A step Trowa has needed to take ever since the breaking of the curse has unexpected consequences; now unpleasant truths must be faced by everyone, and Quatre is suddenly a completely different person.
As it turned out, Heero could not hear Duo’s thoughts from all the way down the hall. But he knew the very moment Duo appeared on the sales floor at around 12:30, not only because of the growing psychic perception of Duo’s presence, but from the chaotic sounds that sprang up immediately upon Duo’s entrance.
It was somewhat amusing to note that the people flocking to meet Heero’s boyfriend were the same that had been first in line to stare at Heero’s doll. Those that hadn’t met Duo yet were sure to notice now, as others had one at a time throughout the summer, how much the one resembled the other. In preparation for this, Heero had forced himself to come up with a cover story of sorts at last… but since he hadn’t been inclined to provide any explanation for Duo’s presence on his desk in April, he wasn’t sure how likely he was to feel like explaining the similarity to this newly arrived human in August.
Duo’s progress toward Heero’s cubicle had ground to a halt not far from his destination as he’d picked up followers like a magnet gathering spilled pins. This allowed Heero, thankfully, to listen to the conversation without having to take part in it as he wrapped up what he was working on.
Hearing Duo flirt with half the ladies on the sales floor was not as unsettling as the earlier flirtation with Wufei had been, but Heero had a feeling he needed to accustom himself to observing flirtation from Duo directed at anyone and everyone. At the moment, Duo appeared to have set aside his trauma relating to Hilde’s breasts and busied himself complimenting (of all things) her hair, after which he managed to find some excuse to estimate Carol’s age a good decade lower than it really was. Stephanie received an exaggerated start and the immediate explanation that Duo had been mightily struck with the brilliant coordination of her outfit.
Heero, who’d stood from his chair and was now watching the proceedings over the wall of his cubicle, rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help smiling a little too. The gossipy nature of the sales crowd arose from their being such sociable people, which, in turn, made them better at sales, and he couldn’t really blame them for their interest (though he might have blamed them a bit more if he’d been in the middle of the group rather than observing from the edge). They had a number of questions and comments for Duo, and a lot to say about the nature of this job, and the jovial, disorganized conversation got louder and louder as minutes passed.
But not as loud as the sudden demand from one of the doors, “What the hell is going on in here?”
Heero had so rarely heard that voice raised — particularly in anger — that he didn’t even immediately recognize it. The room went wordless in a quick wave that spread from the doors, which allowed him to hear the next few statements clearly despite their being quieter.
“I hope everyone in here who’s abusing my time clock remembers that performance reviews are coming up.” Quatre was visible now, having quickly penetrated the suddenly uneasy crowd and approached Duo with a scowl. “And you shouldn’t even be in here until you’re in partner training.”
Heero could detect in his boyfriend simultaneous annoyance in response to Quatre’s bellicose tone, fear that he might be in trouble, and pitying concern at this sign of continued irrational anger, but Duo’s struggle not to reply at all lest he say the wrong thing was short-lived. For Quatre turned abruptly from him toward Heero’s cubicle, over whose wall he locked eyes with his best friend even as he snapped out his name.
In addition to startlement at being so suddenly the object of Quatre’s wrath, Heero was conscious of some annoyance at the tone, a little fear that he might be in trouble, and plenty of pitying concern — and the knowledge that he and Duo felt the same added an incongruous note of pleased and amused fascination to his emotional mix. He was glad Quatre couldn’t read his mind.
What Quatre could do was bad enough. “It’s only Monday, and things are already falling apart in here. You’re acting Sales Manager all week; you’re going to have to pull your head out of the sand and take charge for once. Don’t forget your performance review is coming up too.”
He had believed himself adequately braced for Quatre’s behavior, but realized at this moment that he’d only thought so because nothing Quatre had said thus far had stung him. Watching a friend and even a lover hurt by this strange condition certainly hadn’t been pleasant, and had done something to prepare him, but until his best friend of ten years had actually directed a cutting remark specifically at him, he hadn’t been capable of being truly ready. But now he’d been inaugurated into the club of Quatre’s victims, and didn’t know how to respond.
It made no difference; Quatre had already given a frustrated huffing sigh and turned away. “Don’t let me find this kind of circus in here again,” he commanded as he stalked out of the room.
Stunned silence, just such as had hung in Heero’s apartment after Quatre’s departure thence yesterday morning, filled his wake, and nobody moved for several seconds. Even those that hadn’t been part of the chattering crowd around Duo had risen from their desks when Quatre had entered, and they too now stood staring. Many eyebrows were high and many jaws were low. Even Wufei, not the most socially perceptive of all the sales staff, looked surprised. In fact it was he that broke the silence:
“Something cataclysmic appears to have happened to our Regional Manager.”
