“Quatre has been infected” –Heero was glad Trowa chose this word rather than the more accurate and definitely more agitating ‘possessed’– “with a large amount of magical energy from a destroyed magical artifact. This is what caused him to act the way he has been over the last few weeks. And we’ve just learned today” –Trowa didn’t mention how, which Heero believed Dorothy would appreciate– “that the group of magicians who originally created the artifact want that energy to create a new artifact with. They’ve taken Quatre, partly against his will, to their headquarters, where they’re trying magical rituals to extract the energy from him.”

As if they weren’t sure whether or not Trowa was finished or what should be said if he was, Quatre’s parents continued to stare at him after he’d closed his mouth. And Heero, regardless of how strange and uncomfortable it felt to be prying into the head of someone that was his best friend’s dad, his boss, and an elderly man he’d known and respected for a decade, listened very hard to all unspoken sentiments.

Mrs. Winner had a mind as neatly organized (and therefore quiet) as her son’s, but Mr. Winner’s more volatile thoughts jumped out readily for Heero to read. At the moment they were a jumble of very understandable sentiments, but predominant was a drive to get to the bottom of all this, figure out where Quatre was and what was wrong with him — and, to this end, to act as if he believed everything (which he wasn’t sure yet that he didn’t) as long as necessary. It reminded Heero of how Quatre had treated Duo at their first meeting.

“All right,” Mr. Winner said now, trying to match Trowa’s admirable calm and almost managing it. “So if this group succeeds in extracting this magical energy from him, he’ll return to his normal behavior and come home?”

It was not Trowa that answered, at which Heero was unsurprised. Only having met Quatre’s parents a couple of times before, Duo had been holding back from entering a conversation in which he would seem an outsider to them — but he could only restrain himself for so long. He burst out, “Yeah, but only if they can! If they can figure out how to make it work, fine, but in the meantime they’re keeping him in some crappy little back room without even a real bed to sleep on, while all the time we’ve got guys here who could do it without hurting him if we just had him here!”

Mr. Winner started to inquire about this method that could reverse Quatre’s condition, but stopped himself and allowed his wife, who’d begun a question at the same moment, to speak first: “They’re hurting him? These people trying to extract this magical energy?”

“Not yet,” Trowa replied, “as far as we can tell. We believe he went with them somewhat willingly, and he still seems to be going along with their rituals as of this evening, but we’re afraid their rituals aren’t going to work and will become more harmful as they keep trying — and that, even if Quatre isn’t being held against his will right now, he will be eventually.”

Anticipating the remainder of Mr. Winner’s aborted query, he added, “We’re in touch with a magical specialist who can cure him with no danger, but Quatre had already left before we had a chance to call him in. Now we want to go to Quatre and bring him back, but we don’t have the money to fly to New Orleans, which is where these people have him. We were hoping you could lend us money for plane tickets.”

The room grew heavy with the type of shocked silence, like the aftermath of electricity in the air, that falls in the wake of an unexpected disaster. Mr. Winner, suddenly exponentially more suspicious, still struggled to work out how much if any of this he believed, and Heero was struck with interest (and what might under other circumstances have been amusement) to recognize a consideration in the man’s head that had once occupied his own: though the magical proofs that had been offered were pretty thoroughly convincing, the mere existence of magic did not verify the story in its entirety. Some of this, in increments, Mr. Winner might have been able to accept, but the sudden announcement that Quatre’s already doubtable boyfriend wanted to borrow money made the whole thing come across as little more than a very bizarre scam.

And unlike when Heero had secretly wanted to believe Trowa’s story back in March — since believing at that point had meant accepting the humanity of someone he was developing a romantic interest in — Mr. Winner had no real desire to believe that his son had some kind of supernatural infection and was in danger from a mysterious group of unknown powers. He couldn’t quite decide whether that was better or worse than a sudden drug addiction, but at least the latter was something he could comprehend and take steps to assist Quatre away from.

At the same time, Mr. Winner trusted Heero to a degree that rather surprised and flattered Heero himself. Heero had been a top-notch employee for several years, and a faithful, supportive, reasonable friend to Quatre for even longer, and his presence here now backing Trowa’s claims carried a great deal of weight. In fact, Mr. Winner reflected that if this had been coming solely from Heero, he would have believed it much more easily and considered the request in a much more positive light. Had Heero been aware of this, he would have taken immediate advantage of it to get the money they needed, but he hadn’t in any way guessed Mr. Winner held him in such high esteem.

Nor had he been aware until this very moment that Mr. Winner wished Heero, rather than anyone else, were Quatre’s boyfriend. This Trowa fellow had seemed almost acceptable for a while, but now…

Aghast, Heero demanded, “How long have you wished that?”

