His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré

Part 0

Even from a huge distance — nearly from space, seemingly — it was obviously a great collection of objects, like a vast landfill where only one specific type of item was allowed. What type that was he didn’t know; though he could see they were all similarly shaped, he wasn’t close enough yet to identify them. But he was nearing, gradually, inexorably, like something floating on an incoming tide. All he had to do was wait patiently, and after not too long he would see…

Cell phones. It was an unthinkably huge collection of phones stretching into infinity and piled to oceanic depth. They were all different brands and models, showing a wide variety of conditions and levels of use. Their one feature universally in common was their stillness and silence. No light shone from the face of any; they might all have been dead, headed for recycling or an actual landfill or whatever heaven existed for cell phones.

But as he drew closer, close enough to make out the numbers and letters on each visible keypad and the staring blank expanses of the touchscreens, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a message somewhere for him, specifically for him. He looked around. It should be easy enough to spot in this desolation.

It was. Like some great mythological creature deep beneath the sea opening a thousand eyes at once, the phones abruptly lit. There was no wave of sudden power and reception spreading from one point to another; it was a spring to life so simultaneous it was as if a new image had been inserted in front of his eyes, obscuring the old, and beneath the new one still lay the dark, powerless expanse. And yet the light was so bright from the combined faces, though there was nothing to illuminate, that it was difficult not to believe in it. Besides, when he caught sight of the origin and purport of the message blazoned across the face of every phone from here to infinity, he had no choice but to believe.

It was from Quatre.

It said simply, Help.


Part 1

Heero awoke to feel arms clinging to him violently, tight enough almost to hurt; and he found himself nestling against Duo and petting his hair in what he must subconsciously have thought was a soothing gesture before he was even fully awake.

“God dammit,” Duo murmured brokenly as his clutching hands moved desperately, convulsively, across Heero’s body almost as if checking him for injuries.

“I’m sure this will stop eventually.” It wasn’t the first time Heero had offered this reassurance recently, since this wasn’t the first time Duo had awakened like this in a panic. “Just give it time.”

Duo clung tighter. “I’m sorry.”

Heero shifted so as to put both arms around Duo and pull him close. “It’s OK.”

“I don’t want to feel like that again,” Duo whispered harshly. “I can’t do that again. I can’t–”

“You don’t have to. You’re not a doll anymore, and you never have to be again. See?” Heero ran a hand up and down Duo’s back, reminding him that he was here, that Duo could feel him, that this was real. “Never again.”

With a very deep breath, Duo forced himself to calm down, continuing to draw air into his lungs in a slow, deliberate pattern and closing his eyes. Finally he chuckled weakly. “How many times do we have to go through this?”

“As many as it takes,” Heero replied.

He could see only the faintest glint of light from outside the bedroom door on Duo’s eyes as they opened again, but he could hear an equally faint grin in the reply, “I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be comforting or what… but don’t think I don’t appreciate that you’re offering to be there.”

“I always will,” Heero promised.

They lay in silence for a while, the tightness of Duo’s arms around Heero the only indication that he hadn’t gone back to sleep. Finally he said, “I was a doll for a long time, you know.”

“I do know.”

“Longer than I’ve been human, actually.”

“Yeah, it’s going to take some doing to beat that.”

“It’s…” Duo’s voice lowered to an unhappy murmur. “I think it’s possible that I’ll never really get over it. We may have to go through this three times a week for… ever…”

Heero shrugged against the pillow. “As many times as it takes,” he reiterated. Inside, though, he was reflecting that if what Duo feared really did turn out to be the case, some manner of professional assistance would seem advisable. But what kind of counseling did you seek for someone whose issue was that he’d been a doll for eighty-seven years? A therapist that was aware of magic, obviously… in this crazy world with its dangerous hidden facets, such people must exist; it would just be a matter of finding them. He would have to talk to Trowa about it.

In the meantime, he might as well do what he could to try to work through Duo’s worries on his own. So he asked, “Are you nervous about starting work on Monday?”

“Yes,” said Duo emphatically. “I’d be nervous about that even if I’d grown up like a normal human and gone to real schools and everything.”

Though Heero didn’t know if he believed this of the confident Duo, it wasn’t a point worth arguing. “You know you’re going to do fine, though, right? You’ll have training first, so you’ll know exactly what’s expected of you and how to do it.”

“Will you be training me?” Evidently this topic change was working, for Duo’s tone was now, in addition to the concern and agitation Heero was seeking to calm, part wistful — since he knew the answer was no — and also just a little playful or even suggestive.

“I’ll certainly be there if you have any questions. You already email me twenty times a day half the days of the week; you can keep doing that if it’ll make you feel better. But they’ll get you a company email address, probably Wednesday or Thursday… I’m sure it’ll be dmaxwell@winner-plastics.com.”

“Ooh, that sounds so official! And I can send you completely sexually explicit emails from there, at work, with my work email, with both of us at work, and I won’t get in trouble for it?”

“You will get in trouble for it if anyone but me sees them.” Heero’s attempt at sounding severe, battling his urge to laugh, was losing badly. “But PG-rated flirtation should be fine.”

By now Duo had loosened up and stopped clutching at Heero so fiercely, and his voice as he said, “I’ll have to think up some good stuff that won’t get you fired,” had returned to something like its usual level of casual sanguinity.

Deeming it safe, therefore, Heero said, “And I think once you’re working full-time, it’ll be a pretty constant reminder that you’re human.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” Duo’s nod made a rustling sound against the bedding. “And it’ll give me more stuff to think about, so maybe it’ll distract the dreams away.” Despite his obviously greater amount of hope and calm, he still sighed as he added, “Maybe.”

Heero leaned forward with a kiss aimed at Duo’s forehead, but in the darkness found an eyebrow instead. “I can work harder at distracting you, too,” he murmured. “Make sure you have more stuff to think about.”

The warm breath of a faint, appreciative laugh touched Heero’s neck, against which Duo, yawning, then nestled his head. This resulted in his next statement coming out a bit muffled. “You know what? I love you.”

Heero kissed the top of Duo’s head and then rested his chin on it, pulling him closer once again.

After a few more comments against Heero’s skin, increasingly incoherent, Duo fell silent and started breathing deeply and evenly. Though he would eventually, Heero didn’t release him just yet. He liked to imagine that, holding Duo, he could hold off the dreams as well, hold at bay everything that troubled his lover, protect him from a world that had already been unusually unkind to him. If only it were that easy.

Despite this, however, Heero was actually rather pleased with himself. Maybe it was arrogant, but he thought he’d done quite well at helping Duo recover from his nightmare relatively quickly and smoothly. Once again, if only it were always that easy to help Duo in dealing with the aftermath of the curse. The problem was that the damn thing only struck at dark moments when Duo was most vulnerable, usually when Heero couldn’t help him. It didn’t seem fair that sleep, something Heero knew Duo had missed intensely while he’d been a doll, had been tainted by this recurring experience.

Heero would definitely have to talk to Trowa about the possibility of some kind of magical counseling.

For now, though, he just tried to get back to his own sleep and not think about bad dreams or the very high probability of their return, since there really was nothing he could do to stop them. This had been happening fairly regularly for almost two months now, after all, and Heero didn’t know how much he believed the proposed job/distraction theory they’d just discussed. The good news was that he was becoming more and more adept at damage control… he’d gone from the startlement and nearly ungovernable concern of the first few instances to a response so quick it seemed to begin even before he awoke; by now he tended to start attempting to calm and comfort Duo before he’d consciously registered what was going on.

Tonight he’d even been dreaming uncomfortably himself, hadn’t he? –possibly in subconscious response to the signs Duo had been giving. He was reacting more and more quickly, becoming more and more in tune with Duo. Maybe that really would lead to a heightened ability to help one of these nights.

And yet… the specifics of the dream he’d been having were niggling at him, trying to make themselves heard above his other thoughts. The memory of exactly what he’d seen in his sleep was gaining clarity, and Heero found himself frowning in the darkness as he ran through the events — if they could be called that — in his dream. In fact, he was waking again, increasingly worried and perplexed, and he had to struggle not to tense up and squeeze Duo awake as well. It hadn’t begun to occur to him while he’d been busy with his unhappy boyfriend, but… this wasn’t actually entirely about Duo, was it? It couldn’t be.

Because if it had been prompted only by Duo’s distress, to which he’d been responding even before he’d awakened, why had his dream centered around a request for help from Quatre?

Part 2

Trowa was still a much earlier riser than his longtime best friend, so Duo found it no surprise, when Trowa put his head into Heero’s apartment late Saturday morning, that it looked as if this wasn’t the first time he’d done so. On previous in-peekings, Trowa had probably heard signs first of Duo letting Heero know exactly what he thought of a boyfriend that was so steadfastly comforting and supportive during a period of stress and nightmare, and second of a vigorous shower, but this would be the first time he’d actually seen anyone up and about.

Duo, who was very helpfully helping Heero in the kitchen dressed only in pajama pants, caught the motion of Trowa’s door opening and glanced over in time to see his friend step slowly inside, close the door behind him, and stand somewhat disconsolately against it.

“Hey, Trowa!” he greeted. “Come in and have breakfast!”

“Come in and distract Duo so I can actually make breakfast,” Heero amended quietly.

“I’ll put a shirt on, even,” was Duo’s generous accompanying offer.

When he returned from this errand wearing one of Heero’s tees, he found that Trowa had wandered over to the sofa and sat down somewhat stiffly. His friend was now involved in an unnecessarily arduous discussion about whether he wanted breakfast, how likely he was to suffer if he skipped breakfast, and what, in the event he did want breakfast, he would like for breakfast. Heero was very patiently wringing answers out of Trowa, who was being far more unresponsive than usual; it was a little odd.

“You know Quatre will get on everyone’s case if you don’t eat,” Duo said as he flopped down on the couch.

Trowa stiffened even further at the mention of Quatre’s name, and this was the last sign Duo needed that something was wrong. Normally that sort of remark was everything required to get Trowa to shape up and act like a human being.

“So, what’s going on?” Duo wondered, hoping to spare Trowa’s feelings by letting him be the one to introduce whatever was bothering him. “Planning anything super exciting for your birthday?”

Trowa just shrugged.

“Birthdays count again,” Duo reminded him. “That’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?”

Faintly Trowa smiled. “You’re right about that.”

This wasn’t getting anywhere, so Duo decided to repeat the only word that had gotten a specific reaction thus far. “You and Quatre heading out to someplace extremely romantic?”

Simultaneously Trowa repeated his shrug, sighed a little, and looked away at nothing. “I thought we were,” he said, “but I think plans may have changed.”

This was enough to catch whatever portion of Duo’s attention hadn’t already been riveted on the conversation — not merely because Trowa was unhappy about something, but because words like ‘think’ and ‘may’ had just been applied to a plan involving Quatre. There might be times when Quatre’s plans weren’t entirely certain, but that was generally months before the event in question… and Trowa was turning 112 (or perhaps 25) tomorrow. “What happened?”

Trowa was consideringly silent for a moment. “He was in a bad mood last night.” Clearly he was trying to downplay this, but it wasn’t working.

Thinking back over the five months in which he’d known Quatre, Duo was having a hard time finding any memory to supply the information he wanted. Finally he asked in some interest, “What’s that like?”

“Not very enjoyable for me.”

This, Duo thought, answered his question: Trowa and Quatre had had a little tiff, and Trowa was here to pout and be petted about it. Doubtless Quatre would call or show up later, apologetic and full of plans for tomorrow, and everything would be fine. For now, it was probably best to let Trowa get everything off his chest in his own time.

“I’m worried,” was how Trowa began, in a tone of confession — as if worrying about his boyfriend after an argument was a sign of weakness or something; poor Trowa. “He isn’t answering my phone calls, and he isn’t in his room at his house.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be, if he’s annoyed and off somewhere,” said Duo reasonably. “Heero! Where does Quatre go when he’s annoyed?”

“Swimming,” Heero replied, so promptly that it was obvious he was listening intently to the entire discussion.

“See?” Duo gave Trowa a comforting pat on the shoulder. “He’s not going to answer his phone if he’s in a pool, but I’m sure he’ll call you when he gets out.”

Trowa was still staring blankly at a point halfway up one of the apartment’s largely empty walls. Duo had been meaning to talk to Heero about putting something interesting on some of them… if there’d been a picture there, Trowa would have had something real not to look at instead of having to make do with cream-colored nothing. As it was, Trowa was silent for the moment. Duo was itching to know what he’d done to irritate Quatre, but didn’t think asking — which would be tantamount to accusing — would be terribly kind.

Finally, “He called me a coward,” Trowa murmured.

“What?” This startled demand came from two voices, and suddenly Heero was standing just behind the couch looking down at Trowa with constricted brows and worried eyes.

Now Trowa’s gaze shifted to the floor, as if he couldn’t stand to meet the gaze of either of his friends. “I made him do something I couldn’t do myself. I didn’t force him to — I didn’t even ask him to; he volunteered — but the fact that I couldn’t do it, and that he feels the need to take care of me, made it equal to forcing him. He probably thought he didn’t have a choice, and that’s my fault.”

“And it was so bad that he called you a coward to your face,” Heero said. His face had gone hard, as had his tone, but he spoke softly. Duo had been surprised and concerned at hearing a report of Quatre using such negative language toward Trowa, but at the sight of Heero’s expression and the sound of his voice his concern grew significantly.

Trowa nodded, and said heavily, “He told me I’ve been under the backwards impression that being a powerful magician was all I had left of myself that was worthwhile… and that I was afraid to let that go and live like a normal person… and that was keeping me from fully recovering after the curse. He said that if I’m going to keep being a coward about things, he’s not going to be able to help me.”

It sounded… well, it sounded, Duo had to admit, perfectly accurate. It didn’t sound like anything Quatre would say. Duo remembered comforting himself once with the thought that Quatre was too compassionate ever to be unkindly blunt… but perhaps Trowa had somehow pushed him farther than Duo had ever seen Quatre pushed. Or had Duo simply been wrong in his assessment? In any case, the statement Quatre had made didn’t sound like anything someone merely ‘in a bad mood’ would say.

“He was right,” Trowa said simply, “but normally he’s so much more kind about things like that.”

Duo nodded inadvertently as Trowa essentially verified everything he’d just been thinking. Trowa didn’t even sound petulant now — he wasn’t complaining or looking for sympathy; he was uncomprehendingly hurt.

“I think I apologized for being so much trouble… I barely remember what I said… because he interrupted me and said, ‘You know, Trowa, we spend an awful lot of time talking about you and your problems. It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but it gets overwhelming sometimes.'”

Trowa quoted as if he would never forget the exact words, and Duo simply stared at him. Once again it seemed completely accurate… and completely out of character for Quatre. Of course dealing with Trowa’s issues must get overwhelming at times… but Duo wouldn’t have thought Quatre would ever actually voice that sentiment aloud to Trowa.

“Then he said he was tired, and he went home. I thought he was going to stay,” Trowa added with a slight blush, “and be around today… we hadn’t quite decided between a couple of different options for tomorrow… but he seemed like he was angry with me all of a sudden. And now he won’t answer my calls.”

“It is kinda early still…” Duo offered this excuse only half-heartedly, since it wasn’t actually all that early and he knew Quatre to be a morning person.

Something on the stove was crackling alarmingly, but Heero remained motionless beside the couch. He looked even more worried than before, and Duo thought there was a deep pensiveness and perhaps a touch of anger to his expression as well — and some disapproval, even accusation such as Duo had earlier eschewed, in Heero’s tone as he asked, “What exactly did you have him do for you?”

Sounding even more miserable than before, Trowa ranted quietly. “He’s been bringing it up regularly for months, and I kept putting it off… if I’d just done it myself, this wouldn’t have happened, since I’m sure that’s what caused this. He saw I couldn’t do it and offered to do it for me… I shouldn’t have let him; I should have done it myself… I shouldn’t have been such a coward.”

Silence followed this minor outburst, and Trowa seemed to realize that he hadn’t actually answered the question. With a glance that was unexpectedly expressive of helpless guilt, he finally told them. “The artifact. He destroyed it for me.”

Part 3

Oddly enough, the tension in the room seemed to lessen a little at Trowa’s pronouncement. He had anticipated anger from his two friends on hearing that he’d allowed Quatre to undertake something so magically involved and potentially dangerous — just as he’d been angry at himself for it ever since last night — but apparently his words had had a different effect.

“So this is a magical thing.” Duo actually sounded somewhat relieved. “The artifact did something to him, and you should be able to clear it up and everything should be fine.”

Not so sure, Trowa said nothing.

Heero, apparently sharing Trowa’s doubts, wondered, “But what did it do to him? I’ve never seen Quatre behave like you’re describing.”

“Yeah, Quatre’s so… nice…” Duo’s expression, at the sound of Heero’s voice, had slowly changed back to a frown.

“He’s not just nice,” Heero said fiercely — a very unusual tone for him. “He almost never speaks without thinking, and even if he has something difficult to say to someone, he says it as kindly as possible. And it takes him forever to say that kind of thing to his boyfriend, even–” here Trowa could feel cold eyes burning the back of his neck– “when his boyfriend deserves it.”

“I know I deserved it.” The slight defensiveness in Trowa’s tone, the fact that he was standing up for himself (in a way) would have pleased Quatre the day before yesterday, Trowa thought. Today? Who knew? “He didn’t say anything that wasn’t perfectly true. It’s him I’m worried about.” Well, there was a touch of us he was worried about too — which, he felt, also would have pleased the normal Quatre. But when the normal Quatre wasn’t around, it seemed almost meaningless. “And he’s not answering his phone.”

Abruptly Heero moved around the sofa and down the hall. For a few moments there was no sound but that of whatever he’d been cooking, which was now beginning to smell a bit smoky. In response to this, Duo reluctantly stood and went to deal with the probably ruined breakfast. Trowa thought there was very little appetite left among the three of them.

“Trowa…” Heero had returned with his cell phone, on which he’d fixed a very odd, pensive look. “About what time last night did this all happen?”

“Early morning.” Wondering why Heero wanted to know, Trowa tried to narrow it down. “Probably around three.”

“Which time zone?”

“Mine. So, midnight here?”

In the kitchen, Duo’s sudden audible shifting suggested this meant something to him. But Heero said nothing, only nodded slightly and turned back to walk down the hall again. Another silence settled, but for Duo rattling cooking utensils, finally followed by the muffled sound of Heero talking to someone on the phone in his bedroom. It didn’t seem a very promising conversation, though — too many questions and long pauses.

This was confirmed when Heero returned, still eyeing the device in his hand strangely, and eventually looked up at where Trowa remained on the couch. “No answer,” he said, stopping in the entry to the hall and pocketing his phone with a reluctant slowness. “I called his house too, and Darryl said he’s still not there. Something is definitely wrong.”

“Why do you say that?” It was actually a little annoying that, after it had already been established that Quatre wasn’t answering Trowa’s calls, Heero would come to the conclusion something was wrong only after he tried and failed to reach his friend.

“Because,” said Heero slowly, still frowning, “last night at 12:15 or so, I woke up from a dream about Quatre asking me for help.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to emerge, startled, from the kitchen, abandoning whatever cooking endeavor was going on there. “You woke up from a dream?”

Heero nodded. “It was a message. I didn’t quite realize that last night, because…” His eyes flicked to Duo and away. “I got distracted. But it wasn’t a normal dream.”

Mimicking the nod, Trowa said wearily, “You’re a communicator.”

“What?” Duo wondered, pulled momentarily from his concern for Quatre. “Is he?”

“I’ve thought so for a while, but I never got around to running a test. Now I don’t have to. The type of connection with a friend that brings dreams like that is one of the definitive signs.” Trowa would be very interested in this at a later time, but at the moment he barely cared. “And you’re right, Heero: it’s also a definitive sign that something is wrong.” As if that weren’t already obvious.

Heero too set aside, for now, the question of his area of magical talent. “And I assume you can’t jump to him, or you would already have done it.” His tone was even, and Trowa got the feeling he was also setting accusation aside in the interest of helping Quatre.

“I haven’t tried jumping anywhere,” Trowa replied, “but I’m sure it will take some time and practice before I can do it again at all… and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use Quatre as a destination again.” And that prospect had been not the least of the reasons he hadn’t been looking forward to giving up the largest portion of his power. Quatre had been right about his cowardice, but at least some of it was specifically related to Quatre himself. The reminder that normal people got around by non-magical means all the time could do little to console Trowa for the loss of the ability to go instantly to his boyfriend whenever he wanted.

“You haven’t tried yet,” Heero murmured very quietly, almost as if to himself. Then, more loudly and very flatly he wondered, “Why are you here, Trowa?”

Trowa opted for complete honesty. “I wanted to see if I was overreacting.”

“If you haven’t tried jumping to him yet, I’d say you’re underreacting.”

“Maybe not, maybe not,” said Duo placatingly from where he’d returned to the kitchen. “We don’t know for sure yet exactly what happened.”

“I,” said Heero, in the same absolutely flat tone as before, “have known Quatre for ten years. And I am telling you both that something is wrong. Trowa, I think you should try jumping to him. If that doesn’t work, I think you should look through those books of yours and see if you can figure out what might have happened to him.”

The I think‘s didn’t make these statements any less commanding, but any sting Trowa might have felt at being ordered around by Heero was drowned in the concern he felt — an emotion he’d been holding back all this time but that had been let loose by Heero’s steely pronouncements. He nodded and stood. “Let me know if you get ahold of him.”

Curtly, Heero returned the gesture.

Duo’s tone in the goodbye he called out as Trowa headed for home was somewhat forlorn. “Good luck!” Trowa heard him add as his door closed.

It didn’t entirely close before it opened again, and he turned, a little surprised, to find that he’d been followed. Heero still looked grim, but something about the grimness had altered slightly. Silently he let the door fall shut behind him as he faced Trowa across the entry, and Trowa waited in equal silence for whatever Heero had remembered or thought of to add.

“This isn’t the best moment to ask,” Heero began slowly, “but I don’t want to wait. Do you know — or could you find — a good therapist who knows about magic?”

Trowa blinked in surprise, but the explanation for the incongruous request presented itself almost immediately: Duo needed help. Professional help. It was in no way any wonder, regardless of how happy Duo seemed in general. And he certainly did seem happy to Trowa… Heero tended to know these more personal things long before Trowa did these days, an idea to which Trowa still hadn’t entirely reconciled himself. Not that now was the time for that.

“I’ll look for someone,” he assured Heero seriously.

“Thank you.” As this evidently formed the completion of the intended exchange, Heero turned and moved to go back to his apartment.

But Trowa couldn’t let him leave without saying something that, he hoped, would reassure (or at least remind) Heero that they two were still friends despite any coldness resulting from odd and uncomfortable circumstances, that Trowa returned concern for concern. It was a little difficult to drag his mind away from the worrisome mystery of Quatre’s behavior, and the next subject in line would certainly be this new suggestion that Duo was still traumatized by the long cursed years, so his words were a little halting as other thoughts continually dragged his attention away from them. “Heero… if communication is your primary skill…” Trowa was fairly sure he was right about that, and even without the artifact, Trowa’s surety was worth quite a bit on magical matters. “If you’re a communicator, and your abilities have awakened… you’re likely to start hearing people’s thoughts.”

“What?” Heero sounded surprised and not entirely pleased.

“Only louder thoughts, in general.” Though it wasn’t Trowa’s main area of talent, so he’d never had this problem, he knew how it usually worked for communicators. “But if you spend enough time with someone, you’ll start picking up anything on the surface of their mind they aren’t actively trying to hide from you.”

“In other words,” Heero muttered, “get ready to start hearing all of Duo’s thoughts, and probably Quatre’s, and maybe yours.”

“Not mine.” Trowa’s tone was a bit dry as he recalled just how much time and power he’d had backing his practice even of skills that were technically secondary to him, little proficiency as he’d still gained in some of them. “And I think Quatre’s… natural organization… may keep most of his thoughts exactly where he wants them.” Just mentioning Quatre’s name distracted him from this topic, but Trowa forced himself to finish. “But Duo… yes, I think you should get ready to start hearing Duo’s thoughts. Surface-level thoughts, at least.”

Heero had turned to face Trowa again, and now he nodded slowly, his pensive expression bearing traces of reluctance. Finally he smiled grimly and said, “I guess that’s the price I have to pay for hanging around you magical people. There’s nothing I can do about this, is there?”

Trowa shook his head. There certainly were options to make Heero’s talent easier for him to deal with, but Trowa was at the end of how far he could discuss this subject right now; having alerted him to the somewhat inconvenient early indications of a communion skill was all he could manage at the moment.

“Well, thanks for the warning.” Heero turned back toward the door once more. Before he opened it he added in a friendlier tone than he’d used to dismiss Trowa from his apartment, “Good luck today.” And once Trowa had returned his thanks, he left.

Trowa sighed as he glanced back and forth between his study and his computer room, trying to decide whether magical experimentation or research (and, if the latter, which branch of research) would be most likely to produce quick and positive results. Eventually he headed into the study with a good deal more to think about than he’d had when he left it earlier — assuming he was capable of thinking about anything besides Quatre.

Part 4

Duo was examining the outcome of all their diffuse breakfast endeavors with a contemplative frown as Heero came back into the apartment through Trowa’s door, and the most worrisome part was that Duo looked like he was seriously considering eating it anyway. In celebration of the fact that he could eat anything now, Duo would eat anything now.

“I hope you following him in there means you thought of something that explains everything,” he said without looking up.

“No,” Heero half sighed. “I wish it did.”

The expression Duo now turned up toward him was sympathetic, but pretty clearly showed that he wasn’t yet convinced of the full direness of the situation with Quatre. There was some curiosity in it too as he said, “Why’d you go after him, then?”

“Trowa says he’ll look around for a therapist who knows about magic to help you with… your…” Heero found his voice failing at the change that occurred during his words: Duo had stiffened, stilled, and given Heero his complete attention — and none of this in a good way.

“Did Trowa bring this up,” Duo asked quietly, “or did you?”

“I did. Because of your dreams.”

Tightly Duo nodded, and his voice was quiet and nearly emotionless as he said, “Please don’t just go over my head like that.”

“I didn’t sign you up or anything; I just asked Trowa if he knew anyone you could go to.”

Duo moved his attention back to their breakfast as Heero approached somewhat warily. “Well, talk to me first about things like that. Then Trowa.” Actually it didn’t look like he was examining the food at all; he obviously just didn’t want to look at Heero.

In response to Duo’s pointed turning away, Heero stopped at the edge of the kitchen and tried to explain. “I knew you’d just say that no psychiatrist could possibly know what you’ve been through, so I thought before I brought it up I’d check–”

“Please,” Duo reiterated with a firmness that was almost desperate. “Talk to me first.” He gripped the oven door handle tightly as his gaze seemed to be pointed toward the contents of the stove without really seeing them. “You don’t know what I’ve been through either; you don’t know what it’s like to have everyone do everything for you because you can’t do it for yourself.”

Heero couldn’t help being a little hurt by “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” but he struggled not to say so. It was true, after all, at least on a certain level: he had been informed of much of Duo’s history, and had himself been part of Duo’s last month as a doll, but that wasn’t the same as knowing. Even if he’d been there for all of it, he couldn’t really have known what was going on in Duo’s head, how the curse affected Duo on the inside rather than the outside. Of course Duo had shared some of it with him, and there was more Heero could guess at just by interacting with him, but that still wasn’t the same as knowing. And even the knowledge he claimed to have — that therapy would help — was in actuality only a guess.

But if what Trowa had warned him about did come to pass, he might eventually no longer need to guess what was going on in Duo’s head. He might eventually know what Duo had been through. But he pushed that thought away for now.

“Of course. You’re right,” he said at last. “I should have realized.” He meant it as an apology he didn’t quite have plainer words for, and Duo seemed to accept it as such.

“It’s…” Duo released the oven with one hand and swung around, pivoting on the other wrist, still hanging on but looking now at Heero with a serious expression. “Not like I don’t appreciate the thought. OK, well, I don’t really like the thought much either, but…”

Heero winced. Of course Duo wouldn’t enjoy having his boyfriend suddenly suggest that he needed counseling, even if Heero had managed to suggest it in a manner that didn’t tread heavily on Duo’s toes.

“But I appreciate that you’re trying to look out for me,” Duo finished. He gave Heero a smile that, though genuine as Duo’s smiles always were, wasn’t as happy as it could have been, and turned back to the stove. Now he focused properly on the remains of their intended breakfast, and said more or less cheerfully, “I think I’m not hungry enough anymore to eat this. What do you think?”

Heero moved forward to join in the examination, and shook his head.

Wordlessly they set about cleaning up, discarding ruined food and washing dishes in a silence that was like Duo’s smile — not tense or angry, but neither as easy or happy as it could have been.

Finally, scraping the frying pan somewhat over-vigorously, Duo said abruptly, “I don’t need therapy.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero replied. It was an automatic and somewhat defensive response, but at least he’d gotten the words out.

“I made it through eighty-seven years as a fucking doll without going crazy.” Duo, whose voice told what he was feeling far more often than Heero’s did, sounded much more defensive than Heero had. “I don’t need to see someone about a couple of little bad dreams.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero repeated, this time at a murmur. He thought Duo was very specifically incorrect in this instance — Duo’s almost desperate defensiveness spoke pretty eloquently that there were mental issues in there that could use some professional help — but Heero was sorry he’d made him unhappy with his suggestion and his thoughtlessness, and he wasn’t going to press the issue at the moment. He would have to bring it up again eventually, but right now he just wanted Duo to smile properly.

What Duo did instead was drop what he was working on in the sink and fling soapy-handed arms around Heero unexpectedly from behind. “It’s OK,” he said. “Stop sounding like a kicked puppy! How could I be mad at you for doing something you thought was just to help me?”

“Because I did it all wrong?” Heero suggested. Whether or not he still sounded like a kicked puppy — and he had some doubts about having done so in the first place — he couldn’t guess, but he was certainly happier with Duo’s arms around him, even if he was going to have to change his shirt.

Duo nuzzled his face into Heero’s back, and, though he said something muffled about learning from experience and not doing it again, he seemed to be seeking comfort all of a sudden. As if he were asking Heero — the one that had introduced the idea — to reassure him that he wasn’t broken. It didn’t shake Heero’s conviction that counseling would do his lover good, nor did it make him feel less guilty about how he’d botched things; but he did raise a hand to clutch at Duo’s, disregarding suds and char, and squeeze it.

Eventually Duo stood straight, pulling away and clearing his throat, and turned back to the sink as if nothing had happened. “Besides,” he said in a brighter tone than before, which didn’t entirely match his words, “you’re distracted worrying about Quatre.”

This tense little scene with Duo had actually driven thoughts of Quatre far into the rear of Heero’s mind, but it was true that his best friend had been almost the center of his thoughts when he’d followed Trowa. That didn’t excuse having done something he should have known would be hurtful to his boyfriend, and he would have brought this up had he not believed Duo’s mentioning Quatre was a signal that he wanted to talk about something else.

Heero located a towel to run over the front of his shirt and his hands, and then brought out his phone to try Quatre again. This time it went straight to voicemail. Though Heero wasn’t generally one for leaving messages, he was tempted in this instance. That he hadn’t the faintest idea what he could say kept him from doing so.

What next? Conceivably Heero could call the club and see if he could wheedle them into telling him whether or not Quatre was there, but, even if he managed that, what then? It was pretty obvious that Quatre wasn’t interested in talking to anyone right now, and, worried as Heero was, such wishes should be respected. And yet, if there was magic at work, such wishes might have to take lower priority than expedience. But, as with a message, what would Heero say? Very specific concern was sometimes a little difficult for him to convey; something this uncertain would probably be even harder to put into words. But he would definitely feel a lot better if he could talk to Quatre — about anything. Just to hear his voice at this point would reassure Heero, even if it reaffirmed the current bad situation.

He supposed he could visit in person the places he thought Quatre might be… but he couldn’t get into the club except as the guest of an actual member, who had to be present at the front desk; and anywhere else Quatre might go in a particularly and possibly supernaturally bad mood — the office, out jogging, or to Cassidy’s bar downtown — were hit-or-miss at best.

“You’re really seriously worried, aren’t you?” Whether the darkness of Duo’s tone was in response to the referenced worry or a lingering result of the previous conversation, Heero didn’t know. In any case, he was finished scrubbing the frying pan (or at least finished with all the work he was willing to put in on that endeavor at the moment), and wrapping arms around Heero’s chest again. He hadn’t washed his hands, but it didn’t much matter.

“I’m really seriously worried,” Heero confirmed. And perhaps it was impetuous, but he decided suddenly, “And I’m going to go look for him.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Duo at once.

“Thank you,” Heero replied. “Let me change shirts, and we’ll go.” As he left Duo’s arms and headed across the living room toward the hall and his bedroom, he added with a sigh, “This may be completely useless, but it’ll feel better than doing nothing.”

Part 5

This was like an echo of those long years when he’d been unable to find Duo or get any idea of what he should do once he managed to: he had huge amounts of knowledge and decades of experience, but in the specific area where he was being challenged he was ignorant and powerless.

He’d never been very good at divination, and now, without the artifact to boost his personal power, he was barely getting answers at all. This, he believed, probably arose from having grown too accustomed to that extra power, and that he would, in time, be able to benefit from that branch of magic again… but ‘in time’ didn’t help with figuring out what had happened to Quatre right now.

In the area of communion he’d likewise never been very skilled, and the telepathy that was the hallmark of a communicator’s powers was something he’d never mastered. Good communicators could, with practice, even speak telepathically over a distance, but Trowa didn’t think any amount of practice would allow him to do so. So reaching out mentally to Quatre was out.

Command magic, therefore, was his only option in this situation. Thinking back on how skilled he’d become in this area was reassuring, but his drop in raw power was still a concern, and not a small one. He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to use the artifact as a crutch — even to the point where he’d developed a certain attunement to it that had allowed him to access it from a distance almost without realizing he was doing so — until he was forced to go without it. Once again, however, he believed it was just a matter of time before he learned to look at magic from the different angle of having an almost perfect knowledge of how to work it without the practically unlimited power he’d once commanded.

The last couple of hours, spent first exploring his options and then trying to jump to Quatre, had obviously not constituted the time that it was only a matter of. In teleportation, there was no prior connection to the destination; you only knew you had properly specified the desired location by arriving there. Therefore, there was no scale to measure how well you had a destination in mind: you either arrived at it, or you went nowhere. In this case, it was like reaching, while climbing blind, for a handhold that turned out not to exist. And then the energy already built up for the spell had to be expended, either by initiating the weightlessness of jumping to no purpose where he stood or as a burst of undirected power that threatened destruction around him.

In part for this reason, he’d been attempting this experiment outside in his back yard. Up almost to his knees in weed-choked grass, breathing deeply, eyes often closed, sometimes raising his arms in a gesture meant to focus his energy in the direction he wanted, he would have presented quite a picture to anyone able to see over the six-foot fences, but for once he was completely ignoring the old paranoia about his neighbors.

He was also out here because he suspected a few of the objects in his study of having become artifacts. Because they had formed in conjunction with his use of the lunar artifact, they had previously been merely satellites to it, attuned to it from their inception, and unlikely to interfere with any magic he performed using its power — but now, with the candlestick destroyed, they were free to progress along their own paths and develop their own wavelengths that might interact badly with each other and have unforeseen influences over his attempts at spellcasting. Eventually he would test the items he suspected, and others, to determine which were artifacts and what their nature might be, and decide what to do with them all, but at the moment, not having time for that, he was simply working outside their presence.

Well, it was clear that using Quatre as a destination was simply not going to work. Whether it would at some point in the future, after more extensive and leisurely experimentation, Trowa did not know; right now he had to move on. The next step seemed to be, more simply, jumping to a destination that demanded less focus, less precise conjunction of multiple branches of magic. And the choice of destination wasn’t terribly difficult, given that there were only a few places Quatre was likely to be that Trowa knew well enough to jump to. It was Saturday, yes, but he’d known Quatre to go to work on weekends for reasons less pressing than being magically irritable and wanting a distraction.

From many instances of picking Quatre up after work (whether because he’d taken him there in the first place and Quatre had no other way home, or in preparation for an evening together, or even just, on a couple of occasions, to surprise him), Trowa knew Quatre’s office well enough by now to be confident in his ability to jump to it if he could manage the teleportation spell at all. He tried not to imagine Quatre there, practically waiting for him to appear, with an explanation for his strange behavior and a reassurance that he wasn’t actually angry at Trowa at all. He tried not to picture them making up tenderly and then heading off — after, of course, a reassuring call to Heero — for a birthday celebration that would last the rest of the weekend. He knew he would only be disappointed.

Even as he cast the spell, he felt how extravagant he’d become. He never would have noticed before, with the artifact, but now when he had a much lower level of power it was obvious that he was expending far too much of it on this task simply because he’d never had to worry about conserving energy before. But now, as he landed in the office lit only by the big wall of windows on one side, he actually stumbled as he came to rest, and had to catch the desk to keep from falling. Exhaustion slammed into him along with the realization that he’d used the better part of his power on this one jump, that he certainly wouldn’t be leaving this place magically until he’d had a rest and probably a good hard reflection on how more economically to cast this spell.

And of course Quatre wasn’t here. Despite having striven to avoid getting his hopes up, Trowa was still bitterly disappointed.

After a glance around and coming to the decision that the very comfortable-looking leather chair at Quatre’s big glossy desk would be the best place to regather his strength and give his mind to what needed to be thought about, he moved first, slowly, toward the office door (at what might be considered a hobble) in order to poke his head out into the hallway to ascertain whether he could hear anyone moving around in other parts of the building. And though he thought the fact that lights were on was a good sign that someone else was probably here, he didn’t hear anyone immediately nearby, which was for the best. Then he took a seat, swiveled to face the windows, and stared blankly out at the parking lot and other nearby businesses.

It was strange to feel so drained so abruptly. It was novel, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He felt as if he’d just run a marathon and come in last. Never in his life could he remember being so worn out, and though the bulk of the sensation was not physical, yet a certain measure of physical weariness was dragged along in the wake of his magical depletion. It was depressing and embittering.

The sound of the office door opening startled him enough that he jerked in his seat, and several thoughts went through his head in split-second succession: first, that it must be Quatre; second, that, as it obviously wasn’t Quatre, it was odd that the door should be unlocked for anyone else to get in; third, that he’d probably unlocked the door himself by opening it from the inside; fourth, that his presence here was going to seem strange no matter who it was and why they were entering.

Even as he turned, he heard a woman’s voice begin, “I didn’t know you were here today, but I’m glad–” But she cut off when she saw that it wasn’t her manager in the chair behind the desk.

“Pardon me,” Trowa replied wearily. “I know I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“No,” she said, advancing. “I thought Quatre must have come in without me noticing, and it was a stroke of luck he was here on a Saturday just when I was.” She smiled a little as she approached the desk, and it was obvious that she did think it odd — and probably a little suspicious — to find this stranger here.

For a moment Trowa didn’t know what to say. Not that coming up with excuses for the magical happenings in which he was often involved (indeed, which he often caused) was at all foreign to him; it was because he was momentarily captivated by her face.

It was the strong nose, he thought, and something about the corners of the eyes. She didn’t have freckles, but he thought hers was the type of complexion that might develop them under the correct atmospheric conditions. And the big curls in the reddish-brown hair were certainly part of it.

Not entirely sure what prompted him to do so, he stood up and reached out across the desk, just as if this were his office and he was introducing himself to a co-worker or something, to offer a handshake. “My name is Trowa Barton. I’m Quatre’s boyfriend.” And though simple truth such as this was something he greatly preferred to tell where possible, it was a little surprising even to him that he’d given it so readily here and now.

He thought her eyes were studying his features with just as much interest as his had studied hers, and at the sound of his name her brows went down slightly — not, he thought, with any negative emotion, but in an expression of interest and curiosity. She accepted the handshake with a firm grip and replied, “Well, I’m Catharine Barton. Good to meet you.”

What were the chances, Trowa wondered, of a second child of his mother also having deliberately taken her last name, and both that name and his mother’s features having been carried down several generations and across the country to manifest in a co-worker of his mother’s first child’s boyfriend a century later? Could it be just a coincidental resemblance and sharing of name? He had no idea.

He realized he’d expressed himself equally pleased to meet her almost without knowing he spoke, and now she was asking him, “So is Quatre here after all?”

With a shake of his head designed also to shake himself out of his distraction he replied, “I don’t think so. I came here looking for him, but it seems I’m out of luck as well.”

“That’s too bad,” she replied. Her stance had shifted slightly, and Trowa realized that she was settling in. She probably wasn’t quite sure yet that she believed he was who he said he was, and felt she couldn’t leave the room until her mind had been eased on that point. That was fine — Trowa needed to rest before he could go anywhere anyway, and he might as well do it in someone else’s presence as out of it — but he wanted to sit back down, and felt it would be discourteous to do so with this woman standing across the desk from him; at the same time, it would be awkward to invite her to sit down when this wasn’t actually his office.

The slight awkwardness of the situation was clearly felt by Catharine too, and was probably what prompted her question, “Can’t you call him?”

“He’s not answering,” Trowa replied. “We had a fight.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her sympathy sounded genuine, and also seemed to break the ice a bit; glancing around, she pulled one of the other chairs in the room closer to the desk and sat, much to Trowa’s relief. But she still sounded as if she was floundering a bit for things to say when she added, “You’re lucky you ran into me and not anyone else from sales with that news. I’ve never met a team more gossipy than ours.”

“I’ve heard stories,” Trowa nodded as he too took his seat. “Apparently everyone believes Quatre is dating Heero.”

She gave a smile of regretful amusement, and seemed to relax a bit; Heero’s name (and this bit of gossip) was obviously a password of sorts. “It’s gotten a little confused lately, because–” She lifted her chin and a pointed finger as she interrupted herself: “Now, I want it understood that I don’t work the gossip mill! But it’s impossible not to overhear just about everything.”

Trowa smiled a bit at the mixture of pride and playfulness in her demeanor. “Understood.”

“Well, some people know Heero’s actual boyfriend, and half the building still thinks Heero and Quatre are dating. There’s a lot of whispering about who’s cheating on whom.”

“I wonder how Duo coming to work here will affect that.”

“Duo — that’s Heero’s boyfriend, right? Is he coming to work here?”

“He starts Monday, I believe.”

“It’s going to turn everything upside-down for a while. Always a fun time for those of us who are here to work, not stick our noses into other people’s business.”

