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.
How Duo got through the trip to New Orleans he supposed he would never know. Prior events had rendered unfeasible sitting still and thinking, and the whole plan had been so last-minute that he hadn’t brought anything with which to entertain himself. The flight, of course, did have some engrossing features, but these were not nearly as distracting as they would have been prior to Trowa’s revelation… and whiling away the time by talking to either of his companions was obviously out of the question.
He did eventually insist, in as friendly a tone as he could command, that they buy some in-flight refreshments. This had a threefold purpose: first, because Duo couldn’t imagine neglecting this important part of an airplane ride; second, to get some caffeine into everyone’s system for the upcoming confrontation, whatever it might be; and, third, as proof that, while some on Duo’s part might be less than perfectly soft, there were at least no hard feelings that would survive a proper discussion after their important business had been dealt with.
And eventually they did arrive. At their destination it became easier to think exclusively about what they were here to do and about poor Quatre than about what he’d been striving all day to push aside. He hated having to push it aside, having to put off confronting it and getting everything worked out, but that was what the situation demanded. And at least the interestingly humidity, the sights and sounds of another airport, the process of locating the proper car rental place, the extraction from their backpack of the map they’d carefully made back home, and the fascination of getting the feel of an entirely new car were distracting and invigorating circumstances.
Still, it was at least seven minutes into the twenty-five they spent driving away from the airport before anyone said anything more than was absolutely required. Heero, looking up at last from the map in which he’d been rather unnecessarily buried (since the route to the part of Burgundy Street they needed was fairly simple), took a deep breath as if steeling himself and said, “We should decide what we’re going to do when we get there.”
“My guess,” Trowa replied reluctantly from the back seat, “is that at least some of the members of this group will recognize me on sight, and I don’t know how they’ll react. It may not be a good idea for me to walk straight in there.”
Heero nodded. “So you wait in the car while Duo and I go into the gallery and see if I can pick up anything helpful from anyone’s head.”
“Not in the car,” Duo put in. “Remember, the place we’re parking is, like, half a block from the gallery? He’ll want to be closer than that.”
At his words, he thought the tension among them palpably lessened. Though he didn’t feel he’d been in the wrong with his reactions, it only made sense that his friends had been wary of him since his very obvious displeasure with both of them on the airplane; it was good for them all to come back from the edge they’d been on and focus on the matter at hand. Not that the matter at hand was all that far from the edge to begin with. But perhaps this was a different edge.
“Outside, then,” Trowa amended. “Maybe just around the corner. Then you can text me anything you think I need to know, and I’ll join you whenever it seems best.”
They spent the rest of the drive fine-tuning this admittedly very basic plan in much greater ease of interaction than they’d had all day, and the atmosphere among them had decidedly improved by the time they reached the parking garage for whose use they’d already paid online last night.
It felt surreal to walk, thereafter, through early-evening streets that, while certainly novel and picturesque and enjoyable to someone only relatively recently human, were still just normal streets. It seemed as if there should be more to this, more required of them to get to where Quatre was, and it called to Duo’s mind something Heero had once said: “That’s it? No blood sacrifice? No dragons to fight or Nome Kings to outwit?” Of course the real test was yet to come, since they had no idea how La Confrérie would react to their presence and their demands, but at the moment their heroic endeavors toward the rescue of their friend amounted to getting on an airplane and driving a rental car (neither of which they’d paid for), then walking half a block. It seemed too easy.
“Knock on wood,” Heero murmured as he evidently picked up on this reflection. Duo gave a brief, grim laugh.
Galerie de la Lune was exactly as they’d seen it in the vision Dorothy had provided with her divination, but in person could be examined at greater leisure and in more detail. Clearly the place had undergone many a repurposing since it had been built several decades or even over a century ago and gone since then undamaged, like much of the neighborhood, by hurricane and flood. The doors opening onto the balconies on the front of the building had evidently long been sealed up, probably because (as could already be observed through the windows even from outside) the interior second floor no longer existed.
A number of poles bearing multicolored banners stood out at regular intervals from the balcony railings, and though at the moment a lack of any wind hid many of their designs from sight, Duo remembered a few of them from the vision: besides the United States flag that was easily recognized even in a half folded state, there was that of France, something with fleur-de-lis on it, and a couple in black with white crescents of various widths.
The hand-painted, mural-style sign that identified the place against a backdrop of colorful nebulae and glittering stars, with an enormous moon in the foreground beneath the word ‘Lune,’ he remembered from the divination, but now he had time to read the sign beside the door as well:
Celebrating magic and the revered moon since 1874
New display every month Most art available for purchase
½ of every $5 admission and ? of every art sale donated
To Mercy Corps for the assistance of Hurricane Katrina victims
As Duo’s eyes ran over the hours the gallery was open to the public, then the other half of the sign that said presumably the same things in French, he remarked in some interest, “This place is older than we are, Trois.” But when he looked up to find his friend and get his reaction, he found that Trowa had fallen out of step with them and was waiting, as discussed, in the shadows between this building and the previous. Duo nodded, waved briefly at him, and turned back toward the door.
“Ready?” Heero murmured, reaching for the handle. When Duo nodded again, Heero opened the way forward, and they both went inside.
They found their view of the bulk of the interior immediately blocked by a large false wall of canvas on which was painted a giddy set of conflicting images advertising the current show. The path further in was strung across with a velvet rope beside which stood a bored-looking employee. Less bored-looking was the woman behind the desk that, with its fantastic painted color scheme, was almost camouflaged against the equally colorful canvas behind. The woman herself appeared somewhat new-agey with her long dress that melted from white to pale grey to deep blue and back and her jewelry composed of various stones, and the silver moons scattered throughout made her fit right in at Galerie de la Lune.
“Hi! Come on in!” she greeted them. “Tomorrow’s the last day of our Vitalité show, so you’ve made it just in time!” Duo had been expecting a southern accent such as he’d heard in passing during the walk from the parking garage, but was disappointed to find that she sounded as dully Midwestern as he did himself. “It’s five dollars per person.”
