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.
“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.”
Everyone turned to look in the direction of the newcomer, Trowa even jumping to his feet in order to do so. And, while it shouldn’t really have been a shock to find Hajime standing just where the living room transitioned into the more open front room, Duo at least had entirely forgotten the man’s presence and was very surprised to see him. He’d also lost track of the fact that the exorcist was (primarily, according to Heero) a communicator, so the accurate announcement (by someone that hadn’t been informed) of how much money was needed in this situation came as a surprise as well.
“If you had asked me first,” Hajime went on, taking a few more steps forward and stopping again with a gesture around at the assembled group, “you could have avoided all of this.”
“And who are you, sir?” Quatre’s father looked wary, and Duo, remembering the reason Hajime was in this house at all, wondered whether Mr. Winner recognized the man described by the security officer at work. If so, he must consider this more a hoax than ever, and consider any suspicions he’d been harboring regarding criminal or otherwise underhanded dealings all but confirmed. And having someone in a position of control over the entire immediate future completely dismiss what Duo had to say as impossible was not a situation the former doll was pleased to revisit.
Simultaneously, though, Duo realized that, if Hajime was willing to lend them money, it didn’t actually matter much. Callous as it seemed under the circumstances (under any circumstances, really), the Winners could be dispensed with entirely at this point in favor of the unexpectedly helpful exorcist. Like Trowa, Duo turned his full attention on the man, so that the only person left looking at the Winners was Hajime himself.
The latter had introduced himself very politely by name and as “the specialist Mr. Barton mentioned.” Then he turned toward Trowa and said, “It’s too much to ask of them all at once — to suddenly believe in magic and lend you money.” There was a touch of ‘you should have known better’ in his tone, and with this sentiment Heero quietly agreed:
“We should have realized that.”
“I can buy you plane tickets on my phone, unless you’d rather go somewhere else and find a computer.”
Trowa, the one directly addressed, seemed to have been too struck by the abrupt good fortune and total change in conversation to say anything before this, and now he appeared blindsided by Hajime’s professional expeditiousness. And before Trowa could get out the first thanks toward which his eventual attempt at speech tended, Mr. Winner spoke instead:
“I think this is all a little hasty. Maybe it was a lot to ask of us at once, but I think it’s just as bad to move forward without us without even allowing us to tell you what we think.”
“I apologize for going over your heads,” Hajime replied, “but I don’t think there can be too much haste in this situation.”
“But are you the right person to be providing the money in this situation, Mr. Saitou?” Mrs. Winner wondered. “It seems to me that you should be being paid, not paying.”
“Your son is my client, ma’am. It’s my priority to help him by whatever means necessary.” Hajime’s words held a reserved but courteous sort of businesslike friendliness, and it struck Duo, who hadn’t seen him act like this before, as a little creepy.
And yet it seemed to be hitting the right note with the Winners. Hajime had an aura of competence and authority that was only augmented by his current behavior devoid of disdain or sarcasm. Perhaps the suit helped as well; it said something about a man that he would be fully decked out in tie and jacket under such circumstances. If Duo had thought of that, he might not have removed both of his and rolled up his shirt sleeves.
“It seems more appropriate for his family to pay for this, though, doesn’t it, Mr. Saitou?” Mrs. Winner persisted.
“Certainly,” the exorcist agreed. “If they’re in a position to do so.”
“And we may very well be in that position.” Mr. Winner spoke with a touch of remonstrance, as if there had never been any doubt on this point. “It’s certainly a very strange situation, but if anyone is going to be paying for a flight out to where Quatre is, it really should be his parents.”
“We’re only asking for a loan,” Trowa reminded. “I will pay you back as soon as possible, of course.”
Mr. Winner gave him a pensive look not entirely free of suspicion yet. “I’m inclined to ask where you would get the money, since I have my doubts about what you’ve told us in the past about your income, but I suppose that’s something to discuss later. At the moment I’m thinking it might be best for my wife and I to go to New Orleans ourselves to find Quatre and see if all of this is true.” When this suggestion was met with surprised and dismayed silence, Mr. Winner finished, “We can take Heero with us as a guide.”
Not only did this addendum assist Duo’s gear-shifting attempt at coming up with a response, it also galvanized him into protest as he realized all at once, uncomfortably, that he really wasn’t ready yet to have a couple thousand miles between him and Heero. He would have believed that nearly half a year must have been long enough for him to get over the five-foot thing, and he would have been incorrect.
Obviously Heero read this nervousness in Duo’s head, for even as Duo spoke Heero moved silently to stand beside him in a gesture that seemed to say, “I’m not going anywhere without you.”
And Duo said, “Heero’s got communication magic, and he’s new at it, and that might not be enough if these people don’t want to give Quatre up!”
“They can’t hold him against his will,” Mr. Winner insisted. “Not if we get the police involved.”