The fact that she was here on a Saturday was all the confirmation Trowa needed that she was one of those here to work.

“And even having said that,” she added, leaning forward a bit, “I can’t help asking… where are you from?”

Evidently the family resemblance was not, as Trowa had half thought it might be, a figment of his imagination, if the way Catharine’s eyes were roving his face was any indication. She looked mostly relaxed and unsuspicious now, and would probably be all right leaving him alone in Quatre’s office — but there was no reason they couldn’t try to figure out for sure, first, whether or not they were related. The possibility of his having living relations, whatever their precise degree of connection, was not one Trowa had ever given any thought, and he found that it interested him more than he would have expected. And a distraction from his concern about Quatre, during these moments when he was forced to rest and barred from action, was not unwelcome.

So, falling back somewhat on the old genealogy he’d built for himself to fill up believably the years between his parents and himself, and setting forth his own history in the early 1900’s as that of his great-grandfather, he started to explain where he’d lived and about his family line.

Part 6

The entirety of Saturday had passed without Quatre either answering or returning any of Heero’s calls, and the physical quest to locate him had been equally unrewarding. This, Heero thought at first, was the reason he awoke the next day (and was even inclined to rise) so much earlier than he generally did on weekends; but he rethought this assessment on leaving his bedroom and finding Trowa sitting on his sofa in the living room.

Though he could tell immediately from Trowa’s expression (and, really, mere presence) that it might not be the most welcome good morning he could give, he still offered, “Happy birthday.”

Trowa sighed.

Having learned everything he needed to know from this, Heero didn’t bother asking. Nor did he volunteer to make some breakfast for Trowa, assuming such a discussion would turn out much like yesterday’s. The more upset Trowa was, the less inclined he seemed to be to do normal human things; at the moment he looked like he hadn’t slept much last night, and had probably forgotten what eating was.

Heero wanted to offer some form of comfort, however. His own mood was morose enough; he had no doubt Trowa, especially after a night of whatever had kept him awake, felt even worse. And no matter what Trowa had done or might be that Heero didn’t entirely approve of, he surely deserved some reassurance. So, once Heero had gotten the coffee started, he leaned against the counter down at the end nearest the sofa and said, “Quatre helped me through a couple of the most difficult times of my life.”

Trowa turned halfway toward him, his expression dark and sad, but said nothing.

“And he stood by all of us through the whole process of breaking the curse.”

Trowa nodded.

“Whatever’s happened to him now, I don’t think he’ll abandon us. He doesn’t give up on people.” He restrained himself from adding, “Even when he should,” lest Trowa take it as a personal attack. Instead he finished up with, “We’ll hear from him eventually.”

Brows lowered, Trowa hesitated a moment, then nodded again. He might have been about to speak, but was kept silent by the sounds coming from down the hall.

Though Duo didn’t seem to have any great problem being separated from Heero when it was necessary, still he tended to keep close by whenever they were together. Heero had no idea whether or not Duo had resumed being a ‘sleeper-in,’ as he’d once called himself, when Heero had to get up early and leave the apartment, but whenever Heero was at home it was rare for Duo to stay in bed much longer than Heero did. This was fortunate, since, even after all this time, the instinct to keep Duo close had not yet entirely faded.

“Hey, Trois! Happy birthday!” Duo’s cheer was very unfitting to just about every circumstance currently in place; Heero feared he still wasn’t taking this issue with Quatre seriously enough. Conversation yesterday while Heero had driven around town trying to pretend he was helping had indicated that Duo’s sanguinity arose not from a disinclination to believe his friends that something was definitely wrong with Quatre, but from his great faith in Trowa’s powers; Duo obviously thought Trowa would be able to snap his fingers or something and cure Quatre completely. That he of all people could have so much confidence in the abilities of the man that had been unable to find him for eighty-seven years and then unable to figure out, except by chance, how to break his curse, Heero was more or less astonished, but he’d tried not to make a big issue out of it.

“Thank you,” said Trowa dourly.

“Come on, come on,” said Duo, the increased gentleness of his words seeming at odds with the words themselves, “it’s your first birthday since you started aging again… you’ve got to enjoy it.”

Trowa sighed.

“Duo, what do you want for breakfast?” Heero inquired, thinking to leave this conversation to them and busy himself in the kitchen. After yesterday’s experience, he wasn’t going to attempt a proper, recipe-based breakfast again until things were settled down, but there were plenty of other options.

“Do we have any English muffins left?” Duo wondered as he took a seat next to Trowa on the couch.

Heero had been living with human Duo for almost four months, and in a technical sense had been living with Duo for as long as he’d known him, but it was still possible for Duo to thrill him with a simple use of the word ‘we’ even in the middle of concern about another friend such as Heero was experiencing now. He was smiling as he answered, “I bought a new package.”

“Oh, good, then we can force Trowa to eat a couple too.”

“I don’t really–” Trowa began, but Duo made a noise to stop him and held up an arbitrary hand. Heero, still smiling, turned to prepare some English muffins, jam-loaded for one of his companions and lightly-buttered for the other. His own he took with scrambled eggs, and he only wished he had occasion to round out the eight in the package with the sausage he knew Quatre had no use for English muffins without.

Whether or not Duo’s level of concern was appropriate to the situation, he definitely had that situation on his mind as he continued to address Trowa in that relatively gentle but still fairly cheerful tone. “You’re a hundred and twelve today. It’s not a very round number, but it’s still a pretty important birthday! There’s no way he’ll ditch you.”

“He managed to avoid all of us all day yesterday,” Trowa said dully.

“Well, yes, but I’m sure that was just because he was trying to work off his annoyance or whatever.”

“I worked on spells for twelve hours straight.” Trowa lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I can jump again now without too much trouble, but I can’t use Quatre as a destination, and he wasn’t anywhere I looked. If he ever went back to his bedroom last night, it was after I fell asleep.” He sounded extremely regretful, almost miserably penitent, that he’d done so at all. “And he wasn’t there just now when I checked again.”

“We’ll find him,” Duo reassured seriously. “He can’t stay away forever, and if–”

Heero glanced over when Duo cut off so abruptly, and found his boyfriend’s eyes pointed across the room. Trowa too followed Duo’s gaze, and soon all three of them were staring at where the door in the wall had opened and admitted the very subject of their conversation.

Quatre closed the door behind him and stood before it, looking around at all of them, and Heero could already see the change. He didn’t think it was just because he was seeking the signs, either; he would have noticed that something was off about Quatre’s stance under any circumstances.

“Wow,” Quatre said, with a smile that appeared somewhat forced, “Heero’s up before ten o’clock on a Sunday.”

Not only was this a completely reasonable observation, it was a tease that Quatre might well be expected to direct toward his best friend. But in this instance it seemed to come much more forcefully, much more sharply edged, than many a more serious remark from that source.

“And hasn’t even called me yet,” Quatre went on. He still hadn’t moved from before Trowa’s door. “Whatever you were blowing up my phone about yesterday must be over with.”

Evidently Duo too felt the unusual edge to Quatre’s tone, for now he stood from the couch somewhat impatiently and said, “No, it’s not. We’ve all been worried about you.”

“‘We’ve all,'” Quatre echoed, and the laugh he followed this with had a strange hardness to it. “Why am I not surprised to hear Duo saying that on behalf of all three of you? Oh, it’s because my boyfriend and my best friend like to keep everything a secret from the people it’s important to.”

This was another fairly legitimate point, and something Quatre had teased Heero about in the past — specifically in relation to his reluctance to acquaint Duo with his feelings for him during the curse-breaking month — but not only did it feel a little out of place at the moment, it too was delivered more sharply than teasing remarks from Quatre usually were.

Trowa had also stood and turned to face Quatre, and now he said quietly, “I have at least one important thing to talk to you about right now.”

“Yes, well,” allowed Quatre deprecatingly, “it’s not usually actually me who doesn’t get told, since nobody thinks I’d ever get tired of hanging onto all their secrets for them.”

Heero had stepped to the edge of the kitchen with an intent locked gaze during Quatre’s last couple of statements. For there was appearing around his friend — or at least Heero was just starting to notice — a faint glow, an aura of sorts, that seemed to rise from his body and stream upward. Whatever it was, it dissipated into the air as he spoke, though there was no apparent end to it. Heero had no clue what it was — something magical, no doubt — and he wondered if Trowa and Duo could detect it.

In glancing at those two to see, he was distracted by the expression on Trowa’s face: he looked hurt, and in such a way that it was clear Quatre’s latest accusation had come as a complete surprise. What secrets, Heero wondered, had Quatre been keeping for Trowa that he was perhaps tired of hanging onto, and that Trowa didn’t even like having referenced?

Quatre appeared to have noticed the hurt expression as well, for he said, “I’m sorry” — though the impatience in the phrase sapped any sound of sincerity it might have had, and that strange aura around him didn’t diminish. “I know I’m in a bad mood, and I probably shouldn’t be around people right now. But I was looking for you–” addressing Trowa specifically– “to see if we’re still doing something today.”

“Are we?” asked Trowa hesitantly, his face settling into a more placid look of general unease.

“I don’t know,” replied Quatre impatiently. “It’s your birthday.”

“He may just want to stay here and celebrate with us.” Clearly unhappy with Quatre’s attitude, Duo had moved a step closer to Trowa in a show of solidarity and a somewhat alarming challenge against Quatre.

Quatre’s eyes narrowed as they flicked to Duo, and his tone sounded somewhat disdainful as he said, “Duo, go put a shirt on. I know you’re happy to have a human body, but not everyone wants to see you half-naked all the time.”

Duo’s brows went down and his mouth dropped open, but he didn’t at first appear to have anything to say in reply to that.

“Quatre.” Even Heero didn’t know whether that single word was a query what the hell was wrong, an admonishment not to talk to his boyfriend like that, or just a plea for Quatre to stop acting this way.

“Something on your stove is burning, Heero,” Quatre said dismissively, then turned his complete attention on Trowa. “Well, are we going somewhere or aren’t we?”

With a deep breath, seeming to rally, Trowa was probably realizing that if he didn’t agree to go somewhere with Quatre right now, he would lose track of him again for another unknown length of time; as unpleasant as Quatre was to be around at the moment, Trowa couldn’t afford to miss this chance to determine what was wrong with him and what he could do about it. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, let’s go.”

Quatre nodded sharply and turned. Before following him, Trowa shot a helpless glance at Heero and Duo. Then they two were left watching the door fall shut in stupefied silence.

Part 7

“What – the hell – was that.” Duo couldn’t take his eyes off Trowa’s door, and he still hadn’t managed to tighten his jaw back up from the disbelieving slackness Quatre had occasioned in it.

Now you see why we were so worried,” Heero muttered, the sound of his voice allowing Duo finally to look in that direction. Heero had already been frowning, but at his own words he made an even more bitter face, as if realizing they’d sounded very much like the acerbic Quatre that had just left. Abruptly he strode across the room to put his arms around Duo. “And I don’t mind seeing you half-naked all the time,” he added penitently.

Duo returned the embrace, though he found his eyes had been dragged back to Trowa’s door and his frown hadn’t changed. “Good,” he said absently. “Thank you. But… what the hell was that.”

“Something Trowa had better be able to fix.”

“Yeah, but what was it? I’ve never seen Quatre that… bitchy… before. It seemed like every little thing was annoying him, and he was taking it out on us. And why was pure magic coming off him the whole time?”

Heero jerked back. “I saw that,” he said in intense and serious interest. “Is that what it was?”

“That’s what it felt like, anyway — just pure magical energy. I guess he picked it up somehow from the artifact when he destroyed it, but why would that make him mad at everyone?”

“So that’s not anything you’ve heard of?” Heero wondered earnestly. “Someone destroying an artifact and it having that kind of effect?”

Duo shook his head, more as an ‘I don’t know’ than a negative. “I think most people aren’t in the habit of destroying artifacts that powerful even if they have them around in the first place. People wouldn’t usually have much reason to. Trowa didn’t even really need to get rid of this one, I think; I just think he felt like it was too much of a symbol of everything that happened.”

“He spent all day yesterday practicing spells,” Heero said pensively. “He wasn’t researching.”

“Well, he still needs to–”

At the sound of Duo’s somewhat defensive tone, Heero broke in hastily. “I’m not criticizing him. Of course he needs to figure out how to do all his regular magic again without the artifact. But I want to know what’s wrong with Quatre.”

“Maybe Trowa will call later to let us know he’s fixed everything.” Duo wasn’t feeling nearly as hopeful about this as he had been yesterday, and it sounded in his voice.

“I think I’m going to look around online and see if I can find out anything,” Heero determined with a nod. “There’s a lot of stuff online about magic; maybe somebody’s heard of something like this.”

Considering that as good an idea as any at the moment, Duo gave Heero an encouraging kiss more or less at random (it landed on his cheekbone just by his ear), and said, “And I should put a shirt on.”

“I told you I don’t mind.” At the reference to Quatre’s unpleasant comment to Duo, however, Heero was glancing around now to assess the truth of Quatre’s unpleasant comment to him. Something on the stove was burning; that was the second day in a row.

“What was funny,” Duo remarked as he headed for the bedroom, increasing his volume as he drew farther away from Heero, “was that he didn’t say anything that wasn’t totally true. Same with the stuff Trowa said he said on Friday night — it was all true; it just wasn’t like Quatre to say it.” When Heero did not respond, he mused on. “Isn’t there a faery tale where some guy got a piece of glass in his eye that made him see everything as ugly, so it turned him into a complete jerk? And his girlfriend had to cry it out for him or something?”

Heero met him in the hallway. That he’d left the kitchen so soon probably meant there was another damaged pan to scrub, but Duo agreed that it could wait until later. “I’ll check online for the effects of getting glass in your eye too,” Heero said with that solemn facetiousness that was so consistently adorable in him.

“If only it was likely to be that easy,” Duo muttered as he followed Heero into the second bedroom.

“Yeah,” Heero agreed, taking his place before the computer and turning it on, “then all we’d have to do is find Quatre a girlfriend.”

Duo laughed and threw himself down onto the guest bed. Looking up at the popcorned ceiling, sobering, he lay silent for a while, but finally remarked, “He’s not going to be happy about how he’s been acting when this is over.”

“I know,” Heero replied grimly. “Even if everything he said was true. He only seemed a little annoyed… if he gets really angry, I don’t know what he’s likely to say.”

“Whatever secrets he’s still holding onto–” and Duo couldn’t quite keep the curiosity out of his voice as he said this– “I bet he’ll spill them if he gets really mad. So if any of them are about you,” he added in a lighter tone, “you’d probably better tell them all to me now before Quatre does.” He thought the implication of Quatre’s complaint had been that Trowa far more than Heero had secrets Quatre didn’t like keeping, but it would be absolutely inappropriate for Duo to question Trowa about this, so he was teasing Heero instead.

Several moments of silence followed, but the lack of mouse clicks or keystrokes indicated Heero was still waiting for the computer to finish its forever-long process of booting up. Finally, in a completely serious tone, he said, “I can’t think of any secrets I have from you. Quatre certainly knows a lot of my most embarrassing moments, but those aren’t exactly secrets — just things I won’t tell anyone if I don’t have to.”

“Like about your bookshelf,” Duo grinned.

“Yeah, that kind of thing.”

“Well, I’ll try not to take advantage of the situation and make fun of you forever if he does happen to tell me anything like that.”

“Just like you’ve never made fun of what’s on my bookshelf.”

“I don’t make fun of what’s on your bookshelf; I make fun of you for being embarrassed about what’s on your bookshelf.”

“I think it was just last week you were following me around reading random selections from Goosebumps books in a very bad imitation of Vincent Price.”

“Yeah, but just to get your reaction! You do the best wincey embarrassed faces. And it wasn’t Vincent Price; it was Boris Karloff.”

“A bad imitation of Boris Karloff is a bad imitation of Vincent Price.”

Chuckling, Duo acceded to this point and then fell silent as Heero began his search process at last.

In one way, he supposed, this behavior of Quatre’s might have quite a good outcome. Trowa had spent so long living an unnecessary penance for what he’d accidentally done so many decades ago, had gotten into such an unhealthy habit of thinking of himself as a criminal of sorts that owed the world — Duo in particular — a degree of recompense he could never meet, that it might be very desirable to balance that out a trifle by having one of the most important people in his life penitently asking his forgiveness — which Duo was certain Quatre would do once he was cured of his present condition. It might help Trowa realize that mistakes were part of life and simply had to be lived down.

But that, of course, was assuming Quatre could be cured before he got really angry and went too far, did something more truly damaging, said something more hurtful than just pointing out the obvious fact that both Trowa and Heero were taciturn or Duo was overly pleased with his own bare chest. Though Duo thought Quatre’s friends would be willing to forgive him quite a bit, things might still get worse before they got better. Who knew how unkind Quatre was really capable of being, when magic was involved?

Quatre was not going to like looking back on all of this. Even what he’d said and done so far, Duo thought, would make him unhappy in retrospect. And in addition to the guilt of having been unpleasant to his friends, there would be the recollection of having been influenced by magic, of at least certain aspects of his life having been out of his control because of a power he couldn’t fight. There was a road Duo had been down; he couldn’t imagine that adding feelings of personal culpability to that remembered helplessness would make for a more pleasant state of mind.

This train of thought brought him inevitably back around to the therapy idea from yesterday. He’d thought about it off and on since then, never terribly happily, and usually pushed it away after not too long, but it was about time he admitted to himself the conclusion that had been growing on his mental horizon.

He did need therapy. Of course he needed therapy. Probably most people did, in one way or another, to some degree. In his case it was fundamentally obvious, undeniable. And it wasn’t even as if he disliked the thought of going through therapy. He didn’t like the thought that he might be… damaged… might need therapy, but the thought of the treatment itself wasn’t particularly disturbing. Actually he might even specifically relish the idea of pouring out every last little thing he felt in relation to the curse and his unnaturally long life without having to worry about hurting his listener. In his head, he couldn’t even begin to pretend he didn’t need therapy.

It was just the way Heero had presented the concept — so abruptly, and yet in a manner that seemed to indicate they were already in the middle of the business, that things had already been decided and put in motion without any input from Duo — that had caused Duo to become defensive and reject the suggestion in its entirety.

He needed therapy; Trowa needed therapy; Quatre would probably need therapy after this business was over; if he looked hard enough, he could probably come up with a reason for Heero to need therapy too; they were all therapy patients together. It was fine. But Duo still didn’t really want to think about it.

Over at the computer desk, Heero had gone from muttering occasionally to himself as he came up with different ways to word his searches to silent stillness, so Duo assumed he was reading something. Pushing aside what he didn’t want to think about, he asked hopefully, “Anything good?”

“No,” said Heero, slowly and only after a long moment, with the air of one shaking himself from distraction. “No, nothing yet. I’ll tell you when I find something.”

So Duo continued to stare at the ceiling.

Part 8

Quatre had seemed so intent on going somewhere to celebrate Trowa’s birthday, despite his current mood being about as far from celebratory as Trowa could imagine, that Trowa hadn’t dared suggest they spend the day quietly at home instead. Inability to jump them both somewhere he could, perhaps, have used as an excuse, but not only was he disinclined to lie to Quatre, he also feared that Quatre might interpret ‘at home’ as ‘at their separate homes’ and simply leave him. So he’d tried to come up with someplace he knew well enough to teleport to that would be interesting enough for a birthday and where he could quietly observe Quatre (and possibly cast some spells) to try to figure out what had happened to him.

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe had made a sufficient impression on him that he felt he could successfully jump them there, but Quatre reminded him cuttingly that New Mexico in August was likely to roast them both alive. When he suggested Paris, Quatre wondered at his lack of originality. The idea of visiting Niagara Falls (where Trowa wasn’t even entirely sure he could take them at this point) was dismissed without much explanation as Quatre asked impatiently whether Trowa couldn’t think of any destination where they could go swimming.

Very unwillingly but seeing no good alternative, Trowa brought up Traverse City and its freshwater beaches. Given that he had no pleasant memories of the place, he didn’t really want to return, but that he had several years’ worth of memories of it at all — outdated though they were — meant he could probably get them there without too much trouble, and it was the first idea Quatre didn’t seem to scorn completely. Besides, if Quatre was going to make this entire day unpleasant for him, that activity might as well take place somewhere that couldn’t be tainted by the experience because Trowa already associated it primarily with unpleasantness from his childhood.

During the century since he’d hitchhiked away from it, Trowa had revisited Traverse a handful of times for different reasons, and had seen how it had changed; in 2010, it was so vastly different a place than it had been in 1906 that only the lakeshores made it at all recognizable. But there was a certain soul to a city that didn’t alter nearly so much even over such a stretch of time, a soul he’d become eminently familiar with on its streets as a child, and this was what allowed him to jump there despite all the cosmetic changes and modernization that had taken place since then.

The idea was to take a hiking trail that led to a beach, where they could then spend the rest of the day lounging or swimming or feeling awkward and unhappy or whatever turned out to be the case; as such, the first step was to obtain some clothing appropriate for these activities, since Trowa owned no hiking apparel and Quatre’s existing swimwear was still wet at home from yesterday. So they endured a silent bus ride, during which Quatre gave many of the other commuters an openly dark eye for no apparent reason, to a shopping center that contained the store Quatre had looked up on his phone and declared dogmatically that they wanted.

At this store, after a disparaging decree that it wasn’t necessary to dress like it was still the 1940’s, Quatre essentially made Trowa’s selections for him, then remarked, when Trowa would have paid for their purchases, “I make a lot of money, Trowa. Or am I not allowed to buy you birthday presents?”

In reference to their second bus ride, this one to near the beginning of the trail Quatre had chosen, he had the somewhat snide comment, “I don’t think I’ve been on a bus for this long since I was in high school. I usually rent a car or take a cab when I’m out of town.”

Between Quatre’s unpleasant behavior and Trowa’s unpleasant recollections — not to mention the fact that Trowa wasn’t in nearly as good physical condition as Quatre was, and already a little tired from the spell he’d used to bring them here in the first place — Trowa was cowed, and their hike began and progressed in extremely uncomfortable silence. He was grateful that it wasn’t too difficult a trail; he wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if Quatre in his current state had chosen a much more intense one to punish Trowa for not being as fit as he should. As it was, the very rugged hiking boots Quatre had bought him weren’t entirely necessary. They were also threatening to blister Trowa’s heels.

At least the forest didn’t hold a lot of memories. It had been the streets his mother had taken him up and down all day back then, looking for simple tasks they could do for money, errands either of them could run, or even, on occasion, unwatched objects that could be stolen. But though the streets had changed beyond recognition and he was currently walking a dirt path, just being here must remind him.

He tried to do what he’d come to do, tried to concentrate on Quatre, whose businesslike stride spoke more of getting this over with than enjoying the hike. If he could determine what had gone wrong on Friday night, perhaps he could mend it. Perhaps the day and even his impression of this area could be salvaged to some extent. But he doubted it.

The aura Quatre had been giving off definitely matched the power from the candlestick; Trowa would know that power anywhere, automatically. What it meant, however, that Quatre had apparently absorbed power from the artifact he’d destroyed, Trowa wasn’t sure. There were some magical conditions with which Trowa was slightly familiar that seemed similar to Quatre’s current state — especially given that Quatre appeared to expend some of that magical energy whenever he said something uncharacteristically cutting — but not in any way that provided any immediate solution.

Well, if Quatre was carrying power that had previously filled the lunar artifact, perhaps that made Quatre, in a sense, an artifact — and in that case, Trowa might be able to tap into that power. And if that power was what made Quatre so unpersonable, perhaps Trowa could use it up and thereby restore Quatre to his normal self. It seemed worth a try.

Having spent so long attuned to this particular energy, Trowa had no difficulty getting back onto the same wavelength now; he could very easily sense the power Quatre was releasing, and should be able to use it deliberately just as he had done for all those years with the artifact. So he murmured a simple spell.

“Hey!” Quatre jerked as if he’d been hurt, and, ceasing his steps, turned abruptly to face Trowa. “What are you trying to do, turn me into a doll or something?”

Trowa’s breath caught, and he thought his body visibly mimicked Quatre’s in its pained stiffening.

Observing this, Quatre looked appalled — though his horror appeared to be mixed equally with anger, this time mostly at himself. “I’m sorry,” he said at once. “That was completely inappropriate.”

Standing still where he’d stopped, Trowa felt he couldn’t quite breathe properly, as if Quatre’s words had been a slamming blow to his chest that had robbed him of air and briefly paralyzed his lungs. As they stared at each other in silence for a long moment, somebody jogged past.

“I’m sorry,” Quatre said again. This time, though still penitent, he sounded impatient, as if annoyed that Trowa hadn’t yet offered some sign of forgiveness.

Trowa, who still couldn’t speak, just shook his head.

“Whatever spell you were trying,” Quatre said, evidently taking the headshake for the sign he wanted, “wasn’t fun, so don’t do it again.”

Trowa nodded.

They restarted, their slightly slower pace perhaps a testament to Quatre’s continued regret for what he’d said. Eventually Trowa was once more able to breathe right, but the aftershock of Quatre’s comment took much longer to fade. And recalling firmly that Quatre was under a magical influence that was rendering all his statements unnaturally unkind did very little to lessen the pain of having been so casually reminded of something horrific and inhumane Trowa had once done and could, conceivably, do again. Something for which he and his best friend had suffered for eighty-seven years. Something Quatre himself had been, up until now, assisting Trowa in recovering from.

The thought that gradually overcame Trowa’s pain and allowed him to concentrate was that, though Quatre’s response had certainly been disproportionate to the provocation, still Trowa had caused him discomfort with his spell. He’d hurt Quatre, and hadn’t even accomplished anything in so doing. For the attempt at making use of the energy Quatre was infected with hadn’t worked; though he could still sense it even now, and though it still seemed to be the same energy he’d been using all these years, Trowa hadn’t been able to grasp it, to connect with it in a practical way.

That, he thought, arose from the fact that it wasn’t the same energy. In the moment of his spell, he’d been able to sense that the power had altered somehow so that it wasn’t quite the same as it had been in the candlestick. The difference was something Trowa couldn’t quite grasp, something just beyond his comprehension, but he thought that was what had defied his attempt to make use of it. He felt as if there probably was some way to draw the energy out of Quatre, but trying to use it in a spell wasn’t it.

If Quatre wasn’t a usable artifact, then, what next? Little faith as he had in his own powers of divination at the moment, Trowa couldn’t help trying a brief string of questions.

Had the power Quatre now contained come from the lunar artifact?


How had that power been transferred into Quatre?

A vision of Quatre out in Trowa’s shed, the muscles of his arms bulging as he brought an old axe down with hard and calculated precision on the candlestick.

Why had destroying the artifact transferred its power to Quatre?

No answer.

Quatre resumed his previous quick, somewhat annoyed pace at these muttered divining queries, and Trowa wondered whether he was irritated at having the magical language spoken incomprehensibly beside him with no explanation or whether he’d seen something. Non-magical people didn’t get proper visions in response to divinations, but they did sometimes see things; and since one of the visions that had come to Trowa had been something Quatre himself had actually done, that particular memory might have been triggered in Quatre’s mind by the spell. Trowa hurried to catch up.

“First you cast something that hurts,” Quatre remarked, “and then you exclude me entirely.”

Trowa cleared his throat, searching quickly for something he could say that would explain the divinations he’d just been doing. It would have to be a lie, since mentioning what he was actually trying to figure out, he feared, would be counterproductive. He fixed on the first thing that came to mind that he might logically be conducting divinations about. “Did you know I’m related to someone you work with?”

Quatre threw him a quick, narrow-eyed glance that seemed first to wonder how this question was related to what he’d said and then to ponder the words. “Catharine?” he guessed.

“That’s right. She believes we’re fourth cousins, but it appears she’s descended from a brother I didn’t know I had.”

Though he’d looked away, Quatre’s lips were pursed and his eyes remained narrowed. Finally he said, “And that’s what you’re thinking about right now?”

Recognizing that he had perhaps made things worse with his choice of topic, Trowa still had no idea what else he could have said. “Yes,” he replied neutrally.

“That’s great. I’m so happy for you. You’re out hiking with your boyfriend to celebrate your birthday — you claim to have been worried about him all day yesterday — and you’re casting spells to figure out who your great-great-great-grand-niece is. Very appropriate. Did you even remember I was here?”

It probably wouldn’t do much good, but Trowa tried what he hoped would be a soothing explanation. “Being in Michigan again suddenly reminded me that Cathy said her family–”

“‘Cathy?'” Quatre broke in bitingly. “Nobody at work calls her that. When were you planning on telling me you’d gotten so close to her behind my back?”

Now Trowa was fighting the urge to mirror his lover’s anger. The normal Quatre would never make an accusation like that, and Trowa should not react the way he would if the normal Quatre had said it. “I’ve talked to her once,” he said tersely, “at your office. We determined we’re related, and she told me to call her Cathy. I don’t see a problem with that.”

As annoyed as Quatre obviously was, it appeared he couldn’t see a problem with that either, for he continued his quick walk in huffy silence.

Further divination was probably not a good idea right now; Quatre would only assume Trowa was continuing to question the universe about Cathy and his relationship with her, and would go on being jealous or whatever he was about it. So Trowa just studied Quatre wordlessly, trying once again to pinpoint what it was that had changed about the energy he was giving off.

It seemed eventually that Quatre felt bad about his part in the preceding conversation, for he tried to open a new one on a lighter note. He still sounded incongruously annoyed as he asked, “Didn’t you say you were born in Michigan?”

Unfortunately, the topic was ill-chosen. The normal Quatre would have kept in consideration the fact that Trowa always avoided talking about his early history, and would not have thrown out a question about it as part of an attempt at improving the atmosphere between them. “Yes,” was all Trowa said.

When Quatre appeared to become aware that this was the only answer he was going to get, he made an annoyed gesture that seemed to say, “Fine. If you don’t want to talk, then neither do I,” and closed his mouth for the entire remainder of the hike.

If Trowa hadn’t already felt unhappy and awkward and concerned, it certainly didn’t help his mood when the trees thinned and then opened out, leaving them on a little rise overlooking the shops and boardwalk preceding a gorgeous golden beach and the great blue expanse of Lake Michigan beyond. Because it had only been a month before that he’d spent a gloriously happy couple of days with a kind and loving Quatre on a different golden beach with a boardwalk and a great blue expanse, and comparing that vacation with today was dismal and disheartening in the extreme.

Quatre set off wordlessly down some steps that had been set into the trail to ease the grade of the descending path, and Trowa reluctantly followed him. He couldn’t quite say this was the worst birthday he’d ever had — the same fixed superlatives as ever still applied — but so far it was certainly close.

Part 9

Trowa’s warning had not been untimely. Heero wondered how he would have reacted to this if he hadn’t been given a heads-up beforehand that he would start hearing Duo’s thoughts sometime soon.

From a sort of buzz at first, almost as if some of his own thoughts were developing too lazily and obscurely for him to understand properly, it had grown into an undeniable awareness of conceptions not his own, silent statements he hadn’t formed. Still they were vague — nothing more than general impressions, really — but they were suffused with the idea of Duo, and that familiar and beloved sense served, to some extent, to smooth over a feeling that was odd and might otherwise have been frightening.

Heero believed himself extremely lucky. What if this had started at work, and it had been the thoughts of half the sales floor he’d begun picking up on? He was silently grateful to Trowa for letting him know this would happen, and grateful to Duo just for being here when it did… even if he wasn’t terribly pleased at what he was hearing blurrily from Duo’s head.

That Heero really had screwed up yesterday was clear. It seemed so simplistically obvious, in retrospect, that he should talk to Duo first about something so personal, but somehow that had not occurred to him. And now Duo was reflecting unhappily about therapy and the manner in which Heero had presented that idea. The specifics of those thoughts Heero still wasn’t getting, but the gist of it was clear, and made him feel guilty and uneasy.

“Anything good?” Duo asked suddenly, under the impression that Heero’s long silence resulted from something other than being suddenly captivated by the awareness of his boyfriend’s thoughts.

He was going to have to tell Duo about this, and soon: you couldn’t neglect to inform someone, especially someone so close, that you could hear any thought he didn’t actively try to hide from you. But it would probably be a lengthy conversation, and, no matter how interesting it was to be able to tap into Duo’s brainwaves, Heero had something crucial and possibly time-sensitive to work on right now. So, “No,” he said, forcing himself to concentrate on the computer in front of him even as Duo’s reflections continued behind him. He opened a new window and tried another search. “No, nothing yet. I’ll tell you when I find something.”

On the potential dangers of destroying artifacts, the internet did have some interesting information. Apparently, as made perfect sense, an artifact’s magical energy was released all at once upon its destruction, which could affect spells and cause general havoc. If the artifact had borne some specific affinity, then some specific and potentially unwanted effect could be triggered as well — for example, the destruction of a fire-related item might set its surroundings aflame. Heero didn’t know how this would apply to an artifact with an affinity with the moon, nor did most of these details seem to help much.

“Have you heard of this artifact power scale?” he asked after a while — partially because he really wanted to know, and partially because Duo’s thoughts were distracting him.

“Yeah, a little. They number them one through five, don’t they?”

“It looks like some of them use numbers, and some of them use names.” Heero scrolled down. “But since there are six names, they don’t line up perfectly with the five numbers. Oh, and here’s a third scale… this one has three named classifications that each have three numbered subcategories.”

“That sounds like magicians,” Duo admitted with a half grin. This led him, fairly naturally, to start thinking about Trowa and Trowa’s lengthy experience as a magician, and wondering what Trowa and Quatre were up to and whether Trowa had made any progress or useful discoveries.

It was painfully obvious that Heero was going to have to learn to deal with intruding thoughts if he was ever to get any work done again. Remembering what Trowa had said, Heero guessed that he might not start hearing the thoughts of people he wasn’t as close to for a while, so this was the perfect chance — perhaps the only chance — to practice. He took a deep breath and firmly directed his endeavors.

At least with these classifications of artifact power, he had terms he could use for more productive searches. However, ‘destroying a level 5 artifact,’ ‘destroying a Roussel-class artifact,’ and ‘destroying a rank 1 major artifact’ all continually gave him the same answer: you wouldn’t. These types of artifacts were rare, extremely powerful, and could make someone practically omnipotent; if anyone had ever been crazy enough to want to give all that up by destroying such an artifact, the effects of that action had not been discussed on the internet.

Of course Heero couldn’t be certain that Trowa’s candlestick had fallen into these most powerful categories, but even bumping his search terms down a notch didn’t give him any good results. People just didn’t destroy these higher-level items — which made sense for anyone lacking the trauma associated with one that Trowa had. On the chance that Trowa’s artifact had actually been more powerful than the generally acknowledged levels, Heero looked into that too… but, while he did find a few references to the rumored existence of uniquely powerful artifacts considerably stronger than even the strongest within the accepted scales, this phrase ‘uniquely powerful’ didn’t seem to be universal enough among magicians to turn up any decent information.

Changing his tactics, he searched for ‘artifact magic condition changed attitude angry insulting,’ and this, finally, appeared to yield some real results. Interestingly, these results only started after Google had given him almost nothing for his entire string of terms and suggested instead the removal of ‘artifact’ from the lineup for a better response. That seemed a fairly crucial word under the circumstances, but Heero’s attention was caught by the first suggestion beneath the amended query.

Duo’s thoughts had evolved from wondering what Trowa and Quatre were doing today to wondering about certain details of their sex life. Though Heero considered this not a terribly unusual train of thought for a man about his friends, it was extremely distracting — not least because Heero happened to know the answer (Quatre was sometimes disturbingly open with him on such topics), and wondered how Duo would react if he just casually provided it out of the blue like a pornographic Sherlock Holmes.

Instead he said, “Hey, listen to this,” and was satisfied with the attention Duo gave him. “Red shades are the angry kind. You’ll know when someone is haunted by a red shade because it seems like they’ve changed overnight from a nice person into a total jerk. Symptoms are different for everyone, since everyone is different when they’re mad, but they often include a bad mood that seems to last forever without getting better, getting angry about nothing, taking out their anger on little things (like kicking the furniture), saying rude or insulting things to people, and just generally being more violent than usual.

“God, shades?” Duo demanded in despair. He’d sat up from where he’d previously been lying on his back staring at the ceiling. “None of us is necrovisual! If Quatre’s haunted, I don’t know what we’ll do about it.”

Heero pointed out, “If Quatre’s haunted, at least that’s something people know about.”

“But it doesn’t quite fit,” protested Duo. “I’ve never heard of somebody who was haunted having that kind of aura Quatre did.”

Continuing to look the page over, Heero shook his head. “No,” he agreed slowly, “it says here that he should have an aura of shade energy if this is what’s happening to him. Though… I’m not sure what… No, here it is: shade energy is emotion combined with death energy. And you said Quatre’s aura felt like pure magic.”

Duo nodded, frowning.

“So this probably isn’t it.” Heero was reluctant to move on from the site, however, and continue his pursuit of Quatre’s symptoms elsewhere; the description of a red shade victim seemed so fitting for Quatre’s current state. So he skimmed down to glance over the other sections of the page, just in case.

Humans can release huge amounts of emotion when they die, but even if the shade is enormous and even if the victim has completely taken it all in, they have to use it up eventually. Everything they do that expresses the shade emotion will let off some of the energy, so eventually it will disappear. But if there’s a lot of it, it can have major negative affects on their life before they manage to get rid of it, so if you don’t want to wait, you may want to consider an exorcism.

Here Heero followed a link leading to a page about exorcism methods. Apparently shade energy could be deliberately absorbed by someone else (who then had to deal with the excess emotion themselves), defeated with willpower channeled through a physical weapon, or ritually banished through some process whose description made it sound so complicated and difficult that Heero didn’t read it all the way through. None of this helped, since these were all things necrovisual people did; as Duo had mentioned, that wasn’t any of Quatre’s friends.

Just the word ‘necrovisual,’ however, was sparking a memory in Heero that, what with the distracting noise of Duo’s thoughts in the way, he couldn’t quite grasp. “Where do I remember hearing someone talk about being necrovisual?”

“Um…” Duo thought for a moment, causing Heero to get a mental visual half an instant before the words, “Dorothy. In the work parking lot.”

“Yeah, that was it. What was it she said she did?”

“I think… didn’t she say something about an exorcist? I think she said she’s only a little necrovisual.”

“But she’s probably enough to look at Quatre and tell us whether he’s haunted.” When Duo enthusiastically agreed, Heero finished with a sigh, “Too bad she’s on vacation this whole coming week.”

“Where?” asked the disappointed Duo.

“She’s doing a caving tour. I think she said she’s starting with something near San Francisco, but she’s going to be all over the place.” Heero turned back to the computer. “Anyway, this site says that for someone who’s haunted there are two options: leave them alone and let them work off the shade energy by themselves, or have the shade exorcised.”

“So it’s good information to have, anyway. If he is haunted, he’ll get better on his own eventually no matter what we do. We can keep trying to figure out what’s wrong with him, but keep our fingers crossed that it really is just a shade that’ll go away after a while.”

“And if it hasn’t gone away and we haven’t found the real answer by the time Dorothy’s back in town, she may have some insight.”

Duo nodded emphatically. Though nothing had really changed, he was clearly relieved at having a slightly better handle on the situation — even if it might be based on totally misplaced expectations. Heero couldn’t say he felt the same — or at least not to quite the same degree — but even with just vague impressions, Duo’s relief was like a little sunlamp whose warmth he could bask in on a small scale.

Therefore it was in a slightly better frame of mind that he turned back to the computer again and continued his research, looking for another possible answer even as he held the first he’d found in a sort of reserve.

Part 10

Many aspects of Duo’s previous human life felt like little more than a dream to him these days. Certainly during the long sleepless years, those memories had been the only type of dream he’d been capable of seeing. Of course his inability to sleep as a doll had often caused him to think about his frequent difficulties sleeping as a human, but for all the time he’d spend ruminating on this topic, he’d never been able to recall that his insomnia before the curse had arisen from any reasonable cause. He just, he’d always figured, had too much energy. He’d certainly never, until now, considered that having a lot on his mind might be part of it.

That he was a very low-stress person he’d never doubted, but it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that, the night before he started his first job in eighty-seven years, simultaneously worried about his potential need for therapy, he’d taken hours to fall asleep and then had the devil of a time staying there. And these were not the only things on his mind; undoubtedly it was more than just his own concerns that had disturbed his rest.

Trowa had called last night to report his lack of progress throughout the time he’d spent with Quatre yesterday. Trowa didn’t use phones much, and calling Heero in particular was very like calling from two rooms away, but apparently he’d been at the end of what face-to-face interaction he could handle for the day. Of course that meant he’d talked to someone not nearly so inclined to offer copious amounts of verbal comfort as Duo would have been, but at least Heero had been able to convey his theory about red shade haunting to Trowa in his own words. Duo hadn’t needed to hear the other half of the conversation to observe that Trowa was dismissive of the idea, which had engendered some coolness; but he’d also thought Heero had taken pains not to get snippy with a friend that had clearly already had a wretched day.

That today would be significantly better Duo doubted. Even if Trowa did manage to figure out what was wrong with his boyfriend, he would still have to convince the unusually grouchy Quatre to submit to the cure — assuming Trowa, in his less powerful and relearning state, was even capable of carrying out that cure immediately or ever. If he didn’t figure out what was wrong, he would simply be waiting, along with Duo and Heero, to see whether or not Quatre could work off the anger on his own. It was nothing pleasant to look forward to.

And yet, in the face of the worrisome unknown, Duo was very little but excited at the coming day’s prospects (though how much of that excitement was purely positive he couldn’t quite calculate).

He’d become so used to largely ignoring Heero’s alarm clock that, despite still feeling draggingly tired when it went off, despite any stress-based lack of proper rest, he was immediately energized by the novelty of having to respond to the repetitive beeping and get up. As Duo rolled out of bed, disarraying the blanket (they needed a bigger bed), Heero turned onto his side and pulled the cover back up over his shoulder and head in an abrupt movement like a villain with an evil cape. Duo chuckled, yawned, and headed for the bathroom.

Heero had showered last night after many hours at the computer, and Duo with him — but not only were mutual showers far less productive (of thorough cleanliness) than the solitary kind, Duo also happened to really like showers, and felt he could use the simultaneously soothing and galvanizing influence right now. So he coiled his braid up and put a cap on it and removed what little he was wearing. He didn’t waste time, though; he was out of the water again before Heero managed to drag himself into the bathroom.

