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.

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