m going to run over there and tell Trowa.”

Duo, who was still lifting both forearms over and over as if he couldn’t get enough of the motion, stretched his plastic smile as wide as it would go as he looked at Quatre. “Thanks, man!” he said ecstatically. “I don’t want you to have to miss more of the game, though.”

They all glanced almost reflexively back at the TV, which had gone to commercial while they weren’t paying attention, and Quatre shook his head. “Trowa will want to know this good news right away.” He started toward Trowa’s door. “Besides, he’ll know what it means better than we do, and it might help him!”

Despite the purely idiomatic quality of the phrase ‘run over there,’ Quatre was almost running as he came into Trowa’s entryway. All he could think of was that this information would surely give Trowa hope, allow him to work more steadfastly, perhaps even make him happy, if just for a moment. He probably appeared a little wild to the magician as he burst into the study.

In fact, he realized immediately, his desire to deliver a cheering report had been somewhat betrayed by his demeanor; for Trowa, observing his agitation, rose precipitously and came toward him, saying, “What’s wrong?”

Quatre reached out as they met halfway across the room, seizing Trowa’s arm and giving it a little shake. “It’s good news,” he said hastily. He let go of Trowa immediately, lest he be tempted further to test the shape of that wiry arm beneath its long buttoned sleeve and distract himself from the conversation. “Duo,” he went on excitedly, “just bent his elbows. He says he’s never been able to do that before as a doll, but now he can.” He realized even as he voiced this that it sounded every bit as stupid as it had looked back in Heero’s apartment; but there really was nothing to be done.

He wouldn’t have thought Trowa could possibly become any paler, and he would have been wrong; as Trowa’s eyes widened slightly, his face seemed to blanch as if with shock. For a moment he was obviously unsure of what to do, looking as if he might push past Quatre at a run and simultaneously as if he wanted (or perhaps just needed) to return to his chair. Then his face took on a faint expression of concentration, his bright moon eyes seeming to glaze over a bit as if he were no longer seeing anything in front of him, and he said something.

Quatre knew by now that these incomprehensible sounds were words in the magical language, and he wondered what Trowa was doing. He speculated that it was a divination to find out why this had happened, and considered this guess confirmed when Trowa focused again on the world around him and spoke, in almost a whisper, what sounded like an answer to a specific question on the subject:

“Because he’s been with Heero all week.”

Part 34

Divination was in some ways the simplest branch of magic, since at its most basic level it involved just asking a question. Not infrequently, however, it also proved the most frustrating of the three branches to which Trowa had access, because the universe was so picky about what information it would give out. The more general a question you asked — “How can I break Duo’s curse?” for example — the more general an answer you were likely to receive — such as a meaningless vision of the moon. But to ask a more specific question, you had to have some information already, which was why Trowa had, up until this moment, been consistently thwarted.

Knowing both that Duo had been with Heero all week and that Duo was now able to bend his elbows, an answer that simply pointed out the correlation between the two facts was wonderfully easy to obtain. And that answer was the first step on the path to the greater answer — a path that was an interconnected series of questions, answer leading to question leading to answer. Trowa could see it now before him, bright and clear, and he could feel the stinging of tears in his eyes.

Quatre had brought him what real diviners — which Trowa had never pretended to be — called the ‘gateway fact’ or sometimes just the ‘key:’ the elusive piece of information that, once found, put you onto that path of productive questions. It took only five or six of the latter, after the initial “Why can Duo bend his elbows now?” to reach the complete, final conclusion and to understand why things were the way they were.

It seemed impossibly, almost agonizingly simple now that he saw it; it was the same twisted sort of logic that lay behind all curses, purposeful or unintended, and now that he recognized it he found it almost incredible that he hadn’t seen it all along… He had accused Duo of being fake and superficial, of fabricating an attachment, and then he had cursed him; so what Duo required to escape the curse was a real attachment, a connection to someone that went beyond the superficial.

Of course there was more to it than that, or else the curse would have been broken decades ago, but that was the baseline. And it couldn’t be Trowa, since he was restrained by the curse as well. Obviously it could be Heero, though… and Trowa had a feeling he knew exactly what kind of attachment it was — though naturally he wasn’t going to walk in there and say that. The last time he’d given his opinion on what Duo felt for someone else, it had ended in plastic and almost a century of grief. But he could explain the physicalities that were required, and the curse could be broken.

The curse could be broken. After eighty-seven years, the curse could be broken.

He had completely lost track of what he was doing, so deep in his own thoughts and the attendant emotions that he’d forgotten Quatre was here — and, as a matter of fact, where ‘here’ even was. Now he looked around, gradually noticing and remembering. He was seated in the armchair in his study, very still, staring at nothing, and Quatre was beside him with a box of Kleenex. This was undoubtedly because tears were still pouring down Trowa’s face, running unchecked over his cheeks and neck to soak his collar or sneak beneath it.

Turning his head, he met Quatre’s eyes, and saw hope and curiosity and a certain amount of worry in the attractive face. And he realized belatedly that Quatre, devoid of magical skill, wouldn’t have any idea of the breakthrough he’d just had. He reached out a faintly-trembling hand, took a tissue from the box Quatre held, and said, “I know how to break the curse.” His voice shook a little, but the words came out clear enough.

Quatre drew in and then let out a long breath, his mouth curving into a pleased smile that seemed at once to commend Trowa and invite him to share further insight. “I knew you could do it,” he said quietly, his tone an echo of what that welcoming smile conveyed.

Trowa paused in the act of drying his face and said, “I couldn’t have without the news you brought me. Thank you.”

Quatre’s smile became even warmer, but all he said, in a somewhat amused tone, was, “I was just the messenger.”

“Messenger,” Trowa murmured, echoing him almost blankly. Inside he was momentarily overwhelmed by the thought of carrying this infinitely good message to Duo. When he found that once again he’d moved without really noticing it — this time standing from the chair into which he’d sunk at some point in his shock — he also found himself smiling at Quatre. And it wasn’t the first time he’d smiled at Quatre lately, was it? He looked around, then headed for his bathroom. When he returned, he found Quatre leaning on the doorframe between the study and the bedroom looking curious.

Trowa raised his newly-lensed eyes to meet Quatre’s again and said, “No reason to distract them from the point.” Quatre grinned his understanding and turned to lead the way out of the house.

Stepping into Heero’s apartment for the first time in over a week, Trowa found his old friend and Heero involved in a rather strange-sounding discussion that might have been about basketball and might have been about elbows, and either way seemed to be pushing the limits on how animated each was capable of becoming. Trowa discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that his smile only grew at the sight of them. Yes, he could see it all now.

Heero looked over, his gaze fixing on Quatre. “Duke won,” he said, then added as if in afterthought, “Hello, Trowa.”

At this, Duo’s head swiveled entirely around — causing, Trowa thought, every single human in the room to wince. “Trowa!” he cried. “I have elbows!!”

“I heard.” Trowa had sobered again. Yes, he knew now what needed to be done, but it definitely fell into the category of things easier said. Heero was off to a good start, but could he keep it up for as long as was necessary? If not, was it likely Duo would ever find another person that could? He’d waited eighty-seven years for someone that could get him even this far…

Trowa moved to stand before them, between the silent television and the sofa and end table, looking down at both doll and human. They stared back; his new position (thankfully) required a far less extreme angle of Duo’s head, and Heero gave Trowa the usual polite blankness. Trowa neither knew nor cared why Heero disliked him; Heero liked Duo, and that was all that mattered — and probably, Trowa thought, the reason there was just a touch of intrigued anticipation to his expression as well at the moment: Heero was hoping Trowa had come in here with good news. They’d just have to see how good he considered it.

“I know how to break the curse,” Trowa said at last, slowly and clearly.

Duo went absolutely still. Of course this wasn’t difficult for him, given his construction, but seeing someone go so impossibly motionless, no matter what he was made of, was actually almost as uncanny as seeing a doll moving on his own. It was reminiscent of death, and Trowa didn’t like it. He reached out and picked Duo up in a sudden, impetuous gesture.

Heero twitched forward slightly, as if with an instinctive movement immediately restrained, and seemed to attempt to cover this up by saying a little breathlessly, “How?”

“Yeah,” said Duo, speaking at last nearly inaudibly. “How?” As he had that night when they’d been reunited, he sounded as if Trowa’s words had given him a sudden, desperate hope that he was trying wildly not to indulge lest he be hurt again.

Trowa fixed his gaze on the doll’s face, so disconcertingly, painfully, simultaneously close to and far from the face of the human that had been his best friend. How he wished he could be the one to break the curse. As it was, he wouldn’t have any control whatsoever over whether or not this was successful. Hell, he didn’t even know if Heero was going to be willing to try it. He had the information he needed, but it was crashing down on him more and more heavily just how uncertain the situation still remained.

“Having a friend who knows about the curse and wants to help you out of it is the key,” Trowa said, gesturing at Heero. He’d chosen these words very carefully — they were technically true, but not intrusive enough to get him into trouble. “You and Heero have hardly been apart at all this week, have you?”

A silence followed this statement, but this one was less shocked and anticipatory than it was contemplative. Finally Duo said, “That’s right, isn’t it? Actually, Heero, I don’t think you’ve even gone anywhere since, like, Tuesday or something… except to get the mail, wasn’t it? But you took me with you then…”

Heero confirmed this with a brief sound.

Trowa nodded. “And you’ve seen the result.” He reached up with his free hand and drew a finger over Duo’s arm, from the stiff little sleeve down to what would be his wrist if it were willing to bend.

Immediately Duo lifted his forearm, turning his head to look at it with a little plastic grin, and Trowa saw that the newly-revealed elbow was more like a human joint than a doll’s — that is, there was no sign of it; the arm simply bent. “Yeah, I can totally make rude gestures at people again finally,” Duo was gloating. “I won’t demonstrate on you, though,” he added magnanimously, looking back up at Trowa and continuing to grin.

Despite knowing Duo could not feel it, Trowa squeezed him affectionately at this typical statement. “So what you need to do to become fully human again,” he went on, “is to stay close to Heero.”

“How close?” Heero asked.

“Within your psychic field,” Trowa replied, glancing briefly at him. “For anyone untrained, that’s usually about a five-foot radius, though I’ll do a spell to determine more precisely how large yours is. In your own home, or any place that bears your psychic imprint, you may have a longer working distance, but I would not count on it.”

Duo said nothing, obviously digesting this, but Heero put his finger right onto the center of the issue with another laconic question: “How long?”

Trowa turned his full attention to Heero now, examining his impassive face intently. This, he knew, was the crucial point, the moment that would determine whether Duo would have a chance at being human again or would start another perhaps century-long search for someone else to fulfill the curse’s cruelly personal requirements. He took a deep breath and answered steadily, “A full lunar cycle.”

Part 35

A moment that seemed to stretch into forever followed as the complete implications of Trowa’s words hit home.

Five feet.

A full lunar cycle.

Good lord.

Heero thought about his ‘private’ cubicle at work. He thought about his co-workers on the sales floor, difficult to put up with at the best of times, and remembered fleetingly how he’d been sure they would react, that first day, if they saw him carrying a doll. He thought about how quickly gossip spread through the building, heard it repeated in a dozen shrill but lowered voices that the Sales Coordinator had a Barbie sitting on his desk. He thought about grocery shopping with a doll seated in the cart, then trying to explain to the checker that, no, he hadn’t pulled it off the shelf and opened it, but had brought it in from home. He thought about going down to the apartment office to drop off May rent holding a doll. He thought about dinner at his parents’ house tomorrow with a doll in his hand, and felt a little faint.

He thought about having Duo with him all the time.

He thought about Duo human, and resolve filled him. Because, really, he didn’t care what it took; he didn’t care what he had to suffer; if he had to live in Hell for a month to break this stupid curse, then that was damn well what he was going to do.

The moment stretched on — it was probably two or three seconds, actually, but it didn’t matter much; his thoughts were moving at light speed in any case — and it occurred to him next how he would react if he were in Duo’s position… if a friend of his were being asked for his sake to go through what he vaguely anticipated now. He knew how he would feel, and he was fairly sure Duo’s response would be much the same. But for Duo to feel guilty or at fault about this was the last thing Heero wanted; the process of breaking the curse shouldn’t make it worse for Duo. He’d gone through enough already.

So as the moment ended, Heero said calmly, “That’s it? Duo just has to stay within five feet of me for a month, and he’ll be human again?”

“‘That’s it?'” Duo, still in Trowa’s hand, echoed weakly. “Heero, are you…” He trailed off, apparently unable to complete the thought.

“No blood sacrifice?” Heero went on coolly. “No dragons to fight or Nome Kings to outwit?”

“That’s it,” Trowa confirmed. He was still staring intently into Heero’s face, and Heero thought he knew why: it was all on his shoulders now, for some reason, and Trowa was anxious to know that he was up to the task. Why Trowa couldn’t do it himself Heero didn’t want to ask; he would rather not even sail near those waters, since he thought the ensuing discussion would probably drive him crazy. He was simply glad (on the level beneath the one on which he was already feverishly bracing himself for the month to come) that he could be of use to Duo — and perhaps secretly, horribly, a little glad that Trowa couldn’t.

“That’s easy,” he said confidently.

“Easy?” Duo burst out. “Easy?? Heero, are you thinking about this? Sneaking me down to the laundry room in a basket is one thing, but a whole month??”

“Yeah, do you think you can put up with me for that long?” Heero asked, trying his damndest to speak lightly.

“Heero, me putting up with you is not going to be the problem.” Duo still sounded shocked, but simultaneously amused and a little exasperated. “Are you thinking at all about what this will involve?”

“He’s right, Heero.” It was the first thing Quatre had said since entering. He too seemed somewhat amused, and a little uneasy. “This may be really hard on you.”

Heero forced a shrug. “If that’s what it takes.”

“Heero…” said Duo faintly.

Trowa still hadn’t withdrawn his pointed gaze, but at Heero’s statement he gave a brief little nod, apparently satisfied. “I’ll go draw up a spell to find the exact dimensions of your psychic field,” he said quietly, and turned to set Duo down.

Duo looked up at him from the table as Trowa’s hand withdrew, and said just as quietly, “Thanks, Trois.”

Trowa appeared startled, and Heero could tell without even asking that nobody had called him ‘Trois’ in a very long time. Trying to stave off jealousy, he reminded himself that a month’s close proximity trumped a cute nickname any day; but that didn’t make it any easier to hear Trowa’s parting, “Just hope it works, Deux,” as the magician touched the top of Duo’s head with two fingertips before he walked away.

When Trowa was gone, a long silence fell. It was very much like the last time he had walked out of this room, back when he’d done his failed divination with the candles. Heero was staring down at Duo thoughtfully, and he knew Quatre was staring at him. Duo was staring straight forward at neither of them, but Heero was certain they were all thinking about the same thing.

This guess was confirmed when Duo finally swiveled his head to look at where Heero still sat on the couch. “Are you sure about this?” he asked.

“It can’t possibly be as tough as being a doll for a hundred years,” Heero said, still struggling for a casual tone.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to suck,” said Duo bluntly. “I mean, I can’t ask… you don’t have to do this for me.”

“But I’m going to anyway,” Heero shrugged.

“Well, thanks.” Duo sounded a bit baffled and perhaps, despite Heero’s best efforts, a little guilty, but definitely grateful.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Heero reminded him. “Start thanking me a week from now. Oh, and, once you’re human,” he added with a wry smile, “I think you’ll owe me lunch every day for a year.”

Duo laughed. “OK, fine,” he said, in something more like his usual tone. “I just hope you know what you’re getting into.”

“I hope so too,” replied Heero. He looked around, though he couldn’t see down the hall to the glass balcony door from this angle. “What’s the moon like right now, anyway?”

“It was full four nights ago,” Quatre said unexpectedly. “April’s only got thirty days, so May third’s probably the day you want, but I’m not sure. It’ll be easiest to look up a lunar calendar online or something and find the exact date.”

Heero hadn’t had any idea that Quatre paid so much attention to the moon, but wasn’t going to turn down the advice.

Quatre shook his head, evidently not quite sure what to think. “This will be… interesting.”

Heero snorted.

“Well, I’m going to head home,” Quatre said next, a little reluctantly. “But you guys will definitely be seeing me tomorrow.”

“Night, Quatre,” said Duo abstractedly.

“Yeah, see you,” said Heero.

Quatre nodded and made his way to the door, and Heero thought he was chuckling faintly as he let himself out.

Then Heero turned to stare again at Duo, who seemed lost in contemplation. Several moments passed in silence before Heero finally reached out to pick the doll up and stand. “C’mon, Duo,” he said. “Let’s go to bed.”

And it was a sure sign of how serious were Duo’s thoughts at the moment that all he said in response to this was, “OK.”

Part 36

He probably shouldn’t have done it, but Quatre simply couldn’t help himself; he had to peek into Heero’s bedroom the next morning. It wasn’t that he expected to see anything terribly interesting; it was just that the whole thing was so interesting he wanted to reconnect.

Duo was sitting on Heero’s cluttered nightstand — which, Quatre reflected in some amusement, was really just the bedroom equivalent of an end table — still and silent, apparently watching Heero sleep in what had to be the most boring way to spend eight or nine hours Quatre could think of. Despite how quietly Quatre moved, Duo looked up as he opened the door and put his head in. The doll said nothing, but gave him a tiny grin and a two-armed wave from the elbows that might have been described as a jazz-hand-wave if his fingers had been capable of splaying.

Amused, Quatre returned the gesture — though he, not being quite so excited about his own elbows, used a more traditional version — also did not risk awakening Heero with a verbal greeting, and withdrew back into the hallway.

He still hadn’t entirely wrapped his brain around what was required to break the curse. On the one hand, as Heero had said, it was a surprisingly easy solution, requiring no blood or complicated magical ceremonies… but on the other, it was likely to be monumentally inconvenient for Heero — Heero, who liked nothing better than never to draw attention to himself over anything. Quatre wasn’t really surprised that his friend was willing to undertake the task, but his mood was a perfect mixture of amusement and horror as he thought about what the task entailed. He would very much have liked to discuss it with Heero in private, but it seemed he wouldn’t have a chance at such a conversation for quite some time now.

Today he had other plans, in any case. He’d specifically turned down a lunch invitation from some other friends in order to carry them out, in fact.

Before Trowa could ask who was there, Quatre was identifying himself and calling out a hearty good morning to the little house in general. He couldn’t be certain of what sort of mood he would find Trowa in after yesterday’s events, but he had a sneaking suspicion there would be guilt or melancholy involved for any of a number of reasons — and therefore some enthusiastic cheerfulness on his part might be exactly what was needed.

What he found, in fact, was nothing short of absolutely typical: Trowa seated in his armchair appearing distant, like he hadn’t slept in days, and neither very happy nor terribly upset. This didn’t necessarily mean, however, that he wasn’t very happy or terribly upset, just that he wasn’t showing it. With this in mind, Quatre asked, “How are you doing?” as he came to stand in front of him.

“I don’t know.” Trowa looked as if he wasn’t used to people asking him how he was — asking and caring, especially — and Quatre fully believed that the frank answer he gave was due solely to the fact that he’d been such a hermit for so long he’d gotten out of the habit of politely lying in response to that particular question as most people did. “I’m glad we’ve found out how to break the curse, of course, but it feels… anticlimactic. It wasn’t that I was hoping for something painful or horrible, but…” He shook his head slightly. “I don’t know what I was hoping.”

“You were hoping you would be the one who could break the curse,” said Quatre with sympathetic surety. And he was almost as sure that Trowa really had hoped it would require something painful or horrible, so he could live out a penance nobody else desired of him. Suddenly Quatre was glad of what the answer had turned out to be — but could Trowa ever see it that way? “Don’t worry,” he continued reassuringly. “Heero’s a great guy, and he cares about Duo too.” If Quatre was any judge of his best friend’s behavior, that was rather an understatement. “You can count on him.”

Perhaps Trowa also recognized the understatement, for his face seemed to darken somewhat. “I’d rather not,” he said bluntly.

“There’s nothing wrong with letting a friend do some of the work.” In Quatre’s haste to vouch for Heero’s pure intentions, he may have stressed the word ‘friend’ a little too much. It made him uneasy, too… because if Trowa needed to be reassured about Heero hanging out with Duo reading books aloud and watching TV, Quatre should probably offer some kind of reassurance to Duo about his own behavior toward Trowa. Except that Duo had never seemed anything but pleased when he noticed Quatre going to visit Trowa. But, then, if Duo was more easygoing, possibly more trusting than his bitter, reclusive boyfriend, it would be no great surprise.

Trowa had nothing to say. Or rather, as on a few previous occasions, it seemed he might well have quite a bit to say if only he wanted to continue the discussion at all. Instead he just glanced around as if reminding himself where he was and murmured, “What’s the time?”

“Almost one, here,” replied Quatre, allowing the subject to be changed. “Let’s go out to lunch.”

Now Trowa looked up at him. “‘Out?'” he echoed blankly.

“Yes.” Quatre gave an explanatory gesture. “Out of your house, where you spend far too much time.”

“Why?” wondered Trowa, still in that baffled tone.

“To celebrate,” Quatre said.

“I think we still have an entire month to hold our breaths before we can celebrate,” Trowa said dully.

With a pitying smile, Quatre restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “After eighty-seven years, you don’t think that finally knowing how to break the curse is something worth celebrating?”

“I’ll celebrate when the curse is actually broken.”

“OK, fine. I’m going to hold you to that. And for now, instead of a celebration, how about just a break? And I don’t mean the kind of break where you sit there staring at that candlestick for hours thinking about how everything’s your fault.”

Trowa’s brows drew together slightly. “I don’t–”

“Yes, you do. We’ve been over this. You need to get away from everything in here for a while, so let’s go out to lunch. Aren’t you hungry?”

Evidently almost against his will, Trowa admitted, “Yes.” Then he gestured at the paper he’d apparently been working on at the table, and said with just a touch of helplessness, “I was planning on finding the dimensions of Heero’s psychic field as soon as he was awake.”

“You can do that later. He knows it’s about five feet, and he’s at home.”

“But–”

Quatre had feared it might come to this. A little frustrated, he put on his best wheedling tone and puppy-dog eyes, and said daringly, “Come on, Trois. I just know you’ll feel better if you get out of here for a while.”

That got Trowa’s full attention. He stared up at Quatre from behind his unnatural green contacts, brows drawing together again slightly, and seemed at a loss as to what to say.

It was a little horrible to be doing this to someone else’s boyfriend (well, it was always horrible in any case, but it was an effective last resort), but Quatre was not going to lose this debate. He tweaked his expression to look slightly more pathetic and vulnerable, and said softly, sweetly, “Please?”

Appearing almost hypnotized, Trowa said, “All right.”

Quatre beamed.

Trowa drew in a deep breath as he rose slowly from his chair. “Where are we going?”

“Well, there are some highly-rated seafood places around here; I looked it up online.”

“I don’t go out into this town,” said Trowa flatly.

“What?” Quatre was ready to shout in frustration at this newest objection. He just wanted to go out to lunch; was that so hard? He’d even done the big-eyed wheedling thing! But he forced himself to ask calmly, “Why not?”

“Because if people around here get to know what I look like, eventually they will notice I don’t age.”

“How do you ever shop for anything?” Quatre wondered, bemused.

“If I need to, I jump to another city. Never the same one twice, though.”

Quatre stared at him. So in addition to guilt and shame and despair, Trowa had been living with paranoia all this time. Dragging him back into the human world was going to be even more work than Quatre had realized.

Eventually he asked, “Well, can you jump us to some place where we can have lunch, then?” feeling, even as he said it, a sudden bubbling excitement at the thought of Trowa touching him again for the teleportation magic.

Trowa frowned slightly. As far as Quatre could tell, however, it wasn’t an expression of discontentment this time; rather, he seemed to be considering something, as if he’d had an idea he wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to implement. Finally he murmured, “Why not?” and looked up at Quatre once more. The ghost of a smile had replaced the thoughtful frown, and he lifted one arm to welcome Quatre to him.

Although he feared his suddenly-pounding heart might betray him, Quatre stepped forward gladly. Trowa’s arm closed lightly around his waist, his voice sounded, low and incomprehensible, in Quatre’s ear, and then they were lifted into weightlessness and away.

Part 37

Heero had some cleaning to do on Sunday, to which he had honestly been looking forward more than to the dinner with his parents in the evening. It was good practice making sure he was aware at all times of where Duo was, and at remembering to pick him up and move him whenever he needed to go into another part of the apartment. It was nice having Duo around, too, as he worked, although their ongoing conversation was often broken when Duo’s little voice just couldn’t rise high enough to overcome the normal noises of cleaning. And once everything was spotless (or at least most of the apartment looked better), it was time for a shower.

“Do I get a shower too?” Duo wondered hopefully.

“You don’t need one,” Heero replied.

“It wasn’t me getting clean that I was really thinking of,” said Duo, managing to sound coy and licentious at the same time.

“You sitting outside the door worked just fine earlier.”

“Well, yeah, I’m not interested in toilet business.” Now the tone was ‘righteous indignation’ mixed with ‘shudder.’ “A shower is totally different.”

Heero laughed, set Duo down just outside the bathroom door, and closed the latter against the doll’s further protests.

Having given a lot of thought to what was asked of him for the coming month — both last night while he lay awake in bed with his eyes closed, pretending to sleep, and today on and off while he cleaned — he’d foreseen the shower question arising, and had considered letting Duo sit on the bathroom counter facing away from him. He had found, however, that he couldn’t bear the thought of getting his business done in the shower in the presence of the unavailable, inhuman guy he had a crush on — especially when that guy (in hypothetical human form) figured increasingly in his thoughts at those moments, and even if that guy ostensibly wasn’t looking.