“Happy job day,” Heero said as he reached for his toothbrush.

“Thank you!” Duo replied in great satisfaction. There might be some uneasiness about today lingering in his subconscious, but in general he didn’t feel terribly concerned about starting work. That he had other sources of concern could not render him less happy to be making a new beginning as a human that could earn his own money. Therefore, though still yawning, he was very cheerful as he went into the kitchen to dig up breakfast.

During the months that had passed since the curse was broken, Duo had visited Heero at work several times and been able to introduce himself to several of Heero’s acquaintances there. Between this and all the time he’d spent at the office as a doll, he was familiar enough with the place and many of its employees… but his dearest wish had yet to be fulfilled. So his attitude about the day went from hopeful to ecstatic when, turning a corner of a second-floor hallway of the Winner Plastics Lexington office, he encountered, beside a water-cooler he’d never yet actually seen used by anyone, Wufei.

The latter was busy with his phone, but not only did Duo get the overwhelming impression that he would be more than happy with any interruption that would allow him to show off the device, Duo also did not care whether or not Wufei minded being bothered at the moment.

“Hey!” He moved enthusiastically forward. “You must be Wufei! I’ve seen you a couple of times, but I never got the chance to talk to you!”

As Wufei glanced up from (but did not put away or even lower) his phone, he looked specifically interested. “Likewise,” he said. “And your name is Duo.”

Duo wished he would follow this up with, “Do you want to know how I knew?” — mostly because he longed to hear Wufei say it, but also because he was a little curious about whose conversations Wufei had been listening in on to catch Duo’s name. Unfortunately, not wanting to be late on his first day, he didn’t have time to try to draw out all his favorite Wufei lines. So he said, “I recognized you right away because Heero’s told me so much about you, and I figure you’re the only hot Chinese guy working here.”

He thought he felt a sort of wince behind him, but wasn’t sure whether his boyfriend was bothered most by the flirtation, the implication that Heero had ever referred to Wufei as a ‘hot Chinese guy,’ or merely the suggestion that Heero talked about Wufei any more than was absolutely necessary. Duo hadn’t been able to help himself, though.

Wufei was momentarily silent, and Duo reflected uncharitably that he probably wasn’t used to people walking up and calling him hot. He was hot, though, objectively speaking, even with the huge glasses, so maybe it was less that people never pointed this fact out, and more the happy idea of his good friend Heero having been talking about him so much, that kept him briefly wordless. Whatever the case, he recovered quickly.

“First of all, thank you for the compliment.” He had such a hilarious self-important seriousness to his speech; Duo was so happy to be here. “Secondly, I’m honored to meet you at last.” And he offered a hand.

Duo took this in both of his for a warm and enthusiastic handshake. “I’m starting here today,” he said, not letting go, “so I can’t hang around, but I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.” He wanted to laugh, not only at Wufei’s slightly nonplussed expression, but simply out of joy at this interaction and the fact that he was here at all.

“Yes, I’m sure that will be the case.” Once Wufei’s hand was free, he made rather a show of setting his phone on vibrate before putting it away as he added, “Welcome aboard. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

As they moved on down the hallway, passing the doors onto the sales floor since Heero was escorting Duo to his training destination, Duo fully expected some comment on the fact that the plan for messing with Wufei was already getting started, or on Wufei’s pomposity in offering workplace assistance right in front of someone that was both Duo’s boyfriend and corporate superior. But what Heero actually said, in a low tone, was, “You didn’t sleep well last night, but you seem OK now.”

“Oh, did I wake you up?” Duo wondered in some concern.

“No, it was fine. I’m just glad you’re feeling all right now.”

“Well, I am tired,” admitted Duo. “But, yeah, I’m OK.” With a grin he added, “You have no idea how happy I am to be here.”

Heero smiled. “I can guess.” After a glance around, he squeezed Duo’s hand; apparently that was as far as he was willing to proceed in a hallway at work. “This is the place. When she lets you go for lunch, come find me and I’ll take lunch then too.”

Duo nodded, returned the squeeze of hand, and, releasing Heero, turned toward the door they’d stopped at.

The initial paperwork did turn out to be a little stressful, if only because it involved a lot of information any normal person (anyone that had been human most or all of his life) would know off the top of his head without having to try to remember from when a friend had gathered it for him from various sources and given it to him in a long list to memorize. However, the hiring manager, Joyce, whom Duo had met a couple of times before, was patient and good-natured and never gave Duo any strange looks, even when he had to pull out his new Social Security card (twice) in order to transcribe the number because he kept forgetting part of it.

When that process was finished, he was introduced to training manager Latasia, whose wedding ring and response in kind made her perfect to flirt with, which helped put Duo at his ease. She explained the training process, warned him frankly about how tedious it would be before he reached the stage where he was actually working with a living person, and showed him how to access the videos and modules he needed on the computer with a generic login until his information was in the system. Then she left him with a list of what to watch and what to complete.

He almost couldn’t believe he was already racking up money for this. The idea of earning wages every hour — rather than the daily, weekly, or by-task basis used by every previous job he’d held — had long dazzled him; the idea of earning wages sitting around watching absolutely hilarious pantomimes of potential workplace problems and how to deal with them was nearly incredible.

Of course the real beginning had been back in May on the balcony of the apartment he shared with Heero, and there had been numerous points of progress since then, but still he felt as if this was the first step into a new world. It was definitely an early step toward the autonomy he so deeply craved, and he was so happy with it that he actually had to bend his will toward focusing on what he was supposed to be doing and not just sitting here, possibly in tears, thinking in ecstasy about how he really was a human adult capable of contributing to society and taking care of himself.

He couldn’t wait for lunch, when he could share all of these amazing feelings with Heero.

Part 11

As it turned out, Heero could not hear Duo’s thoughts from all the way down the hall. But he knew the very moment Duo appeared on the sales floor at around 12:30, not only because of the growing psychic perception of Duo’s presence, but from the chaotic sounds that sprang up immediately upon Duo’s entrance.

It was somewhat amusing to note that the people flocking to meet Heero’s boyfriend were the same that had been first in line to stare at Heero’s doll. Those that hadn’t met Duo yet were sure to notice now, as others had one at a time throughout the summer, how much the one resembled the other. In preparation for this, Heero had forced himself to come up with a cover story of sorts at last… but since he hadn’t been inclined to provide any explanation for Duo’s presence on his desk in April, he wasn’t sure how likely he was to feel like explaining the similarity to this newly arrived human in August.

Duo’s progress toward Heero’s cubicle had ground to a halt not far from his destination as he’d picked up followers like a magnet gathering spilled pins. This allowed Heero, thankfully, to listen to the conversation without having to take part in it as he wrapped up what he was working on.

Hearing Duo flirt with half the ladies on the sales floor was not as unsettling as the earlier flirtation with Wufei had been, but Heero had a feeling he needed to accustom himself to observing flirtation from Duo directed at anyone and everyone. At the moment, Duo appeared to have set aside his trauma relating to Hilde’s breasts and busied himself complimenting (of all things) her hair, after which he managed to find some excuse to estimate Carol’s age a good decade lower than it really was. Stephanie received an exaggerated start and the immediate explanation that Duo had been mightily struck with the brilliant coordination of her outfit.

Heero, who’d stood from his chair and was now watching the proceedings over the wall of his cubicle, rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help smiling a little too. The gossipy nature of the sales crowd arose from their being such sociable people, which, in turn, made them better at sales, and he couldn’t really blame them for their interest (though he might have blamed them a bit more if he’d been in the middle of the group rather than observing from the edge). They had a number of questions and comments for Duo, and a lot to say about the nature of this job, and the jovial, disorganized conversation got louder and louder as minutes passed.

But not as loud as the sudden demand from one of the doors, “What the hell is going on in here?”

Heero had so rarely heard that voice raised — particularly in anger — that he didn’t even immediately recognize it. The room went wordless in a quick wave that spread from the doors, which allowed him to hear the next few statements clearly despite their being quieter.

“I hope everyone in here who’s abusing my time clock remembers that performance reviews are coming up.” Quatre was visible now, having quickly penetrated the suddenly uneasy crowd and approached Duo with a scowl. “And you shouldn’t even be in here until you’re in partner training.”

Heero could detect in his boyfriend simultaneous annoyance in response to Quatre’s bellicose tone, fear that he might be in trouble, and pitying concern at this sign of continued irrational anger, but Duo’s struggle not to reply at all lest he say the wrong thing was short-lived. For Quatre turned abruptly from him toward Heero’s cubicle, over whose wall he locked eyes with his best friend even as he snapped out his name.

In addition to startlement at being so suddenly the object of Quatre’s wrath, Heero was conscious of some annoyance at the tone, a little fear that he might be in trouble, and plenty of pitying concern — and the knowledge that he and Duo felt the same added an incongruous note of pleased and amused fascination to his emotional mix. He was glad Quatre couldn’t read his mind.

What Quatre could do was bad enough. “It’s only Monday, and things are already falling apart in here. You’re acting Sales Manager all week; you’re going to have to pull your head out of the sand and take charge for once. Don’t forget your performance review is coming up too.”

He had believed himself adequately braced for Quatre’s behavior, but realized at this moment that he’d only thought so because nothing Quatre had said thus far had stung him. Watching a friend and even a lover hurt by this strange condition certainly hadn’t been pleasant, and had done something to prepare him, but until his best friend of ten years had actually directed a cutting remark specifically at him, he hadn’t been capable of being truly ready. But now he’d been inaugurated into the club of Quatre’s victims, and didn’t know how to respond.

It made no difference; Quatre had already given a frustrated huffing sigh and turned away. “Don’t let me find this kind of circus in here again,” he commanded as he stalked out of the room.

Stunned silence, just such as had hung in Heero’s apartment after Quatre’s departure thence yesterday morning, filled his wake, and nobody moved for several seconds. Even those that hadn’t been part of the chattering crowd around Duo had risen from their desks when Quatre had entered, and they too now stood staring. Many eyebrows were high and many jaws were low. Even Wufei, not the most socially perceptive of all the sales staff, looked surprised. In fact it was he that broke the silence:

“Something cataclysmic appears to have happened to our Regional Manager.”

Everyone started talking at once, and many of them were throwing pensive glances at Duo. Astonishment, confusion, unhappiness, even resentment were voiced in low tones, but though Heero thought everyone was wondering and many starting to speculate, he couldn’t clearly hear any of their theories. Eventually, he knew, they would ask him. And he, still recovering from the smart of Quatre’s words, hadn’t a clue what he would say when they did. That was the explanation he should really have come up with, not some silliness about why his boyfriend so resembled the doll he’d once had on his desk.

He threw a pensive glance of his own around the room, and in so doing happened to catch Catharine Barton’s eye. She gave him a small but deliberate smile, in which Heero found a very unexpected sympathetic understanding. What she knew about the current situation, and how she knew it, he could not guess, but it was clear she was better-informed than the rest of sales. And given that she was one of the least gossipy people on the team, she probably wouldn’t have demanded answers of him in any case, which he appreciated even in hypothesis. He found himself nodding slightly in thanks for her sympathy. Then he shook himself, turned back to his computer, and logged off for lunch.

Since it was still a little early for this activity, nobody followed him and Duo off the floor when they left, but the volume of murmuring increased behind them with every step they took toward the hallway. Without being entirely sure why, Heero had a sudden, overwhelming feeling that he was guilty of something and escaping blame by leaving the sales floor.

“He’s started exaggerating now,” Duo remarked as they made their way toward the breakroom. “You don’t have a problem taking charge.”

“We were about to go on lunch.” Heero knew he didn’t have to defend himself to his boyfriend — Duo was even speaking up for him, which Heero greatly appreciated — but he couldn’t help offering this explanation of his behavior. “I didn’t see any problem with everyone wasting a couple of minutes to get it out of their system.” The truth was that, even if Quatre had been exaggerating, Heero really wasn’t terribly fond of being in charge of the entire sales team. For this reason he was Sales Coordinator rather than Sales Manager, dealing with people’s work more than he dealt with people themselves. But it wasn’t that he couldn’t take charge, or didn’t when he needed to, just that he didn’t like it. Or so he’d always believed.

Duo recognized Heero’s discomfort and, since the breakroom was entirely empty, did not scruple to say loudly, “Well, I think you’re just fine.”

As he made his way toward the fridges, Heero smiled faintly. “Yes, but you’re biased.”

“Quatre should be too,” Duo grumbled. But he was reflecting unhappily on a certain bias-defying objectivity regarding work matters that he’d specifically recognized in Quatre even when Quatre wasn’t magically angry at everything. He was also pouting a bit because he’d been looking forward to sharing with Heero his thoughts on the training thus far and his happiness at being here, and now Quatre had spoiled that.

Heero fully intended to indulge Duo in this desire — indeed, he was passionately looking forward to Duo’s opinion of the sexual harassment video in particular — but there was one more point about Quatre he wanted to raise first. He glanced around to check once again that they were alone as he brought their lunches to the table Duo had chosen. In a low tone as he sat down he said, “Those sites that talked about destroying artifacts said the energy that gets released can damage things around you, including yourself. But if this energy Quatre’s giving off is pure magic from the artifact, why isn’t it affecting anything around him?”

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s like he’s processing it… converting it into a different form or something.” Duo stared thoughtfully at the sandwich he was pulling from a Ziploc. He began turning it over and over, trying to decide which piece of bread he liked better on top. “What happens to shade energy when people get possessed by it? They release it with their emotions or whatever, but what does the actual energy do at that point?”

Since their mutual lack of knowledge meant this was about as far as they could take this topic right now, and since he knew he was going to have to share Duo in about fifteen minutes when this room started to fill, Heero just shook his head. “That’s something to look up later, I guess.”

Duo nodded.

“Now,” Heero added as he extracted his own sandwich from its plastic, “tell me what you’ve been doing all morning.”

Part 12

Trowa had been casting spells on an axe all day, but, though slowly feeling his way back toward the level of divination skill he’d had before, he was almost ready to declare this particular endeavor a lost cause and a waste of time. Just like yesterday’s examination of the broken pieces of the artifact.

He’d been sure the tool would be able to tell him something if he could just get the divinations to work, since the energy must have traveled up the haft from the artifact to get to Quatre. But whether his own limited divination abilities were, as they often had in the past, barring him from getting answers, or whether he was encountering interference produced by the protective spells he’d cast on the axe to keep any potential discharge of energy from harming Quatre on the artifact’s destruction, or whether he was simply on the wrong track and there were no answers to be found here, he didn’t know.

In the face of his total lack of success thus far, his thoughts kept returning to Heero’s suggestion that this might be a necrovisual issue. The very fact that the energy involved was perceptible to the completely non-necrovisual Trowa and Duo seemed to contraindicate this avenue of research, but different branches of magic could coincide to create complicated problems, and Quatre’s symptoms were very similar to those of red shade possession.

Necrovisua was the branch of magic Trowa had least investigated over the years. As a matter of fact, having no skill in it himself and having been aware that the curse he’d laid on Duo did not partake of it, he’d almost completely ignored it. Never having encountered a situation in which he would need necrovisual magic, he hadn’t even added anyone to his list of contacts whose primary talent lay in that area. If Quatre did turn out to have some kind of red shade that somehow resembled artifact energy, Trowa wasn’t entirely sure what he would do about it.

Well, actually, that was incredibly obvious: he would need to email his contacts to find out which of them had necrovisual skill, whether any of them had heard of a condition like this, and whom they would suggest to help remedy it. At least one of these questions, Trowa reflected, was something he should already have emailed them about. He didn’t really believe Heero’s theory, didn’t think this was a necrovisual problem… but it was a theory, which was more than he had. Heero had relayed it on Sunday night. And now it was Tuesday afternoon. Trowa should have set inquiries in motion long before this.

But he hadn’t emailed anyone yet. In his inbox, full as it always was of requests for assistance and magical insight, there were even several messages to which he could easily respond with a casual return request for information on the one branch of magic he wasn’t intimately familiar with. And someone had come to his door just yesterday. He hadn’t answered, but it wasn’t impossible that he could have initiated an inquiry if he had. Why was he so reluctant to contact anyone about this?

Cowardice, probably. Quatre had pointed out with unpleasant accuracy that Trowa was afraid of losing the huge levels of power the artifact had provided him, and Trowa was sure that, now he’d actually suffered this loss, he was afraid to admit even to himself how far he’d fallen. Admitting it to anyone else must be just as bad. But was that all there was to it?

He didn’t enjoy being a celebrity. He didn’t enjoy being bothered by fans and amateurs. He didn’t enjoy the awareness that many people he’d never met knew his name and even where he lived. He was mentioned in books, looked up to as an authority almost ultimate, and often the first resort when people wanted complicated spells they couldn’t cast for themselves… and he’d never enjoyed that.

Or so he’d always believed.

But this was all a result of his known history. The magical community, at least in the U.S. and sometimes beyond, knew he was immortal, knew he was extremely powerful… some of them even knew he’d long been researching curses and looking for a talking doll. That much of this had changed most of them did not know, and Trowa found himself oddly averse to the idea of telling them.

He was no longer immortal or astonishingly powerful. The lengthy period of obsessive pursuit had ended. And though he was still an expert on at least the theory of three branches of magic, still he somehow didn’t like the thought of admitting to a new problem he couldn’t deal with in the fourth. That he, the authority almost ultimate, had encountered something beyond him and was now at the mercy of other magicians a fifth his age with less skill and knowledge than he’d already had sixty years ago.

He’d believed himself almost entirely devoid of pride. Apparently he’d been wrong. It seemed he enjoyed his celebrity more than he’d been aware. And what kind of terrible person did it make him that he was allowing such feelings to keep him from seeking assistance in a matter where someone he loved was being hurt and hurting others?

Probably, to be honest, no more terrible a person than he’d long considered himself. Which meant there really was no point standing around here dwelling on it. Grim-faced, he took the axe back to the shed and headed inside to the computer.

It wasn’t a lot of fun. Whether cowardice or pride was the cause, he found the process of asking for information as unpleasant as the prospect had been, and just to keep his fingers moving on the keyboard he had to hold tenaciously to the awareness of Quatre’s condition. Had to remember phrases like, “Nobody thinks I’d ever get tired of hanging onto all their secrets for them,” and “What are you trying to do, turn me into a doll or something?”

Quatre had come to Trowa’s house, as he often did, after work yesterday, and spent a few hours ranting about the state of Winner Plastics and the breakdown of reason and order among the people there. He’d been trying not to take his anger out on Trowa, and had instead channeled it into this set of complaints about his co-workers; even Heero and Duo had not been exempt, but at least they also hadn’t been present.

Obviously Quatre had been aware of his mood. He’d apologized (for a certain definition of the term) multiple times for his grouchiness, but it was interesting that he hadn’t made any more specific reference to his own state. Evidently he wasn’t aware of the full extent of his mood, how far it was affecting him.

This seemed incredible, that effect being so readily apparent to anyone that knew Quatre, but there was such a thing as denial — a thing Trowa didn’t think Quatre generally given to… but if kindness, a predominant characteristic and integral part of the self, was being repressed or circumvented in a manner impossible to combat, even the most rational person might respond in the only way he could that would give him any feeling of control by subconsciously pretending it wasn’t happening.

Trowa hadn’t wanted to make inquiries to confirm these ideas, and perhaps this was another instance of cowardice keeping him from something he needed to do. But his faith in the value of self-reporting in such a situation was not great enough to make him eager to risk what Quatre might say in response to questions about his mental state. Emails, therefore, were a good option — possibly the best option, if Trowa wanted to admit that to himself. If anyone replied with any definitive answers, he would happily admit it; if not, he might continue to resent the necessity forever.

Part 13

He seemed to have a multi-level awareness of the situation. First, there was a general knowledge of events, not limited to what his senses told him. Second, he could detect Duo’s thoughts and feelings more intensely than he’d yet done. Third, his own emotional state, primarily in response to Duo’s, was sharp and prominent. And beneath that, a state apart from the emotional was much more blurry but still somewhat distracting: he thought that, physically, he was relatively relaxed and comfortable, if a little hot, but this lay distinctly in the background to the sharp panic and misery he absorbed from the atmosphere and from Duo.

These layers of awareness were so chaotic that it took him an unpleasant while to adjust and actually process what he was picking up; so he didn’t know, when things began to clarify, how they’d come to this point.

Duo, a helpless doll, lay at the side of the road, barely able to move and feeling nothing. Absolutely nothing. He even lacked the background physical awareness that kept Heero grounded; reaching for it and not finding it, Heero felt his own panic increase. The complete absence of physical sensation behind Duo’s mentation was a barrier so impenetrable, so blank and black, it was as if Duo wasn’t even alive. Heero’s despair at the idea seemed to blend with Duo’s despair at the condition he was in.

The poor doll waved his arms weakly against the gravel he should have been able to feel. Someone was nearing, and Duo struggled wildly, trying at least to sit up and completely, miserably failing. The approaching figure was a blend of Heero and a guy named Leon, who’d kept Duo for five months before giving him to Goodwill in 2008. Now this individual walked with purpose along the road without looking down, and Duo was trying harder than ever to get his attention.

He flailed his arms and legs, but only managed somehow to flip himself over. The wave of anguish this occasioned choked his already quiet voice as he let out a muffled yell through the gravel. It was no use. The man couldn’t hear him. Duo was sure, at the sound of crunching footsteps receding into silence, that his heart was breaking, and Heero ached along with him.

What was definitely breaking was the gravelly ledge. It crumbled and collapsed; there was nothing to hold onto, and Duo’s fingers wouldn’t separate and his wrists wouldn’t bend. No good; he couldn’t stop his slide; he had no control over his downward movement; he was in the water.

He was unnaturally heavy and not at all buoyant, as he always had been. The water through which he sank should have been wet, but he couldn’t feel it; should have choked him, but he didn’t breathe; should have chilled him, but he had no way of detecting the temperature. What it did was stifle him mentally, blind him and deafen him, steal the last of his senses so he had nothing left. Nothing but the lonely prospect of an eternity here at the bottom of the water in this sensationless prison with not one single remaining freedom. Not even that of death.

Heero believed he was the one to awaken them this time, bucking so hard against Duo’s misery and its causes that he actually jerked himself awake and, sitting up abruptly, roused Duo as well. Duo too, extremely disoriented, scrambled into a sitting position, and Heero’s agitation did nothing to quell his panic. And as Heero gathered Duo into his clinging arms, Duo’s breaths came quick and ragged.

“You don’t have to do that.” Heero’s voice was harsh, and his words didn’t necessarily make any sense. “I won’t let that happen.”

Duo clung in return, sliding closer, crushing the blanket between them. He had nothing coherent to say yet, but he wouldn’t be Duo if he didn’t express himself somehow. The noise he made was rich with emotion — or perhaps that was just what Heero read from him: all the dread and hopelessness from the dream still throbbed inside Duo, but his consciousness of Heero’s comforting presence grew and strengthened.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was.” The mental simulation of sensory deprivation had been appalling, even with the consciousness of Heero’s own senses in the background. It horrified him to think that Duo’s memory of being unable to feel anything was strong enough to suppress his actual senses.

“You were there?”

“Yeah.” Heero was running his hands all over Duo as he’d developed a habit of doing after these dreams, but this time, with the echo of Duo’s wretchedness in his heart, his movements were much more intense. So intense, in fact, that it actually pulled Duo’s thoughts forcibly away from where they’d been pinned and writhing. This was the purpose of the movement, of course, but Heero’s desire to distract his boyfriend was deeper and more complex this time.

“Hey… hey…” Having picked up on the fact that Heero had shared his dream, Duo was also realizing quickly why Heero was more agitated than usual — and all of a sudden, bizarrely, it was Duo offering the comfort. “My poor communicator… I’m sorry you had to see that…”

“I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“But at least I’m used to it.” Duo was still very shaken, but concentrating on Heero’s discomfort was helping him recover. “I had a really long time to get used to that kind of thing, but you’ve never felt that before, have you?”

“Please tell me,” Heero begged, easily as breathless as Duo, “you don’t really want to die.” He knew there was no surface thought to this purpose in Duo’s head, but the despondency of the nightmare had pierced deep… and suicidal thoughts beneath the surface were more worrisome in any case.

“No!” said Duo fiercely, squeezing Heero hard. “Dreams are a totally different– I am so happy– you have no idea how glad I am to be alive.”

Intense wordless relief tightened Heero’s grip as well, and Duo snuggled against him in equal silence for a minute or so.

Heero was actively trying not to listen to Duo’s thoughts, but when he had nothing else to distract him, when his boyfriend’s mental state was his biggest concern, this was borderline impossible. So he’d already seen it coming when Duo said with a reluctant sigh, “You’re right about one thing… I definitely need some therapy. I already would really like this to stop, but if you’re going to be seeing this stuff too, that’s… we can’t be having that.”

Heero wasn’t sure what to say. Duo, he knew, had already come to the conclusion that he did need therapy simply for his own sake, but he was clearly sincere in his desire to spare Heero the unpleasant dreams, and this had prompted him to make the admission aloud. Though touched, Heero was still concerned. And it was evident that, though Duo had said it aloud, he still didn’t want to discuss it. Admitting he needed therapy was one step he’d had to work up to; he wasn’t ready for the next step just yet.

He expected Heero to say something, though — something like, “We’ll have to talk to Trowa about that again,” or even something that amounted to, “I told you so,” even though Heero would never have said such a thing and Duo knew it. And when Heero didn’t come up with anything to say, Duo was simultaneously relieved and amused. He went from uncomfortable thoughts about therapy to lighter ones about how it just figured that the uncommunicative Heero should turn out to be a magical communicator. Duo wasn’t nearly as experienced with the magical community as some other hundred-year-old magicians might be, but in the experience he did have, communicators often turned out to be the people with the highest walls.

It was remarkable how quickly fully-formed thoughts developed. Even in regard to his own reflections Heero had never considered this, but he was struck now with the rapidity of this complete thought of Duo’s that probably contained even greater complexity than what he was capable of picking up at this point — not to mention the instantaneous nature of Duo’s follow-up that, if Heero had started hearing his thoughts, he might not appreciate this latest one.

“I did hear that, but I don’t mind.” Heero ran a hand up Duo’s face and into his hair as he spoke. “I know what I’m like.” Duo wouldn’t see much of his reassuring look, but he could probably hear it in his voice.

“Yeah, but Quatre’s been rude about it lately.” The topic was definitely distracting Duo and helping the negative feelings of the nightmare to fade unusually quickly. As such, this was an even better moment for the conversation Heero had been planning and putting off since Sunday.

“I’m going to need to talk to Trowa about steps I can take to control this, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it until this thing with Quatre is over.” Heero looked at Duo earnestly as Duo nodded his understanding in the bedroom dimness. “Is it going to bother you that I’m hearing your thoughts?”

Duo leaned forward and kissed him, reflecting as he did so that a boyfriend you could simultaneously communicate with and kiss was a convenient thing to have. Of course this was not his only thought. He loved the increase in intimacy the presence of Heero in his head represented, but he didn’t know for sure that he was ready for the lack of privacy, which in some ways smacked of his time as a doll. He was reminded of Heero’s statement from Sunday: he didn’t feel he had anything specifically to keep secret, but there were potential embarrassments he would no longer be able to hide… aspects of himself that might make Heero think the worse of him. Yet to have Heero know him more completely was, overall, very desirable. And in any case, there was absolutely nothing to be done about it, so he might as well make the best of it.

Though not entirely pleased with this set of ideas, nor by the fact that Duo didn’t seem able to articulate them, Heero had to be satisfied with this answer for the moment. He was fairly pleased with the suggestion that arose from his own subconscious at about the same time: that perhaps his mental connection to Duo would allow him to affect or even repress Duo’s nightmares. That was something else he would have to look into.

It also occurred to him suddenly, somewhat irrelevantly, to wonder why he’d been able to sense whatever had happened to Quatre on Friday night when Quatre had been clear across the country. He obviously had a lot to learn about his blossoming abilities, but he felt it must probably be put off until after the current problem was solved.

Raising a hand to clasp the one of Heero’s that was still against his face, Duo pulled back at last into a position that put them eye-to-eye again, though there was still so little light in the room that expressions were difficult to make out. That didn’t much matter, though; Heero could tell Duo wanted to speak but couldn’t quite decide what to say.

Then they both jumped as the alarm went off. In response to this mutual violent start, Duo began laughing, and flung himself forward into a hug that knocked Heero onto his back with a significant tangling of blanket between and around them. Though Heero’s arm went out to try to stop the beeping from the nightstand, his blind flailing in that direction was continually ineffectual as Duo kissed him several times at various points across his head and neck. The wellspring of optimism Duo seemed perpetually able to tap had served its purpose as usual, and Duo was suddenly sanguine again.

Heero couldn’t help being affected by that hope. Perhaps something would have changed today. Four days had passed, after all, and, though nobody had come up with any answers yet, there was still the possibility that Quatre’s anger would work itself out. Maybe when they got to the office they would find him in a significantly better mood. Then Trowa could stop worrying about that and turn his thoughts toward a therapist for Duo and some learning resources for Heero.

The nightmare hadn’t been a pleasant way to start the day, and should probably, Heero reflected as he finally managed to silence the alarm, at least taint if not completely ruin it. But with Duo around — and this wasn’t the first time Heero had noticed this remarkable condition — he was able to be relatively optimistic even in the face of a negative circumstance concerning Duo himself. Things were going to be fine. Or at least, if not fine, things were going to be possible to live through. Heero was certain of that.

Part 14

After increasing his body temperature with jogging and a hot shower, Quatre preferred cold coffee, and after waking up with the same headache he’d taken to bed, he needed it more than ever. Normally Darryl made some in batches large enough for three or four days so Quatre didn’t have to waste time getting it ready before work every morning, but this week, for whatever reason, he’d failed to do so. Now, on Wednesday, forced for the third day in a row to consider where he might stop for a drink that was bound to be oversugared and overpriced, Quatre was nearing the end of his patience with the negligence of his housekeeper. What exactly were they paying him for? As if Quatre hadn’t already been in a bad enough mood.

People in this city drove like idiots. Half of them didn’t seem to care whether they ever got where they were going — probably because they were none too eager to reach their meaningless jobs — and the rest were clearly on some kind of hallucinogenic stimulant. How Quatre had not been killed by one of these lunatics during the near decade he’d been driving around here, he had no idea. And having to make a minor detour on his way to the office in search of the aforementioned inevitably disappointing coffee did not exactly improve matters.

His co-workers were little better on the automotive navigation front. There was no reason for them to be anywhere near the manager spaces, but somehow it took an anomalously long time for Quatre to get parked and out of his car. He made a mental note to check people’s timestamps to see who’d ended up late because they thought it would be hugely fun to circle the lot aimlessly a dozen times before coming inside.

Over the last two days, he’d put off as many phone calls as he possibly could, and now they were all lined up in a neat list that could no longer wait. That his mood hadn’t improved despite everything he’d done irritated him, and that it was now threatening to affect the quality of his work made him downright angry, but it was only fractionally his own fault. Why was it that the very week he was in an unusually bad temper happened to be the same damn week everyone around him decided to act like a frothing moron? He shouldn’t even have to be making half these calls; somebody else should have handled them long before this, assuming they were capable of manipulating the phone and speaking basic English. What exactly were they paying anyone around here for?

This very question was what performance reviews sought to answer. Quatre was personally responsible for reviewing only the Pacific Division Site Directors, but was allowed to sit in on anyone’s review within that division — to some extent even expected to do so for those at a managerial level, at least at the two offices here in town — and could certainly give suggestions beforehand. Coming up with such suggestions would be his reward for finishing these stupid phone calls.

Why should Quatre be forced to remind the advertising department that marketing targeted at manufacturers needed to differ from marketing targeted at the general public? Didn’t they have degrees that should have told them that? And why had this snarl that had arisen in payroll when they’d changed banks made it all the way up to Quatre’s level? A few incisive conversations got it mostly sorted out, and these were conversations somebody else should have been having. Though at least he had something specific he could do during the time he spent on hold.

Performance review suggestions were a mixed reward, however, and as such didn’t really make up for the phone calls. He didn’t like writing so many unpleasant things in a row, but the staff was pushing him into it. And, yes, there was a certain satisfaction — relief, even — to venting some of his annoyance like this, but he hated the fact that people he cared about were forcing him to do things that would make them unhappy.

Even his best friend! Quatre couldn’t believe how noisy the sales team had been the last few days under Heero’s eye! He might have said Dorothy was the only member of sales that hadn’t annoyed him this week, except that her poor vacation timing was what had brought this to light. Whether job performance failings were better openly causing problems and able to be addressed, or latent with the potential to manifest at even more inconvenient moments, he could not decide — and that he could not decide annoyed him as well.

And why couldn’t he think of a singe damn criticism for Wufei Chang? Were they going to have to give that insufferable Neanderthal another raise?

Frustrated, Quatre pushed back from his desk. He had other things to do in any case, and a headache, and right now he needed a bathroom.

On the way, he passed the office of Don, the Site Director, who was talking to Joyce and looked up when Quatre passed the windows on either side of his closed door. Though it was only natural to glance out at whoever was walking by under such circumstances, that glance was also, from what Quatre could see, both a little too lengthy and broken off a little too abruptly. Quatre had long theorized that Don, dissatisfied answering to someone twenty years his junior, had his eye on Quatre’s position, and this paranoid look seemed to confirm that theory. Perhaps his performance review would turn out a little more confrontational than Quatre had expected. He almost looked forward to that.

The department he had to walk through next was always as loud as the sales floor had been lately, but at least that was normal for HR. They had a tendency never to shut any of their doors except at great need, and to carry on shouted conversations up and down the hallway; it was extremely unprofessional and, at the moment, irritating as hell. So was the type of cheerful greeting Human Resources people were always inclined to give. Some of them even expected him to stop and chat — on his way to the bathroom, for god’s sake! Quatre really needed to have one installed adjacent to his own office so as to avoid this rigmarole.

Things were much quieter as he returned, but he did catch the word ‘complaints’ more than once, undoubtedly in reference to him. It made sense that complaints were coming in, but anyone with a brain had only to look around to see the state of the company and that it made just as much sense for Quatre to be cracking down on the laxities around here. Admittedly he might not be doing this as kindly as he would have preferred, but it made equal sense that the stupidity he’d been encountering lately would perpetuate his bad mood.

Three phone calls remained. They hadn’t been grouped with the others, for various reasons, but he’d known they needed to be done. The fact that they hadn’t been on the list had formed a decent excuse to put them off until after the performance reviews… and then the performance reviews hadn’t been nearly as effective at improving his mood as he’d hoped, leaving him still in no proper state for phone calls. But they had to be made, and now was the time.

He should have seen it coming, but things kept taking him by surprise this week… the remaining calls left him so annoyed that he couldn’t see how he was going to compile the report he was supposed to spend the rest of the morning working on. Once again, though, now was the time. This was going straight to his father, and he couldn’t put it off.

His frustration was so great, however, that concentrating on this work was an effort nearly beyond him. He almost wished he hadn’t already collected all the information he needed, so that now he could just send off some authoritative emails and sit back and wait. And he couldn’t take any more Tylenol yet; he’d already significantly exceeded the recommended dose. Not that it was doing much good.

But he could control this. A bad mood, even one this long-lasting, even one accompanied by a headache of this magnitude, was not enough to cow Quatre or keep him from doing his job. It didn’t matter that the inhibition brought about by his frustration was frustrating him even more, almost to the point of tears; he could beat this. He was very good at remaining steadfast in his work, and he hadn’t developed that skill to no purpose. Even if it took him a little longer than it should, even if his language in the report was a bit curt, even if he was completely miserable by the time it was done.

At least he could go see Trowa later. That might not help at all, but looking forward to it was something. He’d been annoying Trowa over the last few days, and probably shouldn’t go see him until he was over this, but he could wrestle with that moral dilemma at 5:00. In any case, Trowa needed to be annoyed sometimes. Trowa was too passive about things; it was aggravating. If Quatre rubbed him the wrong way a bit, perhaps he could be irritated into taking initiative about something — anything — instead of merely reacting, endlessly reacting, to the people around him.

Of course, initiative at this point might serve only to call Quatre on his bad behavior. This thought brought Quatre even closer to tears than any previous, and tears would not make his head feel better, so he pushed it almost violently away. He would think about Trowa later. That could be another dubious reward. Right now he had work to do.

Part 15

Duo was frankly proud of his lunch today, since with his own hands he had mixed the mayonnaise stuff into the tuna and, his very self, put that tuna-and-mayonnaise-stuff on the bread. Of course Heero had closed the sandwich and bagged it up, but what a productive member of the household Duo was becoming!

A few minutes must be spent admiring his handiwork before he could bite into it, and this delay was useful in that it gave Heero time to catch up. Latasia continued to release her trainee for lunch at around 12:45, and Heero couldn’t always get away from the sales floor before 1:00, especially after Quatre had harassed him yesterday about leaving early.

Heero had mentioned sadly that he used to eat lunch with Quatre when the latter was at leisure to do so. There was more than one reason to look forward to Dorothy’s return.

Now Heero joined Duo at the table, and the smile he gave him was wan at first. It warmed, however, as he looked at the sandwich in Duo’s hands. This reminded Duo, as several things had since yesterday morning, that Heero could read his thoughts. His feelings about that were still mixed, but he did try to suppress any active discomfort when Heero was around. Eventually he would be used to it — he was good at getting used to things, and had assimilated circumstances that offered far less consolation than his boyfriend having a window into his head — and until then, there was no reason to make Heero feel bad thinking Duo was intensely or completely unhappy about it.

Partly because he didn’t want to talk about that at the moment, partly because he really did have a comment to make about the other subject that had already been more or less brought up, Duo spoke right through his first bite of lunch. “I think someday I might not like tuna sandwiches.”

“But right now they’re OK?” Heero wondered, grinning. It was, Duo reflected, very considerate of him to ask this aloud even though he’d probably already caught Duo’s full meaning from his thoughts.

“Right now everything’s OK still. It may take a while for that to wear off.”

“Let me know when it does, and then we can start testing to see what you actually like.”

“Actually,” Duo suggested pensively, “I should probably eat all the things people think are totally gross, because now’s the only time I’ll like them.”

“Like escargot and tripe?” Heero was still grinning. “We’ll have to find some place that sells stuff like that.”

On the subject of Heero spending money on him, Duo’s conscience bothered him a lot less these days, especially since he now had a job of his own. Some uncertainty, though, had arisen in relation to that very job, and as it was recalled to his mind by this turn of the conversation, Heero’s expression went from amused to concerned. This time he didn’t wait for Duo to speak before responding to what he’d picked up on: “You’re worrying about job security already?”

“I know it’s stupid…” As Duo took a drink of his Coke, his fleeting consideration that the modern cheapness and accessibility of carbonation was a sign of mankind’s progress toward sublimity brought the smile reluctantly back to Heero’s face, and this derailed everything briefly. “Did that block out the other stuff?” Duo tapped the top of his soda can curiously. “Or do you get it all at once in a big jumble?”

“It’s just what’s on top,” Heero replied. “I haven’t tried to get at anything deeper.”

When Duo reflected that, all potential discomfort aside, there was something vaguely sexual about the way Heero had phrased that, Heero cleared his throat, glanced around at the room that would only be this empty for about two more minutes, and lowered his voice. “So, yes, you thinking about carbonated soda did block out you worrying about your job.”

“Well, then, if I ever want some privacy, I know what to do — just think about food or something.” Duo instantly regretted saying this when Heero frowned, and then he regretted regretting it since he knew Heero would know. This communication magic business really did complicate things — which was the reason he’d specifically avoided talking about it a minute ago and probably shouldn’t have brought it up just now. Quickly he said, “It’s totally fine. Just something we’ll get used to.”

Heero nodded with a faint sigh and deliberately returned to their previous topic. “So you’re worried about the job…”

Duo shrugged. “People are making me a little nervous, but that’s probably something else I just have to get used to.”

“Doing what?”

“They’re all really nice and friendly — I don’t want to say I think anyone’s deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable — but the way everyone talks to me makes me feel like they don’t expect me to last very long here.”

“You have the perfect personality for sales. You’re going to be a natural at this, and I’m sure everybody here can see that.”

“Yeah, but I haven’t been to college like the rest of you human people. Someone could come along any time who’s better qualified for this than me.”

“You’re a human person too, Duo.” Heero lowered his voice even farther as two chatting employees entered the room. Duo thought they were from HR, but freedom from the sales team couldn’t last too much longer. “And, like I said, you’re very qualified for this job, better than a lot of people who do have degrees.” Heero’s face was set in an expression of determination that appeared almost unhappy, and he didn’t let Duo make the protest he’d been planning against the encouraging words. “Besides, how many people here actually know you haven’t been to college?”

It was a good point, but it didn’t change the attitude Duo decidedly felt he’d been picking up from his new co-workers: that of saying goodbye with every conversation, getting to know him quickly while they had the chance.

“That’s strange,” Heero murmured. “I wonder what everyone’s problem is.” He shook his head and went on with unexpected intenseness. “But don’t worry. You’re exactly the kind of person we hire who always does the best job. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

Duo half smiled. “I definitely care what you think more than what they think… but why are you so, um, passionate about this? I mean, thanks for being so reassuring, but…”

“I just don’t like to see you so worried,” Heero admitted. “You’re usually so confident.”

“Well…” Duo leaned forward as the noisy flood of salespeople they’d been expecting now began pouring into the room, but eventually decided not even to make the statement aloud: that this was more than just any old job to him. It was his chance to prove — to himself as much as to the world — that he really was a human person, and someone that nobody needed to carry around anymore. This employment opportunity meant more to him than it probably did to anyone else here, and if he screwed it up–

“You won’t,” Heero insisted, almost harshly.

“But there are these stupid little tests at the end of the training modules,” Duo complained, feeling more comfortable about the possibility of being overheard with this more frivolous branch of the subject. “I’m terrible at them! I suck at tests!”

His demeanor abruptly lightening, Heero actually chuckled a little. “I don’t think anyone ever actually looks at your results from those. They’re just there as proof that you went through the module.”

“Yeah, but…” Duo shrugged again and somewhat reluctantly brought up the last point he was worried about. “Quatre…”

Heero went right back to his previous moroseness. “Quatre,” he repeated with a sigh, and it was obvious he had no specific reassurance to offer in response to the idea that Quatre’s current state might make Duo’s position here more precarious. His expression hardened, though, as he said in a quiet, granite tone, “We won’t let him ruin this for you.”

