His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was.
After being cursed by his best friend Trowa Barton, Duo Maxwell lived as a plastic doll from 1923 to 2010. Here is one story from each decade he spent in that form.

Unique to these stories: This is a difficult collection to tag. There are insensitive terms from some of these decades, and the sexism that might be expected of them as well. Trowa is significantly mentioned but does not appear. A transgender character is misunderstood and misgendered throughout that story’s narration. There’s some disparaging language regarding Catholics. The possibility of rape is referred to but does not take place in any story. There’s a picture of a scorpion. Just a bunch of little things that still bear mentioning.

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Tune In Next Week (1927)

These days you never knew if you would hear ‘nursery,’ ‘playroom,’ or something pretentious such as ‘children’s lounge’ in reference to the young people’s retreat in a wealthy household, but since Duo had never lived in such a house as a child, it made very little difference to him.

He shouldn’t have been forced to spend so much time in such rooms as an adult, either. Thanks, Trowa.

Clarence had been directed by the housekeeper to the playroom, so called here, to wait while she located young Raymond and sent him in to get to know the visitor while their mothers — old school chums reunited after one family’s recent move to Ann Arbor — chatted over coffee and cake in the parlor. Duo had never lived in a house with a parlor, and, due to his current form, didn’t know much of them now. Thanks, Trowa.

Examining the amenities in the small chamber that had more window than floorspace, Clarence waved Duo through the air in a vague flying motion as he often did, and ambled toward a large toy-chest and the much-abused rocking horse beside it. Instead of opening the former to see what interesting playthings Raymond, whose family seemed slightly richer than Clarence’s, had stashed within, he sat on the latter, setting it rocking, and looked down at Duo.

Duo wasn’t so much a participant in Clarence’s games as he was a focus for the dialogues the child came up with. Clarence would stare down at him intently, much as he did now, seem to take an endless amount of inspiration from the sight (Duo had always wanted to be inspiring simply because he was portable; thanks, Trowa), and talk his way, under his breath, through whatever adventure had popped into his head as a result. Sometimes the stories went on for days, though without much recognizable continuity. Judging by the look in the kid’s eye, increasingly familiar in this the fourth week of Duo’s time with him, Clarence aimed to start a new one, despite here and now perhaps not being the best place and time to do so.

But before Clarence could draw breath to speak, the playroom door opened and another boy appeared. This must be Raymond, though he didn’t introduce himself. Maybe he’d intended to, and maybe not — ten-year-old boys could be little monsters sometimes, no matter how hard their mothers worked to hammer manners into them — but in any case the sight of Clarence holding Duo completely distracted him.

“Is that a doll?” With the confidence of the master of the house and someone that has never considered himself wrong in his entire life, Raymond closed the door and came inside, swaggering toward Clarence as he continued with rising skepticism, “As if you were a girl?”

Clarence shrank a little and said nothing. Duo had seen it before: this child almost always chose to withdraw rather than engage. For this reason his father erroneously accused him of being sullen.

Raymond, on the other hand, proved the opposite of sullen or withdrawn. He hopped around like a flea, examining Duo from all angles, poking at both him and Clarence, trying to rock the horse beneath the other boy, spouting further witticisms. “I’ll bet you have tea parties with it, eh? Do you get it all dressed up and comb its hair? Catch me doing that! Does it sleep with you at night? Can you sleep without your dolly? I’ll be a man someday, but I bet you won’t!”

A deep crease had appeared between Clarence’s fine, pale eyebrows, and Duo thought this might be one of the few instances he’d witnessed thus far when the kid would actually stand up for himself. Clarence hadn’t wanted to come, after all, and to keep the experience from being completely miserable he needed to say something sooner rather than later. But Duo couldn’t have anticipated what he came up with.

Technically the words were merely, “Go away,” which made for the most basic of beginnings to his attempt at rebuffing Raymond and his taunts… except that they emerged in the magical language. They had little power behind them, and in any case only the most skilled of magicians could enact a spell without specifying the object at which it was directed, but the fact remained that Clarence had spoken in the tongue shared by all magicians, clearly enough for Duo to understand him easily.

Duo understood, but Raymond didn’t. Now he exhibited what Duo, from his human years practicing magic, recognized as the typical reaction of anyone hearing the magical language for the first time: he started and jerked back, disconcerted. And, given that the gist of Clarence’s command had been understandable despite the words’ incomprehensibility, and that it had been a sort of spell regardless of its overall effectiveness, no surprise Raymond then took two more steps, his features writhing with fear, confusion, and defiance, and left the room.

Clarence had allowed Duo to swivel into a position from which he could watch all of this, and now the doll remained pointed toward the newly closed playroom door and couldn’t see the boy’s face. He was conscious, however, of Clarence stretching his short legs out into the air in front of him before bracing himself on the floor again in order to rock the horse beneath in what seemed like a contemplative gesture.

He was also conscious of an urgent necessity that either hadn’t existed or that he simply hadn’t been aware of before.

Though Duo had only been with him a few weeks, so technically he might have missed something (though he doubted he had), he believed Clarence hadn’t shown any signs of magical ability prior to this — and indeed, children seldom did, seldom had their skill awaken at so early an age. Which probably meant both that Clarence was unusually powerful and that Duo’s presence in his vicinity had caused this awakening. And the temporary privacy in this playroom, before Raymond returned with further tauntings or it became time to go submit to the mother’s selfish demands, made for a very narrow window Duo had no choice but to take advantage of. There was a good reason, after all — a self-preservation reason, you might say; a security reason — nature didn’t allow magic into the hands of most children until after puberty.

“Clarence,” Duo said.

The child went utterly still.

“You hear me, Clarence?”

“Yes,” Clarence whispered, slowly rotating Duo to face him. Nearly his entire extent of eyeball showed in his pale face.

“Don’t be afraid of me, kid,” Duo said patiently. “You know I’m your friend, right?”

“But you heard all my stories.” Clarence’s voice remained choked and almost inaudible; lucky Duo was so close.

“I liked all your stories,” was all Duo could offer to assuage him on this point. Trust such a private child to worry about his personal mutterings having been overheard before wondering about the magical talking doll in his hands.

Shy and uncertain, Clarence asked, “Did you?”

“Yes,” Duo insisted. “But listen, Clarence. We need to talk about magic.”

Now Clarence’s reluctance began to shed from him. “Is that what you are?” With even more energy he added, “Is that what I did just now to make Raymond go away?”

“Yes and yes. And you need to understand how much danger you’re in.”

“Am I?” Clarence made this far-too-interested-sounding query before Duo could continue.

“Yes!” Duo’s tone turned severe. “Magic can be very dangerous if you’re careless about it! How do you think I ended up like this?”

Clarence’s eyes went wide again. “Are you under an enchantment?”

“If you want to call it that,” the doll grumbled. It was as good a description as any; he didn’t really know the nature of the spell Trowa had cast to leave him like this.

“Do you need the blood of a beheaded faithful servant smeared all over you to break it?” Exactly how serious Clarence was with this gruesome suggestion couldn’t be guessed, but evidently he’d come out of his shell somewhat. “Did someone turn you into a doll? Could I turn Raymond into a doll?”

Duo didn’t like the expression on the boy’s face — something much harder than those rounded, juvenile features were fitted for — nor the eager bite to his tone. Why did he so immediately envision perpetuating magical harm upon Raymond, whom he did not at all know? There was something lurking beneath Clarence’s shyness, it appeared, but sullenness was off the mark.

And why must Duo be the one to deal with this unexpected mean streak? Because his mere presence had caused Clarence’s awakening and he happened to have a sense of responsibility? Thanks, Trowa.

“No,” he said firmly, “you can’t. And you need to be careful about what magic you do try. What you did to make Raymond go away just now wasn’t a proper spell — I think he was only startled, so he may be back — but you did speak in the magical language, and–”

“And I can do it again!” crowed Clarence — in the magical language.

Duo winced internally (the only way he could wince). “You see, that’s exactly what you need to be careful of. The magical language is used to cast spells, and if you don’t take care what you say when you speak it, you could end up casting a spell by mistake and hurting someone with it. You could hurt a friend without meaning to, or your mother…” Realizing Clarence might want to hurt his mother, contingent upon circumstances and mood, Duo hastened on. “Or yourself. People can hurt themselves very badly when they cast spells by accident.”

“Hurt themselves how?” Clarence still sounded more interested than concerned; Duo obviously wasn’t getting through to him.

The doll pondered quickly. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but doubted it was enough to make any kind of roundabout point. He would have to resort to something less than perfect honesty. “I’m supposed to be a human man, Clarence. You wouldn’t want to be like this, would you? A doll who can’t go anywhere on his own, can’t feel anything, can’t taste anything?”

The tone of Clarence’s negative made Duo fear he still might be contemplating how this could possibly apply to Raymond.

Duo pressed on. “Well, the magic spell that turned me into a doll was an accident; my best friend did it, but he didn’t mean to.” In fact Duo had no idea this had been the case; he hoped so, but couldn’t and probably never would be certain. “You sure wouldn’t want to do that to one of your friends, but you could just as easily do it to yourself — turn yourself into a doll because you were being careless with the magical language, and get trapped like me for who knows how long.” And in fact Duo disbelieved a spell like this could be cast easily by just anyone. He didn’t know how Trowa had done it, but doubted Clarence would reach that level any time soon — at least not without a powerful artifact or two, something Duo himself didn’t seem to be.

If Clarence’s somber expression meant anything, he took at least some of Duo’s words into consideration now. He sat silently for several moments, swaying the horse again with one foot and kicking against its rockers with the other. The resultant motion probably jarred him repeatedly, but Duo merely knew it was taking place; he couldn’t begin to discern what it actually felt like. And finally Clarence spoke again. This time his tone sounded faintly wheedling, as if he’d gotten the incorrect impression of Duo as some kind of guardian of magic that could, if talked around, grant Clarence permission to do what he wanted with his newfound ability. “So as long as I’m very careful… and know what I’m trying to do so I don’t do things by accident… and take care not to speak the magical language except if I want to do a magical spell… what kind of magic can I do?”

Again Duo pondered. It might be wisest to downplay the desirability of magic at this point, try to dampen Clarence’s interest in it… but how? He’d already indicated magic could do unpleasant things to other people; he couldn’t backtrack and pretend that was untrue after all — not in his current shape! He feared, however, Clarence might be even more interested in that unpleasant side of magic than in the more pleasant and convenient results it could accomplish that would have engrossed most other people far more. How to present magic in such a way that it would seem relatively uninteresting to a child of ten with a secret vindictive side?

This wasn’t fair. A friend — and that term already exaggerated what Duo was to Clarence — shouldn’t be forced into this position; a relative or a magical mentor or anyone else that had voluntarily entered into a position of authority in this kid’s life should be the one to lecture Clarence on magic and try to set him on a correct path rather than a destructive or a cruel one in his use of it. Duo didn’t want to see Clarence harm or even kill himself or someone else with his early-blossoming abilities, but felt underqualified and very reluctant to deal with the problem. He was, however, the only one around that could do it. Thanks, Trowa.

“You can do all sorts of things with magic,” he began slowly, “if you don’t accidentally kill yourself with it. You can…” He still scrambled for examples that would suit his purposes. “…black your shoes so they stay blacked… and…” He tried to remember what he and Trowa had used magic for before the disaster; for some reason he was drawing a blank. “…get your shirts extremely clean without having to pay someone to wash them…”

Clarence’s nose wrinkled. “That’s different from turning someone into a doll, though.”

“Yes, well…”

He didn’t know whether he should consider it a rescue or a dangerous interruption that the playroom door opened before he could say anything more. Raymond reappeared, and, though he didn’t hang on the handle or hesitate in the doorway, the swagger had disappeared from his step, and his expression instead displayed a healthy portion of both curiosity and respect.

Clarence lowered Duo and looked at Raymond suspiciously without a word; the closed-off lines Duo already knew so well had returned to his face.

Though obviously not the type to beg pardon, Raymond was also evidently ready to do anything necessary for the fun of the moment. He came forward a few steps, looking once again at the doll in the hands of his guest — though this time, Duo believed, with far less disdain and far more readiness to admit there might be experiences in the world he hadn’t had — and finally, raising his eyes to Clarence’s face at last, asked, “What was that you said before?”

Clarence gave him a steady stare in return, and replied quietly, “It was magic words. I told you to go away because you were making fun of my doll.”

“Aww, I won’t make fun of your old doll anymore.” Duo guessed this was as close to an apology as Raymond would ever come. “Will you teach me how to say magic words like that?”

“No,” said Clarence sharply. “It’s a secret.”

If anything, Raymond seemed more impressed than before, and probably not entirely convinced he couldn’t winkle the secret out of Clarence, given time. “Well, shall we go outside and play? I’ve got a new ball and bat, but we can’t use them in here.”

Clarence threw a half hesitant look down at Duo, who stifled a sigh. He’d had a narrow window, and it had closed. Hopefully he would have another opportunity; hopefully Clarence wouldn’t become angry again with Raymond this afternoon and do something everyone would regret before Duo had a chance to impress upon him the dangers of careless magic further than he’d already managed.

“Go play outside,” Duo urged him. “We can talk again later.”

Clarence started, raising his eyes abruptly to Raymond, whom Duo hadn’t allowed to hear. What expression might be on Raymond’s face Duo couldn’t tell, but after a moment Clarence relaxed. “All right,” he said, and stood from the rocking horse. He gazed at Duo again, this time contemplatively, and after a moment turned, swiveling Duo’s legs up into a sitting position, and set the doll down on the leather saddle he had previously occupied. He made no comment, but Duo, assuming Clarence planned on leaving him here in order not to have his behavior criticized until it was time to go home, felt his heart sink. He watched the two boys vacate the playroom, closing the door behind them more carelessly than conscientiously, with a sense of indistinct foreboding.

He had no reliable method of marking the passage of time, which had already proven miserable in the four sleepless years he’d spent as a doll, but his eyes worked well enough, even if they were only painted on. Though he faced away from the window and felt no need to lever himself around, he could easily mark the change in the color of the light and the gradual dimming of the playroom while he sat, bored and agitated, on the rocking horse. Evidently far more time passed than he’d expected, far too much time to allow him to believe Clarence was coming back for him. And how had things gone outside with the ball and bat? Quite possibly Duo would never know.

The shadows continued to lengthen, and details in this room, where no electric light shone, grew difficult to make out. If he’d had to guess — and he sometimes did, though at other times too unhappy to make the attempt — he would have said it was past seven in the evening before any sound of human habitation met his ears beyond the occasional distant voice or muffled footstep.

Here came the housekeeper poking her head into the playroom, probably to be sure Clarence and Raymond hadn’t made a mess she would need to attend to before seeing to other evening duties. Since they hadn’t, she moved to withdraw, when it seemed her gaze fell on the figure seated on the rocking horse’s saddle. With an air of curiosity she stepped more fully into the room and pressed the switch to turn on the light. Seeing with greater certainty what had caught her eye, a funny little smile took her face, and she strode forward to pick Duo up.

After studying him for a few moments, she shook her head. “Well, they’re not likely to be back for you… Left in a hurry, they did… I don’t think the ladies got along too well, the snobbish cats.” The world was veiled in dimming white cotton as the housekeeper tucked Duo into a deep pocket of her apron, and then complete darkness fell as she switched off the playroom light. “My little girl will appreciate you more anyway.”

So Duo was to change hands again. The housekeeper’s daughter would be his fourteenth owner so far, and how long that arrangement would last he couldn’t begin to guess.

And what would become of Clarence, from whom Duo would undoubtedly never hear again? With no one around to give the child further information, to try to combat his unexpected desire to hurt others with his power, would he even survive his early magical awakening? Would he hurt some friend, or curse his parents, or burn down his own house, or turn himself into a teapot? This too Duo couldn’t begin to guess.

He hadn’t wanted to be involved in the first place in Clarence’s magical journey, but to be forced to begin and then debarred from seeing it through to the end was in some ways even worse. (Thanks, Trowa.) It reminded him of listening to an adventure serial on the radio, hearing every lurid detail of the catastrophic situation into which the heroine had been hurled by today’s events, being told to make extra sure not to miss next Saturday’s exciting episode in order to find out how she could possibly be extricated from this problem and escape certain death… and then never hearing one more minute of that particular program. Never finding out whether that heroine lived or died, whether justice was served, whether the tale had a happy ending. Even in a story Duo hadn’t been particularly enjoying, that lack of closure both galled and disheartened him.

But it was nothing new. Though he hadn’t previously encountered the precise problem presented by the precocious Clarence, nor any other with such a potentially disastrous outcome, every caretaker he’d had so far as a doll had been a story in progress, a dramatic serial whose second or even third episodes he’d been able to listen to but whose resolution he would never witness. Given the way he lived now, it seemed likely the only narrative whose ending he would be allowed to observe was his own. And his own tale — his erratic, largely immobile, sensationless, bitter, meaningless life — had it been a book, would have been the last Duo would ever have chosen to read through to the end. Thanks, Trowa.

Even Trowa was a story whose setup Duo had been forced to witness as if to make his subsequent lack of knowledge of where things went from there, where they ended up, all the more wretched and unfair.

As he bounced along in the housekeeper’s apron heading toward yet another person he might end up calling a friend of sorts or in some aspects of whose life he might, at least, develop some interest, then eventually, inevitably be separated from just when he learned enough about her to feel the beginnings of curiosity and concern, he supposed it would be best to work to accustom himself to these unfinished stories. As a helpless doll, he saw no real alternative. He saw no likelihood of escape, of justice being served, of a happy ending.

He saw no likelihood of an ending, and he supposed he’d better get used to the idea.



2>>

The Gift of Friendship (1934)

“Why are you only using parts that have no pictures?” Duo wondered as he looked on, prompted by a late-arriving realization.

Antonella paused, ceased her humming, and glanced critically over the newspaper page she’d already finished. Both it and the one she worked on now — at least on the sides that faced up — were solid walls of text broken only by slightly larger headlines. And while Duo supposed no gift would be much enhanced by photographs of murder victims or satirical cartoons of Adolf Hitler, there was usually a baseball image somewhere in front that might have made a pretty cheerful decoration with color added to it.

But Antonella said, “I didn’t want any pictures.” With one small hand she gestured in imprecise elaboration. “They make it look different from when it’s just words.”

“All right,” Duo allowed, watching her return to her task with great care so as not to tear the thin paper with the green drawing crayon she held.

Of course the Flores family could not afford actual gift wrap; honestly Duo wasn’t sure who could (or at least would be willing to spend money on something so impractical and extravagant). Even the drawing crayons, which had been a special treat to celebrate Antonella’s seventh birthday, were a bit of a luxury, and that she now used them so extensively to stripe the two sheets of newspaper with bright colors to create this faux gift wrap demonstrated how much she was putting her heart into the endeavor.

Presently, “I like red next to green,” Antonella commented.

“Yes, they look good,” Duo agreed.

“Maybe I put too many reds next to greens.” She paused again to examine her work.

The doll assured her, “I think it’s all right.”

“I’ll make some dots next.”

“That sounds good.”

Watching a little girl draw stripes across a newspaper perpendicular to the text, and now an uneven row of circles whose disparate size seemed to annoy her but proved difficult to fix, bored him, but not as severely as some of what Duo had suffered over the last eleven years. More than the boredom, in fact, he felt annoyance at this circumstance. Because he couldn’t figure out why the Flores family was doing this at all — why Antonella industriously prepared to wrap up one of the two toys she owned; why elsewhere in the tiny flat her mother had tied a festive ribbon around her more functional pair of shoes; why her father had rolled up, in preparation for taking it to the church, a scarf his late mother had knitted for him that he’d worn every day of chilly December up until this one — when they were struggling just as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone else. If anything, they should be on the receiving end of this gift drive, not scraping to find offerings for other people that might, for all they knew, actually be better off than they were.

Antonella made a frustrated sound, and a gesture as if she might throw her crayon, though she didn’t quite. “It’s going to be ruined!”

Nothing new to have annoyed her this much showed from where Duo sat nearby, so he assumed she must be referring to the varying sizes of the ‘dots’ she’d drawn. “Why?” He hastened to add, “I think it looks fine!”

“I wanted it to be neat,” she protested. “Like a real…” She evidently couldn’t think of the word for what she meant, for she finished in frustration, “Like a real thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be neat to look good, though.” When this didn’t seem to have any effect on the girl’s mood, Duo tried, “And I think true artists prefer to make things different sizes so it isn’t all the same across the whole thing. They do it purposely.”

I’m not a true artist,” Antonella grumbled. But she seemed simultaneously somewhat cheered, and the look she gave the half-colored paper now assessed more than despaired.

Such attempts to boost Antonella’s sense of worth during her not infrequent moments of uncertainty were the most Duo could do for her — offerings of friendship whose value he often doubted just as much as Antonella doubted herself. Unfortunately, even had he been human, he couldn’t have done significantly better. Because everyone was badly off these days. Duo had never been rich even during his normal life, had never managed to do more than scrape a living — and had never wanted more. He might be coming to miss the ability to earn it, but money had never meant much to him. But even if he had it now — even if he weren’t a doll, and had somehow gotten his hands on a fortune — would he be allowed to assist a little girl totally unrelated to him whose race and religion he didn’t share? Would he be able to tell her how remarkable he found her generosity, and offer generosity of his own? Probably not. So his friendship and support, under the current odd circumstances, were all he could present her with.

The look Antonella gave her finished project held only incomplete satisfaction, but Duo knew no way to encourage her more than he already had. Her perfectionism must make many of her life endeavors superb, but it often did her a disservice at the same time — especially when combined with her pessimism. He worried a little about her, actually; that these traits exhibited so strongly in someone so young might actually bode badly for the future. But he would do what he could for her.

She was analyzing both papers now, and after a moment began to touch up spots she felt needed some extra attention. Once, forgetting which color she held, she started drawing with the wrong one, and when she saw what she’d done she nearly threw her crayon across the room again. But in the end she did manage the final touches without too much frustration or self-loathing, and was now the successful possessor of two sheets of lovingly decorated gift wrap for this unfortunate project. Duo thought they would just fit, with space at each end for a small twist, around the wooden pick-up truck in whose bed he often rode during playtime.

A large cigar box, its exterior decoration fading by this the second generation of its use, held all of Antonella’s small treasures — a few stones she’d liked enough to bring inside, numerous bottle caps, a snail shell, and so on — and from this she’d already pulled all the string she owned in preparation for using it in the gift-packaging process. Now Duo was a bit surprised to see her turn the box slowly upside-down and tip its remaining contents into a careful pile on the floor nearby. Though her young, heartwarming sense of selflessness showed even further in this, and though there was some appropriateness to the idea of a full truck-bed, he doubted these items would contribute much.

“Are you going to put those in the truck?” he asked cautiously, not sure he could convey adequately to her that the gift’s recipient — or at least their parents — might not appreciate being handed another child’s random collection that meant something only to her.

Antonella looked around in some evident surprise at the truck, which stood beside her opposite Duo. “Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said, and began scooping up her things and loading them into its bed.

Duo’s brows would have drawn together if they weren’t, in fact, drawn on in the first place. If she hadn’t already been planning to put the things into the truck… “What will you do with the cigar box?” he asked, even more cautiously than before.

Still working on transferring items from the floor to the truck-bed, she replied placidly, “Put you in it. The newspaper will work better on a box instead of on a doll.”

For several moments Duo was dumbstruck. He couldn’t gape — his lips moved, but he didn’t really have a jaw — but that would have been the proper expression of his feelings as it occurred to him that Antonella never had stated her intention of using her pick-up truck for this; Duo had merely assumed that was the toy in view, and therefore never asked.

“I thought…” he said at last, weakly, “the pick-up truck was the gift.”

Antonella paused in her loading efforts and looked the truck over studiously. “This wouldn’t be as good of a gift.”

“Why?”

She gave the specific frown that usually heralded an imperfect attempt at explaining herself. “Father Herrera said the gifts don’t need to cost a lot of money.”

“All right…” That was rather a given in this economy.

“And he said we should look for a gift that would make someone happy.”

“And you think I’ll make someone more happy than the truck would?”

“Yes, because you’re my friend.” Though she still seemed unsure of her ability to express the concept she had in mind, this statement was decisive. “I’m happy to have a friend, so someone else will be happy to have a friend too.”

“I… I understand.” Once again his words came out very weakly, and after this he could say nothing more for another long moment. She might be right: a secret, constant companion and the support that companion could provide might well be the best present she could possibly give someone, far better than anything money could buy. But even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was, or his friendship like a tradable commodity. Antonella undoubtedly had no idea how dehumanizing her actions were, and in some ways that made it even worse.

Knowing he must speak now before he lost his chance, Duo forced himself to ask, “But won’t you miss me if you give me away?” It seemed so ironically sad to think of her giving up something she valued and drew strength from specifically because she valued and drew strength from it.

She finished relocating the last of the box’s former contents as she replied, “Yes, but Father Herrera said we need to use our hearts. Somebody might be very poor and need a friend more than me.”

Duo remembered the sensation of a constricting throat and prickling eyes even if he couldn’t feel them, and his internal state represented several helpless emotions. He was angry because, with everyone poor, why should one person get the preference over another in terms of commodities? Especially when it meant displacing Duo again and removing what he believed with no false modesty to be a useful and supportive influence from Antonella’s life? He was weary at the thought of starting all over with a new child and a new set of circumstances. He was touched more than ever by Antonella’s pure charity and unselfishness, even if it actively wounded him. And though not in any real position to claim such a feeling, he was proud of her. He couldn’t bring himself to protest her legitimate generous impulse even if he hated every moment of it.

She’d placed the cigar box just in front of her and opened it, and now took Duo in her hands. She gave him a critical look, and for a moment he hoped she might be rethinking — but then she wedged him into the box without comment. He wore makeshift clothing that had been cleverly put together by Mrs. Flores from scraps, and he reflected irrelevantly and glumly that, had he been wearing proper shoes — made of anything thicker than cloth — he wouldn’t have fit in this space barely longer than he was tall. But he’d never had a pair of real shoes in this form, so that difficulty was nothing more than a distant daydream.

He looked up at the little girl that had been his guardian for the past six months or so and said forlornly, wishing things could be otherwise, “Well, goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she replied, and swung the box’s lid down atop him.

In the resultant darkness he could hear the rustle and crinkle of newspaper being wrapped around his latest prison; he could hear Antonella beginning to hum once more as she worked. But he never saw her again.

General Dissent (1942)

While the grandmother had been busy making him an outfit — a princely outfit in bits of velvet and lace, with canvas shoes that looked less like drawstring bags than usual, and even a little hat with a tiny plume — Duo had, of course, spent some time with her. He hadn’t spoken to her, but had overheard a lot of the remarks she’d made. Funnily enough, this hadn’t prepared him for the granddaughter whose gift he was to be.

“Every birthday for as long as I can remember…” She’d shut herself into her bedroom at last, seeming relieved to have done so, and now looked down at Duo with a wry, weary expression. “One of these years they’ll have to realize I’m too old for this.”

And she was. Sixteen as of today, a tall, gangly girl in a lumpy dress with unkempt hair, she’d quite surprised Duo when he’d first seen her and realized she would be his new caretaker.

“I guess you can sit here with the rest of them,” she told Duo, swiveling his legs outward and reaching up to place him on a lace-draped shelf alongside an extensive row of other dolls, presumably birthday presents from previous years. Then she turned away from him in an almost eye-rolling movement.

This behavior fit with the attitude she’d exhibited downstairs during her grandparents’ visit. Duo speculated it had been getting harder and harder for her, year after year, to respond with any degree of graciousness to these gifts she didn’t want (and evidently hadn’t even played with much as a younger child, if the state of the dolls down at the end of the line was any indication). She’d tried to behave herself — the struggle had been visible even to newcomer Duo — though her efforts might perhaps have been more for the sake of her depressed-looking mother than the grandparents that beamed obliviously at her as she politely examined her new doll and his clothing. They might not have noticed a more open show of disinclination, but the mother was clearly anxious for the visit with her in-laws to be as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Now the young woman, Ethel, abruptly unhooked the frock she wore, yanked it over her head, and threw it carelessly to the floor. That explained its wrinkled state, and the underlying cause of its lumpiness was also revealed: a pair of overalls, the legs rolled up to hide beneath her skirt, atop a short-sleeved shirt (plain-cut; no girl’s blouse, this) that had also been invisible under the frillier bodice she’d previously worn. Next she roughly unrolled her trouser legs, then threw herself onto the bed with the air of one returning to something after an annoying interruption, and took up a book that had been lying there open on its face.