Trowa shook his head. “The police can’t help. When these people set fire to my old house, they also brainwashed the police and the firefighters into thinking it wasn’t arson. I hope we’ll be able to get Quatre out of there peacefully, but it’s possible we may need some magic, and Duo’s right — Heero’s communication powers will be useful, but may not be enough.”
Mrs. Winner had made a startled sound at the news that the group holding her son was also responsible for the burning of Trowa’s house, and now got in ahead of her husband asking, “And would you be enough against people like that? Do you suggest we take you with us instead?”
“I suggest the two of you stay here and leave this to those of us who have magical abilities.” Trowa was clearly growing somewhat impatient and trying not to show it. Of course he and his friends were the ones requesting a favor, and shouldn’t expect to be able to dictate the speed of that request; and of course the Winners were in a difficult position, and should be given time to adjust, but the drag of the conversation was maddening. Duo felt exactly the same, and guessed Heero probably did as well.
“Don’t forget I can pay for your plane tickets under any circumstances,” Hajime murmured to Trowa.
“We will pay for plane tickets,” Mr. Winner said with emphatic haste, while his wife nodded her immediate agreement, and Duo thought he saw now what was going on: they perceived what little control they could have over any aspect of the situation slipping from them as this complete stranger volunteered to do what they were somewhat reluctant to, and they were jumping at the chance to remain part of the proceedings. At Duo’s side, Heero nodded faintly as if to confirm this guess.
“We just have to decide who needs to go and who needs to stay,” Mr. Winner was adding.
“We could all go,” his wife mused.
“That’s certainly an option,” Trowa agreed at once. “Quatre might be happy to see you.” Duo guessed he said this merely for purposes of placation, to indicate to the Winners by his willingness to include them that his intentions really were as stated. This guess — that Trowa didn’t really believe what he’d just said — was reinforced by Heero’s quiet, head-shaking reply:
“Quatre’s not going to be happy to see anyone. Not until we get him cured.”
Trowa frowned, probably anticipating the welcome he was likely to receive when he showed up unasked to remove his boyfriend from a situation Quatre hadn’t been entirely unwilling to enter in the first place.
Mrs. Winner pursed her lips and looked at Heero. Then she too shook her head, with a decisive sort of finality. “Bernard, I say we trust them and send them on their own,” she said in a tone to match her gesture. “I get the feeling we would only be in the way.”
Her husband glanced at her, followed her gaze to Heero, then looked quickly at the other faces in the room. Finally he nodded. “All right. We’ll get the three of you to New Orleans and back. I suppose you’ll need a rental car there, so we’ll pay for that too.”
Duo felt as if he’d been forced to hold his breath throughout the interview and had finally, light-headed and with straining lungs, been allowed to release it now. Relief filled the room so thoroughly that he realized he’d still been hoping for this method of attaining their goal even when Hajime had suggested another.
Perhaps, though, what he thought he felt was shared only by himself and Heero, for Trowa still looked pathetically tense, as if the Winners’ promise might be retracted again at any moment should he so much as blink improperly. He probably wouldn’t be able to relax at all until plane tickets had actually been purchased and there was no going back — and perhaps not even then. The worry about Quatre, after all, remained under everything else.
In a voice slightly lowered and with words somewhat slowed in sudden, deliberate pointedness, Mr. Winner went on. “But I want you to understand that if it turns out you’re not actually acting in my son’s best interest–”
Here Trowa interrupted, equally low and intense: “There is nothing in the world more important to me right now than helping Quatre.”
“You say that,” Mr. Winner said grimly, “but it seems you’ve lied to us before. And if I find out you’ve–”
This time it was his wife that broke in, clapping a hand down onto his arm in a clear indication that he needed to refrain from finishing his threatening statement. She murmured, “Trusting them, remember?”
“Let me know when you’ll be back,” Hajime advised Trowa at this point. “Sano and I will be ready here, unless you’d rather meet us somewhere else.” And when Trowa replied that here at the house was fine, Hajime gave the Winners a polite nod and walked away as quietly as he’d entered.
When the exorcist was out of sight and his footsteps could be heard climbing the stairs, Mr. Winner stood up and looked around as if he’d just been broken from a reverie and now had to recall what he’d previously been doing. Slowly he bent to retrieve the teacup he’d dropped on the floor earlier, and when he stood straight he found Trowa before him with a hand out to take the item back to the kitchen. Mr. Winner looked at him steadily as he relinquished the cup, then, as Trowa turned to take the other from Mrs. Winner, said, “We’ll head back home and see about getting you boys some plane tickets. Can you print your own boarding passes?”
Before the retreating Trowa could explain that his computer had been destroyed in the fire, Heero interjected, “Trowa, do you remember how you first demonstrated magic to me and Quatre?”
“Yes,” Trowa replied. “Do you think that might be advisable here?”