With a gravity disproportionate to the role of casual museum-goer, Heero nodded, withdrawing his wallet and stepping toward the desk without a word. When he’d paid for their entry, it looked like he would again have said nothing, only given another nod and turned away, but he rallied himself — perhaps in response to Duo’s mental concern that his silence seemed a little unnatural — and gave instead a verbal thanks. Still, Duo thought the woman was watching them curiously as they bypassed the velvet rope lifted for them by the other employee.
This latter said nothing to them, but as they walked away he made some low comment to his co-worker, and Duo was pleased to catch the accent he’d been waiting to match up to those he imperfectly remembered from the last time he’d been in Louisiana some sixty years before.
“The woman thinks I’m an Asian tourist who probably doesn’t speak much English,” Heero murmured, sounding faintly amused.
Duo laughed absently, his attention straying to the free-standing wall and the paintings thereon that were obviously designed to give a striking first impression of the gallery’s current collection. And striking they were. Unsurprisingly, the main feature, on a canvas perhaps eight feet tall and half as wide, showed the moon in a set of completely unnatural yet very attractive lime greens and bright yellows that made the scene look more like a flower garden than a cold view of space. This was surrounded by contrastingly small square pictures asymmetrically arranged, in complementing colors and often themes, so that the whole setup, not excluding the little white informational tag next to each, came together in an effect greater than the sum of its parts. At least, so Duo thought.
“They’re trying to decide how to pronounce my last name on the credit card receipt,” Heero said next.
“Nothing useful so far, then.” Duo glanced around, taking in at once a feeling of openness and distance created by the ceiling full of skylights far above and an almost mazelike quality to the moveable walls of varying heights set up throughout what seemed to be a fairly vast area — probably the majority of the building having been cleared of individual rooms. “Anyone else in here?”
Heero frowned faintly. “I think there are at least two more people, but they’re further away. Come on.” He took Duo’s arm and guided him into walking around the first display.
Next they found themselves in a sort of lane between another pair of free-standing walls, these full of colorful images of very inaccurate and dramatic-looking spellcasting. Of course the art La Confrérie collected did not necessarily need to show real magic when fictional portrayals could celebrate the practice just as well, but some of the poses and dazzling visible effects shown here were a little silly. Duo, however, didn’t spend very long looking at any of the many paintings arranged along this aisle, as a large piece down at the end had seized his attention and drawn him toward it.
Heero moved with him as if similarly compelled, and they came to a halt at a T-junction facing the picture on the next wall, staring in mutual discomfort for several long, still moments.
“That’s definitely Trowa,” Duo said at last, in a near whisper.
Duo’s quiet but harsh pronouncement seemed to carry uncannily through the high-ceilinged room, bouncing off one canvas after another as if determined to reach the wrong ears. Heero just nodded.
The picture, done in some kind of thick paint that looked solid inches deep in places, showed the Trowa of the curse gazing down at them with cratered crescent eyes from a face with barely any human tint to its bleached skin. The window that framed him opened onto a deep blue-black night, against which his old-fashioned suit coat of similar color was barely visible but his unnatural paleness stood out vividly, much like the moon that was half concealed by and formed a sort of halo around the top of his head.
Heero was reminded of a certain type of old portrait in which the subject would hold some expensive treasure in a casual, accidental sort of way (in direct contrast to the stiffness of their pose and the overall contrived nature of the piece) in order to document the family’s ownership of said trinket. The pictured Trowa held a silver candlestick as if it he’d just happened to pick it up before stepping in front of the window, and yet very clearly it was as important a part of the whole as Trowa himself — though this feeling of importance might have been caused by the slicing rent in the canvas that neatly bisected the artifact just above where the white hand of the painted Trowa clutched it.
“That’s how they knew,” Duo said with absolute certainty in his tone. His unspoken expansion on the subject Heero also caught: Duo could feel the power in the piece, which had probably been painted and enspelled simultaneously in some sort of artistic ritual, and knew beyond any doubt that this was the sympathetic magic Trowa had suspected La Confrérie of using to keep a distant, generalized eye on both him and the artifact. The damage to the canvas must have occurred spontaneously when the candlestick was destroyed, leaving the group to believe, very naturally, that Trowa had done it.
“I think Trowa probably shouldn’t see this if we can help it,” Heero murmured, thinking that the unease he felt in looking at this curse-era picture of his friend would only be stronger in that friend himself.
Duo glanced at him sharply, conflicted. Though signs of concern for Trowa from Heero still pleased him, this couldn’t but remind him of Heero’s unexpected traitorous declaration of understanding on the airplane. But Duo was determined to deal with that later, and so said nothing.
He had no chance to say anything in any case, for at that moment someone else spoke in evident reply to Heero’s statement: “You know Trowa Barton??”
Physically she had approached without noise — or at least quietly enough to be masked by their engrossment in the painting — and psychically Heero had (and still) heard nothing from her. But in her excitement, her words just now had echoed far more loudly through the room than Duo’s whisper had done, and Heero immediately caught from somewhere off to his right the sense that someone else had heard, recognized the name ‘Trowa’ even from afar, and started immediately in this direction.
“We–” Duo turned toward the newly arrived woman, and cut himself off sharply before he could reveal anything. Though he did not look at Heero, he clearly intended him to hear the what-to-do-next options turning over in his head.
Heero was for a moment unsure. This woman’s silent mind wouldn’t be much help, but perhaps whoever was making their way over here could provide more information. Unfortunately, if that person wasn’t actively thinking about Quatre, they weren’t likely to reveal whether he was here, his mental and physical state, how to get to him, and whether Heero and Duo might be allowed to. Mentioning Quatre directly would probably prompt those thoughts, but it would also completely destroy any cover they had left. Wasn’t that cover already blown, though, by this woman having overheard Trowa’s name?