Everyone started talking at once, and many of them were throwing pensive glances at Duo. Astonishment, confusion, unhappiness, even resentment were voiced in low tones, but though Heero thought everyone was wondering and many starting to speculate, he couldn’t clearly hear any of their theories. Eventually, he knew, they would ask him. And he, still recovering from the smart of Quatre’s words, hadn’t a clue what he would say when they did. That was the explanation he should really have come up with, not some silliness about why his boyfriend so resembled the doll he’d once had on his desk.
He threw a pensive glance of his own around the room, and in so doing happened to catch Catharine Barton’s eye. She gave him a small but deliberate smile, in which Heero found a very unexpected sympathetic understanding. What she knew about the current situation, and how she knew it, he could not guess, but it was clear she was better-informed than the rest of sales. And given that she was one of the least gossipy people on the team, she probably wouldn’t have demanded answers of him in any case, which he appreciated even in hypothesis. He found himself nodding slightly in thanks for her sympathy. Then he shook himself, turned back to his computer, and logged off for lunch.
Since it was still a little early for this activity, nobody followed him and Duo off the floor when they left, but the volume of murmuring increased behind them with every step they took toward the hallway. Without being entirely sure why, Heero had a sudden, overwhelming feeling that he was guilty of something and escaping blame by leaving the sales floor.
“He’s started exaggerating now,” Duo remarked as they made their way toward the breakroom. “You don’t have a problem taking charge.”
“We were about to go on lunch.” Heero knew he didn’t have to defend himself to his boyfriend — Duo was even speaking up for him, which Heero greatly appreciated — but he couldn’t help offering this explanation of his behavior. “I didn’t see any problem with everyone wasting a couple of minutes to get it out of their system.” The truth was that, even if Quatre had been exaggerating, Heero really wasn’t terribly fond of being in charge of the entire sales team. For this reason he was Sales Coordinator rather than Sales Manager, dealing with people’s work more than he dealt with people themselves. But it wasn’t that he couldn’t take charge, or didn’t when he needed to, just that he didn’t like it. Or so he’d always believed.
Duo recognized Heero’s discomfort and, since the breakroom was entirely empty, did not scruple to say loudly, “Well, I think you’re just fine.”
As he made his way toward the fridges, Heero smiled faintly. “Yes, but you’re biased.”
“Quatre should be too,” Duo grumbled. But he was reflecting unhappily on a certain bias-defying objectivity regarding work matters that he’d specifically recognized in Quatre even when Quatre wasn’t magically angry at everything. He was also pouting a bit because he’d been looking forward to sharing with Heero his thoughts on the training thus far and his happiness at being here, and now Quatre had spoiled that.
Heero fully intended to indulge Duo in this desire — indeed, he was passionately looking forward to Duo’s opinion of the sexual harassment video in particular — but there was one more point about Quatre he wanted to raise first. He glanced around to check once again that they were alone as he brought their lunches to the table Duo had chosen. In a low tone as he sat down he said, “Those sites that talked about destroying artifacts said the energy that gets released can damage things around you, including yourself. But if this energy Quatre’s giving off is pure magic from the artifact, why isn’t it affecting anything around him?”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s like he’s processing it… converting it into a different form or something.” Duo stared thoughtfully at the sandwich he was pulling from a Ziploc. He began turning it over and over, trying to decide which piece of bread he liked better on top. “What happens to shade energy when people get possessed by it? They release it with their emotions or whatever, but what does the actual energy do at that point?”
Since their mutual lack of knowledge meant this was about as far as they could take this topic right now, and since he knew he was going to have to share Duo in about fifteen minutes when this room started to fill, Heero just shook his head. “That’s something to look up later, I guess.”
“Now,” Heero added as he extracted his own sandwich from its plastic, “tell me what you’ve been doing all morning.”
Trowa had been casting spells on an axe all day, but, though slowly feeling his way back toward the level of divination skill he’d had before, he was almost ready to declare this particular endeavor a lost cause and a waste of time. Just like yesterday’s examination of the broken pieces of the artifact.
He’d been sure the tool would be able to tell him something if he could just get the divinations to work, since the energy must have traveled up the haft from the artifact to get to Quatre. But whether his own limited divination abilities were, as they often had in the past, barring him from getting answers, or whether he was encountering interference produced by the protective spells he’d cast on the axe to keep any potential discharge of energy from harming Quatre on the artifact’s destruction, or whether he was simply on the wrong track and there were no answers to be found here, he didn’t know.
In the face of his total lack of success thus far, his thoughts kept returning to Heero’s suggestion that this might be a necrovisual issue. The very fact that the energy involved was perceptible to the completely non-necrovisual Trowa and Duo seemed to contraindicate this avenue of research, but different branches of magic could coincide to create complicated problems, and Quatre’s symptoms were very similar to those of red shade possession.
Necrovisua was the branch of magic Trowa had least investigated over the years. As a matter of fact, having no skill in it himself and having been aware that the curse he’d laid on Duo did not partake of it, he’d almost completely ignored it. Never having encountered a situation in which he would need necrovisual magic, he hadn’t even added anyone to his list of contacts whose primary talent lay in that area. If Quatre did turn out to have some kind of red shade that somehow resembled artifact energy, Trowa wasn’t entirely sure what he would do about it.