“It would make a good finishing touch, and might give you a useful opportunity. Duo and I will go home, and you can text us flight times in a little while. We’ll meet at my apartment tomorrow and go to the airport from there.”
Returning from the kitchen, Trowa was nodding despite not seeming terribly enthusiastic about this idea. Duo, who wasn’t sure what the first demonstration of magic to Heero and Quatre had been (though he’d certainly been told at some point, and had merely forgotten), watched with some interest.
Trowa went to stand before Quatre’s father again, with a look as steady and emotionless as Mr. Winner had given him a minute before. Finally he said, “Excuse me, sir,” and startled the man somewhat by putting an arm around his shoulders in a gesture that in the present instance looked far more awkward than comradely. Realizing the undoubted purpose of this movement, Duo knew what Trowa intended and was therefore not surprised at the spell that followed, nor at the sudden disappearance of both Trowa and Mr. Winner from the room.
Sticky, stiff, headachy, angry — it never seemed to change.
Unless something very serious had happened just before he went to sleep the night before, Quatre typically awoke refreshed and with his mood a blank slate for the coming day. But he endeavored not to think about the contrast between ‘typically’ and ‘now.’ Here, in this terminally wet air, on this narrow cot, bloated with magical energy he couldn’t get rid of, waking from aggravating dreams, his state upon rising was every bit as unpleasant as it had been upon going to bed last night.
Last night? He wasn’t even sure what day it was. Thursday, he believed, which meant he’d been in this place for almost a week now, and to no goddamn purpose whatsoever. It was difficult to ignore the fact that his entire life had evidently become a complete waste of time.
He threw off the blanket and sat up, making an annoyed noise as his bare feet touched the bare floor. It couldn’t be called ‘clammy’ because it was already warm in here, but the effect was much the same: an uncomfortable moistness that made him feel dirty and his breaths thick and difficult to draw. Who the hell had decided this was a good place to settle down? Even when it wasn’t being torn apart by hurricanes and submerged in floods, it felt as if it was only one step away from those or some similarly wet fate.
As he tried to stretch out the stiffness induced by a bed on which it was nearly impossible to find any more comfortable position than board-flat on his back, he looked for the millionth time around the room as if something in it might have changed during the night. But there was no alteration whatsoever to the quality of the morning light from the little cloudy windows beside the ceiling, the desk from which he’d swept its few surface contents in irritation, the locked file cabinets whose handles he’d pulled off and thrown across the room in an attempt to open the drawers, or the three remaining sticky-tacked corners of the poster he’d ripped off the painted brick wall a few days in when its grinning, Mardi-Gras-masked face had more or less sent him into a frenzy.
When Nancy, a representative of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré that seemed to believe she could use magic and enthusiasm to make up for a lack of intelligence, had approached Quatre last week with the promise that her organization could rid him of the enraging energy that was the root of all his current problems, she’s also promised they would provide him with everything he might need while he stayed with them. Thus far this had meant some incredibly cheap clothing — since he’d gone with her on the spot and therefore hadn’t packed anything — and fast food at two irregular intervals each day.
Despite his being thus furnished with pajamas, however, he’d slept naked since the third night. The way the thin cotton stuck to his skin in this atmosphere was unendurable, made him want to tear the polka-dotted shirt and pants into rags and then burn them, assuming he could get them to burn without the aid of gasoline. So now he seized the equally flimsy and unattractive robe they’d provided him as well and donned it before heading out toward the bathroom.
It had been an impetuous decision to go with Nancy, based on simultaneous desires to escape and to have his condition reversed, as well as on a subtle understanding that Nancy could probably abduct him by force if she wanted, and his irritation at his own thoughtlessness had been little tempered by the subsequent realization that, while he was here, he could endeavor to discover who had been behind the burning of Trowa’s house and attempt to exact some recompense from them. He was trying not to think about how little thought had gone into all of this, how little he liked to think about any of this… but had he known beforehand what the living conditions would be, he might have given the matter more consideration at the outset notwithstanding.
The bathroom could better have borne the British appellation ‘toilet,’ or even the more universal ‘shit-hole,’ since there was no bath and the existing appliances barely functioned. For his personal hygiene, therefore, Quatre was forced to resort to sponge baths with hard-won water from the sink, which device further disturbed him with its old-fashioned shape and appearance by reminding him a little — enough for discomfort, though he tried with desperate anger not to feel it — of the one in Trowa’s previous bathroom. La Confrérie had offered to clean him up by magic on a daily basis, but this Quatre had somewhat profanely refused. As if they weren’t trying enough magic on his person as it was.
Originally the terrible mirror had been merely ancient, not broken, but after the third or fourth application of Quatre’s fist it had developed a spider’s web of cracks that split his glaring reflection into a hundred angry fragments. He could still make out the bruise-like dark spots beneath his eyes, however, and the sunkenness of his cheeks — could he really have lost that much weight in only a week? Or had that process started back when he’d first become possessed? Either way, damn this place.
