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.
This was unquestionably brainwashing. Only once before had Trowa observed the phenomenon, but the signs could not be mistaken. And given that at least twenty people were assembled on the sidewalk in front of what remained of his house, someone with some serious communion magic must be behind it. Trowa hurried outside now in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the person or persons responsible before they fled.
It didn’t entirely make sense, though. Why make everyone believe it was all at an end? Why erase the need in the minds of the fire department and police to do what they would normally have done? To set fire to Trowa’s house and then essentially smooth over the subsequent first response as soon as Trowa had taken care of things seemed a bizarrely considerate brand of malice. Or was it part of some larger strike against him, and would actually end up causing even more problems in the long run?
Though he’d hastened out the door, he came to a somewhat weary halt halfway down his front walk, and was moving more slowly as he took a good look around. No visual clues presented in front of him — he didn’t know his neighbors well enough by sight to swear that everyone here besides the fire fighters and police was a resident of the cul-de-sac — and behind him the view was startling and forlorn.
It looked as if the fire had been laid on both sides of the house, for the worst blackening and the greatest structural damage was at either end. This was lucky, since both the study that contained his most valued possessions and the entryway where Duo and Heero had come in were approximately central… but he didn’t have much hope for the state of his bed in the room on the far right or his computer on the far left. If he’d arrived earlier, perhaps…
One thing Trowa still excelled at was using too much power on a spell. The sensible course of action would have been to feel out the strength of the magic he was trying to undo and tailor his counterspell to it, but in the (literal) heat of the moment, entering his burning house and finding his friends in some danger, he’d just wanted to get the thing over with.
Having a lot of energy afterward might not have done him much good in this situation anyway. Even if he hadn’t spent so much more than he needed to punch through the opposing spell, he might not have been able to use what he had left effectively: this brainwasher must be worlds more skilled in communication magic than Trowa was to affect this many people so quickly. He did rather wish he’d taken his time on the fire, though. If he’d gone to the trouble to work it out and learn a bit more about it, it might have given him some clue to the identity of whoever had set it.
What could someone hope to gain by burning his house other than inconveniencing him? They couldn’t possibly have been under the impression that he would be personally injured or killed by it, could they? Or was it goods and property they’d been seeking to damage or destroy? What did he have worth targeting?
“Look at the way they’re looking at us,” Heero murmured from Trowa’s side. “They’re not surprised at all. It’s like we’ve already had the first conversation, and now they’re just sorry for you because your house is ruined.”
Trowa nodded as he turned again toward the people out beyond the edge of the lawn. “Somebody’s gotten to them.”
From his other side, Duo hissed. “You mean a communicator?”
“Heero, see if you can feel any residual magic in anyone’s head.” It wasn’t likely that Heero, his communicative magic having just awakened, would be able to, but he might as well try. “Duo,” Trowa said next, slowly, not ceasing to search the crowd in case he’d missed something, “can you go back inside and wait in the study? If this was somebody trying to get at something in there — destroy or steal something, I mean–”
“Got it,” Duo broke in. “If someone tries to sneak in while you’re distracted, they’re going to get a spell in the teeth. But call if you need me out here, OK?”
Trowa nodded thanks and acknowledgment. Given that he’d been seven states away at Seifert’s house all day and most of yesterday, leaving his own residence relatively open to burglary, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would try to sneak in while he was immediately outside, but he did feel a little better for having that base covered.
“I don’t think I feel magic in anyone’s head,” Heero said as Duo left. “They mostly feel… not exactly confused, but… unfocused. Like they are confused, but they don’t know it.”
Trowa nodded again.
“I wish I could do this better,” Heero muttered. “I’ve only just barely started hearing people besides Duo, and it’s still hard to make sense of it all.”
Turning and observing Heero’s somber, focused expression, Trowa said very seriously, “Thank you for trying. I appreciate your help.”
Brusquely Heero nodded.
A couple of firefighters had poked some whippy stakes into the lawn and were fiddling with a roll of yellow tape that bore the words, FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS. One of the cops was encouraging the neighbors to go home, the other approaching up the mossy flagstone walk. Trowa tried to decide exactly what he was going to say.
“Did you get ahold of them?” the police officer asked as she neared, exactly as if they’d already had a conversation this evening.
“Get hold of whom?” Trowa wondered. There really was no other way to answer. He could give an affirmative or a negative, but his bluff would probably fall apart with the officer’s next question.
“Oh.” Her frown was one of vague perplexity rather than disapproval or suspicion. “I thought you were calling your insurance.”
“Oh,” Trowa echoed. “No, I didn’t get hold of them yet.”
A second police car pulled up at that moment, and the woman on the path, after another somewhat unfocused glance at Trowa, turned and went to meet the officer emerging from it. Heero, Trowa noticed, was watching intently, and he definitely had the right idea: if this new cop too slipped into brainwashed mode, it would prove that the communicator was still in the immediate vicinity.
He was distracted from joining Heero in his scrutiny, however, by an unexpected cry from behind him. “Trowa!?” Glancing over his shoulder, he found Quatre descending the porch steps at a jog with an expression of horror and — predictably — anger on his face. “Trowa, thank god,” was Quatre’s fervent declaration as he came to a stop in front of Trowa. “What the hell is going on?”
Trowa shook his head. “I don’t really know.”
“But your house!” Now Quatre sounded impatient. “What happened?”
“There was a fire–”
“I can see that,” Quatre snapped. “What about you?”
“Something strange is happening here,” Trowa said, lowering his voice. “I’m trying to figure out–”
Quatre made a frustrated sound even as he reached out and took Trowa by the upper arms and shook him. “Tell me right now you’re all right, Trowa Barton, or I swear to god–”
Well, it was good to know that, even in the midst of his wrath, Trowa’s boyfriend was that concerned about him. The expression in Quatre’s wide eyes, blocked from the light though they were with Trowa standing between him and the street lamps, was simultaneously reassuring and painful to see. Trowa interrupted him with a quick, “I’m fine; I’m absolutely fine. I wasn’t even here when the fire started, but Heero called me and I jumped here to put it out with magic.” He raised his hands to grasp Quatre’s arms, trying to reassure him.