If the expert brainwashing communicator was in the building, all deception was probably futile from the beginning, but that was a chance they’d been aware they must take when walking into this situation. In any case, could Heero admit that he did indeed know Trowa personally without rousing suspicions that he might be connected to Quatre as well? Could he work a conversation about Trowa around to a point where it would spark thoughts of Quatre in one of these people’s heads without his having to bring him up?
He had to give it a try. Bluntness was a last resort here; he wanted answers to his questions before answering any himself. So he turned back to the portrait of Trowa and, feigning greater expertise than he really had, asked, “Who did this? It’s excellent magic.”
“I won’t give the tourist explanation,” the woman said breathlessly, “if y’all actually know Mr. Barton personally…” Here she paused, glancing from Heero to Duo as if hoping one of them would jump in with confirmation, but when they didn’t she continued. “It was done by a Mr. Jacob Comeaux, who was a great painter and a great diviner, in, I think, ’76.” She stepped over to the work in question and glanced at the informative tag beside it. “No, sorry, ’78. I never get that right. Did y’all say you actually know Mr. Barton?”
The other person had arrived and stopped nearby, off to the right where Heero couldn’t quite see him, and was now, having heard the woman’s query, waiting in eager silence for a reply. The amount of awe and excitement in his head regarding Trowa and the possibility of being in the presence of even merely someone that had met him in person was so pronounced as to be almost comical. That was, perhaps, a good sign.
Though of course neither Heero nor Duo actually gave the desired facts. While Heero was trying to think fast and decide what would be best to say instead, Duo jumped in. “Why’s the picture damaged?” he asked with a gesture, ironically reversing Heero’s act by feigning less expertise than he really had. Heero could tell that what he would really like to know was how much spying had been required back in 1978 in order to paint this so accurately and magically link it to Trowa in some way or other; but to ask this, besides being potentially antagonistic, would be to indicate at least a little concern for the privacy of his friend and might reveal that Trowa was, in fact, his friend.
“It’s linked to the Roussel artifact as well as to Mr. Barton.” Pride sounded in the woman’s voice as she revealed these details of magical craftsmanship, but Heero thought she was baiting them as well: only if they were already aware that the artifact had been destroyed would her words actually answer Duo’s question. She was still trying to find out to what extent they knew what was going on in Trowa’s life.
The exchange had been specifically useful, however, since it had gotten the other guy, who still hadn’t said anything, thinking about the artifact. The esteem in which that item seemed to be held by him was very similar to that in which he held Trowa — objectifyingly similar, Heero thought; it was a little creepy. But hopefully it was only a small jump from thoughts of the artifact to thoughts of the man that had chopped the thing in half.
So Heero hurriedly put in, “Yes, he destroyed the candlestick, didn’t he?”
The woman looked as if she wasn’t sure whether to be excited or disappointed. Heero’s words would probably seem, to her, to pinpoint his relationship with Trowa: close enough to know that he’d given up the artifact, but not enough to know that Trowa himself hadn’t carried out its destruction. “So you do know him?” she wondered yet again.
And he’d succeeded. Quatre had come up in the other guy’s head. Heero said nothing more, allowing Duo to do whatever he wanted with the conversation, and concentrated on getting all he could from the stranger.
Trowa’s boyfriend had actually been the one to destroy Roussel’s artifact — how weird was that? That Trowa Barton, who had been for so long little short of a demigod to so much of La Confrérie, had turned out to be gay, really changed the way a lot of people saw him. Some felt that it took them back to their roots, since many of the very first meetings of the organization back in France had involved a lot of gay activity… but since those original meetings had also taken place before the group had become serious about the moon and magic, some of today’s members regarded gay Trowa Barton a symbol rather of that early frivolity than of any more profound beliefs or intentions.
The group had already been divided about him, after all. Many considered him the pinnacle of magical mastery with a deeper connection to the moon than they would ever have, his immortality representative of the eternal nature of man’s connection with magic and with the moon. Others saw him as an interloper that had only come by accident upon Roussel’s artifact and the longevity it had subsequently granted, and therefore unworthy of reverence and having no right to decide what to do with the artifact that their predecessors had created and that properly should be in their hands and not his. Part of La Confrérie would have elected Trowa Barton their supreme leader for life if he’d so much as looked in their direction; another part had cheered when the news had gotten out that some of them had discovered where he lived and set fire to his house.
Very little of the anger of that portion of the group had shifted when they’d discovered that Trowa’s boyfriend had been the one to destroy the artifact. Quatre Winner couldn’t know the significance of what he’d done, as he wasn’t a magician himself — but there was another subject of shock and contention: how could Trowa Barton, the Trowa Barton, certainly old and skilled, whatever he meant to them, be dating a non-magician? He should have known better than to allow someone like that access to something as important as Roussel’s artifact! Now that power and that glorious link to the moon and all the years of Confrérie history were lost to him forever; his boyfriend had become extremely unpleasant to be around (assuming he’d been a decent guy in the first place); and La Confrérie had to go to a lot of trouble to put together a new artifact. Not that their efforts thus far had been anything more than harmful to the relatively innocent Quatre to no material effect.
Duo, it seemed, had continued hinting at knowing Trowa without actually confirming it, but Heero had been too busy following the nearby thoughts — more about Trowa than about Quatre mostly because the stranger was paying more attention to the conversation than Heero was — to listen carefully. And now, prompted by a few more stray reflections, he decided the exchange and what more it could accomplish didn’t much matter. He knew what he needed to know, and their last resort, he believed, had arrived.
Turning entirely away from the discussion, he pulled his phone from his pocket. That he had adequate service here had already reassured him a little; he hadn’t necessarily feared not having any coverage in the biggest city in Louisiana, but it would be just their luck at this point. Now he sent Trowa a text that read, Quatre in building. They’re trying their rituals, confirmed painful, on him RIGHT NOW. Come inside.
