Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate is Found in Faeryland

What do two dwarves (one going through sexual maturation and the other seemingly without a personality), a liberated human dairymaid, and an orc with a talking sword have in common? They've all, more or less, been Cursed by the monarchs of Faeryland. Can they break their Curses and retrieve what was lost? Are they in for valuable lessons about friendship and magic? Will they all get married in the end? Find out in this totally serious epic fantasy adventure!

Unique to this story: faeries can change their physical sex at will, so there are references to canonically male-presenting characters being pregnant (though it's not mpreg as such) and canonically female-presenting characters impregnating others.

Unique to this story: cameos from various other fandoms and real life



This story was last updated on June 5, 2020.

1-9
Chapter 1 - Heero Gets Tickled
Chapter 2 - Kaoru Can't Kill Combative Creatures
Chapter 3 - Duo Buys A Sex Toy
Chapter 4 - Sano Argues With His Sword
Chapter 5 - Tomoe Already Can't Even With This
Chapter 6 - Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros
Chapter 7 - Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation
Chapter 8 - Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs
Chapter 9 - Sano Has No Sense
10-
Chapter 10 - Tomoe Laments
Chapter 11 - Heero Has No Sensibility
Chapter 12 - Trowa Proposes Marriage For The First Time In At Least Three Weeks


Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

With the continuance of his search, there came a certain sense of rightness. It did not equate to pleasure as it once might have, yet it remained a distinctly positive feeling. He did not search out of a need for this feeling, but it seemed an extra validation of a journey he would have pursued in any case. The list grew shorter and shorter, and with every item he recovered, the correctness increased.

As he moved along his way, his peg foot crunching decisively into the fallen leaves that had dried to a fragile red at their edges and a sickly pinkish-grey at their centers, he believed an impression was at last forming in his head. He paused, steadying himself against the dark pink bole of an oak-like tree, and closed his eye.

Immediately he felt the flutter of Trowa’s wings against his face, and guessed the faery had flown from his shoulder to watch him concentrate at a better angle. Finally his Guide wondered, “Anything?”

“Yes,” Heero replied. “It’s dry and cool. There’s a… tickling sensation. Irritating.” He looked again, and found Trowa hovering in front of him, as he’d suspected. He’d only ever seen Trowa present as sexless, without clothing except for jewelry; and the faery’s pure purple skin and darker hair of the same hue contrasted brightly with the pink forest surrounding them — though whether the combination would normally please the dwarven eye, Heero could not say. They had already traveled some distance together across Faeryland, but had not visited the purple realm, so Heero had become accustomed to Trowa appearing out of place. He added, thinking of distances, “It’s faint. It’s probably far away.”

“It sounds like sand,” remarked Trowa with a nod. “It could be anywhere under the right circumstances, but I think all the sandiest places in Faeryland are along the east side of the mountains, which are far away. Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Dorothy first? There may be an easier way.”

“I’m sure.”

With a slightly huffing sigh, Trowa said, “If we continue traveling west, and cross the river and the plains, we’ll reach the Eintopf hills. By then you should have a clearer sense.”

Heero returned the nod, considering this course of action a logical one. “You continue to be a satisfactory Guide,” he said — the closest he could come to expressing what he thought were feelings of obligation and gratitude but could only catch a distant, fleeting awareness of. Trowa had counseled him to talk to Dorothy more than once, but always did him the courtesy of not pressing the issue. Heero appreciated receiving advice the giver believed to be logical, but also appreciated having his decisions respected.

Trowa gave a monosyllabic laugh, with what emotion Heero could not guess and did not try to. “Thank you,” le said. “You should rest.”

Heero said simply, “Travel will be less tiring when we strike the road.”

Though Trowa at first raised a minute eyebrow, eventually le just settled back onto Heero’s shoulder as the dwarf continued to stump through the forest in a southwesterly direction. After not too long, Heero could hear lir shifting, and then the sound of lir flute like birdsong close to his ear.

It made no real impression on him one way or another. In fact he only recognized it as music in that, unlike so many of the other noises heard on a journey through Faeryland, it indicated nothing he needed to take into consideration or even pay any attention at all.

Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

Unable to catch herself as she stumbled, Kaoru actually fell on her butt in the questionable dirt of the inn-yard. Moments later, her walking stick shot out the door like a javelin straight toward her, and she barely deflected it in time to avoid a lump on her head; and not long after that, an upstairs window screeched open and, before she’d even finished directing her eyes toward it, her backpack came thudding down into the dirt nearby, followed more slowly and gracefully by her cloak fluttering through the evening air.

“I was just trying to stop them harassing that poor man!” she protested as the innkeeper began to retreat into his establishment. “I don’t see you kicking them out!”

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

She shouted at the closed door he left behind, “That’s because I’m human!” Then she climbed to her feet, brushed off her sore buttocks, and bent to retrieve her pack. Having cleared the dirt (or whatever it was) from that too, she slung it across her back and grabbed her cloak to throw over the top. Last she took up her staff and, after shaking a huffy fist at the inn, turned away.

Her plan had been to get a good night’s rest and some food in her belly, then cover the last few miles to Faeryland in the light of day; now she determined to finish the journey immediately and look for accommodations on the inside. Perhaps not the best idea, but she was frustrated.

Past the last straggling town buildings, over a little bridge and onto the straight road toward Faeryland, she thought she could see it — either that or the failing light playing tricks on her: a level darkness ahead like a great wall, stretching off in both directions as far as she could make out. She’d heard that a line of enormous trees formed the border of Faeryland on all sides, and it appeared now those rumors were true.

After a little rise, the road ran relatively flat for the remainder of the distance, and lights showed ahead. Kaoru peered and strained her eyes, but could at first distinguish little more than that they were lights; but after another half mile or so, she thought she could make out large lamps flickering on either side of a dark opening in the massive trees. Figures moved there, and Kaoru felt a shiver go all through her. She’d reached Faeryland at last; at last she could begin her search. But what kind of reception could she expect? And how much success?

Her attention was caught by something that seemed to stumble from a cluster of bushes at the side of the road and collapse on the cobbles. It appeared unusually pale in the growing darkness, and did not immediately rise from its fall. Kaoru, frowning in concern, hurried on toward it. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was nothing more than a bedsheet off someone’s washline that had blown here, but she had to know for sure.

Then the living creature contracted and got to its feet, and as the human approached she could definitely make out a human-like shape. It began to stagger forward at an odd lurch, as if in pain. Kaoru found herself shuddering at the movement, for it didn’t look natural. If someone had chosen it as an artistic statement, she would have said it represented a difficult repression of the self-loathing that would otherwise prevent someone from doing something necessary they deplored. It might work pretty well, actually, but it still seemed weird.

Reluctant though she’d become to get any closer, she began to jog.

Then the thing looked up and saw her. The lurching stopped abruptly, or, rather, transformed instantaneously into a forward sprint so unexpected that Kaoru halted in confusion and sudden fear. She barely had time to get her walking stick into a defensive position before the creature was on her.

She didn’t fight well, never having trained and knowing nothing of it, but she’d found on her journey so far that her strength exceeded her expectations. Evidently hauling heavy cans of milk, churning butter, and helping with calving did something for a woman’s fitness in any case. She’d even held her own in that bar fight earlier — or would have, if her opponents hadn’t been trolls. But all they’d possessed was overwhelming size and a genetic propensity for irrational unprovoked harassment; this creature differed from them entirely.

In the heat of the moment, she couldn’t take in many more details than she’d been able to see all along: human-sized, human-shaped, very pale. But she could feel its claws when they raked her, smell its putrid breath as it attempted to tear her throat out. Her flailings with the staff made little difference, and when her enemy let out a horrible, animalistic screech of aggression, she nearly dropped the makeshift weapon. Was this what her quest of recovery would come to? Dying in terror within sight of the entrance into Faeryland without ever having set foot past the trees?

Some other sound rushed toward and around the two combatants, and suddenly a blast of wind seemingly from directly above knocked Kaoru right off her feet. She scrambled backward, losing hold of her walking stick, getting caught on her cloak, and soiling the seat of her skirt for the second time that night. And she felt the expression of shock and fear on her face intensify as she saw what had happened: a dragon had swept down from the sky and scattered the fight, landing directly between the prostrate Kaoru and her similarly discomfited opponent.

Starlight glittered and gleamed off horn and scales and half-spread wings, and off an enormous eye that turned toward Kaoru as the dragon shouted, “Get on!”

With no time to think about this, to consider whether she trusted what must be a faery in the animal form to which they were limited outside the borders of Faeryland, or to decide whether she really believed, as briefly crossed her mind, that a dragon made for a nobler death than the smelly whatever-it-was, Kaoru struggled to her feet and ran to obey. At the same time, the pale creature had also risen, and was attempting to attack the dragon with the same reckless aggression it had shown toward Kaoru. A large wing kept it off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t find a way around eventually.

Though only slightly bigger than a farm-horse rather than building-sized as the human would have expected, the dragon at first presented no obvious place to sit, and certainly didn’t look comfortable. Kaoru made do, however, throwing a leg in a flutter of skirt over the spiny neck and leaning forward to cling with her arms as well. She only missed her walking stick once they’d taken off, but thought that not too great a price to pay for her life (if she was indeed saved).

How far they flew she had no idea; it was terrifying and uncomfortable no matter the distance. She hadn’t imagined her entry into Faeryland as quite so ignoble and awe-inspiring at the same time, and she just hoped she wasn’t screaming like a baby without realizing it. After a heart-stopping dive that stole the breath from her lungs even if she was, they thudded back to earth with a jolt so hard that Kaoru’s cheekbone bounced against the dragon’s spines and began bleeding. Eyes streaming with sudden tears and squinting against the stinging pain in her face, Kaoru could see basically nothing as she followed the dragon’s next instruction and dismounted, stumbling blindly forward. Tangled in skirt and cloak, she would have fallen for a third time if arms hadn’t caught and steadied her.

“Everyone!” called a voice very close by. “Please get out there and capture that Distorted!”

As the running steps and fluttering wings of what Kaoru believed must be ‘everyone’ passed them and abruptly changed to the sounds of animal paws and hooves and the more familiar flapping of bird wings, Kaoru caught a few comments and questions, the most common thought being, “How did it get past us?”

She straightened her clothing and adjusted her feet to wobble less, then brushed tears from her right eye so she could open it fully again, leaving the left closed. The cut on her cheek hurt almost more than the scratches the Distorted had given her (if she had that name right), but she could think about that after she’d figured out where she’d arrived and who had brought her.

The woman was the first faery Kaoru had ever seen in non-animal form, so she thought staring might not be as rude as usual. The abnormally steady flames of the lamps to either side of the entrance cast an orange glow over the area, but could not disguise the pinkness of the faery. From her dark pink pony-tail to her strawberry-colored eyes to her creamy pink skin to her translucently pink wings, she seemed to embody the very spirit of pinkness. Kaoru was reminded of her foster sister, who’d always dyed her hair that color and might be very happy to do her skin as well.

Even the amulet on its elaborate silver chain around the faery’s neck was pink, but, oddly enough, her clothing was purple. Kaoru wondered if that was really allowed. In any case, the woman looked ready for action in a close-fitting tunic cinched with black at the waist over tight black pants and tall boots, with a warmer purple cape to top it all off. The unfortunate effect of the garments conforming so well to her body was that her head appeared a trifle disproportionately large… though Kaoru wondered if that might not be simply a faery thing.

This had taken only a moment or three to observe, and before either she or her rescuer could say a word, Kaoru suddenly found herself swarmed by buzzing, darting shapes and demanding voices.

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

“What’s your destination, human? I’ll get you there quicker than anyone else!”

“Excellent Guide rates here, Visitor! Better than any of these others!”

“If you’re looking to join a Quest, I can find you one!”

“What brings you into Faeryland? You’ll need a Guide to get it done!”

Ducking her head back slightly and raising her arms, the disconcerted Kaoru began batting at the flying things, trying to clear the air around her. But the pink woman caught her wrists and stilled her before confusion could turn to panic, and advised her briefly, “These are people.” Then to the flitting nuisances she cried, “Please give this woman some space! You can talk to her once she’s feeling better!” She turned back to Kaoru with a thoughtful expression and added, “It is ‘woman,’ isn’t it? And ‘her’ and ‘she?'”

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

“Good,” the faery smiled. “I’d hate to get it wrong.”

The flock retreated to a safe distance. Some of them, Kaoru observed in surprise, grew to full-size in an instant, allowing her to see they were indeed all faeries of different colors. They waved and smiled at her as she looked at them.

A distant call of “Sofia!” grabbed the attention of the stranger, who turned her reddish-pink eyes back out toward where she’d sent her people on a dangerous errand. Then she looked the other direction, toward a building standing not far off on the other side of a low stone wall that seemed, at least at first, to mark the path farther into the forest. “Please take this human inside and let her rest and clean up!” she ordered. Then she dashed away, transforming effortlessly back into a pink dragon at the very moment she stepped from between the great border trees.

Perhaps Kaoru had been wrong to consider Sofia the embodiment of her color, for the guard that came over to escort her inside the building, waving the other importunate faeries away far less politely than Sofia had, was every bit as pink. Kaoru watched his pale pink hair in its multiple braids bounce slightly as he walked ahead of her, and reflected that her foster sister would definitely be jealous.

The apparent guardhouse, though constructed of bright pink stone and with an unusual number of ornate flourishes, looked enough like a non-faery building that Kaoru’s racing heart began to calm as they walked inside. There, the guard showed her to a room where she could sit in peace, and promised to send some water in.

Her first action, once alone, was to seat herself on one of the plain pink chairs, push out a bit from the plain pink table, and bend over to put her head between her knees. Soon she could feel the trickle of blood on her face reversing its course, which added a tickling sensation to the stinging pain of the injury, but she stayed in that position until it had traversed her left eye and started soaking her brow. Her throbbing pulse had calmed, and she breathed evenly, so she finally sat up just as a faery entered the room with a basin of steaming water and a couple of towels. The basin, Kaoru noticed as she thanked the faery, was glazed white, but she wondered what color the ceramic might be underneath. The towels were grey. She feared she might be specifically noting the colors of things for a while here.

Alone again, she tested her equilibrium before standing fully, then stepped over to the table. With a corner of the first towel dipped in the hot water, she began dabbing at the cut on her cheek. It probably wasn’t as worrisome a wound as the scratches on her arms and chest, but the blood all over her face bothered and agitated her.

“May I help you with that?” came a voice from behind. Kaoru gasped, dropped the towel, and spun, all her hard work at getting her heart rate down suddenly for naught.

This full-size faery embodied a different color: soft green like new leaves in her skin, green so dark it seemed almost black in her braided crown of hair, laughing green eyes that looked almost human, and wings that reminded Kaoru of a dragonfly’s. She wore ranger-like clothing in a brown leather Kaoru believed came from ordinary, extra-Faeryland cows, but somehow appeared too beautiful and gentle for the role these garments implied. She smiled as she reached out a hand to further her offer of assistance.

“Who are you?” Kaoru wondered breathlessly. “How long have you been in here?”

“My name is Imugeme, and I’m a healer,” the faery replied. “Please, let me help you with your wounds.”

“That doesn’t answer how long you’ve been in here.” Kaoru really had no problem letting someone else tend to painful injuries she couldn’t see very well, but she felt suspicious of everyone in this new place, and a green faery most of all. She seated herself once again and looked up at the woman with one defiant eye.

Imugeme took the towel Kaoru had dropped and resumed the cleaning of blood off her face with small, purposeful movements. She chuckled as she did so — a rich, self-satisfied little laugh — and then spoke again. “You’ll have to forgive me for disobeying the guards and not keeping back with the other Guides. I thought I could help you better than any of them.” She laughed again; it was an almost musical sound. “And if that gives me a better chance of making a pact with you, so much the better.”

Kaoru noticed Imugeme still hadn’t truly answered the question, but decided to let it slide since at least her intentions had been clarified. “What is a Guide?” she asked, trying to give the term the audible capital she’d heard these faeries using.

“It’s very difficult and dangerous for Visitors to try to find their way around Faeryland alone. A Guide will lead you right and keep you out of trouble.”

“I have a map.”

“Maps of Faeryland,” the green faery said with another chuckle, “are notoriously unreliable. And there are always dangers of various kinds that don’t show on a map anyway.” She’d apparently finished with the blood, for she set the towel aside. Kaoru’s face felt cleaner, but the pain had only heightened, and she winced as the first of Imugeme’s fingers touched her cheek near the cut. The faery’s hand slid into full contact with her face, and Kaoru stilled, holding her breath, at the sensation of warmth and gentleness in it. Imugeme smoothed a thumb out across the spot, and the pain faded. Another sliding movement of her green hand, fingers lingering and trailing, made it obvious that the cut had disappeared entirely.

The human let the air out of her lungs all at once and gaped slightly, slowly opening her left eye to see with more complete vision the woman smiling down at her in satisfaction. She’d been unsure whether to trust this faery at first, whether to take her at her word about the difficulties of travel through Faeryland and the necessity of a Guide, but her uncertainty had been eradicated along with her wound.

“Now for these others,” Imugeme said. “The Distorted cause nasty injuries, so these will be a little trickier.” She seemed to relish the challenge.

“What do you charge for being someone’s Guide?” Kaoru wondered as Imugeme helped her out of her vest and shirt. Where the cloth had torn and grown sticky with blood, the removal was particularly painful.

“Your firstborn child,” Imugeme replied. Then she laughed heartily at the expression on Kaoru’s face. “That’s a joke, my dear! You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries!”

Kaoru weakly returned the laugh. “Well, then, what do you actually want?”

“Candied fruit. And that’s not a joke. But if you have none, I’ll take a silver piece a week.”

“Silver?”

“You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries,” Imugeme repeated, and ran her hand over the scratches on Kaoru’s right arm.

“But a silver piece a week is…” The healing felt so nice, almost hypnotically so, that Kaoru ran out of words.

“That’s my price; take it or leave it. But I should add that having a pact with a Guide will translate the speech of everyone around you, so language won’t be a problem.”

Kaoru had planned to protest that a silver piece a week was a ridiculously low rate for what appeared to be a major service around here. Instead she protested, “I’ve understood everyone so far!” They had accents — even Imugeme — but these hadn’t obfuscated their words.

Imugeme moved on to the next injury, across Kaoru’s chest and right collarbone. The water had cooled a bit, but Kaoru didn’t mind. “Anyone stationed at the border tends to speak some outside language. But the further in you go, the less likely you are to encounter anyone you’ll understand.”

“You’re right, then; I would like a Guide. I’ll take your offer.”

Imugeme withdrew from her task and placed the towel back on the table. Reaching down, she drew one of Kaoru’s hands up to her lips and then her forehead, and Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her at the touch. “The pact is formed,” Imugeme stated. “I’m your Guide now.”

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

The faery gently pressed her warm, soothing palm onto Kaoru’s chest. As she smoothed away this set of scratches, she said, “I can also offer you the Protection of the green faery monarch, if you want. It will provide some physical protection, and help you avoid this kind of thing.” She lifted two fingers to tap the spot she was healing.

“Does that cost extra?” Kaoru wondered, thinking a little anxiously of her budget despite the inexpensive nature of Imugeme’s pact.

“Not at all. I just happen to be able to offer it, and I think it would do you good.”

“Then I’ll take it.”

Imugeme smiled, then bent again, this time to kiss the startled Kaoru on the forehead. The thrill that went through her in this instance felt almost like the healing, but somehow deeper, and she squirmed as the sensation settled in.

“And now,” the faery said in a businesslike tone, “while I finish with these, why don’t you tell me what’s brought you to Faeryland?”