“How did it start?” Rather than at all reassured, Quatre seemed just as agitated as before.
“Somebody set your house on fire with magic?” Quatre hissed, looking now as if he might set someone’s house on fire — or perhaps just someone — solely with his angry expression. “Somebody deliberately tried to hurt you?” He’d gone completely rigid, and the energy rose from him in an unbroken but wavering stream very much like the flames Trowa had dealt with a little earlier inside. “Who?”
“I don’t know.” As taken aback as Trowa was at Quatre’s demeanor, he couldn’t help feeling a completely ill-timed thrill at the protectiveness Quatre was exhibiting toward him — the look in his face and sound in his voice that seemed to indicate Quatre would strike out to avenge him the very instant he had a recognizable target.
But Quatre didn’t appreciate his answer; possibly he recognized the slight wariness in Trowa’s tone. “Are we doing this again?” he demanded. “Not telling each other things? Or is this because I’m the only one around here without magic?”
Trowa restrained himself from arguing, from insisting that he really, honestly didn’t know. “Someone was here, and may still be here, who–”
This time it was Heero that interrupted, with a pointed clearing of throat. Releasing Quatre and turning, Trowa found a police officer coming this way again. The neighbors were dispersing now, since an extra voice and set of hands had joined in the efforts at getting them to, and things were generally quieting down. Whatever had happened when the new car arrived, Trowa would have to hear about it from Heero later. It seemed his attempts at pinpointing the brainwasher in the crowd had been in vain.
An electronic pad of some sort with a stylus had accompanied the officer this time, so this was probably the discussion he’d been bracing himself for. He would rather finish his conversation with Quatre, but asking the cops to wait a few minutes so he could attempt to placate his magically angry boyfriend probably wouldn’t go over too well even if they had been hit by some expert communication spell.
“OK,” said the woman, “I need all your information for my official report.” She smiled before positioning her stylus and looking studiously down. “Full name?”
Trowa had carefully answered the first couple of questions, had barely gotten into the swing of this, and hadn’t yet managed to figure out exactly what was being reported and how much trouble he might find himself in after not too long, when he heard Quatre make a noise behind him. It might have been an angry huff, but it might also have been something like a sob… and in either case it said pretty clearly, “Well, I can see I’m not wanted here.” Trowa didn’t need the loud footsteps retreating back to the house, nor the slamming of the latter’s door, to know what Quatre’s next move was.
Heero, still standing beside Trowa, watched Quatre’s departure with a somewhat pained expression. He probably wanted to go after him and simultaneously lacked any desire to put himself in Quatre’s line of fire. At least, if he felt anything like Trowa, those would be his feelings. And he probably knew that, like Trowa, he was needed for something specific right here and now, and simply couldn’t afford to leave. In any case, he shook his head and turned back to observing what remained of the group on the sidewalk.
“They’re considering it an accident,” was Trowa’s weary recap, “probably caused by the old wiring — the house was built in the 40’s, after all. And I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure even that out without Heero’s help. Playing along with the brainwashing was… a challenge. I doubt I could have managed if they hadn’t all been so foggy about what was going on.”
“So you’re not going to get in trouble or anything?” As a bystander, and given that his friend was unhurt, Duo felt more burning curiosity (pun perhaps intended) than anything else, but he tried to keep it from his voice since it would only make Trowa more unhappy. Weariness made this a lot easier than it might have been.
“I don’t know.” Trowa sounded far more worn out than Duo felt. “From the police probably not, but there’s still the insurance to deal with.”
Duo nodded, then yawned. “And no clues at all,” he wondered when he could speak again, “who was doing what?”
Trowa shook his head.
“I don’t know what kind of spells take what kind of skill,” Heero murmured from where he stood just behind the sofa, “but I was still impressed with that brainwashing.”
Now Trowa nodded. “It was impressive. Someone with some real power and training must have been out there. I just wish I knew why…”
Heero went on, “When the second cop showed up, he was only wondering what was going on for about half a second after he got out of his car, and then he went into the same frame of mind as the rest of them. So whoever it was must have still been there, and they worked fast.”
Trowa nodded again.
“Real-time awareness management,” said Duo, inventing a label he thought sounded accurate.
“But I can’t reach out and get people’s thoughts yet. It’s still just whatever’s on the surface. So there was no way I could have…” Heero’s frustrated remark faded into a sigh.
“Don’t worry about it,” Trowa murmured.
And then nobody said another word — too tired, Duo thought, all of them. He was half busy contemplating the events of the evening, half blank in the head contemplating nothing at all. He’d assisted in raising a magical barrier around Trowa’s house that would prevent entry into the building during the night, and was now, like Trowa, completely spent.
Finally Heero gave a sigh and pushed away from the couch. Though not nearly as worn out as the other two, his puzzling over the matter of the brainwashing had probably rendered him just as ready for some rest — and it was, after all, well past bedtime. How so many hours had passed during their little adventure (especially when Duo had spent so much of it kicking around rather pointlessly in the dark in Trowa’s study), Duo had no idea.
“Trowa, if you need anything,” Heero said, “just knock on our door.” Obviously he’d observed as well as Duo had the reluctance with which Trowa had accepted the offer of the bed in the computer room for the night. Actually, Duo didn’t really know how much of Trowa’s thoughts Heero could read; possibly Heero had observed far more than Duo had. In any case, Heero was clearly trying to reiterate the welcome. “And feel free to help yourself to anything in the kitchen if you want something to eat.”
“Thank you,” Trowa said. Noting that Duo had stood from where he’d been sitting beside him, he added, “Good night.”
Duo gave a comforting pat to Trowa’s shoulder before moving toward the hall. “Good night. You get some sleep too!”
His own sleep was surprisingly placid and deep. In fact, one thought among several upon awakening in the morning was that being magically spent (a condition he hadn’t ever properly experienced before) might be a decent way of staving off unpleasant dreams. He would have to ponder this later when his mind wasn’t so busy with other things.
