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.
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.
Heero didn’t resist when Duo guided his hands to put down his sandwich and his body to stand and head away from the table full of now-somewhat-worried co-workers. In fact he barely responded at all. He moved as if sleepwalking, as if completely unaware of what was going on around him; it was like — Duo felt an uncomfortable shiver up his spine as the comparison crossed his mind — it was like controlling a life-sized doll.
That thought, at least, seemed to get Heero’s attention, for he shook his head abruptly and reeled a little as he stepped out of the breakroom. “No,” he whispered. “No, I’m sorry. I’m not…” But he was apparently too deep in thought even to complete his sentence.
In the empty hallway, Duo took him by both shoulders and searched for some trace of here and now in his eyes. “OK, Heero, I’m about ready to start freaking out.”
Again Heero shook his head, and again the motion was jerky, like that of someone trying to keep himself awake. “It’s… quieter out here,” he replied in a tone similar to Duo’s mutter.
“Yes,” Duo agreed interrogatively.
“Don’t freak out. I’m OK. I’m just… hearing everyone’s… thoughts.”
“Oh!” Duo let out a brief, breathless laugh of relief. “Oh, that’s way better than what I was thinking.” Well, technically, he hadn’t had any idea what might be wrong, but this was still way better. Even so… “Are you really OK? Do you need to go home?”
“Yeah, I’m… actually… fine…” For a third time Heero shook his head, but obviously the physical motion did no good diminishing the mental engrossment; his voice was still extremely distant. “This is…” He gave Duo a smile that looked almost more baffled than anything else. “This is kinda… fun…”
“Is it?” Once more Duo laughed. “I mean, I guess I could see that, but it sounds like more of a huge pain in the butt to me.”
“Why is it… quieter…” Heero whispered. It sounded like he was talking to himself.
Duo took a stab at both the full meaning of Heero’s unfinished question and the answer to it. “How you think of things makes a big difference in magic. If you see the wall as a wall, it’s going to act like a wall even if it doesn’t technically have to. You’ll probably have to specifically try if you want to hear people through walls.”
Heero stared at him — though it felt more like he was staring through him — and seemed to take a very long time to process the information. And he couldn’t be blamed for that, since he was probably processing a lot of information in there at the moment. By himself in there but never alone again, trying to deal with a crowd he couldn’t escape.
And all of a sudden Duo was unhappy about this, to a degree he would not have expected. Heero had helped him out of a magical dilemma, and now here Duo was completely unable to return that help when Heero needed support. Not only that, but the curse-breaking month had established a standard of closeness between them that, even if they no longer kept within five feet of each other twenty-four hours a day, had diminished very little during the subsequent months — and yet here was something they could not share, no matter how physically close they were. Heero was shouldering a burden Duo could not assist him in carrying, and simultaneously enjoying some kind of entertainment in which Duo could not partake.
Heero took a deep breath. “It’s like… hearing…” With a slight grimace he amended that statement. “No, it’s not. I keep thinking it is… and then telling myself it’s not… but I guess that’s… the best way to describe it. Like hearing everyone talking at once from everywhere.” His sentences grew more coherent as he concentrated on delivering them. “And since they’re all talking out loud at the same time, they’re all saying two things at the same time. But the thoughts are a lot quicker than what they say out loud. It was extremely overwhelming at first, but it’s a little better out here. I was starting to make some sense of things in there, but I think it’s easier out here. It’ll make it easier to deal with everyone at once again afterwhile.”
With a jolt Duo realized what Heero was doing: he had recognized Duo’s feelings about this situation, and he was trying to share. He was trying to describe what this was like for him so Duo would be able to understand and perhaps offer the support he longed to give. Right in the middle of whatever staggeringly disruptive chaos he was dealing with in his poor head without any prior training, Heero was thinking of Duo and trying to keep him happy. If Duo let him, he would undoubtedly get around to explaining what was fun about this process as well, so Duo could share that too.
Duo flung his arms around Heero and squeezed, knocking him backward into the wall and, as it was more convenient, keeping him there. “I still don’t know what I did to deserve you,” he declared. “Don’t even worry about me. Don’t worry about anything but whatever you have to do to figure out how to deal with this, OK? I’m absolutely fine. I’m better than fine. You are the nicest guy in the world.” He meant it, too. Perhaps he couldn’t help the feelings that had flared up a moment ago, and perhaps they hadn’t entirely died down, but they were overshadowed by his refreshed awareness of what a wonderful person Heero was.
Though he still looked mightily distracted, Heero also appeared somewhat relieved. He smiled faintly and, to Duo’s great surprise, brought that faint smile up for a brief kiss. Naturally that would be the moment when someone exited the breakroom and hastened past them with a smothered giggle, forcing Heero to withdraw with a pink face at whatever that someone had been thinking about them… but still it had been a very pleasant moment.