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

Emerging from the pink trees into a more open space, Duo stopped just behind the low wall that bordered for some distance the road he’d come upon. Setting his hands on its pink bricks, he looked around with eyes that grew wider and wider as they took in the details he had expected but hardly dared to hope for. Then, his bubbling joy requiring some outlet, he began to caper in place, stamping the fallen leaves and singing snatches of a song in his own language that came immediately to mind.

His dance attracted the attention of the idle Guides that haunted every entrance into Faeryland, and ley flew immediately over to investigate. Since Duo did not intend to move a single step from this spot until he’d made a pact, he welcomed leir approach with waving arms. “Yes, I need a Guide!” he shouted. “I absolutely need a Guide!”

Ley fluttered around him making leir pitches, but he mostly ignored leir words in favor of studying leir faces and figures. When he saw one he thought he recognized, he pointed a big dwarven finger at lir and said, “Quatre, isn’t it? You were one of the Guides for that Quest worried about their Cursed crops, right?”

“How word gets around!” Quatre seated lirself on the wall and went full-size. Le crossed lir legs and placed lir warm gold chin in one similarly colored hand. “You don’t usually need a Guide — Duo, I believe? What can I do for you?” Le presented as female at the moment, or at least had breasts, probably the better to fill out the flattering sleeveless green dress le wore, and this relieved Duo mightily; if Quatre had appeared male, with lir handsome face and short pale gold hair, even Duo’s general attraction primarily to other dwarves might not have saved him from an embarrassing scene. Of course he wore a protective device inside his trousers, but he would still have known (and suffered all the uncomfortable consequences).

“A pact,” was his answer to the faery’s question. “I’ll explain everything, but just make a pact a fast as you can.”

The other Guides, seeing Duo had chosen, flew off with discontented mutters. He caught one of lem remarking that he wasn’t even a proper Visitor, which he supposed to be true, but he didn’t really care what ley thought of him at this point.

Quatre, smiling, hopped down from the wall and reached for Duo’s hand. “All right,” le said equably. “As fast as I can it is.” And after making the usual gestures and sending the usual little tingle of magic through the dwarf, le added, “What’s going on?”

Duo sighed loudly in relief, and sat down unceremoniously in the greyish-pink scatter of leaves. “I’ve been lost in this forest for a month, and that’s after wandering the plains for even longer. If you can keep me from getting lost, I’ll really owe you one.”

“I was under the impression you knew Faeryland better than any non-faery there is.” Quatre joined him on the ground, seating lirself gracefully with crossed legs under lir long skirts and leaning against the wall.

“I do! But Relena Cursed me so I can’t find my way any-damn-where! I’m half starved and haven’t slept in a bed in weeks, and…” But he stopped short of enumerating all his current problems just yet.

“So le literally told you to ‘get lost,'” Quatre mused. “What did you do?”

Duo grumbled, “Killed too many Distorted for lir to ignore. You know how le is.”

“Well, I can get you to the pink enclave — for two silver pieces a week, of course — but I can’t enter. Won’t you get lost inside and wander out again without being able to find lir?”

“I’ll deal with that when I get there,” said Duo. “Up ’til now I haven’t even been able to get there. Or anywhere! You have to help me.”

“Or we could dissolve this pact and you could find a pink faery to be your Guide,” Quatre suggested.

“But I know you. You’re reliable. You did great work with that Quest, which was why word got around, and I trust you.”

Quatre bowed from lir seated position. “I hope you know I don’t take praise as payment,” le said with a smile, “but I do appreciate it. Where would you like to go first?”

Duo gave a grunt of frustration and broke into a rant. “I’ve been working in Faeryland for fifty years without ever having a problem like this! Fifty years! And I don’t think I’ve ever needed a Guide more than twice before!”

“Every Visitor gets Cursed eventually,” said Quatre consolingly.

“I’m not even a proper Visitor. I live here!” Duo sighed, dropped his head back to look up into the trees, and tugged at his braided beard. “Well, first, you can take me to a pleasure-house somewhere.”

Quatre blinked. “If you’ve been lost for months, can you even afford that right now?”

“No,” Duo admitted dejectedly. “I haven’t been able to visit a bank in all this time, because I couldn’t find one! And faeries aren’t really my thing anyway. But I haven’t had sex in longer than I can remember, and I’m getting pretty desperate!”

“You must be going through kil’ak’brük.” Quatre somewhat astonished Duo by pronouncing the name for dwarven sexual maturation correctly and in so sympathetic a tone. “I imagine that’s hard on a dwarf in Faeryland.”

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

Quatre laughed. “Postre is much closer than the pink enclave — I’d say about three days’ travel, for a dwarf. You can visit a bank and sleep in a bed… and, though I don’t know that there’s a pleasure-house in town, I do know ley have some specialty shops that might help you.”

“Yes.” Duo leaped to his feet. “Yes, that’s perfect. Let’s go!”

Turning small-size, Quatre echoed facetiously, “Let’s go!” and took up a position on Duo’s shoulder.

The prospect of solutions to some of his issues invigorated Duo, but so also did the new convenience of traveling rationally with a Guide. Quatre tugged on his ear or his hair whenever he attempted to walk the wrong direction, keeping him on the correct path for leir destination. Instead of going by at random, and sometimes again and again as he moved in zig-zags and spirals, the landscape passed with a reasonable progression, and whenever the road dipped, Duo could gleefully count on it coming up again to the same rise he’d seen before it began to descend. So greatly did this improve matters that he felt he’d never enjoyed a walk through any part of Faeryland this much.

He still had to request, during the few hours of rest he took each night, that Quatre give him some privacy so he could try to find sexual release as best he could on his own… but what he really needed was a dick up his ass, or his own in someone else’s, so he rather wondered why he bothered. Happy he was to see the large town of Postre before him at the end of a long, downward-sloping stretch of road on the evening of the third day.

He’d been here before, of course, but had never considered its amenities along current lines. He knew it boasted a spacious inn with plenty of full-size rooms, and before he could allow his enthusiasm (with Quatre’s help) to lead him into the market, he secured a place there for the next few days. Then he stood solidly where he was, not daring to take a step, so as not to get lost while Quatre went out to inquire after the type of shop he wanted. Finally, looking forward most heartily to a bed and some hot meals, if not something even better tonight, he ventured forth with his Guide in search of what he so desperately needed.

If faeries were anything as an aggregate, it was very open and accepting on sexual matters. The shop, called, curiously enough, ‘Have Some of Dis Pie,’ occupied a place of prominence between a full-size milliner’s and a stack of domestic goods stores for small-size homes. And while plenty of colors decorated many of the other buildings in the area (though the wood and stone was usually local), Have Some of Dis Pie had embraced the pink pinkness of the pink faery realm. From the fluffy pink curtains to the pink silk on which certain pink items showed to advantage in the widows to the pink confetti periodically exploding over them and falling in pink swirls, what to expect inside was immediately clear.

Duo attempted to make a sharp left turn at the door and walk laterally down the line of shops, but Quatre set him right, and he managed to enter. A pink bell rang as he stepped inside, but the proprietor happened to be in the main room at the time and didn’t need its pink-sounding tinkle to alert lir of his presence. Le came bouncing up to him, full-size.

“Welcome to Have Some of Dis Pie! What can I help you find today? Actually I can help you find anything we have here, because I own the shop! Are you looking for some coochie-coochie-coo? A cherrychanga with whipped cream? A charming cha-cha? It’s almost winter — do you need a muff? A purse for your treasure? A hot box for your meat? Do you want to go beaver-hunting? You’re hairy enough to be a bear; would you enjoy a honey pot? Or if you’re just the opposite, we’ve got some nice bear-traps here! Or–”

Duo, grinning in spite of himself and the arousal he already experienced just looking at some of the items for sale, raised his hands and attempted to break in. “I actually need–”

“A nice noodle? Some sexy sausage? A tra-la-la ding-ding-dong? Are you in the mood for a prize fight? Gathering firewood? Picking cucumber? Do you need a soldier who can stand at– wait!!”

The products le showed him in quick succession had done nothing convenient for his own example of all these terms, but now abruptly le stopped, eyes wide. “You’re a dwarf!!”

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

Every part of lir, from lir giant fluffy pink curls to lir ample breasts to lir chubby belly, bounced at differing speeds as le vibrated with excitement. “Wait here!” And, giggling, le ran off into the back room. Le didn’t seem to use lir wings much, just hopped and skipped and jumped. In lir absence, Duo looked around for Quatre and, finding lir, gave an incredulous look. Quatre only replied with a shrug.

The shopkeeper returned carrying a pink box. Essentially shoving it right into Duo’s face, le opened the lid. “I think this is perfectly perfect for you! I got it from a merchant who came through town a couple of weeks ago, and le was selling cheap because le knew there wouldn’t be a lot of interest, and I said, ‘I’ll take it! I think it’s perfectly perfect!’ So I gave it a nice bubble bath, because you never know where it’s been, or where the merchant’s been, and you always want…”

Lir chatter continued, but faded into obscurity in Duo’s ears as his eyes ran greedily over the velvet-cushioned dildo inside the box. The shape of a dwarf penis could not be mistaken for anything else, and this was as finely crafted as anything he’d ever seen: accurate in form and color and apparent texture, and with a sturdy handle of hard golden wood for ease of use. He longed to touch it, but figured that would be inappropriate until he actually owned the thing.

“…curves upward when it gets erect! Not too far, but a little — like a lithefruit! It doesn’t ejaculate anything, because it doesn’t come with testicles, but it does go soft after a while — I found that out while I was washing it!” Le giggled.

“There can’t be…” Duo had to pause to clear his throat. “There can’t be much demand for a replica dwarf penis in these parts.”

“It’s a niche item,” le admitted. “Get it? Niche item?”

“I’ll take it.” He still sounded a bit hoarse.

“Okie-dokie-lokie! Twelve silver pieces! Do you want to add some lubricant? I’ll throw it in for 25 copper!”

One gold piece, worth fifteen silver, was all the money Duo had left. But since he’d already paid for his room at the inn (for this very reason), he didn’t hesitate to pull it out. The combination of that very room, a dwarf in kil’ak’brük, and this marvelous magical toy promised bliss for the next few nights at the very least.

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

The novelty of everything’s being pink had not yet faded, and still particularly satisfied Sano whenever he found an especially large pile of fallen leaves to jump in. He loved the crunching sound and the cushioning feel to them; he loved their sharp, autumnal smell. Faeryland wasn’t really all that bad so far. He’d already had one fairly interesting fight, and the landscape, so different from that of home, entertained him.

That didn’t mean his mood was one of unalloyed pleasure. His reason for coming into Faeryland gave him continual regret, though he tried not to think about it and certainly never brought it up aloud; and he kept experiencing a sort of itching on the back of his head that he would have thought, by now, should have gone away.

“I still feel like someone’s following us,” he declared, spinning around, walking backwards for a moment, then bending for a rock he could throw into the forest the way he’d come.

“You made yourself enough of a nuisance in that last town,” said the sword at his side, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were coming after you for revenge.”

Sano turned his lanky form again to face southwest. “I’m serious! I really think someone’s following us! And you know I didn’t raise enough ruckus for it to be just some farmer or whatever.”

“‘Just some farmer’ wouldn’t follow us into Faeryland in any case. Do you really think anyone would? Nobody comes here except on business.”

Annoyed at the condescending tone, the orc deliberately knocked the sheathed weapon against the next tree. “Yeah, so maybe someone’s business is following us!”

“You really think you’re that important?”

“Just a second ago you said you wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted revenge for whatever you think I did in Deserville or whatever it was called.”

“Even a villager’s well merited annoyance at you wouldn’t be enough to bring them past the border of Faeryland. They’re probably just outside waiting for you to come out again, and then they’ll mob you.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “That sounds like fun. Brawling with humans is like…” He cast about for an appropriate simile, and was lucky enough to find one physically present. “Like jumping in leaves! Crunch, crunch, crunch!” He demonstrated, flailing into the pile and scattering it with wild kicks of his booted feet.

The sword began some comment Sano didn’t catch over the noise of his play, but when eventually the orc settled down and moved toward where his Guide hovered patiently not far ahead, the remark started again. “If you’re really worried about someone following us, you’re a fool to leave such an obvious trail for them to track.”

“I’m more worried about getting you to believe there’s someone following us!” Sano broke into an impatient jog.

“In that case, you’re definitely a fool. What good would that do you?”

“Um, getting you to admit you’re wrong?” Sano said this in a tone proclaiming it to be the most obvious thing in the world.

The sword made a scoffing sound. “Your ambitions are so lofty. And what exactly do you want me to admit?”

Sano grunted in frustration. “Haven’t we been talking about this for days or some shit? I want you to admit you’re wrong about someone following us!”

“But have I ever said specifically that I don’t believe there’s someone following us?”

Abruptly Sano drew the sword and held it before his face as if looking for some visual clue as to the exact meaning of that question. But of course all he saw, in the finely polished steel that accepted no stain, was his own scowling tusked face. “You’re trying to weasel out of this!” he accused. “When it turns out someone’s been following us all along and they attack and kick my ass and I’m laying there dying, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I never actually said I didn’t believe you, so I wasn’t wrong about anything’ just because you didn’t say the exact words even though you’ve been arguing against the idea this whole time!”

“You think you’ll die, do you?” the sword, voice louder out in the open like this, asked easily.

“Don’t change the subject! You’re doing that politician thing again — messing around with words so you can deny everything later!”

The sword gave a brief laugh. “I’m surprised you even recognized it.”

“You are such an asshole.” Sano thrust the sword back into its sheath and quickened his pace.

“If it’s any comfort to you, when you do get your ass kicked and are lying there dying, I’ll send you off by admitting I was wrong about something.”

Surprisingly, this did comfort Sano a little. “Really?”

“If you admit at the same time that you’re a fool.”

Sano grunted again. “I might be a fool, but there’s still someone following us.”

“Why would someone follow us all the way into Faeryland?”

“Well, maybe someone was following us outside Faeryland, and now someone different’s following us inside Faeryland.”

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

“My people have a connection with trees,” Sano insisted. “Why do you think we’re green? I know when someone’s following me through a forest!”

“More like a connection with hops. ‘Your people’ are the street urchins of Drury Crossing, who come from all different races and backgrounds, none of which is a forest. Besides, you’ve already mentioned multiple times that the trees here are pink.”

At being so successfully countered, Sano practically roared with irritation. “Tomoe will back me up!” he cried. “Tomoe! Aren’t we being followed?!” And he sprinted forward to catch up with his Guide and settle the matter.

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

Tomoe resisted the urge to massage lir temples, sigh loudly, break the pact and fly away, or any of the other relieving things le was tempted to do. Le only said, in response to Sano’s question, “There are certainly other Visitors in the area. Whether any of lem — them — are following you, I can’t say.”

“See?” said Sano.

“You see?” said his sword at the same moment. Evidently each had taken the unhelpful statement as confirmation of his point of view.

“No, you see!” the orc insisted. “There are other Visitors in the area! Even she–” (echoing Tomoe’s error) “–le can’t be sure if someone’s following us!”

“Exactly. Le can’t be sure.” The sword never had a problem with the local pronouns. “You’d think a faery would be more certain, wouldn’t you?” This was not really true, but Tomoe didn’t bother to set him right.

“The point is, it’s absolutely possible.”

“I never said it wasn’t possible, just that it’s unlikely.”

“So? Unlikely shit happens all the time! You just don’t want to admit it because it’s my idea.”

“Do you think you’ve given me much reason to have faith in your ideas?”

“Well, can you prove there’s nobody following us?”

“That’s a remarkably foolish question, even for you.”

Even from a position far enough ahead to keep them on track and stay beyond the fast-moving orc, Tomoe could still hear them clearly. They’d done this every waking moment le’d known them, and showed no signs of stopping any time soon; but le hadn’t learned to tune them out yet.

Relatively new to Guidework, Tomoe couldn’t be quite sure how the rules applied in this situation. That they weren’t magically binding, for the most part, left lir to lir own devices how to interpret them, and le felt consistently anxious about it. The sword gave every sign of being a person, and Sano conversed with it as if it were; but he’d been remarkably unforthcoming about his reason for entering Faeryland, so Tomoe could only assume. Lir assumption was, of course, that some friend of his (for a flexible definition of the term ‘friend’) had been Cursed, and Sano had for some reason taken it upon himself to rectify the situation.

That seemed perfectly normal, and why Sano didn’t just admit to it, Tomoe had no idea. More pertinently, a Guide was supposed to refrain from talking to lir Visitor in the presence of others, and Tomoe had made a pact with Sano, not with the sword. Did a person that was technically an object count as someone le shouldn’t be talking in front of? Should le have made a dual pact? A sword had no hands, so le didn’t know if le could have… but the verbal agreement could have been altered to include the sword if Sano had explained his circumstances better. And as things stood, was Tomoe breaking the rules every time le spoke to them both? Le hadn’t been able to decide.

Lir preoccupation didn’t help. Le’d been over this many times in lir head, but never conclusively. With 189 days remaining to lir other source of worry, le didn’t much anticipate a useful answer to lir musings on the subject of Guide rules.

“Hey, Tomoe!”

Drawing a deep breath, Tomoe returned to an easier speaking distance from the orc.

“Are we going the right direction for the black faery place?”

Before Tomoe could even decide how to word lir answer, the sword broke in. “You’ve asked lir that a hundred times already, fool. You’re like a child on a long trip wondering ‘Are we there yet?’ every half hour.”

“What do you know about kids on long trips?” Sano demanded, distracted from his question.

“Yes, we’re going the right direction,” said Tomoe, and flew back to lir previous spot as the bickering continued.

Le didn’t know how le was going to put up with this for as long as the journey must take. And who knew what Sano would need to do after talking to the black faery monarch? Le was in for months of this at the very least. Only the thought of lir triple pay — for the naive orc had accepted lir unusually high rate without shopping around at all — determined lir on proceeding.

After some thought, though reluctant to do so, le allowed Sano to catch lir up. The orc had started running, as he sometimes did in his evident impatience to get where they were going, and his long legs covered the ground strikingly quickly; he ran nearly as fast as le could fly. Now le kept pace with him, waiting for a chance to break into the conversation with lir latest suggestion.

Finally one appeared, and le said quickly, “I believe a Quest might help you, since there are other Visitors in the area.”

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

“Le explained this at the entrance,” said the sword with a sigh.

Le explained again. “A Quest is a group of Visitors who travel together and help each other with their goals.”

Sano pondered this for half a second. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound too bad. It’d be nice to have some allies in here, especially since somebody’s obviously following us.”

More importantly, it would prevent Sano — assuming he remembered the rules — from harassing Tomoe every few minutes with stupid questions. Given his reticence on the topic of his own goals, it might even cut down on his endless fruitless debates with the sword. “We’re going the right direction for that too,” le informed him. “Keep moving.” And le resumed lir place some yards ahead, looking very much forward to the moment they could unite with other Visitors and shut lirs up a bit.

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

Duo’s new acquisition was nothing short of a miracle of specialized magic design. Since starting kil’ak’brük three years before, he’d never had a lasting relationship, only random encounters and short-term dalliances; so it was entirely possible that these had been the best three nights he’d ever spent at an inn.

His lack of funds, however, had cut the party short. The bank in town had turned out not to be the one he used, and the process of a transfer from a branch of his own elsewhere had already outlasted the number of days he’d prepaid for. So now he sat on a barrel in the inn yard thinking longingly of his toy, with nothing much else to do since he’d already checked the status of his transfer today and been disappointed.

Pink faery after pink faery after pink faery walked or flew past him, full-size and small-size, in all variations of sexual presentation and an even greater variety of attire. As people-watching went, it could have been worse, but even so it grew monotonous after a while. So when a green orc, appearing elongated in his tall, lanky muscularity, passed by apparently talking to himself, Duo sat up and took notice.