And his mind was busy with other things, which was probably the reason he’d awakened so much earlier than usual on a Saturday. There was a lot to consider and a lot to do today, and no way he was going back to sleep now. His eager jump out of bed raised a complaint from Heero, so he tried to keep quiet as he brushed his teeth and used the toilet and then headed out toward the living room.
To find Trowa sitting on the couch in so precisely the same attitude as last night that it almost seemed he’d never moved was no surprise, but it was a bit of a surprise to find that he had the TV turned on. Even with the volume almost all the way down, it was the first time he had ever, in Duo’s presence, deliberately watched TV (or acted as if he was doing so).
“How…” Trowa dragged his gaze away from the television slowly and fixed it on Duo, displaying somewhat blurry eyes with dark circles beneath them. “How did you survive so long watching this stuff?”
Duo grinned. He was not about to remind Trowa that survival hadn’t exactly been an area of concern for him during the TV-bound years. Instead he assured him, “Some of it’s actually pretty good. But sometimes it’s a huge pain trying to find it.” Before Trowa could say anything else, Duo went on, “How long do you expect to survive not sleeping?” Normally Quatre was the one that got on Trowa’s case about this sort of thing, but at the moment Quatre was not available to perform that function. Duo had caught a couple of glimpses of him last night, and it had been more than obvious that Quatre wasn’t there to goad Trowa kindly on his personal habits.
“I slept a little,” Trowa said. “I’m still so used to not sleeping at all, or only sleeping when…” He still blushed, too, when he referred to details of his sex life, even those as innocent as the fact that he slept more and better when Quatre shared his bed.
Duo sat down beside him. “Did you at least have any great ideas while you weren’t sleeping?”
“No. As you said, I’ve had plenty of time to make enemies, but who would have done this and why I can’t guess. I went back home a couple of hours ago and looked around in the light in case there was some message that would explain things, but there was nothing.”
“And divinations?” The fact that Trowa looked perceptibly more tired than last night made Duo assume he’d been doing more magic.
Trowa frowned. “I think someone is blocking.”
“Same person who cast the spell.”
“Probably. It seems to make sense, in a way… but with the information I have right now, all I can do is guess.”
Duo nodded. “So what’s next?”
“My house isn’t livable. I stabilized the floor, so it’s safe to walk in, but… I don’t even have a bed to sleep in anymore. I’ll need to find…” He paused thoughtfully, and didn’t seem entirely unhappy as he said, “It’s a decent opportunity to move here, actually. I was already thinking of that, but I hadn’t made any plans yet… Now there’s nothing stopping me. In any case, I’ll need a place to stay while I look for something new.”
Duo opened his mouth to say that Trowa was welcome to stay here as long as he needed, but stopped himself. He’d probably better not go around offering out Heero’s spare room without talking to Heero about it first. He thought Heero and Trowa had become friendlier of late — and certainly last night, in particular, seemed to have brought about a greater level of camaraderie between them — but it was still possible that Heero wouldn’t be comfortable with Trowa staying here much longer. The idea saddened him, but he tried to push it aside.
While Duo thought about this and didn’t say what he wanted to say, Trowa went on. “And I’ll need to get my things — whatever isn’t ruined — out of there.”
“Trowa, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you need.” This was Heero from the hall, where he was emerging from the bedroom. The grogginess in his eyes — a look Duo had always considered more than a bit adorable — diminished quickly as he entered the living room, circled the TV stand, and gazed at his boyfriend. He had probably heard Duo’s thoughts; Duo wished the reverse could be true, since he knew Heero wasn’t likely to want to discuss them in Trowa’s presence. “And you’re welcome to keep your stuff here,” Heero went on after a moment, shifting his glance toward Trowa, “if you think it will fit.”
“Thank you,” said Trowa. He looked around calculatingly at the room. “Yes, I think there should be space. Most of my bigger furniture is ruined, and that can stay where it is for now, until…” He sighed. “Until I get the whole house dealt with.” Obviously he wasn’t looking forward to working with his insurance, and would probably rather abandon the wreckage entirely than come up with a bunch of lies. But he shook his head and returned to the pertinent topic. “The bookshelves are the biggest things that will need to be moved, but everything’s covered in smoke, which I don’t want to get all over your clean apartment…”
“We could use some of that painter’s plastic to keep it off the carpet,” Heero said, “and wipe everything down once it’s in here.”
“It’s going to be a lot of work.” Trowa sounded just as reluctant about this as he had about accepting the bed last night.
“Then we’d better get started as soon as possible.” Heero’s businesslike tone reminded Duo a bit of Quatre; perhaps it reminded Trowa too, for he made no protest, just nodded. Then Heero added, “Duo, let’s get dressed,” in nearly as pointed a manner, and turned back toward the hall again. He hadn’t said, ‘Duo, let’s talk,’ but he might as well have.
His first remark once the bedroom door had given them their privacy was, “This is your home too. If you want Trowa here, we’re going to have Trowa here.”
“Yeah, but…” Duo wasn’t likely to think of himself as a proper sharer of the home, rather than just a freeloader, until he was contributing to the rent. For several days he’d been running over a mental list of possible expenditures of his first paycheck, and the vast number of things he could buy had thus far seemed too overwhelming for any decision. Now, though, he thought he might feel best about handing over most of his money to Heero for September living expenses.
Detecting this resolution, Heero made a somewhat frustrated sound. “September’s already paid.”
“October, then,” Duo replied with a stubborn edge to his voice.
Finished donning jeans, Heero stopped in the middle of rifling through his t-shirts and turned with a serious smile to face Duo. “I want to help Trowa in any way we can. And I also want you to not forget that you have a choice about things around here. I’m not in charge.”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to just go over your head and invite someone to stay here without even talking to you about it.”
“Trowa is not ‘someone,'” Heero insisted. “Trowa is your best friend. When your best friend’s house burns down, you don’t have to ask me first to invite him to stay here.”
A hint of something like resentment arose in Duo at being lectured, even if what Heero urged was the autonomy Duo wanted to gain and express. Even as the sensation occurred, he was already trying to repress it; it wasn’t fair — it was just a thoughtless emotional reaction that would pass soon enough — and he didn’t want Heero picking up on it and thinking Duo was truly annoyed with him.
