At the big wall of window that formed an entire side of his office, Quatre stood looking out with his back to the other men in the room, and Duo wondered what he was thinking. He must recognize at least the presence of an unusual condition; surely he was happy at the prospect of a cure! But the current stiffness of his spine and the abruptness of any movement he made gave him an air extremely annoyed and put-upon, as if he considered waiting around after work for an exorcist a favor he was granting his friends rather than a much-needed therapeutic exercise for himself.

Duo almost couldn’t believe Quatre had agreed to this. What Heero must have gone through to convince him Duo could not imagine; presumably the endeavor had only succeeded at all because friendship and Quatre’s regard for Heero’s opinion still remained even underneath Quatre’s anger, but it couldn’t have been an enjoyable conversation.

Shaking his head, Duo turned to examine the room, which he was visiting for the first time. Perfectly well organized though full of things, and, for a managerial office, very friendly and welcoming, it reflected Quatre’s normal attitude quite well. Duo couldn’t help thinking that he wouldn’t really enjoy spending a lot of time even in an office this pleasant… but maybe that was merely because of how the resident of this one had been behaving lately.

His eye was caught and held by the large picture frame beside Quatre’s computer. It shifted to a new photo every seven seconds or so, displaying the faces of Quatre’s close acquaintances in cheerful succession. There were parents and nieces and nephews and sisters and in-laws at family functions, various friends (including Duo himself) in different states of casual interaction, quite a few images from their beach trip this summer, and… a lot of Trowa. Duo was inclined to smile as he slowly worked out the Trowa:other-people ratio, and wondered if Trowa was aware of just how often Quatre photographed him.

Some of them were even from before the breaking of the curse, and the paleness of Trowa’s skin and eyes was startling after several months of getting used to his restored naturality. Duo wondered with a slight shiver — he wasn’t sure exactly what emotion prompted it, but it was strange and a little uncomfortable — whether Quatre had photos of him as a doll. He didn’t remember Quatre ever taking any, but a lot of these pictures of Trowa looked as if they’d been taken on the sly.

When Duo glanced up again, he twitched as he found that very Trowa, previously absent, standing beside him. Recovering quickly from his startlement, “I didn’t even feel anything,” he said admiringly.

“I’m adjusting to using less power to jump,” Trowa replied with a nod.

Quatre turned from the window, scowling and apparently trying to smile at the same time, which looked uncomfortable and pathetic. And when he said, “So all my audience is here now,” it wasn’t the first recent instance of a remark that might have been a joke now bearing a bite that induced Duo to turn away.

Just at that moment, the phone on the desk made a warbling noise longer than a chirp but not quite a ring; Duo hadn’t yet spent enough time in this corporate world to classify all the sounds made by the phones around here. Quatre, who seemed to know what it signified, strode to the desk and picked up the receiver with a curt, “Yes?” This was followed, after half a moment, by an equally annoyed-sounding, “Yes, send him up.”

Hearing this, Heero slipped out the door, undoubtedly to go meet the man and guide him to the right floor and room.

Not wanting to look back at his angry friend, Duo continued to study anything around him besides Quatre — though, really, studying the room was practically the same as studying Quatre himself.

The level of organization in here was actually somewhat worrisome. Duo knew Quatre for a very neat person, but this seemed almost inhuman. Everything formed such a precise angle to everything else, and even the pens in the wire mesh cup seemed to have been leaned against each other in a pattern of similar sizes and colors. Things couldn’t possibly remain this well arranged for more than a few minutes. Had Quatre just set it all up like this before his friends came into the room? Was that an assertion of personal space or power because he felt threatened by this office invasion? Or had Quatre perhaps been taking out his anger on his desk, and disarrayed his possessions to the point where he’d felt the need to rigidly reorder them?

The image of Quatre in here alone trying to cope with his mood by throwing his pens around might have been funny under normal circumstances, but at the moment was heartrending. Likewise, under normal circumstances, Duo would have been highly tempted to mess things up just to be an ass, but at the moment the thought of such practical joking only made him sad. He didn’t feel guilty, though, when one little thought in the back of his head told him that, eventually, when this was all over, he really would have to come in here at some point and rearrange this desk just to see what Quatre would do. And then the door opened and Heero reentered with the exorcist.

He was a harsh-looking man in a dark blue suit, but even the sheathed sword he unexpectedly carried — something cool enough to demand attention — couldn’t hold Duo’s gaze when the guy had such hilarious hair. After a mere couple of seconds looking at the four or five discrete bundles of bangs like spider legs over his forehead, Duo felt his lips twitching dangerously. Fortunately, the exorcist had immediately fixed his own gaze on Quatre beside the window, probably reading more from the energy rising off him than anyone else in the room could, and didn’t see Duo’s incorrigible mirth.

“Quatre, Trowa, Duo, this is Hajime Saitou.” Heero gestured to each of them in turn, and Duo had mostly managed to get his mouth under control by the time Hajime’s eyes flicked across him.

The exorcist nodded. “I’m pleased to meet you all. I already see how serious your problem is.” And he stepped forward around the desk toward Quatre. Duo felt very strongly that, however polite his words, the man’s movements were calculated to intimidate; he looked taller, somehow, as he stalked across the room, the sword in his hand more dangerous.

Quatre seemed to bristle in response. In an almost sneering tone he remarked, “Jos Banks and a katana? Not what I expected from an exorcist.”

