“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.

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