Even this far into Postre, the orc had not ceased to look around in wonder, and the expression on his pleasant tusked face was one of gormless interest. He wore leathers rather than proper armor, and a sword that might have been a child’s plaything on his big frame. Apart from ragged brown hair sticking out in every direction (which might have been a fashion statement rather than negligence), he appeared competent enough.

He was ranting with no evident audience, however. Talking so openly to his Guide wasn’t manners, but what had Duo been doing the last fifty years if not helping people fit into Faeryland better? Yes, this fellow might be a useful asset to a Quest.

So busy gawking he either didn’t note or didn’t recognize the potential of the dwarf’s presence, the orc walked right past Duo and disappeared around a corner of the inn. Duo immediately jumped up and looked around for Quatre. This could be a problem; his Guide was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t go far in the right direction without lir. He soon found he had no need to worry, though.

“Did you just see a dwarf back there?” came what must be the stranger’s voice from where he’d apparently halted just beyond the corner.

“I have no eyes,” was the rather odd reply. Surely that was never a faery’s voice!

“Yeah, you’ve got no mouth either, but you don’t have a hard time talking shit about–”

Don’t pull out a weapon on a public street again, you fool! You remember what happened last time?”

“No, he’s gonna love this! I know the exact right dwarf thing.” And the sound of his suddenly pounding feet was the last warning Duo had. As he rounded the corner with his sword raised, he let out a roaring approximation, not half bad, of a Mur’kaltulk warlord’s vik’talzis or semi-formal battle greeting. Granted, Duo had only heard a vik’talzis two or three times in his life, but he thought the orc did a pretty good imitation. And it was quite decent of him, really, to take the trouble of approaching a stranger like this.

Duo met the attack with a ready axe, glad to have something to do and an opportunity to meet a fellow non-faery and potential Quest-sharer. Beyond that, the orc’s skill showed from the very beginning, and Duo enjoyed the feeling of steel against steel. He thought the crowd that grew around them was drawn not so much by the talents of the combatants, though, as by amusement at a couple of Visitors having it out next to the inn like the savages they were.

“I’m pleased to meet you!” Duo cried through the ringing and screeching of metal that filled the air. It proved tricky to block the thrusts of a small straight blade with the big rounded edges of a battle-axe, so that was fun.

“Yeah, you too!” replied the orc with a grin. Then, addressing nobody Duo could see, he added, “See, I told you he’d love it!”

Duo did rather love it. He’d been so bored. And presently, when another of his sweeps had been twisted aside by his opponent, he wondered affably, “Isn’t that a human-sized sword you’re using? And some kind of human style?”

To his surprise, it seemed to be the sword itself, rather than its wielder, that answered him with, “Good eye.”

Prodding the situation further, Duo went on, “I hope your dick isn’t as small as your sword!”

A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd, but the orc appeared annoyed. “Why do other warriors always gotta talk about penises all the time!”

Startled, since he’d never met a warrior physically equipped as he was that didn’t enjoy a good dick joke, Duo explained, “Just trying to bond with you, man.”

“All right,” replied the orc, looking wary around the blade of his sword currently locked against the dwarf’s axe. After they’d managed to repel each other without injury, he added, “Well, I hope I can say you’ve got a damn cool axe without you thinking it’s some kind of gross comparison.”

What a strange man! Just to tease him Duo said, “It is a long shaft with two roundish bits at the end.” More laughter from the faeries around them.

The orc gave a growl of frustration and charged again. The sword remarked, “This is a stupid fight. You’re both likely to get arrested or something.”

Duo commented, “Your sword’s not much fun, is he?” And he spun into a centrifugal attack he hoped would knock the weapon from the other’s green hands.

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

The quickening of blood, the wind of swift movement, the clash and screech of steel, the wonderful sharing of skill and technique, the dwarf’s grin, the feeling of having found a friend in this alien place — it seemed as if a bucket of freezing water had been dashed over all these things when all of a sudden there was just this frail little human woman throwing herself between the combatants with arms outspread and shouting for them to stop.

The sword’s descent halted awkwardly half an inch from driving through her shoulder. If Sano had been berserk, he couldn’t have done it in time. Maybe there was something to be said for all that restraint bullshit after all. If so, this woman could use some!

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Sano demanded. At the very same moment, the dwarf, thrown off-balance in his attempt not to chop her in half horizontally, wondered, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”

“What do you two think you’re doing?” she said in return, looking back and forth defiantly between them. “As if it isn’t hard enough to travel through Faeryland! Visitors should be allies, not enemies!”

“Calm down, ma’am,” the dwarf advised, raising burly arms to replace his axe in its straps. When the human shot him a look from which sparks seemed to fly, he took a step back with a half-sheepish grin.

“Yeah, take it easy,” Sano said. “We were just having a traditional dwarven greeting!”

“Wellll, technically,” said the dwarf somewhat regretfully, “it’s only Mur’kaltulk dwarves who use the vik’talzis. I’m Ghabak’nik myself.”

Chagrined, Sano made a great business of sheathing the sword, unsure what to say.

Appearing to take notice of this, the dwarf hastened to assure him, “Not that it wasn’t shaping up into one hell of a fight! We’ll have to try again sometime! Maybe with less of an audience.” For, though the faeries that had gathered around them were beginning to disperse, some evidently believed the show hadn’t yet ended and still stood at leir ease, listening and laughing.

And the human was giving the dwarf that look again — not merely reproving, but almost condemnatory. The dwarf hurried on. “But I agree with the lady! We might make excellent companions! What do you say we all head inside–” he gestured toward the inn– “and talk about it?”

The woman seemed to relent. “That’s a good idea.”

“You gonna buy me a drink?” Sano grinned. “Because you were about to lose?”

“My good man, I think you would have found you were about to lose,” the dwarf replied, moving forward and clapping Sano on the (lower) back. “Besides, I have no money.”

Sano snorted.

The dwarf, presumably by right of earlier residence, moved to lead the way; but as he rounded the corner and approached the front entrance, having pushed past a faery or two to do so, he suddenly veered off to the right away from the door.

Sano ran after him and clapped a green hand on a mail-clad shoulder. “Where you going, dwarf?”

The latter glanced around, and puffed out his lips in irritation, making his brown mustache ripple and a sound like a horse. “Nowhere,” he said. “Just… keep your hand right there until we get inside, will you?”

Sano complied with this unusual request, and it won them an odd look from the human woman where she waited beside the door, but they all made it into the common room and sat down without further incident.

Like much of what he’d seen in Faeryland so far, the furniture had a lot of unnecessary scrolls and flourishes and leaf-shaped little extra bits and shit. But the room itself interested him. The ceiling was low — or maybe average, for faeries — and made of a sort of latticework that in places revealed the second, smaller dining and drinking area above for when ley went all small the way ley did. Servers from time to time left the bar or the kitchen, shrank down as they flew upward, and darted out of sight. He wondered if Tomoe had settled at a table up there.

“Geez, you two, you don’t have to pop your eyes out,” the dwarf grumbled, and Sano lowered his gaze to find the human woman doing the same. She must never have been inside a faery inn either.

“Well, Duo–” the voice from the center of their table made them both jump– “got some more money at last?”

“Not a single piece!” the dwarf replied cheerfully to the small-size faery that had landed before him. “But my new friends here are going to buy me a drink!”

The faery turned lir entire sexless pink body, naked but for an apron, toward Sano and the human. “And what will you be treating our good dwarf to, my Visitors?”

“Uh, what do you have?”

Duo grinned wryly and broke in before the bartender or innkeeper or whatever le was could answer. “I’ll have the same as before. And just beer for these two, for now. They’ll have plenty of time to get to know your better stuff later!”

Sano’s heart warmed at the word ‘beer’ as well as at the prospect of ‘better stuff,’ and he didn’t even mind pulling out his money pouch and paying the tab for all three of them.

When the faery had left them, the dwarf sat back comfortably in his chair. “So I’m Duo, you probably noticed. Duo Axewielder, at your service.”

“Axewielder?” the human wondered. “Isn’t that a little…”

“On the nose? Yeah, it’s about the most common dwarf family name there is. You humans have your Smiths, and we dwarves have our Axewielders.”

Sano raised a hand. “I’ve got one of those too! Sano Sabertusk here. You ever visit Drury Crossing, you’ll think I’m related to half the orcs there.”

“Well, mine is Kamiya,” said the woman with some satisfaction. “Kaoru Kamiya.”

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

Kaoru made a huffing sound. “If people are going to fight, it should be for a good reason!”

Sano thought he heard agreement from somewhere around his hip, but it was mostly drowned out by his own and Duo’s laughter.

“And what’s your sword’s name, Sano?” the dwarf wondered next.

“He’ll speak up if he decides he wants to talk to you,” Sano grumbled.

There was a moment of expectant silence. Kaoru looked curious.

When no introduction was forthcoming, Duo went on. “And what are your goals in Faeryland?”

Sano’s mumble, in which only the word ‘Curse’ might have been heard, was overridden by Kaoru’s more forthright explanation. “A green faery stole something from me, and I need to get it back.”

Duo looked impressed. “So you’re not Cursed? If you came into Faeryland just to get some stolen item back, you really must have a death wish! Or was it valuable?”

Appearing somewhat embarrassed, Kaoru said, “It was valuable to me.”

Poking his lips out thoughtfully and tugging on his beard, Duo mused, “Sentimental value…” He looked Kaoru up and down assessingly, and Sano believed he was sizing her, and the situation, up in a professional sense. But then his expression changed, and he made a frustrated sound. “I’m still thinking about all this like a bodyguard.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard!” Sano protested, feeling a little betrayed.

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

Kaoru definitely heard this statement. Observing that neither of her companions were startled as she was, she bent down with a suspicious expression to peek under the table. Her mouth had opened to inquire before she’d sat up entirely, but just then the faery from before returned, full-size, with their drinks on a tray.

Sano poked at the foam on his and licked it off his finger. It smelled like beer, and the preliminary taste seemed fine, but something about it… A long gulp satisfied him that, though there was an unexpected spiciness and kick to it, the qualities he looked for on the inside of a tumbler were all present. He shook his head with a pleased grunt.

“See,” Duo was saying as Sano went through this process and Kaoru eyed hers uncertainly, “I’ve made my living for the last fifty years as a bodyguard to Quests, helping them with their Curses. Fifty years! And I never got Cursed once. But now all of a sudden here I am the one who’s Cursed and needs help with it. You wouldn’t believe how frustrating that is!” And he took a swig of whatever was in his cup — something frothy and pink — and frowned as only a dwarf could. He brightened the next moment, however, in asking Sano, “So what’s your Curse?”

Sano felt a slight blush on his face, lifted his tumbler again in an attempt at covering it, and mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it,” his eyes flicking away from his companions.

“We’re talking about forming a Quest, aren’t we?” Kaoru wondered. “To help each other out? I don’t think we can help each other if we don’t know what we’re helping with.”

“Or do you need someone to dig it out of your green hide with an axe?”

“Don’t people get Cursed all the time?” Kaoru tentatively lifted her tumbler. “I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about.”

“That’s right,” said Duo encouragingly. “You’re no stupider than the rest of us!”

“That’s debatable. Sano, I’ll tell them. Put me on the table.” At this command, which had startled Kaoru again, Sano looked down. Reluctantly, he mended his posture a bit — these carved-up pink chairs weren’t designed for long orc bodies — drew the sword, and laid it in front of him. He thought it might be best to concentrate entirely on his beer for a little while.

“My name is Saitou,” said Saitou. Sano noticed he didn’t give his family name, which happened to be Smith. “I was human until this fool got me Cursed by harassing the black griffon who lives just outside Drury Crossing.”

Sano swallowed his latest gulp and, still staring into his tumbler, muttered, “You were yelling just as loud as I was.” He knew Saitou would be expecting this protest, so he made it; it seemed more natural than falling apart in a mess of guilt, anyway.

“At least I didn’t try to pluck lir feathers,” Saitou said dryly.

“I was drunk.” Sano sank back down in his chair, trying to find a convenient place beneath the table for his outstretched legs.

“That’s your excuse for everything, and it’ll be your excuse for dying when that day comes.”

Duo was guffawing, and when Sano glanced up he found even Kaoru smiling, seemingly against her will. Once he’d calmed down, though, the dwarf remarked, “So you two need to talk to the black faery monarch to find out how to break this Curse.”

“Yeah,” said Sano grumpily. At the same moment Saitou said, “So it would seem.”

“And are you hoping–” turning to Kaoru– “to go to the green enclave and talk to the monarch there?”

Kaoru had been sipping at her beer. “This is good,” she remarked. It cheered Sano a bit to hear her say so; he’d rather believed, just looking at her and knowing her distaste for pointless fighting (one of his other favorite activities), that she might be the type to turn her little tan nose up at the idea of drinking. But then she shook her head. “I heard the green monarch is away, and nobody knows when she’ll be back. I thought I’d just describe the thief to people and see if anyone knows who he is or where he might have gone.”

Duo nodded. “Makes sense. And I could use an un-Cursed Visitor like you. Relena, the pink monarch, Cursed me so I get lost all the time, so I can’t find my way into the pink enclave to talk to her.”

“That’s why you tried to wander off when we were just coming in here!” Sano realized.

“I wondered about that,” commented Saitou, who could only judge by what he heard.

“That’s right,” Duo confirmed glumly. “Sometimes it only takes a couple of steps, and, boom! I’m at the north pole.”

Sano paid him back for laughing at him a minute before.

Kaoru shot the orc a reproving look. “I’ll be happy to help you, Duo.”

“Is the pink place on the way to the black place, though?”

“They’re practically in opposite directions,” Duo informed him. “The pink enclave is a little closer.”

“But–” Sano lifted his eyes again, this time from the depressingly bare bottom of his cup.

“Don’t make snap decisions,” Saitou reminded him.

Duo sighed. “I’m stuck here in town for at least another day anyway, until my money transfer comes in from my regular bank. So you’ve both got some time to decide whether you want to make a Quest out of this, and where we should go first if you do.”

Sano wouldn’t say so, but Saitou was right: giving this some thought seemed better than just turning Duo down offhand and rushing off alone again. He already liked this little guy, and didn’t think he’d mind traveling with him… as long as it didn’t delay his business. “All right, so obviously right now there’s only one thing to do,” he declared. And when the others looked at him expectantly he finished, “Order another round!”

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

It interested and amused Quatre to observe that, though the orc and the human were taking in every possible detail their greedy eyes could gather of the unfamiliar faery inn, they seemed not to notice its dirtiness and disrepair. Granted, the young man might not have observed a far greater level of neglect; but the young woman, le would have thought, should have seen it.

As for Quatre lirself, le had grown perfectly accustomed to staying in second- and third-rate inns during the course of Guidework. Some of the fare here wasn’t too bad, despite the dubious condition of the dishes; and the lumpy bed in lir room, though it smelled faintly of sweat, did technically provide a slightly better night’s rest than a tree branch or the cold earth.

Another thing Quatre had grown accustomed to was picking out fellows even in a crowded room. Le’d seen this one around and knew lir for a Guide; and based on lir solitary state beside the opening through which, if Quatre judged the angle correctly, Duo’s table below could most easily be seen and heard, le might soon become Quatre’s companion in more than just profession.

“May I join you?” the gold faery asked the pink, casting a pointed look downward at the Visitor party.

The other, wearing a female presentation, blouse, and trousers, appeared distracted for a moment, then startled. Lir somber face, framed by dark fuchsia hair, swiveled first in the direction Quatre had glanced, then at the table before lir, and finally at Quatre lirself. It seemed to take lir rather longer than it had Quatre to recognize another Guide — and no wonder; Quatre knew lir to be fairly new at this.

But finally the pink faery shook lirself and said, “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Before pulling out a chair, Quatre set down the drink le’d brought over, gave lir name and origin, and offered a golden hand — something le couldn’t publicly have done under other circumstances. The taboo relating to cross-color interaction deeply bothered lir, and the treatment le received in an establishment like this — pink faeries providing lir with whatever le paid for but simultaneously doing leir best to pretend le didn’t exist — only drove home how needlessly segregated faery societies had become. But Guide traditions were sacrosanct; even feuding monarchs couldn’t keep Guides from interacting as openly and amicably as ever.

“Tomoe of Frollino,” replied the other, standing to grip Quatre’s hand.

The introduction complete, both faeries settled at the table and looked down once more into the full-size room. The Visitors had placed drink orders and were talking animatedly about their names, which Quatre filed away as they came up. Then, briefly, le glanced around the small-size terrace again. “There should be one more of us, but nobody else here seems like a Guide.”

Tomoe made a noise of agreement, mimicked Quatre’s scan of the room, and shook lir head.

“It must be a green faery,” Quatre went on, “since that woman is under a green Protection, but I don’t see any green faeries in here at all.”

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

Quatre shrugged and returned lir attention to the party below. Le didn’t see much benefit to these three forming a Quest, except the greater safety of numbers, and perhaps the greater amusement they would provide as a group to their Guides. The latter seemed a not inconsiderable benefit, though; le laughed aloud at something one of them had just said, drained lir drink, and glanced at Tomoe to see if le found this as entertaining as Quatre did. But the focus of Tomoe’s eyes appeared to fade long before it settled on the scraggly head of lir orc Visitor.

“This will be a fun Quest,” Quatre said proddingly. And when Tomoe only made a faint sound of acquiescence, Quatre stared at lir more interestedly. Le seemed completely preoccupied, presumably with something engrossing enough to distract lir entirely from the display below.

Evidently feeling Quatre’s eyes, Tomoe looked suddenly over at lir with a start. As if shaking lirself out of a reverie, le sat up straight, glanced downward, peered into lir cup (apparently still partially full), and offered, “I’m sorry; what did you say?”

Quatre altered the statement, speculating kindly, “You have something on your mind other than this Quest.”

Tomoe gave a wan smile and said briefly, “My spouse is pregnant again.”

Filled with understanding and the beginnings of pity, Quatre inquired, “What attempt is this?”

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

And the way le said it made Quatre guess, “No success?”

“None.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope your Visitor’s goals will be accomplished quickly so you can get back to lir.”

“Thank you,” said Tomoe with a slightly warmer smile, and pretty clearly returned to lir reverie.

Quatre looked on with distinct sympathy now, but couldn’t help thinking, at the same time, that Tomoe might have done better not to take on a Visitor le wouldn’t be able to pay proper attention. But perhaps le and lir spouse needed the money; if ley were trying one of those expensive new pregnancy assistance courses, this Guidework might be essential to lem. Quatre wouldn’t judge. Le did wonder whether Tomoe was a devotee of Relena’s policies on the Distorted, though.

It took some time, and quite a few drinks, for the Visitors to separate. The orc Sano appeared fairly inebriated, and, berated by the sword Saitou for wasting money and brain cells on becoming so, wandered off to find a privy. Tomoe, sighing with a different emotion from when le’d mentioned lir pregnant spouse, bade Quatre goodbye for now and followed. Quatre took from this that there was more to Tomoe’s disinclination to pay lir Visitors much attention than merely being distracted by the situation at home. Le had to admit, they might prove a handful for even a more experienced Guide.

The human Kaoru, seeming much of Saitou’s mind about Sano’s behavior but leaving all the remonstrance to him, went to arrange for a room. She’d agreed to pay for Duo’s as well while they waited for his money to come in, which Quatre knew Duo must appreciate more than the human could possibly guess (or, probably, want to know). Most likely thereafter she would head out into the town to ask about her green faery thief.

Duo himself remained at the table, glancing up and around the moment his new acquaintances had gone. Quatre flew to him just as immediately and sat down with lir back to the dwarf’s latest tankard. “Well, you’ve found yourself the least helpful quest you possibly could have!”

“You think so?” asked Duo in surprise. “I know Sano seems kinda… thoughtless… but I like him already, and Kaoru–”

“‘Thoughtless?'” Quatre laughed. “Who’s the one under a pink Curse who wouldn’t go back for a pink Guide?”