When Heero started moving away from the painting of Trowa into and down the next aisle, Duo of course followed, and this more or less towed the two Confrérie people after them. Why they were thus migrating Duo couldn’t be sure — whether Heero had picked up from someone the direction in which they would eventually find Quatre or whether he just wanted to leave the unnerving picture of their friend — but it seemed hopeful. Duo was getting tired of this stupid conversation anyway.
It nevertheless continued for another minute or so on basically nothing, Duo still providing evasive nonsense to the best of his ability and the woman he was talking to increasingly curious and frustrated, until everyone’s attention was seized by a shriek from the entrance. Interesting rather than worrisome, the sound led into a noisy and ongoing squealing that, while not clearly comprehensible from here, certainly contained the words ‘Trowa Barton.’
The two Confrérie members in the immediate vicinity threw Duo one more look, wide-eyed, then hurried off in some agitation. Wryly Duo smiled, and wondered as he and Heero continued more leisurely the same way, “Showtime?”
Heero nodded and said quietly, “I thought we’d have a better chance from here with Trowa with us.”
The sound of excited chattering grew louder as they approached, and Duo heard nothing of Trowa’s voice from the midst of it; he wouldn’t be surprised if Trowa had not one single word to say to these fans until he’d gotten a clearer idea of what was going on here. Wouldn’t that frustrate the Confrérie members!
They stopped before the green and yellow moon again, and from there could make out some individual parts of the conversation (bombardment, more accurately) on the other side of the big canvas wall.
“…hoping you’d pass by us here when your friends…”
“…so incredibly honored to have you here in our…”
“…not too much trouble, could you possibly sign…”
“…can’t believe the real Trowa Barton is actually…”
Suddenly, the guy that had previously manned the velvet rope came sprinting out and disappeared deeper into the gallery, and the startled Heero barely had time to report that he was heading off to fetch some magical trinket he wanted Trowa to autograph before Trowa himself also appeared.
He moved silently toward Heero and Duo, followed by the still-chattering other three Confrérie members, and, as he stopped in front of his friends, reached out and took a hand of each. “No one else should be able to hear what we say as long as we’re linked by skin,” he informed them. He cocked his head as if to listen — probably feeling out the spell to make sure it had taken properly despite not being cast in the presence of two of its subjects — and seemed satisfied.
“Good thinking,” Duo commended.
Heero wasted no time. “There’s an entire faction of this group that doesn’t like you, and that guy who just ran off is likely to tell practically everyone that you’re here. These three will probably do whatever you say, though.”
“Are any of them communicators?” asked Trowa.
“Not that I can tell.”
Trowa nodded sharply and, releasing his friends’ hands, turned back to face the breathless others. They’d fallen silent while attempting (futilely, Duo hoped) to listen to the exchange between the real Trowa Barton and his friends, and now they all leaned forward in a comically simultaneous motion as the real Trowa Barton spoke to them for the first time:
“I’m here for Quatre Winner. Please take me to him.”
Two of the Confrérie members gave meaningless exclamations, possibly merely from the excitement of having been addressed directly, and the third looked uncertainly at them and then back at Trowa. They didn’t quite go into a huddle, since they all seemed loath to turn away from their idol, but they did put their heads together and speak in low tones.
“Are you sure we should–”
“Do you really want to say no to–”
“But the ritual’s still–”
“Everyone’s back there anyway, and they’ll all want to–”
Meanwhile, Heero mimicked Trowa’s earlier movement and seized both his hand and Duo’s. “Back this way there’s a door into the warehouse; stairs down at the other end lead to the offices, and Quatre’s in the farthest room.”
Having heard this, Trowa didn’t wait for the Confrérie folks to reach a consensus; he turned immediately in the direction Heero indicated. They’d barely gone four steps, however, when one of the people behind them called out, “No, I’m coming, sir; I’ll show you!”
The guy darted out in front of them and began hastening along backward (still obviously reluctant to take his eyes off Trowa) in the character of very awkward guide, while the two women hurried after. The pace of the entire party was set by Trowa’s quick, determined strides, and their course far more by Heero’s slight gestures than by the movements of the man before them. He kept running into walls and pillars, setting paintings askew without seeming to notice or care. And the entire time, he was talking:
“You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to meet you, Mr. Barton, sir, but it’s been most of my life, ever since my dad told me about you when I started magic when I was six or seven. I’ve always been trying to do something like what you did in Beaumont back in the 50’s — with the railroad tracks, I mean, sir — but I could never figure out the spell, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite had enough power for something like that anyways — though I keep trying! How did you manage to make– oh, merde.” As he paused to replace the painting he’d actually knocked down this time, the others passed him.
The wall they reached that separated gallery from warehouse had, of course, no windows, and therefore looked very tall and broad in this two-storey space. This had been taken advantage of by using it to showcase the largest of the paintings, some of them perhaps fifteen feet high and all of them attention-grabbing. Duo tried not to get distracted by their interesting depictions of the same subjects as before (some of them now larger than life) as they moved toward a big pair of swinging double doors, like those leading to the back areas of grocery stores, marked Employés Seulement.
Even as Trowa reached to push one of these open, however, Heero simultaneously reached out for Trowa’s hand to stop him. He fumbled for his boyfriend’s as well, without looking at him, as he started talking urgently to Trowa, so the audio kicked in a little late for Duo: “–mostly not your fan club collecting in there. I think — yeah, one of them definitely helped burn you house.”
Duo glanced at the windowless swinging doors with a scowl. Damn that stupid guy running off to get his whatever for Trowa to autograph. They really should have stopped him… though there hadn’t exactly been time.
“Any sign of the brainwasher?” Trowa asked.
“No, but I might not get any signs of someone that good.”
Duo’s suggestion was, “I say you threaten them. Walk in there like, ‘I’m going to level this place if you don’t take me to my boyfriend right now.’ Yeah, they know you don’t have the artifact anymore, but even the ones that don’t like you much have gotta know you’re still the best.”