Well, actually, that was incredibly obvious: he would need to email his contacts to find out which of them had necrovisual skill, whether any of them had heard of a condition like this, and whom they would suggest to help remedy it. At least one of these questions, Trowa reflected, was something he should already have emailed them about. He didn’t really believe Heero’s theory, didn’t think this was a necrovisual problem… but it was a theory, which was more than he had. Heero had relayed it on Sunday night. And now it was Tuesday afternoon. Trowa should have set inquiries in motion long before this.
But he hadn’t emailed anyone yet. In his inbox, full as it always was of requests for assistance and magical insight, there were even several messages to which he could easily respond with a casual return request for information on the one branch of magic he wasn’t intimately familiar with. And someone had come to his door just yesterday. He hadn’t answered, but it wasn’t impossible that he could have initiated an inquiry if he had. Why was he so reluctant to contact anyone about this?
Cowardice, probably. Quatre had pointed out with unpleasant accuracy that Trowa was afraid of losing the huge levels of power the artifact had provided him, and Trowa was sure that, now he’d actually suffered this loss, he was afraid to admit even to himself how far he’d fallen. Admitting it to anyone else must be just as bad. But was that all there was to it?
He didn’t enjoy being a celebrity. He didn’t enjoy being bothered by fans and amateurs. He didn’t enjoy the awareness that many people he’d never met knew his name and even where he lived. He was mentioned in books, looked up to as an authority almost ultimate, and often the first resort when people wanted complicated spells they couldn’t cast for themselves… and he’d never enjoyed that.
Or so he’d always believed.
But this was all a result of his known history. The magical community, at least in the U.S. and sometimes beyond, knew he was immortal, knew he was extremely powerful… some of them even knew he’d long been researching curses and looking for a talking doll. That much of this had changed most of them did not know, and Trowa found himself oddly averse to the idea of telling them.
He was no longer immortal or astonishingly powerful. The lengthy period of obsessive pursuit had ended. And though he was still an expert on at least the theory of three branches of magic, still he somehow didn’t like the thought of admitting to a new problem he couldn’t deal with in the fourth. That he, the authority almost ultimate, had encountered something beyond him and was now at the mercy of other magicians a fifth his age with less skill and knowledge than he’d already had sixty years ago.
He’d believed himself almost entirely devoid of pride. Apparently he’d been wrong. It seemed he enjoyed his celebrity more than he’d been aware. And what kind of terrible person did it make him that he was allowing such feelings to keep him from seeking assistance in a matter where someone he loved was being hurt and hurting others?
Probably, to be honest, no more terrible a person than he’d long considered himself. Which meant there really was no point standing around here dwelling on it. Grim-faced, he took the axe back to the shed and headed inside to the computer.
It wasn’t a lot of fun. Whether cowardice or pride was the cause, he found the process of asking for information as unpleasant as the prospect had been, and just to keep his fingers moving on the keyboard he had to hold tenaciously to the awareness of Quatre’s condition. Had to remember phrases like, “Nobody thinks I’d ever get tired of hanging onto all their secrets for them,” and “What are you trying to do, turn me into a doll or something?”
Quatre had come to Trowa’s house, as he often did, after work yesterday, and spent a few hours ranting about the state of Winner Plastics and the breakdown of reason and order among the people there. He’d been trying not to take his anger out on Trowa, and had instead channeled it into this set of complaints about his co-workers; even Heero and Duo had not been exempt, but at least they also hadn’t been present.
Obviously Quatre had been aware of his mood. He’d apologized (for a certain definition of the term) multiple times for his grouchiness, but it was interesting that he hadn’t made any more specific reference to his own state. Evidently he wasn’t aware of the full extent of his mood, how far it was affecting him.
This seemed incredible, that effect being so readily apparent to anyone that knew Quatre, but there was such a thing as denial — a thing Trowa didn’t think Quatre generally given to… but if kindness, a predominant characteristic and integral part of the self, was being repressed or circumvented in a manner impossible to combat, even the most rational person might respond in the only way he could that would give him any feeling of control by subconsciously pretending it wasn’t happening.
Trowa hadn’t wanted to make inquiries to confirm these ideas, and perhaps this was another instance of cowardice keeping him from something he needed to do. But his faith in the value of self-reporting in such a situation was not great enough to make him eager to risk what Quatre might say in response to questions about his mental state. Emails, therefore, were a good option — possibly the best option, if Trowa wanted to admit that to himself. If anyone replied with any definitive answers, he would happily admit it; if not, he might continue to resent the necessity forever.
He seemed to have a multi-level awareness of the situation. First, there was a general knowledge of events, not limited to what his senses told him. Second, he could detect Duo’s thoughts and feelings more intensely than he’d yet done. Third, his own emotional state, primarily in response to Duo’s, was sharp and prominent. And beneath that, a state apart from the emotional was much more blurry but still somewhat distracting: he thought that, physically, he was relatively relaxed and comfortable, if a little hot, but this lay distinctly in the background to the sharp panic and misery he absorbed from the atmosphere and from Duo.