“Can you stay out here with me?” Heero asked. “I’m so distracted.”
“No kidding,” Duo grinned. He didn’t know whether Heero had made the request because he really felt the need of Duo’s presence or because he was inventing a way for Duo to assist, and he didn’t care. “Of course I’ll stay here and guard you. Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” And, releasing his boyfriend somewhat reluctantly, he shifted into a position that would embarrass Heero less when people walked by — still near, but not in quite so blatantly unprofessional an attitude.
Eventually only a few minutes remained to them for lunch, and most of those minutes must be spent cleaning up what they’d left behind in the breakroom and providing the co-workers there an explanation of some sort for why they’d departed so abruptly and why Heero was undoubtedly going to seem so distracted for the rest of the day. Assuming Heero was up to the rest of the day.
When Duo’s thoughts wandered in this direction, Heero murmured, “I should be fine. Tell them…” He made a helpless noise. “I don’t know.”
“You never have been any good at coming up with excuses around here. I’ll think of something. If you’re sure you’re OK, that is.” Even teasing couldn’t quite keep the anxiety from Duo’s voice or from his thoughts. “If you want to leave, I can drive…”
Heero shook his head. “Thanks. I really am OK.”
“Can you get back to your desk?”
Now Heero smiled at him. “I think I can, but I wouldn’t say no to you walking me there.”
Once this had been accomplished and Duo had wrenched himself from the distracted Heero’s side, he pondered hard and fast to come up with something to tell the sales team. He felt he rose to the occasion admirably with the story that, just before everyone else had entered the breakroom, Heero had received a call with some family news, not necessarily bad but very surprising, that had so engrossed him he was likely to take a while to recover. Then Duo headed back to his training, which he knew would probably be extremely difficult to concentrate on for the rest of the afternoon.
This prediction was borne out in the painfully slow approach of 5:00, but eventually Duo found himself, somehow not having exploded from impatience, free to go home for the evening. He practically ran down the hall to the sales floor, and essentially barged his way through the exiting crowd to find Heero.
The latter seemed, even at just a glance, to be coping better than he had when Duo left him earlier, and Duo breathed a sigh of relief in response to the much greater awareness of surroundings evident in the smile Heero offered. Given that Heero was standing and had already logged off his computer, he must be ready to go, but Duo waited for the greater portion of the sales team to vacate the floor before he thought about actually leaving. Heero still looked distracted, so Duo first helped him into the jacket he’d draped over his chair, then seized Heero’s briefcase in one hand and arm in the other. Then he guided him out of the room and, assuming the elevators would be the busier of the two options, toward the stairs.
In the parking lot, Heero remarked, “It’s much better out here… but can you drive?”
“Yep.” Duo could also open the passenger side door for Heero and close it behind him. He didn’t know yet what Heero found entertaining about the communication magic process, but for himself, he had to admit, the novelty of escorting Heero around like this — offering an arm, carrying his things, opening doors, rather like the old-school gentleman Duo could conceivably have become had things been different last century — was kinda fun. He might have to try it again sometime.
Heero’s silence continued for a few minutes as they headed for home, and then, finally, he sighed softly.
“All quiet now?” Duo wondered.
Heero allowed, “Quiet enough. It’ll probably never be ‘all quiet’ again, but…” He shrugged. “At least now I think I can manage telling you what I found out today.”
“That feeling you’ve been getting from half of sales — that they don’t think you’re going to last long? — it’s because they all think Quatre and I just had a messy breakup and then I brought my new boyfriend to work right under his nose.”
“What?” More intensely Duo repeated, “What? Are you serious? Do they seriously think that?”
“A lot of them, yeah.”
“But…” Duo had no idea what to say. How could people that knew Heero believe he would be such a jerk? Sure, it would explain Quatre’s behavior pretty well, and actually it was… kinda funny… maybe actually really funny… and a bit of a relief, since if that was what everyone was worried about in relation to Duo’s job security, it meant he had a lot less to worry about himself… but Heero would never…! Heero wasn’t…! OK, well, Heero wasn’t very open about his true self with most of sales… but still! His kindness wasn’t buried that deep!
The clearing of throat from the passenger seat was all Duo needed; he didn’t even have to voice his question out loud.
“Heero!” Duo made a noise equal parts adoring and remonstrative, and pulled abruptly onto the shoulder and parked the car. He turned to his boyfriend with a face that probably didn’t express his baffled mixture of gratitude and indignance nearly as well as his thoughts would. “You did it on purpose, didn’t you? You let everybody into your head and gave yourself a huge problem for half the day and for who knows how long just so you could figure out what everyone was thinking about me, didn’t you? You did this for me, didn’t you?!”
