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.

Previous (Part 20) | Chapter Index | Next (Part 22)