These layers of awareness were so chaotic that it took him an unpleasant while to adjust and actually process what he was picking up; so he didn’t know, when things began to clarify, how they’d come to this point.
Duo, a helpless doll, lay at the side of the road, barely able to move and feeling nothing. Absolutely nothing. He even lacked the background physical awareness that kept Heero grounded; reaching for it and not finding it, Heero felt his own panic increase. The complete absence of physical sensation behind Duo’s mentation was a barrier so impenetrable, so blank and black, it was as if Duo wasn’t even alive. Heero’s despair at the idea seemed to blend with Duo’s despair at the condition he was in.
The poor doll waved his arms weakly against the gravel he should have been able to feel. Someone was nearing, and Duo struggled wildly, trying at least to sit up and completely, miserably failing. The approaching figure was a blend of Heero and a guy named Leon, who’d kept Duo for five months before giving him to Goodwill in 2008. Now this individual walked with purpose along the road without looking down, and Duo was trying harder than ever to get his attention.
He flailed his arms and legs, but only managed somehow to flip himself over. The wave of anguish this occasioned choked his already quiet voice as he let out a muffled yell through the gravel. It was no use. The man couldn’t hear him. Duo was sure, at the sound of crunching footsteps receding into silence, that his heart was breaking, and Heero ached along with him.
What was definitely breaking was the gravelly ledge. It crumbled and collapsed; there was nothing to hold onto, and Duo’s fingers wouldn’t separate and his wrists wouldn’t bend. No good; he couldn’t stop his slide; he had no control over his downward movement; he was in the water.
He was unnaturally heavy and not at all buoyant, as he always had been. The water through which he sank should have been wet, but he couldn’t feel it; should have choked him, but he didn’t breathe; should have chilled him, but he had no way of detecting the temperature. What it did was stifle him mentally, blind him and deafen him, steal the last of his senses so he had nothing left. Nothing but the lonely prospect of an eternity here at the bottom of the water in this sensationless prison with not one single remaining freedom. Not even that of death.
Heero believed he was the one to awaken them this time, bucking so hard against Duo’s misery and its causes that he actually jerked himself awake and, sitting up abruptly, roused Duo as well. Duo too, extremely disoriented, scrambled into a sitting position, and Heero’s agitation did nothing to quell his panic. And as Heero gathered Duo into his clinging arms, Duo’s breaths came quick and ragged.
“You don’t have to do that.” Heero’s voice was harsh, and his words didn’t necessarily make any sense. “I won’t let that happen.”
Duo clung in return, sliding closer, crushing the blanket between them. He had nothing coherent to say yet, but he wouldn’t be Duo if he didn’t express himself somehow. The noise he made was rich with emotion — or perhaps that was just what Heero read from him: all the dread and hopelessness from the dream still throbbed inside Duo, but his consciousness of Heero’s comforting presence grew and strengthened.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was.” The mental simulation of sensory deprivation had been appalling, even with the consciousness of Heero’s own senses in the background. It horrified him to think that Duo’s memory of being unable to feel anything was strong enough to suppress his actual senses.
“You were there?”
“Yeah.” Heero was running his hands all over Duo as he’d developed a habit of doing after these dreams, but this time, with the echo of Duo’s wretchedness in his heart, his movements were much more intense. So intense, in fact, that it actually pulled Duo’s thoughts forcibly away from where they’d been pinned and writhing. This was the purpose of the movement, of course, but Heero’s desire to distract his boyfriend was deeper and more complex this time.
“Hey… hey…” Having picked up on the fact that Heero had shared his dream, Duo was also realizing quickly why Heero was more agitated than usual — and all of a sudden, bizarrely, it was Duo offering the comfort. “My poor communicator… I’m sorry you had to see that…”
“I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“But at least I’m used to it.” Duo was still very shaken, but concentrating on Heero’s discomfort was helping him recover. “I had a really long time to get used to that kind of thing, but you’ve never felt that before, have you?”
“Please tell me,” Heero begged, easily as breathless as Duo, “you don’t really want to die.” He knew there was no surface thought to this purpose in Duo’s head, but the despondency of the nightmare had pierced deep… and suicidal thoughts beneath the surface were more worrisome in any case.
“No!” said Duo fiercely, squeezing Heero hard. “Dreams are a totally different– I am so happy– you have no idea how glad I am to be alive.”
Intense wordless relief tightened Heero’s grip as well, and Duo snuggled against him in equal silence for a minute or so.
Heero was actively trying not to listen to Duo’s thoughts, but when he had nothing else to distract him, when his boyfriend’s mental state was his biggest concern, this was borderline impossible. So he’d already seen it coming when Duo said with a reluctant sigh, “You’re right about one thing… I definitely need some therapy. I already would really like this to stop, but if you’re going to be seeing this stuff too, that’s… we can’t be having that.”