Trowa shook his head slightly, frowning. “I can’t be sure of that.”
“Look at them, though.” Despite the supposed situational deafness of the three Confrérie members that were somewhat pressing in on them, Duo’s tone fell almost to a whisper as he glanced around. “These people are low-level nerds! They don’t stand a chance against you — or at least they won’t think they do; they’ve practically worshipped you their whole lives!”
“He’s right,” Heero agreed. “Try the threat first, and if they don’t want to let us past to Quatre, let’s be ready to fight.” When Trowa, after very little time spent weighing this, signaled his concurrence, Heero mirrored the gesture and added, “Everything we talked about in the car.”
Again Trowa nodded, more firmly this time. The possibility that they would have to engage in a magical battle of sorts had been discussed as they drove, and that they knew, in general, what they each must do under such circumstances was reassuring even if they had no idea what kind of situation they would be facing in the warehouse beyond.
“Hey,” Duo put in, struck, “can you tell if there’s some back door we should be worried about?”
With a frown Heero went wordless for a moment. “No,” he finally said. “At least nobody’s thinking about trying to smuggle Quatre out before we can get to him, anyway.”
Trowa asked, “You said they’re in the middle of a ritual down there right now?”
“That’s what I’m getting,” Heero confirmed, with his own glance behind at the silent, eager, uneasy Confrérie members, who were undoubtedly wondering what the holdup was… unless some communicator on the other side of the wall was already transmitting everything being thought out here to much of the group.
“We’ll have to let them finish,” Trowa was saying. “Whatever they’re trying can’t be as dangerous as interrupting it could be.” He took a deep breath. “One spell, and then we’ll go in.”
As Trowa cast an augmentation of the silence he’d already placed on them to prevent their being affected by magic that sought to touch their minds or bodies directly, Duo could feel the strength behind the words. It was a good idea, but he had to wonder how much energy Trowa had used on it that he might want for other purposes in just a few minutes.
Then they all shared a quick glance of silent inquiry as to whether they were ready — agreeing that, as much as they could be, they were. Hands were released for the moment, nerves were steeled, and they turned and pushed forward through the great swinging doors.
Had Heero neglected to warn him that those gathering here were primarily not his fans, Trowa would nevertheless have recognized this fact the moment they entered. Every expression turned toward them was at the very least grim, some disapproving, and a few angry and even hateful.
Despite this space being less open, seeming to have a second storey unlike the previous, it felt more like a warehouse even than that had. Metal shelves rose all the way to the ceiling, full of neat stacks of what must be paintings sheathed in cardboard for protection. The aisles between these were long and wide, no doubt to accommodate the handling of larger pieces on the big, awkward-looking dollies that stood currently unused at various points nearby, but the overall effect was still somewhat claustrophobic.
Across the aisle leading from the doors toward the back of the room, the area they wanted to reach, six Confrérie members were ranged in the variety of expression previously mentioned; to the right and left, about the same number of people had divided to block those aisles as well. Counting those that had entered behind them, Trowa and his friends were surrounded. Hopefully this wouldn’t make some terrible difference.
“Trowa Barton.” One of the six people in front of them had come forward — just slightly, a step and a half; she looked and sounded a trifle nervous, and didn’t seem to want to leave the very near vicinity of her companions. “You and your friends are welcome here, but y’all can’t go any further this way.” There was some stirring and muttering at ‘welcome here,’ most pointedly from one of the aisles beside them.
Heero edged closer to Trowa, and the latter felt the former’s hand brush against his in a subtle connection that allowed the murmur, “Second guy on the left burned your house.”
Breaking the brief skin contact with his friend, “I don’t need to go any further this way,” Trowa announced, “if you’ll bring Quatre out.”
“Mr. Winner can’t leave until we’ve pulled the energy from him,” the woman replied without hesitation. Someone else had joined her line from behind, and her neighbors shifting to make room seemed to give her a boost in confidence.
“Your rituals aren’t going to work. Surely you have a diviner who could tell you that. Stop whatever you’re doing and bring Quatre here.” Trowa could feel Duo also drawing closer to him, half turning so his back was more to Trowa than to the Confrérie members behind them.
“It’s our energy.” This came from the left, and, glancing that direction, Trowa identified the voice as coming from the second man blocking the aisle in that direction — the arsonist Heero had pointed out. He sounded vindictive and ready for a fight. “You have no right to walk in here and make demands about something that was never yours in the first place.”
“That energy may belong to this group,” Trowa answered, looking back at the spokeswoman rather than addressing the arsonist, “but Quatre does not.”
“Mr. Winner is here of his own free will,” the woman said. “He doesn’t belong to you either, and if he wants to stay with us, that’s his choice.”
“In a situation like this where his judgment is impaired, I have a better right than you to make decisions on his behalf.”
Heero touched Trowa’s hand again, and his quiet words overrode, in Trowa’s ear, whatever the woman had to say next. “She plans on arguing you in circles; nothing you say is going to convince her. She’s on the fence about you personally, but she absolutely won’t let us at Quatre if she can help it.”
Trowa glanced to either side, noting that both lines had been joined by at least one more person, and that others were gathering in spaces beyond that he couldn’t see as clearly to both left and right. Not that he had any desire to go left or right; the most direct path to Quatre was all he cared about. He only had to reach a few inches to find Duo’s hand, and on his other side he curled his fingers around Heero’s. “Let’s push straight through.”
La Confrérie must have a communicator in here somewhere, because almost the instant Trowa made this pronouncement, and before he and his friends had advanced two steps, three or four voices around them started to speak in the magical language. A couple of them, directly targeting Trowa and seeking to disable him from casting, but not powerful enough to overcome the protection he’d placed on himself and his companions, failed completely; the others began immediately erecting a barrier that would prevent the three intruders from physically reaching their goal.
This was the most obvious step for La Confrérie to take at such a moment, and, having been part of the predictions Trowa had made during the drive from the airport, had already been discussed by him and his companions. As such, after only a moment, Heero said, “Duo, the woman who was talking to us first.”