Heero evidently caught it anyway, for he stiffened a bit and his smile faded. He grabbed the first shirt to hand and turned away. Moving toward the nightstand, he pulled the t-shirt over his head and then reached to disconnect his phone from its charger. He offered no explanation, just started dialing someone, his back still to Duo. The latter continued dressing in silence as he waited to find out whom Heero was calling.
When Heero opened the conversation in Japanese, it narrowed down the possibilities quite a bit, and common sense shrank the field even further. Catching Trowa’s name, Duo thought he could guess, in general, what the call was about. He did wonder which language Heero would have conducted the discussion in if he and Duo hadn’t just had a tense little moment.
This business of having Heero in his head all the time was… well, it was a pain in the ass, really. It made things far more complicated than they needed to be. People without communicative magic could easily have little flashes of emotion that faded quickly and went completely unmentioned without causing strain. There would always be something even in the best of relationships that annoyed one or both parties, and under normal circumstances it didn’t need to be brought up unless it grew into a real issue. It seemed unfair that things had to be so much more… sensitive… around here because of Heero’s budding talent.
But at the same time, they were dealing with it. Even in the midst of other problems — and god knew they had enough right now — they were dealing with it. They weren’t going to let it ruin things. Duo loved Heero, didn’t see any impossible barriers in their way, and figured that even a rocky period like this would only make their lives better in the long run.
Heero finished his call while Duo tied his shoes, and when Duo sat up from this endeavor he found his boyfriend right in front of him, looking down at him seriously in silence. When their eyes met he said, “Relena and Colin are going to come help, and grab some things we might need on their way over. I promised her lunch, so I need to go see what we have in the kitchen.”
“OK.” Duo stood. “Good idea.”
“Also,” Heero added, reaching out, “you’re right. We’re dealing with it. We won’t let it ruin things.”
And for a minute or two, things were absolutely fine.
Quatre had already observed the state of Trowa’s entryway yesterday evening, before Trowa had dismissed him, but in the light of early afternoon and less of a heart-clenching hurry he was better able to mark specific changes. The walls and ceiling, previously an aged off-white, were stained now an irregular blackish brown; the light fixture above him, normally a translucent plasticky gold, was murky with it. It was as if the entire place has been airbrushed by someone with a penchant for disgusting neutrals.
But smoke damage wasn’t the only difference to the scene. The grandfather clock and the umbrella stand were absent, the former leaving a blur-edged but roughly clock-shaped lighter spot on the wall behind it. Quatre wondered, first, where the clock had gone, and, second, how damaged it had been by the smoke. He was quite fond of that clock, and the thought that it might have been ruined only added to his anger at what had happened here.
He moved into the computer room to his left, stepping slowly and carefully as the charred floorboards creaked under his feet. There was no significant give, so for the moment he felt safe in walking forward, but he didn’t need to advance too far.
The room was a sooty gradient that lightened toward the doorway, and the damage to the furniture so extensive that he had a hard time making sense of the chaos even with prolonged staring. He remembered pretty well what should be in here, but the dark objects that all seemed connected by blackness, and that probably were connected in many places by having melted and fused together, could not be easily distinguished one from another — even in the extra light that streamed through the jagged hole in the wall behind and around what remained of the desk. The smell of scorched electronics still mingled with the lingering, less nasty scent of burned wood, but the computer that had given this chamber its name was nowhere to be seen.
He stared around, frowning. It looked as if Trowa’s entire record collection was destroyed; the Victrola certainly didn’t appear usable. One of the few indulgences Trowa had allowed himself over the years, not to mention a valuable set of, essentially, historic artifacts, had been ruined here. Somebody was going to pay for this. Oh, how his head ached…
Quatre turned entirely around, still frowning, to the closed door of the study.
There was less smoke damage in here, but the room looked very forlorn, in large part because of the removal of half of the shelves. The table, too, was gone, with all its chaos of documents and open books. The old tasseled armchair, faintly discolored, still stood in the corner between a remaining bookshelf and the far wall, and Quatre advanced across the creaking floor to put a hand on one of its wings.
He had so many memories of this room, this chair, from the past few months — most of them good, some bittersweet. Who would have done this? Who had targeted Trowa’s home and all those memories? Quatre didn’t care what was believed of Trowa that made someone feel they had the right to attack him like this. This was going too far.
His movements were jerky, almost reluctant, as he stepped to the bedroom doorway. He didn’t know if he had the heart to look around in here; these memories were, in some ways, even closer and deeper. He was already so angry; he should really just leave… but something drew him on. The inclination to examine a disaster was, he supposed, human nature.
This room, like the computer room, had opened to the sunlight, which streamed past the dark edges of the hole in the wall with incongruous cheerfulness onto the charred interior. The bed, half burned away, was bizarrely misshapen and only recognizable because of its location. The chair that had previously stood beside it was missing, and, indeed, the floorboards failed just before where it should have been. Quatre wondered why the creaking floor didn’t collapse under his weight after this level of destruction. Quite possibly it wasn’t even safe for him to be here. At the moment, he didn’t give a damn.
Trowa’s wardrobe, against the opposite wall, had lost one of its doors, so scorched was it. The other door stood open, allowing Quatre to see that Trowa’s meager and somewhat drab collection of clothing, whatever its state, had been emptied out. Clearly a fair amount of work had already taken place to move the usable items that remained in the house, but where those items had gone was a mystery. The only thing Quatre knew was that they hadn’t gone to the most logical destination.
He didn’t really feel like assessing the damage to the bathroom, but he stepped through it anyway to use its second door out into the living room. The fire must have arisen at three different points, since this too had suffered seriously and been opened to the outside air. The window beside the dining table gaped, and broken glass from the fallen panes littered the floor, mingling with china that had shattered when the cabinet it inhabited had burned away and dropped it.
The ‘living’ area had never been more than sparsely furnished, and now what wasn’t structurally destroyed was still probably completely unusable for smoke damage. He found himself staring angrily down at the old, stiff sofa in front of the ironically minimally-stained fireplace, tempted to reach out and run a finger across the wooden back to see how much soot he could pick up on his skin. This sofa was nearly as ugly as the chair in the study, and far less comfortable, but he had associations with it similar to — if not as numerous as — those he had with the chair. He almost couldn’t believe this had happened.