“If I’d known what it would be like, I might not have,” Heero pled. Which meant he still might have.
Reaching out and seizing Heero’s tie, Duo yanked him mercilessly across the space between the two seats and into a crushing, seatbelt-straining kiss. He didn’t have words for how he felt right now, and he wasn’t sure it was even terribly clear in his thoughts, but when he eventually released his lover he did make some attempt: “You just wait ’til I get you home, Heero Yuy.”
He remembered making a similar ‘threat’ right after Heero had first said he loved him. A sort of repetition of that was perfectly appropriate now, he believed, since, though entirely different on the surface, underneath the circumstances were practically identical.
Not for the first time, Trowa had a distinct feeling of deja vu as what he did today in pursuit of answers about Quatre’s condition echoed poignantly what he’d done decades ago in pursuit of answers about Duo’s. The room’s furnishings had mostly changed, as had the room itself — in fact it was a different house in a different state — but the books were the same, and thus far had provided the same amount of useful information as they had the last time he’d read them.
Seifert was about as close to a friend as anyone during the long years had become — which wasn’t to say Trowa would have referred to him as anything more than ‘an associate,’ but he had, at least, informed Seifert when the curse had broken, and received cordial congratulations in return. Thus the perusal of Seifert’s collection of books and documents concerning magic was the least uncomfortable of all Trowa’s available options. He would move on to the more uncomfortable if he had to, but he was starting where he could work his way up.
Though he’d maintained a sparse but unbroken correspondence with first Seifert’s father and then Seifert himself — letters succeeded eventually by emails, almost exclusively about magic — it had been sixty years since he’d actually visited and read the texts. The first instance had been at the offer of Seifert senior, he having just fled Germany with his wife and young son and thinking that, in the post-war atmosphere, having an ally like Trowa might be extremely useful. This second instance was Trowa’s request, to which Seifert junior had been happy to accede.
That the experience was so distinctly different did not lessen the deja vu. He approached the information presented in a completely different way — because he knew so much more these days and had a greater context to fit it into; because the problem he was trying to solve was so different from the previous, and might even have to do with a practically alien (to Trowa) branch of magic; because he also saw it now from the perspective of someone looking to write a comprehensive guide to magic, even if that was really the last thing he should be thinking about at the moment — but it was the same information he’d searched for answers so long ago. His frame of mind was not identical to what it had been then, but there were still a number of negative emotions and a driving need to find the truth and the potential solution. And it remained just as frustrating that half of this stuff was in German.
Though in his present frame of mind it could not engross, what he was able to read could certainly interest. Despite the worrisome nature of the situation with Quatre, and somewhat to Trowa’s chagrin, that proposed book of his hovered frequently right at the edge of his consciousness, and he often found himself considering how to word certain concepts he encountered for an audience less thoroughly familiar with them. Some shame did arise as he considered that his scholar’s brain seemed to find this equal in import to the Quatre issue, but as it didn’t prevent him in any way from continuing to seek answers, he didn’t waste much effort trying to break out of that frame of mind.
Seifert’s ancestors had mostly been diviners, though the talent had been watered down over the generations to the point where Seifert himself was even less skilled in that branch of magic than Trowa was. Hazy memories of records primarily on the subject of divination were borne out now in Seifert’s collection, but the fact that the Trowa of 1947, looking for information that might be pertinent to a command-based curse, would probably have ignored any necrovisual references or any description of symptoms that had no bearing on Duo’s condition gave him hope that there might still be something here he could use. But this was his second day in Seifert’s compact little study, and he was reaching the end of the material for which he didn’t require Seifert’s services as translator, and he’d yet to find anything even remotely related to what he was looking for.
At home, things were equally uncertain. He’d known perfectly well that, given the type of people he interacted with and the types of questions he’d been asking, he shouldn’t expect a load of quick replies to the emails he’d sent a few days ago… but he’d been expectant nonetheless, and therefore had been bitterly disappointed at the lack of results. Well, that was a misnomer; he’d actually received fairly prompt responses from some of his contacts saying that they would look into it for him, and for this he should be grateful. But nobody had provided him with any actual information yet, and from the person in whose knowledge and necrovisual experience he had the most faith he’d heard nothing at all. Which meant his own research and experimentation must continue.
Some of this divination information in Seifert’s collection might prove useful in the long run, since it approached a branch of magic at which he wasn’t very skilled from an interesting perspective. The long run concerned him very little right now, but he did feel that it might be a good idea to pay Seifert another visit at a later date when he was less agitated and better able to take notes on some of this for his own project. It might be worthwhile, actually, to volunteer to type all of this up for Seifert — all of it that Trowa could read on his own, that is — since Seifert had never gotten around to that task in all these years but would undoubtedly appreciate its being done. At the moment, Trowa employed a method of reading not much better than skimming — paying just enough attention to the old print and handwriting to be sure he wouldn’t miss anything that might be relevant, but not properly absorbing what he read when it wasn’t.