“On it,” was Duo’s reply, and the spell he then began aimed at silencing the woman in question. He’d worried a little, in the car, about still being somewhat rusty with his casting, not having done extensive magic since the breaking of the curse, but he must have been working through potential spells in his head, because this one was quite solid. Knocking her out would have been more effective than simply silencing her, but a spell of unconsciousness touched on aspects of the mind that were difficult to manipulate for someone with no communication magic.
Trowa targeted the barrier itself, which he could feel but not see only a couple of feet in front of them, more probingly than aggressively at first in order to test its strength. Typically, a spell contained only as much power as the caster chose to expend at the moment of casting, and if La Confrérie wanted to have any energy left over to do anything else, no one person would put more than a moderate amount of power into this barrier at any one time. But they could periodically reinforce it, in between their other attempts, and it was this behavior Trowa had asked Duo to try to stop if he could.
The instant Duo’s silencing efforts took effect, and the spokeswoman’s spell to boost the shield’s power blew up in her face, was discernible to Trowa, who was still feeling out the barrier’s level of energy. If Heero and Duo could coordinate to identify and target the most powerful reinforcers of the barrier, they could prevent the invisible wall from becoming too strong, and Trowa could assess its precise power and punch through it — assuming no one around them figured out a way to get around Trowa’s protection and damage or incapacitate them first.
“Mr. Barton, I’m so sorry about this!” someone called from behind the seven or eight people blocking the path in front of them. Whoever it was, he sounded highly embarrassed and unhappy about the situation.
“The guy in the blue hoodie to the left,” Heero said.
“Got it,” Duo replied.
More slowly and pointedly, Trowa struck out at the barrier again.
“Normally we’d have never attacked you if you walked in this place!” somebody was agreeing with the first that had shouted, this one from the right. There were sounds of unhappy concurrence from the people behind Trowa, a small group that as yet had cast no spells and seemed unsure what to do.
“This isn’t right!” someone else protested. “This is Trowa Barton, y’all! We should do what he wants!”
“He’s not one of us; he’s not even close.” This growling voice from the left had previously spoken a particularly nasty spell designed (though unable) to permanently damage Trowa’s vocal cords, and the fact that the speaker now wasted time on argument instead of casting was promising.
Meanwhile, Duo had silenced the arsonist with the blue hoodie, but someone had undone his previous silence on the spokeswoman, so she’d reinforced the barrier again. Trowa decided to join Duo in trying to put their enemies out of commission before attempting to deal with the shield.
“Their communicators can hear everything you’re thinking, Duo,” Heero said in some annoyance. Duo swore.
“Nothing to be done about it,” Trowa said.
“Except try to think about pink elephants,” Duo muttered.
“He’s a thief and a bully!” This person, from the aisle to the right, was obviously referring to Trowa.
Somebody else cried, “He’s never done anything to us!”
“And he always used Roussel’s artifact to help people!” another put in.
Trowa could hear someone in the jumble already undoing the spell Duo had placed on the arsonist. They were going to have to move faster.
“I think third place is that guy in the white shirt on the right,” Heero said, and Duo immediately went after him.
And the arsonist chose this moment to raise a roaring line of golden white just in front of the advancing party, who might not be hurt by spells that targeted them directly but could certainly be scorched by a pre-existing fire. With a startled cry, Duo jumped back and stumbled to the floor. In that instant, losing Trowa’s hand as he fell, he was hit by a retaliatory silencing spell from one of the Confrérie members, who’d obviously liked his magic enough to copy it. Whatever Duo had been casting, broken off in the middle, released its energy where he’d previously been standing with a cracking sound like gunfire, knocking Trowa down beside him with a sensation like a fist to the face.
Worse consequences might have come of this had not a dozen Confrérie voices from all directions protested the arsonist’s choice of attack. The gist of their complaints had less to do with Trowa and more with potential damage to the art all around them and to the building, and several people spoke to put the fire out almost immediately. Trowa, though he was seeing stars through the throbbing pain of the raw magical energy that had struck him, nevertheless managed to take advantage of the distraction to scramble back up and regain the hands of both his friends.
Un-silencing Duo was easy enough, but Trowa could hear that some of their enemies, skilled at thinking on their feet, were altering their contributions to the barrier, rewording their spells so that the shield would draw power directly and continually from them. Now whether or not they were silenced and unable to cast, or possibly even whether they were conscious, would make no difference. Of course, that also meant that by attacking the shield, Trowa could use up their energy reserves much faster and put them out of the conflict more easily.
“Someone’s casting a protection spell like yours on everyone,” Heero informed him. “One at a time, though.” He was looking around intently, trying to figure out who it was; in the mess of voices echoing up and down the aisles, some muttering spells and some shouting argumentative points, it was nearly impossible to tell who was saying what.
“That woman’s already protected,” Duo complained.
“Get back on blue hoodie,” Heero said.
“Help me do it,” Trowa commanded instead. “Both of you concentrate on knocking him out.” Even universally restricted by his companions from using fire, the arsonist was a powerful magician that Trowa would like to see out of this picture. So he spoke a spell to render the man unconscious using the willing donation of power from his friends, put a decent amount of his own energy into it, and watched as the blue-hoodied man crumpled to the floor.
Two of the arsonist’s neighbors cried out in shock, and someone in their vicinity demanded, “He’s never done anything to us, huh?”
“He’s just trying to get his boyfriend back!” This reply sounded less certain now that its speaker had seen one of her comrades fall dead for all she knew.
“So? We’re not some gay rights group!”
“We’re trying to get our power back!”
This was such an absurdly magician-style conflict. Trowa had never been interested in the magical dueling he knew was popular in some circles, but this progressed very much along those lines — the combatants standing still and hurling spells at each other in between more mundane verbal exchanges, distracted from the physical to the point that anyone could easily have ended it by the unthought-of tactic of walking up quietly behind Trowa and hitting him on the back of the head.