As he stood, still and contemplative, head throbbing, in the miserable light of the fire-gutted house, the silence was broken by the sound of the front door opening and footsteps and voices in the entryway off behind him — voices far too cheerful and footsteps far too energetic. Quatre’s frown deepened as he listened. Duo’s was the first and most recognizable voice, and cheer was the norm for him, but this hardly seemed the time or place for it. He recognized Heero’s voice as well, briefly, and Relena’s; that less familiar one must be Colin’s. They sounded as if they’d just come off a break and were now getting back to work. That answered a few of Quatre’s questions, but also raised a few more.
Not wanting to see anyone’s smiling face under these circumstances, Quatre hadn’t turned toward the newcomers; he knew it would only make him more angry. But at the sound of Trowa’s surprise from the doorway into the living room, he did turn at last.
Trowa had that rumpled, weary-eyed look that said he’d spent the night in his clothes, and probably slept not for very long if at all. He moved toward Quatre across the room with a hesitant expression, as if he might back off again at any time. Imagining a scared rabbit approaching a fox, Quatre felt his own expression hardening. “What is everyone doing here?” he asked, aware that it came out a little snappishly but feeling fully justified therein. It was only natural, after all, to wonder somewhat acerbically what a group of friends was doing here without having invited him, without even having told him.
“Moving things into Heero’s apartment,” Trowa replied. “For temporary storage.”
Quatre stood silently for a moment, watching the wrath build. He felt as if the anger, though certainly his, was also somehow unrelated to, disconnected from him. The impression was uncomfortably surreal, and how things were changed by the fact that he might be personally responsible for this distance from his own mood, he couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter much; he was angry in any case. “You’re moving things into Heero’s apartment.”
“Yes. He and Duo very kindly offered their extra room and space for my things until I find a new place.” The uneasiness in Trowa’s voice showed clearly that he was aware he’d done something wrong.
“And you felt like you had to wait for me to offer? You wouldn’t even have had to ask to stay at my house, but you didn’t even ask! And suddenly you’re staying at Heero’s house? All of a sudden getting along that well with Heero is some pretty damn fast progress!”
A flicker of annoyance crossed Trowa’s face, and something in Quatre responded like a fire to fuel. He was readier for a confrontation than he thought he’d ever been — especially with Trowa. It made sense for him to be upset about this, and if Trowa thought he’d been right to ignore their relationship completely and seek assistance elsewhere, he needed to state his reasons.
Trowa’s signs of irritation quickly disappeared, however, and his face faded back to the usual indifference, with only a touch remaining of the same unease as before. “I don’t see any way I could move things into your house without explaining everything to your parents, and maybe everyone else who lives there.”
It seemed as if he might go on, but here Quatre broke in. “Yes, god forbid we tell someone something, especially family. But I guess it’s just my family, since Heero’s sister is allowed to know.”
“Heero’s sister already knew. But your parents know nothing about any of this — we would have to explain it to them all at once and then add that we were moving a lot of smoke-damaged furniture into their home.”
“So basically it is just that you don’t want to have that conversation.”
“No, that’s not it.” Signs of annoyance were returning. “But this way was faster and easier. There wasn’t time–”
“And when will you have time, Trowa? It’s been five months; you’ve met my parents a dozen times; they even more or less like you. So when do you think is a good time to tell them that you’re actually older than they are?” This was unfair. The one to suggest they wait until his parents were used to Trowa on a normal level before introducing the abnormal had originally been Quatre, and Trowa the one primarily bothered by lying to them. It was unfair to attack Trowa on this basis, and Trowa really should defend himself.
When Trowa replied, “You should be the one to decide that,” it wasn’t quite a proper defense even if it did reasonably point out a flaw in Quatre’s questioning. Trowa’s voice was somewhat tight, though, as if he was still fighting off irritation, and perhaps by now a little hurt. “You have to live with them.”
Quatre crossed his arms. “Is that a problem?” It was like he was careening down a steep hill at higher and higher speeds. “Does it bother you that I live in my parents’ house at twenty-four?” He probably had brakes he could employ, but it almost seemed horrific to try in case it turned out he didn’t.
“No!” Now Trowa sounded surprised and unhappy. “Why should that bother me?”
“Well, given the huge mystery you’ve made about your parents–” Quatre actually managed to cut himself short with a snap of teeth. It was more than unfair; it was cruel. He was cruel. Of course he could choose not to be, but given the provocation, why bother? It was better just to say nothing more. Better just to leave. He shouldn’t be around people if he could help it. And it didn’t matter that something inside him, something that liked being around people and wanted to bother, felt ready to shrivel up and die.
Movement caught Quatre’s eye, and, looking over his boyfriend’s shoulder, he saw his best friend in the doorway. Heero’s expression was a mixture of unhappiness and concentration, as if he were trying to do something about whatever it was he didn’t like by standing there staring at Quatre. For some reason, Quatre found this extremely annoying, and getting out of here suddenly top priority.
“Quatre…” Trowa said as Quatre pushed past him.
“Quatre…” Heero said as Quatre pushed past him.
“Quatre!” Duo said in some surprise in the entryway.
“Quatre?” came Relena’s interested voice from the next room.
Quatre snorted as he reached for the front door, trying to pretend he was only derisively amused by the repetitive calls. Trying to pretend it didn’t tear him up to hear their concern, to know they had every reason for it, and simply walk away.
After the whirlwind Saturday and Sunday helping Trowa, Heero had yet been a little surprised to encounter Monday so soon — surprised, but not unhappy. Though nothing he’d wanted to get done over the weekend had gotten done, and though an unpleasant confrontation between Quatre and Trowa such as he’d anticipated had taken place, at least today was the day of Dorothy’s return to work so she could be consulted. Heero recognized that he might be hanging too much hope on his co-worker’s completely unknown level of expertise, but he couldn’t help it. After Saturday, he had to cling to whatever hope was available.