Though he’d said ‘we,’ there was a strong implication of ‘I.’ In fact, there was about the statement a feeling of ‘I’ll go up against my best friend for your sake’ that made Duo sit up straight in surprise. He didn’t for an instant want to see any conflict between Quatre and Heero, and he fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that — but the willingness Heero thus displayed to take Duo’s part, if necessary, even against someone as important to him as Quatre, was deeply touching.

A vague idea of one way Duo could express his appreciation for this sign of love floated through his head, and, trying not to grin wickedly all of a sudden, he dragged the thought to the forefront of his mind and enhanced the hell out of it just to make sure Heero would see it. He had a pretty decent sensory imagination, if he did say so himself; it came from valuing sensation so much.

He could tell he’d succeeded when Heero’s eyes widened as he too sat up straight in surprise and his face went slightly pink. Evidently he couldn’t think what to say in response. Communication magic might complicate things, but it could potentially be a lot of fun, too.

“I just hope there aren’t any other communicators in this room,” Heero eventually managed in a somewhat choked voice.

Duo laughed and glanced around. “I don’t see anyone leering,” he reassured. “Besides, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve thought stuff like that about you in public.”

The pink deepening to red, “Speaking of things I just have to get used to,” Heero muttered.

Part 16

Before things had changed last Friday night, it used to be that whenever Quatre joined Heero in the breakroom for lunch, they were courteously left alone most of the time. This week, however, with Quatre absent and everyone wanting to chat with newcomer Duo, co-workers had more or less swarmed every day. Since getting to know Duo was secondary to gossiping about Quatre a good half of the time, this made lunch pretty unpleasant for Heero, and he’d decided that, as soon as Dorothy was back and it was no longer as important for him to be consistently accessible, he would suggest to Duo that they start eating elsewhere. What Duo would say to that he wasn’t sure, but he was certainly going to make the proposal.

When Duo had looked around just now, though his purpose had been mainly to tease Heero about his embarrassment regarding sexually explicit communications in such a public setting, he’d caught the attention of more than one member of the sales team, and now it appeared they were going to be mobbed as usual. Heero stifled a sigh.

He was relatively pleased the next moment, however, to see that the first person to approach their table was Catharine. The lunch habits of most of his co-workers were not familiar to Heero, and he didn’t know whether or not she was usually in here, but this was the first time she in particular had ever walked up and asked if the seat beside him was taken. And today he was happy to welcome her to sit down with them, since he believed she would make a perfect subject for a little experiment he wanted to run.

Duo’s surface thoughts came to him like sounds from a speaker: they faded predictably at distance, but otherwise all control over their volume, if there was any, lay on Duo’s side, not Heero’s. Yet there must be a way for Heero to reach out and get more than what passively came to him. Trowa could possibly tell him how, but Trowa wasn’t present… so, because Duo was distinctly concerned about the sales team’s attitudes, Heero was going to try reading some of that.

As yet nothing came to him, even passively, from anyone besides Duo, but he knew it would happen eventually. To attempt speeding the process seemed worth a try in order to get at any answer that might comfort his boyfriend. And unless she’d been hiding her true nature very successfully as long as Heero had known her, Catharine’s head seemed like a friendly place to start.

Well, the actual start was with Duo’s thoughts. Striking out on his own as he was here, Heero had to come up with a technique he guessed would work, and his guess was to concentrate on Duo’s thoughts and then attempt to transfer that focus to Catharine. Of course what Duo was thinking didn’t leave Heero’s awareness at that point… it was like listening for something specific when someone was talking in his other ear, though a comparison to hearing was problematic when his ears were simultaneously picking up real sounds on a physical level.

In any case, it didn’t work. He heard the conversation Catharine had struck up about how Duo liked the training so far, he heard the noise throughout the rest of the room — including a few more co-workers drawing out the chairs at this very table and sitting down — and on another level he ‘heard’ what Duo thought about all of this… but from Catharine, nothing.

Of course he had no idea whether the fault lay in his method or his implementation of it, but he wasn’t going to give up on that method after only a single attempt. Duo, having set aside the concerns he’d mentioned prior to everyone’s entrance, was discussing his experience here so far with enough enthusiasm that Heero was not required to join, especially if the newcomers to the table did so in his place; he could experiment in peace.

This process, regardless of its level of success, interested and engrossed Heero enough that, each time he focused in on Duo’s thoughts, he found he had not been recognizing them clearly until he did so. Such a realization was encouraging, since it meant he’d already grown accustomed to picking up Duo’s brainwaves continually, to the point where he was able to concentrate on other things without being significantly distracted. If he could become acclimatized to that in less than a week, surely he could take the next step in this magic.

The table grew quite noisy as Duo began to imitate the acting in some of the training videos and nearly everyone else roared with laughter. Heero actually wished he could pay attention at this point, but didn’t feel like giving up on his efforts to find the answer to Duo’s concerns.

And suddenly, like abruptly punching through a solid surface, it worked. Heero wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but this was not it.

Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, more thoughts, and yet more thoughts came crashing in on him from every side, as if everyone in the room had abruptly started chattering at once. Again the comparison to hearing was insufficient, since most of the room was chattering already, but the sudden chaos left Heero in no state to come up with a better description.

Well, ‘broken dam’ might be a good one. Catharine’s thoughts that he’d been seeking were undoubtedly in there somewhere, but the babble of mental voices was, for the moment, impossible to sort out. The flood that now washed over him probably consisted mostly of everyday thoughts and nothing that should be at all agitating — but even mundanity, Heero was abruptly learning, could be very overwhelming in such a large and sudden dose.

This had been a bad idea at work. Heero should have foreseen that. He couldn’t backtrack, he didn’t know how to turn it down or push it aside, and he couldn’t make sense of it. The mental feeling of the presence of his co-workers, of everyone in the room, had heightened, especially those in his immediate vicinity, but he couldn’t pick out the thread of any individual’s reflections.

Hoping nobody tried to talk to him for a while, he attempted to relax and just let it all flow around him. He needed to get used to this. He needed, in fact, to get used to this before lunch was over. How had he managed to assimilate Duo’s thoughts over the past few days? Surely he could repeat that process. But that had been a single set of reflections, not this madness. There must be something he could hold onto, though, some stable ground from which he could make an effort at organizing his perceptions.

Physical sensation. It was there, under everything else, just as it had been in Duo’s dream yesterday morning: the feeling of the chair beneath him, the table at his elbow, the air around him. He clung to it almost desperately as his only rescue from drowning. Why had his metaphors gone from aural to liquid all of a sudden? He tried to concentrate on what his body rather than his mind could tell him.

In this way he eventually realized that he was still holding a half-eaten sandwich, which was soft and somewhat moist against his fingers (and, he believed, drooping). He even saw it, to some extent, though what his eyes reported was bizarrely low on the interpretation priority list at the moment. Hopefully nothing was dripping out of the sandwich onto the table, because he didn’t think he could manage to put it down at this point.

The chairs in here weren’t terribly comfortable, for which he had never been more grateful (or… grateful at all, really). Normally he had to shift his weight every couple of minutes, but at the moment he wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d moved. This meant there was some specific discomfort where his ischium pressed against the deceptively solid seat, which made it easier to concentrate on this particular physical sensation and thereby develop a stronger feeling of attachment to his surroundings. This didn’t exactly lead to mental clarity just yet, but his level of hope slowly increased.

Certain concepts were starting to flash more comprehensibly through his head. It was still all a jumble, but at least some parts of that jumble were recognizable as they passed: dinner tonight, that last phone call, weekend drinking, Quatre, nail polish, change for a five, casserole, so tired, wanting a raise, that movie from yesterday, a sick relative, this afternoon’s tasks, a microwave lunch…

Yes, he could do this. The ideas passed too quickly for him to focus on any single one of them yet, but eventually he must be able to pick out what he wanted and ignore the rest. Plenty of people had this same magical talent, and they didn’t all go crazy or walk around in a daze completely unable to concentrate, did they? He could do this. If he could just find something that would allow him to organize his perceptions somewhat… he could deal with loads of information as long as it was categorized properly…

Voices, of course. Well, they weren’t voices at all, actually, but he’d given up trying not to compare this to other things it wasn’t really like. Just as everyone had a distinctive sound when they spoke, they each had a distinctive psychic feeling when they thought — so every thought had the specific feeling of the person from whom it came. If he put each ‘voice’ at the head of a column and paid attention to the ‘sound’ of each thought as it flitted by, he should eventually be able to start dividing them up.

After that it must be only a matter of time before he could assign names to the voices, know whose thoughts he was reading, and hopefully be able to tune out the columns he didn’t need. Eventually he could even cross-index with rows arranged by level of interest and importance, but one thing at a time. Just to make sense of this and get a grip on the world again would be enough at the moment.

Everything she had to do when she got home, and whether or not she was going to have enough time before she had to leave again. The training modules, and the thinker’s imperfect memories thereof that nevertheless matched what Duo was describing. The fact that this casserole was dried out in places, and probably shouldn’t have been kept quite this long. Wondering how old the training videos were and when the company would next update them — that was the same person that had previously been thinking about the modules! How nice it was to be here, human, among all these friendly co-workers, even if they had weird ideas about him — Duo, of course. Undoubtedly he could make something for dinner that would have enough excess to provide him with lunches for a few days — this was the casserole-eater again.

Heero was gripped with an excitement resembling electricity in that it simultaneously galvanized him and kept him frozen exactly in place. His efforts were working! He really could do this! It was like a puzzle game — something where you had to find, through pattern recognition and some trial and error, the one and only way the pieces could be arranged so they all fit — and surprisingly fun, actually.

Someone was thinking about how vibrant Duo was, how that must be a relief for Heero to have around to distract him from this weirdness with Quatre.

A second someone was thinking about Quatre too, and how he’d apparently induced tears in an intern in advertising.

Duo was congratulating himself on how funny his own last remark had been.

A third someone was thinking about how the night classes she’d just started were proving unexpectedly time-consuming and stressful.

Someone else was thinking about his casserole still, and how the recipe really was a good one.

The first someone was thinking about how annoying it was that everyone wanted to gossip about Quatre when it clearly disturbed Quatre’s friends.

The second someone was wondering whether Quatre’s father had heard about the ruckus his son was causing, and what he thought of it if he had.

Duo was startled to note that Heero looked extremely distracted and probably hadn’t at all noticed the funny thing he’d just said.

The third someone was thinking that if this level of homework kept up, she was never going to get any sleep again, and would probably drop dead in her tracks pretty soon.

Someone else was thinking about his new puppy, and the various things he hoped it wasn’t chewing and/or defecating on this very moment.

The first someone was thinking that, as long as it didn’t interfere with work, she, too, would do her best to contribute to any pleasant atmosphere of distraction that would make the day better for Heero and Duo so they wouldn’t have to worry about Quatre so much.

The second someone was thinking that if Quatre got himself fired or transferred or something, Don was going to jump right on that opening.

Duo was thinking that, while it was perfectly normal for Heero to withdraw from conversation when so many people were involved, still he was usually listening, not… not sitting there completely motionless staring off into space like an open-eyed sleeper. He was even holding the remaining third of his sandwich in the air as if about to take a bite, but Duo didn’t remember the last time he’d seen him move. Was he OK? What was going on? Concern quickly escalated. Something had to be done.

Part 17

Heero didn’t resist when Duo guided his hands to put down his sandwich and his body to stand and head away from the table full of now-somewhat-worried co-workers. In fact he barely responded at all. He moved as if sleepwalking, as if completely unaware of what was going on around him; it was like — Duo felt an uncomfortable shiver up his spine as the comparison crossed his mind — it was like controlling a life-sized doll.

That thought, at least, seemed to get Heero’s attention, for he shook his head abruptly and reeled a little as he stepped out of the breakroom. “No,” he whispered. “No, I’m sorry. I’m not…” But he was apparently too deep in thought even to complete his sentence.

In the empty hallway, Duo took him by both shoulders and searched for some trace of here and now in his eyes. “OK, Heero, I’m about ready to start freaking out.”

Again Heero shook his head, and again the motion was jerky, like that of someone trying to keep himself awake. “It’s… quieter out here,” he replied in a tone similar to Duo’s mutter.

“Yes,” Duo agreed interrogatively.

“Don’t freak out. I’m OK. I’m just… hearing everyone’s… thoughts.”

“Oh!” Duo let out a brief, breathless laugh of relief. “Oh, that’s way better than what I was thinking.” Well, technically, he hadn’t had any idea what might be wrong, but this was still way better. Even so… “Are you really OK? Do you need to go home?”

“Yeah, I’m… actually… fine…” For a third time Heero shook his head, but obviously the physical motion did no good diminishing the mental engrossment; his voice was still extremely distant. “This is…” He gave Duo a smile that looked almost more baffled than anything else. “This is kinda… fun…”

“Is it?” Once more Duo laughed. “I mean, I guess I could see that, but it sounds like more of a huge pain in the butt to me.”

“Why is it… quieter…” Heero whispered. It sounded like he was talking to himself.

Duo took a stab at both the full meaning of Heero’s unfinished question and the answer to it. “How you think of things makes a big difference in magic. If you see the wall as a wall, it’s going to act like a wall even if it doesn’t technically have to. You’ll probably have to specifically try if you want to hear people through walls.”

Heero stared at him — though it felt more like he was staring through him — and seemed to take a very long time to process the information. And he couldn’t be blamed for that, since he was probably processing a lot of information in there at the moment. By himself in there but never alone again, trying to deal with a crowd he couldn’t escape.

And all of a sudden Duo was unhappy about this, to a degree he would not have expected. Heero had helped him out of a magical dilemma, and now here Duo was completely unable to return that help when Heero needed support. Not only that, but the curse-breaking month had established a standard of closeness between them that, even if they no longer kept within five feet of each other twenty-four hours a day, had diminished very little during the subsequent months — and yet here was something they could not share, no matter how physically close they were. Heero was shouldering a burden Duo could not assist him in carrying, and simultaneously enjoying some kind of entertainment in which Duo could not partake.

Heero took a deep breath. “It’s like… hearing…” With a slight grimace he amended that statement. “No, it’s not. I keep thinking it is… and then telling myself it’s not… but I guess that’s… the best way to describe it. Like hearing everyone talking at once from everywhere.” His sentences grew more coherent as he concentrated on delivering them. “And since they’re all talking out loud at the same time, they’re all saying two things at the same time. But the thoughts are a lot quicker than what they say out loud. It was extremely overwhelming at first, but it’s a little better out here. I was starting to make some sense of things in there, but I think it’s easier out here. It’ll make it easier to deal with everyone at once again afterwhile.”

With a jolt Duo realized what Heero was doing: he had recognized Duo’s feelings about this situation, and he was trying to share. He was trying to describe what this was like for him so Duo would be able to understand and perhaps offer the support he longed to give. Right in the middle of whatever staggeringly disruptive chaos he was dealing with in his poor head without any prior training, Heero was thinking of Duo and trying to keep him happy. If Duo let him, he would undoubtedly get around to explaining what was fun about this process as well, so Duo could share that too.

Duo flung his arms around Heero and squeezed, knocking him backward into the wall and, as it was more convenient, keeping him there. “I still don’t know what I did to deserve you,” he declared. “Don’t even worry about me. Don’t worry about anything but whatever you have to do to figure out how to deal with this, OK? I’m absolutely fine. I’m better than fine. You are the nicest guy in the world.” He meant it, too. Perhaps he couldn’t help the feelings that had flared up a moment ago, and perhaps they hadn’t entirely died down, but they were overshadowed by his refreshed awareness of what a wonderful person Heero was.

Though he still looked mightily distracted, Heero also appeared somewhat relieved. He smiled faintly and, to Duo’s great surprise, brought that faint smile up for a brief kiss. Naturally that would be the moment when someone exited the breakroom and hastened past them with a smothered giggle, forcing Heero to withdraw with a pink face at whatever that someone had been thinking about them… but still it had been a very pleasant moment.

“Can you stay out here with me?” Heero asked. “I’m so distracted.”

“No kidding,” Duo grinned. He didn’t know whether Heero had made the request because he really felt the need of Duo’s presence or because he was inventing a way for Duo to assist, and he didn’t care. “Of course I’ll stay here and guard you. Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” And, releasing his boyfriend somewhat reluctantly, he shifted into a position that would embarrass Heero less when people walked by — still near, but not in quite so blatantly unprofessional an attitude.

Eventually only a few minutes remained to them for lunch, and most of those minutes must be spent cleaning up what they’d left behind in the breakroom and providing the co-workers there an explanation of some sort for why they’d departed so abruptly and why Heero was undoubtedly going to seem so distracted for the rest of the day. Assuming Heero was up to the rest of the day.

When Duo’s thoughts wandered in this direction, Heero murmured, “I should be fine. Tell them…” He made a helpless noise. “I don’t know.”

“You never have been any good at coming up with excuses around here. I’ll think of something. If you’re sure you’re OK, that is.” Even teasing couldn’t quite keep the anxiety from Duo’s voice or from his thoughts. “If you want to leave, I can drive…”

Heero shook his head. “Thanks. I really am OK.”

“Can you get back to your desk?”

Now Heero smiled at him. “I think I can, but I wouldn’t say no to you walking me there.”

Once this had been accomplished and Duo had wrenched himself from the distracted Heero’s side, he pondered hard and fast to come up with something to tell the sales team. He felt he rose to the occasion admirably with the story that, just before everyone else had entered the breakroom, Heero had received a call with some family news, not necessarily bad but very surprising, that had so engrossed him he was likely to take a while to recover. Then Duo headed back to his training, which he knew would probably be extremely difficult to concentrate on for the rest of the afternoon.

This prediction was borne out in the painfully slow approach of 5:00, but eventually Duo found himself, somehow not having exploded from impatience, free to go home for the evening. He practically ran down the hall to the sales floor, and essentially barged his way through the exiting crowd to find Heero.

The latter seemed, even at just a glance, to be coping better than he had when Duo left him earlier, and Duo breathed a sigh of relief in response to the much greater awareness of surroundings evident in the smile Heero offered. Given that Heero was standing and had already logged off his computer, he must be ready to go, but Duo waited for the greater portion of the sales team to vacate the floor before he thought about actually leaving. Heero still looked distracted, so Duo first helped him into the jacket he’d draped over his chair, then seized Heero’s briefcase in one hand and arm in the other. Then he guided him out of the room and, assuming the elevators would be the busier of the two options, toward the stairs.

In the parking lot, Heero remarked, “It’s much better out here… but can you drive?”

“Yep.” Duo could also open the passenger side door for Heero and close it behind him. He didn’t know yet what Heero found entertaining about the communication magic process, but for himself, he had to admit, the novelty of escorting Heero around like this — offering an arm, carrying his things, opening doors, rather like the old-school gentleman Duo could conceivably have become had things been different last century — was kinda fun. He might have to try it again sometime.

Heero’s silence continued for a few minutes as they headed for home, and then, finally, he sighed softly.

“All quiet now?” Duo wondered.

Heero allowed, “Quiet enough. It’ll probably never be ‘all quiet’ again, but…” He shrugged. “At least now I think I can manage telling you what I found out today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“That feeling you’ve been getting from half of sales — that they don’t think you’re going to last long? — it’s because they all think Quatre and I just had a messy breakup and then I brought my new boyfriend to work right under his nose.”

“What?” More intensely Duo repeated, “What? Are you serious? Do they seriously think that?”

“A lot of them, yeah.”

“But…” Duo had no idea what to say. How could people that knew Heero believe he would be such a jerk? Sure, it would explain Quatre’s behavior pretty well, and actually it was… kinda funny… maybe actually really funny… and a bit of a relief, since if that was what everyone was worried about in relation to Duo’s job security, it meant he had a lot less to worry about himself… but Heero would never…! Heero wasn’t…! OK, well, Heero wasn’t very open about his true self with most of sales… but still! His kindness wasn’t buried that deep!

In fact…


The clearing of throat from the passenger seat was all Duo needed; he didn’t even have to voice his question out loud.

“Heero!” Duo made a noise equal parts adoring and remonstrative, and pulled abruptly onto the shoulder and parked the car. He turned to his boyfriend with a face that probably didn’t express his baffled mixture of gratitude and indignance nearly as well as his thoughts would. “You did it on purpose, didn’t you? You let everybody into your head and gave yourself a huge problem for half the day and for who knows how long just so you could figure out what everyone was thinking about me, didn’t you? You did this for me, didn’t you?!”

“If I’d known what it would be like, I might not have,” Heero pled. Which meant he still might have.

Reaching out and seizing Heero’s tie, Duo yanked him mercilessly across the space between the two seats and into a crushing, seatbelt-straining kiss. He didn’t have words for how he felt right now, and he wasn’t sure it was even terribly clear in his thoughts, but when he eventually released his lover he did make some attempt: “You just wait ’til I get you home, Heero Yuy.”

He remembered making a similar ‘threat’ right after Heero had first said he loved him. A sort of repetition of that was perfectly appropriate now, he believed, since, though entirely different on the surface, underneath the circumstances were practically identical.

Part 18

Not for the first time, Trowa had a distinct feeling of deja vu as what he did today in pursuit of answers about Quatre’s condition echoed poignantly what he’d done decades ago in pursuit of answers about Duo’s. The room’s furnishings had mostly changed, as had the room itself — in fact it was a different house in a different state — but the books were the same, and thus far had provided the same amount of useful information as they had the last time he’d read them.

Seifert was about as close to a friend as anyone during the long years had become — which wasn’t to say Trowa would have referred to him as anything more than ‘an associate,’ but he had, at least, informed Seifert when the curse had broken, and received cordial congratulations in return. Thus the perusal of Seifert’s collection of books and documents concerning magic was the least uncomfortable of all Trowa’s available options. He would move on to the more uncomfortable if he had to, but he was starting where he could work his way up.

Though he’d maintained a sparse but unbroken correspondence with first Seifert’s father and then Seifert himself — letters succeeded eventually by emails, almost exclusively about magic — it had been sixty years since he’d actually visited and read the texts. The first instance had been at the offer of Seifert senior, he having just fled Germany with his wife and young son and thinking that, in the post-war atmosphere, having an ally like Trowa might be extremely useful. This second instance was Trowa’s request, to which Seifert junior had been happy to accede.

That the experience was so distinctly different did not lessen the deja vu. He approached the information presented in a completely different way — because he knew so much more these days and had a greater context to fit it into; because the problem he was trying to solve was so different from the previous, and might even have to do with a practically alien (to Trowa) branch of magic; because he also saw it now from the perspective of someone looking to write a comprehensive guide to magic, even if that was really the last thing he should be thinking about at the moment — but it was the same information he’d searched for answers so long ago. His frame of mind was not identical to what it had been then, but there were still a number of negative emotions and a driving need to find the truth and the potential solution. And it remained just as frustrating that half of this stuff was in German.

Though in his present frame of mind it could not engross, what he was able to read could certainly interest. Despite the worrisome nature of the situation with Quatre, and somewhat to Trowa’s chagrin, that proposed book of his hovered frequently right at the edge of his consciousness, and he often found himself considering how to word certain concepts he encountered for an audience less thoroughly familiar with them. Some shame did arise as he considered that his scholar’s brain seemed to find this equal in import to the Quatre issue, but as it didn’t prevent him in any way from continuing to seek answers, he didn’t waste much effort trying to break out of that frame of mind.

Seifert’s ancestors had mostly been diviners, though the talent had been watered down over the generations to the point where Seifert himself was even less skilled in that branch of magic than Trowa was. Hazy memories of records primarily on the subject of divination were borne out now in Seifert’s collection, but the fact that the Trowa of 1947, looking for information that might be pertinent to a command-based curse, would probably have ignored any necrovisual references or any description of symptoms that had no bearing on Duo’s condition gave him hope that there might still be something here he could use. But this was his second day in Seifert’s compact little study, and he was reaching the end of the material for which he didn’t require Seifert’s services as translator, and he’d yet to find anything even remotely related to what he was looking for.

At home, things were equally uncertain. He’d known perfectly well that, given the type of people he interacted with and the types of questions he’d been asking, he shouldn’t expect a load of quick replies to the emails he’d sent a few days ago… but he’d been expectant nonetheless, and therefore had been bitterly disappointed at the lack of results. Well, that was a misnomer; he’d actually received fairly prompt responses from some of his contacts saying that they would look into it for him, and for this he should be grateful. But nobody had provided him with any actual information yet, and from the person in whose knowledge and necrovisual experience he had the most faith he’d heard nothing at all. Which meant his own research and experimentation must continue.

Some of this divination information in Seifert’s collection might prove useful in the long run, since it approached a branch of magic at which he wasn’t very skilled from an interesting perspective. The long run concerned him very little right now, but he did feel that it might be a good idea to pay Seifert another visit at a later date when he was less agitated and better able to take notes on some of this for his own project. It might be worthwhile, actually, to volunteer to type all of this up for Seifert — all of it that Trowa could read on his own, that is — since Seifert had never gotten around to that task in all these years but would undoubtedly appreciate its being done. At the moment, Trowa employed a method of reading not much better than skimming — paying just enough attention to the old print and handwriting to be sure he wouldn’t miss anything that might be relevant, but not properly absorbing what he read when it wasn’t.

He heard the door open behind him, and, dragging his eyes from the sheaf of papers on the desk, looked around to see a little boy hanging from the handle and peering curiously at him.

“Opa wants to know do you need him yet,” the child announced when Trowa met his gaze.

Trowa was reminded not so much of Seifert, much as this grandson resembled him, as of a niece of Quatre’s he’d recently been introduced to: there was a similar air of seemingly contradictory blended hesitance and confidence. The niece, Emma, had initially shied from approaching him with a question she wanted answered, but had dropped the reluctance entirely at some cue or realization Trowa hadn’t even recognized, and dove into conversation with the typical Winner resolution.

It was not an unpleasant memory, but it was also not one he enjoyed having recalled at the moment. He couldn’t imagine how Quatre had been treating his family all week — or, rather, based on Quatre’s complaints about them, didn’t like to imagine — and hoped fervently that none of the relatives that didn’t live in the huge Winner house had visited since the destruction of the artifact. It would be bad enough if Quatre’s mood put a strain only on his relationship with those that were around.

And speaking of relatives visiting, Trowa reflected, it was very kind of Seifert to have so readily allowed him to come while some of his progeny were in the house. He did his best to give the boy at the door a friendly smile. “You can tell him fifteen minutes,” he said.

“OK,” replied the grandson, but did not immediately depart. He was staring at Trowa with calculating eyes. Finally he asked, “How can you see?”

“What do you mean?” Trowa had never been entirely comfortable around children.

“Because your hair is over your eyes all the time,” the boy explained. “Or one eye or the other eye. How can you see things?”

“Oh.” Trowa was so used to his haircut that he barely noticed it anymore, and had long ago adjusted to any obstruction of vision it might present. “My eyes used to be very strange. I had my hair cut like this so that sometimes, when I was turned a certain direction, other people wouldn’t be able to see them.”

“You could just wear glasses,” said the child critically. “I mean black glasses like my mom has.”

“I did that sometimes too,” Trowa nodded.

“OK,” the boy said, as if satisfied — though Trowa realized that his original question hadn’t, strictly speaking, been answered. And without further goodbye the child disappeared, pulling the door mostly closed behind him. Whether he would remember what he was supposed to be telling his grandfather remained to be seen.

In fact Seifert did appear after not too long, poking his crooked nose around the door to see what Trowa was up to. Trowa only noticed because he happened to be between documents at that moment. Setting aside the one he’d just finished, he reached out and put a hand on the stack he’d been accumulating of things he couldn’t read. “Apparently your ancestors didn’t see the benefit of writing magical records in language magicians would understand.”

“German pride, I’m afraid.” Seifert’s surprisingly gentle eyes crinkled with a smile as he crossed the compact room to stand beside the desk.

Trowa sighed. Distant unpleasant memories of his own father’s particular brand of German pride a hundred years ago had long kept him from studying the language as he might otherwise have done. But he did allow, “Not everyone has the talent to write in the magical language. And any relevant information will be just as useful even if it is in German.”

Seifert pulled up the extra chair he’d brought into the room yesterday when he’d been getting Trowa started in here. Even before he was fully settled, his eyes had begun roving over Trowa’s features just as they’d done every time he’d been in the room since then. But when he met Trowa’s gaze, he seemed to shake himself, and, breaking away, reached for the stack on the desk. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m still not used to your new look. It’s a little startling to see you like this.”

“Just think what mirrors do to me,” Trowa replied.

Seifert chuckled. “Remember that I first met you when I was five, though. A dramatic look like yours was makes an impression on a little boy! You’ve always been a sort of mystical, heroic figure to me.”

Again Trowa sighed. Seifert may have been one of a very few people that had seen his ‘new look,’ but he was one of many people that viewed Trowa as a mystical, heroic figure. It was embarrassing, and worsened by the fact that this regard the magical community had for him should make it easy for him to request information of them. Yet he’d been so cryptic with everyone about his current problem…

Seifert put a comforting hand on Trowa’s shoulder. “I won’t ask for any more details than you’ve already given,” he said kindly. “I am sorry to see that you’re trying to deal with something like this so soon after your curse… as if you were destined to be always dealing with magical problems. Just don’t forget that you are a bit of a hero to many of us, so you’re not alone. Or at least,” he added with a wry smile, “you don’t have to be.”

Trowa was frowning. From someone close to him, this simple advice might not have penetrated, but from someone removed from the situation, it somehow struck home. Right in the middle of his studies, with only a few brief statements, Seifert had suddenly given him a lot to think about — the types of information he did and didn’t naturally volunteer to someone that might have been a friend; the way he viewed and interacted with people that admired and could potentially help him; the possibility that he might be doomed with magical bad luck — and this was a lot to think about that he didn’t have time to think about.

Of course, if he was, as Seifert suggested, destined to deal with magical problems on a regular basis throughout his life, putting off thinking about this kind of thing until such-and-such was over might lock him in a miserable stasis as long as he lived. The only thing he could be sure of at this very moment was that, no matter what time he did or didn’t spend thinking about things later, right now he had something specific to concentrate on.

Seifert seemed to read this in Trowa’s demeanor, for he smiled again and lifted the top item off the pile. “Well, let me translate for you,” he said, “and see if any of this helps.”

Part 19

The final day of Heero’s fairly miserable week as acting Sales Manager was halfway over, but unfortunately the need to remain accessible to the sales team up until the very moment Dorothy was in the building again remained — which meant that Heero must still eat lunch in the breakroom. After yesterday this was particularly chaotic, and he could really have done with a proper break from the sales team during that hour… but his sense of responsibility wouldn’t allow it. And, thanks to the latest angry edict from Quatre, he hadn’t even been able to get away from the sales floor a little early today so as to have some alone time with Duo before the rest of the team appeared. Not that alone time with Duo was something he lacked outside of work, but right now he was itching for a specific conversation in private that was agitating to have to put off.

Of course everyone else was already discussing exactly what he wanted to talk about. Quatre had paid an angry visit to the sales floor not an hour earlier with an actual written list of supposed problems he wanted to address — most of them minor issues that he normally never would have bothered about — and given Heero an incredibly hard time about anything and everything, much of it quite petty and all of it far too audible to everyone in the room.

This had only confirmed, in the minds of those already suspicious, the theory that Quatre’s current behavior arose from pain and anger over his breakup with Heero; many of those that had heard the theory but hadn’t been quite convinced were now leaning further in that direction. Of course that aspect of Quatre’s visit was not something they could discuss aloud in front of Heero and Duo except by means of oblique references and significant gestures they assumed would not be understood… but now Heero could hear their thoughts.

In between what else he’d been busy with, Duo had spent yesterday evening alternating between rather extreme amusement at the idea that Heero had dumped Quatre for him and indignation that the sales team would believe Heero could possibly behave so callously. Heero could see why Duo might find it funny, but definitely didn’t feel that way himself, so he didn’t really want to discuss that matter if he didn’t have to. He had a slightly more general topic in mind.

Another weekend approached over which Quatre was probably going to harass his family and torment Trowa even further than he already had. Presumably it was possible that Quatre might come torment Heero and Duo too, but not very likely: Quatre hadn’t been to Heero’s apartment once since Sunday, nor called or emailed him on a personal basis all week. But apparently he’d still been making his regular visits to Trowa on the east coast, and rendering Trowa more and more unhappy with each passing day. Trowa was, as far as Heero could tell, devoting all his time and energy to finding an answer and a cure, just as he had with Duo’s curse for so many years. Heero understood, in fact, that he’d actually bought a plane ticket out to the home of an acquaintance in Montana to look at some magical books for a couple of days. It was a sad thought that Quatre would be making Trowa’s weekend even worse than it was already destined to be.

Inactivity galled. Seven days was surely long enough for this experiment; Heero couldn’t imagine letting it go any further essentially doing nothing like this. Not that there was a lot besides nothing he could do when he still wouldn’t be able to consult Dorothy until Monday and his internet search back when this all started had been fairly exhaustive without producing many definitive suggestions — but there was one option he had seen mentioned online that he hadn’t explored at all yet, and this he thought should be looked into the very moment they got home. Hell, he would look into it here at work if there weren’t the danger of Quatre wandering in at any moment and catching him wasting company time and resources. Heero was salaried, but somehow felt that Quatre in his present condition would not consider this a legitimate excuse for personal internet browsing at the office.

And everyone’s thoughts were so overwhelming! Heero hadn’t been able to decide yet whether the benefit of having soothed (or at least redirected) Duo’s fears outweighed the inconvenience of having all these ideas in his head all the time competing with his own thoughts, of being still so extremely distracted. There were only a handful of people in the breakroom for whom ‘loud projection of anything to cross the mind’ didn’t seem to be the default state, but their lack of contribution to the mental din helped very little. In fact, though Heero supposed he really should appreciate them, he barely noticed them. Silence was difficult to hear in the midst of noise.

Duo sympathized — every time he looked at Heero across the table, he gave him an encouraging smile — but there was nothing he could do. Heero knew that bothered him, but there was nothing to be done about that either. And what Heero really wanted at the moment was to consult with Duo on Quatre’s continued anger and whether it was time for a next step. He could potentially pull him out of the breakroom and talk in the hall, as they’d done yesterday, but he shrank from enhancing the idea, which Duo had put about at that time, that he was engrossed in some kind of family emergency. It would have been a decent excuse at any other point, but now more than half of the gossips on the sales team believed it to have been a lie designed to cover up some blacker aspect of the business with Quatre. He really didn’t want to heap any more fuel on that fire.

As it turned out, Heero did not get the chance for any private conversation with his boyfriend until they left for home after (on Heero’s part) aggravating hours of trying to keep his own reflections, anxious and impatient, disentangled from everyone else’s. Duo was still the designated driver, since Heero didn’t know when he might be hit with a passing thought so distracting he couldn’t pay proper attention to road safety, but this was a duty Duo had accepted gladly.

“I think,” said Heero as soon as they were off toward home, “we’ve waited long enough for Quatre to get over this on his own. What do you think?”

Duo frowned, and Heero could hear the agreement in his head before he nodded. “I wasn’t there for today’s tantrum, but it sure sounds like he’s getting worse instead of better.”

“I wouldn’t say he’s getting worse,” Heero remarked pensively. “I think he’s just… hit his stride. Figured out how to make the most efficient use of the anger.”

“Yeah, that’s Quatre.” From the glumness of this acknowledgment Duo cheered slightly to add, “But that might mean he’ll be using it up faster from now on.”

“Do you think we should keep waiting, then?”

“What else can we do? Trowa hasn’t figured anything out yet, has he?”

Heero had to admit — to himself, not aloud — that he was faintly irritated by the implication that Trowa was the only person capable of doing anything in this situation. But he didn’t let it sound in his voice. “I was thinking we could try to get in touch with an exorcist. If this turns out to be something obvious and simple that someone can fix really easily, we’re all going to feel stupid.”

“I doubt that’ll be the case,” Duo said with a slight laugh. “If it’s not something Trowa’s ever heard of, it’s probably not something simple and obvious. But you may be right about finding an exorcist… None of us is necrovisual, so it’s probably about time to find out for sure whether this is a necrovisual thing or not.”

“I just don’t want to leave Quatre for another weekend like this if there’s anything we can try. We probably won’t see him, but I’m sure he’s going to go bother Trowa.”

It was probably for the best that Heero hadn’t aired his annoyance a moment before, as he could detect now that Duo was pleased with his specific consideration for Trowa. Duo had been watching the interaction between them, somewhat concerned that it was turning into a sort of rivalry centered around Quatre, and had been wondering what to do about it; this apparent improvement was relieving, whereas, if Heero had resentfully pointed out that Trowa was not the only person with magic around here, Duo would undoubtedly have continued worrying.

“OK,” said Duo with decision. “So what do we try?”

“As soon as we get home, let’s see what we can find online. Exorcists probably have websites…”

“If they’re with the century. Hey, by the way…” Duo paused as it occurred to him that this wasn’t, most likely, the best moment to bring this up. Realizing he might as well say it aloud — since, in having started to bring it up, he’d probably already projected the thought at Heero — he shrugged slightly and continued. “When this is over and Quatre’s OK, do you mind having a party?”

Heero could tell that Duo believed he already had a huge number of things to celebrate, and would have another when Quatre was cured, not to mention a lot of new friends he would love to hang out with in a more casual setting than work. Duo actually felt a little sad that he’d never had a large-scale celebration of the breaking of the curse, and astonished that he’d been living in a steady home as a human for nearly five months without throwing a single party. Now that he had his own job, the only remaining reason to wait was Quatre’s condition.

Parties were definitely not Heero’s thing. They were, in fact, so far from being his thing that he could imagine few recreational pastimes he enjoyed less… and being unable to escape the deluge of thoughts that existed in a room full of people was not likely to improve that. But he’d been bracing himself for the parties to start ever since the curse had broken — and he, too, felt some astonishment for the same reason Duo did. It hadn’t required awakened communicative magic to pick up on Duo’s interest in that particular activity. He was ready for this. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Whenever you want.”

Duo was extremely pleased at this easy acquiescence and excited at the prospect of the as-yet-completely-hypothetical party, and considered these emotions perhaps not entirely appropriate at the moment. He also knew Heero would see the excitement and pleasure anyway, but still thought it good form not to show them. From the demonstrative Duo, this was an admirable sign of sympathy and thoughtfulness, and Heero loved him for it.

At home, so focused on his goal that he didn’t bother changing clothes, Heero only tossed his jacket and briefcase down onto the couch before heading into the computer room. He might have put on something more casual after all, given that his computer was taking longer and longer these days to boot up — he needed to look into this at some point, especially now that two people were using it on a regular basis — but he was distracted and engaged by Duo, who had apparently really liked the motion by which he’d removed and discarded his jacket.

Suddenly against the wall between the open computer room door and the desk, being kissed and groped, Heero raised no complaint despite how interested he was in the evening’s task. Duo still loved to explore Heero’s body and revel in the ability to feel, even after all this time, and Heero was more than happy to indulge him in this — at least while the computer took its slow eon turning on. Or perhaps a little longer than that.

But then Heero caught two startling things at once: an unexpected smell, and Duo’s awareness of it. Actually Duo recognized it, assigned a name to what his nose was telling him, a split second before Heero did, but they pulled apart and looked around at the same moment. Nothing immediately visible in this room offered any explanation, so they stepped out into the hall.

Heero put his head through the bedroom door, but had barely started a quick visual scan before he heard the answer in the head of his boyfriend, who had gone into the living room and simultaneously called out. Heero hurried in that direction, and stopped beside the couch to join Duo looking at the haze of smoke coming through the cracks around Trowa’s door.

Part 20

“Crap,” Duo said. How much smoke was required for it to be making its way out around the front door like this? How much fire did it take for there to be that much smoke? Roiling darkness blurred the view through the little half circle of windows, but he thought he could make out flickers of orange light in Trowa’s living room. Where his hands were pressed against the door as he peered through, the wood was warm. The knob was more so — not yet painful to grasp, but definitely indicative of greater heat beyond — and wouldn’t turn.

Without even having to look around or say anything aloud, he found Heero pressing the key into his hand. The idea of rushing into a building that was pretty clearly on fire perhaps lacked sense, but there was no way Duo would just stand here without trying to find out what was going on and making sure Trowa was all right.

A much larger volume of smoke gushed past the door as it opened, right into Duo’s face, and he exclaimed as it burned his eyes and choked him. Through a haze of sudden tears, a single glance showed him visible flames where he’d thought he detected them before, and the hot air wrapped him in an aggressive grip. Behind him, something in the apartment began beeping a noisy alarm, and Heero had left his side.

Wiping his vision relatively clear again, Duo advanced into the heat of the entryway and dropped to a crouch to get his head out of the worst of the murk. “Trowa!” he bellowed. “Trowa!” There was no sign of his friend, but he could see little in any direction. The door to his right, into the study, was closed; to his left, though he could make out the shapes of Trowa’s venerable walnut desk and the computer chair that didn’t even begin to match it, they and the rest of the furniture were all in various states of burning. The living room ahead was chaos.

Coughing, he focused on the fire in the computer room and choked out a command to quell it. Immediately he felt resistance — the strong, deliberate kind that meant a spell involving specific provisions against reversal had been cast here. Duo didn’t have a lot of experience combating that kind of magic, but he thought fast and tried again.

Behind him, he heard the smoke alarm cut off, and presently Heero had returned and calmly closed the front door, presumably to prevent further smoke pouring into their apartment and frightening the neighbors.

“This is magic,” Duo said when he was done with his second spell, which had been mostly ineffectual. He had almost to shout to make himself heard over the roar and crackle of the fire, and pushing his dried throat for volume made him burst out coughing again.

“Where’s Trowa?” Heero said, close to his ear.

Duo shook his head, unable to speak just yet.

The smell of melting linoleum poisoned the already heavy air, and the heat became more and more intense. Duo’s spells were working, but only slightly and slowly. At this rate, he might be able to save the foundations of the house, but not a lot besides. As such, staying here much longer was unwise… but where was Trowa? Still in Montana or wherever he’d been researching, or already burned to death two rooms away?

“Hang on,” said Heero suddenly. A glance in that direction showed him pulling his phone from his pocket, but, looking at the device, Heero frowned. He scrambled back to the door, still keeping his head down, and returned into the apartment, and Duo remembered that he got no coverage at Trowa’s house.