Right now, as he stood under the hot water and felt the sweat and cleaning products of the last couple of hours wash off his skin, his considerations were following a different track. He was thinking about that brief exchange they’d just had, and how interesting it was (and not really in a good way) that Duo flirted constantly with both Heero and Quatre but never with Trowa.

Heero was about as far from being flirtatious by nature as anyone he knew, but somehow with Duo it was easy. Conversation in general was easy with Duo. Duo even made him laugh. He didn’t laugh with most other people, but with Duo it happened frequently. Heero wondered whether all of this was simply because he liked Duo or because Duo, not being human, failed to set off some kind of subconscious alarm in Heero’s head that went off for most of the rest of the world and caused him to stiffen up. Then, maybe it was because Duo didn’t set off the alarm that Heero liked him in the first place.

Thinking about Duo too much in the shower was going to get him in trouble one of these days, especially as things now stood… but thoughts about Duo’s nature and how it had been affecting Heero almost couldn’t help but lead to other reflections… such as a recurring daydream about a human Duo and what he would be like. Which was, in Heero’s mind, the same as the Duo he knew now — the same fascinating mix of casualness and intensity, the same silly carelessness atop intelligence sharp as a knife — but with a knockout body to match. And to such imaginings there was only one possible end. Which was why he really couldn’t have Duo in here while he showered.

Once he was clean (physically), he dried off and wrapped the towel around his waist before leaving the bathroom. And as he bent down to retrieve Duo from the floor, the doll wolf-whistled at him. If Heero managed not to blush — not necessarily at Duo’s teasing reaction to his nudity, but at receiving such a gesture at all from someone about whom he’d been actively fantasizing not five minutes before — it was only because he was so surprised. “I didn’t know you could whistle,” he said.

“Neither did I, until just now,” replied Duo in his ‘shrug’ tone. “I guess necessity really is the mother of invention.”

Heero snorted. “So it was necessary for you to whistle at me?”

“Yeah…” said Duo slowly, pensively. Then, as if he’d thought it through carefully and come to a conclusion, he repeated with more surety, “Yeah. There are some things words just don’t work for.” He started whistling again, seemingly experimentally; at first it was a patternless meandering of notes, but eventually it turned into something that sounded a bit like the intro from Knight Rider (not that Heero planned on admitting he recognized it). Listening to the little sound, which was thin and high like a bird’s song, Heero looked through his closet, abstractedly considering what he should wear.

“That is the greatest thing ever,” Duo declared, breaking off whistling. “I wonder how long I’ve been able to do that.”

“If you could do it all along,” Heero ventured, “you would probably have noticed before now.”

“I think you’re right,” agreed Duo cheerfully. “So it was probably all you.”

Heero set Duo down on the dresser and began looking for clean underwear. “So necessity wasn’t really the mother at all.”

“No,” Duo replied, affecting a serious tone worthy of a soap opera. “It was you all along. You were the mother of my invention, Heero.”

And there Duo had made him laugh again. It was almost uncanny. Heero stepped back into the closet to get dressed.

“Well, now the apartment’s cleaned up,” he said when he emerged, “we’ve got a few hours to kill before dinner.”

“We could watch TV,” Duo suggested as Heero picked him up, but at the expression immediately turned down upon him went on hastily, “No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Don’t kill me!”

“I’m going to find something to eat,” Heero said. “Then maybe we can finish Ozma or something.”

“Oh, good idea,” agreed Duo. “I’ve gotta know what happens.”

Heero smiled slightly and headed for the kitchen.

Interruptions for tangental discussion dragged out their finishing the third Oz book until nearly six o’clock, at which time Heero picked Duo up again and frowned down at him. “It’s about time to go,” he said, and wasn’t really surprised to find his tone somewhat surly.

“And don’t you sound excited,” Duo sympathized. “Why are you looking at me like that.”

“Listen… I’m sorry about this…” Heero sighed. “I can’t… I can’t carry you in there. I’ve thought about it, and I just can’t take a doll to my parents’ house and try to explain it to my mother. You’re going to have to go in my pocket.” He touched one of the cargo pockets on the pants he’d chosen earlier for this very purpose.

“Why are you apologizing?” Duo chuckled a little, apparently half amused and half bitter. “It’s not like I don’t understand.”

“Well, look. This is the only situation where I ever plan on doing this to you. Everywhere else, even work, I plan on keeping you out in the open. But I just don’t think I can face walking into my parents’ house with you in my hand. And I want you to know that’s because you’re a doll, and because things are the way they are with my parents, not because it’s you.”

“I…” Duo at a loss for words was a rare sight, and even now it only seemed to last a moment. Heero wished very much that Duo’s range of facial expressions was greater, because he would have liked to know exactly why his statement had had this effect. As it was, the moment passed and they were back to the usual meaningless flirtation: “So otherwise you wouldn’t mind taking me to meet your parents, huh?”

“That’s right.” Heero smiled faintly. “So it’s really OK to put you in my pocket?”

“You’ll probably have to bend me over,” Duo told him suggestively.

Heero rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling. “Sometimes you try too hard.”

“I’m aaalllllways hard,” Duo drawled, which Heero supposed was perfectly true. “Now help me get into your pants!”

Part 38

The pocket plan evidently wasn’t actually to be implemented until they reached the place, so Duo got to sit in the passenger seat of Heero’s rusty old car again. He would rather have been on the dashboard so he could see out the windows, but little purchase was available there for someone that couldn’t really hold on, so instead he satisfied himself with looking at Heero. And as they progressed through town toward Heero’s parents’ house, it was as if they were also traveling back in time to the first day they’d met, back to that unresponsive, mistrustful Heero that didn’t smile.

Duo watched him with what would have been undisguised curiosity and concern if his current predicament didn’t so effectively disguise anything he didn’t choose to verbalize, wondering, through the cool silence that had muffled the car’s interior, what in the world was going on between Heero and his parents that could cause this kind of reaction. Heero usually seemed so intensely effective, as if there was nothing he couldn’t do and no situation he couldn’t handle… even a magical talking doll hadn’t fazed him for long… What was it about his family that he seemed to feel he had to put up a barrier against? Duo had to remind himself that people were sometimes really strange about their parents, which was one of several reasons he was rather glad he’d never met his.

He’d been hoping to see some of the Asian district, where Heero had informed him his parents lived, or at least to catch a glimpse of the house that was their destination, but Heero put him into his cargo pocket before leaving the car. He did have to bend him over to get him in, which Duo was definitely going to bring up again later when he got the chance, and, not at all to the doll’s surprise, he was still apologizing as he snapped the pocket shut and trapped Duo in darkness.

Honestly, after the various toyboxes and backpacks Duo had occupied over the years, a pocket was nothing particularly onerous. It was better, as a matter of fact, in that he could still hear what was going on around them fairly well and reflect complacently upon the warmth of Heero’s thigh all along his body. He couldn’t actually feel the warmth of Heero’s thigh, but the awareness that it must be there was comforting, and he could probably work it into a suggestive remark later. For the moment he just listened hard.

Heero seemed to have arrived before his sister, which meant he was alone with his parents in the house for a few minutes, and Duo was hopeful of hearing something informative during this time. At first he was disappointed when they greeted each other and went on in Japanese, but it didn’t take long, even through the unfamiliar language, for him to pick up on the stiffness in their statements. After a brief, cool exchange, the mother left the room, and Heero had only his father to talk to. The latter had a quiet voice much like his son’s, and didn’t seem to have a lot to say — but was this because he was naturally taciturn, or because whatever was going on was making all family conversation awkward?

When the sister, Relena, arrived, bringing with her a guest by the name of Colin, the atmosphere warmed up quite a bit, and Heero dropped out of the conversation almost entirely. Fortunately, Colin didn’t seem to speak Japanese, so things at least became intelligible, even if there was still an entire aspect to the interactions that Duo was missing.

“Hello, Colin,” was the first thing anyone said in English (it was the father). “Very good to see you.”

“We’re always so glad to have you over,” agreed Heero’s mother, who’d come back in to greet the newcomers in a much more welcoming tone than she had used on her son. “Would you like some coffee or tea before dinner?”

“No, thanks, Mrs. Yuy.” Colin had a friendly, polite voice that sounded faintly British. “I think Le wanted to show me something.”

“Yeah, we’re going to look at some of the photo albums. He won’t believe I bleach my hair until he sees photographic evidence.” Relena, like her brother, did not seem to have their parents’ slight accent, and it occurred to Duo to wonder when the family had immigrated.

“All right,” said the mother. “Ten minutes, OK?” She managed to sound both fond and authoritative at the same time.

“Come with us, Heero,” Relena commanded in much the same tone as her mother’s. “It’s no fun to laugh at old pictures of you if you’re not there.”

Heero evidently had nothing to say in response to this, but the alacrity with which he obeyed indicated that he would definitely rather be with Relena having old pictures of himself laughed at than with his parents trying to think of something to say next. And it was also clear, within two minutes of his leaving his father and mother behind, that the problem lay with them, as Duo had guessed, and not with his sister and her friend.

Duo would have given quite a lot (not that he really had anything to give) to see the photos the latter were exclaiming over, which seemed to be twenty years’ worth of Yuy family memories. The question of Relena’s natural hair color was settled almost immediately, but still Colin kept bringing it up. Duo, practiced flirt that he was, could easily tell that this was purely for the sake of complimenting her on the effect she achieved and teasing her about her supposed vanity, and the relationship between the two became a little more clear.

“And here’s another one of us playing in that refrigerator box,” Relena laughed. “I swear we got half a year out of that thing before it fell apart.”

“How many costumes did you two have?” wondered Colin in amusement.

“You could always tell it was us, though,” remarked Relena slyly. “Because I always wore that stupid princess hat with the streamer, and Heero always had that look of heroic determination.”

Now Duo was absolutely dying to see these pictures. This was so unfair.

“And never smiled, apparently,” Colin added. His tone suggested he wasn’t entirely sure whether or not he was allowed to tease Heero yet.

Heero made a noise that might have been a snort and might have been a faint laugh, and there was the slapping sound of more album pages being turned.

Wow, Le, you were a pretty kid.”

“There’s no need to sound so surprised about it,” said Relena in mock indignation.

Colin laughed, and, from the sound of it, kissed her. “But seriously, look at these… you were even the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen!”

“I think that one’s Heero, actually.”

“Oh. Hey, Heero. You were the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen.”

Heero made the same noise as before; Duo was fairly sure now that it was a sort of quiet snort of vaguely amused acknowledgment. He hadn’t said a word since he came in here, and still the conversation seemed less awkward than the one he’d previously been having with his father.

Relena and Colin continued to discuss the pictures in a manner calculated to allow for as much flirtation between them as possible, Heero remained wordless, and, in the darkness of Heero’s pocket, Duo was kicking himself mentally all of a sudden.

How was it that he had never mentioned to Heero that he could choose who heard him when he spoke? He could make all the comments he was dying to make about Heero’s family and the sister’s boyfriend, and nobody but Heero would hear him… except that doing so might startle Heero into a demonstration of surprise that would be noticed by the others and necessitate some kind of possibly embarrassing explanation, and Heero would not thank him for that. But, dammit, if only Duo had remembered to tell him beforehand…

Eventually — actually, Duo thought it had been very precisely the promised ten minutes — the mother called them to come have dinner. Duo was pleased; if he wasn’t to be allowed to see the photos, at least he could hope for some kind of elucidation on the family issues through the next overheard conversation.

This next conversation turned out to be simply a continuation of the current one. “Mama, whatever happened to those old costumes we always used to wear when we were kids?” Relena was asking as (to the best of Duo’s knowledge) they were all sitting down around the dinner table.

“They are in a box in one of the bedrooms,” the mother answered with surprising immediacy. She didn’t even seem to have to think about it. Duo remembered, back when he’d owned things, sometimes being unable to locate the ones he used every day; something in a box from however many years back would undoubtedly have been lost to him forever (or at least until he came across it by accident while looking for something entirely different).

“Let’s see,” said Colin. “In the pictures I saw a ballerina, a musketeer, a princess–”

“Several princesses,” Relena corrected him. “Different dress, different princess.”

“Several princesses,” Colin conceded in amusement. “And a… was it a fox?”

“And then I’d combine them. Fox-princess Vixine of the Forest Kingdom had a long run, and so did Jzi-Jzi the fencing ballerina — who, actually, I think was also secretly a princess.” This was met with general laughter, and Relena went on enthusiastically, “Heero did that too: I think Princess Jzi-Jzi employed musketeers in addition to being one herself, or they were part of the ballet? Or something… but Heero couldn’t tell anyone that he was a musketeer serving a secret princess, because…” She trailed off, laughing, as she tried to remember.

“Because the coach of my football team had a rule against being part of any other organization,” Heero supplied at a deadpan.

“Yeah, he was a bit of a jerk,” Relena agreed. “But wasn’t that the game where you died in my service and became a zombie? And you were so strong and fast then that you were the star of the team and the coach stopped caring what you did as long as you were there to win the games for them?”

“Because everyone knows how fast zombies are,” put in Colin, breathless with laughter.

“That’s right,” said Heero.

It was a good thing Duo had gotten so much practice keeping silent in the face of extreme provocation, because otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to prevent himself from laughing aloud with the rest of them. This was definitely something he was going to have to bring up with Heero later. He wished he knew how old they’d been… it had probably been obvious from the pictures, but of course he hadn’t seen them.

One thing that made it easier to stay calm and not give himself away was the interesting fact that the laughter of Heero’s parents had ceased rather abruptly the very moment Relena had mentioned his name. Relena and Colin were laughing enough to cover up the lapse, but Duo hadn’t failed to notice. Why was Princess Vixine of the Animal Kingdom amusing when zombie musketeer football player Heero wasn’t? Moreover, why did the mother suddenly change the subject at this point by asking Colin some stupid polite question? What was going on here?

Part 39

“And how is your work, Colin?” asked Heero’s mother in her formal way.

Colin, the type of casual yuppie you would expect to have a pastel cardigan tied by the arms around his neck, was adjusting admirably to Mrs. Yuy, despite not having spent a huge amount of time with the future in-laws yet. “Very good, thanks,” he replied in equally polite tones. “In my current position, I really enjoy my work, which I think a lot of people can’t say that.”

“And we hear you’re very good at what you do,” Heero’s father commented.

“I like to think so,” Colin smiled. “Of course, it helps that I’m best friends with the manager… but still I think I do pretty good work even without the favoritism.”

Relena laughed. “That sounds just like Heero.” She grinned cheekily at him. “How’s Quatre doing, Heero?”

“Fine,” he replied levelly. “Busy, as always.” He gave one corner of a smile to acknowledge the fact that she was teasing him, but couldn’t complete the expression: once again their parents had gone abruptly, stiffly silent as Relena had sought to include her brother in the conversation.

Relena’s face took on a thoughtful expression. “Do you guys still hang out with those dentists?”

“Yes,” Heero replied. God, they did, didn’t they? In fact, they were all going to be playing tennis on Saturday, weren’t they? And Heero was going to be carrying a doll to that, wasn’t he?

Well, he’d told Duo he meant to keep him out in the open as much as possible, and he didn’t plan on making a lie of that. He would just have to think up an excuse for Duo’s presence before Saturday. He would probably have plenty of opportunity to do so during the coming work-week…

“Are they any good? I need to go see a dentist.”

Here their mother broke in somewhat sharply. “Why do you need a dentist?”

“Oh, this crown in back is bothering me again.”

“But didn’t Lindsay refer you to her dentist?”

“Yes, but I didn’t like it there.” Relena looked like she was going to continue, probably to reiterate her question to Heero, but their mother jumped on her pause. This was no surprise; she was obviously in take-control-of-the-conversation mode.

“Colin, you’ve met Lindsay, haven’t you?” She’d turned to Relena’s fiance again with her polite smile, and when Colin, taken by surprise, nodded rather than answer with his mouth full, she went on immediately. “Lindsay is so nice, isn’t she?”

“I was lucky to find a roommate on such short notice,” Relena said, agreeing only obliquely. “I hope I’ve given her enough notice so she can find someone to take my room in July.”

“Not just that you found a roommate,” their mother said, forcing the issue, “but you found someone so nice.” She looked around pointedly.

“She is nice,” Colin agreed earnestly, as was expected of him.

“She may want to buy my car,” Relena put in somewhat hastily. “That’ll make things easier, since I won’t have to list it anywhere.”

“That would be convenient,” Mrs. Yuy nodded. “What a good friend she is to you. Anyone would be lucky to have someone like her around, I think.” She didn’t have to look over at Heero; she had a way of not looking at someone that produced essentially the same result as if she had. “Didn’t you say she isn’t dating anyone, though?”

Relena shared her mother’s talent for pointedly not looking. Now she, too, didn’t look at Heero as she answered calmly, “That’s right.”

“How strange!”

Frustrated, Heero rose somewhat abruptly. “Excuse me,” he said, and left the dining room. He moved briskly down the hall with its noren-hung cream walls, entered the green bathroom, locked the door behind him, and turned on the fan for cover. Then he extracted Duo from his pocket.

“Hi,” said Duo.

“Hi,” replied Heero darkly. He stared at the doll silently for a long moment before asking, “How are you doing in there?”

“Just enjoying the drama,” Duo said in his ‘grin’ tone. “But your sister seems pretty nice.”

“She is.” Heero gave a somewhat curt nod, then felt his lips pressing together as if he never wanted to speak again. Which was pretty much the case.

Duo seemed to pick up on this, for all he said was, “Well, hang in there.”

Heero nodded again, then returned Duo to his pocket. He didn’t want to discuss ‘the drama,’ it was true, but he wouldn’t have minded being able to express to Duo how unexpectedly bolstering it was to be able to exchange even these few, meaningless words with him in the middle of it. Perhaps sometime he would, if he could figure out a way to do it without confessing exactly how he felt about Duo at the same time.

Back in the dining room, the conversation had taken a turn for the slightly less annoying, and Relena smiled apologetically at Heero as he resumed his seat. After that, he was more than happy to be awkwardly ignored for a while. But before it was even time for dessert, it started again.

They’d returned to the briefly-touched-upon topic of Relena’s car, and were discussing how much she was likely to get for it and what sort of vehicle she and Colin were looking to purchase together. Heero knew what was coming; he hadn’t really expected to get through the night without it.

“You should buy Relena’s car, Heero,” said their mother at about the moment he’d know she would. “That would work out nice for everybody.”

“I don’t need Relena’s car, mama,” Heero replied flatly.

“Yes, you do,” she said. “You can’t keep driving that thing you have.”

“There is nothing wrong with my car.”

“It’s disgusting,” she said. And she really sounded disgusted.

“It doesn’t matter what it looks like.” And it didn’t really matter what he said; they never listened. “It gets me places.”

“It’s a disgrace.” And she really sounded disgraced.

“Your mother’s right,” his father put in. “Someone who makes as much money as you do should be ashamed to be driving a car like that.” Because shame always had to come into it somehow.

“Relena’s car would be much more appropriate for you, don’t you think?” said his mother in a tone that mixed wheedling and authoritativeness.

“I don’t think it’s ‘appropriate,'” responded Heero tightly, “to be looking for a different car when mine runs just fine.”

“But, Heero, it isn’t right…” The mixture of exasperation and despair in his mother’s voice was harsher than the discussion really warranted… but, then, the car discussion was never really about the car anymore, so that was no surprise.

“What, that ancient BMW out there?” Colin wondered, seeming a little nonplussed by the fairly rapid-fire and inexplicably intense exchange. “What’s wrong with it? I mean, other than that it’s obviously twenty-five years old…”

“Do you remember,” said Relena suddenly, with the air of one that has just had an idea so striking she can’t help but mention it despite its only tangential relevance to the current conversation, “how when I was younger I was determined that my first car was going to be a pink limo?”

Colin turned to her immediately, obviously captivated by this revelation. “Were you?”

Relena nodded with a somewhat sheepish grin. “Pink used to be my favorite color, like probably every other little girl at some point or other, and I loved limos. I had my heart set on having one for the longest time, even when I should have known better. It was a serious part of my financial planning for the future until I was, I think, seventeen? I had a brand picked out and I was actually looking into dealerships by the time I lost interest.”

Heero’s parents had subsided by the time his sister was done with this explanation; the next time he caught Relena’s eye, he made sure to give her a grateful smile.

“Well, maybe we’ll get you one someday.” Colin was beaming at his fiance; evidently he thought the entire thing was some sort of adorable. Heero, who knew Relena and her determination a little better than did Colin, thought his future brother-in-law would do better to be relieved that Relena had actually given up that particular fixation.

This led to a discussion of the couple’s investment plans — which Heero was convinced would not have been in such an advanced stage at this point if it hadn’t been for the pressure from his parents — and allowed Heero to drop out of the conversation again. Soon it was time for dessert, and Heero began silently counting down to the moment he could leave.

Ice cream in the living room seemed like it was going to turn into a family game of some sort, and it came as no surprise to Heero that no one specifically urged him to join or sought his opinion on what they should play. Therefore it couldn’t have come as a surprise to any of them when he finished eating in fairly hasty silence and stood up to leave.

“Are you going, Heero?” Relena also stood, and went to hug him. It was a very purposeful gesture, but seemed to have been wasted on their parents. Colin, however, shook hands with him and said, in that way of his that would have been smarmy if he weren’t so perfectly honest and straightforward, that it had been good to see him again.

“Goodbye,” was all his parents said, and this when Heero had already turned his back and taken a few steps toward the hall. And it wasn’t particularly cold or unfriendly, just… stiff, as if they couldn’t think of anything more to say, or were unwilling to say what they could think of.

“Bye,” Heero replied in almost exactly the same tone. Then he had to restrain himself from moving with undue speed toward the front door and his car on the driveway and escape.

Part 40

Duo wanted nothing so much in the world as details about Heero’s family and the current situation thereof, which he had just so imperfectly witnessed, but, as it had in the bathroom halfway through dinner, something about the set of Heero’s jaw during the drive home told Duo not to ask. Heero’s bad mood seemed to have crystallized over the course of the evening, leaving him hard and cold and very unapproachable, and Duo didn’t like it one bit.

Heero obviously didn’t like it much either. With a look that was part scowl and part introspection — Duo wondered if it was the same one he’d worn as a kid, the one Relena had described as ‘heroic determination’ — he stalked into the computer room the moment they were home, pulled a book from the shelf, didn’t forget to disallow Duo to see the rest of the books, and marched back to the living room. There, he put Duo onto his end table and sat down against the near arm of the couch.

“I need to think about something else for a while,” he said darkly, and held up the book, which proved to be the next volume of the Oz series. “Do you mind?” Once hastily assured that Duo didn’t — because, curious as the doll was, there really wasn’t much else to say — Heero started in.

Duo had realized pretty quickly the reason Heero had seemed embarrassed at first about the idea of reading things to him: though he obviously enjoyed it, Heero appeared to regard reading aloud as a type of performance art, and to suffer just a touch of stage fright as a result. This had smoothed as they’d progressed through the Oz series, but it wasn’t entirely gone — and Duo thought Heero was now actually focusing on the slight awkwardness he still felt at doing it in order to forget the other awkwardness of the evening and distract himself from his related feelings. Duo was torn between sympathy and amusement.

Heero also seemed inordinately exhausted; evidently, even considering how little he’d actually done or said at his parents’ house, the dinner had drained him like some kind of physical exertion. He was half-draped over the arm of the couch, almost unmoving, his face slightly overlapping the flat side of the book while his increasingly quiet words echoed off the other, perpendicular side just beyond his nose. And eventually he fell entirely silent, his eyes drifting shut and his hand stilling against the page.

Duo observed this in equally still silence. He’d found last night that watching Heero sleep wasn’t actually the worst boredom he’d ever suffered. Heero really was very pleasant to look at, and there was an unusual softness to him as he slept that merited contemplation. Duo wanted to touch him, to find out the texture of his hair and feel his warm skin; he wanted to cuddle up against him and just breathe with him. Hell, when it came to that, he’d like to breathe at all. Too bad.

Perhaps ten minutes after Heero’s eyes had closed, Duo was startled from his long staring by the sound of Trowa’s door. He swiveled his head in some surprise to see Quatre emerging. As he began the slow process of turning his stiff body to face the newcomer, he said in mock accusation, “You’ve been over there for, like, twelve hours… If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were cheating on me.”

Quatre fixed eyes on Duo that seemed at first not really to see him at all, focused slowly, and finally smiled. “Your boyfriend and I,” he replied, doing a good job getting into the spirit of flirtation despite seeming a little poleaxed for some reason, “just had lunch… dinner… some kind of meal… in… Paris.”

“Huh!” Duo said. “I wouldn’t have thought he knew any place in France well enough to jump to.”

“I guess he used to do research there. That artifact originally came from France.”

“Ohhhhhh. OK.” That explained that, but not what had taken twelve hours. “So… you guys just randomly hopped over to France and had some kind of meal, and then…?”

“Well, he wanted to come back and do that psychic field spell on Heero, but I…” Quatre laughed and shrugged a little. “I took French in college, but I hardly ever get a chance to use it. Once I was actually there, I didn’t want to leave… so I dragged him around with me looking at things all night.” He smiled sheepishly. “It was his idea to go there in the first place, and then I had to go all tourist on him. The sun had come up by the time we left.”

Duo laughed as well, far more heartily than Quatre. “Good!” he said. “Get him out of the house more often, why don’t you? Especially now that he doesn’t need to do all that research anymore.”

