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.

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