He heard the door open behind him, and, dragging his eyes from the sheaf of papers on the desk, looked around to see a little boy hanging from the handle and peering curiously at him.
“Opa wants to know do you need him yet,” the child announced when Trowa met his gaze.
Trowa was reminded not so much of Seifert, much as this grandson resembled him, as of a niece of Quatre’s he’d recently been introduced to: there was a similar air of seemingly contradictory blended hesitance and confidence. The niece, Emma, had initially shied from approaching him with a question she wanted answered, but had dropped the reluctance entirely at some cue or realization Trowa hadn’t even recognized, and dove into conversation with the typical Winner resolution.
It was not an unpleasant memory, but it was also not one he enjoyed having recalled at the moment. He couldn’t imagine how Quatre had been treating his family all week — or, rather, based on Quatre’s complaints about them, didn’t like to imagine — and hoped fervently that none of the relatives that didn’t live in the huge Winner house had visited since the destruction of the artifact. It would be bad enough if Quatre’s mood put a strain only on his relationship with those that were around.
And speaking of relatives visiting, Trowa reflected, it was very kind of Seifert to have so readily allowed him to come while some of his progeny were in the house. He did his best to give the boy at the door a friendly smile. “You can tell him fifteen minutes,” he said.
“OK,” replied the grandson, but did not immediately depart. He was staring at Trowa with calculating eyes. Finally he asked, “How can you see?”
“What do you mean?” Trowa had never been entirely comfortable around children.
“Because your hair is over your eyes all the time,” the boy explained. “Or one eye or the other eye. How can you see things?”
“Oh.” Trowa was so used to his haircut that he barely noticed it anymore, and had long ago adjusted to any obstruction of vision it might present. “My eyes used to be very strange. I had my hair cut like this so that sometimes, when I was turned a certain direction, other people wouldn’t be able to see them.”
“You could just wear glasses,” said the child critically. “I mean black glasses like my mom has.”
“I did that sometimes too,” Trowa nodded.
“OK,” the boy said, as if satisfied — though Trowa realized that his original question hadn’t, strictly speaking, been answered. And without further goodbye the child disappeared, pulling the door mostly closed behind him. Whether he would remember what he was supposed to be telling his grandfather remained to be seen.
In fact Seifert did appear after not too long, poking his crooked nose around the door to see what Trowa was up to. Trowa only noticed because he happened to be between documents at that moment. Setting aside the one he’d just finished, he reached out and put a hand on the stack he’d been accumulating of things he couldn’t read. “Apparently your ancestors didn’t see the benefit of writing magical records in language magicians would understand.”
“German pride, I’m afraid.” Seifert’s surprisingly gentle eyes crinkled with a smile as he crossed the compact room to stand beside the desk.
Trowa sighed. Distant unpleasant memories of his own father’s particular brand of German pride a hundred years ago had long kept him from studying the language as he might otherwise have done. But he did allow, “Not everyone has the talent to write in the magical language. And any relevant information will be just as useful even if it is in German.”
Seifert pulled up the extra chair he’d brought into the room yesterday when he’d been getting Trowa started in here. Even before he was fully settled, his eyes had begun roving over Trowa’s features just as they’d done every time he’d been in the room since then. But when he met Trowa’s gaze, he seemed to shake himself, and, breaking away, reached for the stack on the desk. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m still not used to your new look. It’s a little startling to see you like this.”
“Just think what mirrors do to me,” Trowa replied.
Seifert chuckled. “Remember that I first met you when I was five, though. A dramatic look like yours was makes an impression on a little boy! You’ve always been a sort of mystical, heroic figure to me.”
Again Trowa sighed. Seifert may have been one of a very few people that had seen his ‘new look,’ but he was one of many people that viewed Trowa as a mystical, heroic figure. It was embarrassing, and worsened by the fact that this regard the magical community had for him should make it easy for him to request information of them. Yet he’d been so cryptic with everyone about his current problem…
Seifert put a comforting hand on Trowa’s shoulder. “I won’t ask for any more details than you’ve already given,” he said kindly. “I am sorry to see that you’re trying to deal with something like this so soon after your curse… as if you were destined to be always dealing with magical problems. Just don’t forget that you are a bit of a hero to many of us, so you’re not alone. Or at least,” he added with a wry smile, “you don’t have to be.”