Quatre gave him a curious, thoughtful smile, drawing closer and looking down past Duo at the sleeping Heero. “You know, I’m not sure why we didn’t come grab you two and take you with us too… It’s only the house he wants to keep you out of, away from that artifact… I think Paris is far enough away that it wouldn’t have been a problem.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have intruded for the world,” Duo drawled. “Besides, we had dinner with Heero’s family, remember?”

“Oh, yeah…” Quatre’s smile turned into something more like a grimace. “How did that go?”

“Actually, I wanted to ask if you had any insight on that, while he’s asleep–” Duo made a fabulous elbow-driven gesture in Heero’s general direction– “since it seems like it bugs the hell out of him: what is going on there? I mean, they ignored him half the time, and the rest of the time… I’m not supposed to be able to feel things, and I was in Heero’s pocket anyway, and I could feel that tension.”

Quatre sighed. “Heero came out to his parents when we were juniors in college, and then they barely talked for almost the entire next year. Things kinda smoothed out after that, and they were all OK for a while, but then Relena got engaged a few months ago and reminded her parents all about the straight wedding Heero isn’t going to be having and the grandchildren Heero isn’t going to be providing them.”

“Yeah, OK, that all fits…” It all sucked, too, but at least it fit. “But if it’s been years since he came out, they should totally be over it by now.”

“They try to be reasonable.” Again Quatre sighed. “They try not to get on his case about it… but then their disapproval comes out over other things. Little things.”

“OK, that explains… yeah…”

“The problem is that I think underneath everything else, they still believe all that wonderful stuff people do — he’s going through a phase, he only thinks he’s gay because he hasn’t met the right girl yet, you can’t have real love between two men, that sort of thing — and as long as they think that way, they can never really accept it.”

Duo was trying to force his stiff facial features into a scowl, and feared it wasn’t working. He knew he was frowning, but with painted-on eyebrows the rest of the expression was difficult. “That’s infuriating,” he muttered.

“I think if they could see Heero in a positive, long-term relationship,” Quatre speculated, “they might start to overcome their false impressions. But so far nobody’s been able to get that close to him, because…” He trailed off, looking at the figure on the couch and obviously not wanting to get into such personal details when Heero was right there, asleep or otherwise.

“Really?” Duo wondered. But his momentary surprise quickly dissolved as he considered the invisible wall he’d often thought he observed just beneath Heero’s exterior. He hadn’t felt it so much lately, himself (tonight obviously being an exception), but he could understand how difficult it might be for someone to ‘get that close to’ Heero.

He wondered how close he was, and whether Heero thought of him as a friend or just an object of charity. He would have told himself that people didn’t read their old kids’ books aloud to those they just considered objects of charity, but he had a feeling that reading aloud was about as prototypical a charitable activity as you could possibly take part in. He was fairly sure that charity usually didn’t involve discussing the question of Ozma’s transsexuality, though, whether Tip might not have been her correct gender identity, and whether or not she could therefore be considered gay for Dorothy. That was a reassuring thought.

Finally, somewhat weakly, he took up the lagging conversation again. “Well, I hope he…”

“You guys are talking about me, aren’t you?” Heero mumbled, slowly unsticking his face from the pages of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.

“Shit, he’s waking up!” Duo cried. “Quatre, quick, finish telling me what else he’s got on his bookshelf!”

Quatre raised a skeptical, amused brow, but played along even on such a brief cue. “Well, there’s the Hardy Boys…” He really was remarkable, Quatre; Trowa was an idiot if he didn’t notice. But, then, if they were watching the sun come up together in Paris, that probably wasn’t a problem.

Heero sat bolt upright. “Quatre–” he began in a suddenly dangerous tone.

“And that’s all I remember,” Quatre finished neatly.

Duo laughed. Heero scowled.

Quatre reached out and patted his friend on the head in a deliberately patronizing gesture. “Go to bed, Heero. You don’t want to be late for work in the morning.”

“Go to bed yourself,” grumbled Heero grouchily.

“Good night, then,” Quatre said. But even as he turned away, Duo could see his grin fading into a look similar to the one he’d worn when he’d come in from Trowa’s house: a sort of shell-shocked expression — not displeased, but not entirely sure what to be instead. And as he reached for the apartment door he murmured, apparently entirely to himself, “Quelle journée…”

Part 41

Trowa found himself unusually restless on Monday afternoon. It wasn’t simply that he was unable to concentrate on the book he held and the notes he was taking — that he was more than accustomed to — but that he could barely bring himself to sit still at all. He kept drifting out of his comfortable chair and out of the study to look through the little windows in the front door, as if he were waiting for someone. And eventually he realized that this was, in fact, precisely the case, and explained what was wrong with him.

It didn’t really matter, of course, that Quatre hadn’t shown up for lunch, nor could it surprise: Quatre had gone back to work today, and wouldn’t have time to be forcing food into antisocial misanthropes… and yet Trowa, almost without knowing it, had been expecting him. Realizing this now, hours after the fact, he found himself recognizably disappointed that Quatre hadn’t appeared. How very different from before, when he’d considered Quatre just another follower…

Ever since Friday evening, he knew, his attitude toward Quatre had been changing, and yesterday had only hastened the process. He doubted anyone could spend an entire day with Quatre and fail to be struck by his almost aggressive good will — a natural talent that Quatre seemed to have honed into a razor-sharp skill and practically made a business procedure out of. Quatre didn’t just want to help people; he strategized to help people.

But even friendly concern had its limits, and perhaps Trowa had been too extravagant yesterday. Maybe the choice of Paris had been a bit… strange. Not that Paris was any more difficult for him to get to than any other place he’d visited before or could fix on a good clear mental picture of… but it said something more. People had a… thing… about Paris, didn’t they? It was a symbol. Trowa was definitely not up to speed on cultural implications, but, even back when he had been, taking someone to Paris meant something totally different, something above and beyond accompanying them to some random seafood restaurant in a little east coast town.

It was just that when Quatre had looked at him with those flawless, shining grey-blue eyes and called him by his old nickname and said “Please?” as if he were asking for a personal favor rather than trying to get Trowa to do something healthy for his own good… well, the impulse that had overwhelmed Trowa hadn’t been just to comply, to do anything Quatre asked — he’d been downright determined to impress. That was what it was. Something about Quatre, at least in that moment, had made him eager to show off.

True, there might have been, in the back of Trowa’s head somewhere, a faint desire to see Paris again for himself, but all that had really done was contribute to the ease with which Quatre had convinced him to stay and walk around the City of Light like an idle tourist instead of getting back home and casting that spell on Heero. And perhaps Quatre, on reflection, had decided he didn’t like how easily-swayed Trowa had been when there was something else he should have been doing. Or maybe Paris really had been too much.

In any case, whatever the reason, Quatre hadn’t come over for lunch today, and that probably meant he was not going to be doing so routinely in the future either, and Trowa would just have to feed himself. He was under the impression that this had been the point: to get him into the habit of eating at about the same time every day so that he would continue even when Quatre was no longer at leisure to come compel him.

Although Trowa was conscious of hunger, however, what he did not feel was any inclination to do anything about it. It had only been seven days in a row that Quatre had come over for lunch — the span of an indrawn breath in comparison to the forty thousand Trowa had lived — and yet, even in that short time, Trowa had gotten used to more than just a regular midday meal: it was the company that made all the difference. Eating lunch simply wouldn’t be the same without Quatre there.

This was not, of course, the only thing about which he was brooding today. He’d gone to Heero’s apartment that morning to catch him before work and divine the precise dimensions of his psychic field, wish him luck, and say hello to Duo — and this had served to remind Trowa of how little control he had over the situation, how much he was being forced to depend on someone else, and how easily everything could go wrong during the coming month. Such was the surface of his thoughts, from which he’d been trying to distract himself with books and notes; but it wasn’t what was causing his restlessness.

And then he heard his front door open.

Surprised, he made his habitual inquiry as to who the visitor was, and felt an even greater surprise at the discernible pleasure the answer, “It’s Quatre,” occasioned in him. He put his book aside and rose, thus meeting Quatre halfway across the room.

“Hi,” Quatre greeted him with brisk cheer. “Have you eaten anything today?”

“No,” Trowa replied, eschewing the explanation of why, precisely, this was.

“OK.” Quatre sounded a little relieved, which seemed amusingly at odds with his desire for Trowa to eat regularly. “I usually take my lunch at one, which I didn’t even think about is four over here. For some reason it never crossed my mind that if I was going to make you eat on a work day, it’d have to be an early dinner.”

Trowa hadn’t considered the time difference either. “Oh,” was all he found to say.

Quatre smiled. “So come have dinner,” he commanded, and turned.

Watching him walk back toward the study door, which he’d left open, Trowa didn’t follow just at first. Quatre had easy but controlled movements that seemed to match his temperament very well, and the suit pieces he wore — charcoal grey slacks and a pale pink shirt with a candy-stripe tie — looked particularly good on him. They also fitted well enough that Trowa judged they must be some expensive brand or perhaps even custom tailoring. None of this was at all important, his brain informed him… but his eyes, for some reason, begged to differ.

As he moved to catch up heading for the kitchen, “How are Heero and Duo doing so far?” Trowa asked.

“I don’t know for sure.” There was a definite hint of laughter to Quatre’s tone. “I haven’t gotten any miserable emails from Heero yet, and that’s a good sign. I’m definitely going to get a report from him after work, though, about how the first day went.” Trowa nodded, and the motion clearly caught Quatre’s eye. “You look like you didn’t get any sleep last night again. What have you been working on?”

“If you can call it working,” replied Trowa somewhat darkly, “I’ve been making some notes about that book I’ve been thinking of writing.”

Quatre looked over at him again from where he’d begun surveying the contents of the freezer as if he hadn’t bought all of them, and his eyes shone with interest. “Really? You’re starting on that already? Before the curse is broken?”

“I need something to distract me,” Trowa admitted. “I can’t help Heero with this, and worrying about it all day won’t do any good.”

“How sensible of you!” Quatre commended him. He’d turned back to the freezer, but Trowa could see the amusement on his face and hear the slight teasing tone in his voice.

“You say that as if I’m generally without sense.” Trowa was a little surprised at the good-naturedness of his own reply.

“Weelllllll…” said Quatre reluctantly, though still with that repressed grin. “When it comes to things about Duo…” He pulled a box from the freezer and turned toward the microwave.

“You’re probably right about that,” Trowa agreed gravely, though in actuality he felt lighter at the moment than he had in longer than he could remember.

Presently, as he set about readying whatever they were eating this evening, Quatre asked, “So what kinds of notes are you making?”

This was something Trowa could talk about more easily. “I’d like to produce something comprehensive,” he explained. “A number of magical guides have been written in the past, but most of them are either too general or only focus specifically on a narrow category.” At Quatre’s nod of understanding he went on, “So I’m looking through existing books on magic and noting down what areas they’re lacking in. And where they’re incorrect,” he added. “They often are.”

“But you know better, huh?”

“You’ll have to take my word that I’m not boasting. With the artifact, I am extremely powerful, which allows me to see the truth about many aspects of magic others can’t.”

Quatre turned his smile on Trowa as he moved to gather dishes. It was such a remarkable smile… it seemed to have its own gravitational pull. “I believe you,” he assured Trowa. Then thoughtfully he added, “Hey, are there schools for magic?”

“I’ve never heard of any, but I’ve never looked.”

“Wouldn’t it be fun to start one?” Quatre’s tone was a mixture of dreaminess and enthusiasm. “You could be the headmaster and I could be your squib caretaker.”

It wasn’t even close to the first time Quatre had made some statement that was clearly a reference to something out in the ever-changing world with which Trowa was totally unfamiliar. Typically when people said things like that, Trowa simply ignored them, as the effort to find out what they were talking about was rarely equal to the satisfaction of knowing… but all of a sudden he felt that, for some reason, he wanted to know what Quatre meant. Unprecedented, but there it was. So he asked.

Quatre turned toward Trowa again, looking amused and contemplative. “I’m not really surprised you don’t know,” he said. He started handing dishes over, which constituted an unspoken command to help set the table. “You’ll probably find it pretty funny, actually.” He lifted their two plates, which were now full of corn and potatoes. “I’ll tell you while we eat.”

Part 42

Apparently Heero’s psychic field was four feet, ten and a half inches wide on all sides; and apparently that inch and a half off the estimate was due to the fact that he had a certain innate level of control over his area of psychic influence. Among other things, Trowa had explained that untrained magic manifested differently in everyone, depending on personality, and remarked without offering any attempt at interpretation that Heero’s psychic field was simultaneously more withdrawn and more heavily-concentrated than it would have been if he hadn’t had magical ability. None of this information was really all that important, though, as the essential goal of keeping Duo as close to him as possible remained unchanged by it.

They had made it all the way to lunch without anyone remarking on Duo’s presence on his desk — despite at least two people having come to his cubicle — and that alone, Heero felt, was cause for celebration. Having nothing particularly special for lunch, however, and being completely unable to locate Quatre, the celebration consisted of sitting in his car with the windows down talking to Duo. Which was actually something very much like Heero’s idea of a perfect celebration.

“So I keep forgetting to tell you,” Duo was remarking as Heero bit into his sandwich. “If someone hasn’t ever picked me up, I can decide whether or not they hear it when I talk.”

“Really?” Heero wondered in some surprise.

“Yeah. I can move, too, as long as it’s nothing too big, and they won’t see it,” Duo elaborated. “It’s all about psychic field connection. So I can talk to you in front of your co-workers, just as long as they don’t pick me up. Although,” he added in his ‘grin’ tone, “you probably shouldn’t answer anything I say in front of anyone.”

“Yes, I…” Heero shook his head with a sardonic smile. “I figured that much out.” After dealing with another bite of sandwich he went on, “Well, this is good to know.”

“I know! I don’t know why I kept forgetting.”

“You were probably hoping to startle me out of my wits by announcing it in the middle of a conversation with three other people.”

Duo made an insulted noise. “Would I do that to you?”

Heero gave him a skeptical look, but what he said was, “I like to think not.”

With a chuckle, Duo changed the subject. “Well, so far it looks like you’ve got about the most boring job in the world.”

“Maybe… but I do make fifty-five thousand a year,” Heero shrugged.

“God!” If Duo had been human, this exclamation would undoubtedly have been accompanied by his sitting up abruptly straight from a slouch in the passenger seat. “Do you know what I made at my last job?”

“I can’t even begin to guess.”

“Twenty dollars a week!”

“What did things cost back then, though?” Heero wondered reasonably.

He didn’t know what he was asking; he had no idea that such a casual, innocent question could lead to his being late back from lunch. But apparently changing economic conditions and inflation were extremely interesting. Either that or Duo was. In any case, Heero didn’t even think about the time until a figure appeared outside the car and a blonde head bent down to grin at him through the window and interrupt what he was saying with, “Afraid to go back inside, are we?”

Heero started slightly at this, glanced at the clock, then back at Quatre. “Speak for yourself,” he said, beginning to gather up the soda can and Ziplocs that had been lying between the seats and stuffing them into the bag he used for trash. “Where have you been?”

“Trowa’s house,” replied Quatre complacently, “and, yes, I’m late too.”

“Just Trowa’s house?” Duo wondered as Heero reached past him to close the passenger side window. “Nowhere exciting today?”

“Nope,” Quatre confirmed. He withdrew from the window to allow its closing, then stepped back as Heero emerged from the car with Duo in his hand. “So how are you guys doing?”

“Not too badly,” was Heero’s cautious answer. He still felt like everything must blow up in his face at any time, and didn’t want to jinx it into happening sooner. After locking his door and pocketing his keys, he turned to join Quatre walking into the building. Perhaps, he was reflecting, it would be a good idea in the future not to sit in this parking lot… he’d been so distracted by his conversation with Duo that he’d let Quatre walk right up and hear them. If it had been someone else, someone not in on their little secret, Heero would have had some explaining to do.

“So nobody’s given you hell yet?” Quatre was wondering. “Nobody’s tried to steal you, Duo?”

“I am quite a steal,” Duo admitted in a tone of facetious arrogance. “But I don’t think anyone’s even noticed me yet.”

“Was it just me,” Heero remarked conversationally to Quatre, “or did he sound disappointed when he said that?”

“Hey, you’d be disappointed too,” protested Duo, “if you looked this fabulous and then people didn’t notice.”

“I think you’ve just been insulted, Heero,” Quatre said.

“Who says he was talking to me?” was Heero’s deadpan retort.

In a very serious tone Duo reassured them, “I think both of you look extra-special super-fabulous.”

Quatre laughed. Heero rolled his eyes. And after this, following a brief confirmation of their NCAA Championship plans for that evening, it was time for them to go their separate ways.

Heero had made a place for Duo on his desk between the “This is my smiley face” coffee cup in which he kept pens and the calendar that provided a tired Happy Bunny statement for every day of the year (both gifts), and this left the doll visible in the corner of his eye when he faced his computer. He liked that, but tried to remind himself not to get too used to it. It was far too easy to objectify Duo when Duo was, in fact, an object, but Duo wouldn’t be in this state forever.

“So what’s on the work menu for this afternoon?” Duo wondered once they were both settled.

After telling him about the San Jose office that was testing a new sales program the company was working on alongside a software developer, Heero explained, “As Sales Coordinator, I get to work with the transactions made in this new system to see how they integrate with our existing programs. I’m going to take a look at what they did this morning.”

“Oh, wow,” remarked Duo. “That sounds really, um…” He paused as if searching for the right word, but never actually said it. For at that moment someone approached Heero’s cubicle from the sales floor.

It was Sylvia. “Heero,” she began before she even reached him, “you remember the Arons thing from, like, 08? I know it went through; I was there; but for some reason I just cannot find it… anywhere… in… the… Is that a Ken doll?”

“It’s got a double ‘a,'” Heero said, utterly ignoring the spoken question and answering the one she hadn’t completed. “A-a-r-o-n-s.”

“Oh, that explains…” She shook her head as if to get rid of something stuck to it, and her ponytail bounced vigorously from side to side. “Seriously, Heero, why do you have a Ken doll on your desk?”

Heero looked over at Duo, whose stiff little grin, he thought, was a touch wider than usual. “Because I feel like it,” he said stonily.

“Okaaaay…” She was obviously stifling laughter as she turned to walk away without thanking him for the information.

Why had he said that? He’d had an excuse all ready — not a very good one, probably, but better than “Because I feel like it” — but somehow found himself unable to use it. Well, the problem was that her tone had been just a little teasing, in addition to innocently curious, so Heero had gotten defensive. The list of people from whom he accepted teasing was incredibly short.

“Very smooth,” Duo remarked. And how had he gotten onto the list so quickly? It had taken Relena, Heero’s own sister, thirteen years.

“Oh, shut up,” Heero replied, entirely without malice.

Part 43

Duo saw now what it was that Heero had been afraid of, though the flood of attention and Heero’s reaction to it, after the blonde woman had left and undoubtedly told everyone in the world what she’d discovered, was a little different than what Duo had expected.

The first one’s excuse was something business-related, but she dropped it almost immediately when Heero pointed out that she’d asked him precisely the same question before lunch. “OK,” she confessed, “I just came to see if Sylvia was lying or what. You really do have a Ken doll on your desk!”

Heero just stared at her, expressionless, and she didn’t seem to have the nerve to formulate an actual question. She just looked down at Duo, giggling, for several moments, then retreated.

“I thought you were going to present some reasonable excuse,” Duo said as he watched her disappear from his view.

“Maybe,” replied Heero darkly and cryptically.

The second curious co-worker, not half an hour later, was a pretty, pale lady with glossy black hair the style of which reminded Duo a bit of Trowa’s. She came and leaned against the edge of the cubicle wall, looking in at Duo silently with a mysterious little smile. Her gaze might almost have been called ‘calculating’ if not for the amusement in it.

“This one’s kinda starting to creep me out,” Duo confessed after a minute or so of her staring and Heero stubbornly ignoring her.

Heero started a little; it was the first practical reminder that Duo could talk to him in front of people, after all. But then he turned to face the woman abruptly and said, “Yes?” somewhat snappishly.

“It’s interesting what the contents of someone’s desk say about them, isn’t it?” she mused. “It’s like a little biography.”

“Are you on the clock?”

“Nope.”

“Then you shouldn’t be on the floor.”

“Yes,” she conceded, “you’re probably right.” And she continued to stare impudently at Duo. Finally she asked casually, “So is it a character from something?”

“He’s–” Heero began, evidently before he could stop himself, and then stopped himself. “Break room,” he commanded.

She raised a finely-penciled eyebrow. “OK, OK,” she said, and sauntered off.

“Weren’t you going to tell people I was a present or something?” Duo wondered idly.

“Yes,” Heero sighed, “but…”

Duo waited, but the explanation didn’t come. Heero had gone back to his computer with a closed-off expression, and Duo thought he could see why the co-workers were a little hesitant to ask him at least certain questions. What he still couldn’t quite see was Heero’s reluctance to answer.

The third woman to appear was already giggling as she entered the cubicle, and this, Duo thought, accounted for the set of Heero’s jaw as he turned to face her.

“Hee hee, he’s so cute!” she was saying. “Look at his little shoes!”

Heero did not reply, only looked doom. Duo had the feeling that the woman’s original intention had been to reach out and pick him up, but under Heero’s malignant eye she kept her hands to herself. She did ask, however, “What’s his name?”

Heero continued to stare at her for a long moment, then finally said, “Did you have some work-related question, Carol?”

Carol giggled again and bounced away.

“Heero, I don’t think it would kill you to tell them some of these things,” Duo grinned once she was gone.

“It’s none of their business,” Heero muttered.

“Yeah, but you being mysterious about it isn’t going to make them less curious.” Really, Duo was more amused than anything else to find that Heero seemed to consider these innocent questions too personal to be answered despite the fact that he’d come specifically ready to answer them.

After muttering something else unintelligible, Heero went back to what he’d been doing.

Duo was getting the impression that, whatever else ‘Sales Coordinator’ implied, Heero was the go-to guy for the entire sales team, however big that was. Evidently he knew everything that went on in this department throughout the whole Pacific Division (whatever that was), and his computer was like an all-knowing oracle’s pool: an endless supply of information from which any question could be answered if Heero didn’t already know off the top of his head.

Thus it was no surprise, when someone approached him asking something largely incomprehensible about ‘the deal with Tri-Bluestein,’ that Heero knew exactly where to look for the answer and found it in about ten seconds. But Duo watched this time with greater attention than he had when people had asked Heero things this morning; he was more interested now in Heero’s relationship with his co-workers.

Provided there was actual business involved in the exchange, not just people coming to giggle at Duo, Heero wasn’t exactly rude, but he certainly didn’t waste words. His manner was withdrawn, professional in a cool sort of way, and utterly impersonal. Duo was under the impression that Heero had worked here for three or four years and had been in his current position for at least two, but evidently this didn’t translate into any sort of closeness whatsoever with his co-workers.

Slowly it was beginning to dawn on Duo that perhaps the Heero he’d been getting to know, the one he so enjoyed messing around, the one he discussed Oz books with, the one that had played selections from a dozen CD’s for him in an attempt to expand his musical horizons, the one that had agreed to this month of silliness for his sake, was not necessarily the Heero the rest of the world got to see. This Heero was more like the one Duo had met at first and that had emerged again to some extent at his parents’ house: the quiet, suspicious one that was obviously much happier to avoid people than deal with them.

This revelation couldn’t be anything but pleasant. He’d been worrying about Heero’s walls without realizing he was past at least one of them already. And while he definitely wasn’t complaining, he wondered how on earth it had happened.

“Heero!” By the sound of it, here was another encroacher curious and not legitimate. She did have an excuse, though. “Can you email me the information on the convention in San Francisco? You have it, don’t you?”

“Didn’t Dorothy give it to you already?” Heero asked suspiciously, though he’d already started getting it for her even as he said this.

“I lost it,” she said cheerfully.

“You did not,” replied Duo equally cheerfully, although she couldn’t hear him.

She could, however, take advantage of Heero’s distraction to turn on Duo. “He doesn’t look like an actual Ken,” she remarked without preamble. “I had, like, four Kens when I was a kid; they never made them with that much hair even when they had actual hair.”

“She’s right,” Duo acknowledged.

Heero had nothing to add, and didn’t seem to be paying attention. As the woman reached down toward Duo, however, Heero’s hand was suddenly there, blocking her access to the doll, without seeming to have moved. And finally he volunteered some information. “He’s a collector’s item.”

“Special edition,” Duo advised.

“Special edition,” Heero repeated flatly.

“Oh,” said the woman, withdrawing her hand. “So why do you–”

“I sent your information,” interrupted Heero in a tone of finality.

“OK, thanks,” replied she, making an impressively businesslike recovery. And she turned on her heel and departed.

Duo watched her thoughtfully, then said, “I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” said Heero.

“Well, that gal earlier with the eyeshadow–”

“Noin,” Heero interjected, without having to ask for any more details of appearance than that.

“Well, Noin,” Duo went on, “asked if I was a character from something. So, what if I was? Wouldn’t it be easier to put me in, like, a Star Trek uniform or something and just let everyone think you’re a big Star Trek fan? It’d be an easy explanation, if you felt like explaining at all… and if you didn’t, well, it’d still be kinda obvious on its own, because I’d be sitting here in a Star Trek uniform.”

Heero raised an eyebrow. “I think you just want a Star Trek uniform.”

“Um, maybe,” Duo admitted.

“Anyway, don’t you think it’s a bit late for that?” Heero was frowning pensively now, obviously giving the suggestion more thought than he had a moment before. “You’ve been sitting here all day.”