While Ethel made her way determinedly through The Red Badge of Courage, Duo studied his new home, which seemed destined to be a very static one. This family evidently had plenty of money, based on what he’d seen both of the grandparents’ home before this and the rooms downstairs, and Ethel’s bedroom appeared comfortable, if a trifle over-decorated. Everything here was fluffy and lacy and milky (except where little embroidered flowers in pastel colors peeked out from various surfaces), giving the decor a soft, almost dreamlike quality that Duo found he didn’t like very much.

And neither, it seemed, did the room’s inhabitant. Nearly everything in here — from the long row of dolls on the white shelf to the various cosmetic products atop the lace-covered dresser to the framed picture of a sweet pastoral scene on one of the walls — appeared disused and unregarded. The only parts of her bedroom Ethel seemed to derive any benefit from were the bookshelf beside the bed, the bed itself, and the large mirror near the bureau.

This last Duo looked at longest. For Ethel had decorated it, to the point of partially obscuring the glass, with papers of various shapes and sizes, ruthlessly driving pins into its beveled white frame in a destructive manner Duo wondered whether her mother knew about. The papers seemed to be mostly letters, some long and some short, all much-folded prior to their being smoothed out and tacked up around a girl’s mirror, many of them stained and probably difficult to read even if you happened to be close enough to try.

Interspersed among the letters were a few photographs, mostly of a man in uniform but a few of groups of soldiers presumably containing that same man. None of the personal pictures could Duo see in enough detail from here to detect any family resemblance between the man and Ethel, but he thought he knew now the reason Mrs. Roanridge appeared so haggard and sad. Many people already looked like that less than six months after the U.S. had jumped into this new war. They’d looked like that during the last one too, the one that had been supposed to end all wars. It seemed a perfectly understandable bitterness.

Ethel had been reading for barely fifteen minutes, kicking her legs and changing her position routinely and giving every indication of disinterest in her book except for lack of progress through its pages, when she dropped it, jumped up again, and came to stand in front of the mirror. There she waited, completely still and staring, for such a long time that at first Duo thought she must be perusing one of the letters tacked to the frame. But the eyes of her reflection roved too far up and down, seeking some mysterious object too restlessly, for her to be reading anything quite so small, and Duo decided eventually she must be examining herself. That was, after all, a mirror’s purpose. What he couldn’t quite determine, at least at first, was what she saw there.

And then, in a gesture so abrupt it startled the watching doll, she snapped her right hand upward on a stiff arm in not a half bad imitation of a military salute. And he realized that her prolonged stiffness as she faced the mirror had not been merely the stillness of concentration; she’d been standing at attention.

“Private Ethel Roanridge reporting for duty, sir,” she declared, putting into her voice all the firmness Duo suspected she longed to use with her grandparents on her disinclination for childish birthday gifts. Then she began practicing her salute, which had appeared acceptable to Duo but probably not up to snuff to its performer or the imaginary superior officer receiving it.

So Ethel didn’t merely miss her father in his country-serving absence; she wanted to join him, to serve alongside him. There had certainly been people like that last time; Duo couldn’t say he was surprised, though he’d never been one of them. During the previous war, despite the rampant patriotism and calls to support the effort going on around them, he and Trowa had considered themselves nothing like soldier material, and had avoided even the suggestion that they might enlist in what was proving an unpleasant experience for everyone; and Duo had come out of it with a dismal concept of war and some relief that he hadn’t been more closely involved.

This new conflict… He didn’t entirely know how he felt about it. Here was, he had grudgingly to admit, one of very few benefits to his current form: he didn’t have to decide how he felt. At forty-four years old, he might be too old to serve, and might not… but in any case wouldn’t be forced to make that decision.

Now Ethel had stopped her repetitive process of saluting, and frowned into the mirror. She took a step closer to it, and this time when she lifted her hand it didn’t snap off a gesture of respect and obedience from her forehead. Rather, she grasped at her clearly uncombed hair and pulled it roughly away from her face toward the nape of her neck. At first Duo thought she intended to tie it back, but he realized after watching her wrestle with it for several moments that she was trying to get an impression of her face without the long brown locks in the way. She appeared dissatisfied with her success, and threw more than one look of frustrated longing at something off to her right. Only after she’d done this several times could Duo hazard a guess as to what she contemplated over there: a pair of sewing shears lying atop her bureau.

Finally, obviously resisting with a greater or lesser level of difficulty the urge to hack all her hair off, she did tie it into a low tail, though this still left her scowling into the mirror at the insufficiently militaristic effect she’d created. She stood once more at attention, however, smoothing the discontentment from her face with some effort. And she saluted again, perhaps even more forcefully this time than before, as if she’d been reprimanded.

“Private… Ethan… Roanridge… reporting for duty, sir.” She held her pose for a long, silent moment, then said as if in response to an unspoken question, “No, sir.” Then, “Yes, sir.” And finally, “Eighteen, sir.”

Duo experienced the mental equivalent of a shiver of discomfort and concern.

For a few minutes Ethel continued to answer questions from nobody, though none of her answers were as telling as the first few. She continued practicing her salute as she did so, and the resulting impression was not so much ‘accurate military personnel behavior’ as ‘desperate windup toy,’ but Duo supposed that to be part of the reason she wanted practice. Then at last, after another disparaging glance at her hair, she turned away from the mirror and went back to her book. And it was her manner of doing so that really clinched it for Duo, that solidified in him the concern her words of a minute before had raised.

For she didn’t sigh, or turn forlornly aside as if from an impossible dream. She didn’t untie her hair and let it fall messily back around her shoulders as a symbol of defeat. She narrowed her eyes slightly, gave her figure in the mirror a calculating once-over, then nodded once, sharply and decisively. It was as if a choice had been made, or even as if an agreement had been reached — perhaps with some other self Ethel could see clearly in the mirror but Duo couldn’t. In any case, Ethel obviously had a plan. Duo didn’t know her well enough yet to assess just how serious she might be in pursuing it, but he definitely already worried.

The tale of the brave young woman disguising herself as a man in order to enter military service — usually in order to chase after some boy to whom she had a mulish attachment — was as old as the hills, and as familiar to Duo as to anyone else. But it occurred to him now to wonder exactly how romanticized those stories were. Had women actually successfully done that in the past? And with what degree of difficulty and personal suffering had it been accomplished? And surely, even if it had been feasible once, modern military procedure must make it next to impossible now.

He remembered when they’d opened up the draft to include men ages eighteen to forty-five just at the end of the last war because they’d needed the manpower; he hadn’t heard how the current system worked, but, knowing the U.S. had only recently become involved, doubted they were likely to be that desperate yet… desperate enough, maybe, to overlook the presence of disguised women in their ranks. A woman attempting to enter the U.S. Army simply didn’t seem practicable to Duo at this point.

What seemed a lot more likely was that Ethel would, sooner or later, attempt futilely to carry out her plan, and would either be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society, or get herself raped by some unscrupulous Army recruiter and then be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society. And in the unlikely event that her attempt proved fruitful, then she would have the dangers of war to face. No outcome of this venture seemed desirable, and apparently Ethel couldn’t see that.

Could Duo make her see it? He didn’t know. Based on his reflections of just moments before, he had no idea what to say to someone in a situation like this. Because if she or anyone else made the decision to go to war — admittedly a more difficult prospect, in her situation, than in many another — shouldn’t that choice, and the possibility of gruesome injury or death that went with it, be respected? Who was he to condemn someone for joining the army just because he personally believed war was detrimental to society and probably not worth giving up one’s life for? With his own attitude on the business as a whole so uncertain, how could he think to persuade someone else to stay out of it?

That particular aspect of the question didn’t matter, though, since he still believed Ethel couldn’t possibly con her way into the army without getting caught. What he would really need to convince her of was the futility of her scheme, the potential dangers of putting herself into a vulnerable position for the sake of something that wouldn’t work out in any case. And fortunately, this seemed a much easier argument to make than any larger-scale social or moral rumination on the nature of war.

In any case he would have to talk to her, and this in its turn brought up a whole new set of problems. Because, though he knew her not at all yet, what he’d seen of her so far seemed to paint her as not the type of person to take a talking doll very seriously. Her quiet frustration with a girlish present at the age of sixteen, her preference for overalls instead of a dress and a book about war instead of fairy tales — even her daydream that, though unfeasible, was far more down-to-earth than what Duo believed sixteen-year-old girls typically fantasized about — all this pointed toward an abundance of the practical and lack of the fanciful in her personality. Such people were often difficult to convince that magic really existed; regardless of what other explanation they came up with for Duo’s ability to speak, they often lent very little credence to anything he had to say.

If only he could write! He’d often felt that yearning, since in far more situations than this one penmanship would have been extremely useful. The ability to communicate with people in a manner that wouldn’t disclose his status as an enchanted doll would put him two steps up the long ladder back to humanity. And in this case, he could write to Ethel’s father, whom he guessed to be the strongest influence in her life, and explain the situation. Thus it should be, after all; it wasn’t fair that Duo found himself in a position — and not for the first time! — where, with his extremely limited resources, he had to attempt to mend a situation that should more properly have been tackled by friends and relatives of his human caretaker.

Silently he sighed (more of a mental gesture, since without sound or breath the action had no substance). He would do his best. Though his life experience had been, by now, more doll than human, more acted-upon than actor, still he was in years lived more than twice Ethel’s age… and arguably wiser. He wouldn’t abandon her to her fate simply because he felt awkward about it, passively look the other way while she destroyed herself. He just had to figure out what to say and how best to say it.

And when best. It seemed unwise to alert her to his sentience today, when she’d only barely taken possession of him, and if he kept an eye on her for a while he was likelier to get a more complete impression of her specific attitudes and intentions. Sooner or later he would have to introduce himself, but later might turn out to be the best option, and that relieved his mind somewhat.

And possibly he wouldn’t have to talk to her at all, at least about this issue. Unless she was considerably less intelligent than she’d seemed so far, she must be fully aware that, though she might be able to pass for a young man, she wouldn’t be able to pass for a young man old enough to fight in a war for a while yet. She would have to wait until some time had passed — probably until she was eighteen, as her earlier apostrophic dialogue had hinted. That was exactly two years away, so perhaps Duo had nothing to worry about. The war had already been on since 1939; with the U.S. involved now, surely it couldn’t continue for another two years, could it?

Missing (1955)

Duo lay on his face, not at all an unusual attitude for him. Unless someone had kindly left him in a sitting position or propped him up standing, on his back or on his face remained his only options when people unfamiliar with his ability to move were around. He’d grown accustomed to it. He did rather wish the carpet were thicker, as it might have provided some muffling effect for the incredibly boring conversation that was all he could hear at the moment. This Saturday apparently blazed enticingly, but not too oppressively, as many weekends had all autumn, drawing his kid outside without him to play, leaving him to listen to the father and the uncle talking dullness as usual. Duo had grown accustomed to that too, but on this particular day he longed for something more interesting, or at least that they would turn on the radio. He doubted he would be in any luck with either wish.

Today was Trowa’s birthday, and Duo had — rather unwillingly — developed a tradition over the last couple of decades of dwelling pretty obsessively on his old friend throughout this day (whenever he happened to be aware of the date), and sometimes on the days surrounding it. It couldn’t be healthy, and certainly wasn’t cheerful, but he had no choice. Unless something massive arose to distract him — and that conversation in the armchairs over there definitely didn’t qualify — no thought he could come up with, no memories even from such an unusual life as he’d lived, could engross him the way these thoughts of Trowa did on this day every year.

“If only we could count on someone other than that silly gal over at Hopkins’ for the flyers,” the uncle was complaining. Women weren’t the only targets of his rudeness, but they were the most common.

What, Duo wondered, did Trowa look like nowadays? Thirty to forty years ago, Trowa had embraced the aggressively slicked-back style that had been so popular in men’s hair at that time, using first petroleum and then (when he’d been better able to afford it) that disgusting Brilliantine stuff to create a shiny, plastered-down impression… but that trend had, thankfully, evolved into something slightly less awful, so Trowa must be sporting a different look.

“Well,” said the father, his voice thick with the same disapproval his brother-in-law had expressed, “she seems to be the only one around here who knows the trick of getting magical text onto a mundane printing.”

For his part, Duo had always resisted any style that threatened his braid, regardless of how fashionable or unfashionable he subsequently appeared, and had especially resisted the trend of putting slimy stuff into his luxurious hair. It was vanity, of course, every bit as much as Trowa’s careful parting and fad-conforming oiliness… but he knew Trowa had loved his braid too. That, he thought, had been a secret part of why he’d been so unwilling to relinquish it. He’d made the occasional joke that he wore it to give the ladies some alternative to the helmet-hair, but in reality it had been to some extent to please Trowa. And he also believed it had been Trowa’s strong preference for his braid that had allowed it to remain the same even in doll form — just another cruel little trick of the spell, really.

“If there were anyone else… If only one of us could do it… You can’t trust a woman to understand how important this is, or anything having to do with politics.” This sort of talk consistently prevented Duo from revealing himself to these guys.

Of course these days — today, in fact — Trowa would be 57 years old. How much hair would he have left? It must be all grey by now in any case. It distressed Duo, to an extent that surprised him and struck him as more than a little absurd, that he didn’t know what pattern Trowa might have gone bald in. And what kind of wrinkles did he have? Had his eyesight deteriorated — did he need glasses? How about his teeth? These were all ridiculously mundane considerations, but every once in a while Duo wondered about them with a fervor to match his own desire to be human again.

“She’ll just have to have very specific instructions on how we want them to look. If everything is laid out for her in simple language, she should be able to manage it. And Hopkins himself will take care of the physical printing, so we won’t have to worry about that part.”

And what was Trowa likely to be up to now? Had he stayed at that same factory, perhaps been promoted even higher, and made more and more money over the years? Duo could picture him as the overseer of multiple facilities, raking in the dough, respected and sought after by everyone.

“Do you think we should be concentrating more on the mundane voters?” In this the uncle didn’t truly ask his in-law for advice or even opinion; he merely sought agreement with what he already believed and intended.

But perhaps Trowa had moved on, left Raberba Manufacturing behind, and gotten into something new. He’d been so good at so many things, there seemed endless possibilities as to what profession he might have entered. He’d always been quietly, admirably dedicated to helping others — especially homeless waifs such as he’d once been — but, interestingly enough, it had always seemed to come from a sense of responsibility rather than kindness: where he had the capacity to help, he felt it his duty to do so. Maybe he’d gotten involved in something like that. There would probably be far less money in it than in the by-now-booming plastics industry, but it might fit better with his ideas of rightness.

“No, let his staff handle that side of things. That’s what they’re paid for. And his platform is solid enough.”

Had Trowa, Duo wondered with a faint mental sense somewhat similar to the old one of bodily illness, ever married? He could easily have grandchildren by now if he had. He’d always seemed to like women well enough… maybe, with Duo out of the way, he’d married the one — what had her name been? — that had come between them so long ago. Maybe he’d bought her all sorts of nice things, wooed her properly, and made a home for them both with his vast amounts of money. Or maybe he’d left that city, left her behind, and eventually met someone else. Duo couldn’t imagine someone as clever and right-thinking and handsome (even with the slicked-down hair) as Trowa remaining single for long.

“‘Solid?'” the uncle echoed. Pompously he declared, “Elmo R. Beard is gonna accomplish more than any mayor we’ve ever had.”

Or had Trowa, perhaps, turned out to be attracted to men just as Duo had? That was almost more painful to think about than the idea of his making a happy domestic life with some woman Duo had never met, because it would mean there might have been a chance for them if things had been different. It had taken Duo twenty years to realize he loved Trowa, but he would probably never know whether Trowa, for all he’d loved Duo’s braid, had ever loved Duo. Even if he had, he’d surely recovered, moved on to something else Duo didn’t want to think about. Duo hadn’t recovered yet, but that was hardly a surprise in his unchanging life. By now, however, all such old feelings that partook of his previous frame of reference were more or less mummified, and he supposed he would recover eventually.

“Absolutely,” the father agreed. “And if we can just get the magical community on our side, though it may not be enough to tip the vote, we’ll have a strong grassroots campaign.”

So what, if Trowa either had never loved him like that or had long since recovered from that love, did Trowa think of him these days? Duo couldn’t guess, especially as it depended largely on what had been going through Trowa’s head at the time of the spell’s casting. Duo had long ago convinced himself that, whatever Trowa had intended to happen when he’d muttered those words, this — this long, miserable, helpless existence as a piece of plastic without most human sensation and with no human opportunity — hadn’t been it. Trowa might have been annoyed — even truly angry — but a wide gulf stood between that emotional state and the willingness to commit an atrocity like this. Even a temporary transformation used as a sort of threat or punishment was something Duo considered beyond Trowa’s willingness and moral pale. And if this whole doll thing, this ruination of Duo’s life, had been in part or in whole an accident, Trowa’s feelings about what he’d done must have been every bit as wretched as Duo’s feelings about having it done to him. And what would those feelings have turned into after three decades?

“If only we could count on those flyers looking any damn good,” the uncle grumbled.

Trowa might have been horrified at first, and possibly even downright frantic to rescind what he’d done to Duo, determined to fix things. But as the years passed and they never met again, how would his feelings have transformed? Would he have come to accept the futility of seeking a twelve-inch child’s plaything in a huge country, come to terms with what he’d done, and moved on? Would he now think of Duo only occasionally, and with regret, yes, but only as a forlorn memory of a mistake he’d once made and couldn’t take back? Or would he have held onto the guilt and horror and allowed it to make him miserable in the long-term, warping his entire future, twisting his attitudes and outlook until no happiness remained for him? In that case, he probably thought of Duo as little as possible, and felt only bitterness and despair when he did.

“Even if they don’t look any good,” said the father reassuringly, “if they’ve only got the things he’s promised on them, they’ll be convincing enough.”

Of course, there was always the possibility Trowa had remained angry at him. Trowa had never been the type to blame someone else for his own actions, to dodge responsibility, but it had been Duo’s bad behavior that had led to the situation in which he’d cast whatever that spell had been. Duo had betrayed their friendship by horning in on that woman — what was her name? — and then goaded Trowa into a frame of mind so angry he’d gotten careless with his magic. It wasn’t actually Duo’s fault, of course — Trowa had made his choice, even if it had been a bad one — but Trowa might still bear a grudge against the friend whose aggravating actions had brought them to a point where that choice could ruin one or perhaps both of their lives. Trowa wouldn’t know just how much Duo had suffered, and might look back with some ire in his heart.

“Folks’ll have to see how important it is to elect Beard when they realize he’s got a complete magical overhaul of the railroad infrastructure lined up for once he’s in office. That’s gonna make Beaumont the most successful freight point in the state. If they’re not all the damn fools I think they are most of the time, they’ll have to vote right.”

And maybe… just maybe… Trowa not only had loved Duo, but still loved him to this day. He’d always been reserved about certain things, and it didn’t seem impossible for him to have been incubating the same affection Duo had, maybe even with the same level of obliviousness to his own feelings. Had he recognized them decades later, just as Duo had? Was he out there somewhere now, lonely and heartbroken, unable to move on, just as Duo was? This possibility topped all others in the anguish it produced — worse than Trowa avoiding thoughts of him, worse than Trowa’s anger, perhaps even worse than the idea of Trowa being dead. If he’d had tear ducts, Duo would have wept. Why did he have to go through this year after year? Why must he always be wondering and never satisfied on this point?

“They are damn fools. But we’ll bring ’em ’round. You’ll see.”

There were ways he could have attempted to seek answers. Sometimes, he knew, he let his own helplessness engulf him, and took less action than perhaps he should have. Those two men whose terminally dull conversation he couldn’t help overhearing, for instance, were magically gifted, and might believe him if he told them his story. But what good would that do? Even if they accepted every word, would they be willing to offer him any assistance? He had no good impression of their level of kindness in the first place, and even a much nicer person might hesitate to get involved in a situation like this. Then, supposing they were willing, what could they actually do? Drop everything, drive him to a place twenty hours north of here, and start a dubious search for some fellow that had lived there thirty years before?

Even if Trowa remained in the same city — hell, in the same state — what were the chances of finding him? How would Duo go about looking — just ask around? Trowa had meant the world to him, but never all that much to the world. Who was likely to remember him? No, no, it was pointless even thinking about it. Might as well give up the idea forever, and simply keep lying here on his face.

Peace and Long Life (1966)

For all he complained, there were times he preferred not being able to feel anything. The mere awareness that Trudy’s mouth was significantly more slobbery than Bibble’s (though Bibble was no slacker in that area herself) disgusted him at least mentally… if he’d had to feel his entire body getting gradually coated with dog slime, it might have been too much for his sanity. He liked canines — he really did — and didn’t much like felines, but in such instances thought he would prefer a cat’s paw batting at him, the way they sometimes did, for all it tangled his hair and damaged his clothing, to a dog’s teeth and tongue and overactive salivary glands.

And now the two dachshunds had started a tug-of-war with Duo’s body as the rope, and he sighed loudly. He could call for help, but Anne probably wouldn’t hear his quiet voice from the kitchen over the snarling and the living room cuckoo clock striking eight. He would need to wait until the dogs got bored and put him down — which in some instances took an anomalously long time. What he would most like was for Janice, if she must abandon him at her grandmother’s house when she went home for the evening, at least to leave him on one of the doilied end tables or somewhere else higher up out of the dogs’ reach… but what were little girls made of if not carelessness?

And he honestly didn’t mind being left at Anne’s house. Though Trudy and Bibble ran amok time after time, fighting over him, carrying him around, and chewing and slobbering on him for hours on end if not checked, this place wasn’t nearly the menagerie some homes he’d lived in had been. At least there were only two fat dogs, and no cats, rodents, or — he shuddered mentally — horses to put up with.

“Trudy! Bibble!” Even Anne’s stern voice was exceptionally grandmotherly, and her pets often disregarded it. They couldn’t disregard her hand — quicker and stronger than her tone, and all pruny with soapy water — reaching in to break up their private little war and seize Duo with no concerns about how much saliva he might be wearing. “Bad girls! Leave the poor doll alone!” The dogs made small circles at her feet, sometimes rising up onto hind legs to protest the removal of their toy, but Anne had none of it. She turned smartly and headed back into the kitchen, saying to Duo, “Let’s get you cleaned up, my friend.”

“It isn’t every day the beautiful maiden rescues the handsome prince,” Duo replied in an overdone tone of grateful appreciation.

Anne chuckled. “It isn’t every day someone calls me a beautiful maiden!”

“Anne by any other name would still be a beautiful maiden,” was Duo’s gallant answer.

Again she laughed. “I’m afraid that makes no sense.”

Duo thought through his words and admitted, “I’m afraid you’re right.” He clicked the tongue he didn’t have. “Beautiful and intelligent!”

As she set aside the dishes she’d evidently been working on when she’d heard growling in the other room and come to investigate, she rolled her eyes… but Duo knew she enjoyed the flirtation. She’d lost her husband, he understood, some years back — before he’d met her — and appreciated the attentions even of a toy whose reality as a person she rather doubted. And of course Duo appreciated the opportunity to connect with another adult, even one whose belief in his reality as a person left something to be desired.

For the first time in his plastic life, Duo had professionally tailored clothing, thanks to the recent release onto the market of a doll approximately his size whose fashions he could appropriate. Of course the striped sweater and white pants he currently wore were more or less hideous, even without the dog slobber, but it was a delightful novelty to have store-bought clothing at all. And now Anne finished up her errand of mercy by stripping him down and putting both doll and clothing into the kitchen sink where an endeavor of cleanliness had already been going on. He wished he could discern the apple scent of the dishwashing liquid she used to bathe him, but was relieved at the improvement of his circumstances in any case.

“You do love to get me naked, don’t you?” he couldn’t help remarking, his voice more muffled than usual by the water running over him.

“And you do love to make terribly inappropriate comments at an old woman,” Anne replied, again in that would-be-stern tone that fooled nobody.

The naked time wasn’t destined to end particularly soon, since, though Duo’s plastic form (if not his hair) could be dried off pretty easily, his outfit needed longer; so, nude and relatively happy, he sat on the counter beside the little shirt and trousers laid out on the towel beside him and watched Anne return to the dishes that had been interrupted by Duo and the dogs.

Anne was a bit of an enigma in her mundane domesticity. Her years of life numbered slightly fewer than Duo’s — by eighteen or so — but she seemed, somehow, to have a far greater amount of placidity in her later decades than Duo did. And perhaps that was merely because she’d actually been able to live for all that time, to have a happy marriage and children and all the feelings and experiences of a normal person rather than being trapped in sensationless and unchanging plastic. But perhaps it was something else as well.

For Duo, sometimes the deadly years crawled tortuously along so he thought he must go crazy before he met many more of them; while at other times, tomorrow was yesterday so quickly it left him reeling and breathless — purely in a psychological sense, of course. He didn’t know which he preferred. Swift chronological progress meant nothing to someone that didn’t change and couldn’t change anything, but there were definitely some unpleasant happenings he would prefer to get through quickly rather than slowly. And outside, independent of how rapidly Duo’s life was or wasn’t moving, the world underwent its own metamorphosis such as he had never seen before — and, indeed, only imperfectly saw now through the media of television and gossip.

Instead of struggling valiantly to support the war effort with every last beat of their patriotic hearts as he’d watched them do thirty years before, people avidly protested that there was a war on at all. Popular music, apparently, was becoming increasingly sexualized and raucous, and was enjoyed in shameless defiance of a disapproving older generation. The oppressed and ignored were rising up and demanding rights and recognition that had long been denied them, willing to flout authority in pursuit of this end. And in many cases, it seemed, the children were leading these undertakings as adolescents and young adults gained a greater voice as discrete peoples.

Even Christine, Anne’s daughter, though she’d been adolescent herself in the 40’s and might have been expected to exhibit the habits of that era, never wore dresses these days and single-handedly supported little Janice, who subsequently stayed at her grandmother’s house in the afternoons and evenings until her mother came to pick her up after work. Sometimes Janice even stayed until morning, and was then driven to school by or else enjoyed a leisurely Saturday with Anne, in order to give Christine freedom to have overnight guests in that man trap of an apartment of hers.

Duo wasn’t certain how he felt about all these new ideas. Sure, he’d engaged in extramarital sex himself back when he’d been capable of it, but only ever with one person at a time — and he certainly hadn’t needed to temporarily relocate a naive eight-year-old in order to do it! He also wasn’t sure how Anne could be so tranquil, could give hardly the wink of an eye to a way of life so very different from what she’d grown up with — nor why he seemed to be experiencing such dissonance in observing it. Were those eighteen years between them really enough to make him so much less accepting than she was? Or else why couldn’t he feel the same peace she did?

He decided, as he watched his latest child’s grandmother placidly finishing up the dishes and then moving on to a barely-necessary more generalized kitchen cleanup, that what he truly wanted was a piece of the action. He wanted to be out there in the midst of the change instead of just faintly hearing about it from afar. He didn’t know how he felt about these new ideas of sexual freedom, but he would like to try them. He had lived through three wars and seen what they did to individuals and society, and would like to protest this latest. He was probably a gay man, and would like to say it proudly to anyone and everyone once he got that sorted. And others fighting for liberation — women and colored folk and so on — surely deserved a chance too! He would march in anyone’s parade that sought better conditions for honest, worthy people. He might even like to hear some of that ‘rock and roll’ music that had been gaining so much traction over the last ten or fifteen years.

But he couldn’t have sex. He couldn’t protest; he couldn’t fight; he couldn’t march. And he had no choice about what he did or didn’t listen to. In the end, his discontentment — and his discontentment with Anne’s contentment — found its basis not in disapproval, nor some supposed moral high ground, nor trepidation about where this new era would lead society… in fact it boiled down to the exact same thing it always did: he hated being a doll. Yes, in some ways he and Anne were similar — both aging products of a previous era watching the world evolve in front of them but taking very little part in it — but in one fundamental way they were very, very different.

She could, if she wished, get involved, but was satisfied not to. He could not, even if he wished, get involved, and was beyond dissatisfied. She was comfortable, after having lived a fulfilling life, to retire to her own happy private world of spoiling her pets and her granddaughter and obsessively scrubbing everything. He would prefer, after having his life put on hold for so long, to dive right off the side of paradise into the uncertain waters of societal progress and see where they took him.

But instead he was played with by children, stored away like the object he was, dropped, forgotten, and fought over by dogs. And what, for him, could possibly be the alternative? Factor in his near-complete immobility, his diminutive frame, and the quietness of his voice, and the chances of his ever being involved in the world, having what could be called an adult life, seemed depressingly minuscule.