For a few moments Duo was alone with the burning building snapping and groaning around him, drawing shallow breaths of scorching air so he could speak spells that still didn’t seem to be doing much, facing down an approaching fire on behalf of a friend that might, for all he knew, never be able to appreciate the attempt. He wasn’t quite panicking yet — he was concentrating on his casting — but it couldn’t be long. Pretty soon here he was going to give up trying to do anything about the fire and just run through it to check the rest of the house for Trowa.

And then the nearly simultaneous sounds of two different doors opening startled him almost into breaking off mid-spell, but he managed to finish, and avoid the danger of leaving it hanging, before he turned. Heero had reentered through the front, and Duo’s heart seemed to pick up from a dead stop as Trowa emerged from the study. The fire did not appear to have spread there yet, but smoke accompanied Trowa into the entryway, and Duo could see dancing, crackling gold in the bedroom beyond. The three men convened at a crouch in the center of the entry.

“I am so fucking glad to see you,” Duo said.

Trowa smiled slightly. “What have you tried so far?”

“There’s a block on putting the fire out, and I can’t punch through it.”

“Neighbors outside,” Heero informed them — and good for him, hearing through the walls like that!

Trowa nodded acknowledgment to both statements, then swept a calculating look around. After a deep breath that couldn’t have been comfortable in this air, he made a gesture with one arm that seemed to follow the path of his prior gaze, and spoke. The concept was simple, amounting to little more than, “Let this fire, by whomsoever it was set and with whatever intent, completely die out,” but the spell held so much power that both Duo and Heero, feeling it, took a startled, scrambling step away.

The resistance gave way all at once; in fact Trowa completely steamrollered it. A brief, chilling rush of cleaner air out of nowhere swirled the smoke madly, and the fires vanished. The red-orange light died, leaving them in near darkness. The roaring and crackling ceased, the oppressive heat began to fade, and the house settled. Silence fell.

“God, Trowa,” Duo said. “You’re still the best, aren’t you?”

“That was overkill,” Trowa admitted quietly. “But I wanted to be sure.”

Duo’s comment about nuking the site from orbit was lost in the growing sound of a siren outside, and presently a blaring horn obscured everything for a few moments, including the noise of a huge engine. Urgently Heero said, “That’s the fire truck, and half the neighborhood’s out there now. Do you want us to go home before anyone sees us?”

Trowa considered this briefly. “No, I’d appreciate it if you would stay. This will look strange no matter how many of us there are here. And you can tell me if there’s anyone in particular who’s likely to make trouble.”

“I can try,” said Heero doubtfully.

“So what the hell was this about?” Duo demanded. “I know you’ve had plenty of time to make enemies, Trois, but who’s trying to burn your house down?”

Wearily Trowa said, “I have no idea. Right now I’m more worried about what I’m going to say to the police.”

“You’re right,” Duo frowned. “What’s our story?”

“We were asleep here when the fire started,” Heero suggested.

Duo didn’t bother to point out how improbable it would sound that the fully clothed three of them had all been asleep in this tiny house; he just built on it as better than nothing. “So we have no idea how it started; we just jumped up all startled when it woke us up.”

“And we put it out by…” Heero’s creativity failed. How the fire had been put out would be a snag no matter how they approached it.

Now Duo could hear voices outside, but, oddly, no running footsteps. The siren had stopped, the big truck engine still rumbled, but there was no shouting, and nobody seemed to be approaching the house. Shouldn’t they be busting in the door about now with a big hose and paramedic stretchers or something?

“It’s… weird…” Heero said slowly, apparently in response to Duo’s thoughts. “They’re not thinking the way I would expect…”

“What do you mean?” Though still tired, Trowa’s tone was now somewhat sharp.

“I’m not very good at telling who’s thinking what yet,” Heero admitted a little stiffly, “and it’s hard from here. But everyone I can hear out there… it’s like they think everything’s already over. Your neighbors were worried and scared just a minute ago, but now they’re…” Bafflement sounded in his voice as if he was scarcely able to believe what he was finding. “They’re relieved. Some of these are even the firefighters, I think, and they’re relieved too. ‘Everything’s OK now; nobody was hurt’ — that’s the feeling I’m getting.”

“But they can’t know that!” Duo protested. “Why aren’t they coming in?” Not that it might not be better if they didn’t, but something was not right.

“I don’t know! It’s like they’ve… skipped something.” Another siren was approaching, this one with a different sound to it and unaccompanied by the truck roar. “Police,” said Heero briefly. “We’ll see what they think.”

The atmosphere inside the dark, charred house had changed. The fire had been unexpected and worrisome, but this aftermath was worse, in a way. They continued to crouch tensely in the entry, listening to Heero’s report of what was going on outside and trying to decide what to do about it. Trowa hadn’t said anything for a few moments, and was keeping very still; Duo wondered just how much energy he’d actually used to put the fire out.

“No, the police are in on this too,” said Heero at last, “whatever it is. Now there’s this feeling out there like, ‘Everyone can go home; it’s all over.’ I think somebody’s going to put some tape up, but…”

“We need to get out there,” Trowa said suddenly, standing abruptly straight and hastening to leave the house. He moved so quickly that he had no time to offer any explanation; he’d already flung the door open and stepped out onto the porch. In the light that streamed from the street beyond the front yard, Duo and Heero exchanged a confused and startled glance, then moved more slowly to follow him.

Part 21

This was unquestionably brainwashing. Only once before had Trowa observed the phenomenon, but the signs could not be mistaken. And given that at least twenty people were assembled on the sidewalk in front of what remained of his house, someone with some serious communion magic must be behind it. Trowa hurried outside now in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the person or persons responsible before they fled.

It didn’t entirely make sense, though. Why make everyone believe it was all at an end? Why erase the need in the minds of the fire department and police to do what they would normally have done? To set fire to Trowa’s house and then essentially smooth over the subsequent first response as soon as Trowa had taken care of things seemed a bizarrely considerate brand of malice. Or was it part of some larger strike against him, and would actually end up causing even more problems in the long run?

Though he’d hastened out the door, he came to a somewhat weary halt halfway down his front walk, and was moving more slowly as he took a good look around. No visual clues presented in front of him — he didn’t know his neighbors well enough by sight to swear that everyone here besides the fire fighters and police was a resident of the cul-de-sac — and behind him the view was startling and forlorn.

It looked as if the fire had been laid on both sides of the house, for the worst blackening and the greatest structural damage was at either end. This was lucky, since both the study that contained his most valued possessions and the entryway where Duo and Heero had come in were approximately central… but he didn’t have much hope for the state of his bed in the room on the far right or his computer on the far left. If he’d arrived earlier, perhaps…

One thing Trowa still excelled at was using too much power on a spell. The sensible course of action would have been to feel out the strength of the magic he was trying to undo and tailor his counterspell to it, but in the (literal) heat of the moment, entering his burning house and finding his friends in some danger, he’d just wanted to get the thing over with.

Having a lot of energy afterward might not have done him much good in this situation anyway. Even if he hadn’t spent so much more than he needed to punch through the opposing spell, he might not have been able to use what he had left effectively: this brainwasher must be worlds more skilled in communication magic than Trowa was to affect this many people so quickly. He did rather wish he’d taken his time on the fire, though. If he’d gone to the trouble to work it out and learn a bit more about it, it might have given him some clue to the identity of whoever had set it.

What could someone hope to gain by burning his house other than inconveniencing him? They couldn’t possibly have been under the impression that he would be personally injured or killed by it, could they? Or was it goods and property they’d been seeking to damage or destroy? What did he have worth targeting?

“Look at the way they’re looking at us,” Heero murmured from Trowa’s side. “They’re not surprised at all. It’s like we’ve already had the first conversation, and now they’re just sorry for you because your house is ruined.”

Trowa nodded as he turned again toward the people out beyond the edge of the lawn. “Somebody’s gotten to them.”

From his other side, Duo hissed. “You mean a communicator?”

“Heero, see if you can feel any residual magic in anyone’s head.” It wasn’t likely that Heero, his communicative magic having just awakened, would be able to, but he might as well try. “Duo,” Trowa said next, slowly, not ceasing to search the crowd in case he’d missed something, “can you go back inside and wait in the study? If this was somebody trying to get at something in there — destroy or steal something, I mean–”

“Got it,” Duo broke in. “If someone tries to sneak in while you’re distracted, they’re going to get a spell in the teeth. But call if you need me out here, OK?”

Trowa nodded thanks and acknowledgment. Given that he’d been seven states away at Seifert’s house all day and most of yesterday, leaving his own residence relatively open to burglary, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would try to sneak in while he was immediately outside, but he did feel a little better for having that base covered.

“I don’t think I feel magic in anyone’s head,” Heero said as Duo left. “They mostly feel… not exactly confused, but… unfocused. Like they are confused, but they don’t know it.”

Trowa nodded again.

“I wish I could do this better,” Heero muttered. “I’ve only just barely started hearing people besides Duo, and it’s still hard to make sense of it all.”

Turning and observing Heero’s somber, focused expression, Trowa said very seriously, “Thank you for trying. I appreciate your help.”

Brusquely Heero nodded.

A couple of firefighters had poked some whippy stakes into the lawn and were fiddling with a roll of yellow tape that bore the words, FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS. One of the cops was encouraging the neighbors to go home, the other approaching up the mossy flagstone walk. Trowa tried to decide exactly what he was going to say.

“Did you get ahold of them?” the police officer asked as she neared, exactly as if they’d already had a conversation this evening.

“Get hold of whom?” Trowa wondered. There really was no other way to answer. He could give an affirmative or a negative, but his bluff would probably fall apart with the officer’s next question.

“Oh.” Her frown was one of vague perplexity rather than disapproval or suspicion. “I thought you were calling your insurance.”

“Oh,” Trowa echoed. “No, I didn’t get hold of them yet.”

A second police car pulled up at that moment, and the woman on the path, after another somewhat unfocused glance at Trowa, turned and went to meet the officer emerging from it. Heero, Trowa noticed, was watching intently, and he definitely had the right idea: if this new cop too slipped into brainwashed mode, it would prove that the communicator was still in the immediate vicinity.

He was distracted from joining Heero in his scrutiny, however, by an unexpected cry from behind him. “Trowa!?” Glancing over his shoulder, he found Quatre descending the porch steps at a jog with an expression of horror and — predictably — anger on his face. “Trowa, thank god,” was Quatre’s fervent declaration as he came to a stop in front of Trowa. “What the hell is going on?”

Trowa shook his head. “I don’t really know.”

“But your house!” Now Quatre sounded impatient. “What happened?”

“There was a fire–”

“I can see that,” Quatre snapped. “What about you?”

“Something strange is happening here,” Trowa said, lowering his voice. “I’m trying to figure out–”

Quatre made a frustrated sound even as he reached out and took Trowa by the upper arms and shook him. “Tell me right now you’re all right, Trowa Barton, or I swear to god–”

Well, it was good to know that, even in the midst of his wrath, Trowa’s boyfriend was that concerned about him. The expression in Quatre’s wide eyes, blocked from the light though they were with Trowa standing between him and the street lamps, was simultaneously reassuring and painful to see. Trowa interrupted him with a quick, “I’m fine; I’m absolutely fine. I wasn’t even here when the fire started, but Heero called me and I jumped here to put it out with magic.” He raised his hands to grasp Quatre’s arms, trying to reassure him.

“How did it start?” Rather than at all reassured, Quatre seemed just as agitated as before.


“Somebody set your house on fire with magic?” Quatre hissed, looking now as if he might set someone’s house on fire — or perhaps just someone — solely with his angry expression. “Somebody deliberately tried to hurt you?” He’d gone completely rigid, and the energy rose from him in an unbroken but wavering stream very much like the flames Trowa had dealt with a little earlier inside. “Who?

“I don’t know.” As taken aback as Trowa was at Quatre’s demeanor, he couldn’t help feeling a completely ill-timed thrill at the protectiveness Quatre was exhibiting toward him — the look in his face and sound in his voice that seemed to indicate Quatre would strike out to avenge him the very instant he had a recognizable target.

But Quatre didn’t appreciate his answer; possibly he recognized the slight wariness in Trowa’s tone. “Are we doing this again?” he demanded. “Not telling each other things? Or is this because I’m the only one around here without magic?”

Trowa restrained himself from arguing, from insisting that he really, honestly didn’t know. “Someone was here, and may still be here, who–”

This time it was Heero that interrupted, with a pointed clearing of throat. Releasing Quatre and turning, Trowa found a police officer coming this way again. The neighbors were dispersing now, since an extra voice and set of hands had joined in the efforts at getting them to, and things were generally quieting down. Whatever had happened when the new car arrived, Trowa would have to hear about it from Heero later. It seemed his attempts at pinpointing the brainwasher in the crowd had been in vain.

An electronic pad of some sort with a stylus had accompanied the officer this time, so this was probably the discussion he’d been bracing himself for. He would rather finish his conversation with Quatre, but asking the cops to wait a few minutes so he could attempt to placate his magically angry boyfriend probably wouldn’t go over too well even if they had been hit by some expert communication spell.

“OK,” said the woman, “I need all your information for my official report.” She smiled before positioning her stylus and looking studiously down. “Full name?”

Trowa had carefully answered the first couple of questions, had barely gotten into the swing of this, and hadn’t yet managed to figure out exactly what was being reported and how much trouble he might find himself in after not too long, when he heard Quatre make a noise behind him. It might have been an angry huff, but it might also have been something like a sob… and in either case it said pretty clearly, “Well, I can see I’m not wanted here.” Trowa didn’t need the loud footsteps retreating back to the house, nor the slamming of the latter’s door, to know what Quatre’s next move was.

Heero, still standing beside Trowa, watched Quatre’s departure with a somewhat pained expression. He probably wanted to go after him and simultaneously lacked any desire to put himself in Quatre’s line of fire. At least, if he felt anything like Trowa, those would be his feelings. And he probably knew that, like Trowa, he was needed for something specific right here and now, and simply couldn’t afford to leave. In any case, he shook his head and turned back to observing what remained of the group on the sidewalk.

Part 22

“They’re considering it an accident,” was Trowa’s weary recap, “probably caused by the old wiring — the house was built in the 40’s, after all. And I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure even that out without Heero’s help. Playing along with the brainwashing was… a challenge. I doubt I could have managed if they hadn’t all been so foggy about what was going on.”

“So you’re not going to get in trouble or anything?” As a bystander, and given that his friend was unhurt, Duo felt more burning curiosity (pun perhaps intended) than anything else, but he tried to keep it from his voice since it would only make Trowa more unhappy. Weariness made this a lot easier than it might have been.

“I don’t know.” Trowa sounded far more worn out than Duo felt. “From the police probably not, but there’s still the insurance to deal with.”

Duo nodded, then yawned. “And no clues at all,” he wondered when he could speak again, “who was doing what?”

Trowa shook his head.

“I don’t know what kind of spells take what kind of skill,” Heero murmured from where he stood just behind the sofa, “but I was still impressed with that brainwashing.”

Now Trowa nodded. “It was impressive. Someone with some real power and training must have been out there. I just wish I knew why…”

Heero went on, “When the second cop showed up, he was only wondering what was going on for about half a second after he got out of his car, and then he went into the same frame of mind as the rest of them. So whoever it was must have still been there, and they worked fast.”

Trowa nodded again.

“Real-time awareness management,” said Duo, inventing a label he thought sounded accurate.

“But I can’t reach out and get people’s thoughts yet. It’s still just whatever’s on the surface. So there was no way I could have…” Heero’s frustrated remark faded into a sigh.

“Don’t worry about it,” Trowa murmured.

And then nobody said another word — too tired, Duo thought, all of them. He was half busy contemplating the events of the evening, half blank in the head contemplating nothing at all. He’d assisted in raising a magical barrier around Trowa’s house that would prevent entry into the building during the night, and was now, like Trowa, completely spent.

Finally Heero gave a sigh and pushed away from the couch. Though not nearly as worn out as the other two, his puzzling over the matter of the brainwashing had probably rendered him just as ready for some rest — and it was, after all, well past bedtime. How so many hours had passed during their little adventure (especially when Duo had spent so much of it kicking around rather pointlessly in the dark in Trowa’s study), Duo had no idea.

“Trowa, if you need anything,” Heero said, “just knock on our door.” Obviously he’d observed as well as Duo had the reluctance with which Trowa had accepted the offer of the bed in the computer room for the night. Actually, Duo didn’t really know how much of Trowa’s thoughts Heero could read; possibly Heero had observed far more than Duo had. In any case, Heero was clearly trying to reiterate the welcome. “And feel free to help yourself to anything in the kitchen if you want something to eat.”

“Thank you,” Trowa said. Noting that Duo had stood from where he’d been sitting beside him, he added, “Good night.”

Duo gave a comforting pat to Trowa’s shoulder before moving toward the hall. “Good night. You get some sleep too!”

His own sleep was surprisingly placid and deep. In fact, one thought among several upon awakening in the morning was that being magically spent (a condition he hadn’t ever properly experienced before) might be a decent way of staving off unpleasant dreams. He would have to ponder this later when his mind wasn’t so busy with other things.

And his mind was busy with other things, which was probably the reason he’d awakened so much earlier than usual on a Saturday. There was a lot to consider and a lot to do today, and no way he was going back to sleep now. His eager jump out of bed raised a complaint from Heero, so he tried to keep quiet as he brushed his teeth and used the toilet and then headed out toward the living room.

To find Trowa sitting on the couch in so precisely the same attitude as last night that it almost seemed he’d never moved was no surprise, but it was a bit of a surprise to find that he had the TV turned on. Even with the volume almost all the way down, it was the first time he had ever, in Duo’s presence, deliberately watched TV (or acted as if he was doing so).

“How…” Trowa dragged his gaze away from the television slowly and fixed it on Duo, displaying somewhat blurry eyes with dark circles beneath them. “How did you survive so long watching this stuff?”

Duo grinned. He was not about to remind Trowa that survival hadn’t exactly been an area of concern for him during the TV-bound years. Instead he assured him, “Some of it’s actually pretty good. But sometimes it’s a huge pain trying to find it.” Before Trowa could say anything else, Duo went on, “How long do you expect to survive not sleeping?” Normally Quatre was the one that got on Trowa’s case about this sort of thing, but at the moment Quatre was not available to perform that function. Duo had caught a couple of glimpses of him last night, and it had been more than obvious that Quatre wasn’t there to goad Trowa kindly on his personal habits.

“I slept a little,” Trowa said. “I’m still so used to not sleeping at all, or only sleeping when…” He still blushed, too, when he referred to details of his sex life, even those as innocent as the fact that he slept more and better when Quatre shared his bed.

Duo sat down beside him. “Did you at least have any great ideas while you weren’t sleeping?”

“No. As you said, I’ve had plenty of time to make enemies, but who would have done this and why I can’t guess. I went back home a couple of hours ago and looked around in the light in case there was some message that would explain things, but there was nothing.”

“And divinations?” The fact that Trowa looked perceptibly more tired than last night made Duo assume he’d been doing more magic.

Trowa frowned. “I think someone is blocking.”

“Same person who cast the spell.”

“Probably. It seems to make sense, in a way… but with the information I have right now, all I can do is guess.”

Duo nodded. “So what’s next?”

“My house isn’t livable. I stabilized the floor, so it’s safe to walk in, but… I don’t even have a bed to sleep in anymore. I’ll need to find…” He paused thoughtfully, and didn’t seem entirely unhappy as he said, “It’s a decent opportunity to move here, actually. I was already thinking of that, but I hadn’t made any plans yet… Now there’s nothing stopping me. In any case, I’ll need a place to stay while I look for something new.”

Duo opened his mouth to say that Trowa was welcome to stay here as long as he needed, but stopped himself. He’d probably better not go around offering out Heero’s spare room without talking to Heero about it first. He thought Heero and Trowa had become friendlier of late — and certainly last night, in particular, seemed to have brought about a greater level of camaraderie between them — but it was still possible that Heero wouldn’t be comfortable with Trowa staying here much longer. The idea saddened him, but he tried to push it aside.

While Duo thought about this and didn’t say what he wanted to say, Trowa went on. “And I’ll need to get my things — whatever isn’t ruined — out of there.”

“Trowa, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you need.” This was Heero from the hall, where he was emerging from the bedroom. The grogginess in his eyes — a look Duo had always considered more than a bit adorable — diminished quickly as he entered the living room, circled the TV stand, and gazed at his boyfriend. He had probably heard Duo’s thoughts; Duo wished the reverse could be true, since he knew Heero wasn’t likely to want to discuss them in Trowa’s presence. “And you’re welcome to keep your stuff here,” Heero went on after a moment, shifting his glance toward Trowa, “if you think it will fit.”

“Thank you,” said Trowa. He looked around calculatingly at the room. “Yes, I think there should be space. Most of my bigger furniture is ruined, and that can stay where it is for now, until…” He sighed. “Until I get the whole house dealt with.” Obviously he wasn’t looking forward to working with his insurance, and would probably rather abandon the wreckage entirely than come up with a bunch of lies. But he shook his head and returned to the pertinent topic. “The bookshelves are the biggest things that will need to be moved, but everything’s covered in smoke, which I don’t want to get all over your clean apartment…”

“We could use some of that painter’s plastic to keep it off the carpet,” Heero said, “and wipe everything down once it’s in here.”

“It’s going to be a lot of work.” Trowa sounded just as reluctant about this as he had about accepting the bed last night.

“Then we’d better get started as soon as possible.” Heero’s businesslike tone reminded Duo a bit of Quatre; perhaps it reminded Trowa too, for he made no protest, just nodded. Then Heero added, “Duo, let’s get dressed,” in nearly as pointed a manner, and turned back toward the hall again. He hadn’t said, ‘Duo, let’s talk,’ but he might as well have.

His first remark once the bedroom door had given them their privacy was, “This is your home too. If you want Trowa here, we’re going to have Trowa here.”

“Yeah, but…” Duo wasn’t likely to think of himself as a proper sharer of the home, rather than just a freeloader, until he was contributing to the rent. For several days he’d been running over a mental list of possible expenditures of his first paycheck, and the vast number of things he could buy had thus far seemed too overwhelming for any decision. Now, though, he thought he might feel best about handing over most of his money to Heero for September living expenses.

Detecting this resolution, Heero made a somewhat frustrated sound. “September’s already paid.”

“October, then,” Duo replied with a stubborn edge to his voice.

Finished donning jeans, Heero stopped in the middle of rifling through his t-shirts and turned with a serious smile to face Duo. “I want to help Trowa in any way we can. And I also want you to not forget that you have a choice about things around here. I’m not in charge.”

“Yeah, but I’m not going to just go over your head and invite someone to stay here without even talking to you about it.”

“Trowa is not ‘someone,'” Heero insisted. “Trowa is your best friend. When your best friend’s house burns down, you don’t have to ask me first to invite him to stay here.”

A hint of something like resentment arose in Duo at being lectured, even if what Heero urged was the autonomy Duo wanted to gain and express. Even as the sensation occurred, he was already trying to repress it; it wasn’t fair — it was just a thoughtless emotional reaction that would pass soon enough — and he didn’t want Heero picking up on it and thinking Duo was truly annoyed with him.

Heero evidently caught it anyway, for he stiffened a bit and his smile faded. He grabbed the first shirt to hand and turned away. Moving toward the nightstand, he pulled the t-shirt over his head and then reached to disconnect his phone from its charger. He offered no explanation, just started dialing someone, his back still to Duo. The latter continued dressing in silence as he waited to find out whom Heero was calling.

When Heero opened the conversation in Japanese, it narrowed down the possibilities quite a bit, and common sense shrank the field even further. Catching Trowa’s name, Duo thought he could guess, in general, what the call was about. He did wonder which language Heero would have conducted the discussion in if he and Duo hadn’t just had a tense little moment.

This business of having Heero in his head all the time was… well, it was a pain in the ass, really. It made things far more complicated than they needed to be. People without communicative magic could easily have little flashes of emotion that faded quickly and went completely unmentioned without causing strain. There would always be something even in the best of relationships that annoyed one or both parties, and under normal circumstances it didn’t need to be brought up unless it grew into a real issue. It seemed unfair that things had to be so much more… sensitive… around here because of Heero’s budding talent.

But at the same time, they were dealing with it. Even in the midst of other problems — and god knew they had enough right now — they were dealing with it. They weren’t going to let it ruin things. Duo loved Heero, didn’t see any impossible barriers in their way, and figured that even a rocky period like this would only make their lives better in the long run.

Heero finished his call while Duo tied his shoes, and when Duo sat up from this endeavor he found his boyfriend right in front of him, looking down at him seriously in silence. When their eyes met he said, “Relena and Colin are going to come help, and grab some things we might need on their way over. I promised her lunch, so I need to go see what we have in the kitchen.”

“OK.” Duo stood. “Good idea.”

“Also,” Heero added, reaching out, “you’re right. We’re dealing with it. We won’t let it ruin things.”

And for a minute or two, things were absolutely fine.

Part 23

Quatre had already observed the state of Trowa’s entryway yesterday evening, before Trowa had dismissed him, but in the light of early afternoon and less of a heart-clenching hurry he was better able to mark specific changes. The walls and ceiling, previously an aged off-white, were stained now an irregular blackish brown; the light fixture above him, normally a translucent plasticky gold, was murky with it. It was as if the entire place has been airbrushed by someone with a penchant for disgusting neutrals.

But smoke damage wasn’t the only difference to the scene. The grandfather clock and the umbrella stand were absent, the former leaving a blur-edged but roughly clock-shaped lighter spot on the wall behind it. Quatre wondered, first, where the clock had gone, and, second, how damaged it had been by the smoke. He was quite fond of that clock, and the thought that it might have been ruined only added to his anger at what had happened here.

He moved into the computer room to his left, stepping slowly and carefully as the charred floorboards creaked under his feet. There was no significant give, so for the moment he felt safe in walking forward, but he didn’t need to advance too far.

The room was a sooty gradient that lightened toward the doorway, and the damage to the furniture so extensive that he had a hard time making sense of the chaos even with prolonged staring. He remembered pretty well what should be in here, but the dark objects that all seemed connected by blackness, and that probably were connected in many places by having melted and fused together, could not be easily distinguished one from another — even in the extra light that streamed through the jagged hole in the wall behind and around what remained of the desk. The smell of scorched electronics still mingled with the lingering, less nasty scent of burned wood, but the computer that had given this chamber its name was nowhere to be seen.

He stared around, frowning. It looked as if Trowa’s entire record collection was destroyed; the Victrola certainly didn’t appear usable. One of the few indulgences Trowa had allowed himself over the years, not to mention a valuable set of, essentially, historic artifacts, had been ruined here. Somebody was going to pay for this. Oh, how his head ached…

Quatre turned entirely around, still frowning, to the closed door of the study.

There was less smoke damage in here, but the room looked very forlorn, in large part because of the removal of half of the shelves. The table, too, was gone, with all its chaos of documents and open books. The old tasseled armchair, faintly discolored, still stood in the corner between a remaining bookshelf and the far wall, and Quatre advanced across the creaking floor to put a hand on one of its wings.

He had so many memories of this room, this chair, from the past few months — most of them good, some bittersweet. Who would have done this? Who had targeted Trowa’s home and all those memories? Quatre didn’t care what was believed of Trowa that made someone feel they had the right to attack him like this. This was going too far.

His movements were jerky, almost reluctant, as he stepped to the bedroom doorway. He didn’t know if he had the heart to look around in here; these memories were, in some ways, even closer and deeper. He was already so angry; he should really just leave… but something drew him on. The inclination to examine a disaster was, he supposed, human nature.

This room, like the computer room, had opened to the sunlight, which streamed past the dark edges of the hole in the wall with incongruous cheerfulness onto the charred interior. The bed, half burned away, was bizarrely misshapen and only recognizable because of its location. The chair that had previously stood beside it was missing, and, indeed, the floorboards failed just before where it should have been. Quatre wondered why the creaking floor didn’t collapse under his weight after this level of destruction. Quite possibly it wasn’t even safe for him to be here. At the moment, he didn’t give a damn.

Trowa’s wardrobe, against the opposite wall, had lost one of its doors, so scorched was it. The other door stood open, allowing Quatre to see that Trowa’s meager and somewhat drab collection of clothing, whatever its state, had been emptied out. Clearly a fair amount of work had already taken place to move the usable items that remained in the house, but where those items had gone was a mystery. The only thing Quatre knew was that they hadn’t gone to the most logical destination.

He didn’t really feel like assessing the damage to the bathroom, but he stepped through it anyway to use its second door out into the living room. The fire must have arisen at three different points, since this too had suffered seriously and been opened to the outside air. The window beside the dining table gaped, and broken glass from the fallen panes littered the floor, mingling with china that had shattered when the cabinet it inhabited had burned away and dropped it.

The ‘living’ area had never been more than sparsely furnished, and now what wasn’t structurally destroyed was still probably completely unusable for smoke damage. He found himself staring angrily down at the old, stiff sofa in front of the ironically minimally-stained fireplace, tempted to reach out and run a finger across the wooden back to see how much soot he could pick up on his skin. This sofa was nearly as ugly as the chair in the study, and far less comfortable, but he had associations with it similar to — if not as numerous as — those he had with the chair. He almost couldn’t believe this had happened.

As he stood, still and contemplative, head throbbing, in the miserable light of the fire-gutted house, the silence was broken by the sound of the front door opening and footsteps and voices in the entryway off behind him — voices far too cheerful and footsteps far too energetic. Quatre’s frown deepened as he listened. Duo’s was the first and most recognizable voice, and cheer was the norm for him, but this hardly seemed the time or place for it. He recognized Heero’s voice as well, briefly, and Relena’s; that less familiar one must be Colin’s. They sounded as if they’d just come off a break and were now getting back to work. That answered a few of Quatre’s questions, but also raised a few more.


Not wanting to see anyone’s smiling face under these circumstances, Quatre hadn’t turned toward the newcomers; he knew it would only make him more angry. But at the sound of Trowa’s surprise from the doorway into the living room, he did turn at last.

Trowa had that rumpled, weary-eyed look that said he’d spent the night in his clothes, and probably slept not for very long if at all. He moved toward Quatre across the room with a hesitant expression, as if he might back off again at any time. Imagining a scared rabbit approaching a fox, Quatre felt his own expression hardening. “What is everyone doing here?” he asked, aware that it came out a little snappishly but feeling fully justified therein. It was only natural, after all, to wonder somewhat acerbically what a group of friends was doing here without having invited him, without even having told him.

“Moving things into Heero’s apartment,” Trowa replied. “For temporary storage.”

Quatre stood silently for a moment, watching the wrath build. He felt as if the anger, though certainly his, was also somehow unrelated to, disconnected from him. The impression was uncomfortably surreal, and how things were changed by the fact that he might be personally responsible for this distance from his own mood, he couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter much; he was angry in any case. “You’re moving things into Heero’s apartment.”

“Yes. He and Duo very kindly offered their extra room and space for my things until I find a new place.” The uneasiness in Trowa’s voice showed clearly that he was aware he’d done something wrong.

“And you felt like you had to wait for me to offer? You wouldn’t even have had to ask to stay at my house, but you didn’t even ask! And suddenly you’re staying at Heero’s house? All of a sudden getting along that well with Heero is some pretty damn fast progress!”

A flicker of annoyance crossed Trowa’s face, and something in Quatre responded like a fire to fuel. He was readier for a confrontation than he thought he’d ever been — especially with Trowa. It made sense for him to be upset about this, and if Trowa thought he’d been right to ignore their relationship completely and seek assistance elsewhere, he needed to state his reasons.

Trowa’s signs of irritation quickly disappeared, however, and his face faded back to the usual indifference, with only a touch remaining of the same unease as before. “I don’t see any way I could move things into your house without explaining everything to your parents, and maybe everyone else who lives there.”

It seemed as if he might go on, but here Quatre broke in. “Yes, god forbid we tell someone something, especially family. But I guess it’s just my family, since Heero’s sister is allowed to know.”

“Heero’s sister already knew. But your parents know nothing about any of this — we would have to explain it to them all at once and then add that we were moving a lot of smoke-damaged furniture into their home.”

“So basically it is just that you don’t want to have that conversation.”

“No, that’s not it.” Signs of annoyance were returning. “But this way was faster and easier. There wasn’t time–”

“And when will you have time, Trowa? It’s been five months; you’ve met my parents a dozen times; they even more or less like you. So when do you think is a good time to tell them that you’re actually older than they are?” This was unfair. The one to suggest they wait until his parents were used to Trowa on a normal level before introducing the abnormal had originally been Quatre, and Trowa the one primarily bothered by lying to them. It was unfair to attack Trowa on this basis, and Trowa really should defend himself.

When Trowa replied, “You should be the one to decide that,” it wasn’t quite a proper defense even if it did reasonably point out a flaw in Quatre’s questioning. Trowa’s voice was somewhat tight, though, as if he was still fighting off irritation, and perhaps by now a little hurt. “You have to live with them.”

Quatre crossed his arms. “Is that a problem?” It was like he was careening down a steep hill at higher and higher speeds. “Does it bother you that I live in my parents’ house at twenty-four?” He probably had brakes he could employ, but it almost seemed horrific to try in case it turned out he didn’t.

“No!” Now Trowa sounded surprised and unhappy. “Why should that bother me?”

“Well, given the huge mystery you’ve made about your parents–” Quatre actually managed to cut himself short with a snap of teeth. It was more than unfair; it was cruel. He was cruel. Of course he could choose not to be, but given the provocation, why bother? It was better just to say nothing more. Better just to leave. He shouldn’t be around people if he could help it. And it didn’t matter that something inside him, something that liked being around people and wanted to bother, felt ready to shrivel up and die.

Movement caught Quatre’s eye, and, looking over his boyfriend’s shoulder, he saw his best friend in the doorway. Heero’s expression was a mixture of unhappiness and concentration, as if he were trying to do something about whatever it was he didn’t like by standing there staring at Quatre. For some reason, Quatre found this extremely annoying, and getting out of here suddenly top priority.

“Quatre…” Trowa said as Quatre pushed past him.

“Quatre…” Heero said as Quatre pushed past him.

“Quatre!” Duo said in some surprise in the entryway.

“Quatre?” came Relena’s interested voice from the next room.

Quatre snorted as he reached for the front door, trying to pretend he was only derisively amused by the repetitive calls. Trying to pretend it didn’t tear him up to hear their concern, to know they had every reason for it, and simply walk away.

Part 24

After the whirlwind Saturday and Sunday helping Trowa, Heero had yet been a little surprised to encounter Monday so soon — surprised, but not unhappy. Though nothing he’d wanted to get done over the weekend had gotten done, and though an unpleasant confrontation between Quatre and Trowa such as he’d anticipated had taken place, at least today was the day of Dorothy’s return to work so she could be consulted. Heero recognized that he might be hanging too much hope on his co-worker’s completely unknown level of expertise, but he couldn’t help it. After Saturday, he had to cling to whatever hope was available.

He’d tried to read Quatre’s mind — tried harder than he yet had to get at someone’s thoughts deliberately — but it hadn’t worked. This frustrated him endlessly. Hadn’t the beginning of this problem, specifically Quatre’s sudden distress, marked the awakening of Heero’s communicative abilities? Why couldn’t he get into Quatre’s head if he was already connected to him strongly enough to have had that warning dream?

Despite his inability to read Quatre’s thoughts, however, he’d still known Quatre for a decade; he didn’t need magic to get some clue about what his friend was feeling and thinking during this crisis. And what he’d detected by more natural means during that little argument with Trowa had been poignantly disturbing. Quatre’s demeanor had been one Heero had rarely seen in him, but thought he recognized: it was the look and sound of a man that valued control over many things losing it irrevocably.

Quatre couldn’t control his anger, could barely control his reactions to that anger, was losing control even of the coping mechanisms he’d been attempting thus far, and absolutely must break down eventually. And one of the very last sights in the world Heero wanted to see was Quatre breaking down. Therefore he looked forward to arriving at work so much that he wasn’t even bothering to point out how often Duo, seemingly every bit as eager as Heero, was tailgating on the way there.

Dorothy’s style of dress was the type of which people said, ‘So sharp you’ll cut yourself,’ so she was easy to spot even from across the parking lot. They didn’t catch up with her until the second floor inside, though, and by that time Duo was so impatient that he actually shouted.

She paused and turned back, and as she saw them she smiled in that critical manner that was, in her, not infrequently a sign of friendliness. “Oh, yes,” she said, as if just remembering, “you did start while I was gone, didn’t you?”

Duo grinned as he came up to her. “Yep! How was your vacation?”

“Right now,” Heero put in pointedly and quickly, to ensure no conversation on casual topics got started, “I need you to come with me.”

“All right. Where?”

Heero turned with a restrained but emphatic gesture. “Upstairs.”

“OK.” She sounded curious and amused, but the point was that she followed.

Heero might have explained as they walked, but rather hoped that a single glance at Quatre and the energy rising from him would tell Dorothy everything she needed to know. Yes, he was definitely putting too much faith in her abilities. But at least now he didn’t have long to wait.

They caught Quatre in a hallway. If Heero was any judge (and he should be), Quatre was not, as they were, just arriving, but had been here for a while and briefly stepped out of his office for some reason or other. It was a stroke of luck in any case, since Heero, assuming ‘I’m here to make Dorothy look at you’ would not have gone over very well with an angry Quatre, didn’t know what other excuse he would have invented to enter Quatre’s office.

Dorothy pushed past Heero and Duo the very moment she saw Quatre, stepping forward smartly with an expression of sudden interest. Quatre came to a stop as she approached him, a confused scowl growing on his lips and between his eyebrows. In an almost predatory fashion, Dorothy began to circle her Regional Manager, a hand moving to her incredulously fascinated face as she looked him up and down as if he were an art exhibit or perhaps a car wreck.

“Dorothy,” said Quatre in a voice half stern and half petulant, “I’m completely gay.” This was something he might have said as a perfectly good-natured joke under normal circumstances, but from his current tone it was very clear that he wasn’t messing around.

It certainly made no difference to Dorothy. “Yes.” She dragged out the word sluggishly as if not entirely aware she said it. She was just finishing her second slow circle of Quatre.

The latter gave his watch a quick, brow-lowered glance, then transferred that look to Heero, who still stood a few paces down the hall trying to remain invisible. “Can we maybe get to work?”

“Oh, yes,” said Dorothy, in the same absent tone as before. She came to a gradual halt, took one step back, gave Quatre a last head-to-toe scan, and nodded thoughtfully. Finally she turned away and moved to rejoin Heero and Duo. Quatre sighed in frustration and turned abruptly toward his own office.

“What on Earth happened to him?” Dorothy demanded as they all began walking away toward the elevator again. She sounded far more impressed than concerned. “That is a serious concentration of energy!”

“We’re not completely sure,” Heero replied.

At the same moment — because having turned a corner away from Quatre had made them all feel freer to discuss this — Duo said, “What kind of energy?”

“It’s red shade energy,” Dorothy replied with the hint of a puzzled look, “but something’s a little unusual about it. And there’s a lot of it; I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone possessed that hard.”

“So waiting for it to work itself off isn’t likely to help,” said Heero.

Dorothy laughed somewhat derisively as she pushed the elevator call button. “Is that what you’ve been doing? Good god. How long has he been like this?”

“Ten days.”

“What’s going on with the energy?” Duo put in. “We’ve been wondering about that, since if it’s just red shade energy, at least I shouldn’t be able to see it.”

“I have no idea! I’d have to have a much longer look, but I’m going to guess he’s not in any mood for people to poke around him.”

Duo laughed bitterly, covering a similar but quieter sound from Heero.

“You need to get an exorcist in here as soon as possible.” Dorothy placed a hand on a pinstriped pocket where her phone presumably lived. “I’ll give you a number.”

“Thank you,” Heero murmured. Even though Dorothy had actually told them very little, he still felt sincerely grateful and that his hopes had not been at all disappointed — maybe in part because it relieved him to have someone else in the know. The theories about Quatre’s condition in the minds of the non-magical majority were unsettling, whether they involved a messy breakup with Heero or not, and Heero knew of no one besides Duo, himself, and Dorothy at this office that had magical abilities and would understand the truth. Admittedly he was not even a little bit sure of this, and could be very wrong; it was an assumption based on the building-wide reactions to both the doll on Heero’s desk earlier this year and Quatre’s condition now, as well as on what he’d read in people’s heads so far.

It was this thought that made him notice, all of a sudden, that he wasn’t picking anything up from Dorothy, and that made him wonder briefly whether the other people at the office whose thoughts he didn’t pick up — the other quiet ones — might not also all be quietly magical. It was interesting to realize that, though he’d joined the ranks of the supernaturally talented, he still took it for granted that everyone he met had no such skill. Nonmagicalnormativity, perhaps? What percentage of the population actually did have magical ability? He would have to discuss this with Duo at some point.

When they reached the spot where the latter needed to break off to head for his training room, Heero could feel the extreme disinclination to do so in his head. “I’ll call right away,” Heero assured him, “and tell you about it at lunch. Oh,” he added, his voice sinking to a mutter as he remarked mostly to himself, “and we don’t have to eat in the breakroom.”

“OK,” said Duo reluctantly. He added silently a wish of good will and optimism about the plan, then turned and walked away.

Upon the entrance of Heero and Dorothy onto the sales floor, half the room stood up. As their overwhelming wave of friendly curiosity and welcome mixed with a manic desire to acquaint Dorothy with everything that had happened recently, Heero sighed. “They can’t decide whether to ask about your vacation or tell you all about last week first,” he murmured.

Dorothy shot him a sidelong curious look. “I could have guessed that, but somehow I get the feeling you didn’t. Hello, Hilde.” She chuckled as Hilde terminated an unnecessarily fast and energetic approach with a big hug. “Heero, why is Hilde so happy to see me? What have you done to my sales team?”

Heero, who was too impatient to get the phone number, just shook his head and moved on toward his own desk.

“Have you heard about Quatre, though?” Hilde demanded. “You missed the craziest week!”

“Hmm, you don’t know about my experience in Lake Shasta Cavern,” Dorothy said with mysterious facetiousness. She pushed off Hilde and followed Heero, lifting a hand to deflect queries from three other co-workers about how her time away had gone. Once she’d copied out a name and number from her phone onto a Post-It at Heero’s desk, however, she turned back to face the adoring masses, answer all their interested questions, and listen without any surprise whatsoever to their descriptions of Quatre’s behavior lately. Heero had to admit that he wasn’t entirely disinterested, himself, in her unusual vacation, and thought she could definitely do with the details of Quatre’s symptoms, but all attention he was paying to the scene dropped right off as he looked at the information in front of him.