Not that ending it thus was necessary now somebody on the opposing side had starting casting protective spells over their allies… because now there were two layers of magic between Trowa and the possibility of advancing. If he could just break through the barrier, though, he might not need to worry about the protective spells. It would be a gamble, since he would have to risk most or all of his personal power, and probably much of Heero’s and Duo’s, but it could be the finishing move he needed. The longer he let this go on, the greater risk he ran of someone finding some way to hurt him and his friends — and the more of his own power was frittered away on something other than his main goal of forward motion.
Yes, he thought, that was wisest: one great strike through the magical shield, preventing a new one’s being erected, which would hopefully incapacitate at least the strongest of the Confrérie command magicians. Heero had agreed that even those not terribly fond of Trowa believed him to be incredibly strong yet, so such a move would function as proof of his power and a threat that would, he hoped, force them to back down — as long as La Confrérie wasn’t aware just how little energy he might have left afterward.
Otherwise, Trowa didn’t really see any way past these people; there were just too many of them willing to fight him, despite the arguments of his fans. If the latter would actually take a hand, things would be different, but obviously they didn’t revere him enough to stand up to their own comrades for his sake. He supposed it only made sense.
Running through and tweaking the words of the spell he proposed, gathering up his strength around him like a garment, he prepared to make what would surely be the decisive move in this conflict and hopefully end it in their favor. He glanced at his companions in turn, making sure they weren’t in the middle of something else before he commanded, “Concentrate on helping me bring down this barrier.”
It was difficult to focus on any one thing in this maelstrom of voices and thoughts, but Heero had definitely been aware of Trowa drawing magical energy from him for one of his previous spells. Though he didn’t entirely understand the mechanism, he’d definitely been conscious of the power flowing along a channel formed by his own willingness to donate it; therefore he could easily replicate that channel now.
The tone in which Trowa had declared he was going to try to break the force field that stood between them and Quatre, not to mention the grim set of his jaw, indicated to Heero that this was an important move. Whether and to what extent it would work Heero had no idea, but he was busy formulating what they should try next in case it didn’t.
It seemed like fighting dirty, and should possibly be saved for a last resort, but it was obvious that if Trowa and Duo targeted the art on the shelves around them, La Confrérie would abandon whatever they were doing and jump to protect the stuff. The problem remained, of course, that there were so many more of the enemy than of Trowa and Duo; if they coordinated properly, they could probably fend off attacks on the art and still hold the room. But it was an option if whatever Trowa was trying now didn’t do what he intended.
Trowa had barely opened his mouth to speak his spell, however, when he paused, closing his lips into a faint frown. Heero also felt whatever had halted him, and in some concern and curiosity turned his concentration toward figuring out what it was: some unfamiliar magical sensation, some newly begun influence originating he wasn’t quite sure where.
Bizarrely, Duo hadn’t noticed it — how had he not sensed it yet when the less experienced Heero had? — and after a moment of silence he wondered, “Trowa?” If Trowa wasn’t going to borrow power from him, after all, he was free to cast something himself.
“Wait,” Heero commanded.
It felt as if something was moving silently through the room, perceptible far more in its results than in itself, affecting the spells being cast and already cast in a manner Heero could only describe as unraveling them from the inside out. Magic was gradually falling apart in a sort of wave, and a mental state that he recognized with some shock was spreading through the Confrérie members: a sort of vagueness, as if they were confused but didn’t know it and probably didn’t care.
“Brainwashing,” he said in almost a panic, looking around physically and reaching out mentally with a wild desire to find out who was doing it and how he could stop them.
“Damn,” said Trowa.
And yet, Heero realized as the state progressed around them like a river encompassing a high, secure islet, they three didn’t seem to be in danger. Were the unknown communicator’s efforts really foiled by Trowa’s protective spell? Had that person taken a chance and sent a wave of debilitating communicative magic throughout the room in the vain hope that it would affect Trowa and his friends as much as the communicator’s allies? That seemed absurd, but also the only explanation for what was happening around them right now.
Especially given that this magic was stronger than it had been outside Trowa’s burned house. The Confrérie members not only ceased their spellcasting, but sank to the bare warehouse floor with looks of dazed disinterest on their faces. Nearly everyone — fans and detractors of Trowa alike — seemed to be wilting, and one or two of them even sat down deliberately, leaned their heads against the shelves behind them, and closed their eyes. Those that resisted longest were those that Heero had already guessed to be La Confrérie’s communicators — confirming, if confirmation were needed, that this was communication magic.
“What the hell is going on?” Duo demanded at a hiss. Trowa shook his head.
Glancing back behind them, Heero found the fans that had followed them from the outer room now on the floor in slumped positions similar to those of everyone else, but his gaze didn’t linger long there. For two people stood just within the great swinging doors, one of which the first stranger held open for the second, and, though Heero could read nothing from the mind of either, yet it seemed obvious both that the unknown magical influence came from them and that these were not members of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré.
With an alerting noise, Heero jerked on Trowa’s hand to get him to turn, and, after an awkward moment in which the three of them struggled to spin around without losing skin contact, they were all facing the newcomers.
The latter both wore expensive-looking and well fitted black and white suits of the plainest design, and sunglasses, and after barely a moment Heero started again as he realized he’d seen one of them before: it was the man he’d observed across the street from Trowa’s new house while helping with the move — the one he’d thought at the time, not entirely facetiously, looked like an FBI agent.
“And that was an excellent guess,” said the other stranger, a woman, evidently not entirely facetiously herself. “We do fit the stereotype, don’t we?”
“It’s about the only stereotype we fit,” the man remarked somewhat smugly, stepping forward alongside the woman and letting the door swing shut behind them. Though it was difficult to tell with those sunglasses, he appeared to be examining the Confrérie members scattered around, none of whom were left standing, as if to double-check that they really were all in a state to offer no further resistance. To a communicator this must be obvious from the abrupt drop in the level of mental noise in the room, but evidently this man wanted to be sure in detail.