Of course there was the dim possibility of his condition being reversed, of whatever spell Trowa had laid on him being broken… but by the time such a distant and unlikely event took place, would that which survived his long years as a doll be worth anything? All his yesterdays were slowly adding up to a tomorrow he didn’t necessarily want to return to. What would he be when no longer a doll? Could he make a new life in this new civilization he was watching grow up around him?

“Finished!” Anne gave the kitchen a long, critical look. Despite her owning two dogs, dirt remained above all things the enemy within this house, and she spent more time cleaning than anyone Duo had ever met. Now, however, the spotless kitchen (which to the doll appeared very little different than when he’d been in here earlier with Janice) evidently met her satisfaction, and she was able to hang up her apron for the nonce. Then she returned to where Duo sat on the counter and smiled down at him. “Fancy some television?”

“Yes, please!” The thought actually significantly cheered him, as television, ever since its invention, had proven an excellent distraction and a window into a wider world he wasn’t otherwise allowed to see much of — the best stand-in for actual involvement he was likely to get. He winked at Anne as he added, “If you don’t mind me sitting beside you in my elegant birthday suit, that is.”

“You’re a rogue,” she replied, picking him up. “But, yes, I think we’ll leave your clothes drying a little longer.” And she turned each piece over so as to air their opposite sides.

Since Friday’s child-care would probably run overnight — Duo had heard Christine making arrangements with a couple of her lovers, and therefore assumed Janice would begin the weekend here at Anne’s — he needed to take advantage of this Thursday evening to make all the borderline-risqué comments he could. “I think you just want an excuse to keep my manly figure uncovered as long as possible.”

“Shameless!” Anne laughed. “You may not say anything more like that during the program. It’s a new science fiction series my friend recommended to me, and I want to pay attention.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo allowed. “I’ll just pine in silence.”

Still chuckling, complacent as usual, Anne carried him into the darkness of the next room and lit it up by switching on the television set. And Duo supposed that, whatever changes the future held — in the world and in his own long life — and whatever frustrating inability he had to endure before he reached the unknown, he could probably face it all well enough with a peaceful example like this in mind.

Annunciation (1976)

In good news, the jar, though smeared with little fingerprints and dusted with dirt, remained clear glass and had had its label removed, and was therefore more or less transparent. In bad news, it had rolled such that Duo, inside it down to his thighs, faced the ground and still couldn’t see anything around him. He could probably heft himself over so as at least to be able to look at the sky for some minimal entertainment while alone, but only if he could be sure he was alone — and of course, lying on his face like this, he couldn’t be.

How much he actually needed that surety, however, he didn’t know; he’d been wondering lately whether it wasn’t about time to start talking to Rosa. If that time had come, manipulating himself onto his back with a stiff arm and leg wouldn’t be any worse a preface to their first conversation than anything else. But revealing that he could (to a certain extent) move under his own power would force the first conversation whether or not the time had come if Rosa happened to be around. Besides, Maria might be nearby as well — this was the exact problem with lying on his face — and Duo knew very well he didn’t want to speak to the superstitious Maria today or possibly any day.

Rosa, though, was a smart kid. Much smarter than her eight years might suggest, and too smart, if what Duo overheard on a regular basis inside the house was any indication, for her teachers to have any idea what to do with. But what baffled the public school system might win Duo a friend and ally. It would be so nice to have someone to talk to, someone to understand his situation again.

What he referred to in his head as ‘first contact’ had a certain ritual about it — a pattern of events that played out with a significant amount of similarity every time and thus that he’d come to regard almost as something he chose to have happen rather than something that merely naturally did. He would start by trying not to be a smart aleck, by saying something reasonable and not too dramatic to announce himself and his abilities. And then the response tended to fall into one of a few predictable categories.

There were the scared kids, of whom the subcategories were the ones Duo had to work on over multiple sessions before their fear would fade, and the ones that gave in to the cool factor much quicker. There were the canny kids that thought at first some friend or family member must be playing a trick on them; and their subcategories were the ones that maintained a dubious demeanor for a while in order to deny plausibly that they’d ever believed in him just in case they turned out to be right, and the ones that secretly wanted to believe and therefore dropped the pretense of skepticism fairly soon. And there were the kids that simply accepted from the beginning with little to no persuasion, whose subcategories were calmness, enthusiasm, and weirder enthusiasm. Perhaps this made for a decently large number of reaction possibilities, but Duo had seen them all multiple times, and he could usually guess, after getting to know a kid for a while, how that kid would behave when the revelation came.

Rosa, he thought, would be either the calmly accepting or the enthusiastic type. She would ask intelligent questions to comprehend the situation, and, once she understood, would assimilate the information into her life and get on with things. Then she and Duo could have conversations on a regular basis that would make existence a little less tedious, and future games could be enriched by two-sided dialogue.

That was all assuming Maria didn’t find out. Duo believed he could predict her reaction too, and it wouldn’t be nearly so measured and rational as Rosa’s: she would gasp and go as pale as her complexion allowed and cross herself and whisper something about the devil and pull Rosa away and probably call a priest to come confiscate the possessed toy. She might even insist the family pack up and move. He couldn’t be sure just how far she would take it, but he knew what, in general, she would do. Nope, definitely not planning to talk to Maria.

So he lay on his face continuing to consider whether it was time or not and listening for sounds of Rosa’s return from inside the house. Rosa and her mother often ate lunch outside, but today Duo had gotten the feeling — from their conversation as they went in, of course, not from any ability to detect the fact on his own — that it was a little cool out. Of course, in Arizona, ‘a little cool out’ probably still meant ‘warmer than anything but summer where Duo had lived back when he’d had the ability to discern temperatures.’ Be that as it might, Rosa and Maria were inside eating lunch, and Duo abandoned outside alone (he thought) in his spaceship.

Rosa had been learning about astronomy lately, and had developed a sudden burning passion for exploration of the cosmos. Thus Duo had transitioned abruptly from the previous, somewhat nebulous occupation of ‘hero’ that had kept him busy for the last few months to that of astronaut. The empty pickle jar was the latest in a series of experimental spaceships, and not, he thought, the most successful: though Maria had promised Rosa she could use construction paper to decorate it up like a real shuttle, it remained too short for Duo’s entire body and therefore faulty for the purpose.

Motion caught Duo’s eye, and he honestly didn’t want to know what it was. The only things he could possibly see from his current position were likely to fall under at least one of the headings ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly,’ and, despite being unable to feel the pitter-patter of tiny feet across his plastic body, he nevertheless deplored the awareness of its presence. Curiosity, however, got the better of distaste and compelled him to look down as best he could. His head didn’t swivel far in that direction, but it was far enough to disclose the blackish-brown figure of a small scorpion squeezing its way between Duo and the concave glass on which he lay.

With a severe mental shudder, Duo wondered why on earth the little creature wanted to be there, of all places. Had the sun through the bottle glass created a warm haven against the cool day? In any case, lying here spooning a scorpion ranked quite low on his list of favorite activities. He weighed the value of waving all his limbs (in an attempt to get the thing to flee) against the possibility that Rosa or her mother could come out of the house at any time without making enough noise to herald their approach.

This had been a fortunate consideration, for, before he’d come to any actual decision, he picked up footsteps and voices — Rosa’s and Maria’s — closer than he would have thought they could get without his noticing them. But he was on a space mission, and, as Rosa had carefully informed her parents just the other day, sound didn’t carry through space. Revealing himself at the moment was out of the question.

Or was it? The entire situation shifted as Duo realized what his two caretakers had come to do. Maria remarked, evidently upon catching sight of Duo’s bottle, “I think it will work great. We’ll tape the pot onto it, and it’ll be a perfect space shuttle.” And then smaller running steps, excited, hurried toward where Duo lay.

The doll had barely a second to plan his actions. He hadn’t considered the scorpion in the jar anything beyond an annoyance and discomfort he would have to deal with for a little while. But now it threatened to be far more than that to more than only him.

He’d been sure all along that Maria’s fear of the devil (which encompassed fear of anything she deemed supernatural, though Duo didn’t think she’d ever encountered anything truly magical besides himself) would make her the type of parent that would throw him away or take him to Goodwill the moment she became aware he could talk. No matter how rationally her daughter might explain that the doll was a friend and not evil, her daughter was, after all, only eight years old. Duo could in no way talk to Maria and hope to retain his place in this home. And he liked this home.

But a scorpion sting could kill a kid that small.

Without hesitation, at what, for lack of a better term, he must call the top of his lungs, Duo shouted, “Don’t touch the bottle! There’s a scorpion inside!”

All noise ceased, and Duo could not make out what happened next. No hand seemed to be reaching in for him; had he succeeded in delivering the message? He couldn’t take any chances. So again he cried, as loudly as possible, “Don’t touch the bottle! Scorpion!”

He thought he heard Maria gasp a broken prayer, and shuffling footsteps that might have been scrambling backward. Underneath him, Duo believed the scorpion stirred a bit, though certainty eluded him when he couldn’t feel the creature and wasn’t looking that direction. Then Maria’s voice sounded more surely: “No, you stay back there. Don’t go close to it. Let me…” And something clinked loudly against the side of the jar, which rocked a bit into a ponderous roll.

The sluggish movement couldn’t flip Duo over, only slid him along the bottom, but it was enough to vex the scorpion and send it outside; Duo knew this mostly by the little shrieks both Maria and Rosa gave. Then there were more quick footsteps and a crunching thud that probably heralded the end of the arachnid that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Duo couldn’t help thinking, Good riddance.

Continual crunching (somewhat disturbing to listen to no matter what Duo thought about scorpions) signified, he guessed, a large stone being shifted back and forth on top of the creature. Just as Duo had felt a minute before, Maria obviously didn’t want to take any chances. Then silence fell once again, nearly — this time marred by Maria’s heavy but unsteady breaths as if she were on the verge of sobbing. But she managed with relative evenness to ask, “Is it safe now?”

“Yeah…” Duo replied resignedly. If he’d already destroyed his future here by talking in front of Maria, he might as well finish the job. “There was only the one.”

Maria snatched up the jar and drew Duo out of it, her eyes moving manically back and forth between the two objects. Behind her stood Rosa, looking not so much afraid as curious. It really was time.

Except then Maria closed her eyes and whispered, “Dear Lord, thank you for saving my girl. Thank you for your voice of warning. Thank you.” Tears began to run down her face, at first in little rivulets but soon in torrents, as she repeated the grateful prayer a few times more. The third time, she referred to the preceding events as a miracle.

So now Duo definitely didn’t know what to say.

Maria calmed somewhat at last, stopped praying, and crossed herself (more or less) with the hand holding the jar. It probably would have looked absurd even to someone that was religiously inclined. “Rosa,” she said, turning to face her daughter, “I want you to remember that you’ve heard the voice of God. He saved you from the scorpion, so I know He must have something great planned for you.”

There were about a hundred things Duo could have said at this point. Obviously Rosa was headed for something great, but because she was a genius, not because of the will of God. Unless, of course, she got accidentally turned into a doll at some point, in which case she was headed for something completely awful. That was the thing about God: if he existed, he sure as hell didn’t care whether or not innocent people suffered for fifty-three years. And when an innocent, suffering person that had just risked his comfort and future and possibly even safety for the sake of someone whose mother then attributed the gesture to that same unfeeling and probably nonexistent God, it represented yet another blow against everything fair and rational in the universe. But Duo, dumbstruck, couldn’t utter a word of this.

“That was God’s voice?” Rosa wondered, sounding impressed. “I thought God would talk Latin like at church.”

Maria’s religion had made Duo wary of introducing himself to her, because he’d believed she would assume he was some devil-possessed object — not practically the opposite! He’d never been mistaken for a divine channel before, and not only did it annoy him, it discomforted and dismayed him.

“God can speak every language,” Maria told her child. “And see how He can say exactly what you need to hear at just the right time?”

Whether Maria believed the Voice Of God had come from Duo or merely out of the jar, the doll had no real way to be sure, unless he happened to be in the room later when Maria recounted these events to her husband — and possibly not even then… but it made very little difference. Whichever she believed at the moment, the very instant Duo spoke aloud again in her hearing, she would be confirmed in the doll side of the theory. She would think God still talked through him, and would be disturbingly grateful to hear whatever he had to say.

Rosa was peering at the dead scorpion now, intrigued. “Can I take it to school?”

But Duo wouldn’t have anything to say. The thought of impersonating a messenger from God would have been enough, even more than the scorpion, to make his skin crawl if he’d had skin. It didn’t matter much that he didn’t believe in God and, in fact, felt rather bitter anyone else still could. It would fill him with an entirely different bitterness to stage such a deception. And what would he say, anyway? “Be nice to all talking dolls from now on; thus saith the Lord!”

“No, love,” Maria replied. She’d barely looked away from the doll in her hand to see what Rosa was referring to. “We’ll get daddy to throw it away when he gets home. Don’t get too close to it.”

Of course there might be a backtracking option: to explain to Rosa privately that her mother had been mistaken, that he was merely an enchanted human rather than a divine vessel (he would avoid using the term ‘curse’ that he’d been revolving in his head for a number of years now)… but aside from doubting he could count on Rosa not to share whatever he said with Maria even if he requested silence, he didn’t think he could face doling out that kind of disillusionment.

“Can we go fix the spaceship now?” Rosa asked.

Maria hesitated. She was still staring in awe at Duo, and the degree to which she ignored the jar in her other hand seemed to indicate her belief that the holiness did not lie there. Duo guessed that, in spite of this, she worried about the potential sacrilege of fashioning a play spaceship out of it after the events of the day. Perhaps she hoped the godly mouthpiece would put in an opinion on the matter. Too bad the godly mouth was defiantly, disgustedly, permanently shut.

“Let’s… let’s go inside,” she said at last. “We’ll see.”

And so Duo was carried reverently into the house and an uncertain future with the depressing knowledge that he’d saved a brilliant little kid from a lot of trouble and possibly death by sacrificing any chance he had to make a friend of her… that by choosing to talk to Rosa and Maria once, he’d made it impossible ever to talk to them again. That he’d doomed himself to an even worse time in this home he hadn’t wanted to lose by valuing human life… something he didn’t even have.

The Irony of Not Actually Being a Liar (1984)

It had begun with Todd asking Duo several times if he was sure he couldn’t be damaged, to the point where Duo had felt it necessary to relate some of the experiences he’d had during the long years that would otherwise have meant some degree of destruction to a helpless plastic doll — including being run over on multiple occasions by motor vehicles, left on the floor of a Jacuzzi for half a week, and an encounter with an InSinkErator that the kid responsible had always (Duo believed falsely) claimed was an accident. Then Todd had gotten that conniving look and left the room, and Duo hadn’t had any idea what was in store until several days later.

Now Todd, three friends, and his younger sister Stacey, in whose six-year-old hands Duo currently rotated, had gathered in the Kelly family garage. Devoid of car while Lt. Kelly was at work, it left them plenty of free space, but Duo still had no idea what was in store. For one thing, the only light in the room came from the small windows across the top of the closed garage door, so he had an imperfect view of the setup to begin with; for another, Stacey rarely held him still so he could actually look at things — she constantly shifted him around into different positions, so at any given moment he might equally well be staring at the ruffles on the bottom of her shirt or the kitchen door behind her as what everyone had gathered for.

“Why don’t you turn on the light,” Ned complained.

“You’ll see!” Observing his friends weren’t buying this cryptic reply, Todd added, “It’ll look cooler in the dark when I get the fire lit.”

“You’re lighting a fire?” No surprise Sumit hadn’t been able to figure out what Todd was fumbling with.

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” said Rhonda gleefully.

Todd declared, “No, I’m not. Look, it’s in a can — a metal can’s not going to catch on fire — and I put it way out here in the middle where there’s nothing around it. It’s totally safe.”

They all crowded in, and Stacey’s hands remained stationary enough for several seconds that Duo could see the large coffee can, presumably filled with combustibles of some type, on top of a cinder block in the center of the otherwise empty expanse of concrete garage floor.

“Don’t stand so close, you guys!” Todd complained. “You’re making shadows and I can’t see the matches.” He still fumbled, and had yet to produce even a single spark.

“There’s going to be smoke, though,” Sumit protested, “even if nothing else catches on fire!”

Frustrated tone testament to his continual lack of luck with the matches, Todd said, “Oh, don’t be such a baby. There’s no smoke detector out here.”

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” Rhonda repeated.

Ned wondered, “How’d you hang this thing up?” He referred to, and poked at, the unidentifiable object — some type of roughly rectangular framework — that dangled mysteriously several inches above the coffee can and swung in response to his prodding finger.

“I climbed up on the rafters and tied it up there.” Todd sounded extremely proud of himself.

Stacey contributed to the conversation for the first time with, “Mom says you’re not supposed to climb up there.”

“I know, but don’t tell her, OK?”

Stacey remained silent. Her nervousness about the proceedings showed in her tight and now relatively unmoving grip on Duo. The doll didn’t blame her; he still hadn’t figured out what was going on, but doubted the ingenious Todd, in dragging his friends into a dark garage and breaking so many rules, could possibly have anything particularly edifying planned.

“Can’t the strings catch on fire?” Sumit was a bit of a worrier, which in this situation was probably for the best.

“They’re fishing line,” said Todd dismissively. “Even if the fire got that high, they’d just melt, not burn and catch anything else on fire.”

Scornfully Rhonda said, “You don’t know how to use those matches. Let me do it.”

“I can use them just fine!” Todd jerked away from her. “I just can’t see anything!”

“Let’s turn the light on for a minute,” Ned suggested. “Just ’til you get the matches lit.” And when Todd reluctantly agreed, he fumbled his own way to the nearby dangling string, with its attached ping-pong ball that tapped against the windshield when the car had pulled in far enough to avoid having the garage door close on its rear bumper, and clicked the space around them into visibility.

“All right,” Todd said, and set to work again. It soon became clear, though, that Rhonda’s suggestion had been pretty near the truth — either he didn’t know how to use matches or just hadn’t had enough experience with them to do so smoothly or practically. He kept bending them out of shape without successfully striking them across the back of the book.

Duo rather hoped Todd would continue to fail until he’d mangled all the matches beyond any usefulness. The doll believed this had something to do with him and his indestructibility; he’d recalled, by now, their conversation of last week, and linked it with this scene with a fair degree of certainty. That framework hanging from the rafters, which in the light he now identified as having been formed out of wire coat-hangers, looked very much like some sort of torture rack as it dangled above the proposed fire-pit.

Todd’s creativity and handiness usually didn’t take so malicious a bent, but Duo couldn’t think of anything else the device could be intended for. And though Todd’s friends would certainly be impressed by a doll that resisted melting or blackening while dangling over a fire — undoubtedly one of the reasons he’d put this little demonstration together — Stacey was just as certain to be agitated and frightened by the scene. And Duo was Stacey’s doll, not Todd’s, even if his revelation of intelligence had brought him closer to the ten-year-old than to the younger sibling that technically owned him.

A triumphant noise issued from Todd’s throat as the latest match burst into flame and, not dropped in startlement like the previous, stayed there. Then his movements were perhaps a little jerky with haste as he hurried to light whatever filled the coffee can before the match could go out. Quickly he withdrew his hand, and there followed abruptly an up-springing of fire that seemed to give him a great deal of satisfaction.

“OK, Stace,” he said, turning to his sister and holding out his hand, “gimme Duo.”

Duo doubted Stacey had seen this coming, but that didn’t make her emphatic negative response less immediate. She took a step back, clutching at her doll now with both hands and vigorously shaking her head.

“Come on,” Todd wheedled. “You said you wanted to see the movie… I’m going to show you the best part!”

“He’ll get hurt!” Stacey looked back and forth from her brother to the fire in the coffee can with wide eyes.

“No, he won’t, I promise.”

Here Sumit put in with some concern, “But his clothes and hair–”

“He won’t get burned!” Todd interrupted impatiently. “Besides, your parents won’t let you see it either.”

Reluctantly Sumit had to admit the truth in this.

Rhonda had caught the interest of the scene — either that or she wanted the pleasure of tattling on Todd once he’d destroyed his sister’s toy — and now brought her own influence to bear. “Come on, Stacey, it’ll be fun!”

“I know what part he wants to do,” was Ned’s contribution, “and it really is the best part. Maybe this is the only way you’ll ever get to see it!”

Todd held out his hand again. “Come on, Stacey!”

The combination of legitimate curiosity with peer pressure (which she probably knew would become browbeating after not too long) forced the six-year-old to give in, and, though her motion in handing Duo over remained reluctant, she finally complied with the wishes of the group. Duo, as he so often did, restrained a sigh when he found himself looking up at Todd’s eager face; this couldn’t end well. In better news, the process of convincing Stacey and the subsequent preparation was taking so long that the fire might well have completely died out by the time the main event got started.

Todd began stripping off Duo’s clothing — which, having originally been designed for 1970’s Ken, Duo did not regret, but didn’t envisage being replaced by anything nicer anytime soon — while the other kids crowded around to see what he was doing. Of course as soon as the pants were removed, Rhonda started giggling uncontrollably, which made the boys laugh as well, but Todd stuck to his purpose: he’d withdrawn from his pocket what appeared to be the excised toe-end of a sock punctured twice so as to accommodate the legs of an unsuspecting doll. This makeshift undergarment, upon application, proved too big, but Todd had anticipated this, and fastened it in place with a rubber band cinching it close around Duo’s waist.

“He looks like he’s wearing a diaper,” said Rhonda, still giggling despite the hilarious penis having been covered up. Ned, also with a bit of residual laughter, agreed with her.

“You guys have anything to make a real loincloth for a doll out of?” Todd retorted. “I couldn’t leave him in that stuff, could I?” And he pointed disdainfully at the imitation-corduroy pants and striped red shirt he’d thrown to the floor, which, at his gesture, Stacey now snatched protectively up. Then, turning toward the coffee can and hanging wires, he said, “Now I just have to get him into the thing.”

This turned out easier said than done, as Todd planned to tie Duo’s arms and legs down with more fishing line, which proved absolutely impossible (without an additional hand or four) while holding the framework away from the fire and Duo motionless at the same time. Eventually he had to accept assistance from Ned and Rhonda, and the task went on far longer (and with a lot more arguing) than probably any of them had anticipated. Sumit stood on tiptoe trying to watch in evident agitation, Stacey was obviously bored despite her equal concern, and Duo might have been increasingly sanguine about the diminution of the fire if he hadn’t been directly facing it the entire time. Whatever Todd had put into that coffee can, it hadn’t yet stopped its steady burn even after all this nonsense. It looked like this torture ceremony really must happen, then. Duo could only hope Stacey wouldn’t be too traumatized; perhaps the boredom and impatience would act as a sort of buffer.

“OK, OK,” said Todd at last as Duo fell into place above the crackling flames and swung slightly before the boy steadied him. “Now you guys stand over here–” he gestured– “and I’ll do the ceremony.”

“There should only be three of us,” protested Ned.

“I don’t want to be the girl,” Rhonda complained at the same time. “I don’t like her!”

Also simultaneously Stacey, all fear for Duo’s safety abruptly renewed, squeaked, “What are you going to do to him?”

Todd addressed multiple concerns at once. “Stacey, you stand next to me — you’re one of the coltists, and I’m the high priest — and the rest of you guys stand over there. It doesn’t matter who’s who, because you just have to watch and pretend like you’re hiding.”

“But the girl didn’t watch.” Rhonda stood her ground. “She was too scared, remember? So we have to decide who’s the girl, because that person can’t watch, and I don’t want it to be me.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “But you have to be her. One of us can’t be her!”

At the same moment Sumit asked, “What’s happening? What are we doing?”

“We can just pretend the girl did watch,” Todd said in a loud and dictatorial tone, “and then it doesn’t matter who’s the girl because you can all watch. Sumit…” Though clearly impatient to get on with his big scene, he also took pity on those in the dark as to plotline, for he next gave a summary (which would have been brief if not for the helpful interjections of Rhonda and Ned) of the events that had brought the characters represented here to the scenario about to take place.

To this Duo, who hadn’t been to the movie and probably never would, paid little attention (though admittedly he was starting to understand why the Kelly parents weren’t allowing their younger child to see it). He watched Stacey’s pinched-up, worried little face with growing concern — not that he could do anything to help — and hoped she wouldn’t cry herself to sleep tonight and then wake screaming from bad dreams her parents would be at a loss to comprehend.

Finally — and, as far as Duo could tell, the fire had actually only gotten higher in its metal container — it was time. Stacey could not be convinced to chant or drum on anything or even stamp her feet, so Todd gave up on her participation entirely and turned toward Duo in his framework with a portentous expression; actually he looked somewhat constipated. As Todd began mumbling nonsense words (under his breath so as to hide the fact that they were random and unscripted) and stroking the doll’s face on both sides with one finger, Duo noticed they’d neglected to turn the light back off.

Todd’s incoherence rose in pitch and comprehensibility as he shouted, so abruptly it made most of the others jump, “Kali maa!” He lifted one hand toward the ceiling and repeated the phrase several times, his volume increasing with each instance.

The effect was entirely spoiled, however, when Ned cried out accusingly, in response to some movement of Todd’s other hand, “He didn’t use a knife!”

Todd turned an annoyed face toward Ned. “I can’t really stick my hand inside him, can I?”

“You can’t cut Duo!” Stacey shrieked, and now Duo could see the Swiss army knife Todd had pulled from his pocket.

“It won’t really hurt him,” Todd told her in a low, firm tone, seemingly far more concerned with being allowed to continue his act as high priest than actually comforting Stacey.

Sumit, confused and unhelpful, put in at this point, “I don’t think Kali would really–”

“Kali maa!” Todd roared by way of override, jerking the knife’s biggest blade out and raising the weapon threateningly.

“He didn’t say it that loud,” Ned muttered.

Abruptly Todd stabbed at Duo’s chest, repeating the dramatic phrase yet again at top volume. And once more the effect was ruined, since the gesture only set the framework swinging wildly, the contact between sharp metal and imperturbable plastic far too brief to amaze Todd’s friends and reassure his sister as to Duo’s indestructibility. With a frustrated sound Todd caught and stilled the wire with his left hand, holding it solidly in place as he took aim with his right, again made his meaningless declaration that seemed to have Sumit so perplexed, and gave Duo’s chest another, more solid jab.

This time the effect was not so much spoiled as augmented, since the knife glanced off plastic pectorals, slid to the side, and, as far as Duo could tell without turning his head, drove right into the hand holding the framework still. Todd’s latest “Kali maa!” broke off in a sort of surprised croak, and he dropped the knife with a clatter and drew back a suddenly bleeding hand to stare at in bewilderment and shock. The garage was overtaken, but for the crackling of the fire, by complete silence.

Then Stacey started to scream.

Pandemonium, complete with stomping feet, shrieking from some voices and ever-louder suggestions and comments from others, rapidly ensued. With everyone crowding so tightly, Duo was surprised he wasn’t torn down or the coffee can knocked over. He supposed the heat of the fire kept them at a safe distance.

Though weak-voiced and in some evident shock, Todd regained his presence of mind quicker than Duo would have expected. He held his wounded hand high, trying to prevent the others from touching it — which didn’t help at all to stop blood getting everywhere — and urged them to quiet down. He’d lost his audience, however, and found himself quickly overridden by a general insistence that they needed to go inside, wash the cut, put alcohol on the cut, bandage the cut, stitch the cut, cotch-rize the cut, and probably get Mrs. Kelly involved. While this latter was obviously the last thing Todd wanted under the circumstances, he no longer had any say in the matter.

Stacey had stopped actually screaming, but still made a string of distressed noises and gripped her brother by the arm not flailing in the air, and nobody could get her to shut up or let go. Rhonda looked inordinately gleeful about this bloody fate of someone for whom she supposedly had feelings of friendship, while it appeared all of Sumit’s worst nightmares were coming true. Ned was the loudest in insisting on seeking out medical attention (of the home-brew variety) for Todd, and the latter struggled just to make his voice heard. None of them seemed to remember, as they stampeded their agitation and din across the garage, the fire they left burning behind them. There was no reason they should remember, under the circumstances, the doll hanging above it. And presently, to the sound of the kitchen door slamming so hard it must seize Mrs. Kelly’s attention wherever she might be in the house, Duo found himself alone.

He’d known this would happen. Well, he hadn’t known exactly this would happen — that Todd would stab himself in the hand and the kids would all run off in a panic, leaving Duo hanging above an unexpectedly tenacious fire that now rose high enough now to lick at his legs — but he’d known this would end badly. And there had been absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Oh, sure, he could have talked to them, could have tried to convince Todd not to go through with it. But even aside from his desire not to expose himself at once to three extra people from divergent situations, would it have done any good? He had no authority and barely any influence; even the weight of his long experience might not have convinced these kids that their play was likely to be harmful in more than one way. In all probability they simply wouldn’t have believed a word he had to say; some of them might not even have believed a real person said it.