“That’s totally different; you know that! You know I wanted someone I could trust!”

“I’d be flattered if I weren’t pretty sure that’s stubbornness talking instead of any real attachment to me.”

Duo dodged the point and went back to the previous. “But I like Kaoru too, even if she’s likely to be a little uptight about things. Why do you think they won’t be helpful?”

Quatre shook lir head with a smile. Le supposed the pink Guide business wasn’t really worth emphasizing any further. “Kaoru is under a green Protection.”

“Dammit!” said Duo. “Why didn’t she tell us?”

“She doesn’t seem to understand how things work around here,” Quatre speculated. “I think you could help her much more than the other way around.”

“Sano should still be able to help me, though. He’s not actually Cursed himself.”

“I didn’t get the feeling he’s likely to put that sword down any time soon; did you?”

Without answering the question, Duo tugged at his chestnut-colored beard. Quatre thought he did this not so much out of pensiveness as because he really liked his beard. At least he spent enough time brushing it out and braiding it every day. But presently he leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Well, at least that solves the problem of where to go first. The black enclave it is!”

“So you’re still going to join this Quest?” Quatre wasn’t as surprised as le might have been.

The dwarf shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do, do I? And before you suggest going back to the border and finding a pink Guide, just… don’t… suggest that.” He didn’t seem to mind this weak finish, but signaled for service.

Quatre chuckled as le flew back to the upper terrace and sat at the edge of an opening, dangling lir feet and looking down. Duo, it seemed, felt more at home in a Quest than out of one, and would probably cling to that with every bit of dwarven stubbornness he possessed, just as he did to the idea of not going back for a pink Guide. Quatre didn’t mind. It would only make the journey more entertaining. And after all, le’d become a Guide in the first place to be able to interact with more than merely lir own people, the faeries subject to the monarch least interested in cooperation and acceptance.

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

Postre had not yet ceased to fascinate Kaoru. Its mixture of full-size and small-size buildings allowed for a much bigger population than she’d expected when she’d first arrived, and its elaborately decorated pink shops and market stalls seemed fancy enough for a capital city. She wondered what actual faery capitals looked like, if a small town like this was so casually embellished.

She’d had no luck so far in picking up the trail of the thief she was after. Most of the faeries she asked responded politely, and some were even friendly — especially those that had either seen or heard about her throwing herself into the middle of a fight between an orc and a dwarf yesterday — but none of them recognized the description she gave or had any idea (beyond recommending she head into green territory) where to find what she sought. And her inquiries were often met with some bemusement or even confusion that she didn’t understand.

Imugeme seemed shy of being seen by other faeries. She’d explained, that first day, about the privacy Guides traditionally kept to, and Kaoru supposed that was the reason, but it made her difficult to talk to sometimes; the human would look around for her with some comment on the tip of her tongue, only to find her nowhere in sight.

At the moment, though, as Kaoru made her way around the northwest side of town closest to the river, in which at some distance she could see an unexpectedly great number of pink faeries splashing, Imugeme sat on her shoulder. The road was largely unpeopled, but every time a faery passed by, the green Guide would dart away somewhere.

“In all the towns outside, I always saw some foreigners,” Kaoru remarked. “In the human towns, there would be other races and other species… and I went through a dwarf town where I wasn’t the only human. Even in my little dairy hometown, we had a troll family. But here I’ve seen almost nothing but pink faeries. Why is that?”

“Faeries of different colors don’t mix much,” Imugeme replied. “It’s different with Guides, of course, but in everyday life this is what you should expect.”

“That seems like a shame.”

A little sadly, Imugeme agreed. “There’s nothing to be done about it around here, though.”

“How far off is the green realm?”

“At least two weeks’ travel northwest to the border, and almost as long again to the green enclave. It will be winter before we can possibly get there.”

“I wonder if the queen will be back in that amount of time…”

“Monarch,” Imugeme corrected. “And I suppose it’s possible. Are you thinking of going there by yourself?”

“Probably not. Until we actually know the green monarch is at home, it seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it? And Sano and Duo need help.”

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

“I’m just trying to be sensible! Sano seems like he needs that. And poor Duo, getting lost everywhere… I really think non-faeries need to stick together in here.”

“I still admire your kindness.”

Kaoru blushed and glanced around. “Look, this is a home neighborhood; I don’t want to bother people here. Can you help me find shops and things again?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Postre had a second inn, cleaner and more comfortable than the one Kaoru and her new friends were staying in, and at first she’d considered raising the idea of moving there for the rest of their time in town. But having gone inside and inquired into prices, she’d realized why Duo had chosen the third-rate establishment over this one. She was nearly out of money, and must reserve what remained to pay Imugeme and feed herself. The reflection embarrassed her, but this made for another good reason to join a Quest: she needed better-off companions if she hoped to get anywhere.

And the next day, Duo’s money really did arrive. Kaoru had wondered whether it would, or whether Duo hadn’t been deceiving them in the hopes that the others (or at least Sano) would get impatient to leave and declare their intentions of funding the trip themselves. Granted, Duo seemed perfectly honest, but Kaoru still didn’t trust plenty of what she encountered in Faeryland.

The dwarf spent a lot of time in his bedroom at the inn, doing what Kaoru had no idea, but he’d emerged this morning, as yesterday, to visit the bank and check on his transfer; and now he’d found both of his new companions and brought them back to the common room for further discussion.

“I’ve been saving for years,” he said somewhat glumly once they’d placed their orders for breakfast and drinks with the innkeeper. “I’m what you might call filthy rich. Probably a good thing, too, but I wasn’t looking forward to blowing it all on a long journey. How are you guys’ finances?”

“Uh… not great?” Sano replied, appearing embarrassed. “I gotta keep paying my Guide, and I’ve never seen any of the flowers le wants, so it’s gotta be money. I can’t afford much else except food and shit.”

“You’ve never been good at handling money,” Saitou remarked. Kaoru still wasn’t entirely used to that disembodied voice from somewhere around Sano’s thighs.

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

“I’m about the same.” She felt less embarrassed admitting it than she would have if Sano’s emotion hadn’t seemed enough for the both of them.

Duo repeated his nod, even more glum. “Then I guess I’m the financial backer of this expedition. Well, it’ll help me in the end! I’ll just have to start saving again. I’ll give you two some money, and we’ll all go out into town and stock up for the trip.”

“And then we can leave for the black place?” Sano wondered, brightening. “I can’t wait to see a bunch of black trees and rocks and shit!”

“You’ve never been a good team player,” said Saitou.

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

Somewhat to Kaoru’s surprise, Duo agreed with the orc. “Yeah, let’s head west. You won’t see a bunch of black trees, though; the black realm is completely underground. The entrance is in a town in the Eintopf hills at the border of the pink realm, so that’s where we’ll make for. It’s been a long time since I was there! That won’t be so bad.”

Kaoru wondered why Duo had decided on this course of action rather than visiting the closer pink enclave first. Perhaps it was because she might eventually want to continue on into the green realm, and that too lay far to the west. Perhaps it was just to placate Sano and keep him from breaking the Quest up before it had even truly formed. They needed to do something with Sano’s energy; she thought he and Duo had already been fighting behind the inn when she wasn’t around (and when the dwarf wasn’t busy in his bedroom). So she asked, “What’s the land like between here and there?”

“Plains,” he replied. “Farmland, grazing land, and some wild meadowlands. There’s a road all the way. Should be pretty easy travel.”

She nodded. “Should we plan to leave in the morning, or do you think we’ll do all right leaving a little later today, after we’ve shopped?”

Duo considered this for a moment, and his eyes roved around the common room briefly before he decided. “Tomorrow. Best to get one last good sleep in a bed before it’s back to sleeping on the ground, eh?”

Kaoru completely agreed, but Sano seemed impatient. “Let’s go shopping, then!” he declared.

“Finish your breakfast,” the human commanded, pointing to the pink salad she wouldn’t have expected someone of his species to favor for that meal.

“Yes, mom,” he said with a roll of eyes, and started shoving leaves into his mouth.

Probably because of Saitou’s comment on Sano’s ability to handle money, Duo seemed to give him less than he did Kaoru. He instructed the two of them to buy whatever they needed — with an emphasis on that last word — except food, which he would take care of. Then they dispersed to the market streets and shops of Postre, an area with which Kaoru was becoming increasingly familiar.

She’d brought multiple changes of clothing with her — all she owned, in fact, that was suited to an adventure like this; so the only garment she purchased was a vest of pinkish-brown leather for some added protection. She traded her backpack and paid the difference for a bigger, sturdier one of that same material, and she obtained a new walking staff.

At Imugeme’s suggestion, she bought some bandages and salves, since, though she could count on her Protection to keep her out of most harm’s way, and on her green Guide to heal her if she did suffer some injury, her companions seemed the sort to get wounded and require more mundane attention. She also increased her sewing supplies for mending purposes, including a large, strong needle and thick thread for use on leather. And, reminded by Duo’s reference to sleeping on the ground, she improved her bedroll. All in all, it was a satisfying few hours in the market that she never could have afforded a quarter of on her own.

While at this, she asked around again about the green thief, but met with no more success than before. Then, since she had nothing better to do and no desire to watch Duo and Sano sparring like idiots or whatever they called it, she spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bridge that led out of town to the west — the one they would cross in the morning — talking to Imugeme. The latter had many funny and touching stories to tell of her childhood in the green realm, for which Kaoru paid her in kind with tales of growing up with sometimes-ridiculous foster-parents and -sister on a dairy farm.

As usual, Duo retired early to his room that evening, leaving Sano and Kaoru to finish their dinner and drinks in the common room without him. The orc soon became too intoxicated for the human to get any enjoyment out of his company, and too loud for her to converse with Saitou conveniently, so eventually she left instructions with the innkeeper as to what should be done with Sano if he grew as disruptive and belligerent as she feared he must, and also went early to bed.

The next morning, rather to her surprise, she and even the hungover Sano were awake, breakfasted, and ready to leave before Duo emerged from his room. The dwarf didn’t hold them up much longer, though; he bought some meat buns for eating on his feet, settled the final account with the innkeeper, and, with a wistful look back toward the bedrooms, proclaimed himself at their disposal. Kaoru wondered whether he just loved sleep that much.

Across the bridge, the road sloped upward for about half a mile through brush and lingering trees she’d gotten a good look at yesterday, then leveled out, and Kaoru had her first sight of faery farmland. At first she couldn’t help goggling, for it appeared so different from any such land she’d ever seen. All the plants’ being pink came as no surprise, but they were so unusual in themselves, and had been harvested in a manner so foreign to her, she simply didn’t know what to make of it.

Then, there were so few full-size buildings! As far as the eye could see, no habitations presented themselves — not one single farmhouse met her searching gaze. Barns, yes, stables (for what animal she couldn’t quite tell), and livestock pens, but no homes. Duo had to inform her a few hours into their walk that faeries found it safer and more convenient to live small-size out in the open like this, though most of their work must be carried out full-size.

They came upon fields full of cows in a variety of pink-like colors — mostly smaller and less solidly built than those on the dairy back home, and with thicker creamy pink horns — and even some horses in the same hues that otherwise looked more or less like the horses she might have seen anywhere. They passed a small lake where waterfowl such as she’d never encountered called and splashed, but more often they saw V’s of unfamiliar birds heading out on some mysterious migratory pattern that took them she knew not where.

So fascinating did their surroundings prove that Kaoru paid little attention to her companions or even the passing hours, but somewhere in her subconscious lay the awareness that Sano was equal parts interested and bored, and that Duo kept attempting to wander off in the wrong direction but was consistently tugged back on course by some little gold flash pulling on one of his braids.

He informed them at lunchtime, as they sat in the imperfect shade and the fallen leaves of some pink tree resembling a maple, that the road swung farther north than their direct westward path in order to hit the town of Yabloko, but that he advised sticking to it for a few reasons: first, that by the time they could, they would certainly want to spend a night or two in a civilized settlement; second, that leaving the road meant making their way across various people’s lands, for which they might get in trouble; and third, that they should take advantage of a paved path while they had it, as they would miss it later. Kaoru, who admired his knowledge of Faeryland geography and had no problem with staying on the road, believed he laid out these reasons so carefully in order to head off Sano’s potential complaints, in which endeavor he succeeded.

Evening and even full night under constellations that, for a change, were not pink came much sooner than Kaoru had expected; but when she could no longer make out details in the pale starlight, and eventually began to stumble and yawn, her attention returned firmly to the mechanics of the journey. She’d been so engrossed in looking around her, the time had flown. She doubted she could count on any subsequent day’s going by so rapidly, but she appreciated it as a good start.

At a particularly egregious near-fall, “Humans,” Duo remarked with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how you guys ever get anywhere.” And indeed, he’d shown no signs of flagging, and still maintained the same pace he’d set out at this morning.

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

“Oh, I could walk another eight hours without needing to sleep,” Duo replied with a barely-visible smug smile. And if that was true, Kaoru thought, maybe he’d been saving up on sleep at the inn in Postre.

“Well, I could cover way more ground in the time we’ve been going,” was Sano’s defiance in return. “Orcs are damn fast runners, you know.”

“They’re at least good at running their mouths,” said Saitou.

Kaoru giggled. “I can’t run fast or travel for a long time without sleep. I guess I’ll always be the bottleneck.”

“We’ll look for a good place to stop,” Duo assured her.

After not too much longer, the shadow of a full-size building began to loom up on their left, appearing a short distance off the road past the stout pink fence that had been flanking them for the last several miles. They hadn’t paid any heed to such places all day, except for Kaoru to study them with interest, but now it seemed they approached a potential shelter for the night. This land had obviously been set aside for the growing of some type of grain or grass, which had been harvested in the usual incomprehensible spiral pattern, so the building was probably stuffed full; but there should be room for three travelers, Kaoru thought.

However, as they drew nearer, she suddenly felt a sharp tugging at first her pony tail and then the hood of her cloak — a stronger pull than she would have expected from Imugeme (for she it must be) apparently intent on dragging her to the right side of the road away from the barn. If the little yelp Sano gave was any indication, he’d had the same experience with his own Guide. With one accord, they all stopped moving.

“Looks like that won’t do,” said Duo, his tone as dark as the night around them and his braided hair swinging.

“Why?” Sano wondered, and his voice, on the contrary, was filled with curiosity. “What’s over there?”

The dwarf answered briefly, “Something our Guides don’t like,” and resumed his walk at a sharp angle to the right.

“Now I really wanna know, though!” Sano took off down the road toward the unidentified building. Difficult as it was to make out in the shadows, Kaoru thought he really did run very fast.

“Sano, stop!” Duo shouted after him. “Come back, damn you! It’s probably demon-infested!” But only Sano’s laughter came floating back to them. “What’s the point of having Guides if you don’t let them guide you??” He let out a frustrated grunt, turned his back on the direction in which Sano had disappeared, and drummed his thick dwarven fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Come on,” Kaoru said. “We’ve got to go after him.”

“Look, I’m just as fond as the next guy of rushing into danger, but in Faeryland, doing that can get you worse than dead.”

“We’re a Quest now,” said the human reprovingly. “We need to look out for each other.”

Duo stared at her for a moment, then grinned, his teeth bright in the darkness. “You’re right!” he admitted. And they started after the miscreant orc.

Just as they’d clambered over the fence and properly approached the barn, watching the stars ahead of them blotted out by its rising blackness, a hideous screech arose from around it on their left where the entrance probably stood. Kaoru stumbled, caught herself on her staff, and wavered for a moment in fear, for she knew that sound; Duo only ran on. Next a roar undoubtedly from the throat of a combative orc split the night, another screech, and a horrible squelching, crunching noise. By the time Kaoru and Duo had picked their way over a wrecked wagon hiding in tall weeds and around to the front of the building, it was all over.

“You bloodthirsty fool,” the sword in Sano’s hand was saying harshly as the starlight gleamed off the liquid that covered his blade. “You complete idiot. Are you deaf? Just once in your life, could you think about what you’re planning before you do it?”

Panting, Kaoru halted a few steps away from Sano at the sight of the pale, twisted figure oozing at his feet. “Sano, what did you do?” she demanded breathlessly.

“This one was way easier to kill than that one we met the first day,” Sano said in a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment. “Barely scratched me! Looks like it was half starved.”

“Sano! Didn’t they explain this to you at the entrance? Didn’t your Guide explain? It’s illegal to kill these things in the pink realm!” She slammed her staff angrily into the ground. “If you’re going to get us in trouble like this, you can damn well go to the black enclave on your own!”

Duo spread his hands and said, more or less jovially, “They’re right; you’re a fucking idiot.”

Scowling, Sano replied, “Oh, go impale yourself.” The verb carried the very specific connotation of being run through on a sharpened stake of wood driven at an angle into the ground for the defense of an orc war camp. He did have the grace to look somewhat sheepish at the same time, though. “But on the bright side, we can definitely sleep in this barn now!”

“I am not sleeping anywhere near that dead body,” Kaoru declared. “Besides, there might be more inside.”

“Nah, I think this guy–” kicking the fallen Distorted with a booted foot– “was trying to get in looking for food. See, the lock’s still on the doors.”

“If someone comes along and finds us with that body, we’ll be arrested.”

“Yeah,” said Duo, and, turning, gestured. “Let’s get going. We’ll cover a few more miles and then make camp.”

With a snort, Sano began cleaning off the sword on the edge of his tunic, and followed. They climbed the fence again and continued down the road in a fairly awkward silence. Sano eventually sheathed the weapon and stuffed his big hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders over in what Kaoru believed to be a state of surly guilt.

She took a deep breath. “They’re called the Distorted,” she began quietly, struggling to strip all accusation from her tone. “Or some people call them demons. They’re children of faeries who come out all wrong — crazy and aggressive. The monarch around here is trying to figure out how to save them, which is why it’s illegal to kill them in this area. You’re supposed to alert her or something, and she sends people out after it.”

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

“Because our Guide told us all about it when you made the pact,” Saitou snapped. “But you’ve always made a habit of conveniently forgetting laws.”

“Hey, cheer up!” Duo said. Sano’s chastised-puppy air seemed to have done the job for him very well. “Live and learn, right? As long as you actually live. Nobody’s likely to find that one until at least tomorrow morning, and we’ll be long gone. Just, you know, don’t do it again.”

As a new silence fell, Kaoru could see Sano observing her dragging steps and reliance on her walking staff. Finally, penitently, he said, “Want me to carry you?”

Before Kaoru could do more than smile at the idea, Duo broke in. “I don’t hear you offering to carry me.”

“Oh, go impale yourself,” Sano repeated. But now there was a grin in the words.

During this pandemic (as at other times XD), the only thing I have to offer is art. So I’m starting to write and post this story far earlier than I originally planned. In order to give bored, depressed people in isolation something to read on a regular basis, I hope to update it frequently, and as such will be using a quicker writing and editing process than usual; so it’ll be a little rough.

There are no sex scenes planned for this story. I’ve given it a rating of 4 because some of the sexual references will be pretty explicit. I hate writing sex scenes and don’t do it if I can possibly avoid it… but I’ve been known to forget that policy any time someone buys me $15 worth of ko-fi.


Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

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The Test

The Test

Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

In response to Heero’s tendency to date the biggest jerks on the planet, his friends have developed a screening process for all potential boyfriends. This latest guy seems like he might be up to scratch, but only if he can survive The Test.



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“In eleventh grade was when I started pursuing art seriously.”

That’s where you’re starting with this?”

“Yeah… this is going to be a long explanation.”

“If you’re starting in eleventh grade it is!”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t worry about it! I’m totally fine hearing about eleventh grade. So you got into art seriously?”

“Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to. They said there was no future in it. And by ‘future’ I mean ‘money.’ They wanted me to — they still want me to get into law.”