He’d tried to read Quatre’s mind — tried harder than he yet had to get at someone’s thoughts deliberately — but it hadn’t worked. This frustrated him endlessly. Hadn’t the beginning of this problem, specifically Quatre’s sudden distress, marked the awakening of Heero’s communicative abilities? Why couldn’t he get into Quatre’s head if he was already connected to him strongly enough to have had that warning dream?
Despite his inability to read Quatre’s thoughts, however, he’d still known Quatre for a decade; he didn’t need magic to get some clue about what his friend was feeling and thinking during this crisis. And what he’d detected by more natural means during that little argument with Trowa had been poignantly disturbing. Quatre’s demeanor had been one Heero had rarely seen in him, but thought he recognized: it was the look and sound of a man that valued control over many things losing it irrevocably.
Quatre couldn’t control his anger, could barely control his reactions to that anger, was losing control even of the coping mechanisms he’d been attempting thus far, and absolutely must break down eventually. And one of the very last sights in the world Heero wanted to see was Quatre breaking down. Therefore he looked forward to arriving at work so much that he wasn’t even bothering to point out how often Duo, seemingly every bit as eager as Heero, was tailgating on the way there.
Dorothy’s style of dress was the type of which people said, ‘So sharp you’ll cut yourself,’ so she was easy to spot even from across the parking lot. They didn’t catch up with her until the second floor inside, though, and by that time Duo was so impatient that he actually shouted.
She paused and turned back, and as she saw them she smiled in that critical manner that was, in her, not infrequently a sign of friendliness. “Oh, yes,” she said, as if just remembering, “you did start while I was gone, didn’t you?”
Duo grinned as he came up to her. “Yep! How was your vacation?”
“Right now,” Heero put in pointedly and quickly, to ensure no conversation on casual topics got started, “I need you to come with me.”
“All right. Where?”
Heero turned with a restrained but emphatic gesture. “Upstairs.”
“OK.” She sounded curious and amused, but the point was that she followed.
Heero might have explained as they walked, but rather hoped that a single glance at Quatre and the energy rising from him would tell Dorothy everything she needed to know. Yes, he was definitely putting too much faith in her abilities. But at least now he didn’t have long to wait.
They caught Quatre in a hallway. If Heero was any judge (and he should be), Quatre was not, as they were, just arriving, but had been here for a while and briefly stepped out of his office for some reason or other. It was a stroke of luck in any case, since Heero, assuming ‘I’m here to make Dorothy look at you’ would not have gone over very well with an angry Quatre, didn’t know what other excuse he would have invented to enter Quatre’s office.
Dorothy pushed past Heero and Duo the very moment she saw Quatre, stepping forward smartly with an expression of sudden interest. Quatre came to a stop as she approached him, a confused scowl growing on his lips and between his eyebrows. In an almost predatory fashion, Dorothy began to circle her Regional Manager, a hand moving to her incredulously fascinated face as she looked him up and down as if he were an art exhibit or perhaps a car wreck.
“Dorothy,” said Quatre in a voice half stern and half petulant, “I’m completely gay.” This was something he might have said as a perfectly good-natured joke under normal circumstances, but from his current tone it was very clear that he wasn’t messing around.
It certainly made no difference to Dorothy. “Yes.” She dragged out the word sluggishly as if not entirely aware she said it. She was just finishing her second slow circle of Quatre.
The latter gave his watch a quick, brow-lowered glance, then transferred that look to Heero, who still stood a few paces down the hall trying to remain invisible. “Can we maybe get to work?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dorothy, in the same absent tone as before. She came to a gradual halt, took one step back, gave Quatre a last head-to-toe scan, and nodded thoughtfully. Finally she turned away and moved to rejoin Heero and Duo. Quatre sighed in frustration and turned abruptly toward his own office.
“What on Earth happened to him?” Dorothy demanded as they all began walking away toward the elevator again. She sounded far more impressed than concerned. “That is a serious concentration of energy!”
“We’re not completely sure,” Heero replied.
At the same moment — because having turned a corner away from Quatre had made them all feel freer to discuss this — Duo said, “What kind of energy?”
“It’s red shade energy,” Dorothy replied with the hint of a puzzled look, “but something’s a little unusual about it. And there’s a lot of it; I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone possessed that hard.”
“So waiting for it to work itself off isn’t likely to help,” said Heero.
Dorothy laughed somewhat derisively as she pushed the elevator call button. “Is that what you’ve been doing? Good god. How long has he been like this?”
“What’s going on with the energy?” Duo put in. “We’ve been wondering about that, since if it’s just red shade energy, at least I shouldn’t be able to see it.”
“I have no idea! I’d have to have a much longer look, but I’m going to guess he’s not in any mood for people to poke around him.”
Duo laughed bitterly, covering a similar but quieter sound from Heero.
“You need to get an exorcist in here as soon as possible.” Dorothy placed a hand on a pinstriped pocket where her phone presumably lived. “I’ll give you a number.”
“Thank you,” Heero murmured. Even though Dorothy had actually told them very little, he still felt sincerely grateful and that his hopes had not been at all disappointed — maybe in part because it relieved him to have someone else in the know. The theories about Quatre’s condition in the minds of the non-magical majority were unsettling, whether they involved a messy breakup with Heero or not, and Heero knew of no one besides Duo, himself, and Dorothy at this office that had magical abilities and would understand the truth. Admittedly he was not even a little bit sure of this, and could be very wrong; it was an assumption based on the building-wide reactions to both the doll on Heero’s desk earlier this year and Quatre’s condition now, as well as on what he’d read in people’s heads so far.
It was this thought that made him notice, all of a sudden, that he wasn’t picking anything up from Dorothy, and that made him wonder briefly whether the other people at the office whose thoughts he didn’t pick up — the other quiet ones — might not also all be quietly magical. It was interesting to realize that, though he’d joined the ranks of the supernaturally talented, he still took it for granted that everyone he met had no such skill. Nonmagicalnormativity, perhaps? What percentage of the population actually did have magical ability? He would have to discuss this with Duo at some point.
When they reached the spot where the latter needed to break off to head for his training room, Heero could feel the extreme disinclination to do so in his head. “I’ll call right away,” Heero assured him, “and tell you about it at lunch. Oh,” he added, his voice sinking to a mutter as he remarked mostly to himself, “and we don’t have to eat in the breakroom.”
