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.”