Duo let out a protracted sigh. He didn’t bother trying to stifle it this time. Even had someone been around, he wouldn’t have worried about the sound giving him away — the fire crackled too loudly.

And he couldn’t feel it. No matter how his situation changed, no matter how many years passed, this remained the same: even flames hot and high enough to have set his clumsy loincloth ablaze made no impression whatsoever on his nerves. Well, better to say he didn’t have nerves, just some kind of magical awareness that informed him coldly — ever so coldly, in situations like this — of something touching him. And even that was limited, apparently, to when he legitimately needed to know; at the moment he barely recognized the flames licking at him, more clearly the disintegration of his single garment, and only either of these because he concentrated on them.

Well, he wouldn’t be able to say ‘I told you so’ to Todd, since he hadn’t actually told him anything except the unfortunate information that had facilitated all of this — but he did hope Todd had learned his lesson about trying to impress his friends with fire and knives, and that his hand wasn’t so badly damaged he must spend the rest of his life regretting the tuition.

And what lesson had Duo taken from all of this? That sock toes burned slowly? That movies were becoming increasingly violent? Or perhaps that even the kindest-hearted of children were capable at times of a ridiculous level of insensitivity, even cruelty, against which Duo in his current state was utterly powerless?

But perhaps having a talk with Todd after the fact would work better than the hypothetical during. If Duo could only draw from this experience the moral that rules were in place for a reason (and if Todd’s wound proved mendable), they could survive and grow, and hopefully remain on good terms. Duo’s latest sigh turned unexpectedly into a laugh. For as little as the precise circumstances in which he now found himself were characteristic, he really felt like a dad sometimes.

It Hasn’t All Been Kids (1997)

Duo didn’t think he liked the expression on the face of the man that had done a double-take, retraced his steps to the dingy shelf full of worn old toys, and picked Duo out of the clutter to lift him up and look more closely at him. He’d come to associate that expression, on an adult, with being boxed up and wrapped, generally still naked but occasionally more creatively clothed, and given to other adults as the funniest birthday or bachelor(ette) party present they’d ever received. Usually when he saw that look on someone’s face in the Arc, he was back on that same Arc shelf within a few weeks after an experience he found far less hilarious than did the other people involved.

“Two fifty?” wondered the man under his breath, turning Duo over and finding the price tag Duo was absolutely positive would have itched like crazy if he’d been able to itch. “That’s not bad.”

Yeah, when they commented on his relative dollar value after staring at his penis, the stars had not aligned well. With an internal sigh, Duo began the process of bracing himself, though he’d started to consider it not worth much anymore.

Against the conversation at the checkstand he couldn’t exactly stop his ears — they weren’t even physical ears; even the world’s tiniest cotton balls wouldn’t have done him any good — but he didn’t exactly pay close attention either. It had been surreal and somewhat fascinating, once upon a time, to be the object of a sales transaction — to hear the polite exchange between cashier and customer that involved a dollar amount pertaining to the ownership of Duo himself, sometimes with commentary on his attributes but more often ignoring him completely as if, though at least part of the purchase, he remained unworthy of mention — but by now the process had become just as discouragingly real as any other mundane aspect of his dreary life. A mixture of bitterness and indifference fluctuated within him as the scene progressed; one moment he actively didn’t want to know what they were saying or what percentage sales tax had risen to these days, and the next he simply didn’t care.

He wouldn’t bother talking to this one. No point, when he’d obviously been acquired merely as a present — undoubtedly not a very serious present at that — and wouldn’t be spending any real time with the guy. But as Duo lay in the Arc bag in what he believed to be the man’s car heading he could only guess where, he was pretty sorely tempted. It had been months since he’d spoken to literally anyone, and ‘bored and lonely’ didn’t begin to cover how he’d been feeling lately. Still, reminding himself he would surely change hands very soon, after which he would probably be passed around amidst much laughter and then returned all too quickly to the Arc, whence he could hope to be rescued by someone more age-appropriate for appreciating him as a potential conversational companion, he restrained himself.

His guess as to where they were going had been ‘home,’ and he’d evidently been correct. Of course Duo could only assume the guy lived here, but he’d reached the point where a momentary glance was often all it took to recognize the homes of various types of people, and if he assessed this man correctly — single, straight, mid-to-late-20’s, decent but not huge income — then, yeah, this was definitely his apartment. The remains of his breakfast on the table where Duo now sat were eloquent about his way of life.

And now the guy examined him more closely than before, seated at the table staring hard at Duo with a hand worrying away thoughtfully at his chin and upper lip. Duo might have taken the opportunity to absorb details of his own about his new, short-term owner — the dark curly hair, the lingering acne, the pleasant features — but he didn’t bother looking particularly hard. This wasn’t a kid he would be playing with or even a friend he would be talking to; and the manner in which the man seemed to be considering something peripheral to Duo rather than any details of Duo himself made the doll feel free to do the same.

He supposed it would be equally evident in any situation where someone didn’t know you were observing them, but being a supposedly unresponsive doll really served to indicate how much adults talked to themselves or narrated their lives to nobody in particular. In fact they often talked directly to Duo — not the way children did, in an imaginative way as if he might talk back (regardless of whether or not they knew he could), but merely using Duo as a focus for the aforementioned narration because he happened to have a human-like shape complete with ears.

Now the guy said, in the half-under-his-breath tone people often used when they didn’t need to be saying this aloud at all, “Should I put you in a box? Or maybe a gift bag? But that makes it seem so formal…”

So Duo would be a surprise out of context this time, would he? That was less common than the bachelor party gag or birthday present, but not unheard of.

“But just handing you over like this–” Duo believed the guy’s eyes flicked specifically to his penis for a moment– “seems really weird.” He paused, considering, pointer finger still running pensively up and down his philtrum. “But wrapping paper would make it seem like a serious present, and I don’t want her to think I want something in return…”

‘Her?’ Now Duo perked up a bit. That was an unusual arrangement.

“Not like I’d complain if she said, ‘Oh, Eli, he’s so great; you wanna get some coffee or something?'” He chuckled at this clearly absurd idea.

Some light began to shine on this situation, though the nature of the present in hand still puzzled Duo. Who gave their crush an anatomically correct doll with no clothing?

Eli’s one-sided conversation obviously hadn’t helped him reach a decision as to how Duo should be packaged, so he discontinued it and got up abruptly from the table. Evidently the matter remained on his mind, though, as he started clearing his breakfast dishes from beside the doll — and not secondarily on his mind, either, if the half-hearted manner in which he ‘cleaned up’ was any indication. And partway through scraping the remaining eggs and cheese into the sink, without yet having rinsed it down or run the disposer, he apparently reached his decision. Abruptly he dropped everything he was doing, wiped his hands on his jeans, and returned to the table.

Duo, watching him approach, hoped in some amusement that the crush, whatever else she might be, was the type of person that could effectively insist on some better basic cleanliness. Of course it made little difference to a plastic doll that never seemed to stain despite his realistic hair and in no danger whatsoever of contamination, but he knew a lot of humans wouldn’t tolerate that food sitting there in the sink.

“I’ll just put you back in the Arc bag,” Eli said decisively as he looked down at Duo. “Then she’ll know I didn’t spend a lot of money or anything, and it’ll look like a casual, I-just-happened-to-find-this present.”

Though Duo still didn’t understand the specifics of the situation, he had to agree — not least because he was an I-just-happened-to-find-this present. He wondered, though, whether Eli realized exactly how much a naked doll with a big ol’ penis would make him look like a total creep when he gave it to some woman.

Duo couldn’t name the day of the week — he did tend to lose track when the thrift store stay lasted more than a fortnight or so — but Eli apparently had no work shift to get to. He’d wandered leisurely down several more Arc aisles even after finding Duo, had never hurried to get out and come home; did that imply a weekend? Duo supposed it was possible. In any case, Eli obviously had no problem with re-bagging Duo immediately in preparation for taking him to his next destination.

Despite this, they didn’t leave immediately. Though the bag Duo again found himself wrapped in crackled a bit, he could still hear pretty well what went on outside it, and from the echo (and other sounds), they evidently occupied a bathroom for at least fifteen minutes before doing anything else. Since only about three of those minutes involved actual use of the toilet and a very thorough handwash thereafter, it had to be assumed Eli was concerning himself with his appearance in a mirror, and that the opening and closing of drawers and what sounded like a magnetic medicine cabinet played into that endeavor as well. Duo found this kinda cute, as it seemed to indicate how infatuated Eli was, but feared it would all be for nothing the very moment the woman opened this Arc bag and saw the would-be-casual but in reality quite suggestive present he’d brought her.

Because of situations just like this, Duo had learned to deduce a fair amount from only what he could hear going on around him. And he speculated with some certainty that Eli was nervous as he drove wherever. Further monologue took place at first — about whether or not she would be there and how she was always there and should take more time off than she did because it wasn’t like the other employees didn’t do a good job but he supposed when you owned a place you got more paranoid about how it ran — but after a while he turned on the radio.

His pitch off for every single note, he sang along, first about flying like an eagle to the sea and then something fast and largely incomprehensible that seemed to involve cherry cola, and when he resumed talking to himself afterward — this time incomprehensibly as the subsequent noisy advertisements drowned him out — he seemed to be doing a tiny bit better. The deep breath he took once he’d stopped the car, however, before Duo was seized and lifted inside his crinkly plastic prison, indicated how nervous he still felt.

Eli’s determined footsteps across what sounded like a parking lot were followed by the entry chime inside their destination and the cars on the street outside fading. “Hi, there!” someone some distance away greeted. “Come on in — oh, hi, Eli.”

“Hey,” Eli returned the greeting, and Duo thought he struggled to sound natural. “Is Becca around?”

“Bex!” the other voice, now nearer, called. “Come out here!” The tone suggested Becca would want to do so and that the speaker had no need to detail why. Duo smiled again; evidently Eli hung around this place enough not to need specific announcing.

They’d stopped moving, having evidently reached their destination, and the volume of the other voice no longer changed as it asked how Eli had been. He answered only absently, and the amused edge to her reply made it clear she knew perfectly well where his real interest lay. And then Duo was conscious of Eli’s grip tightening on the bag as a new voice from farther away said, “Oh, hey, Eli.”

“Hi!” Eli’s reply was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, which he appeared to notice, if the far more subdued sound of his follow-up was any indication. “How’s it going?”

“Good, good,” she replied jovially. “What about you?”

“I’m great,” said Eli. “I had to come by and — I found this — I thought this would be…”

Duo was aware of his conveyance transferring from one grasp to another. If he’d been able to do either, he would have been biting his lip and holding his breath in agitated anticipation of the moment Becca pulled him out of the bag and saw exactly what Eli had brought her and all it implied. The bag unrolled, and a hand reached in for him, and Duo counted down to the moment when all of Eli’s chances with its owner died an embarrassing death.

Able to see something other than translucent white plastic at last, Duo looked up into Becca’s face, both studying her features and watching for her reaction to the gift. The first struck him as not particularly attractive — not that his opinion of her level of attractiveness mattered one whit to anyone — and the second as not exactly what he’d expected.

“Where did–” She glanced at the bag Duo had come out of. “Which Arc did you find this at?”

Eli reminded her, “There’s only one left, remember?” And it was a sad day when charitable secondhand stores started going out of business, no matter how much Duo loathed them.

“Well, he’s…” Becca looked down again, her gaze traversing Duo’s entire figure and sticking, as predicted, on the penis, and as she hesitated before finishing her sentence, her jaw opened somewhat slackly for a moment. Duo waited, braced, for her to crush all of Eli’s hopes and dreams.

“He’s perfect,” Becca finished. Her astonished face rose again toward Eli, still gaping slightly. “How did — you just came across this at the Arc?”

“Yep.” Eli seemed not only ridiculously pleased at her positive reaction (doubtless, in part, because she’d said one of the things he’d seemed so certain she wouldn’t), but relieved as well. “Just laying there on the shelf with all these other toys.”

“Other toys without dicks, I bet!” Becca grinned.

“Yeah,” Eli laughed.

She moved suddenly. “Oh, he’s going to be just perfect in here! I think I even have…” She’d stepped into what seemed like a central island of sorts — Duo couldn’t turn his head to get a good look around without Eli and Becca, who’d both held him, seeing the movement, so he wasn’t sure — and pulled open a drawer. While she made rattling sounds digging through it, Duo stared up at the enthusiasm on her face and puzzled over this totally unexpected reaction and behavior. Though when after not too long she said excitedly, “Yes!” and extracted one of Duo’s least favorite things in the world, he was distracted for a moment.

“I can’t believe you found something like that,” the other woman — the clerk that had already inhabited the central island — remarked. “I didn’t know they even made Ken dolls with penises like that.”

I’ve never seen one before,” Becca agreed as she adjusted the doll stand and then inserted Duo. “And look at his hair!” The latter, at least from the back of Duo’s head down, had been wrapped in a taped roll of plastic for protection, and this Becca now removed, causing a faint crackle of static electricity Duo couldn’t feel.

“I thought you’d like it,” Eli put in, still sounding very pleased.

“I love it,” Becca enthused. “I’ll get him an outfit made, and he’ll go perfect in this display.” She bent to make some brief rearrangement inside the referenced space before placing Duo, in his new hated doll stand, within. “For now he can just stand here naked.”

From inside the glass case beneath the counter where Duo found himself, he had been planning on scrutinizing the room around him and figuring out exactly where he now lived, to the extent he could do so without turning his head. However, something much closer at hand and directly in his line of sight seized his attention and held it for quite some time.

“Yeah, he looks good,” said Eli. The two women, who had both hastened out of the island and around to where he stood to look at the display from the outside, voiced their agreement.

Duo’s compelling focus was his new roommate, a Barbie perhaps six inches away from him in a similar doll stand. She had, if Duo was any judge, had some red and black stripes added to her hair for variety, and her makeup redone with a fairly deft hand and a very small paintbrush, but other than that appeared to be a bog-standard blonde Caucasian Barbie — except that she wore a shiny leather leotard that zipped up the front all the way to her chin, with a couple of perfectly round holes baring plastic breasts that had been modified with little nipples of some sort. Were they modeling clay? Duo couldn’t tell. When was the last time he’d stared so hard at anyone’s breasts? He didn’t know.

“He’s just…” As far as Duo could tell out of the corner of his eye, Becca was shaking her head in wonder. “Perfect. Eli, thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” Eli smiled.

“But seriously,” the sales clerk put in, “when did they start making Ken dolls with penises?”

From this angle it wasn’t a certainty, but Duo thought the back of Barbie’s outfit narrowed into a thong that would not, of course, fit between her buttocks since there would be no real groove there, but would at least suggest. In the last few years Mattel had started adding texturing to Barbie’s crotch area to suggest panties, but this model, fortunately for the current aesthetic, was one of the older ones without that embellishment.

Becca shook half-clenched fists in the air in excitement. “I need to go get some stuff for him. I need to go to the fabric store.”

“I can hold the fort,” the clerk assured her readily, obviously having expected this, “if you want to go right away.”

Barbie’s studded leather armbands were interesting — more in the question of why she wore them than for their own merits — but Duo couldn’t look at them for long. Because her boots — where had those boots come from? It wasn’t that Duo interested himself excessively in Barbie fashion, just that by necessity he happened to know a lot more about it than many people did… and he’d never seen boots like that on a Barbie doll before. If they were homemade, they were the most professional-looking homemade Barbie footwear he’d ever seen. Could you get stuff like that at a fabric store? They were the same shiny black leather (or imitation thereof) as her leotard thing, and they came all the way up past her knees. The buckles in front were almost confusing to the eye, and he could tell by the bows peeking out from behind her thighs that they laced up in back.

“Can I come with?” Eli said this with the air of one taking the first big, scary step down a path long eyed but never until now embarked upon. “Buy you lunch on the way?”

“Eli, you just got me, like, the best present ever,” Becca protested with a grin.

“Yeah, but I’m hungry,” Eli shrugged, doing a really good job on the nonchalance — better than Duo had expected, actually; he must have practiced.

“OK, fine,” said Becca, turning a complete three-sixty and patting her pockets as if trying to determine what she had on her right this moment. “Just let’s go now. I want to make something like that for him.”

Duo couldn’t see where she pointed, what kind of outfit she had in mind, but he also couldn’t help joining in the laugh of everyone else besides Becca at her adorable excitement and enthusiasm. His laugh was quiet enough; even those that had held him wouldn’t hear it through the glass.

The land definitely lay differently than he’d realized. Obviously to Becca, who must have created the outfit the Barbie across from him wore, a penis doll wasn’t nearly so creepy as it might be to many others, and in fact was something she specifically wanted. And clearly Eli had known that. Eli had anticipated, in fact, every little nuance of how this would come across. Knowing she would appreciate the offer but at the same time fully aware of exactly how creepy it still might seem; knowing also that it would be a professionally welcome item but wanting it to come across as a personal gift — yet, again, not wanting to seem like a weirdo trying to send an inappropriate message, Eli had been in an interestingly awkward position. Of course Duo could only guess at all of this, but he could also easily spot the potential dilemma, and thought he assessed the situation correctly.

It made him a little sad, now, that he hadn’t initiated a conversation while he’d had the chance, as he came to the realization that Eli was truly a decent guy. Maybe decent enough to have accepted the humanity of the doll he’d bought at the Arc… though counting on that often proved unwise. And the opportunity had passed, since this display case made no good venue to try to start a friendship from, especially with someone that didn’t even work here.

“So what– I’m just curious,” Becca was remarking as she and Eli walked away from the counter toward the door– “what were you actually looking for at the Arc when you found that doll?”

“No, I was actually there looking for a doll with a penis,” Eli said in a tone that barely maintained its seriousness all the way through the statement. “I go check every month or so in case they have one.”

Becca’s laugh, half drowned out by the entry chime, was the last Duo heard of them.

Deeming it finally safe to turn his head and look around, he dragged his gaze from the nearby leather-clad doll and surveyed the rest of the room, as far as he could through the single transparent surface facing out from the island. And gradually he realized exactly why he’d been such a welcome offering here.

Two mannequins of shiny black plastic, which would be visible from outside through the windows that flanked the doors, wore outfits similar to the one Barbie did — one leather like hers, the other of a lacier and more ruffled variety but just as revealing. Behind one of them stood a rack of more clothing, apparently available for both male and female bodies and tailored for optimum exposure or at least suggestion of primary and secondary sexual organs. Duo wondered if Becca made it all herself. In the other direction, a rack of tubes and plastic bottles in a number of colors bore a sign that read, All lubricants / Buy one get one half off. In between that and some shelves full of whips, gags, masks, and various unidentifiable items of restraint, visible only with difficulty from his angle, Duo could make out a more distant set of shelves that seemed to be full of videos whose covers featured a lot of flesh colors.

That was about all he could see of his new home, and all he was likely ever to see if he retained this spot — though Becca would presumably have to pull him back out of the display when she had the outfit made and needed to get him into it — but he anticipated that listening to customers and staff discuss items in stock and purchases being made would shed light on what lay beyond his field of vision.

And all he could think, with a bemused sort of gaping he couldn’t physically affect but that was mentally just as slack-jawed as Becca had been at the sight of his penis, was, Well, this should be educational.

Season Finale (2008)

Felishawna was never silent, never even quiet. She chattered nonstop to anyone nearby, or to Duo in the absence of properly human companions, or to animals she happened to encounter, or to herself or the walls if necessary. When not talking, she sang songs of her own invention, or made strange noises with a perseverance that eventually grated even on a doll with 85 years of practice dealing with repetitive tedium.

He would have thought a child so relentlessly noisy would be impossible to lose track of, but it seemed the very constancy of her sound rendered it transparent so she blended into the background. She made no attempts at sneaking anywhere, yet somehow did it remarkably successfully; the fading of her childish vocalizations evidently struck those around her only on a subconscious level, very much like, say, the discontinuance of distant construction noises outside at lunchtime: it might be a while before anyone actively recognized their absence and asked, “Where’s Feli?”

Thus Duo felt little surprise when Felishawna’s relatives failed to notice she’d wandered out of the living room and into her uncle Leon’s bedroom. The doll was uniquely positioned to observe both that she’d done so and the lack of notice on their part, since she’d dropped him in the hall on her way at a near midpoint between the two.

She hadn’t turned the light on in her new venue of play, whether because she couldn’t find the switch, or couldn’t reach it, or for some mysterious reason reserved for herself, Duo didn’t know. In any case, she made scant noise in there — just quiet shufflings, as if she were pulling the linens off the bed (something she loved to do), and, for the moment, a sort of chant that was her childish version of a rap: “I gotta tell you a story about the princess and the time she was going out, fighting the bad guys of evil ray, being a pirate on Saturday, swim in the pool and the ocean lake, eating the hamburgers and the cake.”

Meanwhile, in the living room, most of the conversation between Felishawna’s mother and uncle could be heard even over the sounds of football from the television.

“I wish you would’ve stayed later last night,” Tonya lamented. “Mom got going about Feli again, and I bet she wouldn’t have if you were there.”

“Sorry.” This apology Duo could barely make out; he hadn’t seen much of Leon thus far, but already got the impression of a very calm and quiet person.

“You better look out if you ever get married and have kids; then she’ll be on your case too. But maybe,” Tonya added with a sigh, “only if she doesn’t like your wife.”

In the dark bedroom to Duo’s left, the shuffling sounds continued. He couldn’t see what Felishawna was up to — he lay on his face — but he could hear her latest song clearly, even more easily than the TV-obscured sounds of her relatives. “I’ve been deeming of a true-love’s spike, and a Pokémon who comes with Mike. So to meeve a mife of emless this…”

“Mom likes Estevan,” Leon was assuring his sister.

“Sure,” Tonya allowed grudgingly. “She likes him personally, but she doesn’t like us living so far away even though we both got great jobs out there and I love New York.”

“That’s probably a grandma thing.” Leon undoubtedly shrugged as he said this. “She doesn’t get to see Feli as often as she wants.”

Tonya gave a frustrated sigh.

In the bedroom, the child in question chanted, “Beetle butt, bootle butt, bitle butt, butt. Butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt.”

“It’s not just that. She thinks Feli’s problems came from her dad, or his side of the family. She blames Es for all the trouble Feli keeps getting in.”

Leon sounded surprised as he asked, “She said that?”

“No.” Tonya sighed again. “But I can tell.” She continued in a grumbling tone as if it were a direct follow-up, “There’s no way we can come back after that.” It took Duo a moment to realize, with some relief, that she referred to the football game and not her relationship with her mom.

Leon agreed regretfully, and that he didn’t question Tonya’s stated awareness of their mother’s opinion seemed to indicate he found the assessment undeniable.

“And the worst part of it is she might be right.”

“See, I’ma pold you, like you pold me, trash rules everything around me. See-ya la la la la lee-ya, la la la la bee-ya.” Duo vaguely recognized the song this was a take on, and, believing it to be about a prostitute, wondered if Tonya knew Feli had listened to it often enough to imitate it even this much. The child went on with more of her chanting version of rap: “She use to be the sweetest girl ever. Ever ever bevver. Now she’s the princess of all the world, all the burld. She’s gonna get you and make you do what she wants. Ride all the horses and do the dahnce. Do the dahnce, do the dahnce, do the dahnce.” She saw fit to end this repetition with a drawn-out hiss on the last sibilant before resuming, “See, I’ma fell you…”

“Estevan always had behavior issues as a kid, he told me, and a lot of it’s just like what Feli’s dealing with.” Tonya sounded downright angry as she protested, “But the answer to that isn’t to take her away from her dad and send her to live with her grandma across the country! It’s not like being around him is making it worse somehow; if she did inherit something from him, that’s, like, a genetic or chemical thing, not like he’s a bad influence or something!”

“So what is the answer?” Leon sounded truly concerned with his niece’s welfare.

Said niece had mostly ceased her shuffling, but was busy with another rousing chorus of Beetle butt, bootle butt, only slightly more adjectival this time: “Beetly butt, bootly butt, bitelly butt, beetly butt, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly…” She seemed to be stuck on that word and enjoying it very much; she kept saying it for the next minute or so. She started tripping over the syllables eventually, adding extra t’s where she didn’t necessarily want them, and after a while shifted to blowing harshly through her teeth in mingled amusement and frustration.

“God, Lee, I wish I knew. The counselor at her school wants us to see an actual child psychiatrist, but Es doesn’t want to. He’s afraid they’re going to want to put her on drugs, and he doesn’t like that. He got through his childhood OK without drugs, and she’s so young…”

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t know. She’s such a good kid; she’s smart and nice and creative; she just…” It seemed a significant relief to Tonya to be able to discuss this with her sympathetic listener of a brother, and Duo was glad this vacation had given her the chance to do so. He agreed with her, too: Felishawna was a good kid, at least at heart if not always in practice.

And she’d come out of the bedroom now, as indicated by the random noises a few feet above the doll’s head. She picked Duo up and added him to whatever she carried, obviously acquired within, then turned toward the far end of the hall and the bathroom.

Here Duo could no longer hear the adults’ conversation — the TV with which their voices had always been in competition now conspired with Feli’s echoing speech nearer to Duo’s ears to drown them out — but he regretted this very little. The discussion might make Tonya feel a bit better, but seemed likely to have no other useful outcome. Even Duo, creeping up on a century of experience with children, didn’t know what to do for Felishawna; what chance did Tonya and Leon have to figure it out?

Feli couldn’t reach the medicine cabinet, which relieved Duo since he didn’t doubt she would eat something inside it believing (or pretending to believe) it was candy, but the items beside the sink and on the bathtub ledges were easily added to her collection of stolen goods. These included hand soap, aftershave, toothpaste, and body wash.

Duo had met children with the same prolificacy of oral noise as Feli, the same endless energy toward talking and singing and making strange sounds either for their own amusement or in interaction with others. They, like Feli, had gotten in trouble at school for never being able to keep quiet or for responding to statements made or questions asked with silly irrelevant chatter. The only cure for this behavior Duo had ever observed had been dogged repetition of commands to be quiet or to answer properly, and he felt this had only repressed the noise, not rechanneled it in the right direction or taught the kids how to manage and control it. He didn’t want to see Feli come to believe that expressing herself was shameful and become a sullen, speechless victim of a constant, “Shut up.”

A cheer from both adults in the other room overcame the television, and Feli joined in with an incredibly squeaky “Wooooo!” that sounded more like a ghostly whine than a cry of joy. She didn’t look up, though, from where she’d seated herself, legs akimbo, on the bathroom floor and started organizing the objects in front of her.

Other traits Feli demonstrated had been shared by other children in Duo’s past as well. She had a tendency to resent authority, and to do over-the-top silly things in response to direct commands, and Duo had definitely encountered that before on playgrounds and in schools and even in homes. Of course that led to trouble too, and Duo had never seen an adequate correctional process for it. The problem, he thought, lay more with the authority figures anyway, a problem that existed on too large a scale to hope much for.

The largest item Feli had purloined was a replica NFL jersey in pristine silver and black, and this she now arranged in a rough rectangle on the linoleum before her, crumpling its edges to create a sort of container. She sang nonsense words as she did so, but under her breath so Duo only caught the occasional ‘zoodles’ or ‘poopermooper.’

Where she got the energy for the ongoing activities and excitement that filled her life, Duo, like Tonya and her teachers at school, could not begin to guess. Well, no, that wasn’t quite true: the constant movement and noise and the thoughtlessness or even clumsiness that often came with them reminded him very much of the girl’s father, Estevan — a nice guy whose possession of these traits didn’t seem to have damaged his childhood beyond repair… but that didn’t help with the current issues.

Into the jersey Feli had now placed all the other objects she’d gathered except Duo. She began bouncing him from one to the next and the next, and doing his dialogue in a weird falsetto as usual. “Oh, I gotta get across… I gotta jump on the… stepping-rocks, and not fall into the swamp!” She paused, expression thoughtful. “I need a Real Swamp,” she announced.

Duo groaned internally as she then, clumsily with her small hands, popped open the bottle of body wash and began pouring it out onto the jersey. Since she’d left him lying in the swamp, he received a healthy dose of the gooey substance on his own body. He probably needed a wash anyway (well, he certainly did now). The bottle plopped down beside him, and next she unscrewed the cap on the aftershave. A much runnier liquid, it came out faster than she’d intended, and she giggled as she added its entirety to the bog. It made her cough, though, and Duo wished he knew what it smelled like.