“You know, I think you would make a pretty decent lawyer, if lawyers weren’t all so evil.”

“It would be a very practical way to fund my interest in art. If it were a field that interested me at all.”

“Well, I definitely won’t question you being more interested in art than being a lawyer. That’s like the difference between chocolate cake and stabbing yourself in the eye.”

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

“I guess… maybe… that’s one way to describe it. Anyway. My parents have never been happy I wasn’t interested in law. Once my mother asked — as if she didn’t want to bring this up at all but I’d forced her to — if my interest in art had anything to do with me being gay. That was the only time they ever came close to giving me a hard time about being gay. The question confused me a little at first, but she explained she thought maybe I was getting into something stereotypically gay because I felt like I needed to reinforce that I was gay… or something.”

Is art stereotypically gay?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe? Gayer than law, I guess. Obviously she thought it was, since she asked. Of course I told her I was interested in it for its own sake. She didn’t ask again. I think they didn’t try to stop me from getting into the art club at school because they hoped I’d discover I wasn’t really interested. Or maybe that I wasn’t good at it. Then I could quit and do what they wanted me to do.

“But I was interested. And I was good at it. Good enough to keep going, anyway. I loved the art club. We met after school, and it was fun and educational. Then I would take the city bus home, and that was how I met Trowa. He was a junior at my school too, and he was taking an after-school guitar class. Since he lived out past me in the same direction, he took the same bus home.”

“Hah! So you were an art student hanging out with a beatnik guitar player who turned out to be totally insane; I bet your parents loved that!”

“I definitely didn’t mention him to them for a while, at least not specifically. They probably would have thought I was dating him if I had. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have approved.”

Did you ever go out with him?”

“No. He’s not really my type. Don’t get me wrong: he was my best friend for two years of high school, and he’s been one of my best friends ever since. But we were never interested in each other like that.”

“Maybe because he’s out of his fucking mind?”

“He wasn’t always quite so… enthusiastic… about things. Well, actually, he probably was. He just didn’t always have the funding. But the neighborhood he lived in was pretty rough. He grew up knowing how to fight and how to take care of himself, so I guess all of this was… inevitable…”

“And you were both out of the closet?”

“Neither of us had a big social circle. All right, that’s an understatement. We were each other’s only friends, and neither of us wanted more friends. So some people knew and some people didn’t. We didn’t try to hide, but we didn’t exactly broadcast it either.”

“That’s probably better than what I did…”

“What was that?”

“I actually came out by dumping my girlfriend — this was freshman year — because I was thinking I was probably gay when I found myself crushing hard on this one guy who seemed like he liked me back. It was a jerk thing to do to her without any warning like that, and even, like, fourteen years later I still feel kinda bad about it. Especially when I realized I was bi anyway.”

“Did this guy at least actually like you back?”

“Um, sort of… yes? but not in the right way. He had this idea somehow that I was really easy — probably the way I dumped my poor girlfriend didn’t help — and he wanted what he called an ‘open relationship,’ by which he mostly meant he would do absolutely nothing to keep up his half, but he would try to hit me up for sex whenever he felt like it.”

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

“Not going to pretend I wasn’t having sex my freshman year… just mostly not with him.”

“So you were cheating on him.”

“How could I? It was an open relationship! Though mostly he left me in this huge state of annoyance too constantly for me to be in the mood to find anyone else. He would never pay for anything. We’d go places, and he’d always just assume I was paying. God, he was such a jerk. We had so many loud arguments about everything we wanted each other to do before he finally ended it… if you can end something that practically didn’t exist in the first place.”

“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than my first boyfriend.”

“Oh, yeah?”

***

It was a Monday not quite halfway through the semester when the new and very interesting pictures turned up in the big room where Heero had his drawing class, and, as he’d arrived a bit early, he had a chance to look through them at his leisure. Not everything Ms. Hilde brought in was to Heero’s taste, but they were always worth glancing at, even if just to guess what artistic principle she would be using them to illustrate. These new pieces, however, were very much to Heero’s taste.

For his own part, he preferred to work in graphite or charcoal. Ms. Hilde had facetiously told him that his fixation on monochrome seemed a little psychotic, but he stuck to his guns. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate colors, though, especially colors like these; the artist seemed fond of brief lines of striking contrast, or bright streaks and swirls of opposites, and the effect was quite nice.

The subjects were all human and all moving, many of them athletes but some wearing street clothes and just randomly in vigorous motion. And nearly every one of them had at least one feature that was conspicuously distorted — an unusually shaped torso, a pair of oversized hands, oddly tiny feet — that helped the figure’s lines fit neatly into the overall composition or drew the eye where the artist wanted it.

There were seven pieces total, and they reminded Heero of nothing so much as Van Gogh, though the similarity lay in little more than a certain sense about the brush-strokes: convoluted, seemingly erratic, they invariably fulfilled their purpose and simultaneously implied a fair amount of insanity in the brain driving the brush. There was a strong sense of mobility — a wildness, almost — about each picture, which kept Heero’s gaze moving from one point to another and allowed little rest. It was almost tiring.

Although Heero guessed it had been laid in thin, diluted layers, the paint was built up thick and hard, and, given how it seemed the brush had moved and the little splattery trails in places, had probably ended up all over more than just the canvas. He imagined the unknown artist, a paint-spattered, off-kilter genius, standing in front of an easel — no, not standing: unable to stand still, dancing slightly in excitement — filling in the background in motions of arm and body far larger than the tiny, manic brush-strokes actually required. He smiled faintly to himself at the thought.

There was an artist’s signature on each of the wild paintings, but, though it looked very nice, it was distinctly unreadable. Curious, he tipped the canvases forward in turn, examining the backs for more information. Finally, on the second-to-last, he found, in a scrawl almost as messy as the signature on the front, the words Duo Maxwell. At least that’s what he thought it said. It didn’t make much difference, though, since he’d never heard of the person. Still, he thought that, as much as he would ever like to meet anyone he didn’t already know (which wasn’t generally a great deal), he wouldn’t mind meeting this artist.

As usual, the class began with an hour of work time. While they plugged away at the current assignment, which had to do with perspective and foreshortening, or caught up on unfinished previous pieces, the students chatted or just worked quietly and listened to the radio, and the teacher walked among them making comments and suggestions.

Despite how personable she was, Ms. Hilde had always intimidated Heero just a little. After all, she was in her late twenties, as was he, but she taught college-level art classes. It wasn’t the most expensive or venerable college in the world, but it was still a college. Beyond this, though modesty or something in her contract prevented her from mentioning it directly, Heero knew she had a relatively successful career as an artist outside this job. Still, these intimidating qualities were also precisely what made her a good teacher — that and her ability to give suggestions in a wonderfully friendly and encouraging manner.

Eventually they all put away what they were working on and sat back for the lecture portion of the class. Heero had been looking forward to this today, interested in the new pictures and what Ms. Hilde would have to say about them; it was always nice to have her point out aspects that he might have missed, to hear her perspective. Today her take provoked just as much thought as it ever did, but Heero had to admit to a slight amount of distraction as he took in once again the details of the paintings he’d been so admiring at the beginning of class.

“You’ll notice this artist is extremely skilled at human proportions,” the instructor was saying as she gestured with two fingers at various spots and along various invisible lines. “That way, when he wants to achieve some effect — like in this one where he sweeps the focus riiight around to here — he can include just a slight deliberate error, just distend the arms a little as you can see, and it’s much more striking in contrast with the rest of the body, which is portrayed entirely accurately; it draws the eye much better than if the entire body were out of proportion.

“With body proportions, just like with everything else we’ve studied, it’s important to have a solid knowledge and the ability to get it right before you deliberately start doing it wrong. Which is why we’ll be doing some figure drawing next. We’ll be mostly working from photos and from each other because of the usual budget nonsense, but — and this is extremely important, so listen up — we will have a real model next week. So you need to be here. If you miss Monday, you are going to be responsible for finding your own live model who’s willing to pose nude for you to draw. I know better than pretty much anyone in the world how awkward it is to ask people to do that, so take it from me: be here.”

There was some laughter, both at the reference to ‘the usual budget nonsense,’ which was a sort of running joke in this class, and at Ms. Hilde’s expression as she touched on the issues inherent in finding nude models. Then, after a few more announcements and one or two final points about the paintings she just couldn’t help making even though she had presumably finished talking about them for now (this was also a running joke), she dismissed them until Wednesday. And Heero wandered out toward his next class with a brain full of the bright colors and unquenchable motion of the unknown Duo Maxwell.

***

“I didn’t really go out with anyone before junior year. I just didn’t know a lot of gay guys.”

“And the one you did know was your best friend you were never interested in like that, and you guys didn’t bother telling people you were gay.”

“Something like that. But that year I met this guy named Evan who was friendly and funny and bisexual…”

“And hot?”

“Yes. I’m an artist. I can’t help it if hot guys catch my eye. Stop laughing at me. Evan was hot, yes, and he had that kind of bright personality that drew people to him. I got drawn. I’m not sure what made him notice me. I don’t think I was really his type. But pretty soon we were going out. I liked it at first… or at least I convinced myself I did… but I think I was lying to myself after not too long, for a long time.

“Trowa never liked him. I swear Trowa is loyalty made into a human being. He’s unfailingly steadfast about things, and he never quits once he’s made up his mind. He made up his mind about Evan, and he wouldn’t give up no matter what I had to say about it. He was constantly telling me I should break up with him. That I ‘deserved better.’ I figured that was the kind of thing a best friend would always say, and ignored it.”

“You must have had it bad.”

“What I definitely had was nothing to compare my relationship to. I guess I didn’t really know how bad it was. Evan… it seemed like Evan just wanted a trophy boyfriend.”

“I didn’t know you could have a trophy boyfriend in high school.”

“He looked better having a boyfriend. I guess having someone at all put him in a higher rank socially. If that person was a guy, it made him edgy or something. And I was a pretty good student who was in the art club, and most people thought I was pretty good-looking.”

“Um, yeah.”

“So I guess I made pretty good arm-candy for him. Looking back on it, I can see perfectly well now — though I never could then — that he was never really interested in me. He hardly ever bothered to hang out with only me. He pretty much just wanted me with him when other people were around, so they could see what a great couple we were. And at those times, the way he talked to me… well, it wasn’t even talking to me half the time. He would talk about me, as if I wasn’t there.

“He said all sorts of embarrassing personal things. We weren’t having sex, but he always made it sound like we were. He’d say things like, ‘And those rumors you hear about Japanese guys not being well-hung? Totally not true.’ Right in front of me, but without really acknowledging that I was there. Without noticing that it embarrassed the hell out of me.”

“Noticing or caring! Wow, I hope you eventually punched his lights out!”

“I’ve never been much for punching people. Not unless they hit me first. Trowa almost did, though. Six or seven times, if I remember correctly.”

“Good for him!”

“Evan would flirt with people right in front of me, too. With practically everyone, really. Looking back, I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t just flirting, but that’s all he ever did when I was around. Of course at the time I tried not to be hurt by it. I tried to tell myself that was just his nature and he didn’t mean anything by it. But Trowa insisted he was cheating on me with half the school. He was probably right.

“So Evan was using me for cred or whatever and not really bothering to hide the fact that he was cheating on me. But then he would have the nerve to get jealous if I talked to anyone in some way he thought meant I was flirting.”

“Even though you’re not really the flirtatious type.”

“Yeah. But he would get possessive, and actually get angry. And a couple of times he actually tried to fight people over it. Of course he didn’t dare try that with Trowa, because he knew Trowa would have wiped the floor with him. But Trowa was always a sore point. Actually it’s why we eventually broke up. He was trying to pressure me to stop hanging out with Trowa because he couldn’t be sure Trowa and I weren’t ‘doing anything.’ And that was… well, that crossed a line.”

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

“Well, he called it a party. But he’d been watching me get dragged out to real parties by Evan for eight months and secretly hate every minute of them. So his ‘party’ was just him and me and some very artsy horror movies and a lot of junk food.”

“Good for Trowa! But, god, you were with that guy for eight months?”

“Yeah, it was just a week before the end of our junior year that I broke up with him.”

“Somehow I get the feeling there’s more to this story once senior year starts.”

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

When Heero’s alarm went off the next Monday morning, he silenced it in an immediate practiced movement and buried his face in his pillow. He wasn’t sure how Sylvia had convinced him to watch that many episodes of whatever anime that had been last night, but at least three hours past the time he should already have been asleep had found him still awake and puzzling through the intricacies of some incomprehensible plot he’d come in on a third of the way through. He was going to be drooping throughout all his classes today.

Of course he could skip the first one and get some more sleep… but that was art, and he couldn’t forget Ms. Hilde’s admonishment of a week ago; how on earth was he supposed to get someone to model for him if he missed today? Quatre could most likely be convinced to do it, but that would open a can of worms for which Heero didn’t know if he was prepared. Trowa would undoubtedly demand to be present, and would look, and would critique Heero’s work with cruelly unfair bias; and Heero could already imagine himself, especially under Trowa’s lethal eye, giving only the most abstract attention to the groinal region, which, being that of a close friend, he wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to draw in the first place. No, no, he’d better go to class. This was just the price he had to pay for letting his curiosity about that weird show get the better of him.

Mostly because of the city bus schedule, Heero was usually about twenty minutes early to his drawing class. This gave him time to set up his workspace at his own pace and to look over any new pieces Ms. Hilde had brought in, or to step out to the coffee vending machine down the hall. Today was (like most days) definitely a day for coffee, but first he had to examine the setup they would be working from.

If he guessed correctly (and his awareness of the art department budget issues made him fairly certain he did), it was a recliner with the arms sawed off under that thin white blanket. He wondered how comfortable it would be for someone to lie unmoving on for two hours. He glanced around, looking for the model, and thought he’d found her upon catching sight of a figure inside Ms. Hilde’s office with extremely long brown hair and apparently wearing a bathrobe; it was difficult to tell through the warbled glass of the office door.

Having returned from his caffeine expedition, he sat down to wait for the overhot drink to cool enough for him to consume it, watching his classmates trickle in and set up their equipment. Another benefit of arriving early was that he always got the choicest spots and never had to crane his neck to see over or around someone else. He hadn’t realized just what a blessing that would be today until Ms. Hilde emerged from her office with the model and the latter became clearly visible for the first time.

It was not, in fact, as the long hair had led Heero to believe, a woman. No, it was probably the most attractive man Heero had ever seen. Bright, sparkling eyes, an even brighter smile, a level of energy that seemed to have some kind of magical draw — Heero, at least, could feel the pull of it! — and he was clearly about to remove that bathrobe. Good lord. Heero had never worked from a nude model before, and this was not the somewhat droopy and moderately, safely unattractive lady of a certain age he’d been expecting.

In addition to his breath, he found himself holding his coffee in two tense hands as the model very casually undid the tie and shrugged out of the white robe. What became of this garment Heero didn’t know, since his eyes were, at the moment, fully occupied. The figure, its back currently turned toward Heero, was long-limbed, almost lanky, but not clumsy in construction or in movement. The skin was uniformly fairly pale, but still had a tannish cast to it; this man would probably turn a brown darker than his hair with the application of some sun, but evidently that was something he didn’t get a great deal of.

The aforementioned hair obscured his entire back and gave only tantalizing hints at buttocks and upper thighs, but in itself was worth looking at. However, even as Heero was doing so, admiring its sheen and evenness, the man turned in order to assume his position on the covered chair, and the breathing Heero had just managed to resume caught and stuck again.

Scrawny was definitely a good look on this guy; the dip beneath his ribcage was, for a few moments, all-absorbing to poor Heero, followed by the region immediately beneath. An inner thigh in that impossible milky tan color couldn’t quite distract from well proportioned genitalia whose specific potential uses Heero could not possibly be ignorant of, but it was still quite a sight. And then the model was settling down onto his side, pulling one leg slightly up so as partially to hide the flaccid but still very inviting penis and at the same time give just a hint at the smooth curve and shadow rearward.

“Duo, did you want this?” Ms. Hilde held out an iPod with headphones dangling, which the model sat up again to accept from her with a grinning thanks as if he’d forgotten and would have regretted it. He had a voice almost glowingly warm, somehow simultaneously mellow but suffused with the same energy that directed his movements.

Heero, however, couldn’t concentrate properly on the voice, so dumbfounded was he by what Ms. Hilde had just said. Duo? Duo?? This incredibly gorgeous naked man he had a specific excuse to study was also the painter of those pictures Heero had been so enamored of last week? The artist he’d been specifically thinking he wouldn’t mind meeting in person? Well, it wasn’t a common name… it had to be the same guy. What a package! –not even euphemistically speaking, either (though that was perfectly true as well).

A ‘blessing,’ had he called his happening to be closer to the model than anyone else? It was a mixed blessing at best, and ‘curse’ might not have been the least appropriate alternate description. How was he going to keep his composure throughout this class? How was he supposed to keep his thoughts professional when he had that in front of him?

Well, by concentrating on technicalities. He was still an artist, after all, regardless of how red-blooded he might be. That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally stare a lot longer than he really needed to, and he wasn’t entirely sure he never drooled, and whether his finished picture would have any of the elements of the assignment in it was a matter of question, but at least he managed not to get an erection or anything. He wondered if anyone else in the class was having this problem, but didn’t dare look around to find out.

The modeling session seemed simultaneously agonizingly long and teasingly brief; Heero barely felt he’d gotten into the rhythm of the thing (as it were), found a workable plateau for his feelings, when Ms. Hilde was calling it to a halt. A glance at his watch revealed that not only was drawing time ending, the entire class was about over; Heero remembered now that she had said they wouldn’t be having any lecture today… had it really been that long? As his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the model, he realized in some dismay that it had.

His movements sluggish as he put away his stuff, he managed to be the last out of the classroom just as he’d been the first in. He didn’t bother trying to lie to himself about his reasons for doing so. He also didn’t bother trying to restrain his subtly searching eyes from following the model now that he was moving again. Duo had slid from the armchair in an ungraceful motion and reclaimed his bathrobe from wherever it had been; even as Heero watched, the glories between neck and knees were veiled. But if he’d thought this would release him from the spell of motionlessness that seemed to have fallen over him, he was mistaken; the hair Duo swept out from where it had been pinned by the robe, and even just the way he did it, were nearly as captivating as the other sights now hidden.

The model followed the instructor into her office, but didn’t close the door behind them, and Heero found himself shifting slightly, craning his neck so as to see inside. They were conversing cheerfully, but quietly enough that only the sounds of their voices rather than distinct words could be made out by the listener. Heero struggled to turn and walk away, but at first he couldn’t quite.

At last, as he continued to watch them surreptitiously almost against his own will, he saw Ms. Hilde rise partially onto tiptoe to kiss Duo on the cheek. Well, Heero thought, that explained both how she was able to use originals of his wonderful work in her classes and why Duo was willing to model for her. He wondered if she ever got jealous at so many greedy eyes all over her boyfriend’s fabulous body for so long, or if she was simply pleased with herself because, at the end of the day, she was the one that really got him.

Finally Heero tore himself away. The kiss had been the spellbreaker as the robing hadn’t, and now, in a mixture of disappointment and some annoyance at himself for having had any hopes to be disappointed in the first place, he headed for his next class.

As captivated as he’d been, on multiple levels, during his first few hours of school, it wasn’t as if he’d been abruptly and completely smitten with unshakable lust or an interest that overcame all other cognition. He was able, without too much trouble, to concentrate on taking notes in his next class and allowing his thoughts of the attractive artist and model to fade; and by the time he’d gotten through the third and last period of the day and headed off campus toward the bus stop, the circumstances of the morning, agitating as they’d been, had taken an appropriate place in the back of his head.