It took no longer than a moment to decide to make the call outside this space where the thoughts of over a dozen people were swirling uncontrollably around him. So he fetched his cell phone, pulled the top Post-It from the pad, and walked swiftly from the room.

He stopped first at the water cooler across the hall, but soon moved on; he didn’t like having the open doors so close by, wanting a more complete barrier between himself and the noisy minds. When he felt relatively comfortable in a corner near the elevators, he dialed the number. It was 8:00 in the morning, and what hours exorcists kept he had no idea, but he didn’t much care.

And if he had cared, it would have been unnecessary: the voice that answered after a ring and a half didn’t sound newly awakened, only businesslike and perhaps a bit harsh. It had an accent to match the name Dorothy had written down, which was no surprise to the bilingual Heero.

“This is Hajime.”

Part 25

This had been a day of mixed frustration and anticipation for Trowa. Lengthy discussions with his insurance had lasted practically all morning, with results ambivalent at best. They were in touch with the police department, of course, but when an assessor eventually went out to examine Trowa’s house, discrepancy was sure to come to light. No aged wiring had caused that fire, and Trowa didn’t know how to fake the signs. No more could he brainwash the insurance agent into a perspective that would match that of the police. He still didn’t quite know what he was going to do about this.

In the middle of it all, however, Heero had called to inform Trowa that a co-worker of his had confirmed the presence of red shade in Quatre’s condition, and that he’d made an appointment with an exorcist. Since this appointment was for tomorrow evening, Heero could easily have waited until he came home from work tonight to tell Trowa this, and Trowa appreciated that he’d called the moment he had the news in order to improve Trowa’s day with the prospect.

He tried not to hope too fervently. He didn’t want to be let down. But he was so ignorant of the solution to Quatre’s problem that he had to make do with hope in place of knowledge. And under the influence of that hope, after he’d talked to Heero and still between insurance conversations, he had — perhaps foolishly — engaged a real estate agent to take him on a tour of houses on Wednesday. It had been an impulsive decision, and there were a number of ways he could be bitterly disappointed in its outcome, but he hadn’t yet decided to cancel.

He was trying not to think about the possibility that Quatre, newly friendly again, would join him looking at houses; he was trying not to think about the future. He felt he walked a high, narrow wall that stood between great happiness and great sadness, and which direction he would eventually fall was largely beyond his control. But even if Quatre’s cooperation in this matter turned out to be impossible, Trowa ardently longed for a new home of his own as soon as he could get one.

Until its destruction, he hadn’t realized how attached he’d been to his own house. It wasn’t anything specific about the structure or his setup therein; it was the very simple circumstance of having his own space, a retreat from the tiresome world, a place that corresponded with himself. Now he was like a hermit crab without a shell: he felt exposed and very uncomfortable. He was out of his element, imposing on friends, and unable to orient himself properly. And to this discomfort had been added distinct embarrassment at the snatch of conversation he’d caught last night:

“We really… can’t do that right now. Not with Trowa here.”

“What? Why? It’s not like he doesn’t know.”

“Yes, but you’re… kinda loud…”

“That’s because–”

At that point, of course, hot-faced, Trowa had moved away so as to hear no more. But it was clear he wasn’t the only one that would prefer him elsewhere as soon as could be managed. So he would look at houses the day after tomorrow regardless of how things stood or how he felt about them.

Now it was lunch time — or perhaps well past, depending on which time zone he was judging by — but as usual, despite Heero’s repeated assurance that he was welcome to anything in the kitchen, Trowa couldn’t muster a great deal of interest in eating. It wasn’t just that he was accustomed to not eating: he was accustomed to feeling active hunger and still not eating. He was accustomed to eating with Quatre; in fact, he rather associated food with Quatre in its entirety — far more than he associated it with satisfaction or survival (except as far as Quatre represented those conditions to him as well). But since he had finally finished all his phone calls (for now), he needed something else to do — though at the moment anything he chose would merely function as a time-killing technique until tomorrow evening when, hopefully, everything would be set right.

Of course research was his usual fallback at such a moment. He did have his books and papers right here in Heero’s apartment, but they were stacked in tall piles consecutively leaned against the bookshelves, and not at all convenient. Internet research was probably a better idea. And this reminded him also that he hadn’t checked his email since Friday morning before he’d gone to Seifert’s house; perhaps by this dreary Monday afternoon someone might have answered his questions. Surely they must have by now. And those answers might confirm whether or not this exorcist tomorrow was likely to be of any real help.

Heero’s computer took an unforgivably long time to start up, and Trowa sat gloomily in the chair staring around the guest room while he waited, wondering vaguely what the predominantly juvenile contents of the bookshelf said about his host. Then he had to orient himself to a new browser that didn’t have all his logins saved, but eventually he reached his inbox. It was stuffed, as usual (especially after a few days of distraction), and his long experience allowed him to glance over the subject lines and pick out the few he wanted to read right away.

The first, in fact, was compellingly obvious, for it came from the only person among his immediate contacts he specifically knew to be necrovisual. Having a distressing history of dead ends, he’d long since ceased feeling much anticipation or excitement even at the promise of information, but still he clicked on that email fairly enthusiastically.

Trowa’s original message had been somewhat terse, but this reply was even more so, limited to a single question in response to the symptoms Trowa had related: Has the subject recently destroyed a powerful artifact?

Trowa sat back with a faint scowl. This was what he got for being uncomfortable admitting that his primary source of power was gone. He’d already assumed that the destruction of the artifact had contributed to Quatre’s change, and he should have included that information in his description. Failing to do so had merely added an extra step to this process; now he would respond to this email with what he should have said in the first place, and probably have to wait another couple of days for a more informative response.

This was nothing but Trowa’s fault, and for several moments he thoroughly hated himself for it. So frustrated was he, in fact, with himself and the situation, that he didn’t answer the email immediately; he backed out of it and clicked on the next one he’d determined merited early perusal.

Our esteemed Mr. Barton,

It has come to our attention that action has recently been taken against you, in the form of arson against your home, by certain members of our society as revenge for the destruction of an artifact in your possession. This communication is made to assure you that this was an unsanctioned action independently embarked upon by a small radical element, since reprimanded, and does not represent the attitude or goals, immediate or long-term, of our society as a whole. You are in absolutely no further danger from us. As a collective, we hold you in as high consideration and trust as ever, and we beg you not to believe that your decision to destroy Roussel’s artifact has in any way affected that opinion.

Honored to address you,

Vallis Rheita, La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré

Again Trowa sat back in the chair, mouth slightly agape, breath knocked right out of him for a moment by this surprise.

La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré? In 2010? Emailing him in English?

He’d been under the impression that they had ceased to exist after the French Revolution, that they’d never existed outside of France. He’d been under the impression that they’d been little more than a sort of aristocratic club with no practical use for their magical talents. He’d been under the impression that they’d created the artifact completely by accident, not that they’d had some kind of… reverence… for it. Or for the man into whose hands it had fallen.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be quite so astonishing that La Confrérie was still around and had picked up English (some especially formal-sounding English at that), but Trowa had done so much research on them and never heard a word about it… Of course that had all been in France, so if they had migrated to the U.S. during the turmoil of the late eighteenth century, it was no improbability that no records of that move had survived in the places Trowa had been looking.

As far as he knew, they’d never been a particularly big organization. Had they grown since changing locations? They obviously knew who he was. By the tone of the email, in fact, they knew him extremely well, and possibly assumed that he knew them. Why had he never heard anything from them before this? They must still be fairly small and secretive… and yet keeping an eye on him.

Obviously they knew that Trowa had decided to destroy the artifact… but just as obviously weren’t aware that somebody else had carried out the actual destruction — which probably meant they had kept track of the artifact through some kind of sympathetic magic that allowed them to monitor its existence but not necessarily details thereof. Except that they knew he still owned it.

He wasn’t terribly fond of the thought that this group was monitoring him, however closely or distantly, but it wasn’t too different from most of his other fans, really. Many people knew he drew his power from a particularly potent artifact, and evidently this had never lessened anyone’s opinion of him. None of his other fans, though, however radical, had ever set fire to his house.

This Vallis Rheita assured him that the arson had been carried out by a small subset and he should be in no further danger… but could she or he really guarantee that? Not that Trowa really feared what they might try to do to him — even without the artifact he was still, if not ‘the best’ as Duo had claimed on Friday night, extremely skilled at command magic and extremely knowledgeable about far more than that — but this was a complication he didn’t need right now.

Scattered clouds in a warm sky were something of a surprise to find himself looking at, and it took him a moment to recall that he’d left the computer chair as he pondered and gradually wandered into the hall (much more conducive to pacing), whence he’d eventually found his way out onto the balcony. His brain was so full and his thoughts so engrossing that he barely registered the fact that he’d moved, or the presence of the brown and white bird standing on the railing beside him with its shoulders hunched as if he might give it something to eat if it looked at him the right way.

He wondered suddenly whether or not La Confrérie and their little radical unit had anything to do with Quatre’s current condition. He didn’t see how they could — especially if they didn’t know that Quatre had been the one to wield the axe — but it was a compelling idea. That La Confrérie had shown up in Trowa’s life immediately after Quatre’s problems had started made perfect sense as a total coincidence, and yet was difficult to dismiss as being unconnected. Any connection, though, was beyond his deductive ability at this point.

This at least started to explain the brainwashing. The ‘high consideration and trust’ in which La Confrérie held ‘our esteemed Mr. Barton’ might well lead them to try to help him avoid some of the unpleasant repercussions of the unsanctioned action of their vengeful minority. Though it was a little odd that the brainwashing had started so soon after the fire had.

How would La Confrérie have found out so quickly what their radicals were up to? More sympathetic magic? Or was someone keeping an eye on the radicals too? That seemed more consistent with the speed of the response, but in that case, why hadn’t the arson been prevented to begin with? Still, given that the fire had happened, he appreciated the efforts to make the situation easier for him to deal with afterward. And it was interesting to note that La Confrérie, whatever the size and type of their organization at this point, had such a potent communicator on staff.

Glad he was now that he hadn’t started any actual research or set any particular goals for this afternoon; it would have been disappointing to be unable to accomplish any of it thanks to all the wondering that was all he was likely to get done now. Well, and he could try a few divinations to see if he could figure anything out, though he’d had less and less faith in his ability to get an informative answer to any divination lately. So the frustration and anticipation of this day did not look like diminishing, but at least for a while now it promised to be a busy frustration and anticipation, which was really all he could ask for at this point.

Part 26

At the big wall of window that formed an entire side of his office, Quatre stood looking out with his back to the other men in the room, and Duo wondered what he was thinking. He must recognize at least the presence of an unusual condition; surely he was happy at the prospect of a cure! But the current stiffness of his spine and the abruptness of any movement he made gave him an air extremely annoyed and put-upon, as if he considered waiting around after work for an exorcist a favor he was granting his friends rather than a much-needed therapeutic exercise for himself.

Duo almost couldn’t believe Quatre had agreed to this. What Heero must have gone through to convince him Duo could not imagine; presumably the endeavor had only succeeded at all because friendship and Quatre’s regard for Heero’s opinion still remained even underneath Quatre’s anger, but it couldn’t have been an enjoyable conversation.

Shaking his head, Duo turned to examine the room, which he was visiting for the first time. Perfectly well organized though full of things, and, for a managerial office, very friendly and welcoming, it reflected Quatre’s normal attitude quite well. Duo couldn’t help thinking that he wouldn’t really enjoy spending a lot of time even in an office this pleasant… but maybe that was merely because of how the resident of this one had been behaving lately.

His eye was caught and held by the large picture frame beside Quatre’s computer. It shifted to a new photo every seven seconds or so, displaying the faces of Quatre’s close acquaintances in cheerful succession. There were parents and nieces and nephews and sisters and in-laws at family functions, various friends (including Duo himself) in different states of casual interaction, quite a few images from their beach trip this summer, and… a lot of Trowa. Duo was inclined to smile as he slowly worked out the Trowa:other-people ratio, and wondered if Trowa was aware of just how often Quatre photographed him.

Some of them were even from before the breaking of the curse, and the paleness of Trowa’s skin and eyes was startling after several months of getting used to his restored naturality. Duo wondered with a slight shiver — he wasn’t sure exactly what emotion prompted it, but it was strange and a little uncomfortable — whether Quatre had photos of him as a doll. He didn’t remember Quatre ever taking any, but a lot of these pictures of Trowa looked as if they’d been taken on the sly.

When Duo glanced up again, he twitched as he found that very Trowa, previously absent, standing beside him. Recovering quickly from his startlement, “I didn’t even feel anything,” he said admiringly.

“I’m adjusting to using less power to jump,” Trowa replied with a nod.

Quatre turned from the window, scowling and apparently trying to smile at the same time, which looked uncomfortable and pathetic. And when he said, “So all my audience is here now,” it wasn’t the first recent instance of a remark that might have been a joke now bearing a bite that induced Duo to turn away.

Just at that moment, the phone on the desk made a warbling noise longer than a chirp but not quite a ring; Duo hadn’t yet spent enough time in this corporate world to classify all the sounds made by the phones around here. Quatre, who seemed to know what it signified, strode to the desk and picked up the receiver with a curt, “Yes?” This was followed, after half a moment, by an equally annoyed-sounding, “Yes, send him up.”

Hearing this, Heero slipped out the door, undoubtedly to go meet the man and guide him to the right floor and room.

Not wanting to look back at his angry friend, Duo continued to study anything around him besides Quatre — though, really, studying the room was practically the same as studying Quatre himself.

The level of organization in here was actually somewhat worrisome. Duo knew Quatre for a very neat person, but this seemed almost inhuman. Everything formed such a precise angle to everything else, and even the pens in the wire mesh cup seemed to have been leaned against each other in a pattern of similar sizes and colors. Things couldn’t possibly remain this well arranged for more than a few minutes. Had Quatre just set it all up like this before his friends came into the room? Was that an assertion of personal space or power because he felt threatened by this office invasion? Or had Quatre perhaps been taking out his anger on his desk, and disarrayed his possessions to the point where he’d felt the need to rigidly reorder them?

The image of Quatre in here alone trying to cope with his mood by throwing his pens around might have been funny under normal circumstances, but at the moment was heartrending. Likewise, under normal circumstances, Duo would have been highly tempted to mess things up just to be an ass, but at the moment the thought of such practical joking only made him sad. He didn’t feel guilty, though, when one little thought in the back of his head told him that, eventually, when this was all over, he really would have to come in here at some point and rearrange this desk just to see what Quatre would do. And then the door opened and Heero reentered with the exorcist.

He was a harsh-looking man in a dark blue suit, but even the sheathed sword he unexpectedly carried — something cool enough to demand attention — couldn’t hold Duo’s gaze when the guy had such hilarious hair. After a mere couple of seconds looking at the four or five discrete bundles of bangs like spider legs over his forehead, Duo felt his lips twitching dangerously. Fortunately, the exorcist had immediately fixed his own gaze on Quatre beside the window, probably reading more from the energy rising off him than anyone else in the room could, and didn’t see Duo’s incorrigible mirth.

“Quatre, Trowa, Duo, this is Hajime Saitou.” Heero gestured to each of them in turn, and Duo had mostly managed to get his mouth under control by the time Hajime’s eyes flicked across him.

The exorcist nodded. “I’m pleased to meet you all. I already see how serious your problem is.” And he stepped forward around the desk toward Quatre. Duo felt very strongly that, however polite his words, the man’s movements were calculated to intimidate; he looked taller, somehow, as he stalked across the room, the sword in his hand more dangerous.

Quatre seemed to bristle in response. In an almost sneering tone he remarked, “Jos Banks and a katana? Not what I expected from an exorcist.”

“Some do prefer skulls and black eyeliner,” Hajime allowed, still courteous, “but I’ve never felt the need.”

His technique had been effective, assuming its desired effect had been to increase the amount of energy rising from Quatre. After halting perhaps a step too close to him and standing there for several silent moments, the exorcist began slowly walking back and forth looking critically at Quatre, much as Dorothy had yesterday. Eventually he lifted his sword and partially drew it, causing everyone in the room to stiffen and Quatre to become even more angry. Hajime glanced at the gleaming red blade, nodded, and put it away again. “Do you have any magical abilities yourself, Mr. Winner?” he asked at last.

“Can’t you tell?” Quatre snapped.

“My guess,” Hajime replied, “is that you’re just a very organized and empathetic businessman who isn’t normally so unhappy.”

‘Unpleasant’ might have been a better word, but it was a good guess in any case. Quatre certainly didn’t look or sound happy as he answered, “Well, no, I have no magic. I’m the only one in the room without magic, in fact.”

Hajime nodded, and the slight frown on his face was thoughtful. It seemed he was about to speak when Trowa cut him off:

“He did destroy a powerful artifact for me recently.”

Giving Trowa a pensive look, Hajime asked, “Did you have any particular attachment to it?”

“Not exactly. But I know someone — multiple people, in fact — who did.”

“Multiple people?” Hajime echoed, speaking Duo’s curiosity aloud.

“I just found out that the group that originally created the artifact still exists, and some of them were upset that I decided to destroy it.”

“But you weren’t actually the one who–” Duo began in surprise, but cut himself off as an even more surprising thought struck him. “Was that who set your house on fire??”

Trowa confirmed this with a nod, then added quietly, “Obviously they didn’t realize I personally wasn’t the one to destroy the artifact.”

“Is this that French cult?” Quatre asked in a dangerous tone.

“The email was in English, but it’s the same group.”

“And what did the email say?” Quatre still sounded as if he was collecting information on a potential target.

“It was an apology for the arson.” Trowa, meanwhile, sounded as if this was one of perhaps many things he’d feared about revealing this information.

Turning so he could address all four of them, Hajime got them back on track before the topic of the email and the French cult could be further pursued. “A strong psychic connection between a person and an artifact can cause that artifact to behave like a living being in some ways,” he explained. “Someone thinks of it as a friend, for example, and in response to that psychic energy it becomes one. Normally, a shade is created when emotion combines with the energy of death, and a sort of death energy can be created by something non-living if someone has personified the object strongly enough. And in this case, the emotion in question was probably more a potential than something someone actually felt — if someone with a psychic connection to the artifact would be angry at its destruction, it would be enough to cause a shade to form, turning the artifact’s stored magic into an angry energy very similar to red shade, at the moment of the artifact’s ‘death.'”

Duo thought he understood. “And that’s why there’s so much energy: because that was the artifact that–” Before he could finish, “helped Trowa cast a curse that could last for eighty-seven years,” he amended his intention to something a little less revealing. “–was so super powerful.”

Hajime was nodding again. “It usually takes a fairly powerful artifact to lead to this condition. People rarely have an emotional connection to weaker ones — and if they do, there may not be enough power in a weaker artifact to take hold of the emotion anyway. It’s an unusual circumstance called artifact shade or artifact possession.” He must have noticed dismay somewhere, for he went on with a quirk of thin lips, “It’s unusual, but it can be dealt with like any other shade.”

A breath of relief and a letdown of tension went audibly and palpably through the room.

“Unfortunately,” Hajime went on, “because Mr. Winner here has completely internalized this energy, my technique–” he raised his sword– “isn’t going to help.”

“You can’t help?” Quatre broke in, looking flabbergasted and irate. “What the hell was the point of all this, then?”

“A diagnosis?” Hajime suggested, in a tone that would have been sarcastic with just the tiniest bit more inflection. “And the chance to make an appointment to get this dealt with. My partner shouldn’t have any problem absorbing this energy.”

Quatre demanded, “Why didn’t you bring your partner with you today?”

“He has a rather busy schedule.” Evidently Hajime was offhandedly familiar with this schedule, for he added, “I can bring him here on Friday evening, if five o’clock works for you again.”

“Friday?” Duo echoed in dismay. “Nothing earlier?”

Quatre shot him an angry look. “How about everyone who has nothing to do with this goes home right now?” he suggested acidly. “I’m sure you can get in touch with Mr. Saitou for a boring lecture about possession some other time.”

The implication that Duo was not enough of a friend to have anything to do with Quatre’s recovery stung a bit, but not nearly as much as it would have if Duo hadn’t been well aware that it was the anger speaking. Heero took his hand and said softly, “Come on.” Turning, Duo found his boyfriend’s face grim but resigned. “Hajime,” Heero went on, “thank you for coming. I’ll talk to you on the phone.” Though presumably, if Quatre could be convinced to agree to another appointment, payment wouldn’t need to be arranged until after that had taken place.

Hajime nodded at Heero, and the latter pulled Duo toward the door. Behind them, no one said anything more; perhaps Quatre was too angry, Trowa too reluctant, and Hajime aware that he’d said everything he needed to. Whatever the cause, the door closed on that stubborn silence, cutting Duo and Heero off from any further hope that might have been drawn from the scene.

Part 27

Looking like an irritated statue, Quatre had gone back to gazing out the window with his arms folded as Heero and Duo left the room; he did not say goodbye. Trowa tried to stop staring at him, since the situation would be little bettered by worry or frustration or the attraction he felt toward Quatre despite everything, and all these and more were excited by the mere sight of his boyfriend’s rigid back. He sincerely hoped the precipitous dismissal of their friends hadn’t been a precursor to Quatre dismissing everyone else from his presence as well and refusing to agree to see the other exorcist on Friday.

Finally Quatre shifted, pulling his phone from his pocket in an abrupt movement. Still with his back to Trowa and Hajime, he started doing something with the device as if completely ignoring them. Trowa glanced at the exorcist, and found him waiting calmly with no sign of impatience.

“Friday at five?” Quatre’s words bounced off the glass in front of him and returned flatly into the room.

“That’s right,” said Hajime.

“And it won’t be another complete waste of time?”

“It won’t.”

Slowly, revealing gradually the annoyed expression on his face, Quatre turned, still looking down at the object in his hand. “Fine,” he said, his movements exaggerated as he wrapped up whatever he was doing — probably making a calendar entry. Finished, he raised his eyes as he pocketed the phone, then gestured to the door. “Out.”

Though Trowa was unhappy, Hajime didn’t seem to be bothered by this rude command, only turned without a word and moved to leave the office. As Quatre exited after and locked the door behind them, Trowa drew breath and courage to ask what he’d hoped to have a much better context for. The sharp look he received on saying Quatre’s name almost changed his mind, but he forced himself to go on. “Tomorrow I have an appointment with a real estate agent at 10:00 to see some houses here in town. Do you want to come with me?”

He should have known better than to bring this up when Quatre’s delicate mood had already been so taxed, but he hadn’t foreseen any other opportunity to bring it up at all. It was no real surprise that Quatre didn’t jump to accede to the suggestion; it shouldn’t have been any surprise that his response was unnecessarily unkind. “Really, Trowa? You need me to take off work and come hold your hand while you do that? Haven’t you bought a new house before?”

Of course Trowa wasn’t going to shout at his boyfriend, but this time it was even harder to restrain than usual, and he was definitely yelling mentally: I don’t need help; I need your opinion because I want you to move in with me eventually.

As Quatre looked into Trowa’s face, his own changed subtly: its hardness seemed to lessen a trifle, while simultaneously, around the eyes, grew the hint of an expression more haunted than angry. Shortly, but in a less cutting tone than before, he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t miss work.” And he turned in a motion that seemed, to Trowa, to convey just a touch of that same desperate unhappiness beneath the wrath. Watching him walk away, Trowa took a deep, steadying breath — inclined to wonder, as Duo had, whether there was really no possibility of getting the other exorcist over here sooner.

“My partner has full-time work and college classes,” Hajime explained as he came to Trowa’s side.

“You’re a communicator as well?” Trowa wondered somewhat dully.

“Primarily,” Hajime replied. “That was only a guess, though. You, of course, are not projecting — except for that shouting just now — and I’m not trying to read you. But I did read a lot from him.” He glanced after Trowa’s disappearing boyfriend.

Trowa didn’t relish the sound of that ‘You, of course,’ but still inquired, “What did you read?”

“That you’re not doing any good by refusing to engage. He’s running from everyone–” he gestured to the hallway, now empty, down which Quatre had gone– “because he hates the way he behaves under the influence of this anger.” Hajime’s air of excessive politeness had dropped entirely away, leaving behind a tone both serious and somewhat dark. “What he really needs, besides an exorcism, is something to let that anger out on. That’s what he wants, too, even if he doesn’t want to want it. If you would stand up to him, give him that outlet, it would do him good.”

“You didn’t.”

“Yes, but I walk a fine line between drawing out a client’s anger and retaining that client. You have a much surer relationship with him.”

Do I? Trowa wondered. If Quatre could jump so immediately to the conclusion that he needed help looking at houses rather than a prospective sharer of a new home, how sure was their relationship, really?

Hajime sighed faintly, and now looked a little annoyed. “I really have no desire to say this, especially to you, but you need to stop tiptoeing around this Quatre of yours. He specifically wishes you would be more assertive.”

Not liking ‘especially to you,’ wondering with some chagrin just how much detail Hajime had picked out of Quatre’s head, and a little agitated by this conversation as a whole, Trowa said nothing. Here was this man, who seemed to be a decently skilled communicator and had an air of decided competence, essentially giving the same advice Trowa been receiving from multiple sources lately in various forms: that he needed to be more proactive, more in charge of events. He needed to put aside backward concerns — be they based in fear or pride or whatever else — and do what should be done, say what should be said.

If he’d been readier to admit to a lack of knowledge in certain areas, he could have made inquiries about Quatre’s condition much earlier than he had. If he’d been able to disclose that he’d decided to destroy his primary source of power, he could have given an appropriate amount of detail in those emails and perhaps gotten detailed answers much sooner. If he’d been willing to accept the fact, unlikely to change any time soon, that he was a celebrity, he might have reached out to people that were ready to help him, and Heero would not have had to be the first, after almost two weeks, to get in touch with an exorcist.

And perhaps if his relationship with Quatre wasn’t as sure as he would like, that was because he had done little to make it so. Quatre had been the proactive one all along, and now, when Quatre needed help and support, what was Trowa doing for him? Cowering and, as Hajime said, refusing to engage.

A quiet, almost tired determination filled him. It was a sort of epiphanous resolution, though he couldn’t have put it into words. And where to start? Deciding to be more proactive, more assertive, was all well and good, but it wasn’t really something he could just do.

“Mr. Barton–”

That was where to start. With the man that hadn’t been told his full name but was obviously familiar with it anyway. “You know who I am,” Trowa interrupted.

“Of course.”

Trowa gave a sigh, but it was a much fainter sigh than it would have been if he hadn’t just resolved whatever he’d resolved. So he had fans. Sometimes they were annoying, but they weren’t going away, and it was really about time to learn to deal with that. They could, after all, sometimes be useful as well. He took a deep breath and turned toward Hajime. “Communion first and necrovisua second?”

The man nodded.

“I’m not much of a communicator, and not necrovisual at all.”

“Otherwise you could have solved this problem yourself,” Hajime agreed.

“Right now is obviously not the best time, but at some point in the future I could use a necrovisual consultant for the book I’m writing.”

Hajime looked interested. “A book about magic from Trowa Barton,” he mused. “That may change magical history.”

This time Trowa worked to restrain his sigh.

Clearly noticing this reaction, Hajime gave a crooked smile that didn’t appear very sympathetic. His words, however, were somewhat comforting: “If it’s any consolation, I’ve only ever heard of you in the U.S. — your fame hadn’t spread to Japan the last time I was there.” And when Trowa mutely shook his head he added, “I’ll help with your book in any way I can.”

Trowa nodded his thanks. Technically he could have waited until Friday to bring this up, but it had felt more proactive — and thus more affirming of his resolution — to ask here and now. Besides, he might (indeed, hoped he would) be very distracted by a healed Quatre on Friday.

He wanted to go home, and it was like a punch to the gut remembering that he didn’t have one. In an effort at least to get out of here, however, he pulled out his cell phone, relieved that he’d brought it with him. Once in his pocket, it often stayed there until he changed his pants, which, with magical cleaning available to him, sometimes didn’t happen for days — but that was only if he remembered to put it there in the first place. It would have been rather inconvenient at the moment to hunt through this Winner Plastics building for something to write on. “Phone number?”

Hajime told him, and Trowa sent him a quick text so the exorcist would have his as well.

“I’m jumping out of here,” he said when that was done. “Can you find your way down all right?”

“I should be fine.” There was a touch of sarcasm in this response to the suggestion that Hajime might not be able to locate the exit, but his tone was entirely sincere as he added, “It was an honor to meet you.”

Trowa nodded again, getting ready to cast his teleportation spell, and said, “I’ll see you on Friday.”

Part 28

Heero was definitely getting the hang of dealing with a room full of thoughts as he went about his work each day, adjusting to the specific sound or flavor of each person’s projected reflections, and could complete his own tasks without too much distraction most of the time. Occasionally someone would get boisterous or interesting enough that it became harder to ignore, but he was gradually learning to deal with that too. He had to admit to some pride in this; for having literally no training, and no great freedom to pursue any right now, he felt he was doing very well.

When, just after 10:00, his efforts were interrupted by the silly-sounding laughter Duo had for some reason set as his incoming text alert, Heero reached for his phone with half a sigh and half a laugh of his own, and found Trowa wondering, Do you think Quatre would like living in High Palms?

It seemed a somewhat odd message, but Heero nevertheless took a mental walk into the neighborhood in question. Anything inside the city that lacked four storeys and five acres would be a step down for Quatre, but High Palms was quite a nice area — though not extensively familiar with it, Heero had been there occasionally. He might, he replied. Looking at houses? Trowa, clearly very uncomfortable in his current displacement, had mentioned that he intended to do so sometime soon, but hadn’t given Heero a specific time and date.

Yes, came the reply. I considered Peregrine, but I think Quatre would prefer something more established.

This Heero believed to be accurate. Quatre would love to have neighbors, which wasn’t an immediate guarantee in a brand-new development like Peregrine. You’re probably right.

I also considered the Old Glazebrook Avenue area, was Trowa’s next comment. It seems to have a lot of houses similar to Quatre’s, but it’s not nearly as active a sale market, and the chances of finding something suitable for sale right away seem lower.

Trowa did love his research. It couldn’t have been anything but extremely boring to look into the qualities of different neighborhoods in a new town, and only served to prove more definitely just how much he wanted out of Heero’s apartment. If he weren’t so desperate and uncomfortable, he could wait to look at houses until Quatre could come with him, and wouldn’t be bothering Heero with his least favorite communication medium.

Quatre might prefer a change anyway, Heero texted back.

Do you think so? came the quick reply.

Heero smiled wryly. This (and possibly the entire affair) was insecurity, not ignorance. Of course Heero knew Quatre better than Trowa did, simply from lengthier experience, but that didn’t mean Trowa couldn’t figure out any or all of this stuff on his own. But before Heero could comment on this, assuming he intended to, another message arrived saying, My confidence in my expertise is overwhelming, I know.

Current events, it was true, couldn’t be doing much for Trowa’s confidence. That he could possibly receive a great boost from a text conversation with Heero, the latter doubted. Surely Quatre had acquainted Trowa at some point with Heero’s distaste for text messaging? Not that there was any other way for Trowa to ask questions at the moment, since Heero wouldn’t have sat on a call with him while he wandered around houses… but did he really need to be asking these questions at all? Heero supposed he did.

Quatre might like a change, he reiterated at last. He likes his living situation, but going to a new home that’s very similar might be disappointing.

Sensible, Trowa replied. Thank you.

It was perhaps half an hour before Heero heard from his friend again. I know Quatre has only the one car, but how likely do you think it is that he’ll want a second or a third?

This, Heero judged, was a garage-size question. Two maybe, he wrote back, but probably not three.

Yes, probably, Trowa replied. Do you think Quatre would mind stairs up from the garage to the kitchen?

Heero gave this some consideration, but only very briefly, before answering, No. Having to carry groceries up a flight of stairs would drive him crazy after no great while, but Quatre (as long as he wasn’t magically angry) might not even notice. And honestly Heero was a little tired of this conversation.

That was unfortunate, because it wasn’t over. Trowa’s next query was, What kind of storage capacity do you think Quatre needs? I’ve seen his attic, of course, but how much of that tendency was his family and how much was him?

Not none but not big, Heero typed out with a sigh. He keeps stuff, but organizes well.

Of course, Trowa acknowledged.

Heero had by now silenced his phone, seeing that text messaging was the order of at least the next little while if not the whole day. If he needed to make any phone calls — and at the moment it seemed like he might after not too long — Trowa would have to wait a bit on whatever answer he needed next.

A nice kitchen probably won’t do us any good, Trowa remarked — and that wasn’t even a request for advice; it was just a comment.

Heero tried to keep his annoyance down as he composed and sent his reply. Then he realized he’d sent, You need one anyway for when I come cok for you guys, and grumbled inarticulately under his breath as he sent a correction. This was only one of many reasons he hated texting: you got going so fast, you didn’t double-check what you’d written, and made stupid mistakes.

He was just about finished looking over yesterday’s transactions when the next comment came: Quatre will need a separate room for music, I think. Heero didn’t feel the need to respond to this fairly definitive statement, but then Trowa asked, Do you think he’d want a closed room, like a bedroom, for that, or something more open, like a living room?

This should really be obvious upon viewing the spaces in question, shouldn’t it? Where a huge piano would fit, surely, would immediately solve the problem. But his response was, Aren’t you a musician too? Can’t you tell what would be best?

I haven’t played for years, Trowa answered, but you may be right.

Again some time passed in relative peace, but Heero didn’t fool himself into thinking he’d been let off. So he was ready when Trowa texted, Quatre will obviously want spare rooms.


Separate dining room? He has one now.

Get a big kitchen you can put a table in and then a separate dining room too. After a moment’s thought, despite not wanting to set a precedent of initiating a message rather than just responding, Heero added, Get some kind of rec room for parties. Duo would certainly like the sound of that; he and Quatre could conspire together about social gatherings.

If this all worked, it would actually be fairly interesting to have Quatre inside town rather than on its borders. Quatre had lived in that mansion out there for as long as Heero had known him, and, because of its distance from everything convenient in the city, had visited Heero’s home far more often than Heero had visited him.

Big bathroom, was probably a specific comment on the house Trowa was currently looking at.

Big bathroom good for Quatre. Heero considered this appropriate diction for answering the message in question.

Is bathtub or shower more important?

Only because Heero had known Quatre for ten years was he able to answer, Both. One of those jacuzzi tubs, if possible.

Good. OK.

Perhaps ten minutes later came, Do you think Quatre will want another dog after Cairo dies?

Probably. Get a big yard with good fences.

That Trowa was so single-mindedly dedicated to finding a perfect habitat for his boyfriend was sweet, but that very boyfriend would surely want Trowa to consider his own preferences as well. Did Trowa plan on any pets? What did Trowa want in a back yard? Of course Trowa might be simply keeping his own preferences in his own head as unnecessary to mention to Heero, but this entire process still seemed pathetically lopsided. The worst was yet to come, though.

Do you think Quatre will ever want children?

Heero sat back and put a hand over his face. Of course he understood all the aspects of the situation that made him the ideal candidate for an answer to this question at the moment, but it felt so… inappropriate. This was something that, if Trowa did not know already, should be discussed with Quatre himself — a personal part of their future on which Heero should not even be called to give an opinion. But it was also a point worth considering in relation to a house that Quatre might one day inhabit, and therefore something Trowa needed to think about today when Quatre was in no state to discuss it.

Still, only after he’d made the phone call he’d been anticipating — stealing time to collect himself and consider the matter — did Heero finally reply, No, I don’t think so. And if Trowa made some protest against the idea on the basis that Quatre was very attached to his nieces and nephews, Heero would turn his phone off rather than argue the point. But quite a few more minutes passed with no further message, and when another came it was on a different topic:

Does a big deck work as a rec room?

Probably works for parties, but you still need a place for a TV. Naturally Trowa, whom Duo had once called a ‘godless heathen’ for the lack of TV in his life, would not have thought of that; perhaps it was, after all, good for him to be consulting someone. Quatre would have been optimal, of course, but Heero was just about resigned to how things had to be.

Eventually, after another string of questions that mostly began with ‘Would Quatre,’ Heero felt compelled to ask something he’d been wondering all along: Does Quatre know about all this? What he meant was, Does your boyfriend have any idea you want him to move in with you and are tailoring your entire house-buying process to his rather than your needs and desires? Whether or not Trowa would interpret his short question as such, Heero couldn’t be sure.

No, was the answer. I may be setting myself up for serious disappointment.

I don’t think so. One of the few benefits to this method of holding a discussion was the relative smoothness with which some statements that might otherwise be a little awkward could be delivered. As soon as he’s cured.

Thank you, sent Trowa.

You should wait, Heero advised. It’s only till Friday.

I need to get out of your apartment, Trowa replied. I need to get things done.

Heero thought this another odd statement, and that it wasn’t likely Trowa, even if he made a decision on a house, would be out of the apartment any time soon, but he wasn’t going to press the issue.

Finally lunch time approached. Heero wasn’t sure how long Trowa planned on continuing to look at houses and ask him questions — surely whatever agent was showing him around would tire eventually, even if Trowa didn’t — but he had a feeling his lunch hour would not be free of text messaging. Fortunately, Duo was sure to be extremely interested, and that would stave off some of Heero’s annoyance.

Beyond that, they’d been eating lunch out in the car now that Dorothy had returned, so at least Heero could deal with the conversation in freedom from swirling uncontrolled thoughts about what needed to get done after lunch and excitement about going to see Machete tomorrow and plans for this Christmas and how much homework she had and curiosity whether humpback whales were migratory and whether he would be able to make rent next month (actually, Heero would want to figure out who that last one was and be sure the wonderer was going to be all right), and all the rest of it.

It was funny what he’d grown accustomed to since that day he’d picked Duo up from the gutter outside this very building, and since the twenty-second of August in particular; this business of dealing with people’s thoughts, even when he had a difficult time with it, had come to seem perfectly run-of-the-mill, and the situations of Trowa and Quatre — arson and anger and possession — weren’t much farther from feeling like fairly normal day-to-day occurrences in the lives of the magical. Heero couldn’t quite decide whether that was reassuring or troublesome, but it was what it was. He went to lunch.

Part 29

When Trowa jumped to Quatre’s office on Friday evening, he considered it a bad sign to find the room dark and empty. Where was everyone? Most importantly, where was Quatre? Trowa desperately hoped his boyfriend hadn’t decided he didn’t want to participate in this evening’s activities and gone home early.

A glance through the window into the hall showed the group he was joining, sans Quatre, just outside. When Trowa opened the door to step out of the office, Heero and Duo both turned toward him with a start.

“Where’s Quatre?” Duo demanded at once.

“I don’t know,” Trowa replied, closing the door behind him. “Have you seen him today?”

“No,” Heero said.

Worried but deciding he’d better get the necessary introductions out of the way, Trowa turned his attention to the other two people present. The first was Hajime, and the second, presumably, his partner. Quatre had remarked on Tuesday that Hajime’s appearance was not what he’d expected of an exorcist, and Trowa felt a little guilty for his immediate corresponding thought now that this newcomer did not look at all as he would expect. There was no reason in the world an exorcist, especially one that might not be quite out of his teens, shouldn’t have dozens of earrings and alarmingly spiky hair with a neon blue sheen, but Trowa was… old. And a recluse. Perhaps ‘stodgy’ might be a good word in some contexts.

Hajime gave a gesture that seemed, to Trowa, studiedly casual. “Sano,” he said to his younger and less professional-looking partner, “this is Trowa Barton.”

Sano’s gaze snapped to Trowa and both his pierced eyebrows rose. “The Trowa Barton?” He glanced back to Hajime as if to check whether he was joking. “I mean… really?”

“That’s right,” Trowa said wearily, extending a hand.

“Wow.” Sano shook almost reluctantly. “I have a friend who would go crazy if he knew.” Over his shoulder he accused, “You didn’t tell me we were meeting him.”

Hajime gave a self-satisfied smirk.

With the formalities out of the way, Trowa started looking around again, wondering where Quatre was. “You haven’t seen him at all today?” he said to Heero.

“That does sometimes happen,” Heero replied at a murmur.

“He could show up any time,” Duo said soothingly.

“I haven’t seen him since Tuesday.” Technically Trowa wasn’t whining, but there was some of that quality, ephemerally, to his statement. Trying to pull himself together and not worry too excessively, he gave his head a firm little shake. “But you’re right; he could be here any time. He might be at the other office today.” Quatre probably would have mentioned that, if it had been the case, when he’d made the appointment, but it was a good explanation for now.

Heero looked pensive, and Trowa moved toward him in the hope that he might be able to confirm the guess. At the same moment, Duo went in the other direction and addressed the young exorcist Sano: “So the Raiders!”

“Yeah!” replied Sano with some enthusiasm. “I should have worn this shirt yesterday for the last pre-season, but I didn’t actually have time to watch most of the game.”

“Boller didn’t look too bad,” said Duo.

“Well, seven of thirteen isn’t spectacular,” Sano allowed, “but at least he didn’t throw any interceptions.”

Trowa stopped listening.

“Quatre might have been downtown today,” Heero said, quiet and uncertain.

Shaking aside an almost superstitious reluctance to mention it, Trowa wondered, “Do you think he decided not to go through with this?”

“It’s possible.” With a sigh Heero added, “Just when this all could have been over…”

“Counterproductive decisions are not unusual for people in his situation.” Hajime, apparently also disinterested in the football conversation he’d previously been standing beside, had joined them. “He seemed to be in some denial on Tuesday, and that does sometimes progress to outright defiance of logic.”

With a frown, Heero nodded.

“But it’s only ten minutes after five,” the exorcist went on. “Give him time.”

Silence fell among the three of them, and gradually they all turned toward the other, far more animated discussion. It still wasn’t even a little interesting, however, and Quatre continued not to show up, so Trowa grew increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, just for something to say, he asked quietly, “What are your partner’s skills?”

“Getting angry,” replied Hajime easily. “Wasting time. Not putting DVD’s back in their cases when he’s done watching them.”

“I heard that,” Sano growled over his shoulder. Evidently, though, it wasn’t enough to drag him from his conversation with Duo.

Heero had pulled out his phone and was making a call, and Trowa kept an anxious eye on him as Hajime spoke again. “Sano is extremely good at absorbing and then dealing with red shade. He’s very useful for cases where someone has internalized it, like this situation. I think he’s a natural, though.”