“Well, there has to be someone who hasn’t come to stare at me yet… besides, it’s not like you’ve answered anyone’s questions…”

Heero continued to look thoughtful, but he didn’t say anything for several moments. Finally he admitted, “It’s not a bad idea…” He turned back to his computer. “Let’s see what we can find…”

Part 44

He was trying to avoid admitting, to himself or anyone else, that the first workday of the curse-breaking month hadn’t been nearly as bad as he’d been expecting. Which didn’t mean it hadn’t been bad, but he hadn’t been ready to pull his hair out at any point during the day, and — more importantly — he’d gotten by without sending a single panicked email to Quatre. Not only that, but he’d been able to enjoy the basketball game after work without (much) brooding over how the day had gone or anxiety for tomorrow.

And then tomorrow had come.

It was 8:03. He was barely settled in his cubicle, had barely arranged Duo in the same spot as yesterday, and had barely started fielding questions about the other contents of his desk — just the questions Duo hadn’t gotten around to yesterday, for one reason or another — when it started.

“Heero, want a donut?”

“Not on the floor,” he answered promptly. “You know food isn’t allowed out here.”

“You are such a hard-ass,” Duo laughed. “Besides, you know she’s only here to see me.”

Heero did know it. If Sally’s real intention had simply been to offer him a donut before everyone else ate them all, she would merely have peeked over the wall of the cubicle, not come walking in and right up to his chair.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It’s a cake donut…” Some of his co-workers were more perceptive than others, but the number of them that knew of his love for cake donuts could probably be counted on one hand; he might even have said on one finger if it weren’t for Sally’s propensity to tell Noin everything.

Heero wavered.

“Dooo iiit,” Duo urged.

Repressing a smile, Heero steeled himself. “Not on the floor,” he reiterated. “But thank you.”

“No problem. I’ll put it under a napkin in the break room and maybe nobody will see it.” She was bending down to look at Duo now. “How come he doesn’t have any socks?”

He’d expected some sort of remark or question about Duo eventually, but this one came so smoothly at the end of her statement about the donut, and was so unexpectedly specific, it actually startled him into answering. “I have no idea.” At least he did manage to cut his response short before blurting out that socks hadn’t been included with the outfit and he’d never really thought about it until now.

“It’s OK,” Duo reassured him. “I don’t need ’em.”

Sally peered at Duo even more closely. “I think he’d look better in purple,” she said at last.

Heero was ready this time, and was able to stifle his “So do I” without too much effort.

“Or a different red,” was Duo’s comment. “This one’s kinda blah.”

“Especially if he’s a gay thing,” Sally added as she stood straight again. “Purple would be more appropriate, don’t you think?” And then she walked away.

Left staring alternately after her and back at Duo, the latter’s surprised laughter in his ears, Heero couldn’t help remembering his mother’s comment, “Relena’s car would be much more appropriate for you, don’t you think?” He was reflecting on how strange was a world in which he could be given veiled negative hints about his sexuality on Sunday evening and then commended on an apparent display of it on Tuesday morning in such similar words.

Eventually Duo stopped laughing and said, “So that’s what they’re thinking: that I’m some kind of gay symbol! Isn’t it great to not tell people anything and then see what they come up with on their own?”

Finally Heero smiled. “I doubt that’s something you do very often.”

“Yeah, well…”

“And it isn’t a bad idea…” Heero went on musingly. Everyone on the sales floor knew he was gay — actually they all thought he was dating Quatre — though he was damned if he knew how they all knew, since he’d certainly never specifically told any of them. And since they were aware of his disinclination to talk about it, it should make sense to them that he didn’t feel like talking about the new pride symbol on his desk either (as contradictory as it seemed to have a pride symbol you didn’t want to talk about).

“But when I have my Starfleet uniform…” said Duo gleefully, giving the words the emphasis of extreme satisfaction.

Heero’s smile widened. He didn’t really believe that a Star Trek outfit on Duo was going to change anything, make Duo less conspicuous or help him look less like the property of a very gay man; nor did Heero think he could pass himself off as enough of a nerd for it to give the desired unspoken indication to his co-workers as to why Duo was there in the first place. The fact was, there weren’t many gifts he could buy for Duo at this point, and he’d jumped on the chance to get him this one the moment it was obvious Duo wanted it. He’d even paid extra for overnight shipping.

“Knock-knock!” Heero absolutely hated it when people said that instead of just knocking, door or no door, but there wasn’t much to be done about it. In came one of the IT guys from downstairs, moving with that confident restlessness all IT people had when they were moving at all. “Hey, 3-9-1, you know the whole building’s talking about you?”

“I could have guessed,” said Heero through gritted teeth.

The IT guy — whose name Heero could not remember and whose badge currently sat at an impossible-to-read angle — went for Duo so fast that Heero didn’t have a chance to stop him. He snatched the doll up and began turning him over and around, examining him, with an impudent grin on his face. “It’s like you’re that guy from The Simpsons. Um, what’s his name… That guy who’s gay for his boss and has all the Malibu Barbie dolls…”

It so happened that Heero knew exactly what he was referring to, but wasn’t about to offer any assistance.

“Hey, let me take this downstairs and show the–”

At this, Heero was out of his chair so fast it crashed into the desk behind him. “No.” And he’d reached out and taken Duo back, pulling him protectively close to his chest in a tight grip, before the IT guy could even blink. The guy stared at him, and Heero tried hard not to blush at the thought of how utterly bizarre and childish that must have looked. And he was drawing a blank trying to come up with anything to say that might explain it.

Finally the guy forced a laugh, and said, “You’ve lost it, man,” as he turned to leave.

Heero let out a long, frustrated breath once he was again alone with Duo, and reflected that it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. How was he going to get through the day if this sort of thing kept happening? How was he going to get through the month?

“Those are some quick reflexes you’ve got, 3-9-1,” Duo remarked.

Heero sighed.

“What does it mean?”

“Oh, IT people live in their own little world… they think it’s cool to call people by their workstation numbers.”

“Riiiiight.” Duo’s tone clearly indicated that he’d understood essentially none of Heero’s statement.

With a little snorting laugh, Heero smoothed out Duo’s rumpled hair and clothing and replaced him between the coffee cup and calendar.

“Seriously, though,” Duo went on, “that was well done. You were like whoosh and totally rescued me from that guy.”

Fighting off a blush for the second time in five minutes, Heero mumbled, “Well, I couldn’t just let him walk away with you.”

“My Heero!” said Duo cooingly, forcing Heero to turn hastily toward his computer because there really was no stopping that blush.

Part 45

Duo thought he could spend many an hour dwelling exclusively on the idea that he was Heero’s gay symbol without getting tired of it. However, since there were other things going on that he wanted to pay attention to, he saved that dwelling for later; it would be a good way to occupy time tonight when Heero was asleep.

For now, he was starting to wonder just how many people worked in this building, and how many of them were willing to abandon their work completely in order to come interrupt someone else’s just because they’d heard he had a doll on his desk. Of course, Duo reflected, it probably had more to do with Heero’s reputation than the mere presence of a doll… but, seriously, this level of general interest was weird and a little scary.

The worst one of the day came just before lunch. She didn’t greet Heero the way most of them did; she didn’t bring an excuse; she didn’t ask questions or hesitate or anything; she only bounded into the cubicle, making an enthusiastic high-pitched noise of some sort, and caught Duo up in both hands.

“He’s so cute!! Carol said he was so cute, and he is!!”

Duo hadn’t even gotten a good look at her before he found himself suddenly becoming acquainted with her chest in a manner that really reinforced the size differences between his body and an actual human’s. Suddenly he couldn’t see a thing, and there was a substantially muffled quality to the woman’s next exclamation. “I have to show him to Stephanie!” And then she was running.

Panic gripped Duo, all the worse for his being completely unable to do anything about it. Well, sure, he could talk to her, try to get her to stop, but it might already be too late. Where was she taking him? Where was Heero? Had he been able to follow, or was the woman too quick? Duo tried desperately to remind himself that they were only a few days into the month, that starting over at this point wouldn’t kill them… but of its effect on morale — particularly Heero’s — he didn’t dare think.

“Hilde!” This was definitely Heero’s voice, reassuringly close, though muffled like everything else. He did not sound happy.

“Oh, my god, look!” cried the woman Duo guessed was called Hilde. “This is that doll of Heero’s!” And Duo emerged at last from the valley in which he’d been clasped to find himself thrust into the face of another woman, presumably Stephanie, who looked surprised.

“Seriously? I thought that was just a joke!”

And Heero was there. As in at least one instance yesterday, he seemed simply to appear, without having moved, to snatch Duo out of the hands of the enemy with adrenaline speed. “Hilde!” he snapped. “You can’t just take things off of people’s desks!”

Hilde made a disappointed sound. Duo would have liked to look at her, but he found himself once again pressed, face-first, up against someone’s chest. He didn’t mind this one so much, though; in fact, in the midst of agitation and confusion, having Heero pull him against his chest was pretty much optimal. If only he could really feel it, instead of just coldly knowing it was happening.

“Well, at least let Stephanie see him!” demanded Hilde, evidently completely unfazed by Heero’s dire tone.

Heero took a breath deep enough to move Duo’s entire body, slowly relaxed (though he did not release) his two-handed grip, and allowed Duo some distance away from him. Duo didn’t dare turn his head, so he could only see the two women out of the corners of his eyes. One of them — Hilde, he thought — seemed to be making some kind of excited gesture, while the other — Stephanie, perhaps less unfazed than her friend — was sitting quite still.

“Isn’t he so cute?” Hilde prompted. “I love his hair!”

“Yeah, he’s cute,” said Stephanie dutifully. Duo definitely thought her lack of enthusiasm was due to Heero’s manner, and this was totally understandable; Heero was now pushing past Hilde, heading away from the two women without saying anything else, and his movements, as far as Duo was able to read them from his current position, could be described as ‘stalking.’

He didn’t dare say anything while he didn’t know whether or not Hilde might be following, and it was a few moments before he noticed that Heero didn’t seem to be returning to his cubicle. Rather, they were now in the hallway outside of the big room Heero referred to as the ‘sales floor.’ Heero stepped briefly into the break room before making his way, if Duo was not mistaken, toward the elevators. And not until they were inside one of the latter, thoroughly alone, did Heero’s tension fade. He slumped back against the railing on the wall and dragged one hand over his eyes with a ragged sigh.

“Did she…” Duo began somewhat tremulously, not certain he wanted to know.

Evidently aware of exactly what Duo was trying to ask, “No, I got after her in time,” Heero said, sounding tired. “But if that happens again I swear my heart’s going to stop.”

“Mine would still be racing if I had one,” replied Duo. “I thought for sure we were going to have to start the month over.”

“This has got to calm down once everyone’s come around and had a look at you,” Heero said desperately. “They can’t all keep doing this forever.”

“You could put me in a drawer or something.”

“No,” Heero said quietly as the elevator doors opened and he stepped out on the ground floor. He checked for anyone nearby that might observe him talking apparently to himself before he went on, “I’m not doing that to you unless I absolutely have to.”

That heart Duo had just mentioned as nonexistent was warmed by this. “Well,” he said reassuringly, “remember, if it comes to that, that I’m totally used to it. Add it all up and I’ve probably spent a total of twenty years or something inside toyboxes with nothing to do but think about how boring it is.”

“God, Duo…” Heero sounded horrified. “That is so–”

Duo broke in hastily, “Hey, I didn’t mean to play a pity card there. I mean, yeah, it sucked, but it’s nothing you need to worry about. Hell, you’re the one who’s going to fix all of that. If you want to pity me,” he added thoughtfully, “do it because boobs have been ruined for me forever.”

Heero was walking through the parking lot now, and forbore from responding just then as he passed somebody coming the other direction. Once he was approaching his own car, however, and nobody else was in earshot, he said, “OK, now, boobs what?”

“Boobs have been ruined for me forever,” Duo repeated. “That was traumatic, man. She pushed me up between those things, and everything went dark, and I couldn’t hear properly, and I didn’t know where you were… I’ll never be able to look at a woman’s chest again!”

“Um, Duo…” Heero seemed torn between laughter and further horror as he set Duo down in the passenger seat. “You are gay, aren’t you?”

“Yes! But that doesn’t mean I can’t — couldn’t appreciate nice breasts. Before. Before today. But never again.” And he made a shuddering sort of noise.

Now Heero really did laugh, though the sound was still somewhat baffled. He’d turned on the car, and was starting to back out of the parking space. “I probably shouldn’t be driving,” he muttered a moment later, “since my wallet’s in my briefcase inside…”

“You did kinda bat-out-of-hell out of there,” Duo grinned.

“And I’m not going back until two,” was Heero’s grim reply. Which, given that it wasn’t even one yet, meant he would be taking an over-long lunch for the second day in a row. This didn’t really bother Duo, of course, but he did hope Heero wouldn’t get in trouble because of it.

“And then I think you’re going to have to put me somewhere other than where I’ve been sitting,” the doll said. “It’s too easy for people to get at me there.”

Heero nodded.

Evidently wherever he was driving wasn’t too far from the office parking lot, for he was already bringing the old car to a stop and turning off the engine. Then he rolled down the windows, as he had yesterday, and picked up the lunch-cooler-bag-thing he’d seized from the break room fridge.

“Where are we?” Duo asked.

“Shopping center parking lot,” Heero replied. “The far end where nobody parks except when things get really busy.” He’d extracted his sandwich and Coke and little bag of chips. “We should be safe here.”

“Aww, Heero, did you want to be alone with me?”

“Yes!”

So startled was Duo by the intensity of Heero’s answer that he couldn’t think of any clever reply. He knew the desire to be away from the curious co-workers probably had a good deal more to do with how emphatically Heero had spoken than any desire to spend time alone with Duo (something he actually did quite a lot); but even so, it was exactly what Duo liked to hear, and might have made him blush a little if he’d had circulation and flesh and all that.

He wondered suddenly why he didn’t just tell Heero that he liked him, instead of giving him stupid lines all the time. Heero seemed totally unaware of him in that sense, responded only neutrally to his flirting, and basically treated him like an unfortunate friend… but Heero was so private about so many things, how could Duo be sure? Heero was a nice guy; he would let him down easy if that was what it came to. What was the worst that could happen?

OK, well, the worst that could happen was that Heero really was every bit as disinterested as he seemed, the confession would make the necessity of keeping Duo within five feet of him incredibly awkward, and Duo might actually lose his chance at becoming human. And that… that was a pretty bad ‘worst.’

But the moment the curse was broken…

For right now, though, he thought something perfectly innocuous to talk about was in order. So, cheerfully, he began relating a dumb story about the Chevrolet 490 Trowa had bought back in the day, and speculating about what had happened to the thing, while Heero sat in the driver’s seat and ate his lunch in silence.

Part 46

When Quatre went looking for Heero on the sales floor at lunch time, he found Heero’s jacket draped over the chair in his cubicle and Heero’s briefcase still down by the desk, but no Heero to go with them. The computer had already gone to sleep, though, and Quatre looked around, puzzled, for a few moments.

“He left about twenty minutes ago,” someone said from behind him. The sharply polite tone with its touch of judgmental amusement identified the speaker, even before Quatre turned, as the sales manager Dorothy. “I’m not sure what you two did on your week off,” she went on, “but it must have been distracting.”

If that wasn’t ironic, Quatre didn’t know what was. Still, he’d only come to find Heero in the first place to tell him that he was again going to Trowa’s house for lunch/dinner, so this didn’t exactly throw a wrench in his plans. He thanked Dorothy for her information and left.

As he drove, he spent a few minutes wondering what could have caused Heero to leave so early for lunch without his things. He hoped nothing had gone wrong. He might have considered calling him to find out, but he’d seen a cell phone lying on the desk as well, and speculated that his friend wanted to be out of reach of all human communication at the moment. Besides, the mild concern Quatre felt at these slightly mysterious events couldn’t keep full hold of his mind when he was on his way to see Trowa. Because Dorothy had been right — about him, at least: what he’d done over his week off had left him distracted.

He did reflect, though, as he let himself into Heero’s apartment, that it was a little strange to be doing so under these circumstances.

There was no sound from any of the other dark rooms as he came into Trowa’s entryway, so, in keeping with that, he moved as quietly as he could in closing the front door and heading into the study. And he found, in the light of the lamp Trowa used so exclusively in this room, exactly what he’d been expecting.

It wasn’t the first time he had come in here to find Trowa asleep as if he’d never slept before and would never have another chance. This time, Trowa was slumped forward on the table in a position that looked excessively uncomfortable, his head pillowed on a large, unreadable book. It reminded Quatre of Heero a few nights ago… except that Heero, of course, hadn’t made Quatre want to reach out and touch.

Trowa looked so very tired and pathetic asleep there like that, as if he simply hadn’t been able to keep his eyes open or his body upright one moment longer, his skin slightly grey and almost glowing as if he were feverish — although when Quatre, unable to resist, put out a hand and ran his fingertips lightly across Trowa’s cheek, he felt nothing more than regular human warmth.

The temptation came over Quatre all at once in a sort of heart-pounding shiver when Trowa did not stir even in the slightest at his touch, and he obeyed the impulse almost without thinking: bending, he leaned down and pressed his lips to the pale cheek, feeling the soft skin give just slightly under his kiss and taking in the more pronounced scent of old books that did not come solely from the actual old books in the room. And suddenly he found himself looking into a bright half moon framed by thick, beautiful lashes that had just parted unexpectedly.

Quatre stood straight and stepped back in a quick, startled movement, blushing furiously. He shouldn’t have done that. Why had he done that? Why did Trowa have to look so damned irresistible? “I’m sorry,” he said, almost without meaning to.

Trowa was sitting up slowly — evidently the position in which he’d been sleeping had left him stiff and sore — staring at Quatre. Finally, with a gesture to his eyes, he said in a tone of slightly bitter concession, “They are rather horrifying, aren’t they?”

As he realized what Trowa thought was the reason for his abrupt retreat, Quatre felt his own eyes widen. “Oh, no!” he said in an embarrassingly impassioned tone. “No! Your eyes don’t bother me at all. It’s just, I… I shouldn’t have done that.”

The expression on Trowa’s face did not change, and his tone was completely blank as he asked, “Why?”

It seemed an almost farcical question, and Quatre was for a moment at a loss for what to say, despite the answer being perfectly straightforward. Finally, however, he did manage it: “Well, it’s a little rude to kiss someone else’s boyfriend.” And if his blush intensified as he said this, at least it was only a very little.

“I’m no one else’s boyfriend.” Trowa made the remark flatly, but Quatre thought his demeanor also suddenly held a touch of curiosity and perhaps relief — on which Quatre might have dwelt with some pleasure if the information he’d just received hadn’t abruptly swallowed up the entire world.

A stammered, “But… Duo…” was all he could manage.

A faint smile twisted across Trowa’s face. “Duo and I were never lovers.” He turned his eyes toward the book he’d been asleep on a minute before. “We were in love, back then, I think… I think we were both using that woman to make each other jealous, and that argument that started all of this… was not really about her at all.” He was toying absently with the book’s pages, seemingly looking far past it with unfocused eyes. “We accused each other of not caring, but neither of us had ever admitted that we did care…”

“And…” Quatre felt as if he’d stopped breathing. “And do you still care?”

“Not anymore. Of course I still love him,” Trowa added, pointlessly flipping through the book he wasn’t actually looking at, “but not in that way.” He said it with all the conviction a level, unemotional tone could bring, but Quatre wasn’t sure he believed it. After all, Trowa had gone all these decades without being able to let go of his guilt and misery over a situation that was not entirely his fault… How likely was it that he’d been able to let go of this?

“Are you sure?” Quatre asked quietly.

Abruptly Trowa turned away from the book and the table and looked up at him. His shining eyes were perfectly focused now, the faint moonlight that emanated from them almost piercing with the intensity of the gaze. “Yes, Quatre,” he said very seriously, “I’m sure.”

The smoothness of Quatre’s subsequent movements somewhat belied the fact that they seemed to take place without any initial cerebral impulse: he stepped forward again, leaned down, ran one hand along each side of Trowa’s face and down to his neck so his thumbs could press against Trowa’s jaw and lift his head into a better angle, and kissed him.

Trowa’s lips felt simultaneously fuller and more hesitant than Quatre would have expected. He certainly responded — in fact, he snaked an arm up and around Quatre’s neck, as if to make absolutely certain he stayed where he was, almost immediately — but he seemed very unsure of himself. Abstractly, in one of the few small corners of his consciousness that weren’t on fire, Quatre speculated that Trowa hadn’t kissed anyone in almost a century, and had probably largely forgotten how. And there was something about his inexpert willingness to try it just the same that was overwhelmingly attractive.

When they finally pulled apart, Quatre felt that the almost gasping breath he immediately drew was possibly the first he’d taken since he’d come into this room. He wasn’t sure how much of Trowa’s motion to stand was Trowa’s idea and how much was Quatre tugging at him; and he wondered, as he wrapped his arms around Trowa’s neck and pressed up against him, whether Trowa could feel how rapidly his heart was beating.

“I don’t know why you’d want–” Trowa began in a whisper.

Sensing the self-deprecating nature of the remark even before it was completed, Quatre cut him off somewhat impatiently. “Well, if you’d rather I didn’t…”

“No,” said Trowa almost fiercely. And as his lips sank to meet Quatre’s again he repeated, “No.”

There was a feeling of preciousness to this kiss, as if the moment had been dipped in molten gold, and simultaneously a fragility that suggested it was crystal underneath. The movement of Trowa’s mouth against Quatre’s held a hesitant, almost tremulous quality, as if he might break away and flee at any time, and yet the arms that had slipped around Quatre’s back clutched determinedly at him; and the whole experience was far greater than the sum of the parts doesn’t know what he’s doing and doing it anyway.

Eventually they drew away again, if only by a few inches, and Quatre stood staring into Trowa’s moon eyes for several long moments, feeling the warmth of Trowa’s wiry body against his and breathing in time with him. His heart was still pounding insanely fast in the midst of a tingling heat throughout his chest, and he felt simultaneously giddy and awed. He definitely hadn’t expected this to happen today — to be honest, he didn’t know if he’d expected this to happen at all — and, despite the fact that it had been brought about mostly by his own actions, he felt a bit blindsided.

“Quatre…” Trowa said, almost under his breath, as if he were tasting rather than speaking the name — or perhaps tasting the concept of Quatre’s nearness. He went on quietly, and although Quatre thought he meant the words as a warning, his tone was almost childlike in the simplicity of its concern. “I don’t know if I know how to… how to not be alone…”

The rush of affectionate pity Quatre felt at this statement increased the pressure in his chest and impelled him to pull Trowa close to him once more, to reassure him in almost the same near-whisper, “I’ll help you.”

And though Trowa seemed to have nothing else to say at the moment, his arms tightened again around Quatre’s back as if they would never let go.

Part 47

Trowa felt as if he’d been pushed unexpectedly into a deep pool, then just as unexpectedly found the water quite comfortably hot. He was off-balance, disoriented, perhaps drowning… and yet disinclined to struggle.

The possibility that he might be attracted to Quatre in such a fashion had never even remotely occurred to him. Only when he’d awakened suddenly to find Quatre’s lips pressed to his cheek and Quatre’s breath on his skin had he realized, abruptly and shockingly, not only just how much he wanted him, but that he wanted him.

It should be no surprise, really, that he hadn’t noticed until the idea was literally shoved in his face: it had been so long since he’d felt anything of the kind; he’d grown so accustomed to being alone; he’d been so used to considering pleasant social interaction something he’d cast off back when he’d cursed Duo — even the concept of Quatre as a friend had been difficult to get his head around… and yet it seemed marvelous, bordering on impossible, that any time had passed since meeting Quatre during which Trowa hadn’t been conscious of a bone-deep desire to have his companionship in any and every way.

Quatre usually sat two chairs down from him and talked cheerfully as they ate, but this evening he’d set his place across the table’s corner from Trowa, right in the next spot, and at the moment was just looking at him and smiling. Trowa was glad there was currently no call for conversation, as his thoughts were a chaos of contradictory ideas and indecision, none of which he was likely to be able to put into words even if he wanted to.

Not least among these was the concern he felt at Quatre getting himself into something like this. He’d been perfectly serious, when Quatre had wondered at the space of time Trowa had gone without friends, reminding him what he’d done to his last one: Trowa’s friend was not a safe thing to be. To be something more was insane; there was nothing about Trowa that was worth that risk. And this was only one of several reasons he didn’t necessarily think this was a good idea, much as he’d realized he wanted it. Yet when he’d tried to give some warning of this, all he’d managed to say was something about his own antisocial nature that Quatre had undoubtedly long since guessed.

And Quatre’s smile was so inviting…

Trowa had been perfectly disinterested in eating for a very long time, but never in seventy years so much as right now. After Quatre’s lips, the taste and texture of food seemed almost offensively bland to Trowa’s mouth. He’d felt like he could go on kissing him forever, but Quatre had insisted on dinner. Now Trowa had no idea what he was eating, and could barely even turn his eyes toward it.

“What are you thinking?” Quatre asked suddenly.

Seeing no reason not to answer with the truth (if not the whole truth), Trowa said, “What a wonderful smile you have.”

“Thank you,” said Quatre, ducking his head slightly and looking momentarily quite pleased. “But you seem awfully serious to be thinking something like that. What else are you thinking?”

For perhaps the first time, Trowa turned his gaze down toward his plate, sighing. “I just,” he said, “don’t know if this is a good idea.”

Without needing to ask what ‘this’ he meant, Quatre inquired quietly, “Why?”