He sponged off, brushed his teeth, and used the toilet with a vigor that became no less irate for his having to flush three times just to get the thing to work properly. Then he threw his horrible bathrobe back on and returned to what, for lack of any better term, he must refer to as his bedroom.
Five different members of La Confrérie had introduced themselves to him during his stay here, one of them the Vallis Rheita — a title, not a name; legally, she was much more mundanely called Tammy Killinger — and none of them admitted to being the ones that had set fire to Trowa’s house. On this latter point, before he’d stopped himself out of a growing, self-preserving desire not to think about his boyfriend at all, Quatre had made such angry and persistent inquiries that he believed he’d rendered the entire group reluctant to talk to him except when necessary, for now they all tended to avoid him whenever it wasn’t actually ritual time.
Evidence of this was the breakfast and newspaper that had been left for him while he’d been busy in the bathroom, with no sign of who had brought it. The sight of the paper — the cheapest best option they could come up with for his entertainment during the day — incensed him; what the hell did he care about New Orleans news? What he wanted was his goddamn phone! Even some random book would be better than this.
But it wasn’t as annoying as the greasy McDonald’s bag and Styrofoam cup standing on the desk next to the fan, which had been replaced from where Quatre had knocked it to the floor last night. Quatre loathed McDonald’s breakfast, especially the coffee whose scent now filled the room. Well, at least it all still appeared to be hot — he tended to wake each morning pretty systematically at the same time, even under such circumstances, so they knew when to send somebody to buy him breakfast — and at least they’d scraped together a few grains of sense and supplied him with a new bottle of Tylenol to replace the one he’d used up.
Though he really saw no point to it, he turned his attention to getting dressed before he made an attempt at mixing enough cream and sugar — assuming they’d had the brains to bring him any — into his coffee to make it drinkable, or to brave the horrors of the paper bag and find out whether whatever the hell was in there might be edible.
He donned the thrift store camouflage shorts, the t-shirt advertising something from last year called ‘A Night in Versailles’ into whose details he didn’t care to inquire, a pair of socks that would form a minimal barrier between his feet and the slimy floor, and no shoes. Of these last La Confrérie had provided him none — perhaps the local Goodwill hadn’t had his size in stock — and the Allen Edmonds Oxfords he’d been wearing when he’d come here would probably melt their own seams and fall apart just to get off his feet if he forced them to be a part of the dreadful outfit.
By the time he’d finished this process and the subsequent doctoring of his coffee, the latter was cool enough to drink, and along with his first gulp he swallowed three Tylenol. Something stronger would serve his needs better, since this headache certainly had the tenacity to merit a prescription, but if he were to make such a request of his ‘hosts’ and have it denied, it would force him to face squarely just how powerless he was in his present situation, and this he was attempting to avoid thinking about at all costs.
The cheap smell of the hash browns and sausage biscuit that comprised his unsatisfying breakfast took him abruptly back to a lunch he’d once had with Trowa during the days when their acquaintance had been characterized by an interest and engagement almost entirely against Trowa’s will — a reminder of former, better times with someone he loved and missed combined with the idea of a situation entered upon almost entirely against its participant’s will. Perfect.
Quatre slammed his fist down onto the McDonald’s bag, crumpling it to the surface of the desk and feeling the food inside smash, warm and moist, beneath his hand. Then with a growling noise in his throat he shoved the nearby fan for a second time so it clattered once again to the floor where he could not see it. His scowling eyes alighting next on the bottle of Tylenol he’d just made use of, he picked it up and hurled it against the wall with such ferocity that it popped open in an explosion of pills.
It had come to this — his not merely not bothering to restrain displays of anger, but actually embracing that emotion and letting it suffuse him like the humid air of this abominable place since it was preferable to anything else he might be feeling, to sitting calmly and facing the complete lack of control, the fear, the misery — but how long he could possibly go on this way he did not know. Tears already blurred his vision, and his breaths were more like sobs for almost a minute after his outburst as he forced himself to sit down on the cot and try at the same time to get a grip and continue not to think about what he didn’t want to think about — which was practically everything that mattered to him.
When he was able, he would eat what he could of the mutilated breakfast, and undoubtedly get angry at how bad and unhealthy it tasted. Then he would attempt to read the entire newspaper, getting angry about every story and struggling not to be reminded of anything, as slowly as possible so as to drag the activity out for the maximum amount of time. How he would spend the remainder of the day after that he did not know; how he had spent the remainder of each previous day he tried not to think.
Eventually someone would come and take him back to that room down the hall. He had access to it himself, and didn’t need to be led — it was two unlocked doors away — but there was nothing in there besides scuffed chalk-marks and an old, plain wooden chair, and therefore no reason to visit the place without reason.