Heero wasn’t sure what to say. Duo, he knew, had already come to the conclusion that he did need therapy simply for his own sake, but he was clearly sincere in his desire to spare Heero the unpleasant dreams, and this had prompted him to make the admission aloud. Though touched, Heero was still concerned. And it was evident that, though Duo had said it aloud, he still didn’t want to discuss it. Admitting he needed therapy was one step he’d had to work up to; he wasn’t ready for the next step just yet.
He expected Heero to say something, though — something like, “We’ll have to talk to Trowa about that again,” or even something that amounted to, “I told you so,” even though Heero would never have said such a thing and Duo knew it. And when Heero didn’t come up with anything to say, Duo was simultaneously relieved and amused. He went from uncomfortable thoughts about therapy to lighter ones about how it just figured that the uncommunicative Heero should turn out to be a magical communicator. Duo wasn’t nearly as experienced with the magical community as some other hundred-year-old magicians might be, but in the experience he did have, communicators often turned out to be the people with the highest walls.
It was remarkable how quickly fully-formed thoughts developed. Even in regard to his own reflections Heero had never considered this, but he was struck now with the rapidity of this complete thought of Duo’s that probably contained even greater complexity than what he was capable of picking up at this point — not to mention the instantaneous nature of Duo’s follow-up that, if Heero had started hearing his thoughts, he might not appreciate this latest one.
“I did hear that, but I don’t mind.” Heero ran a hand up Duo’s face and into his hair as he spoke. “I know what I’m like.” Duo wouldn’t see much of his reassuring look, but he could probably hear it in his voice.
“Yeah, but Quatre’s been rude about it lately.” The topic was definitely distracting Duo and helping the negative feelings of the nightmare to fade unusually quickly. As such, this was an even better moment for the conversation Heero had been planning and putting off since Sunday.
“I’m going to need to talk to Trowa about steps I can take to control this, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it until this thing with Quatre is over.” Heero looked at Duo earnestly as Duo nodded his understanding in the bedroom dimness. “Is it going to bother you that I’m hearing your thoughts?”
Duo leaned forward and kissed him, reflecting as he did so that a boyfriend you could simultaneously communicate with and kiss was a convenient thing to have. Of course this was not his only thought. He loved the increase in intimacy the presence of Heero in his head represented, but he didn’t know for sure that he was ready for the lack of privacy, which in some ways smacked of his time as a doll. He was reminded of Heero’s statement from Sunday: he didn’t feel he had anything specifically to keep secret, but there were potential embarrassments he would no longer be able to hide… aspects of himself that might make Heero think the worse of him. Yet to have Heero know him more completely was, overall, very desirable. And in any case, there was absolutely nothing to be done about it, so he might as well make the best of it.
Though not entirely pleased with this set of ideas, nor by the fact that Duo didn’t seem able to articulate them, Heero had to be satisfied with this answer for the moment. He was fairly pleased with the suggestion that arose from his own subconscious at about the same time: that perhaps his mental connection to Duo would allow him to affect or even repress Duo’s nightmares. That was something else he would have to look into.
It also occurred to him suddenly, somewhat irrelevantly, to wonder why he’d been able to sense whatever had happened to Quatre on Friday night when Quatre had been clear across the country. He obviously had a lot to learn about his blossoming abilities, but he felt it must probably be put off until after the current problem was solved.
Raising a hand to clasp the one of Heero’s that was still against his face, Duo pulled back at last into a position that put them eye-to-eye again, though there was still so little light in the room that expressions were difficult to make out. That didn’t much matter, though; Heero could tell Duo wanted to speak but couldn’t quite decide what to say.
Then they both jumped as the alarm went off. In response to this mutual violent start, Duo began laughing, and flung himself forward into a hug that knocked Heero onto his back with a significant tangling of blanket between and around them. Though Heero’s arm went out to try to stop the beeping from the nightstand, his blind flailing in that direction was continually ineffectual as Duo kissed him several times at various points across his head and neck. The wellspring of optimism Duo seemed perpetually able to tap had served its purpose as usual, and Duo was suddenly sanguine again.
Heero couldn’t help being affected by that hope. Perhaps something would have changed today. Four days had passed, after all, and, though nobody had come up with any answers yet, there was still the possibility that Quatre’s anger would work itself out. Maybe when they got to the office they would find him in a significantly better mood. Then Trowa could stop worrying about that and turn his thoughts toward a therapist for Duo and some learning resources for Heero.
The nightmare hadn’t been a pleasant way to start the day, and should probably, Heero reflected as he finally managed to silence the alarm, at least taint if not completely ruin it. But with Duo around — and this wasn’t the first time Heero had noticed this remarkable condition — he was able to be relatively optimistic even in the face of a negative circumstance concerning Duo himself. Things were going to be fine. Or at least, if not fine, things were going to be possible to live through. Heero was certain of that.