Construction of the Real Swamp finished and the aftershave bottle taking its position as a stepping-rock, more satisfying play could commence. Once again Duo hopped from item to item, ‘narrating’ his journey in an absurd voice. Feli, almost immediately covered in body wash and aftershave, squirmed at the sensation of the latter’s ‘icy cold’ as well as the combination beginning to soak into her pants. Of course the jersey’s edges presented no significant barrier — they hadn’t even crumpled effectively in the first place — and soon the bathroom floor swam in a slowly expanding tide of personal care products.

Feli tried to sing a swamp song, tried to pretend she was foundering in muddy water from which Duo would have to rescue her, but signs of real discomfort from the aftershave marred her ability to perform or even to enjoy herself. Eventually she set Duo down again and started pushing the muck off her hands as best she could; her face threatened tears.

Perhaps because the little girl had gone silent, perhaps drawn by what must be an overpowering smell, Tonya entered at this moment. There was a prolonged lack of respiration as widened eyes twitched from one aspect of the disaster to another, and then the bathroom exploded into chaos. Tonya always tried her best not to react too harshly to Felishawna’s escapades, but this child would push any parent’s patience to its limits — and Duo thought embarrassment at today’s mayhem having been wreaked upon her brother’s possessions exacerbated her response.

Demanding to know what Feli had been thinking, declaring that she knew better than to do something like this, and with multiple interjections not quite profane expressing her various emotions, Tonya hauled Feli to her feet and pushed her toward the sink. Feli had begun outright crying, and every word from her mother’s mouth raised the volume until she was bawling and sobbing roughly. Not much more gently did Tonya ‘help’ her daughter wash her hands and forearms, demand of Leon in the doorway whether he had any washcloths, and begin scrubbing Feli’s legs and shoes. Feli complained incoherently through her misery that it hurt, that it felt like when she wet her pants (something Duo had known her to do at least three times since he’d been with her), and this did not improve Tonya’s mood.

From his bed in the swamp, the doll had a decent view of Leon at the bathroom entrance. His soothing words and mild suggestions of assistance had been totally ignored and overridden by his sister’s more forceful activities and tirade, and now he stood silently looking on. Whenever his gaze strayed to the possibly ruined jersey on the floor, he winced, but otherwise he showed no sign of being upset, and certainly none of being angry. In fact, though he’d schooled his handsome face into a somber expression appropriate to his niece’s misdeed, hints of amusement showed now and then, especially when Feli referred in anguish to her Real Swamp.

Eventually Tonya whirlwinded her daughter out of the bathroom. Duo heard her requesting a trash bag Feli could sit on so she didn’t dirty the rental car, and then there were hasty goodbyes. Out of Feli’s continued roaring Duo managed to hear the protesting cry, “Peanuts! Peanuts Hair!” She called him Peanuts Hair X. Correa whenever she hadn’t invented some context-dependent temporary name, so at least he wasn’t entirely forgotten. But that didn’t mean anyone extracted him from his slippery bath and allowed him to go with her, and soon her noises were muffled by the apartment door closing.

So there went that relationship. It had happened so fast, it was as if a guillotine had sliced down into his life and neatly severed him from his companion. Again. And he hadn’t even talked to this one yet. He hadn’t known what to make of her, what angle to approach her from, what reaction to expect. At that very moment, he began to consider it rather tiring and pointless to be so cautious about talking to people.

Whether he’d struck up a conversational friendship with her or not, Felishawna now numbered among those whose stories he’d become invested in but would never see the end of. Would her parents figure out what her deal was and how best to respond to it? Would she improve in her school performance and her behavior? Could she find some way, perhaps through her artistic propensities, to become a productive member of society in the future? Or would she die sometime from falling out of a tree not meant for climbing or playing with paper clips and power outlets? Once again, for the nth time, Duo would probably never know.

Yet this situation differed in several little ways from many in his past. Tonya and Feli had plane tickets back to New York tomorrow, but might they not swing by here and pick Duo up once Tonya’s desperate annoyance faded? Duo doubted it, but it wasn’t impossible. If they didn’t, might not Leon mail the doll to his niece? Sending packages no longer cost an arm and a leg; it could happen. And if he didn’t, Duo had already decided to talk to him. He seemed kind-hearted and not given to extravagant reactions; he might prove a better friend even than Felishawna — on whose progress he could keep Duo updated. In any of these cases, Duo would be able to continue following Feli’s story after all. Communication had become so much easier, faster, better these days. Maybe these days were just better.

That prospects had evidently improved so much gave him a feeling not precisely of hope, but of relative sanguinity. If distance travel and package shipping were more affordable and communication was easier… if times were better… if being separated from his caretaker no longer automatically meant the severance of all interaction with and knowledge of them… his life, such as it was, must become better as well. Surely this improvement must herald greater improvements to come!

After all, he hadn’t been left lying on his face this time. He wasn’t in a trash can or a doghouse or a forgotten toy-box. Sure, his hair and clothes were saturated with gunk he couldn’t smell or feel, his hearing a little muffled by the same, and he had no idea what Tonya or Leon planned. But he truly believed (perhaps only because he chose to, perhaps compelled by outside circumstances) that things were, just as he was, looking up.



<<8

I’m incredibly pleased with this collection of stories, and will probably have more notes about them by and by. For now, check out lebzpel on Tumblr, because their art is always, always worth looking at.

His Own Humanity: After-Dinner Brandy

“The rest of this is 70 years long, give or take, so I’ll try to abridge it.”

Trowa promised Bernard and Catharine he would tell them the whole truth about himself one of these days. How will his long, tragic story change their feelings about him, and about him dating their son?

“I was born on August 22, 1898.” Trowa sat straight in his seat on the sofa, appearing neither relaxed nor excessively stiff. There was often, Bernard had noticed, a formality to Trowa’s speech and bearing that he had to admit he liked in spite of everything he feared he disliked about this young man.

Well, ‘young man’ wasn’t exactly the right term, was it? “1898?” he echoed in surprise, brows raised, setting down his glass and staring. Yet another entry in the catalog of claims he wasn’t sure he believed.

Trowa nodded. “I was born in Greilicks, Michigan in 1898, but we moved almost immediately to Traverse City, so I don’t remember anything about where I was born.”

Quatre, seated next to Trowa on the sofa opposite his parents in their armchairs, looked up from his own brandy — he took it with soda, the way his mother did — and over at his boyfriend. He seemed to find something significant about that statement, but said nothing.

“My mother’s name was Sinead Barton,” Trowa went on. He smiled as he reminisced — a very distant smile that almost made him seem as old as he claimed to be. “She had curly red hair, and freckles just like these.” He gestured at his own face. “People looked at her and heard her name and automatically considered her Irish, which made her the subject of discrimination everywhere she went. She was third-generation Irish-American, and had a thick Detroit accent, but that never helped her find work. She found it very frustrating.”

“I can imagine!” Catharine agreed. Clearly she believed all of this far more than Bernard did, and now felt active sympathy for the unfortunate predicament in which the woman described had supposedly found herself at the turn of the century.

“I didn’t understand at the time, and as an adult I was never a victim of racism myself, but years later I remembered the complaints I overheard as a child, and realized how things must have been for her. I thought a lot about my mother later in life — more than I ever did when I was with her, sadly.”

Quatre, sipping his drink, still said nothing, but he looked very interested and perhaps a bit concerned. Bernard wondered if Trowa had been as reticent and dishonest with his boyfriend as he had been with his boyfriend’s parents. Was this all news to Quatre as well?

“My father’s name was Walter Young. Ironically, though he was an actual immigrant — from Germany, where his name was Jung — he had things a lot easier than my mother did. Even more ironic to think that my mother was refused work because people labeled her a lazy drunkard, when that was exactly what my father truly was. He could find work easily, but he rarely ever did.

“He was often in debt. I think that’s why we moved so soon after I was born: he knew he could never pay the doctor’s bills. I also think he must have been a charming man when he wanted to, or else he could never have convinced people to give him credit in the first place. He could never have convinced my mother to live with him, or stay with him for so long. He was certainly never charming to me, though.”

Again Trowa’s expression went distant, this time with no smile. Whatever Bernard did or did not believe, he recognized the genuine memory of old woes, the revelation of wounds long since scarred over but never forgotten.

And Quatre seemed distressed. He set down his glass on the end table and reached for Trowa’s free hand with both of his. “You don’t have to tell us about him.” His tone was earnest, quiet, and concerned.

“It’s part of the story,” Trowa replied, just as quietly.

“But you started the story a lot earlier than you really had to. You don’t have to force yourself to talk about things like that.”

“But I know you’ve wanted to know.”

“Yes, but…” Quatre sounded reluctant. Clearly he did want to know — and this seemed to indicate Trowa had only withheld, not lied about this information — but worried this might not be the right time to find out. “I don’t want you to think you have to tell me until you’re ready.”

Gently, ruefully, Trowa smiled. “It’s been over a century, and I’m aging again. I’m not sure how much longer I can take.”

Quatre stared with lowered brows for a long moment, and nobody in the room said a word; his parents awaited the outcome of this little interlude. Finally he returned Trowa’s smile, and his was startlingly identical in its softness and regret. “If you’re sure…”

“Quatre.” Both Trowa’s tone and expression suddenly held an edge of reproof.

In response, Quatre laughed sheepishly as he said, “Sorry.” This must be some kind of running issue between them; Bernard found it a little odd, but didn’t inquire.

“It’s all right.” Trowa lifted the hand of Quatre’s that still held his, and evidently applied some pressure. Then he looked away from his boyfriend and back at his boyfriend’s parents. “Please excuse the interruption. Quatre is concerned because I haven’t told many people about this.”

“So we see,” Bernard allowed, not unkindly — though his sympathy had been drawn out more by his son’s admirable sense of charity and consideration than by anything on Trowa’s part. “Go on.”

Trowa did so, bluntly. “My father was abusive. He would often come home drunk, shout at my mother and me, throw things, break things, hit us if we were careless enough to get close to him… From as early as I can remember, I feared and hated him.”

“I’m so sorry,” Catharine said.

Trowa shook his head, sipped his brandy, and remarked abstractedly, “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He never bothered trying to make himself pleasant to me, so I had no mixed feelings about him; I was never conflicted in how I saw him; it was a very straightforward situation. Many abused children are in much worse circumstances.”

Bernard didn’t know how to react to this. He had very little experience with abuse or its aftermath, and Trowa’s calm, distant statements made it even harder to know how to feel about what he described. Bernard did recognize, however, his own creep toward belief again, exactly like that evening at Trowa’s house. The delivery brought it on, really: despite how incredible much of this was, Trowa’s solemn demeanor and the perfectly authentic-seeming emotion behind his words — exactly what you might expect from someone assessing the behavior of his abusive father over a hundred years prior — was subtly, perhaps insidiously convincing.

“I mentioned he didn’t work much,” Trowa went on at last. “Usually he sent us out — a stigmatized woman and a very young child doing whatever we could to scrape up a little money — and we all lived hand-to-mouth, very poor and uncertain, most of the time. Occasionally he would get up and do some real work, but he would spend most of what he made on drink.” He lifted his glass and stared contemplatively at what liquid remained in it. “Because of that, though I like the taste, I’ve never drunk much in my life, and only been drunk once or twice in all these years.”

Quatre had drawn in a surprised, unhappy breath as Trowa said this, and now remarked, “I’m sorry… I didn’t know…”

“It’s all right.” Again Trowa squeezed Quatre’s hand, which he’d yet to let go. “I was more overwhelmed and emotional that time than really drunk anyway.”

Quatre said nothing, only nodded with a slight frown. Bernard wondered what this referred to, and whether it would come up during the course of what seemed destined to be a very long story.

“My mother,” Trowa continued, “always seemed happy to get away from my father, even knowing what kind of treatment she was likely to find out in the city. And I…” He sighed. “This is the part I’m truly ashamed to admit. I hated her too. Not as much as I hated my father, but I couldn’t forgive her for always going back to him at the end of the day. I couldn’t understand why she did it, and I thought it meant she was weak and stupid. What’s more, because I suffered whenever I was at home, I thought it meant she was cruel.

“Much of my childhood is a blur; I don’t remember at all how I felt about many things, and I have only general impressions about others. But this I remember clearly — how I felt about my mother — maybe because, unlike the rest of it, I gave it a lot of thought in later years. Eventually I realized she probably stayed with my father because she felt she would have even less chance of supporting herself and me if she left. The world had taught her she couldn’t make it on her own, and even if he didn’t do much to support her, I’m sure she felt more secure with him than without him.”

“And it’s never easy,” Catharine put in sadly, “for an abused woman to leave her abuser. Men like that make sure the women they abuse think they can’t make it on their own. And if he could be charming, as you guessed, he undoubtedly had other ways to make her stay as well.”

“I realized that too.” Trowa gave a pained nod. “It took many years, but eventually I was able to look back on my mother with a more accurate… well, I’ll never know how accurate my hindsight is.”

“You must have lost her,” Catharine speculated, “if you were never able to find out for certain.”

“I could have found out for certain. As an adult, I could have looked for her, especially when I started to practice magic. And eventually, when I knew she must be dead, I could have found a medium to contact her spirit for me… but I chose not to. I think part of me didn’t want to know the truth, because what if I discovered she’d stayed with my father indefinitely? What if she’d eventually been killed by him?

“It’s one of… many things I regret in my life. And I believe, if my more forgiving and understanding thoughts about her had developed all at once, I would have tried to find her again. But my mental transition was a gradual process, over the course of many years, and by the time I was solid in my awareness of what a victim she was and how she had probably tried to protect me, I was caught up in… other concerns.” He sighed, and Bernard could easily see how much he regretted the choice of omission he’d made supposedly so many decades ago.

“Could you maybe find a medium now?” Quatre wondered.

“I… probably could.” Trowa’s lips curled down in a pensive expression, as if this idea had never occurred to him and he was therefore only just contemplating its implications. “Those other concerns, of course, are all wrapped up now…” He seemed to ponder for several moments, and finally shook his head. “I’ll have to think about that. Anyway…” He took a deep breath, readying himself for further narration. “In the summer of 1906, I ran away from my parents.”

“You would have been seven years old!” Catharine exclaimed in an almost protesting tone.

With a faint smile, Trowa nodded his agreement. “It’s a miracle I’m alive today, for more than one reason. More than once I came close to starving, or freezing to death in a Michigan winter. But at first it wasn’t too difficult. I hitched a ride out of Traverse on a train; we used to do that a lot back then. I didn’t know where I was going, and didn’t even learn the name of the next city for weeks after I arrived; I just wanted to get away. As a seven-year-old, I assumed my parents would be coming after me, without considering how difficult it would be to determine which direction I’d gone and then to find me on the streets of another large town… or how disinterested one of them must be about what had happened to me. For months I believed they must be just around the corner looking for me, and I think that paranoia may have carried somewhat into my adulthood.”

Now Quatre smiled faintly too, apparently in agreement.

“As a defense mechanism against their finding me, I abandoned my name. It didn’t make much of a difference in my life, since I was such a vagabond anyway, but I thought it was a clever trick to keep my parents off my trail. I lived as a homeless, nameless kid eating a lot of stolen meals for a few months — I don’t remember exactly how long — before I met Duo.”

“Duo?” echoed Bernard. “Heero’s boyfriend?” Surely Trowa wouldn’t claim Duo too was over a hundred years old? And yet how many people could there be, even within the entire last century, with that unusual name?

“The same,” replied Trowa with a nod. “He’s about six months younger than I am. At the time he was living in an overcrowded orphanage.”

With a sly smile Catharine put in, “To clarify, this is the same Duo who told Bernard off at your house?”

“Did he?” Quatre sounded both amused and chagrined.

“Duo is very loyal,” Trowa said somewhat apologetically.

Bernard tried not to stiffen up, or give any sign of disapproval, at his wife’s playful remark. The conversation in Trowa’s house had not been pleasant, but he wouldn’t necessarily call Duo’s words ‘telling him off.’ He did wonder, though, with some bitterness that still lingered, why, if Trowa and Duo were contemporaries, they couldn’t date each other and leave Heero to Quatre.

Trowa went on with his story. “Duo and I became friends, and he invited me to come live at the orphanage.” Fondly he added, “I don’t think he actually had the authority to do that, though if I had joined him, I don’t know that the overworked employees would even have noticed one additional child. I had no interest in living wall-to-wall with other children who didn’t get as much to eat as I did by my own wits, and instead I convinced Duo to leave the orphanage and join me on the streets.”

“You’re a bad influence,” said Quatre with a grin. Bernard worried about the extent to which this might be true, and believed his wife felt the same.

“We were better off together,” Trowa protested, “and it was one less mouth for the orphanage to feed.” He smiled as he seemed belatedly to realize Quatre had been teasing him, and added, “As we got older, we were able to do more real work, and steal less, and even eventually rent a room.”

“I remember hearing Duo talk about some of this.”

“Duo convinced me it was safe to start using a name again. Originally mine was based on the old word ‘trow,’ from the German ‘trauen’ — and now you’ve heard all the German I speak — but Duo suggested I change the pronunciation to what it is now so I could keep the name I was used to without worrying about my parents finding me by it.”

“That’s so interesting,” said Quatre.

“Of course I needed a last name too,” Trowa went on with an acknowledging nod, “and I’ve never been quite sure why I chose to retain my mother’s last name; I was, after all, still bitter toward her at the time. I suppose it was more a sign of rejection of my father than acceptance of my mother. But I kept it, and became Trowa Barton, which I never changed.”

Quatre chuckled. “The Trowa Barton.”

“Yes,” Trowa agreed with a roll of eyes.

“What does that mean?” asked Catharine.

“That comes later,” Quatre informed his mother knowingly.

Bernard stood. “More brandy for anyone?” Uncertain how he felt about what had been disclosed so far, or about Trowa in general, he thought further drinks were required to get through the rest of this. His wife and son both accepted the offer, but Trowa, unsurprisingly given what he’d said earlier, declined. Bernard moved to the sideboard to mix two drinks and pour himself a neat third.

Courteous as usual, whatever else he might be, Trowa waited for Bernard’s return to his chair before continuing the story. In the interim, Quatre asked, “Have you seen the invitations Duo sent out for the party?”

“No,” Trowa replied resignedly, “but since Heero asked me the same question, I assume there’s something in them I wouldn’t approve of.”

“I don’t think I was supposed to see them either,” Quatre admitted, “but he sent them to everyone at work, so it was inevitable somebody would show me at some point.”

“Do I even want to ask?”

“Probably not,” Quatre laughed. “I just wondered whether the way he uses commas was something you both picked up as kids on the streets.”

Trowa sounded somewhat startled as he asked, “How does he use commas?”

Seeing his father returning with their drinks, Quatre said, “After the party, we’ll have to track down one of those invitations.”

Once Bernard had distributed the brandies and resumed his seat in the armchair facing his son and Trowa, the latter picked up where he’d left off. “We weren’t interested in fighting in World War I — ‘the war to end all wars,’ they called it, but to those of us trying to live our lives in peace it was mostly a bother — and the draft only applied to our age group just before the war ended… it’s also possible we neglected to register… so we avoided that. We lived a fairly peaceful life in a poor part of town, content with what we had, at least for a while. We were especially happy in our personal lives because we had discovered magic.

“For a person’s magical talent to awaken, they must be exposed to magic. Magical scholars have done a lot of speculating about what percentage of the supposedly mundane population is actually magically gifted but has never been exposed to enough magic to experience an awakening. The amount of magical exposure required, how it varies from one person to another, and whether the branch of magic to which a person is exposed makes any kind of difference, is also a matter of debate.” Interestingly, Trowa’s tone grew more firm, more assertive, as he began to speak of something more scholarly about which he was, presumably, an expert. Of course he must be considered an expert on his own personal history as well, but this topic seemed easier for him to discuss. In fact, as he went on, it seemed like more of a lecture than the story his words had previously been.

“There are four branches of magical talent, at least as magic is practiced in most of North America: command, communion — which they call communication these days — divination, and necrovisua. Command magic, which is my primary area of skill — and Duo’s only area of skill — involves manipulating the physical world around you. The demonstration I gave you at my house–” he nodded briefly to each of the Winner parents– “was an example of command magic.

“Communication magic, which is Heero’s primary area of skill, is the magic of the mind: telepathy, influencing the minds of others, and so on. Divination magic, the branch in which I’m least skilled of those I can access, is, self-evidently, the magic of truth: learning what has happened, what is happening, and occasionally what will happen.

“Necrovisual magic, which nobody among my friends has, has to do with the dead: speaking to spirits who have passed on, and dealing with certain energies left behind when living things die.”

Trowa paused for a moment, as if giving all this information a chance to sink in with his listeners. Bernard thought it made sense, as far as it went, and was sardonically glad to be confirmed in his guess that mind-reading was Heero’s specific magical ability.

“Hajime and Sano are necrovisual, though, aren’t they?” Quatre asked.

“Hajime’s primary skill is communication, according to what he told me,” Trowa replied. He paused thoughtfully before continuing, “Sano is an interesting case, though. There is a skillset some people consider a fifth branch of magic, though I’ve never liked to describe it that way. It’s extremely rare, but some people are able to use all four branches of magic, where most magicians have access to three at most. This ability often comes without much training or practice, or even active awareness. We call that type of person a natural. And that’s what Sano seems to be.”

Quatre looked very interested at this information, but Bernard, who had no idea who this Sano person was, wished Trowa would move on. And presently Trowa did.

“Duo and I, as children, were acquainted with an old diviner woman who lived in our area of town and was undoubtedly the reason our magical abilities woke up. At first, of course, magic was very little more than a source of entertainment for us. There were certain spells that made our lives easier, but in those days we had no idea of magic’s true potential.” These last words were spoken darkly, and it seemed clear that, whatever ‘magic’s true potential’ might be, Trowa knew it all too well by now. “We entertained friends with what they considered tricks, and gradually made other friends who knew the truth, but it was all very casual and unimportant to us at the time.

“And then, in 1922, I started work at a plastics factory. You may be interested to hear, sir–” nodding at Bernard again– “that the company I worked for in those days was Raberba Manufacturing.”

Bernard was interested. What’s more, he couldn’t even try to deny his growing belief. That didn’t necessarily mean he approved of Trowa, or Trowa dating Quatre, but he was becoming increasingly engaged in this unusual story. “The company did get its start in Michigan,” he recalled.

Trowa nodded. “Plastics manufacture was a new industry at the time, so there was a learning curve for everyone, and they were always looking for new blood. My blood seemed to be the right kind, and it wasn’t long before I was given a supervisory role with a significantly bigger paycheck than I’d ever had before. That was the beginning of our problems.

“At first Duo was as happy as I was at the amount of money I was suddenly making. He even liked some of my new, richer friends for a while. But when I was promoted to General Overseer at the end of that year, and started making even more money, and rose another level in society, Duo started to get sick of it. I was… fascinated by the new life I had access to with all my new money… and I’m afraid I may have lost track of who I was in the process. I bought a car Duo refused to ride in, rented an apartment Duo refused to live in, and moved in circles Duo was no longer willing to put up with.”

Trowa sighed. “Of course I had no idea what this might lead to — no one could have predicted that — but just as a man, I should have done better. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ It wasn’t the money so much as the esteem, but the saying still applies.”

Quatre’s face had gone dark again, his father noticed. Because Trowa was being so hard on himself? His lament sounded perfectly rational to Bernard.

“In the spring of 1923, an acquaintance of mine — one of my old magical friends, not one of the new, rich ones — made me a present of a certain artifact. Magical artifacts are objects that have absorbed power by being in the vicinity of magical activity. They affect any magic being practiced nearby, and can be used to boost the effectiveness of a spell if you use them correctly — or if you don’t, they can interfere very badly. I believe Albert, my acquaintance, was more concerned with getting rid of this particular artifact than giving me a gift, since it was an especially powerful one and very difficult to master. He didn’t say so, but it had probably been ruining all his spellwork for however long he’d owned it.”

“What was it, exactly?” Catharine wondered, sounding intrigued.

“A silver candlestick,” answered Trowa. “It was old even at the time, and I thought it was very handsome. Eventually I changed my mind about that.”

“So it was Trowa in the lounge with the candlestick,” Catharine murmured, smile-lines wrinkling beside her eyes.

“Excuse me,” Trowa said, and Bernard was surprised to hear some irritation in his tone, “what is that?”

Quatre chuckled, and took Trowa’s hand again. “I’ll tell you another time. We’ll even watch the movie.”

Trowa frowned slightly, but merely continued his story. “Eventually Duo confronted me about my new lifestyle. He didn’t like what I had become, and he didn’t like what I’d become in relation to him. He was right, of course: I was becoming something unpleasant, and our friendship was falling apart. He accused me of no longer caring about him, and he had every reason to believe that was the case.”

At the pain in Trowa’s voice and face during this last phrase, Catharine leaned forward in pity, setting her glass down on the table between herself and Bernard. She said nothing, however, undoubtedly both unsure what she could say and eager to hear more.

Trowa took a deep breath. “This is only the fourth time I’ve ever described what happened that day. Please forgive me if it’s a little difficult to talk about.”

“Of course,” said Catharine gently. Even Bernard nodded. He was beginning to understand his son’s earlier concern about Trowa discussing things he perhaps wasn’t ready to, and he didn’t even know what had happened yet.

After another deep breath, Trowa told him. “I was so upset by the accusation that I didn’t care about my best friend, and stung at the same time by the truth of what he had to say about my lifestyle, I didn’t think through what I did next. On the spur of that very bad moment, I came up with a spell that I thought would force him to feel what I felt, to share my emotions, so he would know exactly how much I did care about him still.”

“That sounds very much like assault,” said Catharine reluctantly.

Eyes closed, Trowa nodded. “It was a terrible thing to do, but what I intended was nothing compared to what actually happened.”

“You mentioned the candlestick thing would affect any magic performed around it…” Bernard said this in fascinated horror, surprised at his own emotional engagement and waiting almost breathlessly for what would come next.

“That’s right.” Now Trowa spoke very softly, as if too horrified to put any proper volume into his words. “I hadn’t mastered the artifact yet. No one could have in as short a time as I’d had with it. And it took my spell and warped it, turning it into a curse with a much different effect than the one I had in mind.”

There was a long moment of silence as the Winner parents digested the revelation that Trowa had cursed his best friend. Duo had seemed hale and whole every time Bernard and Catharine had seen him, but between their first meeting with Heero’s boyfriend back in June or so and the moment Trowa had reached in his story, quite a bit of time had passed. 87 years, in fact. A lot of curse-related suffering could easily have taken place over such a long span.

“During the course of our argument, I pretended to misunderstand him, and that I believed he was being petty and fake with me out of jealousy over money and a woman we both knew, rather than unhappy and concerned about me and my relationship with him. I made the comment, ‘It’s as if you were made of plastic.’ The curse took that idea as if it were something I had specifically asked for: it turned him into plastic.”

Though it sounded dreadful, this statement was also not easily minutely understood, and Bernard believed, as both he and his wife stared somewhat blankly at Trowa, that they were both sorting through a number of possibilities for interpretation in a rapid and somewhat futile attempt to keep up. Quatre looked coldly grim, and held one of Trowa’s hands tightly in both of his.

“With this combination of circumstances, part of him might have turned to plastic — limbs or bones, skin or hair — or he might have become a life-sized statue made of plastic. Any of that would have made sense. But in fact he became a doll.” Only because he sounded suddenly more distant did Trowa seem suddenly less deeply miserable, and the distance, Bernard believed, hailed from an attempt at looking at this scientifically (as it were) rather than emotionally. By attempting to discuss the physicalities and magical workings of the situation, and give them priority over its other aspects, Trowa might be able to get through this retelling more easily. It reminded Bernard of focusing on the mundanities of planning a funeral rather than the crushing, life-altering loss that led to the need for it — a technique he had used himself in the past, and once again something that strengthened his growing belief in this entire story.

“Plastic was just beginning to be used to make all sorts of non-industrial or -military products, including toys, and its uses for domestic items were what led to the plastics boom and the fortune of men like me. So it really does make the most sense that the idea of a ‘plastic man’ would immediately be associated, at least subconsciously, with the concept of a doll. So I turned Duo into a doll.”

He paused once more, either to let these newest details take their places with his listeners or to yet again regather his emotional fortitude for continuing. And Bernard didn’t know what to think. This was more bizarre and troubling even than the story that Quatre had been infected by some kind of angry magical energy, and, though he would no longer claim not to believe it, he would be no more than a little surprised if Trowa finished by asking for money again. In the neighboring armchair, Catharine looked nothing but horrified and sympathetic.

“As a doll, Duo had a limited ability to move, and the ability to speak, but nothing more. I believe because of my own frustration at his inability to feel what I felt, the curse robbed him of all ability to feel. He could see and hear, but taste, touch, smell… it was all lost to him. I took that all away from him.”