In fact, as he traversed the downtown sidewalks, he was thinking about an essay he needed to write for his American Art History class, trying to decide which of the prompt questions would be the most interesting to answer, and neither had any thoughts in particular about earlier events nor paid any attention to the car that pulled up to the parking meter beside him as he walked by.

But it became evident the next moment that they weren’t actually parking when a warm voice from that vicinity called out clearly to Heero, “Hey, excuse me! Do you know this neighborhood?”

He turned, prepared to give directions, and was startled to recognize the man in the car’s passenger seat through the half-rolled-down window.

“You’re Duo Maxwell,” he said, and continued before he could stop himself, “the one who did that great blue javelin piece.”

Duo’s fairly thick eyebrows rose in an expression of amused surprise, and, instead of answering Heero, he turned to glance over his shoulder at whoever was driving the car. “That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow.” This voice was familiar. Heero hadn’t been planning on rudely bending down to peer at whoever was in the driver’s seat, but at these words he did it anyway — and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ms. Hilde at the wheel, looking out at him with a thoughtful expression. She said something else to Duo that sounded like, “I say go for it.”

“Roger that,” Duo replied, with a grin to his tone, and turned back to face out the window once more. But again instead of saying anything else to Heero, he opened the car door and got out, stepping long-legged over the gutter onto the curb in front of him.

Fully clothed, Duo fit so perfectly into Heero’s mental niche of the artist that had come up with those images he admired that he almost couldn’t believe he hadn’t envisioned him specifically as he appeared now: unholy mass of hair pulled back in a long, messy braid; lively eyes sparkling over a slightly-too-wide lopsided grin; old tee-shirt bearing a faded and cracked Derain, a couple of holes, and a lot of dried paint; jeans and tennis shoes equally worn and spotted; and a demeanor of boundless energy bordering on wildness. And he was still the most attractive person Heero had ever seen.

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

Utterly nonplussed, Heero just stared at him for a long moment before shaking himself free of his mild stupor and replying, “Um, sure.”

Duo grinned even more broadly and shut the door he’d been holding open with a long arm. Immediately, Ms. Hilde drove off. Heero watched the car move away down the road and pause at the intersection before continuing out of sight. Then he turned back to his new and unexpected walking companion, and found he had no idea what to say.

Instead, Duo spoke. “So you liked my javelin piece, huh?” He thrust his hands into his pockets and started ambling slowly in the direction Heero had been going, and Heero, adjusting his bag strap on his shoulder, hastened to fall in beside him.

“Yeah,” Heero said, eyeing him sidelong. He’d been hoping Duo would have something to say about what the hell was going on, but at least this topic was one Heero could talk about with relative ease. “That was my favorite. I think it was just because those particular colors really clicked for me. But I liked all the ones Ms. Hilde brought in. You’ve got an amazing sense of movement and emotion.

“That guy throwing the javelin didn’t just look like some random athlete. He really looked desperate, as if throwing that thing was the most important thing he’d ever done. And the whole piece was so alive. The lines flowed so well from the immediate focal point out to the end of the javelin. I kept thinking it was going to fly out of his hand any second while I looked at it.”

Duo was beaming. “Well, thanks!” he said, sounding very pleased. “You know, people say things like that about my stuff sometimes, but I never think about it like that while I’m painting it… I just paint whatever I feel like, and then people read stuff into it after the fact.”

Heero gave him another assessing look, simultaneously considering this and enjoying the almost intensely casual way Duo walked. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said at last. “It wasn’t part of what I guessed about you when I first looked at your paintings last week — I was trying to guess what the painter must be like by looking at them — but it fits.”

“Were the rest of your guesses right?” Duo wondered, still grinning.

“So far I think so,” said Heero carefully.

“Except you didn’t expect me to be so young and hot,” declared Duo in a deliberately overdone tone of self-satisfaction.

Feeling himself blushing, Heero realized he was caught and decided not to try to deny it. “No, I really didn’t,” he confessed.

Duo withdrew his hands from his pockets and put them behind his head in an almost triumphant gesture. This meant one of his arms blocked his face from Heero’s view, which was disappointing. “I’ve been modeling for Hil’s art classes every semester for three years now,” he said cheerfully, “and there’s always at least one person who ogles the hell out of me. Not just studying like, ‘What’s the best way to draw this?’ but staring like, ‘Oh, god, I want a piece of that.'”

At this Heero’s blush deepened threefold, and he was torn between stammering out an apology and laughing at the touch of smugness in Duo’s tone.

“I mean,” Duo went on before Heero could resolve on anything to say, “you were pretty subtle about it, but Hil still noticed. She always notices. And that’s always when she runs The Test.”

Hearing the audible capitals Duo had given the phrase, Heero felt a stab of alarm. “‘The Test?'” he echoed, trying not to let what would certainly seem an unexpected and incongruous level of dismay sound in his voice.

“Yeah, the test to see whether or not you’re a creepy pervert,” was Duo’s disarmingly nonchalant explanation, “or if it’s safe to ask you out.” Stunned by these last three words, Heero couldn’t have interjected anything at this point even if Duo had given him time. “It’s usually what you saw — she tracks you down in the car and has me pretend to ask for directions, to see if you recognize my face with me dressed and my hair back and everything. Sometimes it’ll be someone who doesn’t walk much, though, and she has to do something else.”

Heero surprised himself by not asking the first question on his mind. Rather, he said, “But that doesn’t prove anything. Your face is just as–” And this many words were already out before he was able to stop himself.

Duo finally dropped his arms and let Heero see the face in question again. It was pleased and amused. “I’ll pretend you finished that compliment and say thanks,” he grinned. “And, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t prove much. But it weeds out the worst of the skeeves and makes Hilde feel better. She already feels a little bad about parading me around naked without paying me for it; I think she thinks she’s making it up to me by making sure I don’t pick up another jerk S.O. at the same time.”

Again, somehow, what Heero really wanted to say was not what came out of his mouth. “So Ms. Hilde is your…”

“Sister,” Duo supplied. “Step-sister, technically. And it’s so cute how you guys all call her ‘Ms. Hilde.'”

“She says ‘Ms. Schbeiker’ makes her feel old.”

Duo laughed. “Makes her sound old, too. She’s the same age as me, and nobody calls me ‘Mr. Maxwell.’ I think I’d have to smack them, actually, if they did. Anyway, her dad met my mom at a gallery opening when we were both eight, and now we’re a big happy artist family together.”

“And you model for her classes.”

“Hey, you draw… you know how expensive things are in the art world…” Duo gave a theatrical wincing hiss. “She’s pretty much right at the bottom of the budget list at that school, and if she doesn’t have to pay her model, she can buy an extra set of Prismas or something every semester.”

“That makes sense,” Heero nodded. “Everything in the art department is always falling apart, and I think the easels are from the 70’s.”

“Yeah, you know why she started bringing in original pieces by local artists for her lessons, right? Because the only projector they had broke, so she couldn’t even put art up on that crappy screen anymore.”

“I bet she was always using yours, though,” Heero guessed.

“Well, yeah. Actually, she sometimes asks me to do something specific — like, ‘I need a piece with a really strong complementary color scheme’ — and I try my best, but I told you how I work.” Duo laughed. “Going into something trying to deliberately use a ‘really strong complementary color scheme’ is like working backwards for me.”

Heero was prompted to smile at this, and reflected that it would be an experience worth having to watch Duo work. And here he finally managed to pose the question he’d been wanting to — just as the conversation had moved completely away from the subject, naturally: “Did you say you’re asking me out?”

“Yep.” Duo evidently didn’t mind at all that Heero had brought them wheeling back around to the earlier topic; in fact, he seemed to have been waiting for it. “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” His tone was perfectly unabashed, and Heero simultaneously wondered at and admired his cavalierness — especially when Duo was the one that had been naked under two dozen eyes only a few hours ago. Of course, that had just proven that he had nothing to be ashamed of, hadn’t it?

“Yes,” Heero said without any hesitation, then added, “if you’re satisfied I’m not a creepy pervert.”

“Not really,” Duo grinned. “But you did say all that nice stuff about my paintings. If you’re a creepy pervert, you’re at least a smooth one.”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little at this. “I’m not going to pretend your paintings were the only things I saw that I liked,” he said with a certain measure of caution. “But they definitely got me interested before I ever saw you in person.”

“There, see?” said Duo, sounding pleased. “Smooth.”

‘Smooth’ wasn’t something Heero was used to being called, but he had to admit that there was an unaccustomed amount of smoothness to this discussion. He was attributing it to Duo, however: something about Duo made conversation remarkably easy, even when Heero was inclined toward discomfort and uncertainty. Something about Duo made him feel as if they were long-time friends rather than just meeting today under somewhat unusual circumstances. Something about Duo was… welcoming.

Which probably attracted exactly the wrong sort of people, especially if Duo was naked when they first saw him. No wonder Ms. Hilde ran that Test of hers. To Heero, who was no stranger to Tests, it made sense.

He cleared his throat. “Do you know Perk Up on Meridian?”

“I’ve seen it,” Duo replied. “Don’t think I’ve ever been in there, though.”

Heero gestured to the bus stop they were approaching. “This bus stops pretty close to it, if you want to…”

***

“Senior year was when Quatre transferred to our school. That’s Quatre Winner, if that means anything to you.”

“Not really.”

“Well, his family owns probably three quarters of this city. A lot of their money comes from being mafia in the 30’s and 40’s.”

“Oh, that kind of Winner! Whoa. Yeah, I’ve heard they were gangsters back in the day — is that really true?”

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

“So why did he come to your school? Didn’t he have some rich fancy private school, or just an army of private teachers or something?”

“Yeah, he was at a private school before — all the way up until twelfth grade, actually. But he was getting bullied because he was gay, and he was tired of it.”

“A Winner was getting bullied? And the best thing the Winners could come up with to do about it was transfer him to a public school?”

“There were more reasons than just that. He was getting a little tired of that school anyway. He didn’t like the teachers much. Also, at a private school where everyone comes from an influential family with money, I guess being a Winner doesn’t mean the same thing it means around here. He’ll tell you all about it if you ask. All we knew at the time was that this gorgeous blonde guy showed up at our school, and Trowa was… yikes…”

“Love at first sight?”

“I’m pretty sure it was, but it didn’t have to be, since Quatre gave him plenty of chances. We used to eat lunch in this little alcove at the top of the stairs between two buildings. Quatre walked by there right at the beginning of lunch every day. You should have seen it. Trowa’s eyes were glued to him. It was totally unsubtle. He was practically panting.

“That was my first hint that Trowa might be a bit of a… spy, I guess is the nicest way to put it. Because as soon as Quatre was out of sight, Trowa would turn to me and start telling me whatever he’d found out about him lately. It was a little creepy, actually. I’d usually change the subject — a little — by telling him he needed to go talk to him. But he never would, because he was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood who wanted to start a punk rock band that would probably never make him any money.

“And I’d try to talk sense into him and point out that Quatre had come to our school. So obviously he couldn’t care about that kind of thing too much. I remember one time Trowa responded with something like, ‘Did you see those shoes he’s wearing? Those are Brunomaglis!’ I had to look up the brand name. Then I was shocked Trowa knew what it was. So eventually I went and talked to Quatre myself.”

“You did not!”

“Of course I did. Trowa was going crazy.”

“Crazier, you mean. But, seriously, you? The guy who couldn’t break up with his jerk boyfriend for eight months even when your best friend was threatening to kill the guy?”

“If I’ve learned anything about relationships by now, it’s that it’s a lot easier to mess around in other people’s than fix your own.”

“OK, you have a point there. So what did Quatre say?”

“He admitted that — after the first few times — he’d been walking by at lunch every day on purpose. Just out of curiosity whether Trowa would ever do anything besides staring at him. I told him Trowa was afraid of his shoes, and he laughed. But then they’d hooked up by the end of that day.”

“Trowa wasn’t mad at you for going over his head?”

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

“Probably not a good idea when he’d just started going out with someone else.”

“Heh. No. Quatre’s not really the jealous type, but that still probably wouldn’t have been the best way to start their relationship.”

“Speaking of which, who were you dating all this time? I think you’ve been deliberately talking about Quatre to hide things you don’t want me to know!”

“Well, it’s important you know about Quatre. Besides, what about your next boyfriend? Was he as bad as the first one?”

“Yes! I don’t know where they kept getting the idea from that I was just easy sex for the asking. Do I really come across that way?”

“To a jerk, sure.”

“Yeah, well, they’d always act nice at first, like they wanted something real, but pretty soon it would be, ‘So when are you going to put out?’ Usually not quite that polite, of course. I had a whole string of those. I had to take some self-defense classes eventually to keep grabby hands off. But you changed the subject! What are you hiding??”

“Hush. Yes, I had a boyfriend senior year, and I’ll get to that. But Quatre… you have to understand Quatre.”

“OK. He’s gotta be at least as crazy as Trowa.”

“They’re certainly a well matched pair. But the thing about Quatre is that he’s… he loves people. He has an endless supply of love. And once you’re his friend, you’re in. There’s no getting out. At first I was just his new boyfriend’s best friend — though, honestly, that was close enough — but eventually he became one of my best friends too. And Quatre loves people aggressively. He makes friends with you, and then he fixes your life up.”

“That sounds… creepy.”

“It’s… it gets a little stifling at times. I won’t lie. And with Trowa backing him — like I said, Trowa is loyalty incarnate — they’re a force to be reckoned with. But you can’t help loving Quatre back. You can’t not love Quatre once you get to know him. He’s always so genuinely concerned for everyone. He always really wants to solve your problems.”

“And I take it your next boyfriend was a problem.”

“Yeah.”

***

Toward the relatively familiar table alcove behind the fireplace in Perk Up, the big front window beside the ugly mural, the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and the small dark area with pretensions to arcade status with its four standup video games, Heero was already throwing paranoid glances that he hoped he was able to conceal adequately from Duo’s notice as they entered the cafe and moved toward the counter.

He tried to tell himself there was absolutely no way anyone could know he was on a date; he’d only first seen Duo a few hours ago, and it had been practically a chance encounter that had led them to make the arrangement… but he knew better, by now, than to underestimate his friends.

He wondered if he should warn Duo. He generally didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, but Duo seemed so nice. Of course, they always seemed nice at first. That was precisely the problem.

“Ooh, a raspberry lemon muffin?” Duo noted with great relish as they drifted to the end of the short line and he looked up at the hand-chalked menu on the board above the bustling service area. “This place looks great!”

Heero glanced sidelong at him (not that he hadn’t already been doing so whenever he wasn’t glancing openly at him), wondering whether Duo was one of those high-metabolism energy people that endlessly stuffed face without gaining any weight. Why that idea should be attractive at the moment was a mystery; was he really crushing so hard already that random insignificant unconfirmed theories were suddenly cute?

Then Duo threw him a sidelong look and asked, “You’re not one of those anti-cofficionado snob people who’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not a Starbucks, are you?”

With a slight surprised laugh at the term ‘anti-cofficionado,’ Heero shook his head. “No, I’m fine with Starbucks. I understand they treat their employees very well. They try to stay environmentally friendly, too.”

Duo’s brows were raised, and on his lips was a skeptical smile. “Those are such unselfish reasons to like Starbucks that I kinda feel like you’re protesting too much.”

“A couple of my roommates are anti-Starbucks snob people, whatever you called them.” Heero smiled sheepishly. “So I’ve looked up some things. Just in case they ever give me a hard time.”

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

“Well, it has an ugly mural…” Though he gestured at the wall in question, Heero had no time to explain further, as it was now their turn to order. But Duo was chuckling throughout that process, perhaps at the idea that Heero liked this place specifically because it had an ugly mural.

Not far from and commanding a good view of the latter was where they settled down with their coffee and pastries, and Duo sat staring at its brilliant hues and unusual stylistic choices for a minute or so before turning to face Heero. “Yep, it’s ugly,” he pronounced, and lifted his muffin. Before taking a bite, he glanced back at the colorful wall, then shook his head. “If you base how much you like a coffee shop on how ugly its mural is, I can totally see why this place wins.”

Heero chuckled in return, and took a temperature-testing half sip of his coffee.

“But Starbucks usually has ugly murals too,” Duo pointed out, words muffled a bit by his mouthful of muffin.

“Yeah, but they’re corporate ugly murals. Pre-printed on wallpaper or something.” Again Heero gestured to the nearby monstrosity. “Somebody stood here and painted that. Somebody put their whole heart into that thing.”

“That’s true… it feels a lot more personal when–” here Duo lowered his voice and leaned forward– “whoever did something so terrible might be sitting at the next table or something.”

Again Heero chuckled. “I just like the feeling I get from it. I appreciate it when someone does something so whole-heartedly. So intensely. You can really tell how much of themselves they put into it.”

Duo’s eyes roved across the mural once more, then returned to traverse Heero’s face just as intently. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I can see how that could be pretty attractive. You don’t really get much of that at Starbucks.”

Heero found himself blushing, as if he had been the subject of assessment even more than the ugly mural. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved when Duo removed his intense gaze from his face to look at the painting again.

“I can’t decide whether being commissioned to do a mural in a coffee shop is particularly pathetic or really means you’ve made it.”

“I guess it depends on how you feel about the finished work,” Heero said thoughtfully. “If the artist ended up thinking it was as ugly as we think it is…”

“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”

“When you put it that way…”

Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”

“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.

Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”

Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”

Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”

“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.

When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”

Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.

“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.

Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”

Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”

As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”

At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.

Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.

Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.

Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.

“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.

“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.

Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.

Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”

“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.

Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”

Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.

Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.

Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.

Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.

“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”

Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.

“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”

In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.

Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.

Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”

Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”

“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”

Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”

“How long were you with him?”

“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.

“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”

“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”

“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”

“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”

“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”

Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”

Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”

“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”

“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”

“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”

Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”

The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.


One Year, Two Minutes

One Year, Two Minutes



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

When Quatre sat down in his usual place one Friday near the end of the semester, opening his lunch on his knees and leaning against Trowa for warmth in the chilly December air, he noted in a mixture of amusement and pity that his friends had already started the customary Pre-Weekend Harassment Of Heero.

“It doesn’t have to be someone from this school, you know.”

“Though good luck finding another school with this many gay guys.”

“And it doesn’t even have to be someone you really know well, either!”

“Yeah, you should meet more people anyway. Make more friends.”

“And if you don’t like the guy, it’s not like anyone’s forcing you to go out with him again.”

“You know I could find someone for you if you don’t want to bother looking.”

“No, thank you.” Heero would, Quatre knew, eventually drop the ‘thank you.’

Given the clockwork-like prevalence of this conversation — on some Fridays a word-for-word repetition of last week’s — it was a wonder Heero even ate lunch with this group anymore. Force of habit, Quatre thought. Well, and they would probably realize why he was avoiding them and track him down anyway, if he happened to try to find some other, solitary place to enjoy the free period.

“You don’t even have to find someone good-looking! It’ll be dark!”

“Plus it’s a really good movie; I already saw a bootleg before it came out.”

“Yeah, it’ll give you plenty to talk over with someone!”

“Pff, like Heero ever talks things over with anyone.”

“But a movie and dinner aren’t serious enough for you to worry about getting all serious with someone!”

“Yeah, it’s just a casual thing! Come on, man, you’ve gotta come!”

“No,” said Heero.

Quatre hadn’t known Heero well sophomore year — OK, really, Quatre still wouldn’t say that he knew Heero well, but at least these days he referred to him as a friend rather than just a guy he had a few classes with — but it had been obvious even then that Relena was the reason Heero had come out of the closet. Quatre thought Heero would have been perfectly happy to keep the fact that he was gay as quiet as the rest of his personality, despite how friendly the school was toward gay students, if Relena hadn’t been pestering him constantly back then to go out with her.

Of course that hadn’t really stopped; it was just that now she tried to get Heero to join the group dates she was always setting up, whereas before it had pretty clearly been one-on-one time she was soliciting.