Normally this would have been quite interesting, since naturals were rare and Trowa would have liked to ask a few questions — but just as Hajime made the statement, Heero lowered his phone from his ear.

“You think I’m a what, now?” Sano demanded. And apparently this one was enough to drag him from his conversation with Duo, for he turned rapidly toward Hajime. “Are you serious?”

Trowa drew nearer to Heero, who murmured, “Straight to voicemail.”

“You actually think I’m a natural?” Sano was demanding, stalking over to his partner. “Since when?”

“Since we met,” Hajime replied.

“And why is this the first time I’m hearing about it?”

Duo appeared at Trowa’s side. “Nothing from Quatre still?”

Trowa shook his head. “I wish I could jump to him. Even if he’s too angry to be here right now, I could take the exorcism to him.” He tilted his head toward the exorcists, one of whom was actively berating the other for never having related to him an apparently long-standing theory about his magical talents.

“He might change his mind…” Duo suggested. “He might still show up.”

Though Trowa doubted this, he thought they should give it a bit longer, just in case. Heero was texting now, his expression suggesting that he too had little hope. Meanwhile, Hajime seemed to be endeavoring to bring an end to the conversation with his partner that was threatening to become rather unprofessional.

“This is so stupid,” Duo complained. “Why does he have to be so angry today of all days that he won’t show up right when we’ve got the solution here?”

“Maybe there’s another reason,” Heero murmured. “I’m going to call his house.”

Sano had turned his back on Hajime, looking irritated, and Duo wandered over to talk to him again while Hajime approached Trowa. Heero stepped aside far enough not to involve his phone call in whatever would take place nearby, and Trowa couldn’t help thinking with some faint amusement that this continually rearranging group must appear somewhat funny to anyone watching. He hadn’t noticed anyone walk by in this hallway outside Quatre’s office since he’d arrived, but if they had, some curiosity must have been the result.

“Did you hear about Russell and his drugs?” Duo said.

“How is your divination?” Hajime wondered as he approached Trowa.

“Darryl, it’s Heero. Do you know if Quatre’s home?”

Duo’s reinstated NFL conversation was easier to ignore than Heero’s call to Quatre’s housekeeper, but with an effort Trowa answered Hajime’s question. “I’m an expert on the theory…”

Hajime nodded with a slight smirk at the somewhat facetious statement. “And all I can tell you is that, on Tuesday, he was sincere when he promised to come today.”

“No luck,” Heero said in quiet frustration, lowering his phone.

Under other circumstances, Trowa might have let it go at that; but with what he’d resolved on Tuesday, he couldn’t. He pulled out his own cell phone in order to see if his boyfriend would be more inclined to answer a call from him than one from Heero. Unfortunately, besides the continued football talk from off to his left (at least he thought they were still discussing football; he couldn’t in any way be sure), all he heard was Quatre’s voicemail message. The light, friendly tone of the recording, often so sweet and comforting, was downright depressing under these circumstances.

When Heero observed that Trowa had been as successful as he had, he said, “It’s 5:30. Do we want to keep waiting around here?”

Hajime looked at his watch. “As your friend pointed out, it’s not impossible that Mr. Winner will change his mind and want to keep the appointment. In case that happens, Sano and I should still be accessible for a while. But it might be a good idea to wait outside the building.”

“It looks a little weird for us all to be standing here,” Heero agreed. Then he glanced toward Duo and added, as if struck by a thought, “Maybe we should all go get dinner somewhere close.”

Trowa would rather wait as near as possible to the place Quatre had promised to be, but it wasn’t his building to be paranoid about strangers hanging around in. And his friends were probably hungry; it looked as if Heero had picked the idea out of Duo’s head, in fact. So he nodded at the suggestion.

Hajime nodded too, seeming just as reluctant as Trowa but perhaps, like Heero, reacting to some idea not his own. “We passed a Chili’s on the way here,” he said.

Now Heero shook his head. “There’s a seafood place the other direction.” He gestured. “It’s closer.”

Trowa, who was far from an expert on local restaurants, accepted this decision without a word. He watched as Hajime — rather rudely, he thought — broke into Sano’s conversation with an announcement that they were going to dinner and began walking away down the hall. Sano followed with some apparent pleasure at the news mingled with some annoyance, which he expressed as he prodded Hajime’s suit-coated back: “I still can’t believe you never told me you think I’m a natural.”

“I’ll buy you some seafood, and you’ll get over it,” Hajime replied.

“Is this the place with the amazing catfish?” Duo asked Heero as they too set off down the hall. As Heero somewhat morosely confirmed this, Duo threw a glance back toward Quatre’s office. The look turned to one of pity as it crossed Trowa, demonstrating that he, like Heero, wasn’t entirely distracted from the real concern of the evening even by the prospect of amazing catfish.

With a sigh, Trowa brought up the rear.

Part 30

Heero was frustrated. Not infrequently lately had this been the case, but this evening’s combination of factors was novel. He honestly hadn’t thought that, even after all the effort it had taken to get his friend to agree to see an exorcist and then agree to make a second appointment, Quatre wouldn’t keep that appointment. Quatre excelled at keeping appointments, and was typically meticulous about polite and early notice if he needed to cancel. Disregarding a scheduled event and failing to notify the other people involved showed that he’d really gotten bad. He must be extremely unhappy, and of course this all meant he needed the service he was currently denying more than ever. If only Heero could get hold of him!

Duo was still eagerly talking football with the punk exorcist. Because Heero largely ignored football, Duo had been mostly on his own in the pursuit of it as the season got started, and now was very pleased at the coincidence of this person he was already spending the evening with being a fellow fan — and even a fan of the correct team. When or why Duo, who’d lived in nearly every state in the country, had picked up the (by all accounts rather pathetic) Oakland Raiders to support, Heero didn’t know, but he did know how annoyed Duo got (at least facetiously) seeing all the San Francisco fans around here.

Trowa and Hajime had struck up a discussion about necrovisual magic. Heero would have listened had their topic been more closely related to Quatre’s condition, but in fact Hajime was describing different colors of shades and how they were dealt with, while Trowa paid close attention and asked the occasional question. Presumably he was using the topic to distract himself, and more power to him… Heero, however, not a nerd about all things magical, could not be distracted in the same manner from his worry about his best friend.

They’d been a few among many coming to the restaurant at just before 6:00 on a Friday evening, so the room around them was aurally noisy as well as swirling with thought. No reason existed for a single person in here besides their party to care about Quatre Winner and whether he was angry or sad or losing control, and whether the appointment he hadn’t shown up for could have fixed all of that; and reasons were equally scarce for Heero to care about anyone’s hopes to get laid tonight after this date or the endless indecision two tables away about what to order or the dull frustration moving through the room in criss-crossing paths in the form of the waitstaff.

Unfortunately, there was also no way for him to escape these thoughts he didn’t care about and that didn’t care about him or his concerns. As normal as it all seemed, he was beginning to find it all more than a little idiotic as well — frustratingly mundane, irrelevant, and unavoidable.

Meanwhile, at his own table,

Duo continued to chat with Sano as if they’d been friends for ages, and that, at least, was interesting (and perhaps just a tiny bit jealousy-inducing) to observe. Duo’s ability to engage people seemed to border on magic in itself, and the two would undoubtedly exchange phone numbers (technically Duo was still giving out Heero’s number at this point) before they parted this evening.

Duo was developing some serious curiosity about the two exorcists — specifically, apparently based on the way Sano referred to Hajime in conversation, about their relationship. In Duo’s opinion, Sano’s talk could lead anyone to believe the two were romantic, but the same impression did not come from Hajime. Heero shared none of this curiosity, but would still like to satisfy Duo on the point, so he concentrated on picking up anything he could from either of the two men.

This, however, was a mostly useless endeavor. Hajime projected nothing at all — undoubtedly too practiced at that sort of thing — and as for Sano… Heero didn’t quite know how to describe it, but it felt as if Sano had a noisy mind that would normally burst out (just like Duo’s and many of the people’s in this room), but was deliberately blocking somehow. It only went to reiterate how much Heero had to learn.

You’re very new at this, aren’t you? This unexpected mental remark didn’t cause even a slight start; it felt too natural, and too clearly came from someone close by. In fact it was more obviously Hajime even than if he’d been speaking aloud, as his psychic voice carried a stronger sense of him than his physical one. Heero glanced at the man, and found him still talking to Trowa about ghosts and things.

Heero nodded without a word in response to the comment, not entirely sure how to reply in kind.

Just give it a try, Hajime urged, sounding a little impatient.

The reason for this impatience became evident when Heero obeyed the injunction, as it proved to be incredibly easy. The thought, All right, I’m trying, went out effortlessly; it was even easier than verbal speech.

When did your communication powers wake up?

Two weeks ago, Heero replied. Or at least that’s when I started noticing things.

And you’re reading everyone around you already?

I pushed for that, Heero admitted. I wouldn’t have if I’d realized how distracting it would be.

Why? Hajime sounded amused.

Duo had a question I was trying to find the answer to. Heero wondered whether the smoothness of this conversation with a near-complete stranger was due to the aforementioned ease of the mental communication technique, or the fact that the aforementioned near-complete stranger seemed to know exactly what Heero was going through. In any case, Heero was far less reluctant to answer this man’s questions than he would have expected.

Is that a habit of yours? Perhaps Hajime had noticed Heero’s response to Duo’s current curiosity just a minute ago. Given that that curiosity had to do with Hajime’s personal life, this idea was a little embarrassing, and Heero tried to change the subject:

How are you having two conversations at once?

Practice, Hajime replied. He still sounded amused, and again Heero wondered how much of his thoughts the exorcist — who was clearly a communicator in addition to that — was picking up. After a moment, though, Hajime added somewhat grudgingly, If you pay attention to my other conversation, you’ll notice I’ve slowed down. Not many people are good enough to keep up two perfect conversations at once.

Heero was more than a little interested, and deliberately came up with something else to ask so as to observe Hajime’s multi-tasking abilities. If you are one, maybe you know if there’s a way for a communicator to help someone else with their nightmares?

Nightmares like someone might have after an 87-year curse?

Trying not to feel startled, Heero attempted to remember what had been said in Hajime’s presence — and what thoughts he’d been able to pick up during that time — that might have revealed this.

It was on Tuesday, Hajime supplied. That Duo of yours has a completely unguarded head.

Yes, I know. The faint regret at the complications this fact had already caused in Heero’s relationship with Duo must have sounded in his mental agreement, for Hajime’s next statement had that same touch of amusement as before:

Even people with no communicative talent can be trained to keep from projecting. There’s a website that offers a lot of tips about various communication techniques; it’s not nearly as useful a resource as working with another communicator, and you’ll have to search for the answer to your nightmare question yourself, but it might still be useful. I’ll text you the address.

Thank you.

A wordless feeling of professional condescension — in the friendliest sense; it was a sort of ‘you’re welcome’ — came in reply.

Heero had partially observed Hajime’s other conversation during all of this, and noted that he had indeed slowed down. Though Trowa had probably noticed his companion paying attention to more than just him — Trowa probably knew better than Heero did what Hajime’s magical talents were — he hadn’t given any indication of being bothered by it. The whole thing was very impressive.

Heero wondered how long it would take him to master something like that. Granted, being able to carry out two conversations at once was not exactly a skill he greatly coveted, but that level of expertise was yet something he was interested in having. He also wondered, suddenly, how long it would have taken his communicative powers to awaken properly if Quatre’s emergency hadn’t prompted that to happen. He also also wondered… Why can’t I get at thoughts that aren’t on the surface? I assume I’ll be able to do that.

It comes with time and practice. The website will help.

But working with an actual communicator would help more.

Yes. If you know one, and you and he or she both have time for that.

Not caring that Hajime wasn’t looking in his direction but assuming that the feeling of his agreement would carry, Heero nodded again. Just as he’d thought, active training with a real communicator was something he would want to line up along with therapy for Duo after this Quatre business was over with. And when would this Quatre business be over with? Not tonight, it seemed.

Heero continued talking silently to Hajime off and on, ate some halibut in peach sauce he thought he must try to find a recipe to imitate at some point, watched Duo winning a new friend and Trowa appearing more and more unhappy as time passed, and worried about Quatre. When they’d been at the restaurant for nearly ninety minutes and it was two hours since when Quatre had promised to meet them, and not one of them had heard from him that evening, Heero gave up. Another look at Trowa’s face showed that he had done so long before.

“Last time he did this,” Heero tried to reassure Trowa in a low voice, “he showed up at my apartment the next day.”

“Only because it was my birthday.” Trowa, staring down into a soda cup that currently contained only ice, clearly wasn’t reassured; honestly, Heero wasn’t either, but what more could he offer?

“Call me as soon as you manage to arrange something with him,” Hajime said. “Assuming Mr. Winner will actually be there, Sano can call off work if he has to.”

“Making plans over my head again?” Sano wondered. The scowl he gave Hajime was brief, however, as he turned an expression toward Trowa that was merely serious. “I actually can call off work, though. I can’t really skip class, but I can probably be somewhere within a few hours whenever.”

Heero got the feeling that having met The Trowa Barton was what had rendered Sano amenable to risking whatever other job he had in order to be somewhere within a few hours whenever. Trowa’s celebrity was definitely good for something, then.

Trowa appeared to think so too, for he thanked the exorcists gravely. Then, as if this discussion had been about immediate practicalities rather than the uncertain future, everyone started to get up to leave the restaurant. The bill had already been split between the two communicators at the table, so all there was left for Heero to do was grab a last sip of his drink and take charge of Trowa’s boxed leftovers in addition to his own, since Trowa would undoubtedly forget his.

Out in the parking lot, the anticipated phone number exchange, along with a few parting thoughts about next year’s draft, took place between Duo and Sano before the exorcists headed off in the direction of Hajime’s car and the other three turned toward Heero’s. Before Sano was two steps away he was already saying, “So you really think I’m a natural?” And Heero realized that this topic had not been closed, only deferred until Sano and Hajime were alone.

Any little echo of Duo’s curiosity about the two that might have arisen in Heero, however, was quashed when he looked at Trowa, for the latter’s dejection seemed to have reached a sort of peak. He’d stopped walking and was glancing around the parking lot as if to check whether anyone was looking at them. “I’m going to… go take a walk,” he said in a low, helpless tone. “I’ll come back to your apartment later and try some divinations.”

“You should come back and get some sleep,” Heero said, but his admonishment probably wasn’t audible over Duo’s sound of pity as he hugged Trowa impetuously. And as soon as Duo withdrew, Trowa spoke a spell and was gone.

With a shake of head at the rueful expression on Duo’s face as he stared at the place their friend had been, Heero adjusted the Styrofoam boxes in his arm and said, “Let’s go home.”

Part 31

Duo felt he’d just barely closed his eyes when he was startled awake by a ringing phone. In fact, looking at the clock in some confusion, he observed that it hadn’t actually been all that long since the latest nightmare had awakened both him and Heero and they’d struggled back to sleep after a rather incoherent scene.

In a clumsy movement Heero sat up, fighting a blanket that wasn’t really very much in his way and grumbling slurredly about its being before eight and who could possibly be calling so early on a Saturday morning? Duo sat up as well, and pressed himself against Heero with his head on Heero’s shoulder and his arms around him to retain the warmth of lying in bed. Then he denied his inclination to laugh at the Neanderthal manner in which Heero put the phone to his ear and said, “Hllo?”

So close was Duo in this position that he could hear most of the other end of the conversation with little trouble. “Heero, I’m sorry to call you so early on a Saturday. This is Bernard Winner. I was just wondering if you’ve heard from Quatre lately.”

Heero woke up quickly. “No, I haven’t seen him since…” He paused to think. “Wednesday.”

“And no calls or emails?” Mr. Winner persisted.

“No, I haven’t heard from him at all.”

“Do you know what’s been wrong with him lately?”

Heero hesitated before answering. “I know he’s been pretty angry,” he hedged.

Mr. Winner snorted. “That’s an understatement.”

“It’s been… causing some tension,” Heero added carefully.

“He’s been very unpleasant at home for a while… His mother and I have been worried about him… You don’t think that Trowa has anything to do with it, do you?”

Duo stiffened, and pressed even closer.

“No,” Heero said with immediate, purposeful surety. “No, Trowa’s been very worried about him too. He’s been trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“All right…”

“Trowa’s staying with me right now,” Heero pursued. “I have to see how unhappy he is about this every day.”

“All right,” said Mr. Winner again, sounding a little more convinced this time.

Silently, Duo kissed Heero on the cheek.

“The reason I called,” Mr. Winner went on, “is that I woke up to an email this morning from Quatre that… just doesn’t seem like him.”

Heero and Duo waited in tense silence.

“He says he’s taking a vacation, but not where he’s going or for how long.”

“You got this this morning?” wondered the startled Heero.

“It came in the middle of the night.”

“He was supposed to meet us last night — yesterday after work — and he never showed up or even called.”

“I haven’t actually seen him since Wednesday either; his car hasn’t even been at the house.”

“Wednesday,” repeated Heero in some dismay. “And his car hasn’t been home?” His voice sank to a murmur. “Where has he been? Not with Trowa, since he’s been here… And now he’s ‘taking a vacation?'”

“I feel like something strange is going on,” Mr. Winner admitted. “I know he’s been upset lately, but this email… it just didn’t seem like him. Why would he email in the middle of the night, from his phone, instead of just telling us? He’s a responsible manager who would never abandon his work with no notice like that.”

Duo thought that, under the circumstances, Quatre might, but he couldn’t think of any way to explain this to Quatre’s father that would make sense and be at all convincing.

“And an email from his cell phone could have been sent from anywhere… from anyone.”

“You think someone else has his phone?” said Heero in some surprise.

“I don’t know. I’m very worried. With this coming on top of everything that’s been happening with him lately, I’m afraid something is seriously wrong.”

Something was seriously wrong. And it could have been fixed last night if Quatre hadn’t disappeared. But what could be said to this unfortunate man? Besides a helpless-sounding, “Yeah…” what was there to offer?

“Has he gotten into some kind of drug?” Mr. Winner sounded somewhat desperate.

Immediately Heero replied, “No, I don’t think so.” A suggestion of drugs might actually have been a good excuse for Quatre’s behavior, but also might have caused more problems, in the long run, than it solved.

“Then what’s going on? Drugs were the last idea I had that made sense!”

“I wish I knew.”

“I’m going to call the police.”

Duo was impressed with Heero’s calm as he replied, “Do you think there’s enough information for the police to care?”

“None of his friends or family have seen him for three days, and all I have is an email that doesn’t sound like he wrote it that could have come from anywhere. And that’s after he’s been acting strangely for two weeks. I want someone to look into this.”

Duo had to admit that Mr. Winner had a point. Wherever Quatre had gone and whatever he was up to, it probably related back to his possession and mood, but not knowing about those conditions might lead anyone to think he’d developed an addiction or perhaps been abducted. Once again, without explaining the entire situation, there was no way to stop Mr. Winner calling the police — and even an explanation would only help if Mr. Winner believed it. If talking to the police made him feel better while they waited for Quatre to drag himself out of whatever angry hole he’d hidden in, that was all for the good — however inconvenient it might prove to some of the people involved.

“OK,” was presumably the only thing Heero could say. But he did add, “We’re really worried about him; if you hear anything, can you let me know?”

“If you’ll agree to do the same for us here.”

“Of course.” After this they exchanged thanks and good wishes and hung up.

With a helpless sigh, Heero replaced the phone on the nightstand and lay back down. Duo wasted no time cuddling up against him, and Heero put his arm around him.

“We were so close to fixing this. And now his dad’s calling the police.”

“Is that going to cause problems?” Duo wondered.

“I have no idea. If they start some kind of investigation, they might want to talk to us… we should probably think of something to say…” Heero didn’t sound as if he wanted to make the effort at the moment.

Duo squeezed him, trying to offer comfort. The whole situation had already been frustrating and worrying, and now to have Mr. Winner involved made things even less fun. “If we could find Quatre, we could take the exorcism to him — like Trowa said yesterday. Call up those guys and have them meet us wherever Quatre is.”

“I’m afraid he’s hiding,” Heero sighed. “He’s lost control of what’s going on, and he can’t handle being around people.”

“If he could have just held out for a couple more days!”

“I know…”

“Do you think he will feel like he can be around people long enough to get exorcised? Or will he try to keep hiding forever?”

“I have no idea,” Heero said again. “I’m guessing about everything anyway.”

“We’ll need to tell Trowa about all this.” Duo had little enthusiasm for that, but Trowa — assuming last night’s divinations hadn’t already informed him — would need to know. That didn’t mean Duo was ready to move from his current position to hurry out and deliver unpleasant news. Chances were good that Trowa was awake still or again, but there was no reason for Duo to abandon his Heero-comforting/cuddling efforts just yet. He was extremely comfortable (physically) at the moment, and things weren’t likely to get any better than this for the rest of the day.

“You’re so cute,” Heero murmured, nuzzling Duo’s head with his face.

“Doesn’t that make you desperately want to have amazing sex with me?”

Heero was groaning with despair and clutching at Duo tightly even before the question was fully out. “Yes, it does,” he said emphatically, almost miserably. “You know how much better that would make me feel about the entire world right now?”

“I could try really hard to be quiet,” Duo wheedled.

Heero kissed the top of his head, then squirmed out of his arms. “I’m so sorry.”

With an explosive sigh, Duo buried his face in the pillow Heero had abandoned. After a moment, he kicked his legs under the blanket, trying to relieve his frustration. It wasn’t that he didn’t completely respect Heero’s aversion to the very thought of performing for an audience; it was just completely unfair for someone that had been deprived of sensation for eighty-seven years to have sex withheld from him now that he was human again, even for only a few days. Well, it had been seven days, and that already felt like forever. Apart from being something Duo very much enjoyed, and an aspect of their relationship that seemed awkwardly on hold at the moment, it would also, as Heero had said, be an excellent source of comfort for two men with some serious worries on their shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” said Heero again. “Maybe Trowa will go somewhere today and leave us alone.”

Duo returned the frustrated groan Heero had given before. By the time he looked up, Heero had disappeared into the bathroom.

Part 32

Upon returning to Heero’s apartment late Saturday afternoon, Trowa found both of his temporary roommates evidently somewhat annoyed and trying not to show it. At first he thought this was because the housework they were attempting was somewhat hampered by Trowa’s possessions stacked all over the place, but he became more precisely enlightened when Duo said, “We were expecting you back any time!” — because if that had been the case, they wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the many hours Trowa had left them alone. Try as he might not to think about it, Trowa knew perfectly well how his presence was specifically inconveniencing his friends.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have let you know when I left.”

At this Duo seemed to relent even from the irritation he didn’t want to show in the first place. “Oh, it’s no problem. What have you been up to?”

“I’ve bought a house,” Trowa replied.

Looking surprised, Heero turned from cleaning the front of a kitchen cabinet with one of the Clorox wipes left over from dealing with Trowa’s smoke-damaged furniture. “Actually bought a house?”

Trowa nodded. “It’s in High Palms. I think it should work.”

“But you actually bought it?” Heero reiterated. “Or you’re in the process?”

“No, it’s bought and paid for,” Trowa confirmed.

Apparently Heero wasn’t sure what to say.

“Is that weird?” Duo wondered.

“You were never with anyone who was buying a new house?” Heero returned.

“Maybe a couple of times, but I wasn’t exactly involved in the process.”

“And you weren’t around here in time to hear Relena and Colin complaining about it. It usually takes months.” Heero gave Trowa a wry smile. “When you said the other day that you needed to get things done, you weren’t joking.”

Trowa returned the smile. “It turns out that, if you’ve been burned out of your house and you can pay cash for a new one, it speeds up the process remarkably.”

“So you’re allowed to move in right away?” Trowa didn’t think he was imagining the trace of hope in Duo’s voice. He also didn’t blame him for it.

“Yes. There’s some inspection that needs to take place, but because I’m out of a home right now…” Trowa held up a collection of keys on a small, cheap ring.

Heero stared at them. “And it’s a Saturday,” he said in a marveling tone.

“I probably should have waited instead of making my real estate agent work on the weekend.” Trowa gave a little shrug. “But getting something done like this made me feel better — and I believe she’s happy for the commission in any case.”

“What is all this about getting things done?” Heero, having turned back to his work, was lifting items off the counter — first the toaster, then the bread box — in order to clean beneath them, and asked this question in a carefully casual tone.

Trowa found he rather wanted to answer, to explain himself, to try to connect with his friends on this topic, in the hopes of diminishing some of the aloneness he’d been increasingly weighed down with lately. This was an odd sensation in light of his history (and with perhaps some irony attached when he was cohabitating for the first time in almost a century) — it seemed impossible that he should have become so accustomed to togetherness, to companionship, over the last five months that when some shadow of the aloneness of the preceding 87 years returned it made for a startling and unpleasant contrast. To share his resolution, he believed, would lessen that cold feeling of solitude. Moreover, he understood that personal goals were often better adhered to when you had even the impression of someone holding you accountable.

He looked at his friends in turn, though his eyes moved rapidly over Duo, whose cleaning efforts were much more random and evidently much less effective than those of the industrious Heero, and lingered on the latter. And for an instant — it was an almost automatic response — he shied from the idea of sharing something so personal with Heero.

It was only an instant, though: the thought of how supportive Heero had been lately, with so little reproof on any score, and the recollection of his admonition last night in an almost Quatre-like tone that Trowa should get some sleep… these weren’t even really necessary; they merely formed a capstone on a structure Trowa was a little surprised to find already solid: the awareness that he did trust Heero, even with something so personal. This realization already contributed significantly to the easing of his negative feelings.

As such, he addressed Heero more than Duo as he next spoke. That was only natural, since Heero had asked the question and Trowa’s ability to confide in Duo had never been uncertain, but still it might be somewhat novel. “If you remember, the morning after Quatre destroyed the artifact, when I came to talk to you two, you asked me why I was here, and said I was underreacting. You were right. I’ve developed a bad habit of hesitating… of being passive about things… of not taking charge of situations I should be doing something about. I don’t know if it’s because I was focused on the curse so exclusively for so long that now I have a hard time focusing on anything else, or some other reason… maybe it’s just the way I am… but it has to change. I have to be better at doing what I can without holding back.”

A brief silence and stillness followed this revelation. Trowa’s gaze had left Heero and fixed on the refrigerator as the least threatening place it could possibly rest, but he could tell that the other movement in the kitchen had stopped just for a moment. Then the corner of his eye informed him that Heero had resumed cleaning as if his pause had been perfectly natural. Simultaneously, Duo had come to lean against the counter where Trowa stood and bump one of his shoulders against one of Trowa’s in a friendly and reassuring fashion.

“Sounds like a good plan,” he said in a casual tone with an underlying seriousness to it. “I mean, it seems to me like you’re always busy doing something, but if you feel like you could be doing even better…” He shrugged, then grew more somber. “And actually I think you’re not the only one who’s thinking something like that.” Though Duo went on immediately to explain what he meant, Trowa didn’t properly hear, for at that moment he was very thoroughly distracted from the verbal conversation.

Communion magic was a secondary skill for Trowa, and as such the telepathic communications of others, on the rare occasions when actual communicators saw fit to contact him mentally, came across quietly and often rather vaguely. Physical proximity made a significant difference, however, and there was no way he could ignore the arrival in his head of a foreign thought — or, rather, a bundle of thoughts, like a solid little package of interconnected ideas and emotions wrapped up neatly and sent directly at him from so close by that they were all relatively clear and comprehensible:

Heero couldn’t deny that he’d meant it when he’d said Trowa was underreacting, or that he’d originally blamed Trowa for Quatre’s condition. He still thought Trowa had been underreacting that first day, but he’d completely forgiven him for that — fully admitting that, in these circumstances, not being the one wronged, he wasn’t really in any position to offer forgiveness. And he’d ceased to blame Trowa for the bad situation with Quatre. Trowa hadn’t known this would happen… and if he had taken it upon himself to destroy the artifact — which, though he probably should have done, he couldn’t really be faulted for not doing — then he might be the angry one now, and his friends in an even worse position as far as enacting a cure.

Heero thought Trowa’s resolution to be more proactive was an admirable one; he was impressed that Trowa had made it and started working on it so sincerely, especially without Quatre’s influence. At the same time, Heero was chagrined by the thought that his disapprobation might have made Trowa think worse of himself. Of course Trowa had areas in which he needed to improve — they all did — but it was abhorrent to Heero that Trowa might feel one of his had been thrown into his face by a supposed friend. It might not always have been the case — at least not 100% — but Heero approved of Trowa, and wanted him to know that they were allies in the situation with Quatre as in many other things. Yes, he’d meant what he’d said, but it hadn’t been intended as a stab at Trowa’s character. As if they hadn’t all been getting enough of that from Quatre lately.

Whether Heero had sent all of this mentally because he was embarrassed about saying it aloud, was embarrassed about saying it aloud in front of Duo, felt himself incapable of articulating it at all, or perhaps merely because it was such a numerous list of thoughts that he’d believed could be more quickly and easily conveyed like this, Trowa didn’t know. In any case, it overrode Duo, seized Trowa’s full attention, and resonated with him so strongly that he had to consider himself shaken. Just when he’d been thinking that he really did trust Heero, this was the perfect response, exactly what he needed. They were allies. They really were. They were friends that could be honest with each other, sharing the unpleasant along with the comforting, even about personal and somewhat troubling topics. It was a warmth and a joy and an unexpected relief to Trowa all at once.

“I’m sorry, Duo,” he said, interrupting with a raised hand whatever Duo had been saying. “I’m sorry, but can you wait just a moment?” And as Duo fell silent with a curious expression, Trowa turned away. Heero’s back was to him as he went on doggedly cleaning the kitchen — though Trowa was fairly certain it was a portion of the kitchen he’d already seen to — but Trowa addressed him anyway. “It wasn’t only what you said, Heero. It seems like everyone I’ve talked to lately has said something, and it’s all combined to help me realize this. It’s been more like the entire world reaching out to help me than anybody accusing me of anything.”

The gesture Duo gave at this, though Trowa didn’t see it clearly from this angle, conveyed even greater curiosity and now some confusion. Heero, however, did not turn from his work (increasingly pointless as it seemed with each moment that passed), just said somewhat gruffly, “OK, good.”

Trowa didn’t think there was anything more to offer on the subject, but still he lingered mentally. He wanted to give some indication of his appreciation of this display of solidarity between himself and Heero — without, preferably, embarrassing Heero. Struck with inspiration after a prolonged and somewhat awkward silence, he moved to where the container of Clorox wipes stood at the end of the counter and took one. Almost blindly he began rubbing at the stove, which was already gleaming from Heero’s prior attentions.

Duo cleared his throat. “Sooo…” He sounded curious yet, but his new tone was tinged with growing understanding — or at least hypothesis — that suggested Heero would probably be teased or confronted or grilled about this later.

Hoping he hadn’t set Heero up for an uncomfortable conversation, “Yes, sorry, Duo,” Trowa said. “What were you saying?”

And that Duo had recognized at the very least that Trowa hadn’t heard any of his story the first time was implied by his seeming to restart from the beginning: “Quatre’s dad called this morning…”

Part 33

This landscaping could use some work, Heero thought. The grass had recently been cut, in the interest of selling the place, but the line of bushes separating the driveway from the lawn was straggling a bit and possibly not a good choice for that spot to begin with. It was all the generic type of outdoor design you got on a new property, progressed far enough that he judged the house had been built four or five years ago and the previous owners hadn’t given much consideration to the layout of their yard. Of course he was far from an expert, but he had his opinions.

They’d come by car rather than magic for a few reasons: first, to get to know the mundane route between Heero’s apartment and Trowa’s new house; second, so they could form an impression of the place properly, from the outside in; and third, because they had already brought a load of stuff — smaller things that would fit in Heero’s trunk and back seat — even on this first visit.

It was, Heero had to admit, exciting to look at the empty residence Trowa was free to alter as he chose, and consider what Heero might do with it if the choice had been his. His imagination couldn’t help wandering off to the idea of him and Duo buying a house together. That was nothing they needed right now, but daydreaming about it made Heero understand Trowa’s persistence on Wednesday when he’d been thinking so fixedly (and texting so interminably) about aspects of the new home he’d like to share with the man he loved.

They’d made plans yesterday to spend as much of Sunday as was necessary getting Trowa moved, and it hadn’t been merely the aforementioned excitement about a new house driving that conversation. Trowa’s eagerness to get back into a place of his own was poignantly obvious, and of course Heero and Duo had their own reasons to want their friend transplanted and their privacy restored.

It amused Heero to see that Trowa didn’t bother to pull out the keys he’d obtained yesterday at the expense of half his real estate agent’s weekend; as they approached the tan door in the beige brick, he spoke a quiet unlocking spell as casually as if that were the most natural way of getting in. Then he stepped inside and gestured his friends to follow and begin the tour.

A large entry or front room stretched all the way up to a twenty-foot ceiling, overlooked by a flight of stairs and the second-floor hallway balcony it led to. Tall windows in two walls made the space bright and warm, but Heero had to think it a bit excessive, even ostentatious, until Trowa, with a gesture at the openness above and around them, remarked, “Good acoustics in here.” Then Heero imagined a grand piano taking up a third of the room, with Quatre seated at its bench, and nodded.

Of course plans to come see this place had only been made after discussing the phone call from Mr. Winner and how his contacting the police might complicate things. The mood of that conversation had been bizarrely eclectic, what with lingering awkward camaraderie between Trowa and Heero that neither was sure how or even whether to express, concern about Quatre and where he might be and how they could go about getting him to emerge and be exorcised, worry and even some irritation regarding the potential police involvement, and Duo’s amusement in inventing stories for any cop that came around to question them about their missing friend.

None of Heero’s ideas on the latter subject had made the cut, and Trowa had contributed very little, but Duo’s energy and inventiveness had served to provide answers to any queries the law might have in the course of a missing persons investigation. Even Trowa had been entertained by some of the more outlandish of the excuses Duo had suggested, and they’d all been surprisingly cheerful at that point.

The same attitude, though a little precarious, remained as they looked over the lower floor of Trowa’s new house. “A long corner sofa there,” he said, pointing along both walls of the living room, “with a few matching chairs facing in around a coffee table for…” Vaguely he finished, “…board games or… that kind of thing…” in a tone that indicated he really had no idea what people did with comfortable couches and coffee tables in living rooms, but was determined to achieve the effect nonetheless.

“Quatre will help with that,” Duo reassured with a grin.

Trowa smiled faintly, and gestured them on into the kitchen. “Heero, does this meet your approval?”

Even in dimness, Heero was already nodding before Trowa found a light switch. It wasn’t granite countertops or anything, but a lovely, commodious kitchen nonetheless, with plenty of room for some friend that happened to love cooking to come over and experiment. There was even space for a small table for casual meals, as Heero had suggested; evidently Trowa had taken him seriously about finding that in addition to a separate dining room — which was what they looked at next.

Yesterday’s discussion of the local police had inevitably led to some questions about Trowa’s current relationship with the police in his previous hometown. Naturally it had been good news that, though a few more conversations with both them and his insurance company had been required, there had yet to be any suggestion that his old house hadn’t really burned because of wiring from the 40’s… but some discomfort remained in the lack of full understanding of that situation. Trowa still didn’t know whether the moon cult representative that had brainwashed everyone had done so thoroughly enough that he would never face any further trouble relating to the arson, or whether things over there were teetering on the edge of severe inconvenience and possible legal ramifications.

And this, of course, had finally led them back around to discussion of Trowa’s new house and what needed to be done for him to inhabit it.

“I envision this as an office,” he said of a sunny upstairs room that looked out over the deck and the plain expanse of grass that formed the back yard. “And this as a spare room,” he added with a gesture to the next empty chamber.

They came to a halt just inside the master bedroom, the last stop on the tour, observing its pleasant corner windows and broad space as well as the touch of a frown on Trowa’s face. This latter, though certainly not like it had been under the influence of the curse, was still fairly pale, so even a very faint blush showed up clearly. In response to the one there now, Heero guessed his friend was specifically wondering whether or not he would be sharing this bedroom.

This guess was echoed in Duo’s head. Instead of bringing it up directly, however, Duo declared, “I love your new house! It’s gorgeous!” He really did want to keep Trowa from melancholy, but he was also a little distracted thinking that he might like to live in such a place. Remembering helping Relena paint the one she’d moved into back in June, he was considering how fun it would be to decide where to put things and how to decorate in a new home. Heero might have been somewhat concerned at these thoughts, except that they didn’t seem to arise from any serious desire and were unaccompanied by any discontentment.

“It is really nice,” Heero agreed. “Seems like a good choice.” Pointedly he added, “I think Quatre will like it.”

Trowa nodded his thanks with a slight smile. “We’ll see.” And Heero didn’t need to hear his thoughts to know what went through his head: he wished Quatre were here right now, that Quatre could have been the first person Trowa had shown around this place, rather than friends that, while certainly close, were not as close or directly concerned.

“So let’s go grab stuff so you can decide where to put it!” Duo added enthusiastically. Again Trowa nodded, the cheer in his expression more pronounced this time, and they all headed out of the master bedroom and down the stairs toward the front door.

Quatre would like this neighborhood, Heero reflected several minutes later as he returned to the open rear of his car for another set of things to bring inside; he’d already caught sight of four or five people walking dogs or jogging past. Now, a man across the street smiled as Heero glanced over at him, and Heero gave him a polite nod. Admittedly this particular guy, suited and sunglassed, looked like an FBI agent more than a friendly neighbor, but the point remained that there were a lot of people around that Quatre would love meeting and making friends with. If only he could be gotten here in a frame of mind appropriate to start that process.

After they had this small load unpacked, they would go back to Heero’s apartment, where Relena and Colin were to meet them with a borrowed pickup and they could begin the tricky task of negotiating Trowa’s larger pieces of remaining furniture (mostly bookshelves) down the apartment halls and stairs so they could be brought to the new house. Conceivably, Trowa could teleport the smaller things, but not only would it exhaust him to be jumping back and forth all day, it seemed to his friends like a more proper move if done the traditional way.

Heero hadn’t mentioned that he’d given Relena a shopping list of essential items Trowa would need — such as an air mattress, toilet paper, a couple of cheap lamps, and some non-perishable food to stock his new kitchen — for which he would pay her back later. Trowa probably hadn’t considered what he would sleep on here, or what to do in the event he needed to use one of his nice new bathrooms.

Of course Trowa might not be doing anything nearly so human any time soon. He’d mentioned that he intended to outfit one of the upstairs rooms (at least temporarily) for divination, explaining that having a space specifically set aside for a magical purpose tended to strengthen that particular magic, and hoping that he might be better able to find Quatre thus. Some candles that hadn’t been destroyed in his old house were already up there, in fact, having been part of the first load to come over.

So it was entirely possible that, happy as he might be to have a new home of his own, Trowa wouldn’t really be conscious of much of it for the next few days. Heero was already pondering how best to go about advising moderation in magical activities and a healthy amount of sleep. Quatre would probably emerge eventually, and his mood wasn’t likely to be improved if he found that his boyfriend had worked himself mostly to death trying to locate him earlier.

Heero knew that in this he would be behaving very much like that same Quatre, but at the moment they all needed some reminders of the better of Quatre’s personal characteristics. At the very least, he would be doing his part, alongside Duo, to keep Trowa relatively cheerful while they went about the rest of the weekend’s work.

Later this same day, elsewhere in the city…

Part 34

“And as they’re all watching in horror, the unfortunate woman begins pounding her head against the wall, until they rush to stop her.”

Duo was sure Heero already regretted having brought leftover lasagna for lunch; it necessitated their presence in the breakroom to make use of the microwaves before they could head out to the privacy of his car. Which meant having to put up with co-workers for three minutes and twenty-five seconds at least. Duo, of course, was secretly pleased (not that it was a secret from Heero), as he cherished every moment he got to spend with a certain one of them.

“Wufei,” he said, “you have such a good memory for movie scenes. That one reminds me of an episode of that one show — what was it called? The one about the robots that were magical, and the mental breakdown the one guy had spread to the other robots like a virus, and had all these magical consequences?”

Neither the compliment, even with its admiring tone, nor the description of the episode could distract Wufei — though Duo thought he did catch a spark of interest about the robots. Wufei was like one of those beetles that doggedly resumed its precise direction of travel even after having been flicked several feet off course across the sidewalk and onto its back. Now he said, leading and unsubtle, “People are capable of such mental breakdowns, you know. Not with magical ramifications, of course, but to the extent where their normal functions are inhibited.”

This was the latest rumor about Quatre: that his nerves had snapped, preventing him from coming to work. And because this supposed breakdown might have something to do with his split with Heero (which had been upgraded to ‘traumatic’ to fit the circumstance), no one dared approach Heero or Duo about it directly. The level of gossip had intensified madly, though, and even what Duo didn’t overhear, Heero picked up on mentally and relayed to him.

And now Wufei, who thought he was clever, was trying to make himself a hero in the eyes of the sales team by winkling out the truth so he could whisper it to everyone else as soon as Heero and Duo had left the room.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Duo said, ignoring the obvious bait and offering some of his own, “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for someone’s mental breakdown to have magical ramifications. I mean, nobody’s ever proved magic doesn’t exist, have they?”

This one came so close to derailing Wufei’s attempt at getting information about Quatre that Duo could probably guess the exact wording of his eager reply on the subject of whether or not magic existed. But with an evident effort, Wufei said instead, “That’s true, but the much more mundane results of someone’s mental breakdown would be evident much sooner.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Like the first thing that happened in the robot show was that the one robot couldn’t do his usual routine that kept the power running to his docking-station-house-thing.”

Again Wufei looked as if he might be interested in the robot show, but again he didn’t ask. Evidently seeing that his attempt had failed, he said, “Are you aware that I’m being considered as your partner trainer?”

Now Duo was the one derailed. What Wufei thought to gain by this rather irrelevant interjection he didn’t know, but he was surprised and tickled by the news. “Are you?”

Wufei seemed pleased by Duo’s enthusiasm. “That’s correct,” he said. “Of course Dorothy hasn’t made the final decision yet, and at the moment she isn’t receiving any input on the subject from a higher authority.”

Ah, so that was it: allusions to Quatre and the implication that Duo and Wufei, possibly destined to work closely together, should be ready to confide in each other. Duo didn’t care; he was just happy at the prospect of a lot more daily messing-with-Wufei time.