Feeling a chill, Bernard wondered how all of this might possibly apply to a current relationship of Trowa’s. For if this strange man had once accidentally transformed his best friend into a doll without feeling, what would keep him from doing it again to someone close?

“Couldn’t you immediately change him back?” Catharine wondered. “You’re talking as if– surely he didn’t remain a doll, after that, for all this time?”

Trowa took a long, deep breath, then let it out again. “He did.” So short and simple a statement to encompass 87 years! “And that was because I… lost track of him. I might not have been able to change him back on my own in any case, but when I didn’t even have him with me…”

“You ‘lost track of him?’ You misplaced Duo?” The seriousness of the discussion hadn’t diminished, but despite this and Bernard’s increased worry about how this might apply in modern times, he couldn’t help finding this idea somewhat entertaining. And evidently it sounded in his voice, for both members of the family that were present shot him a reproving look.

Trowa took no offense. In fact he sounded so guilty as he explained that Bernard almost regretted the slight amusement that had colored his tone. “He fell out a window and got picked up off the sidewalk by a child who was passing by before I could get out and down to him. I didn’t know where he had gone. I’d barely gotten a look at him, saw him moving and heard his tiny doll voice, so searching for him was extremely difficult. Often when I asked people if they knew of a talking doll, they laughed at me. It was hard to get even the question taken seriously.”

“That’s so strange to think about.” Quatre grinned at Trowa as he said this. “I’ve never known you when people wouldn’t be tripping over themselves to answer your questions.”

Trowa smiled wryly back at him, and at the same moment Catharine asked in some interest, “Do people do that?”

Quatre gestured Trowa should go on, which he did. “I scoured the city from end to end. I devoted so much time and energy and attention to the search that eventually I lost my job at the factory, but at the time I almost didn’t notice. I had some money saved, and sold some of the extravagant purchases I’d made in recent days. Eventually I stored the rest at a warehouse, gave up my apartment, and left town, still looking for Duo. I took the candlestick with me, because I knew it was connected to the curse, but I didn’t know where to go or even how to search. I just wandered aimlessly for several years, living like a tramp, feeling less and less confident that I would ever see Duo again. I’ve had some very dark times in my life, but that was probably the worst.”

None of them spoke for a moment. Bernard had no new thoughts, despite Trowa’s solemn pronouncement; he just wanted to hear the rest.

“It didn’t take long to realize that asking the non-magical if they had seen a doll that could talk and move got me nothing but polite skepticism at best, but the magical community was readier to help, if they didn’t know any more than the rest of the population. So I asked magicians. Seeking out the local magicians everywhere I went was difficult at first, but eventually I developed a system. I would offer to do tasks in exchange for room and board while I was in the area. Someone would take me up on the offer, even if it wasn’t the first or the second or the tenth person I talked to, and I would quietly and magically do their chores or mend their fence or paint their store. Then word would get around about what a hard worker I was and how miraculously quickly I got things done. Then the local magicians would seek me out.”

“This is surreal,” Quatre murmured.

“The present is surreal,” Trowa replied. “The 20’s were nothing.” He let out a sigh that might have had fragments of dark humor in it, and continued. “It was all command magic at first. A lot of manual labor can be performed very simply with command magic. But as I learned to work with the candlestick, my command magic grew stronger, and I found I could accomplish more with my other branches as well. The candlestick was very powerful, and tricky to use, and I was blundering along in the dark without ever making that my top priority, but still, as I became more attuned to it, I was starting to use magic in ways I didn’t previously think were possible.

“After several years of traveling the way I was, my reputation started to precede me. The magicians would meet me on the road into town instead of making me search for them, and they would request magical favors that became more complicated as time passed. I learned to use different branches of magic in combination, and set up new spells to solve old problems more easily. If I had it to do over again…” He paused with an expression of distaste, as if the idea of doing it over struck him as unfaceably bleak. “I would use an alias. If I’d ever truly believed the curse would be broken, I would have realized some of the ways my life would change when it did, and that I might not want to be ‘The Trowa Barton’ anymore. But at the time…” He shrugged.

“After maybe fifteen years, I decided I was done wandering aimlessly. It hadn’t accomplished anything, and I didn’t think it was going to. I started making planned trips to cities where I could easily get in touch with magicians and perform magic that was beyond them in exchange for their help looking for Duo. Still nothing. And I didn’t realize at first that doing this spread my fame further, faster. But it wasn’t ‘what Trowa Barton is looking for’ that spread; it was ‘what Trowa Barton did for me,’ and any number of strange rumors.” He sighed again, this time in remembered frustration. With a slight shake of the head, he went on.

“The rest of this is 70 years long, give or take, so I’ll try to abridge it. Eventually I was corresponding more with magicians than I was interacting with them in person, so I decided to settle into a home with a permanent address. I retrieved my stored items — by then I had to pretend to be my own son–”

“I don’t think,” Quatre broke in, “you ever actually mentioned you stopped aging.”

“I think we realized it about fifteen years ago, though,” Catharine said with an eye-crinkling smile. “Go on, Trowa.” She’d obviously forgotten completely about the drink at her side, and was hanging on Trowa’s every word. Bernard realized as he assessed her demeanor that his was much the same.

Trowa nodded to Catharine and obeyed. “The non-magical community around me was a problem from the beginning. Someone who looked the way I did — you two saw what I looked like before the curse broke, but you never saw my cursed eyes without contact lenses in, which didn’t exist in those days. Someone looking like that, living alone but often receiving mysterious visitors who were mostly strangers in the area… writing plenty of letters but never socializing with his neighbors… acting like an old hermit but apparently in his early 20’s…”

“It sounds as if you’ve brought the story up to about the time Catharine and I were born,” Bernard remarked. “If society then was anything like what I remember from my childhood, I’m not surprised your neighbors were suspicious.”

Quatre wondered, “But were they suspicious? Or was this just you being paranoid?”

“I don’t know.” Trowa answered so readily, he’d clearly been expecting the question. “But over the following couple of decades, I lived in six or seven different homes.”

Quatre and his mother both made sympathetic sounds.

“Finally I forced myself to really settle down. I was so adept at jumping — traveling by magic — that I traveled that way to any appointments, and never showed my face in my actual neighborhood. I was in touch with many of the major names in magic throughout North America, and I’d become very powerful and experienced. I escaped the demanding people who’d followed me from one home to another over the years — though they found me again eventually — by making my first dark jump to a town on the east coast I’d never visited before and buying a house there.”

Forestalling the question, he explained in a tone of aside, “A dark jump is magical travel to a place you’ve never been and don’t have someone else’s mental picture of. It’s very difficult, and requires a lot of research into the place so you can understand it well enough to get there. Even I have only done a few dark jumps in my lifetime. There’s always the risk that the impression of a place you’ve gotten from reading someone’s journal or a book set there isn’t accurate enough, or the place has changed too much since the pictures you’re looking at were taken. Usually a jump simply won’t work in that case, but there are some rare bad consequences to dark jumping.”

Again the lecturing tone sounded stronger, more certain, and, if possible, less self-accusatory than everything else Trowa said. Bernard was beginning to fathom why his son gazed so raptly at this man when he spoke of magic; Trowa seemed, if not an entirely different person, at least the better part of the person he was at those moments.

“That was when my celebrity really exploded. I was doing bigger magical favors more selectively by then. I stabilized a mine. I reworked a railroad town’s entire infrastructure. I rescued a kidnapped child. I became a household name in magical circles.”

“Were there no other powerful and experienced magicians?” asked Bernard. Intending no insult, he added, “Why were you so famous?”

“There were other powerful and experienced magicians,” Trowa said with a pained look, “and they were famous too. But they lived their lives and died, or went in and out of fashion, or lost strength over the years, or made mistakes that lost them their popularity. But I didn’t change. I was startling to look at, I didn’t age, and the services I provided only got bigger and more amazing over time. Magicians told their children about me, and then those children grew up to hear about me diverting a tornado between two towns.

“It’s customary in the magical community for a service provider to work with another person. The word that’s usually used is ‘partner,’ and the person is sometimes a partner in terms of assisting with actual work, but most of the time the position has more to do with security. They’re a bodyguard, or a witness to the proceedings, or just a second person to act as a deterrent against attack or fraud. It’s a practical and useful arrangement for a lot of magicians, but it’s more traditional than anything. Some magicians can get away with it — especially if they work with non-magical clients — but in the magical community, it’s usually considered odd and inappropriate for a magician to make house calls without a partner.

“And I never had a partner. The only thing anyone knew about my past was wild rumor; it was as if I’d always been there and always would be, doing amazing things apparently easily. I was an unusual type of celebrity.”

“You saved towns from a tornado?” Trowa’s boyfriend demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

Apparently in response to the expression of almost disbelieving admiration and affection on Quatre’s face, Trowa replied in some surprise and pleasure, “I would have if I’d thought…”

“You are too modest.” Quatre shook his head with a grin that still held those previous emotions. “And I think what you’re trying to say about how magicians felt about you is that you were the first rock star of the magical community.”

Slowly Trowa nodded. “I think that’s an accurate comparison. While Elvis Presley took non-magical America by storm, I did the same in the magical community. I doubt Abner Herzberg–” evidently plucking a famous magical name out of his past– “ever had people’s daughters thrown at him.”

Bernard couldn’t help laughing. “Daughters, or panties?”

With a fierce blush Trowa protested, “‘Rock star’ is a comparison. No one has ever thrown their underwear at me.” And the thoughtful look Quatre’s face now took on seemed to indicate that might be changing any day.

Catharine laughed too, but with a touch of sorrow from that soft heart of hers. “But you did make a mistake. Didn’t that affect anyone’s opinion of you?”

“It didn’t, because nobody knew about it.” Trowa might not have grasped at this point so tenaciously if it hadn’t been helping him away from Bernard’s joke at his expense and Quatre having embarrassing ideas. “At first I thought it would make magicians less willing to help me if they knew what I’d done, and later I… I just didn’t have the courage to talk about it. I confessed to almost no one, during all those 87 years, what I’d done. There were times I even feared someone would find out somehow, and I would lose what little I had.”

“Paranoid,” Quatre murmured.

“I didn’t realize how good it would feel to tell someone at last.” Trowa squeezed Quatre’s hand again. “If I had known, I might have told the story more often back then. I might have told everyone back then, and to hell with the consequences. But instead I held onto it and let it eat away at me, and…” He raised helpless hands, one of them still in Quatre’s. “People loved me, and I hated myself. I could do anything for them, and nothing for Duo. They would try to set me up with their unmarried relatives, but I had cursed the only person I ever loved.” Hearing Trowa admit he’d once loved Duo in a way that could be set opposite the matchmaking intentions of his fans did not bother Bernard nearly so much now as it would have at the beginning of this conversation. “The celebrity made the contrast almost more than I could bear. I started to lose faith.”

Catharine’s brows went up. “Only then?”

“I don’t think I ever truly believed I would find Duo and be able to break the curse, except maybe right at the beginning, right after I lost him. But for about 35 years, I worked at it as if I did believe in it. After that, what I was doing from day to day gradually changed. I didn’t send out as many letters, or tell as many people in them what I was looking for. I still followed every possible lead, but I never had any hope they would get me anywhere — and they never did. I studied magic intensively, and worked on improving my connection with the candlestick, so I would be prepared when I found him… but I was doing that instead of actively looking for him. I studied curses and accidental magic, and I researched the organization that had originally made an artifact out of the candlestick. And none of it helped.

“I knew he must still be out there somewhere, because I never started aging again. But I think what I truly believed was that it would just go on forever — that I would keep living, searching and researching and practicing and becoming more pointlessly skilled at magic forever as a punishment for what I did to him.” The anguish in these words, so real, so present, made it obvious that, though the time referred to had passed, the pain of that long-occupied frame of mind remained.

“Anyone would,” Catharine advised him gently. “It’s a miracle you got through so many years without doing much worse.”

“Exactly,” said Quatre. He laid his head on Trowa’s shoulder and rubbed a little, insistent, as if to punctuate his agreement. Trowa put an arm around him, and Quatre nuzzled in closer.

“Thank you,” Trowa said. “I kept going, but I wasn’t much of a person anymore. Time dragged on, and I never found any sign of Duo. You would think a magical talking, moving doll that thought for itself would be easy to find, especially over such a long time, but I found out later that Duo was careful. Revealing he could talk lost him his home more than once, so he would wait until the child he belonged to seemed ready to accept him as a friend instead of just a toy. And even then, it would often be only the child who would know, so word never spread about the magical doll. He couldn’t have hidden from me better if he’d been doing it deliberately.”

“He talked to me and Heero right away,” said Quatre musingly.

“He told me he was getting tired of being careful. He’d been taken to Goodwill so often in response to him talking; he decided that time to risk it right away and get it over with before he became attached. I wonder sometimes, though, if he didn’t subconsciously sense something about Heero…”

“That early?” Quatre looked pensive. “And could he even sense things like that as a doll?”

“Aren’t you getting ahead of the story again?” Bernard broke in before Trowa could answer. “I thought we were still losing faith in the 50’s.”

“Losing faith was a process that crossed the next 40 years. And then…” Trowa smiled. “Do you know it was the internet that started to wake me up again?”

“Cat videos will restore anyone’s faith,” Catharine remarked with her eye-crinkles again. Bernard was so fond of her eye-crinkles.

Trowa cleared his throat. “I’m sure you remember what the internet was like starting out. Cat videos weren’t around for… a while.”

Quatre had slumped somewhat in his lean against Trowa, but now he sat up straight and fixed his boyfriend with a delighted look of false accusation. “But you did watch them! When they came around!”

“It’s… difficult to be on the internet and not watch cat videos,” Trowa admitted.

“Do you like cats? Do you want cats? It would be extremely easy to get you some kittens for the house.”

“Familiarization makes that… complicated. We’ll have to talk about it later.”

Quatre gave a phony pout. “Duo would have said, ‘You’re the only Quat I want.'”

“I know.” Trowa was blushing again; it seemed to set his freckles on fire. “I thought about saying it, but I couldn’t.”

Complacently Quatre leaned forward and kissed him on the chin, then nestled down against him again.

“The internet…?” Bernard prompted, restraining a laugh.

“The internet provided new avenues. At first it did nothing to help, but it was promising, and I regained some of my old resolve. I gradually changed my correspondence to email, and I joined any number of mailing lists about supernatural occurrences — forums, later, as the internet evolved. And search engines were so… Every day I would dial up and type a whole list of phrases one by one into AOL’s directory, which wasn’t even a proper search engine yet. Every day I had that faint little hope that something might have changed, that someone somewhere might have put up a website about the talking doll they’d had as a child. I never found anything at all with ‘Duo Maxwell cursed doll,’ but if someone would just document some experience with Duo, it would give me a starting point, and I could trace him from there.”

“I take it this disappointed you eventually as well.” Bernard too had witnessed the evolution of the internet, and had always appreciated it in a business sense. What it must have meant to Trowa he could only dimly imagine.

“Actually,” said Trowa with the air of telling the night’s first good news, “it did eventually lead me to Duo.”

Despite knowing Duo had been restored to his humanity, that Trowa’s coloration had returned to normal, and that therefore the curse must have been broken; despite having done the math and known the magician must be approaching the part of his story where that event had taken place, Bernard felt a little jump of heart at these words. It was like the excitement he felt while watching a good movie with a well constructed plot when something he’d known to be inevitable occurred yet still managed to stir him up. Observing his wife leaning a little farther forward, he knew he wasn’t alone.

“But I won’t say,” Trowa went on, “I wasn’t back in a pretty bad place by the time it did. It wasn’t as bad as those 40 years, but it was bad. If I’d met anyone other than Quatre, I never would have pulled out of it.”

“Yes, you would,” Quatre said firmly. “You’re stronger than you think you are.”

“I’m grateful I never have to find out what would have happened.” Trowa pressed his face to the top of Quatre’s head and paused there a moment. Then he continued in a tone as solemn as such long-delayed news deserved. “On March 20th of this year, a post appeared on one of the forums about magic I tracked. It said, A friend and I found a doll (looks like a Barbie “Ken” but with real human hair) who talks and moves on his own. Claims to be a human placed under a curse by a friend, probably by accident, in 1923. Says his friend was never powerful enough to cast a spell that could last that long. My friend and I know nothing about magic. Is a spell like this even possible? Have checked doll for wires and found nothing, but still think it’s probably a prank. Has anyone else encountered anything like this?” He recited the post as if he would never forget a single word, and Quatre looked impressed.

Then they all sat silent for a few moments, the three non-magicians probably imagining how Trowa must have felt seeing something like that, and the two more empathetic of them probably doing a better job of it. What kind of beautiful stab to the heart must that have been? Had the entire 87-year search come to rest with all its weight and misery on top of those words that promised its end? After so long and such continual failure, he must have had at least an instant of pure disbelief… but placed under a curse by a friend, probably by accident, in 1923 could not be a coincidence.

Once more Trowa had a distant smile on his lips, and eyes focused not entirely on the present. “It’s generally agreed that, in every magician’s life, at some very emotional time, they produce magic more effective and powerful than any other time in their life — something they can only do once, and never again, and they wonder for the rest of their life whether they truly did it at all.”

“Like adrenaline letting people lift cars off their loved ones,” Catharine put in.

Trowa nodded. “In 48 hours…” He let the length of time linger in the air for a moment, though Bernard suspected Trowa himself would be the only one to appreciate its significance. “In two days’ time, I put together an impossible spell. A spell no one has ever cast before or even thought of, and something I still, seven months later, can’t decide whether or not I actually managed.”

Now he shook his head in disbelief. “To divine something, you have to have some information already. And even with the candlestick’s power, I’ve always been an indifferent diviner. And divining the future is uncertain at best in the first place. But somehow, I cast a spell that allowed me to dark jump to the place where the completely unknown author of the forum post would be on the evening of March 22nd. It’s… it was… impossible. But somehow I did it.”

Bernard chuckled. “So instead of just replying to the post as a normal person would, you used impossible magic to blindly jump through space and probability.”

Surprisingly, Trowa weakly returned the chuckle. “I did. I couldn’t wait. I knew it had to be Duo they were talking about. What if they didn’t check the forum again? What if they were reluctant to give me their address? And when I was so close, I couldn’t stand to put off finding him any longer. So I jumped to where the post author would be, and I familiarized myself with the area, and at the time when I knew they would come, they came.”

“And then he weirded us out,” Quatre declared, sitting up straight again. “You have no idea how strange it was for this sexy colorless guy in coattails to meet us outside this restaurant and ask out of the blue whether we were ‘the ones with the talking doll.'” And if he’d considered Trowa sexy from the very first moment, Bernard supposed this whole thing had been inevitable.

“I’ve got it from here,” Quatre said next, kissing Trowa’s nose this time. “Let me know if I get anything wrong.” And when Trowa nodded assent, Quatre took up the story. “Watching Trowa and Duo meet each other again after all that time… it was mind-blowing, and Heero and I didn’t even know what they’d been through at that point. Trowa told us, but we didn’t understand the way we do now. I can’t even describe it, so I won’t try.

“Trowa told me later that curses — even when they’re accidental, apparently — have a kind of… appropriateness about them, and about the process of breaking them. Trowa accused Duo of being fake, as if he were made of plastic, and the curse turned him into plastic. He wanted to make Duo feel what he felt, and the curse took away Duo’s ability to feel anything. He accused Duo of pursuing a woman he didn’t love, so to break the curse Duo had to truly love someone.”

“Wait…” Bernard began.

“True love conquers all?” Even Catharine sounded skeptical.

“Well, yes,” Quatre grinned, “but there was more to it than that. The candlestick had carvings on it of cycles of the moon, and the group that turned it into an artifact was a moon-worshiping magical cult.”

“The ones who– Wait, was this the artifact that–”

Quatre did not allow his father to finish. “That’s right. And it had a connection with the moon because it spent so long with the moon-worshipers. So the curse, and breaking the curse, had to do with the moon as well.”

“Trowa’s skin!”

“I never believed anemia could make you that pale and leave you still standing.”

“Yes, so Trowa became a beautiful lunar child with moons for eyes. And he did a brilliant set of divinations to find out that, to break the curse–” here Quatre began ticking off points on his fingers– “Duo needed to stay within the magical influence of someone with magical abilities, who he was developing a true emotional bond with, for a complete lunar cycle.”

“You got it all right,” Trowa murmured.

At the same time Catharine said in much the same tone, “Hmm. True love really does conquer all.”

“I have other points of analysis,” Quatre told his boyfriend quietly, “but they’ll embarrass you.”

At his wife’s words, Bernard felt the fading of the last of his long-held bitterness that Quatre and Heero weren’t together. The ‘true emotional bond’ between Heero and Duo had been confirmed by magic, and had ended an age of suffering. He couldn’t wish that broken up, even for the sake of what he’d long considered a near-perfect pairing. Heero would be relieved the next time he read Bernard’s mind. And Duo wouldn’t have to try to defend their relationship any farther. Immediate approval of Trowa as Quatre’s boyfriend did not necessarily follow, but Bernard was much readier now to entertain the notion.

“Wait,” he said again, belatedly, once these thoughts had run their course, “what does that mean, ‘stay within their magical influence for a full lunar cycle?’ This is Heero’s magical influence, and Duo still a doll?”

And when he’d heard that part of the story, and what Heero had been willing to go through for Duo’s sake — a retelling that prompted real, hearty laughter from him and his wife, in the which Quatre joined them — he no longer needed any convincing that Heero and Duo together was the only right outcome of this strange scenario.

The chapter that followed pleased him less. The destruction of the artifact had been a necessary step, he agreed, but that Trowa had lacked the courage to take it upon himself seemed to indicate another serious character flaw. To Trowa’s credit, though, he did appear to recognize this defect in himself, along with others manifest during his story. Everyone had personal issues, of course, and that Trowa admitted to his and seemed willing to work to improve himself spoke rather better than otherwise. Still, the true scope of recent magical disasters startled and worried Bernard.

The end of the narrative came as a vague surprise, and felt anticlimactic. To wrap up with the forlorn admission on Quatre’s part, “And I still don’t feel like I’ve done everything I need to,” seemed a very inconclusive sort of conclusion. Of course the end of every story was the beginning of the next, but Bernard felt emotionally dissatisfied on hearing this one. Beyond that, he had a sort of decision to make, and hadn’t realized how pleased he’d been all along to be putting it off.

“Well,” he said slowly, “that’s a lot of information.”

“It is,” Catharine agreed. “I don’t think I’ve been so taken up with a story in a very long time, not even Downton Abbey.”

Bernard nodded pensively. Then, somewhat grudgingly, he admitted, “And I even believe it all.”

“It would be impossible not to!” Catharine raised a hand in a gesture of mock warning. “You’d better not have cast a spell on us to make us believe it.”

Trowa gave her a slight smile. He and Quatre looked tense all of a sudden, doubtless because they could feel judgment descending. That was what this had all been about, after all: revealing the whole truth to Bernard and Catharine so they could make a more educated decision on their feelings regarding the relationship before them.

Bernard went on, still slowly. “I believe in magic. I believe what you’ve told me about your history, Trowa. I even think I understand why you’ve made some of your mistakes. In some ways, magician or not, and no matter how old you are, you seem just as human as the rest of us. And since it seems you’re doing what you can to correct the flaws of character that led to those mistakes, I can even respect you.

“And I understand, now, why you weren’t open with us from the start. This is a lot to take in. I’m not sure how I would act in the same situation, but it might be similar to how you did. And I don’t know whether you were planning to tell us all of this sooner or later, but you have to understand that, from our point of view, it seems like you withheld important information and made up lies to cover it until you were forced to tell the truth because you needed something. Even knowing the details now, that makes it difficult to trust you. What I’m saying is, I’m still not sure about how I feel about you dating my son, after the lies you told us before and the… complications of your life.”

The two young men seated on the couch shifted nervously. Trowa’s face, if only in a restrained manner, held a mixture of emotions — hurt among them — and Quatre’s had gone a bit pink.

Here Catharine took up the ongoing statement, but steered it toward the emotional. “Quatre has a lot to give. I’m trying not to embarrass him,” she added, “but I have to describe him as I know him. He’s a devoted, generous, persistent young man. And he’s dated a lot of people who took advantage of his generosity without giving anything in return. I have all the sympathy in the world for you, Trowa, but it seems you may be that same type of person all over again. You obviously need so much from him, and I worry that may blind you to what he needs from you.”

Now Quatre was forced to speak up. His cheekbones had become very rosy indeed. “If it weren’t for Trowa’s support, I wouldn’t be here. He has been exactly what I’ve needed since I was cured. He’s been so forgiving and supportive… I would never be recovering from being possessed the way I am if it weren’t for him.” Bernard noticed he had nothing to offer on the subject of Trowa’s previous reticence.

“You’re forgetting Heero’s contribution,” the blushing Trowa murmured.

“No, I’m not,” Quatre replied a little impatiently. “I’m just talking about your contribution right now. You’ve treated me much better than I deserve.”

Blush deepening, Trowa said even more quietly, “That’s how you always treat me.”

“Stop that,” Quatre whispered.

“You first,” Trowa whispered back.

Catharine watched this exchange carefully, and gave a little nod. Evidently she, at least, was cautiously hopeful.

“Now listen, Trowa.” Bernard leaned forward as his wife had done several times already. “I can’t threaten you realistically, I can’t reprimand you, and I can’t make demands. All I can do is request. And I ask that you don’t make my son unhappy. No one he’s dated has ever made him happy, but I’ll settle at first for you simply not making him miserable. The two of you don’t actually need my approval, but you should know that I believe you may earn it eventually if you work hard and are honest with us from now on.”

Trowa nodded gravely. “I deeply appreciate your willingness to bear with me, and I’m sorry for the difficulties I’ve caused. Thank you.” Then expectantly he looked to Catharine.

With her sweetest expression, she said, “I can threaten you. And if you find it unrealistic, you don’t know how mothers work. So do right by my boy, or face the consequences.”

Trowa looked as if he didn’t know whether to smile, even laugh, or school his face into the deepest gravity. Probably bowing to his own natural inclination, he chose the latter. “Your warning is understood. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

A long silence followed, during which Bernard considered ordering Trowa not to turn his son into a doll, not to have him destroy any more powerful artifacts, and not, above all things, to break his heart; he decided eventually he’d said as much as he feasibly could for now, and therefore remained wordless. Eventually, though, he looked around at the room in which they sat, with its old-fashioned decorations that yet must seem young to Trowa, and remembered the mundane details of this after-dinner tradition. He couldn’t consider himself entirely satisfied with the proceedings and their outcome, but he believed they’d accomplished quite a bit this evening. So he rose and began collecting glasses.

He still needed to process what he’d heard tonight, and not only in relation to Quatre’s love life, but in relation to how he viewed the entire world. He had to admit that if the situation persisted, if Trowa joined the family in part or even literally, it would make for an interesting little Winner secret that they had among their ranks not only a real magician, but apparently one of the most powerful magicians in history.

Catharine had risen too when Bernard started bustling about, and now as she turned her generally pleasant expression on the two young men, they rose in their turn. “I’m so glad you could come tonight, Trowa,” she said. “It’s been intriguing and enlightening.”

Bernard, finished setting the gathered cups on the sideboard, also turned more fully toward his guest and his son. “That’s right. We appreciate you taking the time.” And he reached out toward Trowa.

“And I appreciate you taking the time to listen,” Trowa replied, shaking the offered hand. “Thank you for having me.” Then for a brief moment, his typically unfailing courtesy seemed to leave him stranded as he and Quatre threw each other a quick, uncertain look. Bernard had the impression that the two of them, as a couple, were on the verge of telling him something more, something significant, yet hesitated. At least in this case, it seemed to be something shared between them; and Bernard supposed Trowa had confessed a good deal more this evening than probably any of them had expected. It still raised his hackles, though, to consider further withheld information.

But they said their goodbyes in a polite and amicable enough manner. Bernard had an arm around his wife’s waist as they waved their guest out of the room. And as the two young men walked away, heads together, Bernard heard Trowa say, “I’m going home.”

“Take me with you,” Quatre requested.

“Of course.” And presently, after some unintelligible speech in that magical language of his, all aural signs of their presence in the house disappeared.

“Quatre’s moving in with him,” Catharine murmured.

“What?!” wondered Bernard in dismay. “How do you know that?”

“They almost just told us.” Catharine’s smile was forlorn and fond. “They probably decided we weren’t ready to hear it yet.” And her eye-crinkles, along with the expression on her lips, became just a touch more sad. She added in an even quieter murmur, “The last one to leave…”

“He may come back. Some of them have.” Even Bernard didn’t know whether he spoke hopefully or morosely.