Trowa was frowning. From someone close to him, this simple advice might not have penetrated, but from someone removed from the situation, it somehow struck home. Right in the middle of his studies, with only a few brief statements, Seifert had suddenly given him a lot to think about — the types of information he did and didn’t naturally volunteer to someone that might have been a friend; the way he viewed and interacted with people that admired and could potentially help him; the possibility that he might be doomed with magical bad luck — and this was a lot to think about that he didn’t have time to think about.
Of course, if he was, as Seifert suggested, destined to deal with magical problems on a regular basis throughout his life, putting off thinking about this kind of thing until such-and-such was over might lock him in a miserable stasis as long as he lived. The only thing he could be sure of at this very moment was that, no matter what time he did or didn’t spend thinking about things later, right now he had something specific to concentrate on.
Seifert seemed to read this in Trowa’s demeanor, for he smiled again and lifted the top item off the pile. “Well, let me translate for you,” he said, “and see if any of this helps.”
The final day of Heero’s fairly miserable week as acting Sales Manager was halfway over, but unfortunately the need to remain accessible to the sales team up until the very moment Dorothy was in the building again remained — which meant that Heero must still eat lunch in the breakroom. After yesterday this was particularly chaotic, and he could really have done with a proper break from the sales team during that hour… but his sense of responsibility wouldn’t allow it. And, thanks to the latest angry edict from Quatre, he hadn’t even been able to get away from the sales floor a little early today so as to have some alone time with Duo before the rest of the team appeared. Not that alone time with Duo was something he lacked outside of work, but right now he was itching for a specific conversation in private that was agitating to have to put off.
Of course everyone else was already discussing exactly what he wanted to talk about. Quatre had paid an angry visit to the sales floor not an hour earlier with an actual written list of supposed problems he wanted to address — most of them minor issues that he normally never would have bothered about — and given Heero an incredibly hard time about anything and everything, much of it quite petty and all of it far too audible to everyone in the room.
This had only confirmed, in the minds of those already suspicious, the theory that Quatre’s current behavior arose from pain and anger over his breakup with Heero; many of those that had heard the theory but hadn’t been quite convinced were now leaning further in that direction. Of course that aspect of Quatre’s visit was not something they could discuss aloud in front of Heero and Duo except by means of oblique references and significant gestures they assumed would not be understood… but now Heero could hear their thoughts.
In between what else he’d been busy with, Duo had spent yesterday evening alternating between rather extreme amusement at the idea that Heero had dumped Quatre for him and indignation that the sales team would believe Heero could possibly behave so callously. Heero could see why Duo might find it funny, but definitely didn’t feel that way himself, so he didn’t really want to discuss that matter if he didn’t have to. He had a slightly more general topic in mind.
Another weekend approached over which Quatre was probably going to harass his family and torment Trowa even further than he already had. Presumably it was possible that Quatre might come torment Heero and Duo too, but not very likely: Quatre hadn’t been to Heero’s apartment once since Sunday, nor called or emailed him on a personal basis all week. But apparently he’d still been making his regular visits to Trowa on the east coast, and rendering Trowa more and more unhappy with each passing day. Trowa was, as far as Heero could tell, devoting all his time and energy to finding an answer and a cure, just as he had with Duo’s curse for so many years. Heero understood, in fact, that he’d actually bought a plane ticket out to the home of an acquaintance in Montana to look at some magical books for a couple of days. It was a sad thought that Quatre would be making Trowa’s weekend even worse than it was already destined to be.
Inactivity galled. Seven days was surely long enough for this experiment; Heero couldn’t imagine letting it go any further essentially doing nothing like this. Not that there was a lot besides nothing he could do when he still wouldn’t be able to consult Dorothy until Monday and his internet search back when this all started had been fairly exhaustive without producing many definitive suggestions — but there was one option he had seen mentioned online that he hadn’t explored at all yet, and this he thought should be looked into the very moment they got home. Hell, he would look into it here at work if there weren’t the danger of Quatre wandering in at any moment and catching him wasting company time and resources. Heero was salaried, but somehow felt that Quatre in his present condition would not consider this a legitimate excuse for personal internet browsing at the office.
And everyone’s thoughts were so overwhelming! Heero hadn’t been able to decide yet whether the benefit of having soothed (or at least redirected) Duo’s fears outweighed the inconvenience of having all these ideas in his head all the time competing with his own thoughts, of being still so extremely distracted. There were only a handful of people in the breakroom for whom ‘loud projection of anything to cross the mind’ didn’t seem to be the default state, but their lack of contribution to the mental din helped very little. In fact, though Heero supposed he really should appreciate them, he barely noticed them. Silence was difficult to hear in the midst of noise.
