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.