“Don’t wish for it, my dear.”

Releasing his wife, Bernard turned back to the sideboard and started peering at the glasses, trying to determine which one had been his. He believed, under the circumstances, he needed just a little more brandy.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: Cockatiel and Armadillo

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei.

Ze likes fashion, football, and social justice. He likes Star Wars, friends, and tabletop roleplaying. Can this meeting between totally dissimilar strangers go anything but badly?

Kamatari was conscious of eyes on zir. Not that the entire café was staring or anything so dramatic, but ze was sitting by the door, and nearly everyone that came in or went out threw zir at least a glance. Zir hemline sat too high, perhaps, for a day of shopping — it might have been better suited for a night of drinking and dancing — but the lovely weather and zir lovely waxed legs had been too tempting a combination. Ze knew the entire outfit looked fantastic on zir, and if anyone in the café had a problem with it, they could just deal.

Some of the looks ze caught reflected in the window, however, indicated that most of them wouldn’t have used ‘problem’ to describe their reaction, so for now the situation remained tenable.

“Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker,” said Darth Vader from nearby.

Kamatari glanced at zir watch. Fifteen more minutes before zir bus would arrive, assuming ze remembered the schedule correctly. Fifteen minutes would be adequate time for a little more wandering, and, with a half-empty apartment in mind, the furniture store two doors down definitely appealed… but ze was tired. Ze might have overdone zir shopping exploration of zir new hometown.

“Obi-wan knew this to be true,” said Darth Vader.

Perhaps tomorrow ze would find zir way out again and have a look at some furnishing and decoration. Sundays offered nothing better to do in a place where ze had literally no friends. Even overtime wasn’t an option, since neither ze nor anyone else at zir company worked on the Sabbath. Or perhaps ze would sit around with a few beers signing petitions on the internet.

“All too easy,” said Darth Vader.

Kamatari glanced toward the source of the voice. Though the corner spot half ringed with booth seating and half with chairs was probably the biggest table in the café, only one person sat there now, and he didn’t look much like a Sith Lord. He did glance up from the phone he held, though, just after the latest quote played, so Kamatari quickly removed zir attention.

“Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought.”

James Earl Jones had a damn sexy voice, Kamatari had to admit. Why that voice should be speaking up to harass an absent Luke Skywalker in this relatively busy restaurant/coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon not, as far as Kamatari knew, a date of any particular significance to fans of the actor, the character, or the franchise? That was another story.

“Impressive.”

Ze couldn’t help looking over again at the man from whom this effusion of Star Wars came. Was it a game on his phone playing these quotes, or what? From his movements, he appeared to be texting, but that didn’t quite fit with the sounds. He also kept glancing up and around as if to check whether he’d attracted any attention. Again Kamatari looked quickly away.

“Most impressive.”

These lines, arranged (as far as Kamatari could remember) in their proper order of appearance, were simultaneously cool and obnoxious. If the guy knew he would be receiving a string of text messages or whatever, he should really turn the sound off; yet if the quotes were text-tones, it was interesting that they played in the order the lines had been spoken in the movie.

The next sound from the stranger’s phone was the first nine notes of the Imperial March, and this time the guy caught Kamatari peeking. Where many might have smiled, the stranger instead gave a nod of acknowledgment. He looked good — though he would have looked better without the huge glasses — and wore (to somewhat strange effect, Kamatari thought) a t-shirt tucked into belted dress slacks. Which Asian heritage, specifically, he came from, Kamatari couldn’t be quite sure.

“Please forgive me,” the man said, “if my text messaging is bothering you.” His demeanor seemed at odds with his words, however: he didn’t come across as at all penitent, or even as if he really comprehended how he could possibly have been bothering anyone.

Bemused by the overall presentation, Kamatari replied, “I was mostly wondering how you got the quotes to play all in a row like that.”

“Oh,” said the man, clearly pleased at being asked, “it’s an app a friend of mine developed. It allows you to establish a folder for your text-tones and arrange them in the order you’d prefer them to play when you receive several messages in a row, or to have them chosen at random.”

This was more information than Kamatari really needed, but not entirely uninteresting. Ze might have said so if the man hadn’t continued talking without pause: “It’s on its second version, so it’s very stable by now, but he’s always working on minor updates for it. At the moment I believe he’s attempting to make it possible to combine sequences with random selection in the same settings. The app is called ‘Text-Tone Sequencer,’ if you’re interested — if you have a phone with an Android operating system, that is.”

“Thank you,” was all Kamatari could think to say.

“My pleasure,” the stranger replied magnanimously.

Kamatari might have turned back to the window at this point, but the man had lowered his phone somewhat and begun examining zir more specifically. The glinting gaze lingered longest on Kamatari’s legs — not entirely surprising given both the attractiveness of said legs today and the stranger’s evident lack of subtlety. Or he could merely have been counting the bags clustered at Kamatari’s feet, for he remarked next, “I deduce that you’ve had a successful shopping trip today.”

Now Kamatari tried to repress a smile and to match the gravity — the solemnity, almost — of the other’s tone as ze replied, “Yes, I have. I found some good sales.”

“I have a tendency to do most of my shopping online, so I have a much greater range of locations to monitor for good sales. And these sites often hold flash sales that only last a certain number of hours, so catching them is sometimes extremely difficult.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Everyone in my group of friends is aware of what the others like to buy, however, so we’re able to keep watch on each other’s behalf for sales.”

“That must be nice.” Not really knowing what else to do, Kamatari nudged one of zir shopping bags with zir foot and added, “I love sales.”

“And now, I presume, you’re waiting on a ride. Either that or you’re recuperating between lengths of your walking journey.” The man’s eyes hadn’t risen from Kamatari’s shoes, which were a little high for all the walking ze’d known ze would be doing today (but matched the skirt so well ze hadn’t been able to bring zirself to wear anything else).

“My feet are a little tired,” ze admitted. Ze added with a laugh, “I definitely won’t be wearing these shoes to work and back.”

Ze’d been told, in the past, that ze had a sweet laugh, and ze’d already suspected this guy of trying, ineffectually, to flirt with zir. Now ze was further convinced of both circumstances. The man scooted toward the closer end of the booth seating he occupied, and leaned forward slightly as he replied, “No, if you’re regularly walking to work and back, I would recommend something more ergonomic. Do you lack a vehicle?”

Again Kamatari struggled to restrain a smile of amusement at the man’s expense. “By choice, yes. I sold my car before I moved here.” Ze figured it was zir turn to plunge on with unnecessary additional information. “There’s no reason to contribute to air pollution or waste non-renewable fuel sources on just myself in a city with such a thorough mass transit system.”

The man nodded agreement, but simultaneously seemed surprised. While Kamatari had never had anyone say it to zir outright, ze’d long believed ‘too pretty to be an activist’ was a common assumption about zir. But since that assessment contained ‘pretty,’ the reaction remained generally positive.

Surreptitiously the man cleared his throat. “My RP group meets here every Saturday evening, and this week it’s my duty to reserve the table until everyone arrives at seven… but you’re more than welcome to join me while you await your bus.”

It was barely past five. Did this guy really intend to sit here for two hours simply to make sure no other group usurped the large corner seat? Did this happen on a weekly basis? What did the café think of it?

For a moment Kamatari considered refusing the offer, but could produce no real reason not to sit with the guy for a few minutes. Saying no and continuing at the next table over would be more awkward than anything this weirdo could come up with. Probably.

Kamatari couldn’t quite tell what the stranger’s impression of zir gender was, and the man read as nothing but cis-het… but that could be because the sense of ‘geek’ about him overrode and obscured everything else. Something would have to be offered, though, to be sure everything was on the level. “Sure,” ze said, standing and reaching for zir bags. “If you don’t mind having an Action Transvestite on your team.” Ze knew standing abruptly would hit the stranger with the Full-Length Kamatari Effect, but at least in this case the Full-Length Kamatari had just been outed as a cross-dresser of sorts.

The man’s face lit up — and clearly not in response to the F.L.K.E., since he said, in a truly wretched attempt at some kind of British or perhaps Scottish accent, “You can never have too many Action Transvestites. Well, if you have eight hundred million, that’s too many, I suppose.”

Kamatari laughed, both at this very appropriate response to zir original reference and in pleasure at having successfully exchanged ideas in a language they both spoke.

The man held out a hand. “My name is Wufei Chang,” he said. The formality of his tone did not perfectly gel with his omitting to stand up and only reaching across the table as Kamatari set zir bags down.

Kamatari gave zir first name, shook the hand, then sat.

“I take it you are a sports fan,” was the first thing Wufei said when Kamatari had settled, “because you said ‘on your team’ rather than ‘in your party.'”

Kamatari blinked. As far as ze could imagine, in not a single circumstance would ze have used the phrase ‘in your party.’ Ze was only very vaguely familiar with what it meant. So perhaps ze sounded a little blank as ze responded, “Yes… yes, I am a sports fan.”

“I, sadly, am not, unless you count Eyeshield Nijuuichi and Kuroko no Basuke.”

Though Kamatari had heard of neither title, ze felt ze was at least on more familiar turf here. Not that the small amount of Japanese ze’d learned in high school made zir anything like an expert, but certain specific linguistic research ze’d done a few years back, as well as zir genetics, rendered zir slightly more confident discussing anime or whatever those things might be.

Before ze could make any response at all, however, Wufei’s phone went off again. They were back to, “Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker.” Kamatari raised a skeptical brow as the man turned his attention to it immediately without looking at or saying another word to his companion until he’d answered the message.

“Yes,” Wufei said at last, as if returning to a conversation that, as far as Kamatari knew, hadn’t actually started, “some of my friends and I put together an Eyeshield Nijuuichi group cosplay for FanimeCon a couple of months ago, and purely for reference purposes — all right, I admit that it was only mostly for reference purposes, as we also wanted to compare American football as portrayed in the manga to actual American football — we watched an entire NFL game rerun online.”

This statement didn’t make perfect sense to Kamatari, but ze feared if ze asked for clarification on Eyeshield Nijuuichi, cosplay, or FanimeCon, ze would be getting in over zir head. Ze was also amused at the way Wufei announced he’d watched an entire football game as if it were an accomplishment to be proud of. So ze asked, “What game was it?”

“Something from last year,” Wufei replied vaguely, “featuring, I believe, a team from Texas against somebody local.”

“Cowboys? Texans? Raiders? Niners?”

Wufei cleared his throat. “Excuse me; I don’t remember.” Then he looked down to answer another text message.

This time Kamatari didn’t bother trying to repress a complete skeptical facial expression. This had been rude enough when Wufei was alone harassing everyone with his Darth Vader quotes from a greater distance; in the middle of a conversation with someone at the same table, it showed seriously bad manners. But zir display of disapproval went for naught, since ze didn’t have the energy to keep the expression on zir face the whole time Wufei was busy, and Wufei might not have noticed or interpreted it correctly even if ze had. So Kamatari just picked up the conversation where it had been left:

“I haven’t missed many Sunday NFL games — at least featuring local teams — for the last couple of years, so whatever game you watched with your friends, I probably saw it too.”

“To me this indicates that you don’t work Sundays,” commented Wufei astutely.

After confirming this extremely dull speculation, Kamatari added by way of explanation, “I work for Life’s Covenant. Actually I just transferred here to manage stock at the LC warehouse. We’re the hub for all the stores in the area.”

“The Christian bookstore chain?” Wufei raised a surprised brow. ‘Too alternative to work at a Christian bookstore’ was another assessment nobody ever made aloud, but which was often implied. Or sometimes just ‘too deliberately sexy.’

“I don’t have much to do with Christianity,” Kamatari admitted, “but Elsie’s very accepting, and I’m guaranteed Sundays off. And it’s a low-profit organization with a lot of worthwhile charitable branches, so I don’t mind that the pay isn’t spectacular.”

“I make quite a decent salary,” Wufei said. Kamatari couldn’t decide whether he sought to lord this over his companion or just continue the conversation with a relevant fact despite the potential impropriety of mentioning it. “I doubt I could survive working for a non-profit organization — my hobbies are too expensive.” Whatever his intentions were, it was in a tone almost of competition that he continued, “When you’re interested in 200-episode TV series where $25 DVD’s contain four episodes each, a low salary isn’t an option.”

Maybe there really was a touch of disdain for Kamatari’s unspectacular pay in Wufei’s attitude; Kamatari still couldn’t tell. But that tone of near-competition had stirred zir own competitive blood, and ze found zirself engaging almost without thinking. “I donate to a number of charities and activist organizations, and there are a lot more of those that need a lot more money than anyone ever has on any kind of salary.”

This time a competitive edge unmistakably sounded in Wufei’s tone as he added onto what he’d already said: “I also import a lot of soundtracks from Asian countries, as well as high-quality merchandising.” Here he gestured at the shirt he wore, which bore the image of a frantic-looking blonde child in red riding on the shoulders of a robot.

“Cute clothes aren’t always cheap.” Half agreement and half defiance, this, and somewhere in the back of Kamatari’s head a little voice asked, Are we really trying to establish which one of us spends more money? “Especially if you’re at all interested in new fashions.”

“Or interesting ties. I always make a serious attempt to have interesting ties to wear to work.”

I just bet you do, Kamatari reflected. Ze might have said it aloud, but didn’t want to be forced to explain what a fashion faux pas novelty ties represented. Besides, Wufei’s phone went off again at that moment, and he had once again stepped out of the conversation.

At this third instance of Wufei suddenly ignoring zir in favor of answering a text message, Kamatari wished very much that ze would suddenly receive several messages in a row so as to set a good example by completely ignoring them. But zir text message reception rate had died right down since moving, as past messages had mostly been of the ‘are you coming to so-and-so’s party tonight?’ variety, and were no longer applicable. Now the only person that texted zir was zir step-brother, and he not frequently enough for Kamatari to hope for something right this moment.

Abruptly Wufei looked up and asked, “Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?”

In some surprise at both the suddenness of the new topic and the odd chance that allowed zir to answer in the affirmative, Kamatari replied, “I have. My step-brother wanted to see it, but nobody else was interested, so I took him just before I moved.”

“What was your opinion of Hiccup becoming handicapped at the end?”

“Oh, I…” Thinking back about the movie and shifting gears as best ze could, Kamatari was yet unable to come up with an answer before Wufei went on with a gesture at his phone and an explanation of this out-of-the-blue question:

“My friend feels it was a cheap gimmick meant to evoke needless sympathy from the viewer as a sort of sucker-punch secondary climax.” The disdain in Wufei’s voice as he echoed this opinion of his friend’s told clearly what he thought of it long before he added, “I disagree. I feel it provided a much-needed element of depth to Hiccup’s characterization, especially by giving him another instance of parallelism with Toothless.”

Kamatari, who, though ze’d recovered zir wits, did not remember the movie well enough to be discussing it on this level and was pretty sure ze had no strong opinions on it in any case, decided to bring up something ze’d seen mentioned on the internet in reference to this specific plot device: “It’s nice for the physically handicapped to get any representation in a movie that isn’t all about being physically handicapped.”

“Yes, of course!” Wufei sounded as if, though happy to agree with anything that might even obliquely support his own views, he hadn’t expected this.

“Is it a good representation of a physical handicap, though?” Kamatari mused, for once having a point to raise before being prompted by zir companion. “It happened right at the end, didn’t it? That’s only a couple of minutes of representation…”

“You know there will be a sequel,” Wufei assured zir. “It was a huge box office success, and it has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.”

Kamatari, who cared a lot more for Bitch Flicks’ opinion than Rotten Tomatoes’, said, “It certainly wasn’t a good representation of female characters.”

“Well, in the time period–” Wufei started to apologize.

“The time period when Vikings rode dragons?” Kamatari interrupted sharply.

“It was Hiccup’s story, not Astrid’s.”

“It could have been Astrid’s story. It would have been the same story.”

“It’s based on a book, you understand.”

“A book that’s also about a cis-het white male? Why does every story have to be about that same person? Can’t some of the rest of us have stories too?”

“There are plenty of stories about women!”

“There are some stories about women,” Kamatari corrected almost fiercely. “But they’re usually not riding dragons or fighting battles or even getting to stand in the spotlight all that much.”

“Don’t you watch football?” Wufei’s tone too was becoming somewhat heated. “That’s a field almost exclusively dominated by men!”

“There’s a difference between allowing for physical differences between men and women and continually pushing women’s stories aside, forcing women to be either completely invisible or just secondary characters over and over and over again.” Ze added quickly enough to forestall any comment of Wufei’s, though in a quieter tone, “Though at least there were some female characters in that one. People of color didn’t even get a token representation, if I remember right.”

“Well, in the setting–” Wufei began again.

Kamatari’s interruption was even harsher than before. “The setting that has dragons in it?”

“It makes sense,” said Wufei firmly, “for a story about Vikings to be a story about white people, whether or not dragons are involved.”

“But somebody decided what that story would be about, and, as usual, went with subject matter that would dictate all the characters be–” Kamatari forced zirself to stop. Ze hadn’t meant to start an argument about this with someone ze would probably never see again in zir life, though perhaps it had been inevitable with Wufei’s random introduction of this topic in the first place. In a less combative tone ze said, “I just would like to see more Asian heroes in movies — and other people of color, though of course I have a special interest in Japanese people, and would like to see them take center stage more often. Wouldn’t you?”

Wufei stared at zir pensively, and eventually said, “Yes. Of course I would. I’m of Chinese descent myself, however. And I don’t believe being all about white people makes How to Train Your Dragon a bad movie.”

If Kamatari had had a dollar for every time ze’d expressed this opinion… “Maybe not bad on its own, but definitely not trying very hard to correct any systemic problems.”

“Is it required to?”

“Well, somebody should be.” Wanting to dispel this tension, Kamatari added in non sequitur before Wufei could say anything else, “So you’re Chinese-American?”

Wufei seemed to hesitate a moment, as if less interested in dispelling the tension than Kamatari was, then seemed to give in at least for the moment, and replied, “Correct. It was my parents, however, who moved here from China, and I speak very little Mandarin myself. I found Japanese a much more convenient language to study. It is, after all, the language spoken in a lot of media I enjoy.”

Pleased to have segued to a topic ze could not only discuss fairly well but that was obviously less charged than the previous — and normally ze really didn’t mind charged debate, just not with this weird guy in a random café near the end of a tiring day — Kamatari responded, “I have heard Mandarin is a very difficult language for English-speakers to learn. I’m Japanese-American, and my family’s been in the country for a couple of generations, so I speak practically no Japanese. In fact my original name wasn’t even Japanese, but I legally changed it a couple years back, and did some research in the language then.”

“Oh?” Testament to how successful Kamatari’s tension-diffusing efforts had been was the fact that Wufei’s interested look turned up toward his companion away from his phone. “And what made you choose the name you did?”

“I went with Honjou Kamatari — or Kamatari Honjou, legally speaking — because to Americans, who won’t know what it specifically means, it sounds androgynous and Japanese at the same time. My birth name was Daniel Joshua Reed, and I kept Daniel as my legal middle name just as a sort of nod to my parents.”

Wufei blinked. His brows twitched slightly together and slightly downward in an expression of momentary confusion. He stiffened, and his face went blank. Kamatari had seen this reaction many times before, and knew exactly what it signified; what he didn’t know was why it had been so delayed in this instance.

“So I deduce,” Wufei said, “from that name,” clearing his throat, “that you are actually a transvestite.”

“I did say I was.” Kamatari’s puzzlement sounded in zir voice.

“Yes, you did,” was Wufei’s awkward concession. “But I thought you were just Quoting.” The way he said the word cleared the matter up; Kamatari didn’t even have to ask: Quoting, obviously, was an activity — an art — so worthy in and of itself that the actual purport of the quotation fell by the wayside. A world in which someone could declare zirself a transvestite without meaning it was a somewhat difficult concept to grasp, but Kamatari had certainly met people that seemed unable to speak at all without peppering their conversation with random bits of movie dialogue.

“Well,” ze said, and felt zir voice slipping toward that borderline-threatening sweetness that often emerged at such moments, “I was assigned male at birth, though I came out as agender four years ago, so it’s not stretching the term ‘transvestite’ much to say I am one.” Ze didn’t want to add aloud that, since it was still a bit of a stretch to the term, ze had actually been Quoting just a tad.

Wufei cleared his throat again, and Kamatari waited with patience long-honed by similar circumstances to hear what he would say next. In zir experience, there was a limited list of options — some of them comments, some of them questions, most of them obnoxious.

“You’re very convincing. You pass,” Wufei corrected himself as he suddenly remembered what he believed to be a more appropriate term, “very well.”

Kamatari tried to decide whether or not ze had the energy today to break this down for a complete stranger. The problem was that even a concise statement like, “‘Passing’ isn’t my goal; it just happens because I naturally look like a woman,” still usually managed to raise more questions than it answered. But if ze offered no clarification at all, people were left with incorrect impressions about zir, and possibly about the LGBTQIA world in general.

In this context, ze decided after some quick thought that, since ze would probably never encounter this guy again and therefore could probably afford to overlook any false impressions Wufei might get, ze might as well not bother explaining zirself. So ze merely said, with a slight nod, “Thank you.”

Kamatari had a little less faith in zir ability to overlook misconceptions the next moment when Wufei remarked, “One of my very best friends is gay.”

The problem was that it would take even more effort than the previous hypothetical answer to say, “Please don’t conflate gender identity with sexual orientation. I do happen to identify as queer, but that has nothing to do with my gender. Also? Having gay friends doesn’t mean a damn thing.” As with the debate on representation in the media, ze simply didn’t feel up to it on behalf on an acquaintance ze wasn’t at all invested in. Ze probably should have made the effort, but ze’d been walking all day in heels, and it was really too much to expect for zir to be ‘on’ all the time.

Besides, ze didn’t like to admit to being a little daunted by the phrase ‘one of my very best friends’ that ze couldn’t use with any accuracy.

This time when Wufei received a text message, it was almost more a relief than anything. Kamatari sat back and waited while the man composed his answer, then asked in a casual tone, “So you’re a Star Wars fan?” And refrained from adding, “Speaking of movies with little to no female or racial representation.”

“Naturally,” Wufei replied, raising his eyes from his phone at last. “But I only support the Jedi Order so long as they serve Justice. I won’t be at the beck and call of any Republic.”

“I see,” was all Kamatari could think to say, repressing another laugh.

“The Sith are also an interesting Order, with, I believe, a more rational outlook in many respects, but our group already has two Sith Lords — one a Lady, as a matter of fact — and there are never more than two.”

“So you all have Star Wars… identities… you and your friends?” Ze could just imagine Wufei and his group (all of whom, in Kamatari’s imagination, looked like Wufei with different hair and sometimes breasts) running around in robes with toy lightsabers talking portentously about the Force.

“That’s correct. I am Jedi Master Chang, a Kaleesh from Kalee. Lately I’ve been considering accepting a Padawan, though it’s difficult to decide how much of the Jedi Order’s restrictive precepts I want to pass on to a apprentice.”

“And what precepts are those?” Kamatari preferred to keep Wufei off the topic of queer issues, and Star Wars didn’t make for too bad a substitute.

“The Order is specifically opposed to passion of any kind. And while it’s no great effort to understand that fear, anger, and hatred lead to the Dark Side, they believe that other, more positive emotions do as well.” It sounded like a dissertation. “The Jedi Code expressly forbids attachment. And not merely love, as we observed in Attack of the Clonesall attachment: friendships, loyalties, family bonds… And how do they expect Jedi to value the people and places and institutions they’re supposed to protect if they aren’t permitted to become attached to any of them? The Jedi Code insists on Force-users becoming emotionless robots, and my friends and I–” he put a significant emphasis on the word– “believe we would be dishonoring our commitment to Justice, and each other, by downplaying the attachment between us.”

Kamatari wanted to remark that Wufei (and, evidently, his friends) took this all far too seriously. At the same time, though, ze found zirself responding to the attitude with reluctant approbation, even admiration… and perhaps some jealousy. So, with more difficulty than ze had expected, ze said instead, “I don’t remember any of this from the movies.” And ze did actually remember the movies fairly well. Ze’d even liked them — the first three better than the second, of course, or should that be the second three better than the first? Ze’d never considered applying the Jedi Code to zir own life, though.

“You have to understand,” Wufei replied pedantically, “the movies are only a tiny fraction of what exists in the Star Wars universe. Novels, comics, video games… every day we’re expanding our knowledge of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For example, in The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson…..”

Wufei was still lecturing an only idly listening Kamatari by the time ze needed to head out to the bus stop. In fact he kept talking, hastily trying to finish up his current point, while Kamatari stood and began gathering zir bags.

“Oh,” he interrupted himself at that juncture. “I was going to give you my email address. We’re always seeking extra players.”

Kamatari hesitated, then, in a moment of weakness, felt the inexorable power of loneliness forcing zir to give in. “Why don’t you text me?” And ze rattled off zir phone number.

“I’ll have to inquire into your area code another time,” Wufei remarked as he typed.

Wanting to shake zir head at the implication there might be any more explanation for zir area code than ‘I just moved’ — a fact ze believed had already been established — Kamatari rather nodded. Once zir phone had chimed (the notification sound was called ‘Rose Petals’ and had come preloaded), unsure exactly how to say goodbye in this situation, ze raised one hand with a touch of awkwardness and went with, “Have fun with your game.”

“Farewell, my young apprentice,” Wufei replied. As Kamatari had already turned away, ze didn’t bother to restrain zir smile.

Exiting the building, wending zir high-heeled way toward the bus stop in front of the next business over, ze couldn’t quite decide how ze felt about that entire encounter. It had been frustrating, even aggravating, and certainly ridiculous, but there’d also been about it an incomprehensible sort of pleasantry, almost as if Wufei had been speaking another language the entire time, but in a friendly tone. They’d been like aliens meeting and managing to convey peaceful intentions with very little common ground to stand on — a cockatiel and an armadillo somehow communicating amicably.

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei; it was foreign to zir in a manner almost completely unpalatable. And yet not only could ze not quite bring zirself to condemn it, one aspect of it also could not be dismissed as entirely undesirable.

Wufei clearly moved in a warm, happy, and extensive group of friends that shared his interests and probably thought much the same way he did. They looked out for online sales for each other, they spent every Saturday evening together, they understood each other’s Quotes, they considered denying attachment to each other dishonorable, they watched sports they were clearly uninterested in together ‘for research purposes,’ and their texts meant so much to each other as to overcome public phone etiquette. Wufei might be a hopeless nerd, but he obviously had personal characteristics pleasant enough to win him a place among such a devoted circle.

To someone alone in a new town, there was something enviable — maybe even commendable — about that. Kamatari didn’t want to partake in Wufei’s way of life and had no interest in spending any more time with him or his ilk than ze already had, but ze couldn’t help wondering how long it would take zir to gather even a few such meaningful friends. It made zir feel a little pathetic, really.

It wasn’t impossible that it worked both ways, though. Maybe Wufei, even while looking down on Kamatari’s interest in football and willingness to work for lower pay just as much as Kamatari had looked down on Wufei’s vestiary obliviousness and solemn interpretation of fictional Orders, had yet seen something via Kamatari’s conversation that he wished he could have. He might not be specifically interested in anything Kamatari had mentioned, but perhaps some aspect of the life hinted at during their discussion called to him the way that small part of Wufei’s life called to Kamatari.

Ze would probably never know. It probably didn’t matter. But it gave zir something to think about as the bus wended its rumbling way out of the shopping district where ze’d made this strange acquaintance and back toward zir neighborhood. And honestly, it didn’t seem entirely unlikely. Animals evolved wings or claws as needed on a regular basis, didn’t they?



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

The number of M&M’s in the bowl was nothing short of comic. It was Heero’s biggest mixing bowl, and barely fit anywhere in his kitchen cabinets to begin with, and here the M&M’s were heaped up above the top of the rim in a colorful mountain that occasionally suffered little clattering avalanches onto the counter or floor.

“How many packages is this?” he wondered in audible amusement.

“Is what?” replied Duo, then, turning, saw. “Oh,” he chuckled. “I dunno… like, eight?”

“How did I not notice you buying, like, eight packages of M&M’s?”

“You were too distracted by my butt.”

“That is probably true. But why did you think you needed that many M&M’s at once?”

“Why wouldn’t I need that many M&M’s all at once?”

Heero conceded the point by scooping up a large number (there was no need for moderation) and cramming them between his teeth. Some moderation might perhaps have been warranted after all, since he then found it rather difficult to chew the unwieldy mouthful, but after several moments of maneuvering he made a pleasant discovery. “Reefa awmun,” he said.

“Yeah, what did you think?”