“OK,” said Duo reluctantly. He added silently a wish of good will and optimism about the plan, then turned and walked away.
Upon the entrance of Heero and Dorothy onto the sales floor, half the room stood up. As their overwhelming wave of friendly curiosity and welcome mixed with a manic desire to acquaint Dorothy with everything that had happened recently, Heero sighed. “They can’t decide whether to ask about your vacation or tell you all about last week first,” he murmured.
Dorothy shot him a sidelong curious look. “I could have guessed that, but somehow I get the feeling you didn’t. Hello, Hilde.” She chuckled as Hilde terminated an unnecessarily fast and energetic approach with a big hug. “Heero, why is Hilde so happy to see me? What have you done to my sales team?”
Heero, who was too impatient to get the phone number, just shook his head and moved on toward his own desk.
“Have you heard about Quatre, though?” Hilde demanded. “You missed the craziest week!”
“Hmm, you don’t know about my experience in Lake Shasta Cavern,” Dorothy said with mysterious facetiousness. She pushed off Hilde and followed Heero, lifting a hand to deflect queries from three other co-workers about how her time away had gone. Once she’d copied out a name and number from her phone onto a Post-It at Heero’s desk, however, she turned back to face the adoring masses, answer all their interested questions, and listen without any surprise whatsoever to their descriptions of Quatre’s behavior lately. Heero had to admit that he wasn’t entirely disinterested, himself, in her unusual vacation, and thought she could definitely do with the details of Quatre’s symptoms, but all attention he was paying to the scene dropped right off as he looked at the information in front of him.
It took no longer than a moment to decide to make the call outside this space where the thoughts of over a dozen people were swirling uncontrollably around him. So he fetched his cell phone, pulled the top Post-It from the pad, and walked swiftly from the room.
He stopped first at the water cooler across the hall, but soon moved on; he didn’t like having the open doors so close by, wanting a more complete barrier between himself and the noisy minds. When he felt relatively comfortable in a corner near the elevators, he dialed the number. It was 8:00 in the morning, and what hours exorcists kept he had no idea, but he didn’t much care.
And if he had cared, it would have been unnecessary: the voice that answered after a ring and a half didn’t sound newly awakened, only businesslike and perhaps a bit harsh. It had an accent to match the name Dorothy had written down, which was no surprise to the bilingual Heero.
“This is Hajime.”
This had been a day of mixed frustration and anticipation for Trowa. Lengthy discussions with his insurance had lasted practically all morning, with results ambivalent at best. They were in touch with the police department, of course, but when an assessor eventually went out to examine Trowa’s house, discrepancy was sure to come to light. No aged wiring had caused that fire, and Trowa didn’t know how to fake the signs. No more could he brainwash the insurance agent into a perspective that would match that of the police. He still didn’t quite know what he was going to do about this.
In the middle of it all, however, Heero had called to inform Trowa that a co-worker of his had confirmed the presence of red shade in Quatre’s condition, and that he’d made an appointment with an exorcist. Since this appointment was for tomorrow evening, Heero could easily have waited until he came home from work tonight to tell Trowa this, and Trowa appreciated that he’d called the moment he had the news in order to improve Trowa’s day with the prospect.
He tried not to hope too fervently. He didn’t want to be let down. But he was so ignorant of the solution to Quatre’s problem that he had to make do with hope in place of knowledge. And under the influence of that hope, after he’d talked to Heero and still between insurance conversations, he had — perhaps foolishly — engaged a real estate agent to take him on a tour of houses on Wednesday. It had been an impulsive decision, and there were a number of ways he could be bitterly disappointed in its outcome, but he hadn’t yet decided to cancel.
He was trying not to think about the possibility that Quatre, newly friendly again, would join him looking at houses; he was trying not to think about the future. He felt he walked a high, narrow wall that stood between great happiness and great sadness, and which direction he would eventually fall was largely beyond his control. But even if Quatre’s cooperation in this matter turned out to be impossible, Trowa ardently longed for a new home of his own as soon as he could get one.
Until its destruction, he hadn’t realized how attached he’d been to his own house. It wasn’t anything specific about the structure or his setup therein; it was the very simple circumstance of having his own space, a retreat from the tiresome world, a place that corresponded with himself. Now he was like a hermit crab without a shell: he felt exposed and very uncomfortable. He was out of his element, imposing on friends, and unable to orient himself properly. And to this discomfort had been added distinct embarrassment at the snatch of conversation he’d caught last night:
“We really… can’t do that right now. Not with Trowa here.”
“What? Why? It’s not like he doesn’t know.”
“Yes, but you’re… kinda loud…”
At that point, of course, hot-faced, Trowa had moved away so as to hear no more. But it was clear he wasn’t the only one that would prefer him elsewhere as soon as could be managed. So he would look at houses the day after tomorrow regardless of how things stood or how he felt about them.
Now it was lunch time — or perhaps well past, depending on which time zone he was judging by — but as usual, despite Heero’s repeated assurance that he was welcome to anything in the kitchen, Trowa couldn’t muster a great deal of interest in eating. It wasn’t just that he was accustomed to not eating: he was accustomed to feeling active hunger and still not eating. He was accustomed to eating with Quatre; in fact, he rather associated food with Quatre in its entirety — far more than he associated it with satisfaction or survival (except as far as Quatre represented those conditions to him as well). But since he had finally finished all his phone calls (for now), he needed something else to do — though at the moment anything he chose would merely function as a time-killing technique until tomorrow evening when, hopefully, everything would be set right.
Of course research was his usual fallback at such a moment. He did have his books and papers right here in Heero’s apartment, but they were stacked in tall piles consecutively leaned against the bookshelves, and not at all convenient. Internet research was probably a better idea. And this reminded him also that he hadn’t checked his email since Friday morning before he’d gone to Seifert’s house; perhaps by this dreary Monday afternoon someone might have answered his questions. Surely they must have by now. And those answers might confirm whether or not this exorcist tomorrow was likely to be of any real help.