“Some do prefer skulls and black eyeliner,” Hajime allowed, still courteous, “but I’ve never felt the need.”

His technique had been effective, assuming its desired effect had been to increase the amount of energy rising from Quatre. After halting perhaps a step too close to him and standing there for several silent moments, the exorcist began slowly walking back and forth looking critically at Quatre, much as Dorothy had yesterday. Eventually he lifted his sword and partially drew it, causing everyone in the room to stiffen and Quatre to become even more angry. Hajime glanced at the gleaming red blade, nodded, and put it away again. “Do you have any magical abilities yourself, Mr. Winner?” he asked at last.

“Can’t you tell?” Quatre snapped.

“My guess,” Hajime replied, “is that you’re just a very organized and empathetic businessman who isn’t normally so unhappy.”

‘Unpleasant’ might have been a better word, but it was a good guess in any case. Quatre certainly didn’t look or sound happy as he answered, “Well, no, I have no magic. I’m the only one in the room without magic, in fact.”

Hajime nodded, and the slight frown on his face was thoughtful. It seemed he was about to speak when Trowa cut him off:

“He did destroy a powerful artifact for me recently.”

Giving Trowa a pensive look, Hajime asked, “Did you have any particular attachment to it?”

“Not exactly. But I know someone — multiple people, in fact — who did.”

“Multiple people?” Hajime echoed, speaking Duo’s curiosity aloud.

“I just found out that the group that originally created the artifact still exists, and some of them were upset that I decided to destroy it.”

“But you weren’t actually the one who–” Duo began in surprise, but cut himself off as an even more surprising thought struck him. “Was that who set your house on fire??”

Trowa confirmed this with a nod, then added quietly, “Obviously they didn’t realize I personally wasn’t the one to destroy the artifact.”

“Is this that French cult?” Quatre asked in a dangerous tone.

“The email was in English, but it’s the same group.”

“And what did the email say?” Quatre still sounded as if he was collecting information on a potential target.

“It was an apology for the arson.” Trowa, meanwhile, sounded as if this was one of perhaps many things he’d feared about revealing this information.

Turning so he could address all four of them, Hajime got them back on track before the topic of the email and the French cult could be further pursued. “A strong psychic connection between a person and an artifact can cause that artifact to behave like a living being in some ways,” he explained. “Someone thinks of it as a friend, for example, and in response to that psychic energy it becomes one. Normally, a shade is created when emotion combines with the energy of death, and a sort of death energy can be created by something non-living if someone has personified the object strongly enough. And in this case, the emotion in question was probably more a potential than something someone actually felt — if someone with a psychic connection to the artifact would be angry at its destruction, it would be enough to cause a shade to form, turning the artifact’s stored magic into an angry energy very similar to red shade, at the moment of the artifact’s ‘death.'”

Duo thought he understood. “And that’s why there’s so much energy: because that was the artifact that–” Before he could finish, “helped Trowa cast a curse that could last for eighty-seven years,” he amended his intention to something a little less revealing. “–was so super powerful.”

Hajime was nodding again. “It usually takes a fairly powerful artifact to lead to this condition. People rarely have an emotional connection to weaker ones — and if they do, there may not be enough power in a weaker artifact to take hold of the emotion anyway. It’s an unusual circumstance called artifact shade or artifact possession.” He must have noticed dismay somewhere, for he went on with a quirk of thin lips, “It’s unusual, but it can be dealt with like any other shade.”

A breath of relief and a letdown of tension went audibly and palpably through the room.

“Unfortunately,” Hajime went on, “because Mr. Winner here has completely internalized this energy, my technique–” he raised his sword– “isn’t going to help.”

“You can’t help?” Quatre broke in, looking flabbergasted and irate. “What the hell was the point of all this, then?”

“A diagnosis?” Hajime suggested, in a tone that would have been sarcastic with just the tiniest bit more inflection. “And the chance to make an appointment to get this dealt with. My partner shouldn’t have any problem absorbing this energy.”

Quatre demanded, “Why didn’t you bring your partner with you today?”

“He has a rather busy schedule.” Evidently Hajime was offhandedly familiar with this schedule, for he added, “I can bring him here on Friday evening, if five o’clock works for you again.”

“Friday?” Duo echoed in dismay. “Nothing earlier?”

Quatre shot him an angry look. “How about everyone who has nothing to do with this goes home right now?” he suggested acidly. “I’m sure you can get in touch with Mr. Saitou for a boring lecture about possession some other time.”

The implication that Duo was not enough of a friend to have anything to do with Quatre’s recovery stung a bit, but not nearly as much as it would have if Duo hadn’t been well aware that it was the anger speaking. Heero took his hand and said softly, “Come on.” Turning, Duo found his boyfriend’s face grim but resigned. “Hajime,” Heero went on, “thank you for coming. I’ll talk to you on the phone.” Though presumably, if Quatre could be convinced to agree to another appointment, payment wouldn’t need to be arranged until after that had taken place.

Hajime nodded at Heero, and the latter pulled Duo toward the door. Behind them, no one said anything more; perhaps Quatre was too angry, Trowa too reluctant, and Hajime aware that he’d said everything he needed to. Whatever the cause, the door closed on that stubborn silence, cutting Duo and Heero off from any further hope that might have been drawn from the scene.

Previous (Part 25) | Chapter Index | Next (Part 27)