Duo sympathized — every time he looked at Heero across the table, he gave him an encouraging smile — but there was nothing he could do. Heero knew that bothered him, but there was nothing to be done about that either. And what Heero really wanted at the moment was to consult with Duo on Quatre’s continued anger and whether it was time for a next step. He could potentially pull him out of the breakroom and talk in the hall, as they’d done yesterday, but he shrank from enhancing the idea, which Duo had put about at that time, that he was engrossed in some kind of family emergency. It would have been a decent excuse at any other point, but now more than half of the gossips on the sales team believed it to have been a lie designed to cover up some blacker aspect of the business with Quatre. He really didn’t want to heap any more fuel on that fire.
As it turned out, Heero did not get the chance for any private conversation with his boyfriend until they left for home after (on Heero’s part) aggravating hours of trying to keep his own reflections, anxious and impatient, disentangled from everyone else’s. Duo was still the designated driver, since Heero didn’t know when he might be hit with a passing thought so distracting he couldn’t pay proper attention to road safety, but this was a duty Duo had accepted gladly.
“I think,” said Heero as soon as they were off toward home, “we’ve waited long enough for Quatre to get over this on his own. What do you think?”
Duo frowned, and Heero could hear the agreement in his head before he nodded. “I wasn’t there for today’s tantrum, but it sure sounds like he’s getting worse instead of better.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s getting worse,” Heero remarked pensively. “I think he’s just… hit his stride. Figured out how to make the most efficient use of the anger.”
“Yeah, that’s Quatre.” From the glumness of this acknowledgment Duo cheered slightly to add, “But that might mean he’ll be using it up faster from now on.”
“Do you think we should keep waiting, then?”
“What else can we do? Trowa hasn’t figured anything out yet, has he?”
Heero had to admit — to himself, not aloud — that he was faintly irritated by the implication that Trowa was the only person capable of doing anything in this situation. But he didn’t let it sound in his voice. “I was thinking we could try to get in touch with an exorcist. If this turns out to be something obvious and simple that someone can fix really easily, we’re all going to feel stupid.”
“I doubt that’ll be the case,” Duo said with a slight laugh. “If it’s not something Trowa’s ever heard of, it’s probably not something simple and obvious. But you may be right about finding an exorcist… None of us is necrovisual, so it’s probably about time to find out for sure whether this is a necrovisual thing or not.”
“I just don’t want to leave Quatre for another weekend like this if there’s anything we can try. We probably won’t see him, but I’m sure he’s going to go bother Trowa.”
It was probably for the best that Heero hadn’t aired his annoyance a moment before, as he could detect now that Duo was pleased with his specific consideration for Trowa. Duo had been watching the interaction between them, somewhat concerned that it was turning into a sort of rivalry centered around Quatre, and had been wondering what to do about it; this apparent improvement was relieving, whereas, if Heero had resentfully pointed out that Trowa was not the only person with magic around here, Duo would undoubtedly have continued worrying.
“OK,” said Duo with decision. “So what do we try?”
“As soon as we get home, let’s see what we can find online. Exorcists probably have websites…”
“If they’re with the century. Hey, by the way…” Duo paused as it occurred to him that this wasn’t, most likely, the best moment to bring this up. Realizing he might as well say it aloud — since, in having started to bring it up, he’d probably already projected the thought at Heero — he shrugged slightly and continued. “When this is over and Quatre’s OK, do you mind having a party?”
Heero could tell that Duo believed he already had a huge number of things to celebrate, and would have another when Quatre was cured, not to mention a lot of new friends he would love to hang out with in a more casual setting than work. Duo actually felt a little sad that he’d never had a large-scale celebration of the breaking of the curse, and astonished that he’d been living in a steady home as a human for nearly five months without throwing a single party. Now that he had his own job, the only remaining reason to wait was Quatre’s condition.
Parties were definitely not Heero’s thing. They were, in fact, so far from being his thing that he could imagine few recreational pastimes he enjoyed less… and being unable to escape the deluge of thoughts that existed in a room full of people was not likely to improve that. But he’d been bracing himself for the parties to start ever since the curse had broken — and he, too, felt some astonishment for the same reason Duo did. It hadn’t required awakened communicative magic to pick up on Duo’s interest in that particular activity. He was ready for this. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Whenever you want.”
Duo was extremely pleased at this easy acquiescence and excited at the prospect of the as-yet-completely-hypothetical party, and considered these emotions perhaps not entirely appropriate at the moment. He also knew Heero would see the excitement and pleasure anyway, but still thought it good form not to show them. From the demonstrative Duo, this was an admirable sign of sympathy and thoughtfulness, and Heero loved him for it.