This evening, per routine, he would assume that uncomfortable seat while whichever Confrérie members happened to be present this time bickered about the nuances of the latest variation of their ritual until his fingers twitched to wring all their necks. Then they would settle down and attempt the spell, more or less painfully to Quatre and generally futilely. After this, they would argue further about what alterations to make next, and try a second and even a third time depending on the lateness of hour when each debate was finished.
And Quatre would take advantage of having people he didn’t care about around on whom he could vent his endless anger. He hated himself for this, and some of the tears that had soaked his pillow over the last several nights had certainly been in response to a recognition he could not entirely evade of his own monstrosity. Yet there was a definite if miniscule relief to hurling verbal abuse at the Confrérie magicians — a relief augmented by the awareness that he was not hurling verbal abuse at his friends. At least he had the awareness to cling to, along with his distracting rage, that he was not actively hurting those he loved. If he could keep hold of that, and simultaneously, paradoxically keep from thinking too much about them and how wretched he was without them, he could survive another day of this.
Despite having flown to a decent number of places over the years, in some cases before many of the people around him had even existed, Trowa always felt like an outsider at airports. This was undoubtedly because flying was a secondary if not tertiary travel option for him, and he didn’t make the use of the system most people did — he took planes back far less frequently than he took them out, for example. And he certainly would have preferred the luxury of a speedy magical jump over a tense and lengthy flight in this situation.
As a consequence, he tried to ignore his surroundings. This was easier than it might have been, wrapped as he was in thought and allowing his friends to find their way and lead him through the twisting security line and then down the long corridors (Duo insisted on riding the moving sidewalks) to the proper gate. All around him people talked arrival and departure times on cell phones, chatted excitedly about what they’d seen and done on vacation, or speculated morosely about what the weather would be like when they arrived home. Though some part of Trowa’s brain recognized the general purport of these conversations — especially when any similar consideration applied to his own situation, such as what the weather in New Orleans would be like when they arrived — overall it was so much meaningless noise to him.
Having slept not at all the night before and being preoccupied with their mission, he had sat in silence during the drive here. Heero, though when Trowa glanced at him he did appear as if he might have something to say, had never said it; he probably had more sources of preoccupation even than Trowa did, what with the recently awakened communication powers that still made it wiser for him to let Duo drive than to do so himself. Duo, also more agitated than normal, had made only the occasional random comment about other drivers on the road.
Now, however, as the three of them sat down to wait for their 9:15 flight — Heero and Duo side-by-side in the connected seats, with their shared carry-on backpack between them on the floor and Trowa across the small aisle from them — Heero leaned forward and asked quietly, “Did you have any luck with Mr. Winner last night?”
This was probably what Heero had wanted to ask ever since Trowa had jumped to his apartment this morning, the circumstance being one in which Heero put more faith than Trowa did. Heero was, after all, the type of person to whom conversing one-on-one came much more easily than doing so in a group — and one of the reasons he’d suggested Trowa initiate that private discussion had undoubtedly been to provide what he believed would be a greater chance at connecting with Quatre’s father and convincing him of the truth and sincerity of what they’d said. It had been a kind and savvy thought, but Trowa was not like Heero in that respect: nothing he could say to Mr. Winner in private was any more meaningful than he what he could say (and had said) in front of his friends and Mrs. Winner (and, to some extent, Hajime). So when he answered Heero’s question, he focused on the other probable reason Heero had made the suggestion:
“You were right: jumping with him was an excellent finishing touch. It left him with no more doubts about magic.”
“Doubts about us are what I was more worried about.”
With a shake of head and a gesture at the counter not far off, behind which airline employees had only just begun to gather, Trowa said, “We have our tickets; the rest can wait.” Seeing that Heero did not look entirely satisfied with this, he added, “I did promise to have Quatre call him as soon as he’s in a position to do so.”
Duo, who had been craning his neck to look out the big window behind him at the planes taking off and landing, now turned back toward Trowa with, “Yeah, but we have no idea when that will be. Even if we find Quatre today and get him out of there, he might not be in the best frame of mind for calling his dad right away.”
“I know.” Between Trowa’s feelings of helplessness at the thought of his current relationship with his boyfriend’s parents and his undeviating determination to do anything and everything required to get that boyfriend back as soon as possible, there was a contrast that was crushing, almost suffocating if he examined it too closely; he felt hemmed in, trapped in a narrow space with only one way out — and that a blind one. He would do what he must, but he had no idea where that would lead, and the uncertainty was stifling. “I know,” he said again. “I’m afraid we’re just going to have to leave the Winners to believe whatever they’re most likely to about us at this point. Hajime was right — it was too much to ask of them all at once.”