Trowa opened his mouth to answer, but found he didn’t have the words. How could he explain that, among other things, someone like Quatre didn’t need to be putting up with all the trouble and unhappiness that must be attendant upon a relationship with someone like Trowa? That someone like Trowa didn’t have any right to be making a claim on the thoughts and feelings and time and effort of someone like Quatre? ‘I don’t deserve you’ seemed trite and overly dramatic, and yet how else could he put it?

“You’re afraid you’ll hurt me,” Quatre supplied quietly at last.

And there was that too. Trowa nodded.

Quatre said his name very seriously, and reached out to grasp Trowa’s free hand. Trowa looked up into beautiful sober eyes that held his just as tenaciously as Quatre’s arms had held him earlier. “I haven’t seen everything you’ve gone through,” said Quatre, “but I’ve seen what it’s done to you — and I don’t believe for an instant that you will ever do anything like what you did to Duo ever again. You’re an intelligent man who’s learned from his mistakes.” It had only been moments since his smile had faded and given way to that serious look, but its return was reassuring (as Quatre seemed specifically to intend). “You’re not going to turn me into anything.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“I can’t,” Quatre agreed levelly, “but I believe it anyway.”

Trowa returned to his tasteless meal without replying, the chaos in his head hardly diminished. He was simultaneously delighted and appalled that Quatre trusted him thus, and none of his other misgivings had been allayed.

After several moments of silence, Quatre spoke again. “You are willing to try, though, aren’t you?” Trowa thought that, despite how confidently he’d phrased the question, there was a touch of concern to his voice that he couldn’t hide.

And right in the face of all his better judgment, Trowa found himself answering, “Yes,” before he even realized what he was saying.

Once it was obvious that each of them had eaten all he was going to — singularly, Quatre seemed nearly as disinterested in food as Trowa was — they set about clearing up. Somehow, though, to Trowa’s pleased bewilderment, this turned into kissing against the kitchen counter. And Trowa certainly didn’t care enough about the cleanliness of his dishes or the state of his dining area to mind neglecting them for this.

He couldn’t begin to think why Quatre was interested in him in any sense, and he couldn’t imagine that someone whose only experience in this area had been almost ninety years ago could be in any way enjoyable to kiss… but since Quatre seemed willing, Trowa didn’t question. He still didn’t really believe this was a good idea, and he was awash with the same guilt that always overcame him the moment he started enjoying something, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull away.

Quatre, he found, was bulkier than he’d expected; he wondered why this should surprise him, when he’d seen Quatre in t-shirts and knew he had well-developed arms at least. There was a firmness, too, to the way those arms held Trowa, not to mention the way Quatre kissed him, a strength and insistence that was also unexpected — and, again, why this should be, Trowa did not know. Perhaps he’d been viewing Quatre as more fragile than he actually was simply because he was aware of what he was capable of doing to him.

Then Quatre’s hand slid into Trowa’s hair, and his tongue teased at Trowa’s lips, and all the cold, dark thoughts in Trowa’s head began first to blur at the edges and then to fade into something shamefully like contentment.

He wasn’t sure how long Quatre put up with his amateurish kissing, but when the entry clock struck a quarter Quatre pulled away from him somewhat abruptly. “What time was that?” he demanded, startled. Trowa, who definitely hadn’t been paying attention, shook his head. Pulling out his cell phone, Quatre checked. “Damn,” he whispered. He was smiling ruefully when he looked back up at Trowa, his slightly-parted pink lips just a little swollen and, for the moment, absolutely riveting. “I’m already late. I’ve got to go.”

Trowa felt the one arm he still had around Quatre’s chest stiffen, tightening almost instinctively, and he had to exert actual will power to make it release. To be honest, he didn’t think this whole thing was going to last very long, but he also didn’t think it was going to end this very same day it had started; there was no reason to hold on desperately to Quatre just yet. Not that he would have any right to do so whenever Quatre did decide to call things off…

Maybe Quatre sensed some of what Trowa wasn’t saying, for he smiled again and said, “I’ll come back after work.” And then maybe he sensed the absurd pleasure Trowa felt at hearing this, for the smile widened into a grin and he lifted his face to kiss Trowa briefly one last time. Then, as he pulled completely away, he let one hand trail lightly down Trowa’s chest before all contact between them ceased.

Trowa followed him to the entry and watched him smooth out his rumpled shirt, then straighten his tie with one hand while he reached for the doorknob with the other. “See you later,” was Quatre’s goodbye. And Trowa, almost without knowing what he did, hastily moved up to the door as it closed to look through the little windows and follow Quatre’s form with his eyes across Heero’s living room and to the next door.

Once Quatre was totally out of sight, Trowa stepped back and gazed dully around the dark entryway, seeing nothing, waiting for the real guilt to make impact.

Part 48

Duo felt nothing less than resplendent in his new first officer’s uniform, which he hadn’t expected to be wearing for at least another couple of days yet. It was so nice of Heero to have had the thing shipped here so quickly, undoubtedly paying extra money to do so… Of course, he’d probably done it primarily out of desire to get more quickly at the excuse it provided, but, even so, Duo appreciated it. He felt like one of those awesome people that went to those awesome convention things in totally accurate costumes.

So as not to miss anything that was going on around him during the day, he was getting into the habit of putting off his daydreams until Heero was asleep, and now he made a mental note for tonight: think about the (improbable) possibility that his clothing might grow to human size with him when the curse was broken, and he might end up with a full-sized Star Trek uniform he could still wear at that point.

Heero had been keeping him just to the left of his computer monitor ever since yesterday afternoon, which made Duo impossible for anyone to reach if they didn’t want to get right into Heero’s personal space. It had done the trick so far: evidently Heero’s personal space was quite the no-man’s-land to his co-workers. Not terribly surprising, that. Duo’s new location also, sadly, greatly reduced his ability to see much of anything besides Heero and certain dustier corners of the cubicle. Heero was, of course, an absolute treat to look at even at the worst of times, but it did make it more difficult to see who was coming and try to guess why.

The why was still usually ‘to stare at Duo,’ though most of the latest ones had been smart enough to provide work-related excuses as well — and to a few, Duo thought, he was just an attraction additional to the assistance they legitimately needed from Heero. And the traffic was slowing, as Heero had hoped it would. By the end of the week, perhaps, things would be business as usual, with only a new eccentricity added to Heero’s reputation.

Mid-morning, yet another woman showed up to bask in Duo’s splendor. There was something very eye-catching about this one; he thought at first that it was the pleasantly fat curliness of her red-brown hair, but the line of her nose and the shape of her eyes made him rethink this assessment. He certainly had time to do so, since she was just standing there, very quiet, poised slightly on tip-toe to look over Heero’s shoulder. It appeared she didn’t necessarily have any desire to talk to Heero, just to see Duo; and, while this would have been easy enough yesterday morning, Duo’s new location made it nearly impossible today for her to observe him without alerting Heero.

The latter seemed, as he sometimes did, to be very deliberately ignoring her. There was a difference to the way his eyes moved across the computer screen, Duo noticed, when he was only pretending to work. Evidently he was planning to see if she’d go silently away if he had nothing to say; maybe this would be the first gawping co-worker encounter to end without a conversation.

This possibility was negated by Duo himself, however, when, a few moments later, he realized what it was about the woman’s face that was so interesting. “She looks like Trowa!” he said in some surprise.

Hearing this, Heero sat up a little straighter in his chair, pushing it back away from the desk slightly and causing the woman to start. Then he swiveled around to face her as she took a step away from him. By now his tone was more resigned than impatient in asking, “Did you need something?”

“No,” she replied, giving a smile whose irritation was clearly not aimed at Heero, “and I didn’t mean to bother you. I wasn’t going to come over, but they–” she made a somewhat impatient gesture toward the rest of the sales floor– “wouldn’t stop bugging me until I came to see this doll of yours.” Now that Heero had moved, the woman was evidently able to get a more satisfactory look at Duo. She gave a decisive nod. “So now I’ve seen it. I’ll get out of your way.”

Heero didn’t respond verbally, only nodded as well and turned back to his computer. And the woman, true to her word, left without asking him any questions. Duo watched her go, then looked at Heero again. Observing narrowed eyes and lowered brows, Duo remarked, “I’d have thought you’d be happier about that one. It looked like she wouldn’t even have said anything if you hadn’t.”

Heero’s lips tightened before he opened them to answer. “If even the people who don’t want to come over here and look are being pressured into doing it, we’ve still got a ways to go.”

“OK, you’re probably right about that,” Duo admitted. “But don’t you think she looks like Trowa?”

“Not particularly,” replied Heero shortly.

Duo mused on. “Well, I guess I know his face better than you do. I think his nose is pretty much the same as hers… she’s rocking it, too; you don’t see many women who look that good with a nose that strong.” Heero offered no opinion, so after a moment Duo continued, “Something about the eyes, too… I think it was in the outside corners, or…” But without having her in front of him, he couldn’t quite articulate the similarity.

Still Heero said nothing.

“You really didn’t see it?” Duo pressed on. “I wonder if they’re related…”

Finally Heero volunteered something. “Well, her name is Catharine Barton,” he said without removing his gaze from his computer monitor or slowing whatever he was typing, “if that helps.”

“What!? Really?? Barton??” This startled outcry won him a skeptical look from Heero, and he explained immediately, “That’s Trowa’s name!”

Heero nodded his understanding and returned to his work, seeming singularly uninterested.

“I bet they are related. Let’s see… Trowa’ll be a hundred and twelve this year… she could be his great-great-great-great-niece. Do you know where her family comes from, like, five generations ago?”

“It’s not something that’s ever come up in conversation,” Heero replied dryly.

Duo laughed. “No, I guess it wouldn’t. But the next time you talk to her, you should totally ask her. Trowa ran away from his parents when he was eight, but I know they came from–”

“Duo, once you’re human, you can study the genealogy of every single person in this company in detail if you want. But at the moment, I really don’t need to give any of them another excuse to come over here.” Heero sounded a little impatient as he said this, and Duo’s first instinct was to tease him about being grouchy… but he decided against it. After all, it didn’t seem quite fair to be inflicting this situation on him and then to get on his case for reacting naturally to it. So he just watched the reflection of the glowing screen in Heero’s eyes and said nothing more for the moment.

If Heero had been in a bad mood that morning, Duo was pleased to find him over it by lunch time. They went to the same parking lot as yesterday and talked cheerfully while Heero ate, and Duo had nothing to complain of beyond his fierce desire to try a chicken salad sandwich like the one Heero had.

“I’m not a bad cook,” Heero told him when he expressed this sentiment. “When you’re human, I can make you all kinds of things.”

“I have never once seen you cook anything ever,” Duo declared in grinning disbelief. “Unless it came from a package or something, I mean.”

Heero shrugged. “I don’t much like cooking for just myself.”

“But Quatre’s around all the time!” Thoughtfully Duo added, “I bet he’s a great cook, though.”

Heero smirked. “You’d think so… but he’s actually totally useless in the kitchen. It comes from having a paid cook all his life. He lives off leftovers from the stuff that guy makes, and anything you can just throw in the microwave.” As Duo laughed (reflecting that at least the microwave part of that description would probably apply to him someday as well), Heero went on. “And I do sometimes cook for him… but you caught us during March Madness, and you don’t cook for that.”

“Well, I seem to remember something about me owing you lunch every day for a year anyway,” Duo said.

Again Heero shrugged. “That doesn’t mean I can’t make you dinner.” And this statement, Duo thought happily, totally made up for being unable to experience the delicious-looking sandwich. There was a lot about Heero, in fact, that made up for a lot of things. No one person could ever really erase eighty-seven years of tribulation, but Duo was starting to think those eighty-seven years might have been worth it when he’d gotten to meet Heero at the end of them.

Today they were only nine minutes late back from lunch. They’d left about five minutes early (Duo thought; it was hard to tell the time from his angle), and the resulting fourteen or so minutes’ lateness was much better than Monday and Tuesday had been. This was probably a good thing, since Duo was sure that even the best friend of whatever managerial position Quatre occupied could only go so long on that sort of sloppy schedule without some kind of trouble arising.

And just after lunch, they had the most interesting encounter of all.

Part 49

The first indication that Heero had another pointless visitor was the appearance in front of him of some sort of small torture device. It had a couple of curving lengths of thick wire like a pincer and a long shaft leading to a round piece, all painted a disconcertingly sterile white, and it was held right in Heero’s face by Wufei Chang. The latter had been out working on a contract for the last week, or else Heero might have remembered him and recognized his danger. Now it was too late.

Heero actually started back at the unexpected sight of whatever it was Wufei was shoving at him. Any normal person, seeing this reaction, would have withdrawn the object and possibly apologized for the abrupt entrance; but Wufei just pushed the white claw-thing closer and said, “I happened to have an extra.”

“What the hell is it?” It was never really a good idea to admit any sort of ignorance to Wufei, but Heero was startled.

“It’s a doll stand,” replied Wufei patronizingly.

“Oh, no…” Duo groaned.

Although he hadn’t originally planned on touching the thing, Heero now reached out quickly and took the purported doll stand from Wufei’s hand. If he didn’t, Wufei might (would probably) decide to implement the device himself, and Duo didn’t seem to like that idea. Heero thought he understood; the stand creaked and shifted ominously in his grip, and nothing had occurred to diminish the impression that it had been designed as a means of torturing unsuspecting dolls and their friends.

“I heard you had a Star Trek doll,” Wufei went on, “so I went home at lunch to get you a stand for it.” He was obviously trying for a tone that would imply this to be normal behavior and motivated by generosity, but Heero knew better. Wufei didn’t do things like this because he was nice, but, rather, to show off his expertise: he had an extra doll stand; he had been into the doll scene long before Heero had.

“He just assumed you didn’t have one?” Duo wondered incredulously.

Heero said, “Thank you.” This was another dangerous thing to allow Wufei to hear, but Heero really couldn’t think of anything else. He’d never been entirely solid on how to deal with Wufei.

“Oh, you’re certainly welcome,” Wufei said, sounding pleased with himself. “I’ve had an extra ever since I sold my John Locke figure.” He added unnecessarily, “I didn’t like the direction the writers were taking with his character.”

Noncommittally, Heero nodded.

“He didn’t like what?” said Duo.

“I wasn’t aware that you were also a fan of Star Trek,” Wufei went on. Heero was not at all pleased by the tone of still-slightly-condescending camaraderie. Wufei already had this strange idea that there was some kind of connection between him and Heero because they were both of Asian descent, and in fact had once puzzled over the spelling of Heero’s name so assiduously that Heero had been forced to explain why his parents and grandparents had chosen such American-looking romanizations. Heero was not eager to have something else in common with Wufei.

As it was too late to deny the accusation, however — given that Duo was actually wearing the uniform, and that for Heero to pass himself off as a Star Trek fan was supposedly the point — he simply nodded again.

“If I were to hazard a guess,” Wufei said in what he probably thought was a shrewd tone, “I would say you are a Voyager fan.”

“Yes,” said Heero at once, thinking to avoid prolonging this conversation by agreeing (little hope as he really had of its working).

“If he were to hazard a guess?” Duo demanded. “Heero, who is this guy?”

“Do you want to know how I knew?” asked Wufei. Then, not waiting for Heero to tell him that he didn’t, he explained, “You’ve got him in a 2009 reboot uniform, and no real fan of the original series could ever tolerate that movie.”

Heero really, really didn’t care how Star Trek people felt about the various parts of their universe, but he still didn’t quite see Wufei’s logic. Weren’t there a number of Star Trek series? How did his supposedly not being a ‘real fan of the original series’ mean that he must be a Voyager fan?

Duo also had a problem with Wufei’s statement. “What?!” he yelped. “That was a great movie! What the hell didn’t he like about it?”

It had been Heero’s intention to ask Wufei if he was on the clock and, hopefully, get rid of him that way. Instead, to please Duo, he relayed the question. “What didn’t you like about it?”

Wufei scowled. “It derailed the entire Star Trek continuity! Everything was wrong! I mean, Vulcan being destroyed? It invalidates every part of the story that comes after that!”

“It was an alternate reality!” Duo protested. “They specifically said that in the movie. Who does he think Leonard Nimoy was playing?”

Heero struggled to remember what he could of the film, from the single time he’d seen it the previous year, in order to reword Duo’s statement so that Wufei wouldn’t bite his head off. “It was an alternate reality, though. That was why the other Spock showed up: he came from our world, where all the things in the original show and movies did happen, and Vulcan wasn’t destroyed.” He thought that was right, anyway… God, had he really just said all of that?

“But there’s already an alternate reality in the original series. We know what the alternate reality is like.”

“Um, what…?” said Duo. “I think he needs to go look up the word ‘alternate.'”

“I think there can be multiple alternate realities,” Heero suggested cautiously.

Wufei fumed, “But there doesn’t need to be. There was a lot of material they could have worked with that would have allowed them to give the series a fresh look with new actors without screwing up the timeline and justifying it with ‘oh, it’s just time-travel; it didn’t really happen.'”

Duo started to say something, but Wufei overrode him as he added, “It just didn’t fit with Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Duo burst out laughing. “What, his original vision that included time travel and alternate realities?

Heero was trying to think of a non-combative way to say this when Wufei snorted and changed his focus. “And Spock was too emotional. He was never that emotional in the original series.”

Dropping the third person and addressing his opponent directly, despite Wufei being unable to hear him, Duo said derisively, “What, you mean after he’d just lost his entire planet and his mom? How did you expect him to react??”

“He had just lost his entire planet and his mother,” was how Heero relayed this, in as reasonable a tone as he could command. He wondered, without wanting to look, if anyone else was around and listening. What on earth would they think? Well, he supposed, a discussion like this could only enhance the idea that he was a fan…

“He went through plenty of trauma in the original series,” Wufei insisted, “without ever displaying that much emotion.”

“Um, yeah, dumbass, but this movie was set before the original series. People do change, you know.” It was actually rather amusing how annoyed Duo was about this. Really, it shouldn’t be surprising that he was such a geek about something that had formed such a big part of his life.

“But the Spock in the movie was younger,” Heero translated. “It was before he’d learned to be that much in control.”

“Stop being so polite, Heero!” Duo complained. “This guy’s bugging the hell out of me.”

“His involvement with Uhura was totally out of character too.” It didn’t seem that any of Duo’s proxy arguments had made any impact whatsoever on Wufei; the latter was simply working his way down a list of complaints and systematically discarding any disagreement.

“Well, I agree that Spock has always been pretty damn gay for Kirk,” Duo said in a milder tone, “but in that movie–” But Heero never got to hear what Duo thought of Spock’s 2009 relationship with Uhura, for at that moment they were interrupted.

“Wufei, are you on the clock?” Dorothy had a way of asking this particular question that made even people that weren’t abusing the timeclock check to see if there was something more productive they could be doing.

Wufei, who lived in his own very serious little world, was largely immune to things that affected other people strongly, but even he could not completely ignore that tone. He cleared his throat. “Yes. I was just discussing something with Heero.”

“I noticed,” said Dorothy dryly. “Back to work now?”

Wufei nodded somberly, then subtly did the ‘Live long and prosper’ gesture at Heero before retreating from the cubicle. Once again Duo burst into startled laughter.

“You should know better than to get him worked up about something like Star Trek at this time of day,” Dorothy chided as she came fully into the cubicle. “Now he won’t get anything done for the rest of the afternoon.”

Heero couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize.

Dorothy stopped just beside him, looking down at Duo with a faint frown and brows drawn slightly together, evidently more pensive than disapproving or even curious. “At least you didn’t agree with him,” she murmured. “So he probably won’t try to sneak back in here and continue the discussion the moment my back is turned.”

Heero acknowledged this point with a nod.

As she went to leave, Dorothy added in a thoughtful tone, “Spock really was always pretty gay for Kirk, wasn’t he…”

The moment she was gone, Heero leaned his elbow on the desk, bent forward, and rested his face in his hand. Torn between amusement and horror, he didn’t quite know what to say or do now, and he felt more than a little tired out. “I am never doing that again,” he murmured. “No more three-way conversations.”

Duo chuckled a little. “Not into threesomes, huh? Especially ones that nerdy, I bet.”

Heero nodded against his hand, and grumbled darkly, “Wufei’s probably going to think he’s my best friend now. I hope you appreciate this…”

It was remarkable how the seriousness of Duo’s reply, “More than I can tell you,” could do so much to make everything in the world tolerable again.

Part 50

Quatre didn’t know whether Trowa had somehow (perhaps magically) been aware of the exact instant he would arrive on Thursday afternoon, or if he’d been in the entry just at that moment by coincidence; but whatever the cause, the result was the same: immediately inside the door they were in each other’s arms without any verbal intimation that this was the greeting they both had in mind. It had happened exactly like this yesterday too, right down to the almost palpable despair in Trowa’s movements. Quatre still wasn’t quite sure what to do about that.

Trowa was thin — very thin — bordering on what Quatre would have called unhealthily thin. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that Quatre knew what his eating habits were, but he wasn’t used to it yet; every time he was blessed with the opportunity to run his hands over Trowa’s arms and chest and back (and sometimes farther down because he simply couldn’t resist), he was startled all over again at how scrawny his new boyfriend was.

It made him want to sit Trowa down to a three-course meal at least twice a day from now on until he bulked up a little. Since this urge, so far, had arisen almost exclusively while Quatre was kissing Trowa, however, and was usually forgotten when some tentative experimental shift of Trowa’s lips or the desperate clinging of Trowa’s hands thoroughly apprehended Quatre’s attention, he hadn’t given it much thought at any moment when he might have made practical use of it.

This particular kiss came abruptly to an end when the bag Quatre had completely forgotten he was holding slipped from his otherwise-occupied hand and the plastic box inside it let out a crunch as it hit the floor. He pulled away from Trowa and said, somewhat breathlessly, “Look how much you’ve distracted me.”

“I’m sorry,” Trowa replied, and, though Quatre knew he was responding to the laughing comment in kind, there was just a little too much honesty in his tone. Probably better not to tell him how spacy Quatre had been at work over the last couple of days.

Quatre released Trowa and bent to retrieve the bag. “Much as I’d love to keep doing that all day, we need to eat lunch.”

“Must we?” said Trowa.

With a wide grin Quatre turned to face him, excessively pleased. “Trowa, I think you’re flirting with me!”

“I may be,” Trowa replied with a reluctant smile.

“You need to smile more,” Quatre breathed, moving right up against Trowa again. Not wishing to spoil the expression in question, he kissed Trowa’s jaw and cheek and temple instead — but after only that, Trowa turned and caught Quatre’s mouth once more with his. He was getting better at this.

Eventually they did make it into the kitchen and to some sort of rational thought concerning lunch. This was a set of microwaveable components that combined to form what the box claimed was mushroom stroganoff, which made Quatre laugh. At Trowa’s curious look he decided to share his nostalgia.

“As a little kid,” he began, a bit absently as he’d also begun reading the microwave instructions on the side of the box, “I’d gotten it into my head that I hated mushrooms more than anything in the world. I probably really didn’t like them much, but you know how little kids are… they think any food they don’t absolutely love is unbearably disgusting, usually after they’ve tried it exactly once.”

Trowa didn’t much look like he knew ‘how little kids are,’ possibly because he hadn’t been one in a hundred years and his interaction with humans had been at a bare minimum for almost as long. Maybe sometime (sometime when Trowa’s ability to deal with people had improved a bit, that is) Quatre would introduce him to some of his nieces and nephews.

For now Quatre just went on in amusement, “According to my family, I had such a strong aversion to mushrooms that I was actually afraid of them. I don’t remember it exactly like that, but that’s what they tell me: I wouldn’t touch mushrooms; I’d run away from mushrooms; if there were mushrooms on the table, I’d back my chair away and try to eat from a distance…” He mimed eating with his arms stretched out at full length. “I guess they found it pretty hilarious — and I can’t really blame them — because I do remember my sisters chasing me around with mushrooms. I think I ran more just because they were chasing me, though, than because they had mushrooms in their hands.”

By their hot edges, he pulled the flimsy plastic containers from the microwave with his fingertips, and began carefully peeling the already-punctured plastic cover from the sauce. “This smells good,” he murmured.

Then, to his surprise, he felt the warmth of Trowa against him, leaning in somewhat hesitantly to find out what he was talking about. “It does,” Trowa said quietly.

Abruptly Quatre turned, putting himself chest-to-chest with Trowa. “Mmm, so do you,” he said, and buried his face in Trowa’s shoulder and neck. There was a stiff button-up shirt collar in his way, and Quatre pulled it slightly aside to get at Trowa’s skin. Admittedly much of what Quatre could smell at the moment was mushroom sauce, but there was still about Trowa that air of dusty leather and crumbling paper that was so intriguing to Quatre.

At first Trowa stood absolutely still as Quatre nuzzled and then began mouthing the pale flesh of his neck, but his breathing did quicken, and eventually his arms lifted, slid slowly up Quatre’s sides, and came to rest around his back just above his waist. “Now who’s doing the distracting?” Trowa whispered, his breath stirring Quatre’s hair.

Laughing, Quatre withdrew and looked into Trowa’s still-mostly-serious face. He gave him a quick, hard kiss before squirming around in his arms to face the kitchen counter again. “You’re right,” he said. “Our food’s going to get cold before it’s even put together.”

“I wasn’t really complaining,” Trowa murmured into his ear, making Quatre shiver.

As Quatre began stirring up the noodles and the sauce in a couple of bowls, Trowa released him — which was disappointing, but probably better for productivity — and said, “Was there more of your mushroom story?”