In the previous instance of Heero responding to his private thoughts, Mr. Winner had written it off as an astute guess based on prior knowledge that he suspected Trowa of causing Quatre’s attitude change and disappearance. In this instance, there was no way he could interpret Heero’s question as anything other than a specific reply to what he’d just been thinking.

“Wished what?” Mrs. Winner wondered, even as her husband shook his head almost convulsively in his astonishment. His brain busied with the concurrent reflections that mind-reading must be the manifestation of the magical power Trowa had mentioned Heero possessed, and that he’d wished Heero and Quatre would get together ever since Quatre’s first post-high-school boyfriend, Eric, had developed a habit of calling Quatre at all hours of the day and night looking for reassurance on this or that emotional matter.

“Mr. Winner, that was six years ago. How can you have gone so long–” Heero cut this protest off as unproductive, took a deep breath, and began again with a firm bluntness that couldn’t but make him blush. “I love Quatre. He’s my best friend and probably always will be. But I’m not and I never will be in love with him, or him with me. We’re not right for each other like that. I’m not even sorry, because we each have someone who is right for us.”

As he gestured to Duo on his left, still seated on the step between the carpet below and the wood floor above, and Trowa on his right, still in that hideous green chair, he noticed that they both seemed a little surprised at this turn of conversation. But he plowed on.

“I know this doesn’t seem like the most important thing right now, but I feel like we need to get it out of the way.” He face continued to burn as he addressed the Winners again, looking from one to the other in serious appeal and speaking, his own chagrin, as if he and they were all the same age and on the same level:

“It’s hard to not be suspicious of anyone Quatre picks up; don’t you think I know that as well as you do? It makes perfect sense for you to be suspicious of Quatre’s boyfriend, and to take a long time to learn to accept him… but you need to stop hoping that, if you can just get him to get rid of this one, I’ll be the next one in line, because that’s never going to happen.”

Here he ceased, because his own boyfriend was about ready to burst again, and Heero thought it wisest to allow it. Duo leapt to his feet and made a frustrated gesture in the air. “This isn’t about who’s a better boyfriend for Quatre! — which, by the way? I love Quatre too, but he can’t have Heero. This is about rescuing Quatre from those damn cultists before they magic his brains out or something!”

There was an aggression to Duo’s tone and movements that seemed to demand of Quatre’s parents, “Are you or aren’t you going to help us?” and perhaps even imply, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us!” …and unfortunately this was the wrong tack. Mr. Winner clearly didn’t like having a long-standing attitude plucked from the privacy of his mind and then challenged, then being told that it wasn’t what this discussion was actually about as if he had led them off on some inappropriate tangent.

“If Quatre’s been kidnapped by someone,” he said with some heat, “and you three know about it and know where he is, you need to tell the police. They’re already looking for him; it’s not up to you to do their job.”

“Do the police use magic, though?” wondered Mrs. Winner quietly, sparking in Heero a sudden hope that she might be more convinced than her husband was. He couldn’t read her thoughts and hadn’t been able to read her face all along, so this was a promising sign.

“I don’t know if I believe anyone uses magic!” In fact Mr. Winner did believe that what he’d seen was magic, but he was playing devil’s advocate against the points he couldn’t quite believe yet. “Trowa here has done a couple of tricks and then asked us for money without offering any proof that this is really about Quatre.”

That was what it came down to: anything that had even the least bit of suspicion about it and then ended in a request for money was probably a scam. Heero couldn’t even say he blamed the man. He really had no idea what to say.

Mrs. Winner nodded, then used an apologetic tone very much like one Quatre sometimes did: “Gentlemen, it is a little strange that you’re bringing all of this up just when Quatre isn’t around to verify it.”

“Precisely.” Mr. Winner nodded vigorously. “That’s an excellent point.” He didn’t quite seem able to decide whether he wanted to voice his new suspicion, though: was it possible that Trowa had, after all, done something to put Quatre out of the way long enough for this strange request to be made out of his presence? And yet Heero would never be party to a scheme that would hurt or endanger Quatre, would he? But for someone the Winners had already viewed a little askance to make such a bizarre demonstration all of a sudden and then ask for money…

Helplessly Trowa shook his head. “I don’t know what else to tell you. There’s plenty more I could tell you, about magic and myself — and I will tell you sometime, I promise — but I don’t know that it would help you to trust me now. Can I ask you at least to trust Heero, though? Can you believe that his intentions are good and honest, and that, if he says this is the best way to help Quatre, it truly is?”

Though this was probably optimal wording at the moment, the Winners exchanged a grave look that held a touch of the same helplessness Trowa had evinced. Heero could easily see that the husband still hadn’t made up his mind, and guessed the wife was in much the same state; they didn’t know what to think, and it agitated them even further to be asked point blank to make a decision on such shaky grounds.

And then a new voice spoke from behind Heero and his friends, startling them with both its entrance into the conversation and its words: “You need about $3,000; is that right? I can easily lend you that.”

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