“He was definitely right about one thing,” Heero agreed regretfully: “we didn’t really think that conversation through beforehand. If we hadn’t been in such a hurry, if we’d sat down and thought about it longer and more clearly, we could have approached Quatre’s parents more effectively.”
“We were lucky Hajime was there to step in,” Trowa murmured, “and that he was communicator enough to know exactly what to say.” Realizing belatedly that this wording might be taken as an attack on Heero’s inferior skill, he began again quickly. “Not that you–”
But Heero cut him short with a shake of head accompanied by the faintest trace of a smile that told him not to worry about it. This forgiving expression faded, however, as Heero said, “You know he really would have bought our tickets for us?” Whatever silent conversation between Heero and Hajime had revealed this fact did not seem an entirely pleasant memory, and Trowa wondered if Heero had taken more telepathic censure for their lack of forethought than Hajime had offered aloud. “He didn’t want to, if he could help it, but he would have.”
Duo made a sound of indifference that was belied by its own intenseness. “Who cares? We’re on our way now, and we’ll get Quatre back here, and everything will be fine!” The tone of his voice and the movement by which he jumped to his feet and faced the counter, where some kind of preliminary boarding had just been announced, held a restrained agitation or even excitement that was not entirely explained by the situation but which Trowa did not mind. He must appreciate any enthusiasm directed toward reaching and helping Quatre right now.
It felt like an hour and a half before they were permitted to get on the plane, in the wake of the first class ticket-holders, the ‘Platinum Premier Members,’ the handicapped and elderly, and those with young children, though in reality it couldn’t have been more than about ten minutes. Trowa spent this time continuing or retreading the considerations and plans that had occupied him all night and morning.
Five in the evening would have come and gone by the time they found the place, which probably meant the gallery was likely to be as full as it ever was of Confrérie members having finished up at their day jobs. Could Trowa possibly count on the esteem in which they held him to carry his point? Could he anticipate walking in there like a celebrity condescending to the masses and getting exactly what he wanted? Or was he in for a fight?
In the former case, the encounter would be as smooth and easy as any other meeting with weird fans. In the latter… he mustn’t forget that the spell used to burn his house had been neat and powerful, the one that had brainwashed the onlookers almost incredibly so. He would be up against formidable foes here, armed himself with only a diminished strength whose use he was relearning and two supporters that, while staunch, were not exactly optimally trained.
He’d thought about the artifacts that had formed peripherally to the candlestick, considered bringing one of these with him to augment his own magical energy, but decided against it. The problem with artifacts was that they affected all nearby spellcasting, and therefore couldn’t be depended on to aid only the person that owned or carried them. In any case, he hadn’t yet had time or inclination to examine these peripheral artifacts in detail, so it was probably better to leave them alone for now.
Even in the midst of this reverie, Trowa couldn’t help but notice the distinct spring in Duo’s steps that resounded in the hollow Jetway down which they walked toward the plane. Whence this excessive alertness came could not be guessed, but it raised Trowa’s spirits a little to see how ready Duo was for today’s venture.
A glance at the folded paper he was scarcely aware he held led Trowa to an aisle seat about halfway down, and it only occurred to him belatedly that he should have paid attention to their divergent placement earlier so as to trade with Heero, who’d broken from them three or four rows up, and allow him to sit nearer to Duo. Deeming it too awkward and inconvenient to conduct this shuffle now, he merely sat, having no luggage of his own to worry about, and watched abstractedly as the other passengers situated theirs.
In contrast to Trowa’s detached observation, Duo’s attention seemed to be endlessly and minutely engaged by everything around him. Evidently he greatly relished the placement of his backpack in the overhead compartment, but even more to examine the various parts of the cabin and its passengers; his braid swung and twisted and whipped with the enthusiasm of his turning in various directions to get a good look at everything, and more than one of their fellow travelers glanced at him with some amusement or annoyance before he managed to take his seat across the aisle from Trowa.
Then, casting his gaze over at his friend and opening his mouth, he checked briefly, seemed to rethink what he’d been about to say, and instead offered in a reassuring tone, “Don’t worry, Trois…” He had to wait for someone to pass between them before continuing. “When we looked the gallery up online, it was really easy to find…” After another pause he finished, “And we made a map and everything, so we should be able to drive straight there from the airport.”
Trowa nodded gravely, and, though he had little to say and much to think about, decided somewhat impetuously to come up with a reply that would turn this into a lasting exchange. Duo’s conversation was almost always cheering, and talking to him, even around other people and across the aisle, was sure to help keep Trowa distracted over the next five hours. At the very least, it would prevent him from actively counting down those hours, and the minutes and seconds that comprised them, and driving himself crazy long before they reached New Orleans.