“What is your problem?” she was wondering now. “Did you get your heart broken? And you haven’t recovered yet, and you just can’t bear the thought of going out with anyone else, even on a group date with no strings attached just for fun? It is fun, by the way, and you’d really enjoy it.”

Heero looked over at her with an expression that held a trace of ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ but which in general was just his usual nearly emotionless look. “Relena. I’m seventeen.”

“So?”

“So, no, I did not ‘get my heart broken.'”

“You say that like you haven’t had time or something!”

Someone else put in slyly, “I think he’s saving himself for Lady Gaga.”

“What?” Heero demanded in a tone half scornful and half surprised. “For who?”

“More like he’s saving himself for all the more experienced guys he’s expecting to meet at Harvard.”

“I am not going to Harvard.”

Quatre finally decided to step in. Most weeks Heero had to take care of himself, since this happened too frequently for Quatre to be saving his hide every time, but Quatre was feeling generous today. “You know, you guys, it could actually be that he’s telling the truth — that he’s not interested in dating because he’s focusing on his grades and getting into the school he wants.”

They turned on him. “You should talk! You guys hardly ever come out with us either!”

“Yeah, but that’s because we’re…” He threw just the briefest look at Trowa, gave just the tiniest clearing of his throat. “…busy… on weekends.”

Appreciative laughter spread through the group, and Quatre gave Heero a pointed glance to see if he’d gotten the message: that it wasn’t what you said, but how you said it. Trowa and Quatre both usually worked Saturday and Sunday, and did homework the rest of the time; and, though it was true that a weekend rarely passed without their seeing each other at least briefly, it was pure myth that they spent two straight days in bed together or out on exotic dates — myth perpetuated by perfectly true little phrases like ‘we’re busy on weekends’ spoken in the right way and accompanied by the right gesture.

Heero returned the look with a faint, thoughtful scowl. Obviously he wasn’t terribly pleased at how easily Quatre was able to get around the problem he faced on a weekly basis, but at the same time seemed to be struck with an idea; perhaps he really had gotten the message.

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

“Yeah, he’s afraid he wouldn’t actually be able to ask anyone out, because it would take too many words.”

“You could write ’em a note, Heero… you know, like in middle school?”

Do you want to go out with me this weekend? Check Yes or No.

His brows lowering a trifle, Heero took a deep, quiet breath. “OK, fine, you guys. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

“I didn’t like to say,” he went on, “because I didn’t want people bugging me about it all the time, but this–” he gestured around– “is worse.”

“What?” Relena was leaning forward eagerly. “What is it? Do you actually secretly have a long-distance boyfriend?”

Heero turned startled eyes in her direction. “How did you know?”

“What?! You really do??” She jumped up. “Oh, my god, Heero, you have to tell us all about him!”

This opinion was immediately ratified by most of the rest of the group; Quatre thought that, Friday tradition notwithstanding, most of them couldn’t actually imagine Heero ever going out with anyone.

“Well,” Heero said slowly, apparently very aware that everyone was suddenly hanging on his every word, “I met him in April… he lives in Gearing…”

And thus began the biggest, most complicated, and by far the coolest and most collected lie Quatre had ever heard Heero Yuy tell.

***

This place was strange.

Oh, the classrooms and hallways and lockers and the way people dressed and the way the teachers treated the students and the schedules and the curriculum were all perfectly normal, as far as Duo could tell, but in what world did everyone you encountered seem to be talking about you behind your back from almost the moment you walked in the door ’til the time you finally managed to locate where you’d left your bike that morning and went home?

Of course it was a little weird — unfortunate, even — for someone to switch schools in the middle of his senior year. Duo would have wondered about anyone in that situation too. Then, his circumstances were pretty interesting… but how many people here could possibly know anything of them yet? Yeah, there were plenty of reasons for most of the school to be whispering about him, but this was just too early. It had started halfway through his second class, for god’s sake! What was going on here?

Applying himself devotedly, on his second day, to picking up what he could of the whispers, he thought he caught an unfamiliar name mentioned in conjunction with his own (to the confirmation that they really were talking about him): Heero Yuy. What he couldn’t figure out was who this Heero Yuy was, what he had to do with Duo, and why this talk had all started up so soon. Presumably the guy had answers, but Duo hadn’t yet been able to determine where and when he might be able to find him, and hadn’t felt like asking directly.

Sometime somebody would have to say something straight out. High-schoolers could keep up gossip in a vacuum far longer than any other group, but eventually they needed concrete to build on. And when someone finally approached him, whatever they had to say would surely tell him what he needed to know.

But it didn’t. Some clues, perhaps, were conveyed by the breathless demand, “So is he a good kisser?” but no real answers. “Nobody here,” the unfamiliar girl in the hall went on, “has been able to find out!”

Duo could have demanded information at this point, but his smartass instinct took over and what he ended up saying was, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” At which point the girl ran off giggling.

So obviously he was supposed to have kissed this Heero Yuy. Being a perverse individual, Duo was unsurprised that his first thought upon learning this was to wonder whether or not Heero Yuy was a good kisser. But his second instinct was annoyance at still being almost entirely in the dark, and after that came even greater curiosity than before.

His third day at his new school (Friday, since the semester had kicked off on a Wednesday) was as provoking as the previous two had been, and the fact that the widespread interest in him and his doings and his apparent connection with the oddly-named stranger didn’t seem to have died down at all was really making him quite wild to find out what the hell was going on. With continued perverseness, however, he was even less interested in asking anyone outright unless that person was Heero Yuy himself. Where to find Heero Yuy was the problem, since it was a big school, and asking someone where to find him would be tantamount to asking everyone why they thought he’d kissed the guy. He would snap eventually, though.

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

His new trigonometry class didn’t seem to be quite as far along as they’d been in the old one, so paying strict attention wasn’t yet a matter of great importance. It would be nice to have some homework that was just review, too, for a little while: grab a bit of a break while he got used to everything else here. Things like being endlessly talked about, and Heero Yuy, and all that.

He didn’t realize just how badly his attention had waned until class took him by surprise by ending. Suddenly everyone else was standing and walking out when he hadn’t even started packing. Hastily he shoved loose papers into his notebook and closed the latter, which action knocked his pen to the floor. When he returned from bending to retrieve the dropped article, a new and unfamiliar object lay on top of his things.

Immediately recognizing, from much experience, a private note, Duo looked hastily to see not what it said but, rather, who had left it. And though the guy was moving quickly, rejoining the other students leaving the classroom, Duo could tell he was the one, and got a fairly good look at him before he disappeared.

He’d actually noticed this person earlier — though he hadn’t paid him any particular attention — because of the weird hair. At first glance it looked like a deliberately emo style, but the lack of an outfit or makeup in that vein seemed to contradict such an assessment — which actually made the long hair over the face even weirder. Not that Duo saw a great deal of the face; the guy didn’t turn even slightly back in this direction to see if he’d found the note, and soon was out of sight.

With rising excitement, Duo reached for the folded paper. Was it possible that not-quite-emo guy had been the mysterious Heero Yuy himself, and here was an explanation of all the strange goings-on? This hope was dashed, however, even as a new one arose, when Duo finally opened the note.

It read, Heero Yuy’s locker is B-213, if you’re looking for him.

***

Without having to take in anything more than what the corner of his eye could show him, Heero knew exactly who it was that had appeared so abruptly next to him at his locker. He hadn’t caught sight of the guy prior to this, but knew very well what he looked like, and that he must have good reason to seek Heero out before too long. As a matter of fact, Heero really should have sought him out sometime earlier than Friday afternoon, but hadn’t really had his thoughts in order yet. Well, time to face the music.

The first he’d heard of it had been in his third class on Wednesday. Sylvia, who had been present that unfortunate lunchtime back before break when Heero had made up all that nonsense, sat behind him, and, coming in late, had barely had time to hiss at him before the teacher called them all to order, “Heero, why didn’t you tell us your boyfriend was transferring here?! He’s in my history class, and it surprised the hell out of me!”

There had been no time for Heero to express his shock or issue a denial at this point, as class was beginning. Since the teacher had only a fairly brief greeting for them, however, before getting them started on an assignment she’d written on the board, there was leisure for quiet conversation after not too long.

“Heero has a boyfriend?” was how it started. Heero didn’t know the name of the girl that sat behind Sylvia, but he could tell just from the skeptical tone of these murmured words that she, like the rest of the school, had a hard time accepting the idea.

“Yeah, he’s totally hot.” He could hear Sylvia shifting in her chair to deliver this reply to her rear, but he himself kept absolutely still; if the teacher was going to throw a dry erase marker at anyone for gossiping instead of completing their assignment, it wasn’t going to be at him.

“You saw him?” the whispered conversation went on. “What’s he like?”

“Totally hot; I just said!”

“Yeah, but what does he actually look like? Maybe I’ve seen him in the halls!”

Sylvia poked Heero in the back of the head, which was very annoying. “He looks just like Heero described him.”

Sincerely doubting that, Heero flipped through his notebook, seeking out the page on which he’d written in neat bulleted lines, just in case he ever needed to continue the deception, the points he’d made about his utterly fictional long-distance boyfriend back in December. As they continued talking behind him, he stared down at the improbable list.

“He’s got the longest hair in the world. He’s got it braided today; you can’t miss him.”

Subtly, Heero put a tiny checkmark next to Good-looking, and another beside Hair down to his thighs.

“And he doesn’t exactly have what I’d call purple eyes… they’re blue, but it’s a sort of purpley-blue that I bet you’d definitely call purple if you were going out with him and wanted to make him sound all exotic.”

The other girl giggled madly, and Heero, somewhat reluctantly, checked off Purple eyes.

“He said he just moved from Gearing when he turned eighteen; I bet he came just to be with Heero.”

Sadly, Heero checked off Lives in Gearing while simultaneously trying to shut his ears to the “Aaww!” of the other girl before Sylvia added the final point:

“I think he said he did, like, three different sports at his old school; too bad it’s too late for him to really do anything here.”

Athletic went the way of the rest of the list as the other girl mused, “Well, he could still go for–”

“Ladies, I somehow get the impression you’re not discussing the assignment back there.”

Heero was grateful for the teacher’s intervention, but had a hard time turning his own concentration toward searching for similes and metaphors in the short story they were currently studying. It was obvious that the damage had been done: if Sylvia had jumped to the conclusion that this handsome, purple-eyed, long-haired athlete from Gearing was Heero’s fictitious boyfriend, even if she hadn’t spread the news to everyone she knew, others might well have made the same connection. How on Earth had someone matching all of those improbable criteria shown up here so soon after Heero had invented them? And what was Heero going to do about it?

This question had occupied him throughout the last three days, and he’d never arrived at a satisfactory answer. It would be, he’d thought, good manners to give the newcomer a heads-up… well, it was probably too late for that, but at least an explanation of the weird treatment he was undoubtedly already receiving would be appropriate. But Heero had procrastinated because it seemed so odd a thing to have to confess and he’d never decided how to word what needed to be said. And meanwhile the gossip had only heightened, and the comments people threw him in passing become more and more embarrassing; god only knew how the stranger was taking it.

And now here was this same Duo Maxwell, having very understandably tracked Heero down, standing casually next to him at his locker, giving him an appraising look and exuding an air of curiosity and expectation with maybe just a touch of righteous indignation thrown in.

“You know,” he said at last, “I’ve had a lot of really weird experiences in the past… but having a boyfriend I’ve never met is a new one.”

Heavily, Heero shut his locker and turned toward him. “I can explain.”

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

Heero looked around at their fellows, many of whom were surreptitiously watching them. “Not in here, though.”

“That’s fine,” said Duo affably. “I’ve gotta get my bike anyway, from the entrance that I thiiiiink is this way…” He pointed, though he looked a little lost.

Both in agreement and to confirm Duo’s guess as to which direction the bike racks were, Heero nodded. When he turned away and started walking, Duo hopped after and fell into step beside him.

As they moved through the halls, Duo’s glances in Heero’s direction seemed to indicate that he was about to start asking questions, despite Heero’s not yet having allowed the time and place to be right. Heero braced himself. Those selfsame glances, however, seemed to have informed Duo that Heero still wasn’t ready; instead of what Heero had expected, what came out of Duo’s mouth when it opened was, “So, ‘Heero Yuy’ — that’s, what, uh, Martian?”

“Japanese,” Heero informed him, grateful to have this to talk about and a few more minutes to try to come up with a way to explain things that wouldn’t make him sound like a total idiot.

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome! Say something for me! In Japanese, I mean.”

Heero sighed faintly, and wondered, in Japanese, why people always made that request.

Duo was grinning appreciatively. “That’s awesome,” he reiterated. “I’ve seen some of those Japanese cartoons, but they’ve always got the voices all redone in English. Oh, bikes! You found them!” He gave a gesture of mock admiration and gratitude to Heero for the feat of having led them out the correct door to locate the bike racks, and moved to unlock a fairly new-looking grey one from the midst of the line.

Standing back and watching, Heero tried, almost frantically now, to get his thoughts in order. It didn’t help that this Duo Maxwell fellow was… well, ‘totally hot’ on Sylvia’s part had been an understatement. And supposedly he was an athlete too? If Heero had been looking for a boyfriend, this guy would have been way out of his league.

Bicycle extracted, Duo rejoined Heero, cheerfully wheeling the vehicle alongside. “OK, where should we go?”

Heero pointed. “I live that direction; I usually walk home.”

“Oh! Well, I live that way too! Lucky coincidence.” In a slightly louder tone he announced, “Means I can walk you home, boyfriend.”

Somebody nearby giggled. Heero didn’t look around to see who it was or put his burning face on further display.

A brief discussion of relative locations as they left school property revealed that Duo lived a couple of miles past Heero’s neighborhood, which was itself a mile and a half from the school. No wonder he would be biking there and back rather than walking. More of a wonder was that the place was an apartment belonging to Duo and a roommate, that Duo had moved to town without parents or anything. But before Heero could question him on the interesting circumstance, Duo glanced around to verify that none of their schoolmates were nearby and then said, “So what’s the deal? With you and me, I mean. Why does everyone think we’re dating when I haven’t even ever seen you before today?”

Heero never had thought of a good way to put this, so there was nothing for it but just to confess. “It’s because I made you up last December.”

Duo started theatrically. “Are you telling me that I’m a figment of your imagination? And that all my memories of my life never actually happened? And that if something happens to you, I’ll totally cease to exist???”

Unable to remain unamused by this, Heero nevertheless explained seriously. “What I mean is, I made up a fake boyfriend to get some friends to leave me alone about finding a real one, and what I described turned out to match you perfectly.”

“Really?” Duo looked a little skeptical. “Because, not to sound conceited or anything, I’m pretty unique.”

“I know. I don’t know how it happened. I chose the most improbable things I could think of off the top of my head — the long hair, the purple eyes… I was trying to describe someone who didn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

“Thinks I’m your boyfriend, yeah. My eyes are blue, though.”

“It’s kindof a purpley blue,” said Heero helplessly.

“So why’d you invent me? Your friends wanted you to find a boyfriend?”

“It’s more like they’re always bugging me to find a date and go out with the group on weekends… but I’m not interested in dating right now. I don’t know how anyone can be, with the amount of homework we get.”

Duo chuckled. “OK, I get it. So you invented a fake boyfriend. Lemme guess — I was from out of town and you only saw me on weekends or something, so it was a perfect excuse not to go out with your friends.”

“You…” That pronoun was a little awkward, actually, in this context. “‘He‘ was from Gearing.”

“Oh, wow. It just keeps getting weirder.”

“Well, we do sometimes get people transferring in from Gearing — and Steppe and Coachroad — because of the whole gay thing… That part wasn’t as weird as the rest of it.”

“Yeah, how’d you manage to get my hair and everything?”

“I have no idea.” Heero shook his head, more helplessly than ever. “And I would never have said all of that,” he added in sincere apology, “if I’d known someone would show up who matched it all so well. I didn’t mean to make everyone think you were my boyfriend, I promise.”

“Not everyone thinks that, though… The guy who told me where your locker was couldn’t have thought we were dating, or else why would he have thought I… didn’t know where your locker was?”

“What guy?”

“Some guy with weird hair.” Duo dug through one of his pants pockets with his free hand, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “He handed me this in trig.”

Heero opened the note; half a glance was all it took to solve the mystery. “This is Quatre’s handwriting,” he said dismissively. “The guy you saw was probably Trowa, his boyfriend, running errands for him as usual. Quatre is a sort of… social guru. He knows who everyone’s dating, and everyone’s schedule, and a lot more about the entire school than he should. Of course he knows you aren’t actually my boyfriend.”

After a long, pensive silence, Duo said slowly, “Well… I don’t see why I can’t be.”

Heero found himself blushing hot all of a sudden. “What?” He barely got the word out coherently in his surprise and embarrassment.

“Not for real,” Duo assured him hastily, undoubtedly marking Heero’s flustered reaction. “But if everyone already thinks we’re together, why not let them keep thinking that? Then your friends wouldn’t keep bugging you to find a date, you wouldn’t have to admit you made the whole thing up, and you could get on with your life in peace.”

“That… that sounds like a perfect setup.” Having regained his composure, at least outwardly, Heero was able to speak in a fairly businesslike tone. “But… not to sound ungrateful or anything… why?”

Duo shrugged. “We’re already going the same direction to get home… I’m going to be working most days, and if you’re going to be doing homework, why not let people think we’re spending all our time together after school?”

“And…” It was a fantastic-sounding plan, but there was a side to it that Duo hadn’t touched on. “And at school?”

“Well, you seem like a decent guy, and I never mind having new friends to hang out with.” Duo grinned. “But even if we don’t hang out all that much at school, it won’t look weird if it still looks like we’re going home together every day, right? And if it turns out we really can’t stand each other at all, we can claim we broke up and just end the whole thing.”

So overwhelmed was Heero by the abruptness of this unbelievably fortuitous idea and the apparent quickness of Duo’s resolve, he couldn’t for a moment say anything. Finally, though, he managed, “But why would you do this? It’s… it seems really nice of you… and you just met me…”

Again Duo shrugged. “Why not? I’m going to be busy too; it’ll be nice if people aren’t bugging me about dating either.”

“But what if you want to go out with someone?”

“Why should I? Truth is, I got a lot going on: I’ve already got hours of homework after only three days, and I have a full-time job.” He gave a nod of satisfaction so brisk it made his braid bounce. “No, I think this will work out really well. I mean,” he added with a sidelong glance at Heero, “if you want to. Don’t let me push you into it if you’d rather just–”

“No, no!” Heero broke in hastily. “You’re right; it seems perfect. I just…” He scratched his head a little nervously. “Just can’t believe my luck.”

“It does all seem kindof astrology or whatever, doesn’t it?” In a deep, portentous voice Duo announced, “The stars aligned that day to throw together two strangers on the path of destiny.” Then his demeanor changed entirely as he asked casually, “What’s your sign?”

“Uh…” Thrown off-balance by Duo’s sudden alteration of tone, Heero struggled to remember. “Pisces, I think?”

“Hmm. No good for a Saggitarius like me. Good thing we won’t really be dating.”

Heero supposed that was as valid a reason as any to be glad they wouldn’t really be dating. “So you’re interested in astrology?” he asked cautiously.

“Sortof. It’s fun to follow. I like reading horoscopes and seeing how stupidly general they are. Like every single one of them could probably apply to anyone, no matter when you were born. The one I just read for myself the other day — no, actually, it wasn’t for myself, sorry; it was for Cancer — it was talking about relationships, and……”

The next mile, spent discussing astrology and Duo’s semi-satirical interest in it, was enough to convince Heero that some stars must indeed have aligned in order to bring them to this pass: his new fake boyfriend, with whom he would, presumably, be spending at least some time on a regular basis for a while, wasn’t just quickly decisive and unexpectedly understanding and helpful; he was also very entertaining. Heero was enjoying the conversation so much that he found himself a little reluctant to stop at the corner where he needed to break away from Duo’s homeward path.