After increasing his body temperature with jogging and a hot shower, Quatre preferred cold coffee, and after waking up with the same headache he’d taken to bed, he needed it more than ever. Normally Darryl made some in batches large enough for three or four days so Quatre didn’t have to waste time getting it ready before work every morning, but this week, for whatever reason, he’d failed to do so. Now, on Wednesday, forced for the third day in a row to consider where he might stop for a drink that was bound to be oversugared and overpriced, Quatre was nearing the end of his patience with the negligence of his housekeeper. What exactly were they paying him for? As if Quatre hadn’t already been in a bad enough mood.
People in this city drove like idiots. Half of them didn’t seem to care whether they ever got where they were going — probably because they were none too eager to reach their meaningless jobs — and the rest were clearly on some kind of hallucinogenic stimulant. How Quatre had not been killed by one of these lunatics during the near decade he’d been driving around here, he had no idea. And having to make a minor detour on his way to the office in search of the aforementioned inevitably disappointing coffee did not exactly improve matters.
His co-workers were little better on the automotive navigation front. There was no reason for them to be anywhere near the manager spaces, but somehow it took an anomalously long time for Quatre to get parked and out of his car. He made a mental note to check people’s timestamps to see who’d ended up late because they thought it would be hugely fun to circle the lot aimlessly a dozen times before coming inside.
Over the last two days, he’d put off as many phone calls as he possibly could, and now they were all lined up in a neat list that could no longer wait. That his mood hadn’t improved despite everything he’d done irritated him, and that it was now threatening to affect the quality of his work made him downright angry, but it was only fractionally his own fault. Why was it that the very week he was in an unusually bad temper happened to be the same damn week everyone around him decided to act like a frothing moron? He shouldn’t even have to be making half these calls; somebody else should have handled them long before this, assuming they were capable of manipulating the phone and speaking basic English. What exactly were they paying anyone around here for?
This very question was what performance reviews sought to answer. Quatre was personally responsible for reviewing only the Pacific Division Site Directors, but was allowed to sit in on anyone’s review within that division — to some extent even expected to do so for those at a managerial level, at least at the two offices here in town — and could certainly give suggestions beforehand. Coming up with such suggestions would be his reward for finishing these stupid phone calls.
Why should Quatre be forced to remind the advertising department that marketing targeted at manufacturers needed to differ from marketing targeted at the general public? Didn’t they have degrees that should have told them that? And why had this snarl that had arisen in payroll when they’d changed banks made it all the way up to Quatre’s level? A few incisive conversations got it mostly sorted out, and these were conversations somebody else should have been having. Though at least he had something specific he could do during the time he spent on hold.
Performance review suggestions were a mixed reward, however, and as such didn’t really make up for the phone calls. He didn’t like writing so many unpleasant things in a row, but the staff was pushing him into it. And, yes, there was a certain satisfaction — relief, even — to venting some of his annoyance like this, but he hated the fact that people he cared about were forcing him to do things that would make them unhappy.
Even his best friend! Quatre couldn’t believe how noisy the sales team had been the last few days under Heero’s eye! He might have said Dorothy was the only member of sales that hadn’t annoyed him this week, except that her poor vacation timing was what had brought this to light. Whether job performance failings were better openly causing problems and able to be addressed, or latent with the potential to manifest at even more inconvenient moments, he could not decide — and that he could not decide annoyed him as well.
And why couldn’t he think of a singe damn criticism for Wufei Chang? Were they going to have to give that insufferable Neanderthal another raise?
Frustrated, Quatre pushed back from his desk. He had other things to do in any case, and a headache, and right now he needed a bathroom.
On the way, he passed the office of Don, the Site Director, who was talking to Joyce and looked up when Quatre passed the windows on either side of his closed door. Though it was only natural to glance out at whoever was walking by under such circumstances, that glance was also, from what Quatre could see, both a little too lengthy and broken off a little too abruptly. Quatre had long theorized that Don, dissatisfied answering to someone twenty years his junior, had his eye on Quatre’s position, and this paranoid look seemed to confirm that theory. Perhaps his performance review would turn out a little more confrontational than Quatre had expected. He almost looked forward to that.
The department he had to walk through next was always as loud as the sales floor had been lately, but at least that was normal for HR. They had a tendency never to shut any of their doors except at great need, and to carry on shouted conversations up and down the hallway; it was extremely unprofessional and, at the moment, irritating as hell. So was the type of cheerful greeting Human Resources people were always inclined to give. Some of them even expected him to stop and chat — on his way to the bathroom, for god’s sake! Quatre really needed to have one installed adjacent to his own office so as to avoid this rigmarole.
Things were much quieter as he returned, but he did catch the word ‘complaints’ more than once, undoubtedly in reference to him. It made sense that complaints were coming in, but anyone with a brain had only to look around to see the state of the company and that it made just as much sense for Quatre to be cracking down on the laxities around here. Admittedly he might not be doing this as kindly as he would have preferred, but it made equal sense that the stupidity he’d been encountering lately would perpetuate his bad mood.
