Before things had changed last Friday night, it used to be that whenever Quatre joined Heero in the breakroom for lunch, they were courteously left alone most of the time. This week, however, with Quatre absent and everyone wanting to chat with newcomer Duo, co-workers had more or less swarmed every day. Since getting to know Duo was secondary to gossiping about Quatre a good half of the time, this made lunch pretty unpleasant for Heero, and he’d decided that, as soon as Dorothy was back and it was no longer as important for him to be consistently accessible, he would suggest to Duo that they start eating elsewhere. What Duo would say to that he wasn’t sure, but he was certainly going to make the proposal.

When Duo had looked around just now, though his purpose had been mainly to tease Heero about his embarrassment regarding sexually explicit communications in such a public setting, he’d caught the attention of more than one member of the sales team, and now it appeared they were going to be mobbed as usual. Heero stifled a sigh.

He was relatively pleased the next moment, however, to see that the first person to approach their table was Catharine. The lunch habits of most of his co-workers were not familiar to Heero, and he didn’t know whether or not she was usually in here, but this was the first time she in particular had ever walked up and asked if the seat beside him was taken. And today he was happy to welcome her to sit down with them, since he believed she would make a perfect subject for a little experiment he wanted to run.

Duo’s surface thoughts came to him like sounds from a speaker: they faded predictably at distance, but otherwise all control over their volume, if there was any, lay on Duo’s side, not Heero’s. Yet there must be a way for Heero to reach out and get more than what passively came to him. Trowa could possibly tell him how, but Trowa wasn’t present… so, because Duo was distinctly concerned about the sales team’s attitudes, Heero was going to try reading some of that.

As yet nothing came to him, even passively, from anyone besides Duo, but he knew it would happen eventually. To attempt speeding the process seemed worth a try in order to get at any answer that might comfort his boyfriend. And unless she’d been hiding her true nature very successfully as long as Heero had known her, Catharine’s head seemed like a friendly place to start.

Well, the actual start was with Duo’s thoughts. Striking out on his own as he was here, Heero had to come up with a technique he guessed would work, and his guess was to concentrate on Duo’s thoughts and then attempt to transfer that focus to Catharine. Of course what Duo was thinking didn’t leave Heero’s awareness at that point… it was like listening for something specific when someone was talking in his other ear, though a comparison to hearing was problematic when his ears were simultaneously picking up real sounds on a physical level.

In any case, it didn’t work. He heard the conversation Catharine had struck up about how Duo liked the training so far, he heard the noise throughout the rest of the room — including a few more co-workers drawing out the chairs at this very table and sitting down — and on another level he ‘heard’ what Duo thought about all of this… but from Catharine, nothing.

Of course he had no idea whether the fault lay in his method or his implementation of it, but he wasn’t going to give up on that method after only a single attempt. Duo, having set aside the concerns he’d mentioned prior to everyone’s entrance, was discussing his experience here so far with enough enthusiasm that Heero was not required to join, especially if the newcomers to the table did so in his place; he could experiment in peace.

This process, regardless of its level of success, interested and engrossed Heero enough that, each time he focused in on Duo’s thoughts, he found he had not been recognizing them clearly until he did so. Such a realization was encouraging, since it meant he’d already grown accustomed to picking up Duo’s brainwaves continually, to the point where he was able to concentrate on other things without being significantly distracted. If he could become acclimatized to that in less than a week, surely he could take the next step in this magic.

The table grew quite noisy as Duo began to imitate the acting in some of the training videos and nearly everyone else roared with laughter. Heero actually wished he could pay attention at this point, but didn’t feel like giving up on his efforts to find the answer to Duo’s concerns.

And suddenly, like abruptly punching through a solid surface, it worked. Heero wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but this was not it.

Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, more thoughts, and yet more thoughts came crashing in on him from every side, as if everyone in the room had abruptly started chattering at once. Again the comparison to hearing was insufficient, since most of the room was chattering already, but the sudden chaos left Heero in no state to come up with a better description.

Well, ‘broken dam’ might be a good one. Catharine’s thoughts that he’d been seeking were undoubtedly in there somewhere, but the babble of mental voices was, for the moment, impossible to sort out. The flood that now washed over him probably consisted mostly of everyday thoughts and nothing that should be at all agitating — but even mundanity, Heero was abruptly learning, could be very overwhelming in such a large and sudden dose.

This had been a bad idea at work. Heero should have foreseen that. He couldn’t backtrack, he didn’t know how to turn it down or push it aside, and he couldn’t make sense of it. The mental feeling of the presence of his co-workers, of everyone in the room, had heightened, especially those in his immediate vicinity, but he couldn’t pick out the thread of any individual’s reflections.

Hoping nobody tried to talk to him for a while, he attempted to relax and just let it all flow around him. He needed to get used to this. He needed, in fact, to get used to this before lunch was over. How had he managed to assimilate Duo’s thoughts over the past few days? Surely he could repeat that process. But that had been a single set of reflections, not this madness. There must be something he could hold onto, though, some stable ground from which he could make an effort at organizing his perceptions.