Heero broke into the conversation at this moment by pressing a hot Tupperware container against Duo’s arm and making him jump. After the laughter that resulted from this, a couple of related comments — one of them silent, intended only for Heero, about how good it was to be able to feel a hot Tupperware — and a brief goodbye to the disappointed Wufei, they left the breakroom and headed down the hall.

“How much time do you think he spends looking up those nerdy-sounding shows and movies you keep making up?” Heero wondered quietly once they were a safe distance away.

Because he’d already asked, Duo knew that Heero didn’t pick anything up from Wufei mentally and therefore didn’t know the answer to this question. “I like to think a lot,” he said smugly. “Convenient how I can never remember the titles, isn’t it? And isn’t it totally nice of me to give him something to entertain himself with?”

“If it distracts him even a little from trying to dig up dirt about Quatre,” Heero muttered, “I won’t complain.”

“Is Dorothy really considering him?”

“Yes.” Heero’s tone hadn’t brightened much. “I think she thinks it’ll be funny.”

“It will!” Duo laughed. “We’ll be like Pinky and the Brain!”

“I’m not even going to ask which of you you’re casting as which of them.”

Duo paused. “That’s good, because I’m not sure myself. Anyway, I feel like he won’t actually be too bad of a trainer even if he is… Wufei.”

“Wufei has the best numbers on the team,” was Heero’s grudging admission. “And if you can get over the way he is, he really is a very good partner trainer. I’m sure Dorothy’s considering him because she wants to see how much social havoc it’ll cause, but besides that it’s because she can see you’re going to be good enough to deserve the best.”

Extremely pleased at this, Duo smiled broadly. “And who else is being considered for deserves-the-best Duo?”

“That would be me.” Out of nowhere as they walked away from the elevators, Catharine fell into step beside them with a smile of her own. “I’m sorry for overhearing and butting in, but I am relevant.”

“Catharine is second place in sales performance,” Heero offered, reiterating the point that Dorothy was seeking the best possible training for Duo.

“I have to choose between Nerdfei and Trowa’s hot cousin?” Duo demanded, delighted.

Heero stifled a laugh. “Please don’t ever call him that again at the office.”

“And it probably won’t be much of a choice.” Catharine seemed to be repressing her own amusement at Duo’s nickname for their co-worker, but she often had such a playful demeanor even when discussing serious subjects that it was a little difficult to tell. “I’m supposedly working on a sales protocol project with Quatre right now. He’s barely been responding to my emails lately, our projected completion date’s been moved out twice, and now the entire thing is on hold, which is why Dorothy’s considering me for you at all… but I may not have time for partner training.”

Sobering a bit, Duo nodded his understanding.

“Listen,” she said, all playfulness dropping from her lowered voice, “I’ll completely understand if you can’t answer, and I’m sorry to ask in the first place — but do you guys know where Quatre is and when he’ll be back?”

The straightforward question, presented only once she had established a legitimate reason to want to know and an apparent concern for the subject, formed an interesting contrast to Wufei’s underhanded gossipy curiosity. Nevertheless, Duo allowed Heero the decision whether or not to answer.

Heero waited until they were out the front doors, past the prying ears of the security guard, to respond, and Duo wondered what he was reading in Catharine’s mind that caused his somewhat surprising frankness: “The last anyone’s heard from him was an email to his dad saying he was going on vacation — but not where or for how long. We think he’s hiding from his own bad mood.”

“I see,” she said, pulling car keys from her purse with a slight frown as they all started into the parking lot. “Thanks.” After a moment she added, “And how is Trowa?”

“Not fabulous,” Duo replied. Immediately he amended the statement. “I mean, Trowa’s always fabulous, of course, but he’s not exactly happy right now.” Skipping most of the detail he finished, “He’s really worried about Quatre.”

“Well, you can tell him his hot cousin says, ‘Hang in there,'” Catharine advised, a touch of playfulness having returned to her tone atop an underlying authoritativeness, “and that he can call me if he ever wants to talk. He has my number.” She’d stopped walking and turned slightly, indicating that her destination lay in a different direction from theirs.

Duo halted beside her. In response to her friendly concern and offer of support, he was inclined to give her a huge hug, but figured that, in this work setting, he’d better restrain himself. In lieu of that he said, “Yooooouuuu are invited to my party.”

“Are you having a party?”

“Eventually. Sometime. When everything’s happy again. And you are totally invited, so don’t forget!”

Seeming amused by his earnestness, she chuckled, “I won’t!” She transferred her smile to Heero, who had progressed a pace past them and turned back to witness the final exchange in silence. “You guys have a good lunch.”

“You too!” Duo said, and turned to join Heero walking toward his car as Catharine waved them away with a friendly hand.

Part 35

The last thing Trowa said before he cast his spell, under his breath and apostrophically, was, “I’m sorry about this.” Then he murmured the words that would take him where he needed to go, and fell silent as he went there.

Aside from doing something he didn’t feel entirely right about, he was taking a risk here. Though he used a teleportation spell that had a built-in clause against appearing (to great personal detriment) in the same space as some object, there was no guarantee that the room would be devoid of people — and in this case, unless by some phenomenal good luck it turned out to be Quatre, anyone that happened to be there would undoubtedly be startled and astonished, might well run and/or scream, and would certainly require quite a bit of explanation.

Quatre’s bedroom resembled his office last Friday — forlornly dark and empty, door closed. Trowa stood still for a few moments, listening. There was noise outside, rather distressingly close: a couple of people were talking on the landing, and, though Trowa couldn’t specifically identify the voices, they were familiar enough in this setting. They didn’t seem to be discussing anything that might lead them to enter Quatre’s room, but Trowa still stood poised to jump back out again should the sounds approach the door. But in fact they faded into the hallway across from it.

He let out a quiet breath and moved slowly toward the door himself. This old house had creaking floorboards, and it wouldn’t do to give away his presence by carelessness so that some member of Quatre’s family thought the wayward son had returned and came running in to see him. Beside the door, he listened for a moment longer, then murmured a spell. Once magically protected against detection from without, he flipped the light switch and turned to face the room.

The difference in the latter since the last time Trowa had been here was startling. The bulletin board that had previously displayed a number of happy photographs now stood on the floor leaning against the wall as if it had fallen down — or perhaps been knocked down — and Quatre just hadn’t felt equal to rehanging it. The photos were like the board in miniature; it looked as if some overly vigorous movement had ripped many of them off their push-pins, and then they’d all been, instead of put back with Quatre’s usual neatness, stacked and tucked into the corner of the board.

The bookshelf was in similar condition; the books had evidently been knocked off of it and then hastily replaced in a vertical stack that did not represent their previous organization. Even sadder than the books, the model cars on the other shelves all appeared to be damaged. Though they’d been returned to their places, it looked as if they’d been swept off prior to that or even thrown, and the pieces that had broken from each had been only carelessly tossed onto the shelves beside the cars rather than arranged with any care or repaired.

For the first time Trowa had ever seen when he wasn’t currently occupying it, Quatre’s bed was unmade, and one of the pillows lay, limp and lonely, on the floor. Beside it, a line of clothes was scattered from the open closet door all the way to the opposite wall.

No wonder Quatre had fled this place. This room should have been his sanctuary, his escape from a world that wasn’t doing much for his frame of mind… but through that very frame of mind, in breaking down the organization he valued so highly and damaging the comforting items around him, Quatre had turned even his own private space into something that must actually have agitated him more. It only made sense, at that point, to go somewhere else. But where had he gone? This was what Trowa had come to investigate.

He had turned the computer on as he’d looked around, and now he sat down at the desk. The roll-out shelf that held the keyboard and mouse was stuck, and took some wrangling to bring out; it felt a bit as if someone had pounded on it and twisted the metal track a little out of shape. Trowa was glad he had added a sound clause to his spell at the door, because, as quiet as he tried to be, this took some considerable rattling.

The mouse barely worked; perhaps it had been the primary target of the slamming. It required a combination of computer accessories, with emphasis on the keyboard, to get into Firefox and direct it toward the email service Quatre used for personal correspondence. He entered Quatre’s login information, thinking apologies at his absent lover again as he initiated this further violation of privacy.

He was looking for clues as to where Quatre might be, and, given that he was probably the only person that knew Quatre’s email password, he might be the only person that could look in this particular direction. He wanted to see the infamous email Quatre’s father didn’t think Quatre had really written. He wanted to see if Quatre had contacted anyone else about this supposed vacation of his, had said anything to anyone that might indicate where he’d gone. He wanted, he had to admit, to connect with Quatre again, even if it was only a shadow of their real connection and being carried out in a hopeless and underhanded way.

Given that Quatre, as long as he had his phone, could still access this account, it was possible he’d already erased anything that might provide Trowa with any useful information… but Trowa thought it worth checking even so. And there was a faint chance that, in any case, this would make him feel a little better.

The inbox was full; actually, it rather resembled Trowa’s at the moment, with many new items, several replies, and, below that, a long list of messages already read but not yet dealt with. Normally, Trowa knew, Quatre liked to keep his inbox empty by replying as things arrived; he’d even teasingly lamented the state of Trowa’s in the past when he’d seen it. But at the moment it was no surprise that he’d received many more emails lately than he’d had the patience to do anything about.

At a glance, Trowa counted at least four unread messages from Heero. Even Duo (display name ‘The Great And Singular Maxwell’) had tried to raise a response from Quatre once. All of these Trowa skipped, and clicked instead on the email from Bernard Winner whose subject line was Re:Vacation. He scrolled down (or, rather, arrowed down, since the mouse suddenly wasn’t working again) past Mr. Winner’s worried queries to the quoted original message.

It was startlingly brief, rivaling anything Trowa at his most laconic could have written: I am on vacation starting now. I won’t be at home or at work.

Trowa shook his head. With so few words, and knowing how Quatre had been in recent days, he couldn’t judge, as Mr. Winner had, whether or not Quatre himself had written this. He moved back out into the inbox and glanced down the list again. When nothing looked promising, he clicked on the sent mail folder.

After only another half second of visual scanning, he stiffened in his seat and blinked several times. His first thought was that he must be imagining things; he couldn’t be seeing right. His mind already raced with the possibilities implied by this information. He’d come looking for clues, and he’d found one, but it pointed in an unexpected and unpleasant direction.

The name of the recipient of the last email Quatre had sent prior to the ‘Vacation’ notification to his father was Vallis Rheita.

As soon as Trowa could get to it — the mouse refused to cooperate again, so he was forced to tab around — he hastened to try to find out what Quatre had been doing emailing La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré. Not that Trowa couldn’t already guess; he’d heard the way Quatre had sounded last week when he’d asked about ‘that French cult.’ And it was no surprise to find that, just as Trowa happened to know Quatre’s email password, Quatre should know Trowa’s as well in order to get at the address of the person that had written about the arson.

The message was, for some reason, in French — perhaps Quatre had believed this would add a personalized touch — and Trowa worked in impatient haste to copy it so he could paste it, in another window, into Google’s translator. Then he attempted tensely to make sense of what he could now read:

This is Quatre Winner , Trowa boyfriend Barton. How dare you send this email you ? It is a part of your organization hit against him in this way is absolutely unacceptable , and one e -mail is not enough reward. I’ll tell you that it was I who destroyed the artifact you call the artifact Rousell , so your reactionary faction acted against Trowa for any reason whatsoever. His house was destroyed and his life is affected for any reason whatsoever, and all you can say is that it was not your intention? If your management skills are so poor that you can not prevent those under your command to do such dangerous and destructive things for no reason , I do not have to worry about any threat to you in the future : your incompetence is sure to destroy your organization before long. Before that, however , you must Trowa , you claim to revere him a much more meaningful and rewarding to practice .

He had assumed — he and Heero and Duo had all assumed, despite what Mr. Winner might think — that Quatre had gone into hiding trying to avoid everyone and his own behavior, but the contents and timing of this email strongly suggested otherwise. Quatre had told them that he’d been the one to destroy the artifact. Quatre had told them he was Trowa’s boyfriend. Quatre had practically invited retribution, even while demanding recompense. And if La Confrérie was keeping an eye on Trowa, it wasn’t impossible that, with this information, they now knew where the power from their precious artifact had gone. And what had they done then??

The panic sprang up so acutely that Trowa actually stuttered as he spoke a nearly unthinking divination. “Is Quatre alive?

The sense he immediately received in response, not quite a vision but a clear and distinct feeling of Quatre as Trowa knew him (plus a hot, angry sensation that felt very much like the familiar energy from the artifact), made him shudder and his eyes prickle with tears.

His voice was even more unsteady than before, if a little less intense, as he asked, “Where is Quatre?” But to this there was no answer. No more was there to, “Is Quatre with La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

A certain muffled feeling sometimes came in place of an answer to divinatory questions, and it was difficult even for Trowa to tell the difference between not having enough information or needing to alter the wording of the question and something blocking divination. Possibly a third problem in this instance was his not having a clear idea how to pronounce ‘La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré.’ In any case, though he would certainly try further divination when he got home, at the moment it probably wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Quatre was alive, and didn’t seem to be in any worse a state than lately, and that, at least, was enough to get started with.

Purposefully (and somewhat painstakingly), Trowa opened a new window and signed into his own email. He didn’t even glance at his inbox; at present he didn’t care what might be in it. He started a new message and set it to CC to every single magical contact he had. It didn’t matter what they might think of him. It didn’t matter what they’d thought of him all along. This was about Quatre.

Have you heard of La Confrerie de la Lune Revere? They existed in France in the 1700’s; the latest record I’ve come across is dated 1785. But it seems they may have migrated, and now have a presence in the U.S.. If you know anything about them, especially where they might be, please let me know as soon as possible. This is extremely important, and I would appreciate it if you would ask around to anyone else who might know.

Without taking even an instant that might allow him to rethink this, he sent the email. Then he sat back in Quatre’s chair, let out a long breath, and found he was still trembling slightly.

Quatre was alive. The sense of him had even seemed (relatively speaking) all right. Trowa had to keep telling himself this, and trying to refrain from replying to himself that if La Confrérie had done something to Quatre, ‘action against you’ would not be sufficient to describe what would happen; ‘arson’ wouldn’t even begin to cover it. Someone would regret daring to touch the lover of the most practiced command magician in the country.

Part 36

They hadn’t seen Trowa since helping him move over the weekend. It would have been logical to assume he had been reveling in again occupying a home of his own, though he’d only been in theirs for just over a week — Heero and Duo had certainly thoroughly celebrated their renewed privacy — but, unfortunately, the email Heero had received last night indicated that Trowa’s solitude had been short-lived and his time in the new house, thus far, unhappy.

It had begun by informing him that Quatre, before he’d disappeared for his ‘vacation,’ had sent a message to La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré letting them know that he had been the one to destroy the artifact. Trowa had tried divination after divination, apparently, hoping to find out for sure where Quatre might be and whether La Confrérie was involved in his disappearance, but something (or someone) was blocking his attempts.

The second half of the email, though perhaps less worrisome — even, possibly, somewhat reassuring — was more thought-provoking still:

I was talking to that exorcist, Hajime (he is staying at my house for the moment because the police want to question him and he would rather avoid that), about what I was trying to divine, and I realized he was under the impression that we must have known all along where Quatre is and were only trying to determine how to get him back or how to get to him.

He was surprised when he learned we don’t know where Quatre is at all, because apparently your coworker Dorothy, who refers necrovisual cases to him, is an accomplished diviner. All of my divinations regarding La Confrerie and Quatre’s whereabouts are being blocked, so I don’t know if she can do us any good, but since she knows Quatre personally, she might be worth a try. Would you ask her if she would perform some divinations for us?

This information conjured some guilt in Heero for a couple of reasons. First, he might have prevented the necessity for Hajime to hide out at a near stranger’s house (and destroy that near stranger’s newly attained privacy) if he had thought to say something about the exorcist on a couple of different occasions. The police must have heard that Hajime had visited Quatre’s office on the last day Quatre had been seen, and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for Hajime to explain what he’d been doing there with a sword. Heero and Duo had told the police they’d been waiting for Quatre on Friday to join them for dinner with some friends; if they’d mentioned the names of those friends, Hajime might never have been sought for questioning.

Next, Heero had long been aware that Dorothy was a diviner, but that awareness had always stayed in the back of his head as something he didn’t need to care about. If he’d remembered it earlier, they might be three steps ahead of where they were now. Of course he couldn’t know how ‘accomplished’ she really was, and, as Trowa had mentioned, something was blocking divination on this subject… but it was an avenue worth exploring. Any and every avenue was worth exploring with Quatre’s safety potentially on the line.

So, for a second time, he kept a sharp lookout for Dorothy on Wednesday morning as they pulled into the parking lot. There was no sign of her all the way inside, and Heero had already parted with Duo (with the same promise as last time: to tell him all about it at lunch) before he encountered her — at her desk, and in the middle of a professional conversation even at 7:59.

Heero waited impatiently nearby, passing the time by working through surrounding thoughts, cataloguing them as he’d been actively practicing lately. Of course many of them were about Quatre, to match his own, so this wasn’t much of a distraction.

It still irritated him that his connection with his best friend provided no concrete way to assist in this situation. He’d glanced at the website Hajime had referred him to, and noted that it would probably, as the exorcist had suggested, be very profitable — but that first glance had told him nothing about the specific things he would like to accomplish right now with this ambivalently useful power of his. He needed to look through the site more thoroughly and see if there was anything on there about helping someone close to you with nightmares or telepathically connecting from afar with someone else close to you.

Finally Dorothy finished her conversation. It occurred to Heero that he’d now wasted nearly ten minutes doing almost nothing, and that, if Quatre had been here, he might have faced some trouble for it — but it didn’t matter; that Quatre wasn’t here was the entire point. Purposefully he advanced on the Sales Manager, noting her expectant and somewhat amused expression at his hovering.

“Yes?” was all she said. How much she knew about what was going on Heero didn’t know or really care.

“Quatre’s missing.” He spoke quietly, not wanting to contribute to the chaos of gossip that already existed in the near vicinity. “He disappeared before we could get him exorcized.”

Dorothy looked a little surprised. “Oh, I thought he must be taking some time off to recover,” she said. “Where has he gone?”

“We don’t know. There’s a possibility he may be in some trouble, and we were hoping you could do some divinations for us to help figure out where he is.”

“Of course,” she replied immediately with a sharp smile. “I’m quite interested in Quatre’s condition.”

Heero let out a relieved sigh. “Apparently there’s some divination-blocking going on.”

“Excellent!” As usual, she sounded far more intrigued — and in this case anticipatory regarding the challenge — than concerned or sympathetic.

“Can you stay late tonight?”

“Much as I’d like to, no,” she replied. “I have to pick up my niece immediately after work and keep her all night.”

Heero took a deep breath. Why did they always have to wait for people to help them on this? But he couldn’t demand that Dorothy rearrange her schedule for them, and it wasn’t exactly guaranteed she would be able to assist them in any case. “I’ll tell Trowa,” he began. “Maybe–”

“Trowa?” The edge in her voice suggested sudden engagement.

“Trowa Barton,” Heero confirmed. “Quatre’s boyfriend.”

The Trowa Barton?”


For a moment she was silent, and for Heero to say he could practically hear the thoughts racing in her head was less a figure of speech than it would have been for many others. “He must have been the one who cursed Duo,” she said at last, almost to herself. “That explains why it was so powerful and long-lasting.”

Heero nodded.

She fixed him with an accusatory look. “You never mentioned that.”

“No,” Heero agreed. He was tempted to ask why her divinations on the subject of Duo’s curse hadn’t informed her of this, if it was something she would be that interested in knowing, but he held his tongue.

“Well!” She seemed a little annoyed with him now, but her next statement was actually more promising even than if she’d been particularly happy with him. “I could go pick up my niece and bring her back here. She’s interested enough in magic that it shouldn’t hurt to have her here for a few divinations.”

Heero wondered a little how old this niece was, and whether her parents knew that the babysitting aunt didn’t mind exposing her to serious situations involving magic, but he doubted it was any of his business. He just said, “Thank you,” very sincerely. “I’ll let Trowa know.”

Dorothy’s eyes glittered.

“We’re going to meet after work in Quatre’s office. We’ll tell you all the details then.”

“Don’t let the team know you have a key to Quatre’s office,” Dorothy smirked with a slight gesture at the room around them. “It’ll just be more evidence that you were dating him.”

“I don’t have a key to Quatre’s office,” Heero replied somewhat coolly, not entirely appreciating her attitude about all of this even if he was grateful for her promised assistance. “I have a command magician.”

“Of course.” Dorothy’s smile widened. “Trowa Barton can probably get into anyone’s office he wants.”

“Like I said, Trowa is actually dating Quatre. This is very important to him. And to me. And Duo.”

“Well, you can tell Mr. Barton I’ll be there.” Again her eyes seemed to sparkle with extreme interest as she said the name. Despite the emphasis of Heero’s words, she didn’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. It reminded him of how Duo had behaved at first — but in Dorothy’s case, it was probably more that she lacked natural sympathy than that she didn’t respect potential negative outcomes. “It will probably take me about forty-five minutes to pick up my niece and get back here, so expect me just before six.”

“Thank you,” Heero said again, and the irritation she had impelled didn’t lessen his sincerity. “I’ll see you then.”

Part 37

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Trowa had looked unhappy pretty consistently lately, and no wonder. Duo knew that, in addition to being upset about Quatre’s condition — and actively afraid for him now his absence had been cast into such an ambiguous light — Trowa had also been seriously considering, even rethinking, aspects of his own character, which could induce a somber mood in anyone. At the moment, though, Trowa looked more particularly unhappy than usual, with traces of disturbed agitation and some annoyance in there as well.

Duo went over to him and threw a friendly arm across his shoulders. “What’s going on, Trois?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

Trowa’s faint facial expression deepened into a definite scowl. “I had a soap opera in my guest room last night. Given what’s going on right now, it was… difficult to listen to.”

That second statement made Duo feel slightly guilty. “You OK?”

“Yes,” Trowa sighed. “After what I found out about Quatre yesterday and then that, I was very upset last night… but I’m doing much better now.”

“Sorry,” Duo said, squeezing Trowa’s shoulders. “I should have warned you… Sano called us last night trying to figure out where that exorcist boyfriend of his was, and then he stormed off to tell him what he thought of him going to hide out at your house without telling Sano where he was going.”

“Well, he did that,” said Trowa. “And ‘boyfriend’ now appears to be the correct term, though it wasn’t before.”

This time Duo couldn’t restrain his grin. “I was so curious. Man, I wish I could have heard that conversation.”

Trowa shook his head dourly, but before he could make any further comment, the door opened.

Heero and Duo, as instructed by Trowa, had stationed themselves after work in Quatre’s office, in the hopes that divinations about Quatre would be more successful in a room that bore his psychic imprint. Trowa, when he’d arrived just a few minutes ago, had brought a box of candles — Duo wasn’t sure whether they were preserved from the old house or newly purchased — and set it on Quatre’s desk, so they were about as ready as they could be and only waiting for the actual diviner.

Now, as she entered, Duo felt his own tenseness increase. None of them knew whether Dorothy could be any help here, or, if she turned out to be, what they would learn from her divinations this evening — but Duo had his fingers crossed. This was, of course, in part because he loved having the ability to cross his wonderfully separable fingers, but the wish for good luck, for a positive answer to both questions, was also sincere.

Dorothy was accompanied by a girl of perhaps eight, who looked around the room with curious, calculating eyes. Duo smiled at her, but her gaze crossed him too quickly for her to notice (or at least to return) the expression. One thing he might be willing to admit he missed about the long doll years — if in a sort of paranoid, almost superstitious reluctance to do any such thing he was willing to admit to anything positive about the experience — was the opportunity to spend so much time with children. Happy as he was with his life now, he sometimes regretted that loss.

“Why don’t you sit here?” Dorothy suggested, having pulled one of the chairs beside Quatre’s desk into a position from which its occupant could easily watch whatever went on in the office in the next few minutes.

The little girl nodded her red-haired head and took the place indicated, folding hands in her lap and fixing her attention on the others in the room in a remarkably mature-looking gesture. Dorothy’s gesture, on the other hand, was remarkably predatory-looking as, satisfied with her niece’s behavior, she turned toward Trowa.

“Mr. Barton,” she said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to meet you. Ever since I heard about the amazing work you did for the Whitley family — I think I was still in high school at the time! — I’ve wanted to meet you. Dorothy Catalonia.”

Trowa accepted her warm, lingering handshake with a nod. “I can’t say I appreciated the Whitleys publicizing that,” he said, “but it’s over and done with now. Hajime tells me you’re a very good diviner.”

“I wouldn’t have thought there was anything I could help you with,” Dorothy replied curiously, letting go of Trowa’s hand at last, “though I’m certainly happy to try.”

“My divination is very weak,” was Trowa’s blunt response. “Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but right now I need to know where Quatre is.”

“I’m impressed that someone as powerful as you are is willing to admit weakness in some area.” Dorothy’s expression held genuine admiration, and she’d clasped her hands together so tightly they’d drained of what color her pale skin had. It was, Duo thought, a little creepy.

“I’m not necrovisual at all either,” Trowa said somewhat dryly, and turned toward the desk. “I don’t know if candles are your style, but I brought what I have.”

“Oh, excellent.” More businesslike now, Dorothy moved to join Trowa. “Heero told me someone is blocking.”

“I assume it’s deliberate, but I could be wrong,” Trowa nodded.

Dorothy gave him another appreciative look, but quickly transferred her attention back into the box on the desk. “And what are these?”

“All the records I have of the group I believe is blocking.” Trowa lifted a slim book and a manila envelope from among the candles and set them on the desk. “I think Quatre may be with them.”

Briefly but carefully, Dorothy flipped through the stiff pages of the old book. Then she lifted her eyes, clapped her hands, and said, “All right! Let’s have the whole story!”

As Trowa told it, Duo moved restlessly around the room, impatient to get started but knowing this was a necessary step. Trowa explained about La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré and what he knew of them while Duo looked out the windows onto the parking lot and nearby buildings; about the artifact and its creation and destruction while Duo reexamined the digital picture frame on the desk, picking it up and putting it back down again; about Quatre’s possession by the power of the artifact brought somewhat to life or undeath by the hypothetical anger of La Confrérie while Duo looked over the books — mostly corporate literature — on Quatre’s shelves; and about the most recent emails Quatre had sent before he disappeared while Duo tried again to get the little girl in the chair to smile at him.

In the latter endeavor he succeeded this time, but the kid’s smile was as calculating as her initial glance around the room had been. Duo was starting to think she might be every bit as creepy as her aunt.

Heero, who hadn’t spoken and had barely moved in quite some time, now took Duo’s hand and drew him to stand at his side — undoubtedly wishing Duo would hold still. Duo squeezed the hand and didn’t let go, and tried to stop fidgeting.

“So this group…” Experimentally Dorothy said the name, and her French pronunciation sounded better than Trowa’s, though Duo couldn’t be sure. “When they learned that Quatre destroyed this artifact they practically worshipped, it’s possible they kidnapped him for some kind of revenge.”

Trowa confirmed this summary with an emphatic, “Exactly. He’s alive — or was when I asked an hour ago — but I need to know where.”

In the same experimental tone she’d used to speak La Confrérie’s full title, but now in the magical language, Dorothy said, “Where is Quatre Winner?”

Everyone in the room was tense and silent for a long moment, and Duo struggled not to start moving aimlessly again. For his part, there was no answer whatsoever to the divinatory question, and when he glanced at his boyfriend he received a shake of head to indicate that Heero was having the same experience.

But a slow, fascinated smile had spread over Dorothy’s face as her strange eyebrows contracted somewhat and lowered. “Did you feel that?” she wondered.

Trowa nodded. “It’s the same as before.”

Again in the magical language she asked, “Where is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

This time Duo thought he could faintly make out what they were talking about: a dim muffled feeling, as if some answer should be manifesting but was cloaked from his senses. Not being a diviner himself, he’d never before, as far as he was aware, personally encountered divination-blocking, so this made for a fascinating experience.

Dorothy chuckled in triumph and increased interest. “Yes, it’s the same block. How stupid — if they don’t want anyone to know they’re connected with Quatre somehow, they shouldn’t have the same person blocking divinations about him and divinations about them.”

“Maybe they only have one diviner capable of blocking,” Trowa mused.

Purposefully, Dorothy started unloading candles from the box. As she did so, Duo was able to see that they were, in fact, the same ones Trowa had employed for the useless ritual he’d performed in March trying to figure out how to break the curse. Oh, but it hadn’t been entirely useless, had it? Now that Duo thought back, he recalled that it had been their first indication of Heero’s magical talents. He threw a grinning glance at his boyfriend, who returned the smile wryly.

When Duo turned back, he found Dorothy holding an armful of candles toward him. “Set these out,” she commanded.

Moving forward to take them from her, in which he was joined by Heero, Duo noticed there were more than five; Trowa must have brought the whole collection, which probably amounted to ten or fifteen. “Do you want them aligned or staggered or what?” he asked.

Dorothy glanced critically at the position of the furniture in the room, then pointed rapidly to five different spots. “Aligned.”

As Heero and Duo shifted chairs (including the red-headed girl) and arranged the candles in as even a set of five points as they could manage, with a second just inside the first, Dorothy went on. “Mr. Barton, can you temporarily disable the smoke detectors in here?” And when Trowa had considered for a moment, then cast a spell, Dorothy clasped her hands in delight once more. “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought to do it like that!” she said. “I would have based the fade on the presence of the candles, but your way is so much better. You really are impressive!”

“Are we ready?” was Trowa’s only response to this.

Again Dorothy gestured to spots in the room, within the double pentagonal shape formed by the candles and one of which was already occupied by her niece. “Four points, please.” And as the others took their places, she moved to the end of Quatre’s desk, roughly in the center of them all. Having pushed the few items that rested there out of the way, she leaned back against it so she was half seated, crossing one ankle over the other and looking around still with that intrigued and purposeful smile.

“Now, Mr. Barton, you may light the candles.” She stretched out interlaced fingers and cracked her knuckles in a gesture both casual and preparatory. “Let’s break this amateur div-block and find our Quatre.”

How upset was Trowa last night? Why is he doing better now? Read Consummate Timing to find out.

Part 38

Though Dorothy started with the same divination she’d most recently attempted — “Where is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?” — it was significantly different now than before.

At her unnecessary bidding, all of them (except the somewhat familiar-looking niece whose name Heero did not yet know and whose brain was as self-contained as Dorothy’s) were concentrating on Quatre, their concern for him, and their desire to have him back among them. Dorothy had taken up the records Trowa had brought and, after removing a messy set of papers of various sizes from the envelope, clasped them to her chest. And the room was full of the scent of burning wax, and the hush of intense concentration.

All of this somehow — Heero didn’t really know how divination worked, but he could clearly feel this — greatly increased the power of Dorothy’s question. Her words in the magical language seemed to echo with the strength of her intention, a strength it felt as if no one and nothing could withstand. Here, then, was the answer to his wondering about just how ‘accomplished’ a diviner she was.

Something snapped. It reminded Heero of when Trowa had put out the fire in his house: some other magic was overridden so abruptly that it was like the shattering of old, brittle glass. The same muffled sense of hidden information that had arisen in response to this question before had come again as soon as Dorothy’s words were out, but had lasted for only an instant before it seemed as if a curtain was torn away from a clear, detailed scene.

The vision showed the interior of a large building like a warehouse, wide and open but for pillars here and there and free-standing walls that bore, like the perimeter, hanging paintings in a huge range of sizes. Completely undecorated besides these last, brilliantly lit by a multitude of electric lights as well as the sun through glass in the roof, uncarpeted, furnished with chairs and benches in an eclectic mix of styles, the place was a strange and probably would-be-artistic blend of utilitarianism and visual splendor.

“The art mostly has to do with the moon and magic,” Dorothy narrated. “They rotate it through the gallery in front, for viewing and for sale, and store it in the warehouse in back. Five dollars to get in, but two-fifty of that and a third of every art sale goes to a non-profit organization. The Confrérie owns this place, but they’re mostly volunteers with other jobs. This is more like a religion than a profession to them.”

“You are good,” Duo said, evidently inadvertently. In this he was voicing Heero’s thought aloud: how Dorothy had managed to read so much from what, though it had been a fairly detailed vision, hadn’t provided any such information to Heero’s understanding was utterly beyond him.

Dorothy ignored the praise and asked next, “What is the name of the art gallery owned by La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

Predictably enough, it was Galerie de la Lune.

“Where is the Confrérie’s Galerie de la Lune located?” Dorothy asked.

The next vision provided a wide view of what was evidently the front of the place. It stood in flat, balconied multiple stories right against the street, which was full of other tall, old, stone buildings of similar design for a rather claustrophobic feel.

“Is that the French flag?” Duo demanded, voice and thoughts full of worry at the prospect. “Oh, but there’s the U.S. too, and the Confederate.”

“New Orleans,” Dorothy said with conviction. “French Quarter. Burgundy Street.”

Trowa sighed. “There are a few places in France I could have jumped to, but I don’t know New Orleans at all.”

“We don’t know for sure you’ll have to go there,” Heero tried to reassure him.

Getting right to the heart of that matter, Dorothy asked, “Is Quatre in New Orleans with La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

Yes, he was.

“Damn,” Duo muttered.

“Is Quatre at the Confrérie’s Galerie de la Lune?”

This time, all three of Quatre’s close friends caught their breaths as the vision appeared: a small room of painted brick, at basement level to judge by the tiny closed horizontal windows against the low ceiling, furnished with a couple of filing cabinets, an old desk, and a camp bed — and on the latter, Quatre himself, barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt. The large fan pointed straight at him from the desktop seemed to be doing little for his mood; despite his casual pose, hands behind head and legs crossed as he stared upward from where he lay, he was scowling, and a sense of deep anger and unhappiness overwhelmed, at least for Heero, any other feeling that might have come along with the visual.

“There’s a suite of rooms in back connected to the warehouse,” said Dorothy. “They use them for offices and small storage, and right now for keeping Quatre in.”

“Have they hurt him?” Trowa demanded.

“Is he there willingly?” Heero asked.

“Is there even a bathroom?” Duo wondered.

Dorothy cocked her head as she decided which of these simultaneous questions to pursue first. After a moment she queried in the magical language, “What does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want with Quatre?”

The feeling of Quatre’s anger heightened, though the vision they’d been seeing faded, and no other answer came.

With a frustrated sound Dorothy reworded. “Does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want revenge on Quatre?”

It wasn’t a definite negative; it was more of a ‘no, not really.’ Still, even that much was reassuring.

“Then why does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want Quatre with them at Galerie de la Lune?”

Here was another vague answer with jumbled parts: aspects of a ritualistic spell like random pages of the schematic of an unknown mechanism; the continued, even stronger sense of Quatre’s anger; and an inconclusive visual of something on a chain, filigreed in silver, that vaguely resembled the moon.

This time, rather than Dorothy, it was Trowa, with another catch of breath, that understood. “They’re trying to extract the energy from him and create a new artifact with it.”

“That’s ambitious,” Dorothy remarked.

“Is that even possible?” Duo said.

“I don’t know.” Trowa looked grim. “What I’m more worried about is the effect on Quatre of whatever spells they try.”

“What method,” Dorothy asked in the magical language, “is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré using to try to get artifact energy out of Quatre?”

The aspects of the spell presented more coherently this time, but it was still, to Heero, very much like seeing the entire mechanical schematic would be: he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, even in a state closer to complete, without a better idea of the whole. More interesting to him in any case was the new vision: a different basement room, bare except for the chair in its center and the symbols chalked across the walls and uncarpeted floor. Currently the only light came from the windows and an open door invisible at this angle, and the chamber was unoccupied, but the place was clearly set up and used for serious magical rituals.

Slowly Trowa observed, “They’ve altered the spell a couple of times and tried it again because it hasn’t worked so far.”

“Will it ever?” asked Duo. “I’ve never heard of anyone being able to directly move energy around like that.”

“Remember that they — their predecessors — deliberately put power into the first artifact.” Trowa could gradually be seen shaking his head as the latest vision faded. “It’s the extracting of energy from Quatre that seems likely to be the difficult part.”

Dorothy’s next divination was, “Will the spell La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré is using to try to extract energy from Quatre ever work?”

No, it would not.

She shrugged as she glanced over at Trowa. “So depending on how much you trust answers about the future, there you have it.”

Heero might have inquired whether answers about the future were typically unreliable, but heard confirmation of this guess in Duo’s thoughts and therefore said nothing. In fact, everyone was silent for several moments. Trowa looked unhappily pensive, Duo was pityingly picturing Quatre in that small and not very comfortable basement room two thousand miles from home, and Heero was trying to determine what else they needed to know while they had Dorothy here. Dorothy herself merely waited patiently, and the little red-haired girl in the chair, though she seemed to be listening with an intensity to match the interest Dorothy had suggested earlier, hadn’t said a word.

Finally Heero reiterated his earlier question. “Does Quatre want to be there? Was he actually kidnapped, or did he go with them willingly?”

Obligingly Dorothy made the same inquiry in slightly more concise words in the magical language, and thereby called up a poignant combined sense of duress, desire to get away from everyone that might be hurt by angry behavior, and a sort of indifference or recklessness arising from a hopeless lack of control of the situation.

“He didn’t really want to go…” Trowa began slowly.

“…but he saw it as a way to escape,” Heero finished for him at a murmur.

“So it was half a kidnapping,” was Duo’s assessment. “I wonder if he’s regretting it now.”

Now Dorothy asked whether Quatre was complying with the current wishes of La Confrérie. And it seemed he was — there were no weapons or restraints to be seen in the answering vision of Quatre being walked by strangers along a hall from the room in which he was staying to the one where the rituals took place — but Heero felt a definite sense of ‘for now,’ along with anger and the swift disintegration of already compromised patience, about the entire thing.

“What happens if he stops going along with them?” Duo wondered. “If he snaps? There’s no reason for him not to be just as mad as he was before…”

Uncertainly Heero suggested, “He might eventually use up the energy, like we were hoping at first…”

“Or they might actually get the spell right and pull the stuff out of him.” Duo sounded every bit as uncertain. “That answer could have been wrong.”

“Even if I thought they could get it right,” Trowa put in, folding his arms, “I don’t know that I’d want to leave them to it. I tried to use that energy for spellcasting once, as if Quatre were an artifact, and it actively hurt him.”

“If he’s still putting up with them trying whatever ritual over and over again, they’re probably not hurting him yet… but who knows when they might start? And…” Obviously Duo would rather not make the next part of this speculation out loud, but felt he had to. “And if they hurt him enough, it won’t matter if he doesn’t want to go along with them anymore. I mean, what if he’s too… damaged… by whatever they do to insist they let him go or try to leave on his own?”

Trowa took a deep breath, frowning with pursed lips.

“Dorothy,” Heero said, “can you find out–”

But he was interrupted, and every head turned, at just this moment. Because the little girl hadn’t spoken at all yet, and perhaps because she was a child among adults, the first sound of her high-pitched voice — bored, skeptical, yet somehow pert at the same time — from where she remained still in the chair with her hands in her lap induced instant silence, seized the room’s full attention:

“Um, do you really need to ask anything else? Obviously you need to just get on an airplane and go to New Orleans and rescue your friend.”

Part 39

It was as if the little girl’s words had broken a curse that kept them all motionless and uncertain: abruptly it flashed upon them that she was absolutely right, and discussing possibilities only wasted time.

Heero was on his way to Quatre’s computer. Trowa was quietly speaking a spell to put out the candles. Dorothy had stepped away from where she’d been half seated on the desk and moved to sit more properly in the other chair in front of it. And Duo had moved to look down at this so unexpectedly incisive niece of his manager.

“You’re a smart kid,” he said as she returned his gaze calmly with a faint smile almost as calculating as the one she’d given him before.

“My teacher thinks so,” said the girl with some smugness.

“Your parents think so too,” Dorothy supplied. Her sharp expression looked very much like the girl’s. “And so do I.”

Duo might have asked what grade she was in, but honestly she still creeped him out a little. This was the type of kid that, back when Duo had been a doll, would engage him in disturbing role-plays involving far too much mature understanding of human psychology. He remembered one in which he’d been assigned the part of a serial killer eventually hunted down and forced to jump off a bridge to his death by police Barbies. Fun times. Right now, he made his way back around the desk to join Trowa seeing what Heero was looking up online.

“I think the closest place to New Orleans that I’m sure I could jump to is in Kansas or New Mexico,” the frustrated Trowa was saying as he watched the computer over Heero’s shoulder.

“And no chance of targeting Quatre?” Duo knew perfectly well there was none — Trowa would have jumped to Quatre long since if he could have used him as a destination — but he yet felt compelled to ask.

“None. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that again, with the way it combines command and communion, but if I can, it won’t be any time soon. A flight seems like my best option.”

“Um, our best option?” Duo replied in a skeptical, accusatory tone. “Remember how he’s with a magical cult that burned your house down?”

“And,” said Heero, quiet and emphatic, “remember how he’s my best friend?”

“Oh, yeah,” Duo recalled, “and remember how you don’t drive?”

“Of course,” Trowa replied, raising a hand as if to ward off the protests. “Don’t think I wouldn’t rather have you two with me. But this is going to be expensive enough for just one of us.”

“Let’s see how expensive,” Heero murmured. Now that the computer had finished booting and he’d entered his managerial login, he opened a browser and typed ‘cheap flights’ into the search bar. Then, on the first site that came up, he requested the price of a flight from here to New Orleans tomorrow.

When the icon in the center of the screen had finished spinning and a list, organized from lowest fare to highest, had populated, a collective groan arose.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Dorothy remarked from where she couldn’t see what they were looking at.

“Airplane rides are expensive,” was the niece’s wise input.

“There’s nothing under a thousand,” Heero informed the ladies grimly. And without another word he started opening every single site returned by his original search in separate tabs, and entering the same information into each one.

“Trowa, are you still super rich?” Duo wondered in some concern.

“I just bought a house,” Trowa replied in a horrified half whisper. “I don’t have even a thousand dollars left.”

Duo’s concern blossomed into something more like panic. “How much do you have?”

“Maybe half that much.”

“And I don’t have anything… I haven’t even gotten my first paycheck yet.” Duo stared at the screen in growing consternation. “Heero? Please tell me my responsible boyfriend saves lots of money all the time.”

“Your responsible boyfriend…” Heero sucked in a regretful breath through his teeth. “…has student loans he’s still paying off, and has been spending all his disposable income lately helping somebody born in 1899 experience the twenty-first century.”

“Damn me and my stupid… everyt