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.

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