Physical sensation. It was there, under everything else, just as it had been in Duo’s dream yesterday morning: the feeling of the chair beneath him, the table at his elbow, the air around him. He clung to it almost desperately as his only rescue from drowning. Why had his metaphors gone from aural to liquid all of a sudden? He tried to concentrate on what his body rather than his mind could tell him.

In this way he eventually realized that he was still holding a half-eaten sandwich, which was soft and somewhat moist against his fingers (and, he believed, drooping). He even saw it, to some extent, though what his eyes reported was bizarrely low on the interpretation priority list at the moment. Hopefully nothing was dripping out of the sandwich onto the table, because he didn’t think he could manage to put it down at this point.

The chairs in here weren’t terribly comfortable, for which he had never been more grateful (or… grateful at all, really). Normally he had to shift his weight every couple of minutes, but at the moment he wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d moved. This meant there was some specific discomfort where his ischium pressed against the deceptively solid seat, which made it easier to concentrate on this particular physical sensation and thereby develop a stronger feeling of attachment to his surroundings. This didn’t exactly lead to mental clarity just yet, but his level of hope slowly increased.

Certain concepts were starting to flash more comprehensibly through his head. It was still all a jumble, but at least some parts of that jumble were recognizable as they passed: dinner tonight, that last phone call, weekend drinking, Quatre, nail polish, change for a five, casserole, so tired, wanting a raise, that movie from yesterday, a sick relative, this afternoon’s tasks, a microwave lunch…

Yes, he could do this. The ideas passed too quickly for him to focus on any single one of them yet, but eventually he must be able to pick out what he wanted and ignore the rest. Plenty of people had this same magical talent, and they didn’t all go crazy or walk around in a daze completely unable to concentrate, did they? He could do this. If he could just find something that would allow him to organize his perceptions somewhat… he could deal with loads of information as long as it was categorized properly…

Voices, of course. Well, they weren’t voices at all, actually, but he’d given up trying not to compare this to other things it wasn’t really like. Just as everyone had a distinctive sound when they spoke, they each had a distinctive psychic feeling when they thought — so every thought had the specific feeling of the person from whom it came. If he put each ‘voice’ at the head of a column and paid attention to the ‘sound’ of each thought as it flitted by, he should eventually be able to start dividing them up.

After that it must be only a matter of time before he could assign names to the voices, know whose thoughts he was reading, and hopefully be able to tune out the columns he didn’t need. Eventually he could even cross-index with rows arranged by level of interest and importance, but one thing at a time. Just to make sense of this and get a grip on the world again would be enough at the moment.

Everything she had to do when she got home, and whether or not she was going to have enough time before she had to leave again. The training modules, and the thinker’s imperfect memories thereof that nevertheless matched what Duo was describing. The fact that this casserole was dried out in places, and probably shouldn’t have been kept quite this long. Wondering how old the training videos were and when the company would next update them — that was the same person that had previously been thinking about the modules! How nice it was to be here, human, among all these friendly co-workers, even if they had weird ideas about him — Duo, of course. Undoubtedly he could make something for dinner that would have enough excess to provide him with lunches for a few days — this was the casserole-eater again.

Heero was gripped with an excitement resembling electricity in that it simultaneously galvanized him and kept him frozen exactly in place. His efforts were working! He really could do this! It was like a puzzle game — something where you had to find, through pattern recognition and some trial and error, the one and only way the pieces could be arranged so they all fit — and surprisingly fun, actually.

Someone was thinking about how vibrant Duo was, how that must be a relief for Heero to have around to distract him from this weirdness with Quatre.

A second someone was thinking about Quatre too, and how he’d apparently induced tears in an intern in advertising.

Duo was congratulating himself on how funny his own last remark had been.

A third someone was thinking about how the night classes she’d just started were proving unexpectedly time-consuming and stressful.

Someone else was thinking about his casserole still, and how the recipe really was a good one.

The first someone was thinking about how annoying it was that everyone wanted to gossip about Quatre when it clearly disturbed Quatre’s friends.

The second someone was wondering whether Quatre’s father had heard about the ruckus his son was causing, and what he thought of it if he had.

Duo was startled to note that Heero looked extremely distracted and probably hadn’t at all noticed the funny thing he’d just said.

The third someone was thinking that if this level of homework kept up, she was never going to get any sleep again, and would probably drop dead in her tracks pretty soon.

Someone else was thinking about his new puppy, and the various things he hoped it wasn’t chewing and/or defecating on this very moment.

The first someone was thinking that, as long as it didn’t interfere with work, she, too, would do her best to contribute to any pleasant atmosphere of distraction that would make the day better for Heero and Duo so they wouldn’t have to worry about Quatre so much.

The second someone was thinking that if Quatre got himself fired or transferred or something, Don was going to jump right on that opening.

Duo was thinking that, while it was perfectly normal for Heero to withdraw from conversation when so many people were involved, still he was usually listening, not… not sitting there completely motionless staring off into space like an open-eyed sleeper. He was even holding the remaining third of his sandwich in the air as if about to take a bite, but Duo didn’t remember the last time he’d seen him move. Was he OK? What was going on? Concern quickly escalated. Something had to be done.

Previous (Part 15) | Chapter Index | Next (Part 17)