Driving the route to the airport for the very first time; taking note of which lot they’d parked in so as to be able to find the car again whenever they came back; the desire, repressed only with difficulty, to have luggage to check rather than just a carry-on; the necessity of shoe removal and a search of pockets for metal objects at the security check; another barely repressed desire, this one that the TSA folks would find some reason to scan him with that wand thing; the moving sidewalks that went faster than you expected; the sights and sounds of planes taking off and landing outside the huge, convenient window; the feel of the tunnel thing leading to the airplane; the hum of the latter, its compactness and unique smell — with an ongoing effort of gladiatorial proportions, Duo had restrained a comment or even a lengthy rave on each of these aspects of this his very first flight as a human.
Heero, of course, had heard it all, and had on more than one occasion repressed a smile. Duo was aware that his feelings must be evident to his boyfriend, but, as in at least one previous instance, thought it would be a poor gesture to show his excitement and thereby perhaps seem to make light of the reason they were taking this flight at all. He was worried about Quatre too, naturally, and determined to help him, and didn’t want to appear to be disregarding the worry and determination of his companions. Heero respected this attitude, and, though he personally wouldn’t have objected to overt expressions of the happier side of Duo’s frame of mind, had merely appreciated that happier side in silence.
Now, however, actually seated in the airplane, Heero wished he had said something.
His friends were across the aisle from each other three rows behind him, and Duo’s increasing anticipation was by far the most easily discernible thought in the sea of thoughts close-packed around Heero. Duo’s desire to share with someone his excitement about the impending takeoff was growing with every moment, and not only did Heero wish he could indulge that desire, he thought it would cheer Trowa to do so as well.
One thing he’d already learned about his communication powers as they thus stood was that trying to piece together the conversation of two people he could not physically hear, only one of whom could he get anything from mentally, was difficult and generally not very successful. The comprehension the first person had of what the second said usually took place on a mental level just below the one that was all Heero could currently access, and the surface thoughts he could read didn’t always entirely relate to the conversation.
Nevertheless, what he was vaguely picking up from Duo’s head at the moment, through the mental noise of many other passengers and Duo’s own mixed frame of mind, was the idea that Trowa was talking somewhat disjointedly and at random, seeming distracted but probably in reality seeking distraction. He might appreciate having a pleasant and engrossing topic introduced, but it didn’t seem to have occurred to Duo that it might not be inappropriate to introduce it.
Heero was, therefore, about to take this upon himself from afar. True, it was embarrassing to think that he and Trowa might not be the only people on the plane with communication magic and that, in his unpracticed inability to send ideas precisely to one person, he might alert more than just Trowa of the fact that this was Duo’s first flight as a human, but he thought it would still be worth it. He was busy trying to package the thought as concisely as possible in preparation for sending it out when he was abruptly checked.
Surprise and pain replaced Duo’s excitement and joy so swiftly and completely that the shift came like an electric shock out of nowhere to Heero, which prevented him for a few moments from determining its cause. But as he subsequently filtered clumsily through the maelstrom of thoughts that was Duo’s reaction to whatever had just happened, he began to realize what it had been.
What had prompted Trowa to say it could not be discerned — something about Quatre and secrets — but he had revealed that, back when he’d been looking forward to the breaking of the curse, there had also been some concern that he might die when that otherwise desirable event took place. And that this, several months later, was the first Duo had heard of that concern, unmerited as events had proven it, fully explained Duo’s sudden alteration of mood.
Heero himself was very surprised at the news, though not necessarily at the fact that Trowa had concealed it for so long, but more than that he was aching, all at once, with echoes of Duo’s shock and betrayal. Reeling with the suddenness and unpleasantness of this revelation, Duo was all the more unhappy because it seriously threatened his hopes of getting any enjoyment out of this flight. And Heero, separated from him by a vast gulf of three rows, was unable to offer any comfort.
Impetuously, though, he decided to do more than just curse the seating arrangement. While they were still taxiing, at least, he had options, delinquent though they might be. Before he could talk himself out of it, he snapped his seat belt open, silently grateful that he too was beside the aisle and didn’t have to climb over anyone, and stood. He moved so quickly that he’d actually reached his friends and fixed his eyes on the place next to Duo before anyone could say anything. Then he ignored the call from further down the plane of, “Sir, please go back to your seat!” as well as a subsequent announcement over the speaker reiterating that the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign was turned on and the plane about to take off, in favor of addressing the startled woman beside his boyfriend:
“Please will you trade seats with me.” He gestured in the direction he’d come.
Whether his low tone was serious enough to convince thoroughly, whether she’d observed Duo’s sudden agitation and recognized that Heero was here to help, or whether she simply didn’t want to start a debate that would lengthen an awkward scene, Heero didn’t know — he wasn’t reading anything from her head — but it didn’t matter much. As she immediately undid her own seat belt, rose, and squeezed past Heero in the direction he’d indicated, he murmured a thanks as intense as his request. Then he took her place, buckled in, and looked at Duo for the first time since they’d separated.