“Oh, yes!” Quatre had completely forgotten he’d even been telling a story. “Set the table,” he ordered. “So I was afraid of mushrooms, apparently, and my sisters — at least the youngest three or four — thought this was really funny.” He lifted the two bowls and circumnavigated the counter to bring them to the table. “And one day — I don’t know whose idea it was — one day they decided to take this one step further than just chasing me around with mushrooms. So they went into the kitchen and made some muffins, and they chopped up some mushrooms and mixed them into the muffin dough.”

Trowa, who was now settling into his usual place at the table, raised a skeptical eyebrow.

Quatre laughed. “Yes, I’m sure they did have something better to do,” he said, taking his own seat across from Trowa. “But apparently this was important. So they brought me a muffin and asked if I wanted a ‘muffroom.’ And I told them, no, I didn’t want a mushroom. ‘No, a muffroom,’ they said, and showed me the muffin.”

“And how old were you?” Trowa asked.

Quatre grinned. “Um, six? Maybe five. I’m not sure.”

“And was this before or after they’d started conning you at cards?”

“I think that started soon after this.” Quatre’s grin widened. “Hey, this is good,” he added after taking his first bite of the stroganoff.

“Your opinion on mushrooms has changed,” Trowa observed.

“Yes, it has,” agreed Quatre, and took another bite with relish. When his mouth was free he continued his account. “So I had this ‘muffroom,’ and I was suspicious of it because of the name. But my sisters insisted that they were only calling it that because it was shaped something like a mushroom, and eventually they got me to eat it. And obviously I couldn’t taste the mushroom in it — either that or I just really didn’t hate mushrooms as much as I thought I did — because I ate the whole thing and thought it was pretty good.

“And of course after I’d finished it my sisters told me — gleefully, triumphantly told me — what had been in it. I think at first I didn’t want to believe them, and repeated what they’d said to me about it being called a ‘muffroom’ because of how it was shaped and all that… but eventually I just started screaming and crying. I was upset that I’d eaten mushrooms, of course, but I was even more upset that they’d tricked me.”

“I can’t imagine you screaming and crying,” said Trowa, fixing him with a thoughtful gaze. “Not even as a child.”

“Oh, really?” Quatre found himself rather pleased at this

Trowa shook his head. “No. I can’t imagine you as anything but a very well-behaved child who was always in control of himself.”

At this Quatre laughed heartily. “I’ll show you some pictures sometime of just how well-behaved I was as a kid,” he said.

And to Quatre’s great delight, Trowa smiled.

When they’d finished their lunch/dinner, Quatre with solemn pride brought out the key lime cheesecake he’d bought on the way over. It had smashed somewhat against one side of its box when he’d dropped it earlier, but he doubted this would affect its flavor. Trowa looked at the dessert almost suspiciously, at which Quatre laughed. He opened it with faux ceremony and made a show of plunging a fork into it and taking the first bite. “I have a Cheesecake Factory in my town,” he said complacently.

As Trowa made no move to join him at this pursuit, Quatre forked another bite and, leaning forward, brought it insistently to Trowa’s mouth. Though he still appeared more than a bit wary, Trowa submitted to this and allowed himself to be fed. Then Quatre sat back and watched him, waiting to see how he liked it.

There was no marked change to Trowa’s expression, but Quatre saw the twitches of his eyebrows — first down, then up a little higher than they had been before — because he was looking for them. Mission accomplished, he thought.

“That…” Trowa said presently, slowly, “is very good.”

Quatre beamed. He had a feeling he was going to be late back from lunch again, but he couldn’t really bring himself to worry about it.

Part 51

Heero was used to being a little restless at work on Fridays — not that he showed it, but he liked his weekends. And today there was the added bonus of really wanting this week to end, since he was hoping that the fervor about Duo would die once everyone had had a Saturday and Sunday to calm down and perhaps forget. So it was no surprise that he was a little more impatient even than usual with anyone that approached him for anything less than a perfectly businesslike reason.

“I think you made that one cry,” Duo remarked, and not in a terribly accusatory tone, as someone from HR that had only had the very flimsiest excuse left in something of a hurry.

Heero stood halfway out of his chair, looking after the woman. He certainly didn’t enjoy the undue attention he and Duo were receiving, but making people cry was not something he wanted to do. From here, however, it was impossible to tell whether or not he had.

Evidently seeing the concern on his face and guessing at its cause, Duo hastily reassured him, “I was exaggerating. I don’t think she was really crying.”

With a nod, resolving to try for greater patience with his next visitor just in case, Heero resumed his seat. And as he did so, he caught sight of the doll stand Wufei had brought him on Wednesday. Heero had pulled its three pieces apart and tossed them aside after Wufei had gone, and after that entirely lost track of it. Now he reached around the computer monitor to retrieve each of the parts, and started fitting them back together contemplatively.

“Oh, no,” Duo said. “I hoped you’d forgotten about that.”

“I did,” Heero murmured, “until I saw it just now.”

“Please don’t put me in that thing,” Duo begged.

Heero shook his head, trying to figure out how the last piece went on.

“Please?” reiterated Duo. When Heero still didn’t answer, Duo continued in a sort of chant, “Please? Please? Please? Please? Safe word?”

His full attention most definitely procured by this, Heero was startled into a laugh. “It’s so strange what you know about and what you don’t,” he told the doll.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Duo somewhat bitterly.

“You don’t know what IT people are,” Heero went on, setting the doll stand aside and giving Duo his full attention, “but you know about safe words…”

“Yeah, it’s stupid,” Duo admitted. “I’ve just picked up random things from various people and TV shows, and I don’t know a lot of stuff a normal person would.”

How do you know about safe words?” persisted Heero. “Or would I rather not know?”

“Weeeelllll… it hasn’t all been kids…” Duo’s tone was somewhere between ‘shrug’ and ‘grimace’ with a touch of sheepishness thrown in, and the fact that he wasn’t using this topic as a springboard for flirtation indicated — to Heero, at least — that he took it very seriously.

“I can see I would rather not know,” Heero said lightly, not wanting to make Duo uncomfortable. And then he tried to return to his work and not think about everything that conversation had just dredged up in the back of his head.

Heero had never done anything that required a safe word, and knew little more about that kind of play than what was supposedly common knowledge. He was aware that there could be ropes or handcuffs involved, and spanking or whipping or something like that… that it was supposed to be about trust, and one person submitting to the control of another…

Duo had been so absolutely under the control of others for so long, with no recourse for decent treatment beyond begging, having mental discomfort and embarrassment forced on him… Even now that he’d found his old friend again and was on his way to having the curse broken, he was still completely at Heero’s mercy… Heero doubted very much that deliberately putting himself in the role of the victim (or whatever it was called in that context) was something that would at all appeal to Duo.

The other way around, however…

No, Heero did not need to be thinking about that. He was at work, and his face was clearly visible to Duo, and he probably shouldn’t be fantasizing about someone else’s boyfriend in the first place. And yet it was proving quite a daunting task to escape from the mental image of Duo — the hypothetical human Duo in Heero’s imagination, with his smooth tanned skin and his strong hands — tying Heero up, blindfolding him, making it Heero’s turn to beg, and–

“Konnichiwa, Heero-san.”

He wasn’t sure whether he was more irritated or grateful at this. He’d been afraid Wufei might start coming over here to talk to him more frequently now that they’d inadvertently bonded over Star Trek, but at the same time couldn’t really think of a better buzz-kill than the somewhat creepy tone of Wufei’s formal greeting — and a buzz-kill was exactly what he’d needed just now.

Heero swiveled to face him. “Hello,” he said. For some reason, his eyes locked onto and could not tear themselves from Wufei’s tie, which had a vaguely familiar pink heart in the midst of some kind of machiney grey stuff and actually didn’t look too bad against his dark red-grey shirt.

“And how is your first officer today?” Wufei stepped up and reached for Duo before Heero could stop him. To Heero’s dismay, Wufei’s other hand went for the doll stand at the same time, and Heero could not think of a damn thing to say to prevent the union of the two objects. Wufei filled the silence, however. “Who is he supposed to be?” He added with absolute certainty, “He isn’t an original series character, or anyone from that awful movie.”

“He’s a…” Heero scrambled for a plausible answer, and perhaps it was what he’d just been thinking about before Wufei’s appearance that supplied his eventual, “…role-play character.”

Wufei set the newly-ensconced Duo back down on the desk and turned eager, calculating eyes on Heero. “I was not aware that you role-played.”

“I… yeah, sometimes,” said Heero weakly.

“My group–” Wufei began.

Hastily Heero interrupted him. “I think Dorothy is coming over here. You’d better get back to your desk.”

Wufei looked around with a frown, then nodded. “You’re right. We can discuss this later.”

Not if I can help it, Heero reflected as he watched Wufei’s surreptitious departure.

Somebody else approached Heero at that moment looking for information, and throughout this encounter Duo said nothing. But the instant this second co-worker was out of the way, Heero turned to the sound of a pathetic noise from Duo and pulled the doll out of the stand.

“Thank you,” Duo said intensely as Heero replaced him in his previous seated position beside the monitor.

Heero nodded, and began dismantling the stand again.

Duo sighed. “I’m starting to lose track of who’s picked me up and who hasn’t.”

“I’m sorry,” replied Heero. “I try to keep them from doing it.”

In a head-shaking sort of tone, Duo said, “Not your fault,” and sighed again.

“Only twenty-four more days…”

“Hey, that’s only a little more than three weeks!” And Duo sounded a little more hopeful.

Again Heero nodded. Then he opened one of his desk drawers and pulled aside its contents, looking for a place to hide the pieces of the doll stand. “I know this thing is terrifying,” he said as he did so, “but what is it that bugs you about it?”

Now Duo snorted. “Oh, just that I spent three years in one of those as a decoration in somebody’s guest room — which never got used — with nobody to talk to and no TV or anything.”

“Oh,” said Heero softly. Inwardly he was swearing fanatically that Duo would never have to occupy a doll stand ever again if he had the slightest say in the matter.

“Just staring at the horrible picture above the bed across the room…” Duo murmured in a tone that was the emotional polar opposite of nostalgic, “standing there with some nice-looking books nobody ever read on one side and a Happy Holiday Barbie on the other… listening to the world keep moving outside… going crazy…”

“Wow,” Heero breathed. As often happened when Duo spoke of his experiences as a doll over the years, Heero was overcome with an almost physical sensation of pity and horror, and he just wished there was something more he could do to make things right for Duo.

Abruptly Duo shook his head, as if to shake the memories away. Cheerfully — too cheerfully, Heero thought, especially all of a sudden like this — he repeated Heero’s earlier words: “Only twenty-four more days!”

Part 52

Just as he’d become accustomed in an insanely short period of time to eating lunch with Quatre every day, Trowa was now quickly getting used to Quatre showing up every night after work. This meant he had dual distractions from his own work as he found himself caught between the neverending cycle of guilt facilitated by the artifact in his study and the unfamiliar, warm feeling of pleasure and anticipation regarding Quatre and when he would next appear.

It didn’t help that the latter made the former so much worse. A voice in his head kept asking, Should you really be doing this? Leaving Heero with all the real work for Duo while you enjoy yourself with someone you will never deserve? Someone whose entire life you might destroy at any time? For this he had no real answer, but he couldn’t dismiss it or ignore it during the long hours he spent alone in his house attempting to take notes or do research. Only Quatre’s actual appearance pushed such thoughts farther back into the darkness and let him rest a little for a while.

He’d fallen asleep in his chair again when Quatre showed up at about nine o’clock on Friday night, and was awakened when his new paramour climbed into his lap and made himself comfortable. “Hi,” Quatre said when he noticed Trowa had awakened.

“Hello,” Trowa replied, lifting his arms to wrap around and hold Quatre.

Quatre kissed him briefly and beautifully, then laid his head on Trowa’s shoulder and sighed. “Meetings all afternoon, and all I can think about is you…”

That wasn’t right. Inevitably temporary involvement with someone like Trowa shouldn’t be distracting Quatre from his real life… no matter how much, against his will, Trowa adored the thought that Quatre had been dwelling on him since they’d seen each other earlier.

Abruptly Quatre sat up and fixed Trowa with a stern look. “You just made that noise again.”

“What noise?”

“You do that sometimes about things I say… and then you get this look…” Quatre appeared decidedly unhappy all of a sudden. “Trowa, what is it about this that’s bothering you? Is there something I’m doing that you don’t like? Because you seem like you want to push me away.”

Trowa didn’t know what to say. How could he tell Quatre that he was like a drug… that he rendered everything colorful and sensitized when he was around, that he made Trowa feel wonderful… but that the moment he was gone, everything was even more bleak than before he’d come? That the better a time Trowa had with Quatre, the worse he felt when it was over? That having experienced this high only increased Trowa’s guilt and self-loathing once he came down?

“I don’t… I shouldn’t…” He took a deep breath and tried to regulate his thoughts and channel them properly for once. Quatre had asked, and he deserved an answer — at least deserved to know that it was nothing about him personally that Trowa was trying to push away. “I love having you around,” Trowa finally managed. “It makes me… happier… than I have been… in a long time. But that doesn’t feel right, when Duo is still suffering and–”

Quatre broke in with a frustrated noise of his own, shifting all at once so that he was straddling Trowa’s lap, his legs pressed hard into the arms of the chair on either side, and looking him directly in the eye. He took Trowa’s face firmly in his hands and said, “Trowa. You need to get over this thing you have about Duo. This is not about Duo. Duo has nothing to do with this.”

“I know you want me to… forgive myself…” Trowa replied, “but it’s not that easy…”

“It’s not even that,” Quatre sighed. “Just stop thinking of yourself in terms of what you did to Duo eighty-seven years ago. Yes, you hurt him; yes, he’s still suffering. But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have any good experiences ever again. Even if you do buy into the whole karma thing and believe that you have to be punished for your mistake, don’t you think you’ve suffered enough?”

Grey-blue eyes held a pair of crescent moons in an unbreakable lock of gazes as Quatre ranted on. “You don’t have to keep pushing good things away because you think you don’t deserve them. You’re allowed to enjoy food and sleep and — and me — without beating yourself up over whether or not you’re stepping outside some arbitrary boundary set by some mistake you once made.”

Quatre released him, and Trowa felt his eyes sink closed as his head bent forward; Quatre met Trowa’s brow with his lips as Trowa said softly, “Whatever I deserve, I’m sure it’s not you.”

A sad-sounding little laugh vibrated against Trowa’s skin. “What on earth are you thinking about me?” Quatre murmured. “Do you think I’m some kind of valuable prize that should have gone to a better winner?”

“Something like that,” Trowa admitted.

Quatre laughed again, ruefully. “Well, I’m flattered. But seriously, I’m just a normal person like everyone else.” He turned his face so that his cheek rested against Trowa’s forehead. “I am absolutely nothing special, and nothing you should feel like you ‘don’t deserve.'”

“You’re something special to me,” Trowa murmured. He still couldn’t quite find words for the full effect Quatre had on him, but he could at least try to articulate the more straightforward parts of it. “You’ve made me… see the world again… even if I’m not ready for it… I’m more alive now than I have been for decades.” And even when you leave, he didn’t add aloud, I’ll still be alive because of you.

“I’m glad,” said Quatre quietly. “I want you to be happy. I want to make you happy. Can you accept that? As something I want, maybe, instead of something you think you don’t deserve?”

“I can try,” Trowa murmured.

“Thank you,” said Quatre. And he drew back, took Trowa’s face in his hands again, and kissed him.

It was very much like their first kiss had been: Quatre’s hands sliding down to Trowa’s neck, thumbs pressing upward to lift his chin; Quatre seeming a trifle unsure of how willing he would find Trowa, but in no way uncertain about what he wanted himself; Trowa with no real idea how best to respond, but knowing equally well that, if he could have, he would have made this last forever. His hands ran up and down Quatre’s warm back, the latter slightly curved as Quatre, kneeling in the chair, had to bend a little to reach Trowa’s mouth; and Quatre’s hands crumpled and worried the collar of his shirt.

It was good… it was all so good, in fact, that the dark voice in the back of Trowa’s head started muttering grimly about how painful things were going to be later when Quatre had gone, when the guilt came crashing down again and the feelings of inadequacy Quatre had been preaching against returned from their shadowy corners to remind Trowa of what he was and what he had done.

Feeling the strength of Quatre against him, however, Trowa was conscious of a simultaneous steeling of resolve in those same shadowy corners of his mind. Quatre wanted him to be happy… Quatre wanted him not to feel undeserving. And Trowa had promised to try. Tonight, at least, he would not go down without a fight.

Part 53

On occasion over the last few days, Quatre had gotten the feeling that Trowa was as taken by the novelty of having someone paying him this sort of attention as by Quatre himself — that Trowa was charmed perhaps more by the concept of someone being interested in him for the first time in god knew how long than by Quatre specifically. Quatre couldn’t possibly be pleased by this, but he had to admit that it made a certain sense: Trowa had been waiting so long for someone to love, since the disaster of his last attempt, that anyone willing to make the effort might have sufficed, at least at first — and he couldn’t be blamed for that.

But now, Quatre felt, Trowa’s focus was entirely and intensely on him, on Quatre Winner, not simply on the person that had forced his way into Trowa’s life. He wasn’t sure how he knew this was the case, but it was an understanding he would not deny. Bright eyes met his with purpose, and there was a different sense, somehow, to the usual desperation of Trowa’s movements. Trowa wanted him here now, and nobody else would do. It was an intoxicating feeling.

Quatre kissed him harder and deeper, pushing forward in the chair to bring them into closer contact. Trowa felt so good beneath him, wiry and warm; and his desperate lips and tongue were so precisely what Quatre liked… He had said that he wanted to make Trowa happy, and he’d meant it… at the moment, he wanted to make him very happy in a very specific way. Trowa had said that Quatre had brought him to life… well, how about a little more of that?

His hands were already unbuttoning Trowa’s shirt before he even finished this train of thought, and he’d begun actively grinding against him where his legs were splayed out around him. He could feel the cushion shifting beneath them as he moved, and he could feel Trowa going stiff. He wondered if Trowa was aware that his roving hands had come to rest cupping Quatre’s buttocks.

“Quatre…!” Trowa gasped as Quatre broke away from his mouth, and there was a look of blended desire and near-panic in his uncanny eyes.

“Do you want me to stop?” Quatre whispered.

“No!” said Trowa immediately. As once before at this word (if not precisely this tone), Quatre wasn’t entirely sure he believed him. He wondered how long it had been since Trowa had done anything like this. To be honest, he wouldn’t be surprised if he never had.

At Quatre’s hesitance, Trowa lowered his brows slightly and very deliberately kissed him again. The message was clear, and it sent something white-hot running through Quatre’s chest and down through his stomach and abdomen into his groin. All reluctance burned away, Quatre felt his hands slip into the open shirt and caress his lover’s chest even as he again pulled away from Trowa’s lips and let his own crawl along Trowa’s jaw to his ear and down his neck.

They were positioned awkwardly, but Quatre had no desire whatsoever to let go of the heat that was building up in an attempt to find a better place to do this. Trowa was breathing somewhat heavily in his ear as Quatre bared one of his shoulders and a pallid path for a trailing tongue to follow. Meanwhile his other hand teased briefly at a hard nipple before creeping downward. Trowa’s hands were still clamped on Quatre’s buttocks; Quatre would have preferred them moving like his own, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t fairly happy with them where they were.

Because Trowa had legs that went on forever, which Quatre had already had occasion to admire, Quatre was quite familiar with the slacks Trowa usually wore. It was no difficult or lengthy task to get the button unfastened and attack the zipper, and then his left hand was buried in the heat of underwear and curling hair, seeking out the semi-erect penis he was dying to get at. Trowa let out a little groaning cry as Quatre found it, clutching at him even more tightly. In complacence Quatre sighed against Trowa’s shoulder as his fingers closed around the silky, hot, sensitive flesh and began to explore.

It wasn’t long before Trowa was fully erect in Quatre’s hand, leaking in his readiness, and moaning with every other breath. The rest of his body was likewise stiff and still, allowing Quatre to do whatever he wanted, and Quatre got the feeling that, as with kissing, Trowa hadn’t the faintest idea what he should be doing. So, with his free hand, Quatre worked at his own belt and then the fastening of his pants, and eventually freed his own hard length to increase the heat between them.

He had rather hoped Trowa would take some initiative at this point, but evidently the magician was paralyzed either by the weight of his own inexperience or the pleasure Quatre was giving him (or perhaps both). So instead, Quatre angled his hips better so that their erections were more easily parallel — as much as they could be with the straightness of Trowa’s next to the upward curve of Quatre’s — and widened his grip to encompass both of them together. His own breaths had been fairly quick for some time, but now as he touched himself alongside Trowa they started to come in gasps. He let his head fall back, closing his eyes, and felt Trowa’s face come to rest against his exposed neck.

Trowa was getting closer and closer; Quatre could feel it. He would like to come with him, unlikely as he thought that was, and so, to bring himself faster, concentrated on the feeling of Trowa’s mouth working slowly against his neck, giving out incoherent sounds of pleasure in warm wet breaths on Quatre’s skin; the clutching of Trowa’s long hands at his buttocks, tense and hard, trying to pull him closer, his need of Quatre very evident; the smell of sweat and dust and sex between them.

Then, with a long, ecstatic breath that ended in a faint, helpless moan, Trowa found his release, coming onto his own stomach and Quatre’s hand. The latter thus slickened made even quicker progress toward bringing Quatre to orgasm, and Trowa groaned with each stroke that teased his softening member before Quatre also came with a little cry of pleasure.

Relaxing in the chair, his head falling into the corner between the back and one of its wings, Trowa breathed out Quatre’s name for no apparent purpose. Quatre, still holding their spent penises in one hand, ran the other down Trowa’s upturned jaw and then followed it slowly with his mouth. Then he let his own head rest against Trowa’s shoulder again, and neither of them said anything for some time; their gasping breaths calmed and their heart-rates slowed and their bodies cooled, and Quatre thought they were both quite content.

Finally he sat up straight again, slowly, and looked around. Behind him on the table, just within reach if he stretched, was the box of Kleenex he’d brought over here back when (it seemed forever ago, now) Trowa had shed tears over the realization of how to break the curse. He snagged a tissue with his free hand and set about cleaning them up.

The cushion had come about a third of the way out from where Quatre’s knees had been forcing it away from the back of the chair, and as a consequence Trowa had slumped down somewhat in his seat. Reluctant as he was to move, Quatre eventually had to stand and pull Trowa up after him in order to fix this. He refastened both their pants while he was at it, then pushed Trowa back into the chair and settled again on his lap — in his original position now, sitting almost beside rather than on top of him with his legs draped over Trowa’s. He wrapped his arms around Trowa — a gesture that was immediately reciprocated — laid his head once more on Trowa’s shoulder, and let out another pleased breath.

After a long, comfortable silence, Trowa murmured, “It’s been… a long time… since…”

Quatre raised his face and kissed the first piece of flesh available, which turned out to be the corner of Trowa’s jaw. “I hope you enjoyed it,” he said.

“Yes,” said Trowa. “I didn’t think I would, but I did.”

Stifling a sigh, Quatre wondered, “Dare I ask why you didn’t think you’d enjoy it?”

“You probably won’t want to hear it,” admitted Trowa.

“Well, tell me anyway, and then maybe once you’ve said it you can put it behind you.”

“I stopped… touching myself… not long after the curse. I didn’t feel like I deserved to feel pleasure. And especially once I realized how I felt about Duo… that particular kind of pleasure seemed especially inappropriate, when it was… something I might have shared with him if I hadn’t done what I’d done… and when what I’d done had taken away his ability to feel anything like that, as far as I knew, forever.”

Yes, Quatre still had his doubts about Trowa’s assertion that he was no longer in love with Duo… but, as Trowa was cuddling Quatre in an armchair at the moment, had told Quatre that he was willing to try to overcome his old guilt and build a happy relationship, Quatre didn’t feel it wise or kind to express his jealousy. So he nodded slowly. “I guess that makes sense.”

“So I thought that… you doing something like that to me…” Trowa went on, still in that broken, hesitant way that indicated he was having a hard time finding words for what he wanted to say, “I thought it would feel… wrong. But it didn’t.”

“Good,” said Quatre, and nuzzled his face into Trowa’s collarbone, and then repeated more quietly, almost in a whisper, “Good.”

Part 54

Heero awoke at a positively insane hour of the morning to, of all things, the sound of Trowa’s voice in his bedroom. That probably explained why he’d been dreaming of fighting Trowa, though not necessarily why they’d been wearing more tattoos than clothing and using spears. Now he sat up groggily, glaring at the clock until the numbers (and there were far too many sevens involved) came into focus, and said, “What the hell are you doing in here?”

“Poor grumpy Heero is rude,” said Duo cheerfully.

“Pardon me,” was Trowa’s stiff answer. “I didn’t mean to wake you up. I’ll go.” He’d been standing by the nightstand, undoubtedly having sneaked in here for a quiet conversation with Duo while Heero couldn’t hear them — only they’d gotten too loud — and now he turned toward the door.

Heero took a deep breath. He shouldn’t even be awake at this time on a Saturday, let alone having to deal with this kind of thing. But he tried to beat back his irritation and jealousy, and said, “No, don’t go. Finish your conversation.” And he returned to his previous position, putting his back to the other two so he wouldn’t have to look at them, and pulled the blanket up to his face.

“Isn’t he sweet?” Duo grinned. “OK, Trois, so, then this guy says, ‘And how is your first officer today?'” Duo’s imitation of Wufei’s inflection was spot-on.

“No, I’m going to go,” said Trowa firmly. “Heero, I am sorry I woke you up.”

Heero just grunted.