“Who the hell are you?” Duo demanded, more confused and curious than concerned. “What are you doing?”
The woman, the slight sway to her hips somewhat at odds with her sensible shoes, kept to the man’s side and seemed to be making the same examination he was. Her gaze appeared to linger (again, the sunglasses rendered surety difficult) on the arsonist that now lay, since Heero had turned, to his right — the only Confrérie member already unconscious before the unexpected intervention. “The dear little Confrérie…” She had an almost mocking voice that sounded just one step away from laughter. “They’ve been incredibly noisy lately. Kidnapping and arson; really!”
“How they thought they could compromise magical security so blatantly and get away with it, I have no idea.” The man turned in a sweeping gesture from his scrutiny of the defeated and headed directly for the three in the center, stepping casually over fallen forms without so much (as far as Heero could tell) as a glance downward. He was, Heero noticed as the man drew closer, really quite startlingly large: well over six feet tall, exceptionally broad-shouldered, and thick with what was undoubtedly muscle. Though it was neither entirely relevant nor at all helpful under the circumstances, the thought did cross Heero’s mind that it must be very difficult to find suits to fit that body shape.
The next thing that crossed Heero’s mind, even less relevant and helpful under the circumstances, made him start back a half step in surprise and chagrin: the specific image of the man buck-naked in what bodybuilders called a side chest pose, every shining bulge and chiseled crevice of his unbelievable musculature in high relief.
“Must you do that?” the woman wondered with a roll of eyes toward her companion.
“I’m offering the young man a clarification of reality,” the other replied. “Besides, you can’t claim not to enjoy it, Fox.”
While Heero wondered whether that was an X-Files reference and whether these two really were secret agents of some sort, the big man had planted himself solidly before Trowa. “Good evening, Mr. Barton,” he said, extending a large, strong-looking hand. When Trowa appeared reluctant to release those of his friends in order to shake, the man added imperiously, “If we had any intentions of influencing you magically, your low-powered protection spell would be meaningless.”
After a calculating glance, Trowa seemed to decide that this was true enough, for he freed his hands and shook that of the stranger. “Who are you?” he asked as he did so.
“You may call me Thirteen,” said the man. (Heero couldn’t help noticing that the woman rolled her eyes again at this.) “But since you, unlike this foolish group here–” he gestured around at the out-of-commission Confrérie– “have demonstrated over the last century that you seem to have some sense of propriety and subtlety about magic, you’re of little concern to us.”
“And who’s ‘us?'” Duo wondered. “Are you guys government magicians, or what?”
“That’s classified,” Thirteen replied, essentially (to Heero’s mind) answering the question. Then he turned abruptly away, as if sweepingly declaring his business with them finished, and moved past like a mountain on wheels. “There are five more of them in the building, and it should only be a few more minutes before they’re finished with their latest futile ritual spell.”
Trowa, shaking himself quickly as if a little stupefied by what had just happened and trying to break out of it, turned nearly as suddenly to follow the man. Duo looked back and forth between the two suited newcomers for a moment before, with a half-scowling-half-skeptical facial expression that very well reflected his mixture of curiosity and vexation, he jogged after Trowa. This left Heero, for a moment, more or less alone with the woman called Fox.
She gave him a sympathetic smile and raised a finger to her lips as if what she was about to say was or could possibly remain a secret with at least three listening communicators in the room. “Thirteen–” she gave an amused emphasis to the name– “takes a lot of things very seriously, including himself. All you really need to know is that we’re here to deal with the Confrérie, and they won’t bother any of you again. We’ll see you safely off with Mr. Winner, and you can pretend we were never here.”
“You’re not going to brainwash us into believing you were never here?” Heero wondered dryly. Though all the details still weren’t entirely clear, he thought he understood a bit better, now, what had gone on outside Trowa’s burned house.
“Not if you don’t force us to,” Fox replied. Then she too moved past Heero and headed toward the back of the big room.
He followed, intending for a moment to ask why, if they were so strong and yet so set on subtlety, they’d chosen their timing as they had, chosen to reveal themselves to Trowa and his friends at all; these agents could have swept in and incapacitated everyone ten minutes earlier, then temporarily stepped aside while Heero and Duo entered a building full of semi-conscious Confrérie members disinclined to resist as they, confused but pleased at the ease of their mission, made their way to Quatre and removed him from the premises.
But Heero wondered this only for that moment before he was struck by what was probably the answer. These two were hiding in Trowa’s shadow, masking themselves in his reputation.
What ‘deal with the Confrérie’ entailed, exactly, he could not know, but if it involved no conscious or remembered contact between these agents and the members of that group, then this entire coup would be attributed to Trowa. By coinciding their attack with his, the agents had ensured that La Confrérie would recall only their crushing defeat by the great Trowa Barton — and probably think nothing of the fact that they had awakened with a bizarrely altered attitude on the propriety and safety of carelessly flaunting their magic anywhere and everywhere, including in front of the non-magical populace. Trowa’s prestige would be enhanced (whatever his feelings on that might be), La Confrérie would be chastised without knowing it, and the very existence of whatever organization Fox and Thirteen worked for would not even be hinted at.
As Heero stepped over Confrérie members and worked his way through these thoughts, the woman in front of him stopped suddenly and turned back, this time giving him a look of more profound assessment. It wasn’t just a look, either: he could feel her in his head somehow, a dim, unreadable, professional presence that seemed to be rifling through aspects of him as she might shuffle through papers in a filing cabinet. He wanted to squirm under the scrutiny, but forced himself to hold still.
Finally she gave a brusque nod. “You have a lot of raw talent. Keep developing it, and it may bring you job opportunities in the future.” Then she turned again and kept walking.
Heero shook himself just as Trowa had, and also continued in the same direction, trying futilely to decide which event of the last ten minutes had unsettled him most.
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.