Three phone calls remained. They hadn’t been grouped with the others, for various reasons, but he’d known they needed to be done. The fact that they hadn’t been on the list had formed a decent excuse to put them off until after the performance reviews… and then the performance reviews hadn’t been nearly as effective at improving his mood as he’d hoped, leaving him still in no proper state for phone calls. But they had to be made, and now was the time.
He should have seen it coming, but things kept taking him by surprise this week… the remaining calls left him so annoyed that he couldn’t see how he was going to compile the report he was supposed to spend the rest of the morning working on. Once again, though, now was the time. This was going straight to his father, and he couldn’t put it off.
His frustration was so great, however, that concentrating on this work was an effort nearly beyond him. He almost wished he hadn’t already collected all the information he needed, so that now he could just send off some authoritative emails and sit back and wait. And he couldn’t take any more Tylenol yet; he’d already significantly exceeded the recommended dose. Not that it was doing much good.
But he could control this. A bad mood, even one this long-lasting, even one accompanied by a headache of this magnitude, was not enough to cow Quatre or keep him from doing his job. It didn’t matter that the inhibition brought about by his frustration was frustrating him even more, almost to the point of tears; he could beat this. He was very good at remaining steadfast in his work, and he hadn’t developed that skill to no purpose. Even if it took him a little longer than it should, even if his language in the report was a bit curt, even if he was completely miserable by the time it was done.
At least he could go see Trowa later. That might not help at all, but looking forward to it was something. He’d been annoying Trowa over the last few days, and probably shouldn’t go see him until he was over this, but he could wrestle with that moral dilemma at 5:00. In any case, Trowa needed to be annoyed sometimes. Trowa was too passive about things; it was aggravating. If Quatre rubbed him the wrong way a bit, perhaps he could be irritated into taking initiative about something — anything — instead of merely reacting, endlessly reacting, to the people around him.
Of course, initiative at this point might serve only to call Quatre on his bad behavior. This thought brought Quatre even closer to tears than any previous, and tears would not make his head feel better, so he pushed it almost violently away. He would think about Trowa later. That could be another dubious reward. Right now he had work to do.
Duo was frankly proud of his lunch today, since with his own hands he had mixed the mayonnaise stuff into the tuna and, his very self, put that tuna-and-mayonnaise-stuff on the bread. Of course Heero had closed the sandwich and bagged it up, but what a productive member of the household Duo was becoming!
A few minutes must be spent admiring his handiwork before he could bite into it, and this delay was useful in that it gave Heero time to catch up. Latasia continued to release her trainee for lunch at around 12:45, and Heero couldn’t always get away from the sales floor before 1:00, especially after Quatre had harassed him yesterday about leaving early.
Heero had mentioned sadly that he used to eat lunch with Quatre when the latter was at leisure to do so. There was more than one reason to look forward to Dorothy’s return.
Now Heero joined Duo at the table, and the smile he gave him was wan at first. It warmed, however, as he looked at the sandwich in Duo’s hands. This reminded Duo, as several things had since yesterday morning, that Heero could read his thoughts. His feelings about that were still mixed, but he did try to suppress any active discomfort when Heero was around. Eventually he would be used to it — he was good at getting used to things, and had assimilated circumstances that offered far less consolation than his boyfriend having a window into his head — and until then, there was no reason to make Heero feel bad thinking Duo was intensely or completely unhappy about it.
Partly because he didn’t want to talk about that at the moment, partly because he really did have a comment to make about the other subject that had already been more or less brought up, Duo spoke right through his first bite of lunch. “I think someday I might not like tuna sandwiches.”
“But right now they’re OK?” Heero wondered, grinning. It was, Duo reflected, very considerate of him to ask this aloud even though he’d probably already caught Duo’s full meaning from his thoughts.
“Right now everything’s OK still. It may take a while for that to wear off.”
“Let me know when it does, and then we can start testing to see what you actually like.”
“Actually,” Duo suggested pensively, “I should probably eat all the things people think are totally gross, because now’s the only time I’ll like them.”
“Like escargot and tripe?” Heero was still grinning. “We’ll have to find some place that sells stuff like that.”
On the subject of Heero spending money on him, Duo’s conscience bothered him a lot less these days, especially since he now had a job of his own. Some uncertainty, though, had arisen in relation to that very job, and as it was recalled to his mind by this turn of the conversation, Heero’s expression went from amused to concerned. This time he didn’t wait for Duo to speak before responding to what he’d picked up on: “You’re worrying about job security already?”
“I know it’s stupid…” As Duo took a drink of his Coke, his fleeting consideration that the modern cheapness and accessibility of carbonation was a sign of mankind’s progress toward sublimity brought the smile reluctantly back to Heero’s face, and this derailed everything briefly. “Did that block out the other stuff?” Duo tapped the top of his soda can curiously. “Or do you get it all at once in a big jumble?”