Heero’s computer took an unforgivably long time to start up, and Trowa sat gloomily in the chair staring around the guest room while he waited, wondering vaguely what the predominantly juvenile contents of the bookshelf said about his host. Then he had to orient himself to a new browser that didn’t have all his logins saved, but eventually he reached his inbox. It was stuffed, as usual (especially after a few days of distraction), and his long experience allowed him to glance over the subject lines and pick out the few he wanted to read right away.
The first, in fact, was compellingly obvious, for it came from the only person among his immediate contacts he specifically knew to be necrovisual. Having a distressing history of dead ends, he’d long since ceased feeling much anticipation or excitement even at the promise of information, but still he clicked on that email fairly enthusiastically.
Trowa’s original message had been somewhat terse, but this reply was even more so, limited to a single question in response to the symptoms Trowa had related: Has the subject recently destroyed a powerful artifact?
Trowa sat back with a faint scowl. This was what he got for being uncomfortable admitting that his primary source of power was gone. He’d already assumed that the destruction of the artifact had contributed to Quatre’s change, and he should have included that information in his description. Failing to do so had merely added an extra step to this process; now he would respond to this email with what he should have said in the first place, and probably have to wait another couple of days for a more informative response.
This was nothing but Trowa’s fault, and for several moments he thoroughly hated himself for it. So frustrated was he, in fact, with himself and the situation, that he didn’t answer the email immediately; he backed out of it and clicked on the next one he’d determined merited early perusal.
Our esteemed Mr. Barton,
It has come to our attention that action has recently been taken against you, in the form of arson against your home, by certain members of our society as revenge for the destruction of an artifact in your possession. This communication is made to assure you that this was an unsanctioned action independently embarked upon by a small radical element, since reprimanded, and does not represent the attitude or goals, immediate or long-term, of our society as a whole. You are in absolutely no further danger from us. As a collective, we hold you in as high consideration and trust as ever, and we beg you not to believe that your decision to destroy Roussel’s artifact has in any way affected that opinion.
Honored to address you,
Vallis Rheita, La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré
Again Trowa sat back in the chair, mouth slightly agape, breath knocked right out of him for a moment by this surprise.
La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré? In 2010? Emailing him in English?
He’d been under the impression that they had ceased to exist after the French Revolution, that they’d never existed outside of France. He’d been under the impression that they’d been little more than a sort of aristocratic club with no practical use for their magical talents. He’d been under the impression that they’d created the artifact completely by accident, not that they’d had some kind of… reverence… for it. Or for the man into whose hands it had fallen.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be quite so astonishing that La Confrérie was still around and had picked up English (some especially formal-sounding English at that), but Trowa had done so much research on them and never heard a word about it… Of course that had all been in France, so if they had migrated to the U.S. during the turmoil of the late eighteenth century, it was no improbability that no records of that move had survived in the places Trowa had been looking.
As far as he knew, they’d never been a particularly big organization. Had they grown since changing locations? They obviously knew who he was. By the tone of the email, in fact, they knew him extremely well, and possibly assumed that he knew them. Why had he never heard anything from them before this? They must still be fairly small and secretive… and yet keeping an eye on him.
Obviously they knew that Trowa had decided to destroy the artifact… but just as obviously weren’t aware that somebody else had carried out the actual destruction — which probably meant they had kept track of the artifact through some kind of sympathetic magic that allowed them to monitor its existence but not necessarily details thereof. Except that they knew he still owned it.
He wasn’t terribly fond of the thought that this group was monitoring him, however closely or distantly, but it wasn’t too different from most of his other fans, really. Many people knew he drew his power from a particularly potent artifact, and evidently this had never lessened anyone’s opinion of him. None of his other fans, though, however radical, had ever set fire to his house.
This Vallis Rheita assured him that the arson had been carried out by a small subset and he should be in no further danger… but could she or he really guarantee that? Not that Trowa really feared what they might try to do to him — even without the artifact he was still, if not ‘the best’ as Duo had claimed on Friday night, extremely skilled at command magic and extremely knowledgeable about far more than that — but this was a complication he didn’t need right now.
Scattered clouds in a warm sky were something of a surprise to find himself looking at, and it took him a moment to recall that he’d left the computer chair as he pondered and gradually wandered into the hall (much more conducive to pacing), whence he’d eventually found his way out onto the balcony. His brain was so full and his thoughts so engrossing that he barely registered the fact that he’d moved, or the presence of the brown and white bird standing on the railing beside him with its shoulders hunched as if he might give it something to eat if it looked at him the right way.
He wondered suddenly whether or not La Confrérie and their little radical unit had anything to do with Quatre’s current condition. He didn’t see how they could — especially if they didn’t know that Quatre had been the one to wield the axe — but it was a compelling idea. That La Confrérie had shown up in Trowa’s life immediately after Quatre’s problems had started made perfect sense as a total coincidence, and yet was difficult to dismiss as being unconnected. Any connection, though, was beyond his deductive ability at this point.
This at least started to explain the brainwashing. The ‘high consideration and trust’ in which La Confrérie held ‘our esteemed Mr. Barton’ might well lead them to try to help him avoid some of the unpleasant repercussions of the unsanctioned action of their vengeful minority. Though it was a little odd that the brainwashing had started so soon after the fire had.
How would La Confrérie have found out so quickly what their radicals were up to? More sympathetic magic? Or was someone keeping an eye on the radicals too? That seemed more consistent with the speed of the response, but in that case, why hadn’t the arson been prevented to begin with? Still, given that the fire had happened, he appreciated the efforts to make the situation easier for him to deal with afterward. And it was interesting to note that La Confrérie, whatever the size and type of their organization at this point, had such a potent communicator on staff.
Glad he was now that he hadn’t started any actual research or set any particular goals for this afternoon; it would have been disappointing to be unable to accomplish any of it thanks to all the wondering that was all he was likely to get done now. Well, and he could try a few divinations to see if he could figure anything out, though he’d had less and less faith in his ability to get an informative answer to any divination lately. So the frustration and anticipation of this day did not look like diminishing, but at least for a while now it promised to be a busy frustration and anticipation, which was really all he could ask for at this point.
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.