“I have to go this way,” he said, pointing.

“Oh.” Duo looked in that direction, then on down the street where he needed to go. “Hey, I don’t have to work today, and I’m just going to go home and do homework… do you want to actually hang out? Might as well do homework together as separately, right?”

Marveling at the ease with which Duo suggested so friendly an activity to someone he’d just met, but seeing nothing wrong with the idea, Heero said, “Yeah, why don’t you come to my house?” He added somewhat warningly, “If you’re serious about doing homework. Because I have a lot of it.”

“Now, what would make you think I’m ever not totally serious about anything?” Duo demanded in the most innocent of tones as he followed Heero around the corner.

***

Duo had rather hoped to coincide with Heero on the way to school on Monday, but thought the difference in timing between a walker and a cyclist was a decent enough explanation for why he didn’t. Although he’d never hated school the way some people did, it wasn’t exactly his favorite pastime either — but today he was actually quite interested in being there. Having a secret was always fun, as was putting on a show for people; and becoming better acquainted with the quiet, intelligent Heero had its attractions as well.

Besides, this time when someone Duo didn’t know came up to him in the hall and asked what struck him as an extremely rude personal question having to do with the accuracy of the portrayal of Japanese men’s anatomy in anime porn — an inquiry whose significance would have gone completely over his head just a few days before — he was able to reply immediately and cheerfully that he would be quite willing to dole out punches to the face of anyone else that was curious.

The weather was cold, but evidently Heero’s group of friends wasn’t going to let a little thing like January deter them from eating in their customary outside spot. Anything to maintain their territory and avoid freshmen, Duo supposed. And the central courtyard was pretty nice, if a bit of a walk from the cafeteria if you happened to be buying school lunches (which, Duo had determined after some calculations, were cheaper in the long run than trying to figure out something else every single day). So the only problem left was coming up with an explanation for why he hadn’t eaten lunch with Heero last week, why he was eating with him today, and why he might not be again in the future.

Interestingly, Heero was more taciturn with his friends than he had been with a complete stranger on Friday, and evidently they’d been unable to get a thing out of him last week regarding his newly-arrived boyfriend. Since Heero had mentioned in some embarrassment that he’d put off seeking Duo out because he hadn’t been sure what to say to him, it shouldn’t be too great a surprise that he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone else either. But it also meant that his lunch crowd was even more curious than they might otherwise have been because of the perceived secrecy.

They mobbed Duo the moment he appeared, a little later than most of them due to the aforementioned walk from the cafeteria and a disorientation about the layout of the school that he hadn’t yet quite overcome. Space was made beside where Heero sat unobtrusively in a corner so Duo could squeeze in next to him — right next to him, which was a pleasant warmth in the cold outside air, but Duo couldn’t help wondering how Heero felt about it.

The reason he gave, in response to the immediate questions about why he’d been neglecting his boyfriend, was that he’d been checking out lunch venues throughout the school — which he in fact had. His response to the information that Heero had been unhappy here without him was a serious inquiry of Heero whether or not this was true, to which Heero replied with a slight quirk of a corner of his lips that he’d been fine. His astonishing answer to the demand that he eat lunch here with Heero and the rest of them from now on was something silly to the effect of his being an itinerant at heart and unable to stay in one place long or consistently.

Then, in order to cover up the whispering that started as they all tried to wrap their brains around this and began to speculate what it would probably mean for his relationship with Heero, Duo asked to be introduced to everyone. When it became obvious that Heero wasn’t about to take this task upon himself, it was performed instead by a girl named Relena. Duo was interested to note both the all-knowing Quatre and lackey Trowa among the group, and also that Heero didn’t actually seem terribly friendly with most of these friends of his. It made Duo wonder how it was that he’d come to eat lunch with them every day at all.

Once Relena was finished rattling off names (and accompanying facts that were probably designed for further identification but that meant nothing to Duo), she settled down against one of the large concrete squares stationed throughout the courtyard. These had undoubtedly been intended by their builders as benches, but the one in this corner was used by this group as a shelf and a seat-back; Relena’s current position in relation to it put her near and directly facing Duo in what almost resembled the attitude of an interrogator across a table from an unwilling informant.

“Now,” she said in a complacently authoritative tone, “you have to tell us everything: how you guys met, what it’s been like being long-distance, what made you decide to move up here — everything!”

Duo had actually given a fair amount of thought to this during the long hours he’d worked over the weekend, and entertained himself making things up; though he hadn’t consulted Heero yet about the stories he’d concocted, he deemed it unlikely that Heero had fabricated anything too terribly complicated on his own that would contradict what Duo had to say. However, though Heero might not object, within the context of the scam, to Duo waxing eloquent on their supposed relationship, he might mind for other reasons. The briefest glance in Heero’s direction showed him already blushing faintly just at hearing the questions asked; the answers, fictitious or otherwise, couldn’t improve his condition.

“You know,” Duo said instead, with a grin, “I’d rather not take all the mystery out of that story by telling it all at once; it’ll be so much better if I just give you little hints over time. So for now, how about I tell you all about the fabulous Duo Maxwell instead?”

Relena’s expression of slight discontent was the first hint Duo had that she was perhaps less interested in him personally than as he related to Heero. But all she said was, “OK, fine.”

So he spent a happy lunch hour complaining about how his foster parents hadn’t really wanted a son, but, rather, a minion they could shape and control; how they’d pressured him for as long as he could remember to prepare himself for a military career, and how he’d never been interested; how he’d put up with their demands and insistence for a few years and then rebelled, and how tense things had been thereafter; about the nuclear-level explosion he’d occasioned by announcing that he was bisexual; and, finally, about his lengthy and careful preparations, during the year he would turn eighteen, to get himself out the moment that happy event took place. That had been last December, and as soon as school had halted for the winter break he’d moved away from Gearing.

“I came here — I mean here specifically — because of Heero, obviously,” he concluded, joggling his ‘boyfriend’ slightly with his elbow. “But also because I knew this school was all famous for being so gay-friendly. I read that one article in that magazine–”

“You and everyone else in the world,” someone put in laughingly.

Duo grinned. “Yeah, the one where they said this was probably the only school in the country where you could get beaten up for being a homophobe — and I was like, ‘I am so there.’ I figured even transferring schools in the middle of my senior year would be worth it to come here for a while.”

“And he didn’t tell me any of this,” Heero put in unexpectedly. It was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.

“What do you mean?” Relena sounded incredulously amused. “He didn’t tell you he was moving here?”

Heero shook his head.

Taking the cue, Duo grinned broadly and expanded on the subject. “It was pretty much the best surprise ever, if I do say so myself. Whenever I was complaining before about how much I hated living at home, Heero would remind me that high school was almost over, if I could just hold on a little longer…” This fictitious advice seemed consistent with what Duo had observed of Heero so far. “He had no idea I was already planning on getting out before high school was over!”

“So you just showed up here with, what, a truck full of stuff or something…” Incredulity now tinged with delight, Relena turned to Heero. “And that was the first you knew he was coming here?”

“Something like that,” Heero mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe because he was so bald-facedly lying, but Duo thought this had been a good move on Heero’s part: it would at least partially explain why he’d been in a weird mood last week — anyone might be a little stunned if his long-distance boyfriend suddenly joined him in his hometown without warning.

“So if you and Heero met and started going out last April…” This was the very innocent- and harmless-looking little blonde Quatre, and he had Duo’s immediate attention. “And you were getting ready to get away from your parents all of last year… that means you already knew you’d be moving and changing schools before you even met him. Did you have this school in mind then?”

Duo wondered where Quatre, who knew the truth, was going with this question. Maybe he was just trying to guide the topic back to something that would embarrass Heero less. Perfectly happy to accept the subject shift in that or any case, Duo nodded. “Yeah, ever since I read that article…”

“So you were already interested in this school,” Quatre mused, “and then you met Heero.” His pointed yet half-veiled gaze indicated his awareness that, with the way he’d worded it, this was totally accurate. “It’s kinda like destiny or something.”

Duo remembered his own comment last Friday about stars aligning, heard the giggles and charmed noises of some of the girls in the group, and grinned as he leaned over the very small distance it took him to rub his shoulder against Heero’s. He still wasn’t sure what Quatre meant by that line of inquiry, and didn’t know that it was likely to embarrass Heero any less, but he didn’t hesitate to agree, at least verbally.

It turned out he needn’t have worried so much about Heero’s level of embarrassment. On their way home that afternoon, almost immediately they were down the street away from the school and the ears of fellow students, Heero brought it up.

“I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t happy not to have to get into relationship talk over lunch,” he said, “but I’m not fragile. You’re obviously a better actor than me, so you’re welcome to choose what we talk about to everyone, and I’ll just try to keep up.”

“Well, I thought you did fine,” Duo assured him. “That idea that I supposedly didn’t tell you I was moving out here was pretty funny, and I thought you pulled it off perfectly.”

“Thank you.” Heero smiled slightly; it was the first time Duo had seen him do it, and it was remarkable what a striking, attractive change the expression made to his face. “This is…” The smile turned into a bit of a grimace as he admitted the unpalatable fact. “Well, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but actually it’s been kinda nice so far.”

Duo wondered whether this unobtrusive person had ever received so much positive attention at school before. “Even if some of it was embarrassing?”

“I said I’m not fragile,” said Heero, now somewhat irritably. “Just because I get a little embarrassed about something doesn’t mean anything changes.”

Now Duo had to wonder whether anyone around here took Heero at all seriously in a social sense. He was an exceptionally good student — Duo knew that quite well even after such a short time — and there was a general tendency among people their age to equate that with a lack of social skills. Maybe that was at least part of the reason everyone had been so interested to discover Heero ‘had a boyfriend.’

Anyway, Duo didn’t feel like trying to analyze Heero’s place in the high school strata right now. “We’re only a day in,” he said instead with a grin that was both cheerful and warning. “It could get better or worse from here.”

“And if it’s worse,” Heero said calmly, “we can always ‘break up.'”

It wasn’t real; since they weren’t actually dating, they couldn’t actually break up. But Duo couldn’t help considering this — particularly Heero’s self-reassuringly cool manner of delivery — rather cold. No wonder, again, everyone had so marveled at the idea of Heero with a boyfriend!

After this, however, they moved on to Heero’s favorite topic (homework), with the occasional mention thrown in of Duo’s job at a restaurant not far from his apartment, and Duo pretty much forgot he’d ever felt put off.

***

“So it ended up 37-20, and they’re obviously in. With Manning in there, they’re practically unstoppable. That guy can find a receiver every single time, no matter what kind of heat’s on him; it’s fucking amazing. There’s no way in hell San Francisco can… god, are you even listening?”

“Yes,” Sylvia replied abstractedly, “and I totally agree.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“That you’ve got a crush on Eli Manning,” she replied promptly, finally turning her eyes back toward him.

“Not funny,” Alex growled. “That’s what’s wrong with this fucking school… everyone assumes everyone’s fucking gay.”

“I was totally joking,” she assured him. “But you have been talking about football a lot.”

“Well, what would you rather talk about?” he demanded in that exasperated ‘Oh, my god, why can’t girls ever make sense?’ tone guys sometimes used, glancing around to see what kept grabbing her attention past his left shoulder. Evidently he couldn’t tell what she was looking at, for he turned back to her with no enlightenment on his face.

“Look again,” she commanded, grinning. “Aren’t they totally cute?”

His expression darkened. “I’m not looking again if it’s just to see something ‘cute.'” Then, briefly, a flicker of puzzlement crossed his face and, contrary to his words, he did look again. “Oh, god,” he said as he slowly turned back. “You’re talking about that new guy Duo and that nerd guy, aren’t you? Please, Sylvia, please tell me Duo’s not gay.”

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

Alex breathed a huge, exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good, because he’s in my P.E. class, and if I thought–”

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

“So he is gay! Goddammit, he’s probably been staring at my ass in the locker room ever since he got here!”

Sylvia tried not to laugh. Alex actually seemed angry, but she couldn’t feel sorry for him. “I totally wouldn’t blame him if he did,” she said. “And why would he anyway? He’s together with Heero.”

Alex appeared somewhat consoled by her flirtatious remark, and also curious in spite of a very strong inclination not to be. “Is he? I heard he played soccer at his old school… and Heero’s in, like, five different Honor Societies… why would they–”

“Duo’s totally got a 3.8,” Sylva said, proud of her inside knowledge. “Or at least that’s what he had at his old school; I don’t know about here. I think Heero’s got, like, a 4.7 or something, but anyway they’re both really good students. Probably,” she added in satisfaction, “because they spend, like, every day after school at Heero’s house doing homework.”

“You sure that’s what they’re doing?” Alex asked darkly.

“No,” she tittered. “But they won’t come out with us on Fridays, and they always go home together. Duo doesn’t always eat lunch with us, because I guess he’s already got a lot of friends all over the school, even though it’s been, what, like, three weeks? And I think Heero misses him at lunch, but with Heero you can never tell.” She laughed again. “Anyway, they always go home together.”

“Why are you so interested in this?” Alex’s tone was suspicious as he closed his locker, gave the couple they were discussing one last, somewhat venomous look, and turned away to walk down the hall.

Following him, Sylvia answered cheerfully. “Because I’ve been eating lunch with Heero practically every day for two years now, and we’ve never seen him go out with anyone, and we always thought it would be cool if he did, and now he finally is!”

“I can’t believe that Duo guy’s gay.” This was more in muttered apostrophe than as any sort of reply to Sylvia.

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

“Oh, come on, like any girl would go out with a guy who’d been with another guy,” he said harshly.

I would!”

“God, would you? Have you? Seriously, if you say yes, you are not getting a ride home.”

That, Sylvia thought, was a terribly rude comment, but she had to admit that she never had gone out with a bisexual guy… and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a date with Alex on Friday by calling him on his homophobia. She did, however, as a sort of passive rebellion, keep talking about Heero, and how pleased she was to see him with the very likeable Duo, all the way out to the student parking lot and half the way home.

***

The previous three Januaries had been the heaviest homework months of the school year, as if the teachers were trying to make up for the long winter break and get the new calendar year started off right, and this January had sustained that trend admirably.

“And you know how many pages he wants?” Duo was complaining as they made their usual way out one day near the end of the month. “Freaking ten! That’s practically a book! And he was very specific about margin widths and font sizes, too, so we can’t cheat.”

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

Duo stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “You’re a genius!”

Heero, who didn’t stoop to such tactics himself but somehow knew them all, and who moreover had written two seven-page essays this month and was inclined to feel sorry for his companion, gave a sympathetic look.

“But, seriously, I’ll still end up having to write eight or nine pages,” Duo groaned. “Who does that?”

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

Heero laughed. “You can’t just do ‘the Civil War.’ That’s way too general.”

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll figure something out. Stupid research paper.”

“Just wait ’til college. We’ll be writing twenty-page research papers, and we won’t have nearly as long to finish them.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. How’s it going with Stage, by the way?”

Willum Stage University, located in a town called Placette only a couple of hours’ drive from here, was the school Heero had in mind, and he’d just finished the application process earlier this week. For this he was duly congratulated, after which they fell silent for a block or so — one of them, presumably, still mulling over the paper that had been assigned in his history class today. But it was just occurring to Heero to wonder something about Duo.

Finally he asked. “Where do you want to go to college? I’ve never heard you mention.”

Duo pushed out his lips in a silly, almost pouty way and looked sidelong at Heero. “Iiiii don’t know if I do want to go to college,” he said a little reluctantly.

Surprised, Heero said, “Really? You’re a good student; I thought…”

“Yeah, that’s how everyone reacts,” Duo mumbled, “which is why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Everyone does tend to assume we’ll all be doing the same things once we’re done with school,” said Heero carefully, “but… some people work for a while first… some people travel… I guess some people don’t go to college at all…”

Duo made a weary, protesting noise. “You make it sound like it’s a really weird concept.”

“College has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Heero admitted apologetically. “What do you have in mind instead?”

“I kinda want to be a chef.” Duo apparently didn’t have a great deal of hope that this would be in any way acceptable; his parents probably had something to do with that.

It sounded fine to Heero; he didn’t even have to give it much thought. “So, a culinary school, then?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Evidently heartened by the lack of immediate condemnation from Heero, Duo went on more enthusiastically. “What I think would be really cool is to have a combination restaurant and car repair shop so people could drop off their cars for whatever and then come inside and eat! Except I don’t actually want to run the place, I just want to do the cooking. I might take a few business classes just so I’ll have some idea what’s going on, but mostly my plan is to do some other cooking jobs so I can get really good at that and save up enough money to find a partner who can handle the business end of things while I make all the awesome food. And of course we’ll need a really good mechanic who…” He paused. “I lost you at ‘combination restaurant and car repair,’ didn’t I?”

Trying very hard to stifle his laughter and speak seriously, Heero said, “No, no, I think it’s a great idea.” In truth he considered it a remarkably childlike idea: something not necessarily impractical or inappropriate, but that few adults would come up with. Obviously one of those few was Duo, whom Heero couldn’t help considering, in light of this, rather adorable. Forcing calm upon himself he reiterated, “Really. Not a bad idea at all.”

Across the bike that separated them, Duo peered suspiciously at Heero. “You mean it?”

Solemnly Heero nodded.

Breaking into a brilliant grin, Duo exulted, “Hah! You’re the best ‘boyfriend’ ever!”

With a slight blush Heero said, “Who you should really talk to is my mom. She sometimes does catering. Just for small events, because it’s just her and a friend doing the cooking, but she still knows some things about the business…”

“Oh! That explains why she always has the Best Snacks Evar for us whenever I’m at your house doing homework! I meant to get the recipe for those little potato skin things, but I forgot. How come you didn’t tell me she did catering??”

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

Duo frowned. “It’s probably not good that we ‘boyfriends’ don’t know all this stuff about each other. I mean, what if someone asked? Anyway, it’s definitely not good that we real, actual friends don’t know.”

Unexpectedly pleased at having Duo refer to him as a real, actual friend, Heero suggested, “We should have a question and answer session.”

“Yes! Yes, we should! OK, let me think of questions.”

This activity occupied them the rest of the way to Heero’s house. There, because Duo wanted to harass Heero’s mother and Heero wanted to do his homework, they agreed that the best way to go about this was for each of them to write down a list of questions, which they would then exchange and answer in between their other tasks as they had time and inclination.

Between the culinary discussion in which Mrs. Yuy was happy to indulge Duo for quite some time and the homework that Duo, who wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as he sometimes acted, started in on afterward, it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that they gave each other their questions. And then, not for the first time that day, Heero had to try to stifle his laughter.

1. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

2. What was one thing you used to want to be when you grew up that totally changed?

3. If you could take the characters from any movie and put them into a new movie about a DANCE COMPETITION, which movie and characters would you choose and why?

4. If you could have any animal in the world for a pet (and it would be friendly to you no matter what it was), what would you choose?

5. Do you have any awesome tattoos, and how do you feel about tattoos?

These weren’t really the sort of questions Heero had had in mind, and totally dissimilar to his list, which was about things like politics and important formative experiences… but honestly he was rather looking forward to answering them. Not only that, but it struck him after a few moments of thought that Duo actually had the right idea: Heero had conveyed plenty about his plans for the future and other such serious topics; it was the extracurricular aspects of his personality Duo would know least about at this point — and vice versa for Heero about Duo.

So, setting aside for the moment the book he was reading for English and the notes he was taking thereon, he centered Duo’s sheet of questions in front of him and set down his pencil without looking in order to choose one at random. Upon rereading it, he decided he would need more space than what Duo had allowed him, and extracted a fresh sheet of paper.

Am I limited to animals? he began writing. Because if it will be friendly to me no matter what it is, a banyan tree……