At home, so focused on his goal that he didn’t bother changing clothes, Heero only tossed his jacket and briefcase down onto the couch before heading into the computer room. He might have put on something more casual after all, given that his computer was taking longer and longer these days to boot up — he needed to look into this at some point, especially now that two people were using it on a regular basis — but he was distracted and engaged by Duo, who had apparently really liked the motion by which he’d removed and discarded his jacket.
Suddenly against the wall between the open computer room door and the desk, being kissed and groped, Heero raised no complaint despite how interested he was in the evening’s task. Duo still loved to explore Heero’s body and revel in the ability to feel, even after all this time, and Heero was more than happy to indulge him in this — at least while the computer took its slow eon turning on. Or perhaps a little longer than that.
But then Heero caught two startling things at once: an unexpected smell, and Duo’s awareness of it. Actually Duo recognized it, assigned a name to what his nose was telling him, a split second before Heero did, but they pulled apart and looked around at the same moment. Nothing immediately visible in this room offered any explanation, so they stepped out into the hall.
Heero put his head through the bedroom door, but had barely started a quick visual scan before he heard the answer in the head of his boyfriend, who had gone into the living room and simultaneously called out. Heero hurried in that direction, and stopped beside the couch to join Duo looking at the haze of smoke coming through the cracks around Trowa’s door.
“Crap,” Duo said. How much smoke was required for it to be making its way out around the front door like this? How much fire did it take for there to be that much smoke? Roiling darkness blurred the view through the little half circle of windows, but he thought he could make out flickers of orange light in Trowa’s living room. Where his hands were pressed against the door as he peered through, the wood was warm. The knob was more so — not yet painful to grasp, but definitely indicative of greater heat beyond — and wouldn’t turn.
Without even having to look around or say anything aloud, he found Heero pressing the key into his hand. The idea of rushing into a building that was pretty clearly on fire perhaps lacked sense, but there was no way Duo would just stand here without trying to find out what was going on and making sure Trowa was all right.
A much larger volume of smoke gushed past the door as it opened, right into Duo’s face, and he exclaimed as it burned his eyes and choked him. Through a haze of sudden tears, a single glance showed him visible flames where he’d thought he detected them before, and the hot air wrapped him in an aggressive grip. Behind him, something in the apartment began beeping a noisy alarm, and Heero had left his side.
Wiping his vision relatively clear again, Duo advanced into the heat of the entryway and dropped to a crouch to get his head out of the worst of the murk. “Trowa!” he bellowed. “Trowa!” There was no sign of his friend, but he could see little in any direction. The door to his right, into the study, was closed; to his left, though he could make out the shapes of Trowa’s venerable walnut desk and the computer chair that didn’t even begin to match it, they and the rest of the furniture were all in various states of burning. The living room ahead was chaos.
Coughing, he focused on the fire in the computer room and choked out a command to quell it. Immediately he felt resistance — the strong, deliberate kind that meant a spell involving specific provisions against reversal had been cast here. Duo didn’t have a lot of experience combating that kind of magic, but he thought fast and tried again.
Behind him, he heard the smoke alarm cut off, and presently Heero had returned and calmly closed the front door, presumably to prevent further smoke pouring into their apartment and frightening the neighbors.
“This is magic,” Duo said when he was done with his second spell, which had been mostly ineffectual. He had almost to shout to make himself heard over the roar and crackle of the fire, and pushing his dried throat for volume made him burst out coughing again.
“Where’s Trowa?” Heero said, close to his ear.
Duo shook his head, unable to speak just yet.
The smell of melting linoleum poisoned the already heavy air, and the heat became more and more intense. Duo’s spells were working, but only slightly and slowly. At this rate, he might be able to save the foundations of the house, but not a lot besides. As such, staying here much longer was unwise… but where was Trowa? Still in Montana or wherever he’d been researching, or already burned to death two rooms away?
“Hang on,” said Heero suddenly. A glance in that direction showed him pulling his phone from his pocket, but, looking at the device, Heero frowned. He scrambled back to the door, still keeping his head down, and returned into the apartment, and Duo remembered that he got no coverage at Trowa’s house.
For a few moments Duo was alone with the burning building snapping and groaning around him, drawing shallow breaths of scorching air so he could speak spells that still didn’t seem to be doing much, facing down an approaching fire on behalf of a friend that might, for all he knew, never be able to appreciate the attempt. He wasn’t quite panicking yet — he was concentrating on his casting — but it couldn’t be long. Pretty soon here he was going to give up trying to do anything about the fire and just run through it to check the rest of the house for Trowa.
And then the nearly simultaneous sounds of two different doors opening startled him almost into breaking off mid-spell, but he managed to finish, and avoid the danger of leaving it hanging, before he turned. Heero had reentered through the front, and Duo’s heart seemed to pick up from a dead stop as Trowa emerged from the study. The fire did not appear to have spread there yet, but smoke accompanied Trowa into the entryway, and Duo could see dancing, crackling gold in the bedroom beyond. The three men convened at a crouch in the center of the entry.