“Aww,” said Duo a moment later. “I didn’t get to finish telling him.” Concurrent with this remark, Heero heard the sound of Trowa’s door opening and closing out in the living room. Then, after a few moments of silence, Duo said quietly, “I wonder what’s going on with him…”

Turning again, Heero propped himself up on an elbow and looked at Duo where he sat on the nightstand behind the clock. He knew he probably didn’t really want to know, but he asked anyway. “What do you mean?”

Duo sounded very thoughtful as he answered, “He seemed really… agitated. But not in a bad way. Almost I’d say… well, except… I don’t know. He didn’t tell me anything that would explain it. He said he’s writing a book, but that’s nothing special…”

Reflecting that he’d been right — he really hadn’t wanted to hear all of that — Heero settled back down into bed again. “Well,” he forced himself to say, “you do only have three weeks of your curse left. That seems like a good reason to be happy.”

“But he was so different from just the last time I saw him on… I think it was Tuesday morning,” Duo mused. “I wonder what’s happened… and why he didn’t tell me…”

As Heero made no reply, Duo said nothing more, and Heero closed his eyes and relaxed for several minutes. He found, however, that the exchange had been enough to wake him beyond the point of no return. This was past the time he got up on weekdays, after all… dammit… He sat up and flung the blanket off of him in an abrupt, irritated movement.

“Whoa!” Duo exclaimed. “You startled the hell out of me!”

Heero rose and, seizing the doll without a word, stalked out to the kitchen.

Duo recovered quickly. “So, tennis today, huh?”

“Yes,” Heero said shortly.

“Do you want to know how I knew?” Again Duo imitated Wufei particularly well.

A little cheered, Heero replied, “Sure.”

“Apparently Quatre invited Trowa to come along,” Duo explained. “Not like there’s even the smallest chance he would, but I think he was happy about the invitation.”

Busying himself with coffee, Heero said nothing.

“Sooo….. Oz today?” Duo sounded hopeful as he partially repeated his previous statement.

This seemed like an excellent idea to Heero — and definitely one less likely to make him jealous than Duo talking about Trowa all day. “Yes,” he said. “Right after breakfast.”

Tennis was at two, and eventually Heero reached the point where he couldn’t put off deciding what to wear any longer. This was something that had plagued him in the past, since the athletic club all the others belonged to had certain unspoken dress standards even on the courts; though Heero was not about to wear the type of $250 designer shorts his friends did, he also didn’t want to make them look bad. So, rather painstakingly, he’d built up for these occasions a small collection of pieces that were both functional and relatively smart but hadn’t cost him an arm and a leg… but this time he had to accommodate Duo somehow, and cargo pants obviously weren’t going to work.

After much thought, he chose the one polo that had a breast pocket, and picked at the lower seams of the latter with a fork until there was a sizeable hole. Tests confirmed that Duo’s legs would fit through this so he could sit fairly securely in the pocket, but Heero wasn’t entirely confident; trying to ignore Duo’s fits of laughter at all of these proceedings, he went looking for a safety pin. When it turned out that his apartment was a completely safety-pin-free zone, he determined to leave early and stop somewhere on the way to get one.

Duo was in quite a good mood today, apparently, and was whistling as Heero drove. Heero liked to see him so happy, and tried not to think about the likelihood of its being due to Trowa’s appearance this morning. And the visit to the convenience store only improved Duo’s mood when the cashier that rang up Heero’s safety pins, catching sight of the doll riding in the pocket of his slacks, gave him a very strange look.

A membership at the Glazebrook West Athletic Club was nothing Heero had any interest in, despite the club’s growing reputation as a predominantly gay organization. Having three friends with memberships and guest passes was enough for regular tennis matches, and a YMCA was sufficient the rest of the time. This did mean, however, that Heero had to wait around in the parking lot for one of his friends to show up and get him in.

The sight of a familiar sky-blue Z4, its passengers evidently already having gone inside, indicated that it was Quatre he was waiting for this time, and Heero was somewhat surprised not to find his friend there before him. He turned his car off, rolled down his window, sat back, and explained to Duo what was going on.

“Not like Quatre to be late, is it?” Duo remarked.

Heero shook his head.

He’d seen little of Quatre over the last few days, and each time he had run into him, his friend had seemed very preoccupied; still, Heero doubted that Quatre had been hit with any kind of last-minute conflict to prevent his playing today — not only because Quatre would have called by now, but also because he’d made that odd invitation to Trowa.

About that Heero had to wonder, despite not really wanting to think more about Trowa than necessary. Had Quatre suggested Trowa magically pop into their tennis court, or did he have guest pass plans for him? Heero knew Quatre had been trying to pull Trowa out of reclusion somewhat; he didn’t know how successful that venture had been so far, but, based on what Duo had said this morning, Trowa wasn’t really ready for this kind of social interaction just yet.

But what if Trowa did magically pop into their tennis court? Jealousy or no jealousy, that thought was rather entertaining.

Quatre turned out to be only a few minutes late after all. When Heero saw him pulling into the next spot, he closed his window and gathered up Duo and his gym bag.

“Hi, guys!” Quatre greeted them cheerfully, hefting his own much nicer bag and locking up his car.

“Hi, Quatre!” Duo waved.

Quatre’s smiling gaze rose from Duo to Heero’s face, where it turned thoughtful. “How are you going to manage this?” he asked.

Before Heero could say anything, Duo answered for him almost smugly: “A specially-modified Duo-carrying shirt.”

“I can’t wait to see it,” Quatre grinned. Then he gave Heero another thoughtful look as they fell into step toward the entrance.

Heero could tell that Quatre was doing his absolute best… but evidently the sight of him in the changing room tucking Duo into his pocket, then pinning the back of Duo’s little uniform to his polo, was too much for Quatre; he turned away, his shoulders shaking, his breath coming in audible gasps.

“It’s OK, Quatre,” Duo condescended. “You can go ahead and laugh.”

“He doesn’t have my permission to laugh,” said Heero as he dug out his tennis racquet. “He has to get it OK’d by both of us.”

“Aww, Heero!” Duo exulted. “Are we making decisions together now?”

For once Heero was glad of Duo’s physical insensibility; otherwise, having him so close to his heart might have been something of a problem.

Quatre opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again and shook his head minutely, a hugely amused expression still on his face. When he did eventually speak, all he said was, “Ready?”

Heero nodded. As they left the changing rooms and headed for the tennis courts, Heero steeled himself. People that frequented high-end clubs were often a little eccentric, but what they would make of someone with a Star Trek doll in his pocket he did not like to think. He wasn’t about to try to hide Duo, however; Duo had already had enough of that.

Thankfully, the number of double-takes he occasioned on the way out was minimal, but the real test was yet to come. For soon they were walking through the meticulously-cultivated shrubbery that surrounded the various outdoor sporting areas, and approaching the court where Zechs and Treize awaited them.

Part 55

Duo was done with jealousy mostly. Regular, human humans could eat, drink, breathe, sleep, smell, walk, and fuck, and Duo had spent more than enough time being jealous of it. He’d eventually decided he was simply done with the emotion.

However, seeing so handsome a man with as much hair as he’d had — proportionally speaking, as much hair as he still had — was enough to make him feel a little green. He missed the weight and sensation of his own hair, missed washing it and brushing it and braiding it, if not exactly more than the other physicalities he lacked at least more precisely than many of them. And this friend of Heero’s, this stunning, shining platinum blonde, was certain not to appreciate these privileges as well as he should.

Of course, with the way the two interacted, Duo guessed that plenty of appropriate appreciation came from the other, also excessively handsome man — the one whose eyebrows looked a little like those of that witchy Dorothy manager woman at Heero’s work — and not just appropriate appreciation of the hair alone. Both men appeared to be in their late thirties, and very, pointedly splendid in their matching tennis outfits.

“There you two are,” said the first as Heero and Quatre let themselves into the chain-link enclosure.

Quickly though Heero turned aside to move around the net and reach for a ball that already lay on the ground there, the others obviously caught sight of Duo anyway. The improbable blonde had evidently been about to say something else, but instead — and Duo could only tell by turning his head hard left — threw a confused frown in Quatre’s direction. Though Quatre was outside of his field of vision, Duo guessed there followed some sort of emphatic Don’t ask gesture; for with fabulous aplomb, the man went on smoothly, perhaps with what he’d originally been intending to say. “How are you two doing?”

“We’re great,” Quatre replied immediately. “How are you guys?” Heero was by now bouncing a ball on his racquet and facing the net, so Duo could see Quatre moving to a corresponding position on the other side.

“Answering for both of you now, are you, Quatre?” asked the one with the eyebrows in a warm, cultured voice. “Does that mean you two are finally dating?”

“No.” Heero spoke a good deal more lightly than Duo had been expecting. “But he does usually know how I’m doing.” And he served.

The conversation continued in a somewhat broken fashion as Heero and Quatre warmed up. Evidently last month’s tennis had been canceled, so these four hadn’t met in quite some time (which, Duo guessed, was the primary reason Heero hadn’t put off today’s get-together until some time when he didn’t have a doll grinning out of his polo pocket). The others wanted to know about various random aspects of the lives of Heero and Quatre, including a lot of boring business stuff, gossip about people whose names Duo didn’t recognize, and whether Heero was still driving the same ancient car.

They also had plenty to tell about their own doings, including some even more boring, largely financial business talk, more gossip about people Duo didn’t know, and accounts of recent luxurious indulgences that — even to Duo, whose concept of the current value of money was rather unclear — marked them as wealthier than anyone should really be allowed to be. He’d always vaguely understood that dentistry was a lucrative field, and this seemed to bear out that understanding, whatever they had to say about the flat economy.

And periodically, they would look at Duo. Duo could tell whenever this happened because a flicker of curious confusion would cross their faces like some sort of brief system malfunction in an otherwise very urbane program. They were obviously dying to know what was going on there, but complying for the moment with Quatre’s unspoken edict.

When a real game started — Duo’s friends on one side and the dazzlers on the other — things got more interesting. For one thing, Quatre either wasn’t very good at tennis or was way off his game today. And the other two guys kept congratulating each other every time something went their way because of this, which quickly became rather insufferable but did at least reveal their names: the improbable blonde was called ‘Mill,’ apparently, while the one with the eyebrows was ‘Treize.’ What kind of names these were Duo didn’t know… but, then, he’d never met anyone else named ‘Duo,’ either.

Positively the most engrossing thing about this tennis match, however, was being so close against Heero as the latter exerted himself, grew hot and sweaty, and breathed hard. Of course Duo could not actually feel any of this, but he was appreciating the hell out of the awareness of it while he had the chance. Beyond that, he thought there might be a market for chest-mounted sportscasting cameras; the game was far more interesting from this angle. Though that might just have been the aforementioned proximity to Heero, and you couldn’t really market that

The two teams were nicely matched today, it seemed: this side handicapped by whatever was wrong with Quatre (though, for all Duo knew, he always played this badly), the others by their debilitating curiosity about Duo that kept their eyes lingering on him longer than they really should have been if they wanted to watch the ball. Only Heero was really on top of defense, but he couldn’t be everywhere, which meant that a lot of points were scored on both sides simply because nobody was able to prevent it.

They played two games, both of which Heero won, and declined by general agreement to play a third. Then all four of them headed at a leisurely pace back toward the building.

“Well,” said the one with the eyebrows as they walked, gesturing at the chest of Heero, who was at his side, “I don’t know how sportsmanlike this is, but it seems to be an effective strategy.”

“Maybe we should try it in the future,” put in the improbable blonde.

Duo couldn’t quite tell from here, but he thought Heero was actually smiling a bit as he replied, “I would be interested in seeing that.”

The one with the eyebrows laughed softly. “I can only imagine what everyone else would think. They’d probably take us for some exclusive clique.”

“‘The Dolls-on-Chest Society,'” suggested the improbable blonde. “‘The Docs’ for short.”

“Except that you and I are already ‘Docs.'” Eyebrowface’s tone was somewhat self-congratulatory at this.

Blondie indulged in their status right along with him. “We are indeed!”

“That reminds me,” Heero put in, probably hoping to change the subject and avoid ever having to explain Duo. “My sister’s looking for a new dentist — something about a crown or something. Treize, do you have a business card with you? Or can you just write down your office number so I can give it to her?”

“Of course I have business cards here; this place is my best advertising. I think almost all the members of this club are my patients.”

“I’ve fallen behind you there,” lamented the improbable blonde with a touch of drama to his tone. “I’ve only treated a few of them.”

“Not everyone needs braces, my dear,” replied the one with the eyebrows. “You know your percentages are much higher than mine at the local schools.”

“You make me sound like a pedophile.”

“I consider very little beyond you.”

“Oh, unfair!”

Duo was laughing openly at this exchange. “I think these are the gayest guys I’ve ever met,” he remarked.

Heero gave a snorting laugh, and this pulled the others’ attention back onto him. “So is this a good luck charm or something?” asked the improbable blonde, gesturing in his turn to Duo.

The one with the eyebrows added before Heero could answer, “Or maybe he thinks it’s a boy magnet.”

“It certainly worked on Quatre, in that case–” the improbable blonde laid a hand on Quatre’s shoulder and gave him a teasing shake– “given that he ran right into him at least twice.”

“Oh, but Heero doesn’t need a magnet to attract Quatre, does he?” said the one with the eyebrows.

“You guys are impossible,” laughed Quatre.

By now they’d reached the changing rooms, and there was a lot of pulling out of fancy thick towels with gold embroidered letters going on. “Ooh, do I get to come into a giant communal shower with all of you guys?” Duo wondered in some excitement.

“Treize, I’m going to go shower at home,” was Heero’s indirect answer to this question. “I’ve got to be somewhere. So if you’ve got a card I can give my sister…”

“You don’t have to ‘be somewhere,'” scoffed Duo.

Heero was far enough away from his friends that were not in the know, and busy enough with changing clothes, that he was able to mutter, “Yes I do: at home,” without their hearing or at least questioning.

Super Eyebrow Man turned toward the locker from which he’d withdrawn the towel that was now draped over his shoulder. “I guess we’ll just have to interrogate Quatre,” he said pointedly as he came back out with a business card, which he moved to hand to Heero.

Quatre’s face took on an apologetic look. “Actually, I’m leaving too, as soon as I’m showered and changed; I’ve got some errands to run.”

Duo mimicked his own previous tone. “You don’t have ‘errands to run.’ You both just want to get out of here before you have to talk about me.” Quatre smiled, but smoothed it away almost immediately.

Mr. Sparklehair’s expression as he met the eyes under the strange eyebrows could only, Duo thought, have been described as ‘smarmy.’ “Looks like it’ll just be you and me for dinner, Treize,” he said.

“So it does, Mill,” replied the one with the eyebrows. “Maybe instead of the restaurant here we should just go home to eat. I seem to remember we didn’t finish all of that whipped cream from the other night.”

“That’s enough of that,” Heero said loudly. He was seated and leaning down to deal with his shoes, so Duo, lying on the bench beside him still safety-pinned to a polo shirt, could see his face: his smile looked like it had been formed out of all the component parts of a wince.

Triumphantly, the improbable blonde chuckled.

Part 56

Heero managed to get out of the club with only a few more hints that he should really be explaining what Duo was all about and a few more, less subtle hints that he should really be dating Quatre. It had all gone a lot better than he’d been expecting.

“So help me out here — is his name ‘Mill’ or ‘Zechs?'” Duo was wondering as they crossed the parking lot.

“His name is Milliardo,” Heero answered, rolling his eyes a little. “‘Zechs’ is an old nickname from dental school or something, I guess, and that’s what everyone but Treize calls him.”

“Those guys are a riot. How did you meet them?”

“Quatre met them here, actually.” Trying as he did so not to let his gym bag squash Duo (who was again in his pants pocket), Heero started fishing for his keys. There was another good thing he hadn’t really expected — very little talk about his car today from his fellow BMW drivers. “I got dragged into it because they needed a fourth for tennis and stuff.”

“But not basketball,” Duo recalled.

“Every once in a while we can convince them. They always act like they’ve done us a huge favor, though; it’s kindof annoying.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” chuckled Duo. “They were acting like everything they did was a huge favor to the whole world.”

Heero laughed too. He liked Treize and Zechs well enough, and tolerated their teasing better than he did that of a great many others, but Duo was certainly right about their attitude.

Once they were in the car and headed home, Duo’s first remark was, “You know a lot of really hot people.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, definitely. These tennis friends of yours… pretty much all your co-workers — I mean, I know there’s a million women there, but they’re mostly pretty hot, for women… and that super nerd has that slick Chinese look going on… and even that other guy… what did you call him… the E.T. guy…”

Heero had to laugh a little at this. “I’m going to assume you’re joking about the IT guy. And I never would have thought to call Wufei ‘really hot.'”

“That’s only because he annoys you,” Duo stated positively.

“He certainly does that,” Heero agreed. “But, really, he’s not my type.”

“Oh? You have a type?” Duo asked his next question in a disturbing mix of his usual flirtatious tone and his excellent Wufei imitation: “And what might that be?”

If Heero himself had been better at flirting, he would have responded immediately, “Oh, a long braid and impossibly purple eyes.” As it was, there was no way to answer accurately without encroaching on confessing-a-crush-on-someone-else’s-boyfriend territory, so he had to resort to equivocation. “Like you said, Wufei looks very slick, and he has this sort of self-contained look to him that I don’t like. I prefer a…” He shrugged, trying to think of the right word. “A more casual look, I guess… something freer, something a little softer-looking, maybe.” He gestured vaguely at his head, thinking of Wufei’s silly little ponytail. “Looser hair, I think, among other things…”

“So more like Quatre?”

Very carefully Heero said, “He’s definitely closer to what I like the look of than Wufei is.”

A long, thoughtful silence followed, during which Heero rather hoped they were done with this subject. He didn’t really have a fixed opinion on what he found most visually attractive in a man, and at this point any description more specific than the largely incomprehensible one he’d just given would be that of his mental image of Duo as a human. He could probably avoid being forced to admit this by inquiring into what Duo found attractive — it would be a perfectly natural next step in the conversation — but he couldn’t bring himself to solicit what would undoubtedly turn out to be a general description of Trowa.

It didn’t matter; Duo shifted the topic anyway. “So why aren’t you dating Quatre? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question — why aren’t you dating any random person you know, right? — but you guys seem like you’re pretty close, and you get along really well, and he’s nice and everything…”

Heero stifled a deep sigh. That everyone at work thought he and Quatre were together was more amusing than anything else, and with Treize and Zechs the quizzing and denial had become something of a tradition… but when Duo started wondering about it, well, that carried an entirely different meaning. Heero didn’t care what anyone else thought, but he didn’t want Duo expressing the opinion that he and Quatre would make a great pair. And this was the reason he answered with more complete honesty than he’d ever used to respond to that question before:

“Quatre is nice. And we do get along really well. But there are some things you can put up with in a friend that would drive you crazy in a boyfriend.”

“Oh, really?” Duo sounded intensely interested. “What’s little Quatre got going on that would drive poor Heero crazy?”

“‘Little Quatre?'” Heero echoed dryly.

Duo chuckled somewhat sheepishly. “‘Little Quatre’ like ‘I-can’t-think-of-a-better-affectionate-nickname-on-the-spur-of-the-moment Quatre,'” he explained.

Briefly Heero considered supplying the Japanese ‘chan’ to meet this particular vernacular need of Duo’s, but upon further reflection decided that, in the long run, nobody would thank him for that. Instead he answered Duo’s question: “Well, little Quatre is very controlling. I’m not criticizing him for it — it’s why he’s so good at his job, and it doesn’t really bother me most of the time — but I don’t think I could deal with it in a relationship.”

Duo hmm‘d thoughtfully, but didn’t say whatever he was thinking. Heero supposed he probably shouldn’t be disappointed at this, since chances were good that it involved something he would rather not hear… but he was disappointed. So, instead of just asking, passive-aggressive though he knew it was, he supplied more information in the hopes that Duo would do the same: “He and I did kiss once, though…”

Rather than extracting the private thoughts from Duo, this seemed to extract Duo momentarily from his private thoughts. “Oh, really?” he repeated. “And how was that?”

Heero shrugged. “It was a long time ago. We thought we might as well try.”

“That good, huh?” Duo was evidently amused that this was the best description Heero could come up with for the experience in question. “Hmm…” And he slipped right back into his previous contemplative silence.

So Duo thought Wufei was hot and that it would be logical for Heero and Quatre to be dating. How discouraging. Heero tried to remind himself that this was perfectly natural behavior for a friend and only to be expected, but that wasn’t really comforting. At the same time, there was nothing to be done about it.

Duo only came out of his reverie after Heero had gone through a drive-thru and obtained some dinner for himself. Heero liked and rather looked forward to being treated by one of his excessively rich friends to a meal at the fancy club restaurant after tennis, but Duo’s comment in the changing room had been absolutely right — he’d wanted to get out of there before he had to talk about the doll in his pocket — so Burger King was the order of the evening. And Duo, on realizing he’d missed the opportunity to talk into the speaker (which was evidently something he enjoyed, since the person on the other end had no way of knowing he wasn’t human), finally set aside whatever had been occupying his thoughts so thoroughly.

“You know, I could count on the number of hands and feet I have total the number of times I’ve eaten at a restaurant.”

“So, four times?” Heero wondered, somewhat amused.

“Well, three actually. But I could count that on the number of hands and feet I have total. I can’t exactly count anything on one hand above, you know, one.” Duo waved one of his single-piece hands in the air. “But, yeah, cheaper restaurants where anyone could just walk in and get a sandwich or something took a while to get started… and the nicer places were way out of my league.”

“But you managed it three times.” Heero was already digging fries out of the bag as he drove; he never managed to get a fast food meal home with any of the fries left.

“Yeah… after Trowa started making bank but before I got sick of his new lifestyle, he took me to a couple of places. And before that, years before that, there was this one time when we thought we were going to get evicted, and we had no idea where we would go if we did, so I convinced Trowa to blow all the money we had on eating out and pretending we were all high-class, just to make us feel better. We were maybe… seventeenish… at the time, I think.”

“So instead of paying rent with your money so you wouldn’t get evicted…”

Duo laughed sheepishly. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t pay rent; it was that the guy who owned the building thought he could get better rent out of some family of eight that was looking for a place. You know, in our two rooms.”

“But still, it sounds like you spent your rent money on food instead.”

“It wasn’t just food… it was an experience. The menus were half in French — which was what got us started on the whole French nickname thing — and the waiters were all looking down their noses at us, and everything they asked, they asked all sarcastically, like, ‘Will you gentlemen have another glass of lemonaid?’ — because we couldn’t afford wine or anything, and they might not have let us have it anyway.”

Heero couldn’t help laughing. “That still doesn’t explain why you spent your rent money on this.”

“Well, it’s a long story…”

And a long story from Duo, Heero decided, even from a Duo that might think Heero ought to be dating Quatre, was the perfect way to spend most of an evening.

Part 57

Sunday was a very lazy day, beginning with Heero sleeping in until around eleven, continuing with some actual watching of TV for once and then some reading aloud, and eventually leading to looking up funny things on the internet while listening to that favorite band of Heero’s again. A visit from Trowa in the afternoon was the one thing (apart from Duo suddenly finding himself human again twenty-two days early, of course) that could have made the day pretty much perfect.

Trowa still seemed inexplicably happier than he had for most of the time since Duo had been reunited with him, and still didn’t seem inclined to mention why; but Duo, remembering Quatre’s poor performance on the tennis court yesterday, now at least had a theory. Even in this current good mood, Trowa was obviously a little too fragile for much teasing, so Duo wasn’t going to mention it if Trowa wasn’t — but he was on the watch.

What made this particularly interesting was the insight Duo had received yesterday into Quatre’s controlling nature, which he thought he could see now that Heero had pointed it out, but which he might not otherwise have noticed for a while. By coincidence, Duo had just been thinking that what Trowa really needed in his life at this stage was someone to take charge of him, to order things for him, to insist that he did what was healthy and didn’t do anything guiltily self-destructive. And now Trowa was happier and Quatre was distracted… Well, it could still mean nothing. But somebody was going to have to be teased about it at some point.

At the moment, Duo was being introduced to the glorious world of lolcats, a style of humor he found, somewhat to his embarrassment, right up his alley. Granted, Heero was also amused, but evidently this was more at Duo’s amusement than at the actual ‘entertainment.’ At least laughter was something Duo had never had a problem with as a doll, though it probably would have been a good deal louder if he’d been human.

When somebody knocked at the apartment door, Heero muttered, “I thought I saw Quatre go into Trowa’s house earlier…” He rose, picked up Duo, and headed out to answer, obviously thinking it odd to have a non-Quatre visitor on a Sunday evening.

Duo was amused at the picture this painted of Heero’s social life (not that it came as any surprise). After confirming Heero’s assumption about Quatre, he added in a deliberately bitter tone, “And unless we both fell asleep, he hasn’t come back out yet.”

Heero tucked Duo’s legs into his jeans pocket as he approached the door; he looked through the little hole, and all Duo could see was the door itself close to his face. “Oh,” said Heero.

“Who is it?” Duo asked unnecessarily.

Opening the door, Heero disclosed the figure of a woman, who greeted him with a cheerful, “Hi, Heero,” and stepped immediately inside. Her Asian features looked vaguely familiar, though Duo had never seen her before, and her voice was one he’d heard while he’d been bent double inside Heero’s pocket a week ago.

“Hi,” Heero replied, moving quickly out of the way of both his sister and the large cardboard box she carried. Then he shut the door behind her and turned to watch her place her burden on the kitchen counter. “What’s that?”