As usual, Duo’s demeanor was a fairly good mirror of his mental state. He was astonished at what he’d discovered, appalled that an event for which he’d so long yearned might have killed his best friend, angry and pained that Trowa had left him ignorant of such an important consideration… and it was all as evident in his face as in the thoughts Heero could read. But the fact that that face was turned down toward where his hands shook in his lap showed that his instinct not to hurt Trowa was as strong as ever, reflected his struggle not to shout out that this was something that never should have been concealed from him.
A flight attendant appeared just in time to see the hand Heero had reached out clasped tightly, irately in both of Duo’s, and Heero picked up from her a sudden belief that the seat-changing had only taken place in order to offer support in the face of pretty severe anxiety on Duo’s part. She didn’t think it worth offering a reprimand, and therefore, after confirming that Heero’s seat belt was properly fastened, made her way back to her own place for takeoff.
Duo still hadn’t said anything, which would have been disconcerting if Heero had been unable to see the effort that was going on in his head: he was trying to calm his whirling thoughts, trying not to lash out at Trowa, and trying hardest of all to push everything away for now in order to grasp at the last scraps of gratification available to him today. There were a couple of very good reasons not to dwell on what he’d just learned and how it had made him feel, and he tried to behave in accordance with them.
In late July, Heero and Duo had driven up to the state fair and spent the day on thrill rides, and with those roller coasters for contrast, the physical sensations of taking off could be nothing particularly spectacular even to someone that had never felt them before… but it was the principle of the thing: this experience was something to be interested in and concentrated on at every minute point, and if sorrow and wrath overwhelmed his other feelings, it couldn’t be properly checked off the list of experiences he needed to have.
Heero felt Duo’s grip on his hand loosen somewhat. Duo took a deep, shoulder-lifting breath and looked over at him with a determined expression, at which Heero nodded his understanding and encouragement. Duo had always been good at gleaning satisfaction from a collection of negative feelings; he should be able to do it again now.
Unfortunately, Trowa could not know how the situation progressed. Undoubtedly he still hadn’t realized this was Duo’s first flight as a human, nor that Duo, in order to enjoy that flight and avoid suffering unduly for the rest of the day, was attempting not to think about what had just come to light. All Trowa could be aware of right now was that he’d misstepped and hurt his friend, and that he needed to do what he could to put it right.
“I’m sorry, Duo,” he said, leaning into the aisle with dismayingly bad timing as the plane began to pick up speed. “I probably should have told you then instead of now, but I didn’t want–”
Instead of starting to mend things as had surely been intended, these words only served to drag Duo back down into the thoughts and emotions he was trying to avoid at the moment. He interrupted, loudly and far more harshly than Trowa had spoken and without turning his eyes toward him: “Can we talk about it later?”
The wretched Trowa looked like a person overloaded, who has had added to his burden another awkwardly shaped item that, far from settling into and balancing with the rest, has actually tumbled off and now needs to be chased and retrieved with hands that already aren’t free. Heero didn’t know why Trowa had told Duo what he had in the first place or what he’d thought the result would be, but guessed that Trowa hadn’t anticipated such a strong reaction and that now, not relishing a source of additional turmoil as they headed into an already emotional and potentially dangerous situation, he very much wanted to get this dealt with.
Continuing to press the issue, however — as it looked a bit like Trowa planned to do — was not, Heero deemed, the most desirable course of action. Not only did Duo want to put off thinking about it, there was also the matter of their neighbors to consider: more than one of the people in the seats around them had, thanks to Heero’s precipitous move, had their attention drawn to the discussion and were now watching surreptitiously but curiously to see how this drama they so little understood would play out. The conversation would be better held in private another time when there were fewer conflicting desires and fewer eavesdroppers.
To this end, Heero leaned forward past Duo and said firmly, “Later, Trowa. Really.” Then, out of pity for his friend’s evident misery and hoping an expression of empathy would help Trowa feel better enough about the situation to drop it for now, he added, “I understand why you didn’t tell him, but you can explain it to him later.”
Even before this statement was finished, Heero realized he’d committed the same blunder Trowa had: failed to consider fully the probable effect of his words before saying them. As Duo’s hands withdrew abruptly from his and a rerun of the sudden shock and betrayal from earlier played in Duo’s head, he saw he’d only managed to make things worse.
Duo turned an unhappy look toward him, about to demand how Heero could possibly claim understanding with the hurtful thing Trowa had done, then shook his head and straightened instead to stare fiercely at the seatback in front of him. Similarly, Heero opened his own mouth to explain, to contradict the notions that were already springing up in Duo’s mind… and then, with an effort of will, shut it in an attempt to follow his own advice.
The problem with following that advice was that he and Trowa had managed, between them, to make a huge mess of the upcoming five hours, if not far beyond that, rendering the time between now and the later Heero had urged a painful prospect indeed.
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.