“I am so fucking glad to see you,” Duo said.
Trowa smiled slightly. “What have you tried so far?”
“There’s a block on putting the fire out, and I can’t punch through it.”
“Neighbors outside,” Heero informed them — and good for him, hearing through the walls like that!
Trowa nodded acknowledgment to both statements, then swept a calculating look around. After a deep breath that couldn’t have been comfortable in this air, he made a gesture with one arm that seemed to follow the path of his prior gaze, and spoke. The concept was simple, amounting to little more than, “Let this fire, by whomsoever it was set and with whatever intent, completely die out,” but the spell held so much power that both Duo and Heero, feeling it, took a startled, scrambling step away.
The resistance gave way all at once; in fact Trowa completely steamrollered it. A brief, chilling rush of cleaner air out of nowhere swirled the smoke madly, and the fires vanished. The red-orange light died, leaving them in near darkness. The roaring and crackling ceased, the oppressive heat began to fade, and the house settled. Silence fell.
“God, Trowa,” Duo said. “You’re still the best, aren’t you?”
“That was overkill,” Trowa admitted quietly. “But I wanted to be sure.”
Duo’s comment about nuking the site from orbit was lost in the growing sound of a siren outside, and presently a blaring horn obscured everything for a few moments, including the noise of a huge engine. Urgently Heero said, “That’s the fire truck, and half the neighborhood’s out there now. Do you want us to go home before anyone sees us?”
Trowa considered this briefly. “No, I’d appreciate it if you would stay. This will look strange no matter how many of us there are here. And you can tell me if there’s anyone in particular who’s likely to make trouble.”
“I can try,” said Heero doubtfully.
“So what the hell was this about?” Duo demanded. “I know you’ve had plenty of time to make enemies, Trois, but who’s trying to burn your house down?”
Wearily Trowa said, “I have no idea. Right now I’m more worried about what I’m going to say to the police.”
“You’re right,” Duo frowned. “What’s our story?”
“We were asleep here when the fire started,” Heero suggested.
Duo didn’t bother to point out how improbable it would sound that the fully clothed three of them had all been asleep in this tiny house; he just built on it as better than nothing. “So we have no idea how it started; we just jumped up all startled when it woke us up.”
“And we put it out by…” Heero’s creativity failed. How the fire had been put out would be a snag no matter how they approached it.
Now Duo could hear voices outside, but, oddly, no running footsteps. The siren had stopped, the big truck engine still rumbled, but there was no shouting, and nobody seemed to be approaching the house. Shouldn’t they be busting in the door about now with a big hose and paramedic stretchers or something?
“It’s… weird…” Heero said slowly, apparently in response to Duo’s thoughts. “They’re not thinking the way I would expect…”
“What do you mean?” Though still tired, Trowa’s tone was now somewhat sharp.
“I’m not very good at telling who’s thinking what yet,” Heero admitted a little stiffly, “and it’s hard from here. But everyone I can hear out there… it’s like they think everything’s already over. Your neighbors were worried and scared just a minute ago, but now they’re…” Bafflement sounded in his voice as if he was scarcely able to believe what he was finding. “They’re relieved. Some of these are even the firefighters, I think, and they’re relieved too. ‘Everything’s OK now; nobody was hurt’ — that’s the feeling I’m getting.”
“But they can’t know that!” Duo protested. “Why aren’t they coming in?” Not that it might not be better if they didn’t, but something was not right.
“I don’t know! It’s like they’ve… skipped something.” Another siren was approaching, this one with a different sound to it and unaccompanied by the truck roar. “Police,” said Heero briefly. “We’ll see what they think.”
The atmosphere inside the dark, charred house had changed. The fire had been unexpected and worrisome, but this aftermath was worse, in a way. They continued to crouch tensely in the entry, listening to Heero’s report of what was going on outside and trying to decide what to do about it. Trowa hadn’t said anything for a few moments, and was keeping very still; Duo wondered just how much energy he’d actually used to put the fire out.
“No, the police are in on this too,” said Heero at last, “whatever it is. Now there’s this feeling out there like, ‘Everyone can go home; it’s all over.’ I think somebody’s going to put some tape up, but…”
“We need to get out there,” Trowa said suddenly, standing abruptly straight and hastening to leave the house. He moved so quickly that he had no time to offer any explanation; he’d already flung the door open and stepped out onto the porch. In the light that streamed from the street beyond the front yard, Duo and Heero exchanged a confused and startled glance, then moved more slowly to follow him.
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.