“Things I’m getting rid of that I thought you might want,” Relena replied. She laughed as she added, “The only time I ever go through things and get rid of stuff I don’t need is when I move.”

Duo heard the smile in Heero’s answer, “Same here.”

Relena had reached into the box, and now held up some strange device Duo didn’t recognize. “You have the same model vacuum I do, don’t you? Didn’t mama buy them both at the same time?”

“Yes,” Heero replied, reaching out to take the object. “Don’t you use this?”

“No, never, and it’s just wasting space. Can you use it?”

“Well, I already have one…”

“I’ll just take it to Goodwill, then,” Relena shrugged. She took whatever it was — some kind of vacuum attachment, presumably — from him again and replaced it in the box. “Then there’s this…” She started to lift something else out, but at that moment, looking back over at her brother, she caught sight of Duo. Pausing in her movement, then straightening and removing empty hands from the box, she stared at him with that faintly confused expression Duo was so accustomed to. “Heero… why do you have a… Barbie doll? in your pocket?”

Duo couldn’t really see Heero’s face from here, but the sound of his sigh was simultaneously defeated and amused. “It’s a…” He lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s a long story.”

Relena leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms. “OK. I’ve got time.”

Heero’s little laugh was just as helpless as his previous gesture. “Longer than that, even. You’ll probably want to sit down.”

“Wow, are you really going to tell her?” Duo was surprised. He’d gotten the feeling Heero was quite fond of his sister, but hadn’t thought things would come to this.

“Yes,” Heero answered him aloud.

“‘Yes’ what?” wondered Relena.

Again Heero gave that defeated little chuckle. “Come sit down.”

With a skeptical look, she did as he said, accompanying him to the couch. “You know, the other reason I came over was just to say I was so sorry about mama the other night. But if she sees you carrying around a Barbie doll, I don’t know what she’ll do.”

Heero sighed. “You don’t have to apologize for her. It’s not your fault.”

“Yes, but I feel partly responsible when she’s trying to set you up with my roommate, or get you to buy my car. She’s really too much sometimes!”

Heero pulled Duo from his pocket as he settled into one corner of the couch, and held him on his lap. (As an aside, Duo liked being on Heero’s lap, and thought he really must try it again as soon as he was human.) “Don’t worry about it. She’ll calm down eventually, once you guys are all settled and the wedding’s over.”

“I hope so. So tell me about this doll.”

“This,” Heero said seriously, lifting Duo up to chest height, “is Duo Maxwell. Duo, say hi to my sister.”

So obviously they really were going to do this. With a grin and a wave, Duo said, “Hi, Relena. Good to meet you for real at last.”

She didn’t even start, only tilted her head slightly with another, very skeptical look and said in a tone to match, “Douzo yoroshiku, Duo-san.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Duo replied cheerfully.

“Duo was once human, but he’s been cursed to live as a doll,” Heero broke in, in the flattest voice Duo had ever heard from him, before Relena could supply any more Japanese sarcasm. “To break the curse, he has to stay within five feet of me for a month. We’re eight days in.”

For a long, long moment, Relena just stared, and Duo thought she was torn between laughter and reaching out to take Heero’s temperature. Finally she reached out instead to take Duo, with whom Heero parted only reluctantly. Then Duo found himself closely examined by eyes the same color but not nearly as attractive as Heero’s.

“You will find,” he said, “that I am very good-looking. Also notice the awesome Starfleet uniform, which was a present from your brother because he is awesome.” He added with a little sigh as Relena began turning him over and scrutinizing his joints, “Also, I have no speakers or wires or anything. It’s easier if you just accept that.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Relena said at last, slowly. “This is so out there that I have a hard time even thinking it’s a joke, but…”

“It’s not a joke.” In a somewhat peremptory movement, Heero took Duo back and put him in his lap again. “A while back, I was coming out of work, and I saw Duo lying in the gutter……”

The story took some time to tell, since Relena fairly constantly demanded clarification and a greater level of detail than Heero was providing (and because Duo had to put in his two cents’ worth at every opportunity), and when it was over she still had that somewhat stunned look of disbelief and concern on her face.

“Well,” she said finally. “This was not at all what I expected when I came over here tonight.”

“I can’t say I ever expected any of this,” Heero replied mildly.

Relena took a deep breath. “OK, so. Magic is real, you’re living with a guy who was turned into a Barbie doll a hundred years ago, and that door over there–” she gestured at Trowa’s door, which she hadn’t noticed until Heero had pointed it out to her– “opens onto some other guy’s house on the east coast.”

Heero nodded.

“She’s taking it better than you did,” Duo remarked. He most particularly liked Relena’s use of the phrase ‘living with a guy.’

“Especially for getting it all at once,” agreed Heero at a murmur.

Abruptly Relena stood and turned toward aforementioned door. “OK,” she said. “Let’s just see about that.”

Part 58

“Quatre has the key,” Heero reminded his sister as she marched toward Trowa’s door.

She shook her head, dismissing this concern, and knocked loudly. Heero had to smile; Relena was nothing if not determined. Standing on tip-toe, she peered through the windows into Trowa’s entryway and murmured, “Well, there’s definitely someone’s house in there. Shouldn’t there be another apartment on the other side of this wall?”

“That’s right,” said Heero.

“The house isn’t on the other side of the wall, though,” Duo supplied.

“And here’s Quatre,” marveled Relena.

The door opened, and there, indeed, was Quatre. He looked surprised, but gave Relena a friendly smile as he greeted her. “So I guess you’re in on all this now?”

She nodded slowly, craning her neck slightly to see past him. “I don’t know if I believe ‘all this’ just yet, but this door thing is pretty amazing.”

Quatre grinned. “Well, come in and meet Trowa. We’ll have you believing in no time.”

“‘Come in,'” Relena echoed faintly. She looked back at Heero, who shrugged, and then, shrugging herself, followed Quatre through the door.

As it closed behind them, Duo began to laugh. “God… you know… this situation sucks a lot of the time, but a lot of the time it’s really funny too.”

Again Heero had to smile. “I’m glad to be able to tell her,” he confessed.

“Maybe it’ll make things easier on you.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Mostly Heero was glad to be able to confide in his sister, period. With the current tension between him and his parents, it was simply a relief.

Relena wasn’t gone long, which didn’t surprise Heero much; he doubted Trowa looked kindly on random strangers appearing in his house. She and Quatre were deep in conversation as they appeared again through the door, and it seemed to be some kind of enthusiastic discussion about magic, so far as Quatre understood it, and what it could do. Evidently Quatre had been true to his word, and Relena was now a believer.

She broke off, however, the moment she came back into the room. Heading straight for the couch, she bent and took Duo’s right hand between her thumb and forefinger. “I’m sorry I was rude before,” she said seriously. “It’s very nice to meet you, Duo.” And she shook his hand. Then she went on in the same level tone, “I find that you are very good-looking, and I notice your Starfleet uniform, and I acknowledge that you have no speakers or wires or anything.”

“Heero,” Duo breathed, “I think I’m going to have to marry your sister.”

Everyone laughed, and Relena, releasing the doll’s hand, sat back down on the couch. “So I may need to hear the story all over again, now that I believe it,” she said.

“Well,” said Quatre, who’d been standing behind Relena and grinning, “I’ve got a card game to finish, and then I’m going to see if I can convince Trowa to actually get some sleep tonight.”

“A card game, huh?” Duo said loudly (as loudly as Duo was capable, anyway; it was more of a tone, really, than a volume). “Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Heero thought there was a touch of bitterness to the tone, and wondered whether Duo recognized the fact that Quatre had a crush on his boyfriend or was simply jealous because he couldn’t spend as much time with Trowa as Quatre did.

Quatre had already turned back toward the door, and acknowledged this pointed statement with only a wave. Soon he was gone.

“Right, then,” said Relena. “Let’s hear it all again.”

The next hour and a half passed very pleasantly; strange as the situation was, to be able to share it with Relena was wonderful. Heero thought, too, that she divined a little more of what was going on than he actually articulated: the looks she gave him occasionally seemed to indicate that she was picking up on his unspoken feelings. That came as no great shock… she’d been his first family member to know he was gay, and hadn’t expressed any surprise; and she seemed to be one of the few people he knew whose mind it had never crossed that Heero and Quatre were anything more than friends. She simply understood him better than many others.

Most of the same questions Heero had asked over the weeks Relena now had, and she showed quite a bit of interest in everything the doll said. She was scrupulously polite, to which Duo responded (predictably) by flirting with her the entire time she was there. Silently watching as diplomacy was met with over-the-top flirtation reminded Heero of work parties; but not only did Relena lack the underhandedness of the office diplomats and Duo the desperation and pathos of those that tried to find dates at work parties, there was a sincerity to the friendliness of their words that further foiled the comparison.

As ten o’clock approached, Relena pulled herself with evident reluctance from the conversation. “I have to get home,” she said. Standing, she added to Heero, “You probably need to get to bed, too, if you’re going to have another fun day at work tomorrow.” And she grinned. She’d been quite amused by the accounts of what Heero had put up with there so far.

With a short, somewhat bitter laugh Heero stood as well, and followed her over to the kitchen counter. “I’ll just leave this here,” Relena went on, tapping the box she’d brought. “You can look through it and decide if you want any of it, and I’ll come by some other time and grab whatever you don’t.”

Heero nodded. “Oh,” he said, remembering suddenly. “Hang on.” And he went quickly into his bedroom to retrieve off his dresser the business card he’d gotten from Treize yesterday.

As he returned, Relena was looking at them both thoughtfully. “You really do just pick him up and take him with you everywhere, don’t you?”

Glancing down at Duo in his hand, Heero nodded again and held out the card.

“Not into the bathroom, though,” Duo said sagely.

Relena laughed, and thanked Heero for the card. “Well, Duo,” she said, turning to leave, “it was great to meet you.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Duo agreed, waving at her as she opened the apartment door.

“Oh, yeah, and Heero…” Relena halted and looked back. “There’s a book in there; it’s a present for you, not something I’m trying to get rid of, since I was pretty sure you didn’t have that one.”

“OK,” said Heero. “Thanks.”

“See you guys later!” She returned Duo’s wave and closed the door behind her as she stepped into the hall beyond.

Immediately Duo suggested, “Let’s see what book it is.” There was a mischievous tone to the statement that Heero thought more likely related to the bookshelf where the gift would eventually have to be placed than to the book itself.

“OK,” said Heero again, smiling, and went back to the box. He set Duo down on the counter next to it and began digging through the mismatched contents — what had led Relena to believe he could use any of this? — looking for a book. When he found one and saw what it was, he smiled again; this was a very clear symbol of solidarity to accompany the apology regarding their mother.

“Well, what is it?” asked Duo impatiently.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard.” Heero held the book up so Duo could see the cover.

“Harry Potter?” read Duo. “My last kid used to love those books. I thought they were all called ‘Harry Potter and the Something of Something,’ though.”

Heero explained.

“So Harry Potter,” Duo mused, “must be some of the books you’re so embarrassed about on your bookshelf.”

“They’re on the bookshelf, but I’m not embarrassed about them anymore.”

“Anymore?”

Picking the doll up again and heading into the computer room to put the new book in its place, careful not to let Duo see the shelf as usual — at which Duo made a number of amusing frustrated noises, even as Heero spoke — Heero elaborated. “Relena was following the series as it came out, and she kept bugging me to read them. She actually bought me copies of all the books that were out at that point, which was the first four. It turned into our sort of inside joke that she wanted me to read Harry Potter and I wasn’t interested, and it got so that she was calling me every single day to ask whether I’d started the first one yet. Eventually I figured I’d better do it before her head exploded.”

Duo broke off making annoyed noises in order to guess, “And then it turned out you liked it?”

“I…” Heero found himself smiling sheepishly as he admitted, “I liked it so much that I read them all in a month and made Quatre read them all too. Then I got the next three at the midnight ‘parties’ the day they came out.”

Heartily Duo laughed at him. “And then I bet Relena was like, ‘I told you so!!'”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Heero had gone back out to turn off the lights in the kitchen and living room and lock the door. “And she went with me to the midnight things.”

“Well, now I want to read them! I’ve seen some of the movies, and they were boring, but I guess the books are better if you liked them that much.”

“I haven’t liked the movies much,” said Heero, setting Duo down on the dresser and looking for pajamas.

“Well, can we read the books?”

“We have to finish Oz first.”

“But we still have, like, nine of those to go!”

“We have to finish Oz first,” Heero repeated firmly.

“OK, well, then, can we have some Oz tonight before you go to sleep?”

Heero glanced at the clock, thinking about what he needed to get done tomorrow morning — make lunch sandwiches, among other things — and just how early he would have to get up for that.

“Pleeaaase?” Duo begged.

And it turned out there was no part of Heero that could stand up to that word in that tone from that person. “OK,” he said. “Maybe just a little.”

Part 59

Quatre had come into Trowa’s house to break up a particularly bleak Monday afternoon with the announcement that, as he had meetings all day tomorrow, including through lunch, he was taking an abnormally long break today and they were to have a picnic right now. Trowa, in whom the word ‘picnic’ awakened only a wary avoidant impulse but who wasn’t inclined to disagree with Quatre, jumped them to some place Quatre had in mind that turned out to be a nice park somewhere with a lake.

The neat little sidewalk along which they wandered seemed to be leading over to a playground and some basketball courts, but they left it before it strayed too far from the lake. At this point the latter was eight or ten feet below the level of the path at the bottom of a sort of retaining wall; between this and a railing designed to keep people on the sidewalk, there was a little grassy spot, and on this they sat, dangling their feet over the wall.

The water down beneath was alive with ducks, to which they dropped little bits of the deli sandwiches Quatre had bought for the occasion. It was cool out, but not cold, and, though there was a distant sound of city traffic, the park was quiet and serene, with no other people about to spoil the atmosphere: all in all, not a bad place and time for the first picnic Trowa had been on in almost a century.

When he was done eating — actually, he’d given quite a lot of his lunch to the ducks because they were so funny to watch — he was more than content to sit still and enjoy the scene. Quatre finished his own sandwich and lemonade, gathered up the wrappers and bottles into the shopping bag in which he’d brought them, then stared complacently down at the lake with a little smile on his face.

Trowa, who had been looking around at the park and reflecting that being out of the house wasn’t nearly so bad when you didn’t have to deal with people, eventually found himself watching his companion exclusively. Quatre was swinging his legs, kicking his feet against the brick wall like a little kid in an inexplicably nice business suit, gaze directed intently at the water, hair falling across his face in delicate pale strands that glittered in the sunlight when he moved. Trowa was coming to know well just how firm Quatre was, but he looked so soft… his smooth skin, his perfect lips, the lashes that concealed his downturned eyes… Pushing past the instinct that told him he shouldn’t, Trowa reached out.

As his fingertips brushed, slow and hesitant, across Quatre’s chin and over his lips, Quatre raised his head slightly, eyes closed. After this Trowa could feel no breath from him, nor motion either, as if his hand were a rare butterfly that had landed on that fine face as it would on a flower, and Quatre was trying not to frighten it away. Almost without breathing himself, Trowa leaned forward, his hand sliding a little more surely up the far side of Quatre’s face.

Evidently just the very slightest pressure from Trowa’s wrist against his jaw was all Quatre had been awaiting, for now he turned and met Trowa’s kiss with an unusual gentleness to his commanding enthusiasm, and for a few moments everything in the world was good. Trowa was learning to ignore the prophecies of doom that issued from the darkness in the back of his head at times like this.

And then somebody on the path behind them commented loudly, “Oh, god, why can’t these fucking fags PDA somewhere else?”

Trowa wouldn’t have thought that such a poorly-expressed opinion could have such an effect on him. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of being gay — he’d missed most of the to-do about that issue anyway, and lacked the stigmas — but he was ashamed of being many other things that he was, things that Quatre shouldn’t have to put up with. And it wasn’t that he thought there was anything wrong with kissing his boyfriend, wherever they happened to be — though admittedly he probably couldn’t have done it if he’d known there were people around — but he did have issues with being in this relationship in the first place.

Not to mention that this was the first time he’d ever kissed anyone in a public place, and practically the first time he’d made this sort of overture toward Quatre rather than its being the other way around… and what was the result? The first time? What was the universe trying to tell him? It just seemed to confirm all of his worries about this situation.

His impulse was to pull away, but Quatre, whose hand had come to rest on Trowa’s shoulder, held him firmly still as he asked very quietly, “Can you teleport us to some place in my head if we’re in free-fall?”

“Probably…”

“Get ready, then.” And Quatre released him, stood up, and turned in one smooth movement. In a louder and much harsher tone he added, “I can’t take any more of this harassment.”

A little puzzled, Trowa also stood. Half-turning, he saw a couple of boys on the path watching them in a mixture of scorn and curiosity. They appeared to be high-school-aged, but, as he had no idea what time zone they were in, Trowa couldn’t guess whether or not this meant they were truants. One of them carried a basketball, making their destination obvious; they probably found this nearly-empty park convenient for their game, especially if they were, in fact, skipping school.

He felt Quatre’s arms slide around his chest and cling tightly, heard Quatre announce in the same unhappy voice, “This life just isn’t worth it anymore!” And then, startlingly, he was off-balance, flying, falling, when Quatre unexpectedly pushed off and sent them both plunging from the wall toward the lake.

Usually Trowa avoided deliberate use of magic in front of non-magical people, as it tended to do more harm than good, but at this point it was either that or actually fall into the water. Apart from the general discomfort this would cause and the fact that Trowa didn’t really know how to swim, Quatre’s nice suit would be ruined. So he concentrated on the nearness of Quatre and the idea that Quatre knew where they were going, and spoke the spell as quickly as he could. Still it was some sort of miracle, he thought, that they didn’t hit the water before the weightlessness kicked in.

He’d been concerned that, practically horizontal as they were, they would fall hard onto concrete or a wood floor or some other unpleasant surface wherever they arrived, but Quatre was becoming an expert at envisioning destinations; they landed on something soft, bounced a little, and came to rest quite comfortably.

Quatre leaned up and kissed Trowa on the cheek. “Well done,” he said.

Trowa, who had begun looking around to ascertain where they were, turned back to the man in his arms and replied, “That was taking an awful chance.”

With a dark chuckle unlike anything Trowa had ever heard from him, Quatre said, “It was the best I could come up with on such short notice. I had to do something.” He snuggled into Trowa with an air simultaneously annoyed and self-satisfied; the unconstraint of this gesture suggested to Trowa that the bedroom in which they now found themselves was Quatre’s own.

“I doubt it accomplished anything. Your performance was not very convincing.”

Again Quatre gave that unusual, vindictive laugh. “If it made them panic thinking they’d contributed to someone’s suicide attempt, even just for one second, then that’s good enough. At the very least they’ll be confused because we disappeared.”

Trowa smiled against the top of Quatre’s head, and went back to examining the room.

It was nicely furnished. The bed on which they lay, a dresser, and a large desk nearby were all antiques, but it took Trowa, whose own life was so full of dated things and whose eyes were so accustomed to eclectic decorating, a moment to realize this. These well preserved walnut pieces had probably come from before even his time, and looked like a matched set.

It was also scrupulously neat and clean. From the wooden model vehicles on their little shelves — remnants of a childhood hobby of Quatre’s? — to the meticulously well-organized surface of the desk — Trowa, though no real expert on human behavior, hadn’t thought it physically possible to keep a computer desk that neat — to the books that stood in a size order that was probably only secondarily alphabetical, there was no trace of dust or anything that appeared to be the slightest bit out of place.

Even the two items that adorned the walls where they were free of shelves — one an amateur landscape on canvas and the other a bulletin board tiled with photos — had their edges aligned with the seams of the vertical wood paneling so perfectly that if Trowa hadn’t known better he would have thought magic was involved. Everything here was so pointedly, precisely charming somehow… very much like Quatre himself. And here Trowa was lying on Quatre’s bed… and Quatre was kissing him again, starting with his neck and ear and moving over his face to his mouth.

Last Friday’s excursion into the realm of sexual activity had left Trowa very definitely interested in further exploration. His guilt hadn’t disappeared, and he certainly wasn’t ready to take any sort of initiative in the matter, but now when Quatre was this close to him he was conscious of sensations he hadn’t felt in he didn’t remember how long. Quatre was like spring sunlight after a very long winter, and in more ways than just this; now, as Quatre kissed him leisurely and kept them tight against each other with a firm arm, Trowa felt his blood heating and his skin tingling.

By the time Quatre left Trowa’s lips to the cool, hungry air and put his mouth instead by Trowa’s ear to murmur, “I want you to do something for me,” Trowa was ready to comply with any request at all.

At Trowa’s futile attempt to articulate this sentiment, Quatre chuckled and kissed him on the nose. Then he pulled away, disappointingly, and propped himself up on an elbow. “If you can,” he amended. “Would you make your door open onto this room?” He gestured. “I’d like to be able to come see you without having to go through Heero’s apartment.”

Thinking that he would also like this, Trowa readily agreed, despite having been hoping for a more interesting request. And as Quatre was now sitting up beginning to look around in a very practical fashion, thus negating the possibility of any such interesting activities, Trowa joined him in this with as good a grace as he could command.

Quatre, it seemed, had made sure to keep his hand on the bag containing their trash from lunch when they’d jumped here, something Trowa definitely wouldn’t have thought of, and now he took this up again from where he’d let it fall, and went to throw it away beside the desk. And as he did so he remarked, “I don’t have a single empty spot on my walls that’s big enough to put a door into.”

“No,” Trowa agreed. “But that won’t be a problem, if you don’t mind me using your closet door.”

“How will that work?”

“It will be like my door from the inside; you’ll just have to concentrate on what you want it to open onto.”

Quatre grinned. “Well, I didn’t really need that closet anyway.”

Trowa had already turned toward the door in question and begun to run through the necessary magic in his mind before he realized what Quatre meant, and by then it was too late to try to think of an appropriate response. He really wasn’t very good at this flirting thing. But the remark did please him, and, as he set about preparing for the first spell he was to cast, he smiled a little.

Part 60

If Quatre had known how long the door-linking would take, he wouldn’t have requested it of Trowa so close to the time he’d had to leave. And if he’d known how ritualistic a spell it was, how much effort it required of its caster, he might not have requested it at all. He hadn’t wanted to stop Trowa, however, once the process was started, because working out complicated magic seemed to be something Trowa genuinely enjoyed — and almost without attendant guilt, apparently — and Quatre wouldn’t take that experience from him for the world.

But it had been necessary for him to rush away the very moment Trowa was finished, hurrying to get back to work in something like a timely fashion and leaving a lot of things unsaid. Things like, “It’s amazing to watch you do that,” and, “That is so sexy,” and half a million questions concerning the various elements of the ritual and their purpose. Fortunately, these could all be expressed after work (and after the near-perfect distraction of thinking about it all afternoon during work).

It was with great pleasure that Quatre headed toward his own house rather than Heero’s apartment upon leaving the office, for the first time in… how long had it been? A week? It wasn’t that he minded spending a lot of time at Heero’s apartment — he’d always spent a lot of time at Heero’s apartment — but having direct access to Trowa’s front door from his bedroom was a delightfully more intimate arrangement that he was looking forward to taking advantage of.

There was a joke somewhere in getting into his boyfriend’s house through his closet door, but Quatre couldn’t quite put it together. Duo probably could have; Quatre would have to mention it to him at some point just to see what he would say. Except that, as far as Quatre knew, neither Duo nor Heero was aware of any of this.

Trowa, evidently out of some erroneous sense that this constituted a betrayal of some sort, hadn’t yet been able to bring himself to tell Duo — though Quatre understood he’d gone over there a few times hoping he could manage it — and Quatre had continually failed to mention it to Heero for various reasons. Which meant six days of Heero unnecessarily under the false impression that Duo and Trowa were still in love… six days of Quatre being a terrible person and a miserable friend. He would really have to fix that.

Not right now, though.

Trowa was in his study, in his chair, at his table, with his head bent over a book, but there was about him that look of just having begun to move that indicated he hadn’t been working at least a minute ago, if not all evening. Quatre was aware that the dilution of the amount of work Trowa got done was due in large part these days to the distraction that came from being involved with Quatre… he couldn’t help feeling a little bad about this, but at the same time, it was much better than how things had previously been.

Actually, it looked as if Trowa might just have awakened from another chair-bound nap, which was, on the scale of ways Trowa could spend his time, far toward the desirable end. As was beginning to be something of a custom, Quatre came over and sat down on Trowa’s lap in the chair.

“I take back every negative thought I ever had about this chair,” he said as he did so. “I’m really quite fond of it now.”

Trowa, accepting Quatre’s embrace, paused in the act of reciprocating and asked, “What didn’t you like about it?”

“It’s probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Quatre answered seriously, running a hand across the tassels on the underside of one of the arms.

“Is it?” Trowa seemed genuinely surprised.

Quatre laughed and kissed him. When he’d finished with that he told him, “Well, like I said, I like it now.”

They discussed then what Trowa had and hadn’t gotten done on his book today, as well as a few minor and largely uninteresting points of Quatre’s day at work, and finally, at Quatre’s insistence, Trowa explained in detail the spell he’d cast earlier.

Quatre very much enjoyed it when Trowa talked about magic. For one thing, Trowa seemed to enjoy it too, and there weren’t a lot of things about which that could be said, and even fewer he could be said to enjoy without immediately hating himself for it. But there was also the simple fact that Quatre found it all very interesting, and Trowa’s knowledge and understanding very impressive.

This particular spell, though Trowa claimed it was not difficult, was very involved, and required, as Quatre had noticed earlier, a g