“It’s just what’s on top,” Heero replied. “I haven’t tried to get at anything deeper.”
When Duo reflected that, all potential discomfort aside, there was something vaguely sexual about the way Heero had phrased that, Heero cleared his throat, glanced around at the room that would only be this empty for about two more minutes, and lowered his voice. “So, yes, you thinking about carbonated soda did block out you worrying about your job.”
“Well, then, if I ever want some privacy, I know what to do — just think about food or something.” Duo instantly regretted saying this when Heero frowned, and then he regretted regretting it since he knew Heero would know. This communication magic business really did complicate things — which was the reason he’d specifically avoided talking about it a minute ago and probably shouldn’t have brought it up just now. Quickly he said, “It’s totally fine. Just something we’ll get used to.”
Heero nodded with a faint sigh and deliberately returned to their previous topic. “So you’re worried about the job…”
Duo shrugged. “People are making me a little nervous, but that’s probably something else I just have to get used to.”
“They’re all really nice and friendly — I don’t want to say I think anyone’s deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable — but the way everyone talks to me makes me feel like they don’t expect me to last very long here.”
“You have the perfect personality for sales. You’re going to be a natural at this, and I’m sure everybody here can see that.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t been to college like the rest of you human people. Someone could come along any time who’s better qualified for this than me.”
“You’re a human person too, Duo.” Heero lowered his voice even farther as two chatting employees entered the room. Duo thought they were from HR, but freedom from the sales team couldn’t last too much longer. “And, like I said, you’re very qualified for this job, better than a lot of people who do have degrees.” Heero’s face was set in an expression of determination that appeared almost unhappy, and he didn’t let Duo make the protest he’d been planning against the encouraging words. “Besides, how many people here actually know you haven’t been to college?”
It was a good point, but it didn’t change the attitude Duo decidedly felt he’d been picking up from his new co-workers: that of saying goodbye with every conversation, getting to know him quickly while they had the chance.
“That’s strange,” Heero murmured. “I wonder what everyone’s problem is.” He shook his head and went on with unexpected intenseness. “But don’t worry. You’re exactly the kind of person we hire who always does the best job. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”
Duo half smiled. “I definitely care what you think more than what they think… but why are you so, um, passionate about this? I mean, thanks for being so reassuring, but…”
“I just don’t like to see you so worried,” Heero admitted. “You’re usually so confident.”
“Well…” Duo leaned forward as the noisy flood of salespeople they’d been expecting now began pouring into the room, but eventually decided not even to make the statement aloud: that this was more than just any old job to him. It was his chance to prove — to himself as much as to the world — that he really was a human person, and someone that nobody needed to carry around anymore. This employment opportunity meant more to him than it probably did to anyone else here, and if he screwed it up–
“You won’t,” Heero insisted, almost harshly.
“But there are these stupid little tests at the end of the training modules,” Duo complained, feeling more comfortable about the possibility of being overheard with this more frivolous branch of the subject. “I’m terrible at them! I suck at tests!”
His demeanor abruptly lightening, Heero actually chuckled a little. “I don’t think anyone ever actually looks at your results from those. They’re just there as proof that you went through the module.”
“Yeah, but…” Duo shrugged again and somewhat reluctantly brought up the last point he was worried about. “Quatre…”
Heero went right back to his previous moroseness. “Quatre,” he repeated with a sigh, and it was obvious he had no specific reassurance to offer in response to the idea that Quatre’s current state might make Duo’s position here more precarious. His expression hardened, though, as he said in a quiet, granite tone, “We won’t let him ruin this for you.”
Though he’d said ‘we,’ there was a strong implication of ‘I.’ In fact, there was about the statement a feeling of ‘I’ll go up against my best friend for your sake’ that made Duo sit up straight in surprise. He didn’t for an instant want to see any conflict between Quatre and Heero, and he fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that — but the willingness Heero thus displayed to take Duo’s part, if necessary, even against someone as important to him as Quatre, was deeply touching.
A vague idea of one way Duo could express his appreciation for this sign of love floated through his head, and, trying not to grin wickedly all of a sudden, he dragged the thought to the forefront of his mind and enhanced the hell out of it just to make sure Heero would see it. He had a pretty decent sensory imagination, if he did say so himself; it came from valuing sensation so much.
He could tell he’d succeeded when Heero’s eyes widened as he too sat up straight in surprise and his face went slightly pink. Evidently he couldn’t think what to say in response. Communication magic might complicate things, but it could potentially be a lot of fun, too.
“I just hope there aren’t any other communicators in this room,” Heero eventually managed in a somewhat choked voice.
Duo laughed and glanced around. “I don’t see anyone leering,” he reassured. “Besides, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve thought stuff like that about you in public.”
The pink deepening to red, “Speaking of things I just have to get used to,” Heero muttered.
His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:
Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.
Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.
During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.
A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.
A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.
A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.
A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.
Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.
Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.
During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.
During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.
A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.
On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.