Rather than attempt to speak again with a largely unusable tongue, Heero worked a bit, swallowed, and eventually said, “I thought they were peanut.”

Haughtily Duo drew himself up. “What kind of infidel do you think I am?”

Heero just took another handful of candy and, before leaving the living room, stepped close to Duo and pecked him on the cheek. “Well, don’t be surprised if I eat seven of your eight packages there.”

“You sure you’re not going to watch with us?” Duo wondered as Heero made his way around the couch. His unspoken thought on the matter was that he’d only asked out of politeness; of course he always wanted Heero with him, but, familiar with Heero’s disinterest in football, didn’t want to pressure him.

“I’m going to see what I can do about the computer.” This reply was somewhat grim, as it was far past time.

Duo laughed. “Good luck!” And even as he said this, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his guest.

Heero quickened his pace. It wasn’t that he had anything against Sano (or any of Duo’s new friends), but, since he wasn’t going to be actively hanging out with the guy, there was no reason to meet him at the door. He munched on his second handful of M&M’s a couple at a time as he took a seat at the desk, booted up the computer, and listened to the conversation in the living room.

“Hope you don’t mind expired Chinese food,” was Sano’s reply to Duo’s enthusiastic welcome.

“Expired like how?”

“Expired like we’re not allowed to sell it anymore, but it’s still just fine, so we all take it home for free even though we’re technically not supposed to.”

“I love that kind of Chinese food!”

“That is a lot of M&M’s there.”

“I know! I totally have dessert covered!”

“They’re so big, though… are they peanut?”

“Hah! Heero thought that too, but I am so much better than that. They’re almond.”

“Shit.”

The sudden sound of the TV drowned out whatever Duo said next, and the surface level of his head was mostly trying to remember what the channel number for Fox was, but Heero assumed he asked what had prompted Sano’s profanity. Next came a sense of disproportionate disconsolation when Sano apparently revealed that he was allergic to almonds.

Heero spent the following few minutes pondering whether he should head into the other room and grab some more M&M’s for himself. The discovery that Duo’s guest could not enjoy the snack he had so sanguinely provided had prompted such disappointment that Heero, in the hopes of cheering him, would love to prove the purchase of so many almond M&M’s not a waste… but to do so would also, quite possibly, indicate that Heero was aware of just how disappointed Duo was, which would, rather than lessening Duo’s disappointment, merely send it off in a different direction by reminding him that Heero could still, especially when they were at home, hear his surface-level thoughts.

This was excessively frustrating. He wanted to make a nice gesture for his boyfriend (in addition to his simple desire for more M&M’s), and it seemed unfair to have to waffle over it like this. He wasn’t even working on the computer as he’d planned, merely sitting idly debating the relative merits of fetching or not fetching another handful of candy from the next room.

Eventually kickoff provided what seemed a decent distraction. If Duo’s disappointment had faded a bit, he might not make the connection between Heero’s errand and the fact that Heero had just been reading his mind, and Heero might be able to send his boyfriend one message while avoiding another. It was worth a try. So from where he’d accomplished nothing so far Heero rose and went back in there.

Surrounded by the already-separated contents of a six-pack of Coke and Chinese takeout boxes whose multiform scents permeated the living room (though they had not yet crept down the hall), Duo and his young exorcist friend sat on the sofa engrossed in the first quarter of the Oakland Raiders vs. Heero was not quite sure whom. They both looked up as Heero rounded the TV.

“Hey, Heero,” Sano greeted. “Want some Chinese leftovers?”

“No, thanks.” Heero quickly scanned what was already more than a bit of a mess (and probably destined to expand as such), murmuring, “I really just wanted…” His eyes lighted on the colorful mixing bowl where it sat a complete arm’s length from Duo’s end of the sofa as if to keep it as far as possible from Sano, and he resisted the urge to laugh. He approached and bent to retrieve a very large handful of M&M’s this time, paying close attention to Duo’s thoughts as he did so. It seemed he’d succeeded in his purpose: all that crossed his boyfriend’s mind at this point was the somewhat mollified reflection, At least Heero likes them.

Returning to the computer room more or less satisfied, Heero sat down to work through his extensive collection of M&M’s and actually pay some attention to the computer.

One reason (among many Heero was trying to ignore) that Duo’s discomfort with Heero’s magical abilities seemed so unfair was that Heero was not and probably would never be able to control the aspect of it that bothered his boyfriend. He couldn’t stop hearing projected thoughts, especially of someone to whom he was so close, and everything he saw on the internet seemed to indicate this would always be the case. A communicator, it appeared, once his abilities had awakened, was always switched to receive, and the burden fell on others not to send. Heero definitely hadn’t asked for that, and it seemed unfair that Duo was so disturbed by something Heero couldn’t do anything about and had never sought. But Duo was probably just as unable to control his discomfort as Heero to control his communication powers, so there was no use dwelling on it.

At the moment, as he began a search about how he could improve the speed and performance of his computer without having to take too much trouble or spend too much (or preferably any) money, he was also, rather perforce, following the progress of a football game he wasn’t actually watching. The Raiders were up against the St. Louis Rams, who were playing a rookie quarterback that had already been sacked twice in a row.

As little interest as Heero had in football, he was yet familiar with the basics of the sport and had no active disliking of it; additionally, he found the sounds of a football game in progress within earshot cheerful background noise. Therefore, that the combination of announcers from the loud TV and reactions from Duo’s unguarded head were giving Heero a pretty good idea what went on in the game didn’t bother him much. It wasn’t as if the computer endeavor required undivided attention.

While he’d been a doll, Duo had only ever muted the television when trying to pay specific attention to some other aural stimulus, but as a human he had developed the habit of muting it during every commercial break. Heero thought this arose from Duo’s desire to exert his autonomy over as many aspects of life as possible: he wasn’t tied to the television for entertainment to stave off madness anymore, and therefore could be highly selective about what he paid attention to. Heero didn’t complain, as he found the advertising obnoxious in the first place — and in this specific instance, the muting allowed him to overhear more perfectly a conversation he couldn’t make much of while the noisy sounds of the game were mostly drowning it out.

Of course the first two or three commercial breaks were filled with football talk — how the Raiders were performing and which of their quarterbacks would end up the star of the season, the Rams’ status and whether or not their offensive line deserved excellent running back Steven Jackson, and other such relatively uninteresting topics — but eventually, when the TV went silent after Fox’s somewhat threatening-sounding commercial break music, Sano asked half idly, “So how’s your Quatre friend doing?”

“Oh, he’s getting better,” Duo replied. “He’s working hard on trying to make up for everything he thinks he did wrong. Too hard, if you ask me, but that’s what Quatre does.”

“Yeah, he offered to pay me and Hajime, like, double the usual price ’cause he felt so bad about it. Sounded good to me, but of course Hajime said no.” There was a wry grin in Sano’s tone as he added, “That’s what Hajime does.”

“What, turns down money?”

“Well, he’s a real professional, is all… he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a decent guy like that.”

Duo laughed. “So he’d take advantage of somebody who wasn’t decent?”

Sano joined him laughing. “He sure as hell doesn’t try very hard not to take extra money from assholes.”

“That actually sounds like pretty solid business to me.”

“Right?”

The conversation (at least that Heero could hear clearly) was suspended for a bit while the game recommenced, but it wasn’t long before a failed field goal attempt led to another commercial break and Sano resumed the same topic:

“So Quatre’s really OK, then? I know that kind of shit can really mess people up sometimes.”

“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in his head…” Contrarily, Heero could tell exactly what was going on in Duo’s head as he said this: he was thinking once more, as he had off and on ever since it had first been brought up so disastrously that one morning, about the possibility — the need, in fact — of therapy for more than one of his friends in addition to himself. The subject hadn’t re-arisen aloud, what with the Quatre business and its aftermath, but Heero thought he would have to prod Trowa about it again at some point.

“But I think,” Duo continued, “he really is getting better. He’ll probably be OK.” He clearly had no idea what he could possibly do if Quatre wasn’t OK, and was trying not to think about it.

“That’s good. Getting rid of the shade’s only half the job a lot of the time.” Interestingly, Sano’s tone sounded as if he felt much the same way Duo did — that, if the situation required more of him beyond the supernatural service already performed, he might be completely lost — and Heero had to appreciate his sympathetic interest.

“Trowa’s helping a lot, I think.” Duo said this not only because he believed it to be true, but because he was so amused at the effect the mention of Trowa had on other members of the magical community. “He knows about this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, I fucking bet!” Sano agreed heartily, after which it was time for more football. Soon, however, the end of the first quarter heralded a slightly longer break than the previous, and Sano proved that his attention to the as-yet-scoreless game had not driven the other interesting topic from his head: “How’d you get to be such good friends with Trowa Barton, anyway?”

Quickly Duo decided what to say. As far as he was aware — and it was something he could probably confirm through conversation this afternoon — Sano didn’t know his history, so he must be sure to break it to him in the most dramatic fashion possible. For the moment he went with simple truth. “We lived in the same city in Michigan for about fifteen years and kinda looked out for each other.”

“Shit, you must be pretty damn good if you were looking out for Trowa Barton! What are you, actually?”

From this Duo was almost certain Sano didn’t know about the curse, but he couldn’t be as intrigued by the fact as the listening Heero was. Because Heero knew that Hajime did know, and was fairly sure Hajime and Sano were dating and equally taken by the living legend that was Trowa Barton. How odd that Hajime hadn’t shared the interesting story with his boyfriend.

“I’m pure command,” Duo said. “Not too bad, but I’m just getting back into practice after a long time not doing magic.”

Heero wished, at least a little, that he could hear anything going through Sano’s head so he could determine how the exorcist had taken that statement, why he said nothing at the moment.

Duo went on, “But you’re a natural, aren’t you? That’s way way cooler than anything. I have literally never met a natural before.” Though Sano wouldn’t be able to appreciate appropriately that phrase with its term of emphasis.

“I don’t know.” Sano sounded annoyed. “Hajime thinks so, but I haven’t been able to get any specific reasons out of him. I thought I was just necrovisual, and then maybe a communicator since it turns out I can talk to familiar animals. I haven’t seen a damn thing to make me think I’ve got divination or command.”

“And command’s pretty hard to miss,” Duo mused. “Maybe there’s a test Trowa can do to find out for sure.”

“Ehh, I wouldn’t want to bug him about something like that.”

Duo jumped on this. “Why not? He helps people out with magic all the time.”

“Uh, I kinda already… think I kinda got on his bad side.”

With a loud laugh partaking of knowledge Sano lacked, Duo assured him, “Oh, believe me, if you were on Trowa’s bad side, you’d totally know it! You don’t even have any idea what that guy can do to you.”

Sano mumbled something to the effect of assuming Trowa Barton could do anything he damn well pleased to anyone he didn’t like, but his exact words were drowned out by the returning sound of the television.

Heero had found some recommendations online about various programs to clean up a hard drive, and was in the middle of reading about registries and what those affected, when he realized he was out of M&M’s. This time he didn’t even question the propriety of his actions, merely got up and headed into the other room. He was just in time to hear from the TV an update on a game in progress elsewhere, between the Broncos (who were winning) and the Seahawks, and Sano’s almost startlingly intense response, “Man, fuck Denver.”

Though Duo complained about the 49ers because they were so close, he’d evidently never bought in much to the real league rivalries, and thus protested now, “Hey, I lived in Denver for, like, three years!”

The look Sano threw him, which Heero caught because he was surreptitiously watching for it as he bent to retrieve his next supply of M&M’s, suggested he was adding up numbers. At the moment it amounted to about fifteen years skilled enough to be looking out for Trowa Barton in Michigan plus enough time to be out of practice in command magic thereafter plus, like, three years in Denver. But all Sano said at this point was, “Well, fuck the Broncos, anyway.”

Duo just laughed.

Heero returned to the computer and started downloading the first program he planned to try, listened to the disappointment in the next room when the Rams were the first to score, then cocked an ear with interest as two commercial breaks separated only by a brief punt provided plenty of time for conversation.

His boyfriend wasted no time jumping back onto the subject they’d left hanging before, since he wanted certain details and felt this was the best way to get them: “Seriously, there’s no way Trowa’s mad at you or anything. Like I said, you’d know.” Duo actually felt a little guilty painting this inaccurate picture, as he knew perfectly well that people Trowa found annoying tended to get avoided and ignored by him rather than made active targets of his malice; but he still wanted answers. “I mean, I know there was some kind of… incident? …at his house that one night…?”

“Heh… yeah… me and Hajime sorta… had sex…”

Duo choked loudly on whatever he was eating, and began to cough. Though Sano gave a sheepish laugh as if to express penitence for having caused this inconvenience, there was no feeling of accusation whatsoever in Duo’s head; he’d been longing to hear this gossip for weeks, and now it was getting started in an even more interesting fashion than he’d anticipated. Finally he managed, “Seriously? I had no idea that’s what it was! Trowa described it as a soap opera, not a porno!”

Again Sano laughed, and again it sounded chagrined — but there was, perhaps, a sly, almost smug edge to it as well, as if, though the circumstance did embarrass him, he also felt a touch of pride at having gotten away with something so audacious. “The part he would’ve overheard was actually all soap opera,” he allowed. “The porn didn’t start ’til after he left.”

“So you went to yell at Hajime,” Duo prompted, amused and eager, “for not telling you where he went, and ended up having drama that ended in sex?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“And now you guys are dating?”

“Yep. Finally.” Heero wasn’t sure whether Sano knew how much he was teasing Duo by not immediately pouring forth the entire story in all its gory details, but in any case Duo probably deserved it for the manner in which he was planning to make the best possible dramatic use of his own interesting experiences.

“How long were you guys not dating?”

“Like, six months,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Because he’s an asshole.”

“Then I can totally see why you’re going out with him,” Duo replied with mock seriousness.

“The thing about Hajime…” Sano’s statement disintegrated into a frustrated sound as the TV came back on and he apparently gave up describing his boyfriend for now. However, a few minutes later, during a quiet stretch of game where a potential foul was being discussed at length and even the announcers had little to say, Sano got started again with the air of one that has been organizing his thoughts for the last while and is now ready to present.

“The thing about Hajime is that he’s really bad at talking to anyone about anything serious in his own damn life. Like, I feel like getting to know him has been spywork this whole time, because he sure as hell doesn’t open up about anything about himself that isn’t completely shallow.”

Duo was thinking that, amusingly, the very fact Sano was saying this indicated something much the opposite about him, as well as that this didn’t really explain why Hajime was an asshole because they hadn’t been dating for six months. However, more curious than ever though he was, he was prevented from prompting for more details by the game’s resumption with the announcement of no penalty. The good news was that it didn’t take much longer for Oakland to call a timeout and commercials to reappear.

Sano hesitated not a whit to continue what was pretty clearly a rant. “Yeah, so I could never figure out whether Hajime was straight or what, because he never lets you know anything about himself if he can help it. Turns out he just isn’t really into relationships or something, but guys are fine? I mean–” he laughed a little as he reconsidered his tone and wording– “obviously guys are fine, but it took me fucking forever to figure that out. I still don’t know what his actual orientation is, and I’m sleeping with him now.”

Duo was starting to put together a hazy picture of Sano’s relationship with his boyfriend and the leadup thereto, and found it partially pathetic and partially amusing — and withal even more interesting than he’d been expecting. On his end, Heero was mostly entertained to observe what a gossip his own boyfriend was.

A sack against Oakland forcing them to punt distracted Duo somewhat, and, though Sano joined him in lamenting the circumstance, it clearly hadn’t been enough to distract him from the rant he still hadn’t fully vocalized. Heero, continually entertained, wondered if Sano complained about his boyfriend like this to all of his friends.

“It’s like he lives behind these walls that he just doesn’t let down for anyone, even his fucking boyfriend… and then at the same time he has this totally unfair advantage since he can read my mind, so I’ve had to practice my ass off learning how to not let him hear shit in there so he’s not a total dick about it, while at the same time all sorts of stuff about him is still this big fucking secret.”

And now, abruptly, the situation had gone from entertaining to extremely uncomfortable. Because there was no way Duo could hear a description like this without being pricklingly aware just how close it was to a description of Heero. ‘Walls,’ he was already reflecting, was even the exact term he’d used in his own assessment of Heero back when he’d been trying to figure him out. He recalled something Quatre had said at some point about how nobody had ever been able to get very close to Heero; he recalled his own surprise and happiness, at a later point, in realizing he’d somehow gotten past some of those walls without knowing how he’d done it.

You weren’t human at the time, Heero reflected with bitter nostalgia.

Of course, Duo’s thoughts went on — all at the same moment, really; it was more of that speed of mind Heero had admired so much in the past — Heero wasn’t like that Hajime guy in any other respect, the situations weren’t the same, and it wasn’t fair to Heero to compare them. But there were walls, and there was an unjust advantage of communication magic. It was close enough.

And Heero, Duo reflected further with a sinking of heart, had probably picked up on all of these thoughts.

Heero had stood from his chair almost without realizing what he did, looking around in something like panic. He and Duo were both suddenly agitated and upset, and the only thing he could think to do about it was leave the apartment. Duo probably couldn’t keep from having or projecting these thoughts, and Heero couldn’t keep from hearing them, so to separate for a little seemed essential. It might also benefit Duo to be free to discuss this with someone in a similar circumstance — one that was close enough, at any rate, to have prompted this unpleasantness in the first place — and he would certainly not be able to do so with Heero twenty feet away.

Hastily Heero went into the living room and, avoiding Duo’s eye, looked around somewhat frantically for his car keys. Finding them on the kitchen counter, he made for them with grasping hands and a stiff neck, saying, “I’m going to run get some groceries,” as he seized them and turned toward the apartment door. It was a stupid thing to say, since they’d been grocery shopping literally last night — when Heero had evidently been too distracted by Duo’s butt to notice the number of M&M packages he was purchasing — but Heero had finally come to accept the fact that inventing excuses was not a skill he possessed.

“OK,” said Duo hoarsely. He knew exactly why this was happening. What he didn’t know was how to feel about it, and his head was in turmoil.

Sano had still been speaking when Heero emerged from the hall, but had ceased abruptly at this exchange, and now silence filled the room as Heero plunged out the door; Heero didn’t think he was imagining the awkwardness and tension of that silence. What exactly they would talk about in his absence he could not guess, but at least Duo would be safe inside his own head for a while.

Whether this had been the right choice Heero had no idea, but he still saw no alternative. In nearly as much mental turmoil as that in which he’d left Duo, he made his way out of the apartment building without seeing it very clearly, heading for his car with no intention whatsoever of turning it on just yet. It was outside that he noticed his feet were clad only in socks, which killed whatever intention he’d had left of driving anywhere eventually. He probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with any groceries he needed anyway, and would most likely have ended up spending a silly amount of money on items randomly thrown into a shopping basket as he blindly walked the aisles of the store.

His thoughts were largely incoherent as he sat behind the motionless steering wheel struggling to become and remain calm and rational. Struggling not to feel bitter or annoyed about this. And eventually, perhaps due to the calming, enclosed atmosphere of the car interior or perhaps in the natural course of the passage of time, he did manage to subdue his agitation to a relatively manageable level. He leaned the seat back and tried to relax. That was frankly impossible, but he could at least repeat to himself for a while that he mustn’t be unreasonable about this.

Duo had been through so much — more than Heero could really comprehend at this point, communication magic notwithstanding. If his response to Heero’s abilities seemed like an overreaction, seemed unfair and even unkind, that was because Heero didn’t yet understand Duo’s frame of mind. Perhaps he would never understand, but that didn’t given him the right to be unreasonable, to be unfair and unkind in return. The thought of being unkind to Duo, whom he loved, after everything Duo had already suffered, made him almost sick — and that feeling must be his strength, must help him remember that Duo was not being unreasonable and that he, too, must not be unreasonable.

He had neglected to check the time when he left the apartment or began this shoeless vigil, so when he did look he couldn’t be sure just how long he’d been out here. In his agitation he felt as if it had been approximately forever, and he longed to go back to Duo and make sure he was all right; but he felt that not only would it be wiser to give his quest for calm and relaxation a little more time and effort, he also knew the game had started at 1:00 and it wasn’t even 2:00 yet. He should give them at least through halftime to discuss whatever they were likely to discuss in there.

It occurred to him that the game, being a local one, must be on the radio somewhere, and that if he could find it, he could gage his timing a little better than by merely watching the clock. So he turned the car halfway on at last and began cycling through stations. When he found what he believed — and after a few minutes confirmed — to be what he was looking for, he turned the volume up and attempted to find a comfortable position in which to listen for a while. This endeavor proved anomalously difficult. He’d spent quite a few lunch breaks sitting in the car alongside Duo with no problem, but apparently when Duo was removed from the equation, so was all comfort. Or perhaps that was just the awareness of the discomfort he’d come out here to escape.

He tried to let himself be distracted, tried to pretend he was an avid Oakland Raiders fan that really cared what was going on and how it would affect the season, but, even adjusting for his indifference to football, this was incredibly hard. He could only muster the mildest interest in the events of the game, and when anything unrelated interrupted to disconnect the tether of his attention, it was next to impossible to think about anything but Duo. He didn’t care about the new burger at Carl’s Jr., he didn’t care about the World Series coverage on this station, and he didn’t care how the Patriots were faring against the Jets. He did care about what might be going on in Duo’s head right now, and the effect that might have on their relationship.

Had he actually been an avid Oakland Raiders fan, he must have been disappointed at the score when, about a hundred years later, halftime finally rolled around. He was not cheated of unpleasant feelings, however, since he already felt mummified by sitting still for so long in a place he didn’t want to be, listening to content he less than half appreciated, and now he had to remind himself that the plan had always been to wait until after halftime — no matter how tedious was the radio announcers’ talk about names Heero barely recognized and assessing plays he hadn’t seen.

Despite how long it had seemed, in reality it had taken no more than about thirty minutes to get to halftime. Getting through halftime, however, a process whose finite span was dictated by the NFL and the same for every game, felt about ten times longer. Heero was reminded vaguely of the days he’d spent at work attempting to exercise even the smallest measure of patience waiting to go home to the doll he had a crush on. Except that in this instance he didn’t even have paying work to distract him — just a boring halftime show — and the concern and agitation he felt now was far different from the anticipation and curiosity he’d felt then.

But just as those long days apart from Duo the doll had each come to an end, so the overlong first half of this damned football game must too come to an end and the second commence. Heero didn’t even pause to reassess his situation, decide for sure whether he thought this was a good time to go back in; he simply turned the car off — and with no slow motions, either — and headed back into the apartment building.

He did give some thought to how he should reenter. Would it be better to pretend nothing untoward had happened, despite the total absence of groceries in his hands to bear out the excuse with which he’d left; or should he make it clear that he did not require any statement from Duo at this time but would probably want to talk to him about these events later? How curious was Sano likely to be, and to what extent should Heero humor that curiosity? Well, the former point probably depended most on what Sano and Duo had discussed in Heero’s absence, and the answer to the latter was, ‘None at all.’ What Duo chose to share with his friends was up to him; Heero didn’t feel like taking part in it.

So it was with a hybrid of the proposed attitudes, and a steeling of self to any possible negativity within, that he re-entered the apartment. There, he was infinitely relieved to receive a smile from his boyfriend along with the picked-up reflections that Duo appreciated the privacy Heero had so precipitously and clumsily offered him.

Whatever the conversation had been about during the bulk of his absence, it was now, for some reason or other, about Hugh Jackman and how hot he was or wasn’t. Heero might almost have thought they’d invented the topic at random so as to have something safe to talk about when he returned, but they’d seemed to be in the middle of it when he entered, and they couldn’t have known when that would happen. At least he thought they couldn’t.

As Heero moved almost automatically to grab some M&M’s, he gave Duo a look he knew could not possibly convey everything — I’m glad you seem to be doing OK; it’s fine if you guys gossiped about me while I was out there; I hope it helped; we’ll talk about it later; I love you — but that he hoped would get at least a little of it across; and received in return a widening of Duo’s smile with a sardonic dimple on one side of the mouth and a reassuring crinkling at the outer corner of each eye that seemed — Heero liked to think he wasn’t imagining it — to respond, Yeah, it’s fine, we’ll talk about it later. He also caught sight, beyond Duo, of an inquisitive expression on Sano’s face. The young exorcist was holding forth on what a perfect Wolverine Hugh Jackman had made, but very obviously couldn’t restrain his look of curiosity about Heero’s actions and attitude as he did so.

Heero too was curious, wanting very much to know what they had talked about while he’d agonized in the car, but with the unspoken promise of discussing it with Duo later for his reassurance, he just took his fresh batch of M&M’s into the computer room to resume his previous task. It actually seemed a little absurd how relieved he was to be back in here within earshot (and mind-reading range) of Duo, but finding it absurd didn’t lessen that relief.

The Hugh Jackman conversation, which had been taking place over the top of the game anyway, was cut off abruptly when something one of the Rams did caused both Duo and Sano to protest loudly. Evidently a penalty call satisfied them fairly well, for they then fell to discussing the quarterback the Raiders had switched to.

The atmosphere in the living room seemed identical to that of the first half of the game before snarls had arisen, and this continued or restored ease made Heero wonder even harder what they’d talked about during those forty-five minutes or so in the middle, but he would just have to find out later. At least that lengthy time away had been enough for the program he’d downloaded to run through an entire cycle of cleaning up his hard drive, so now he could reboot the machine and see what effect it might have had.

The conversation in the living room shifted to how many NFL games each had attended in person, which between them was not an impressive number, and the listening Heero considered that football tickets — especially when the Raiders had not (he believed) been a particularly good team for several years — could not be terribly expensive and might make an excellent gift for his boyfriend at some point.

The next commercial break was spent discussing whether or not the Rams’ offensive line was supporting Steven Jackson the way it should after some comment of the announcer’s that at least Sano seemed to take issue with; and, curious though he still was, Heero’s attention waned. The computer was taking just as tediously long as ever to boot up, and he wanted to know why. He did chuckle quietly a little later when, a touchdown having been scored and a lot of hugging and butt-patting apparently having been featured onscreen, Duo and Sano agreed happily that football was a really gay sport at times, but mostly he was focusing on the computer and its issues.

After another commercial break’s worth of football talk that Heero didn’t really listen to, however, and when the announcers, upon returning, had started teasing a fellow sports analyst with pictures of his shag and mullet hairstyles of decades past, Duo caught Heero’s interest again by commenting with intense disgust, “I don’t even know what people were thinking in the 80’s with that kind of hair. Best decade ever not to go out in public much!”

“OK.” Sano had evidently caught the reminiscent tone in Duo’s expression of hirsute disapprobation, and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “How old actually are you?”

Duo muted the television for commercials before answering in a tone so studiedly casual that, to Heero at least, it stood out like a conversational beacon, “Hundred and eleven.”

Here was the first instance in Heero’s presence of Sano’s thoughts breaking past their usual restraints — restraints that, Heero now believed, had originally been put in place purely to prevent Hajime from reading Sano’s mind because there was at least a little of the same thing going on between those two as there was between Heero and Duo. But now Heero could easily detect the intense shock and curiosity in Sano’s head, even from the other room, as well as the sudden flood of theories that overtook him in a chaotic shambles. It never occurred to Sano to disbelieve Duo or take his words as a joke; he merely considered somewhat incoherently how it could have come to pass.

And at the same time, of course, he was expressing his astonishment and inquisitiveness aloud to his very tickled companion. “Fuck! A hundred and fucking what? How? Did Trowa Barton let you in on his big secret, or what?”

Heero knew very precisely the grin that was on Duo’s face now, and the exact degree to which Duo would have preferred to repress it in order to maintain the casualness he thought would play better into his desired delivery. And Heero had to smile too; even if part of today’s get-together had led to some unpleasant feelings, at least Duo had this to revel in.

“I was Trowa’s big secret, actually,” he was saying. “If I wasn’t immortal for a while, he wouldn’t have been either.”

“No fucking way.” Despite the profanity, Sano’s reaction to this was clearly positive. “You can’t tell me you’re stronger than Trowa fucking Barton.”

Duo laughed. He was having so much fun now. Heero’s smile, in the other room, had not diminished. “No, I can’t! And I don’t have crazy fans all over the place either!”

“I am not a crazy fan,” Sano protested. “I’m a totally normal fan. I have a friend who’s a crazy fan, though, and he’s going to flip the fuck out when I tell him this. Am I allowed to tell him this? What am I telling him, actually?”

Now Duo was laughing throughout much of what Sano had to say. “I don’t really know how much Trowa’d like you to tell your crazy friend, but I’m guessing ‘nothing.’ He’s pretty private about this stuff.”

“What stuff? How were you guys immortal?” Sano’s tone was buoyantly demanding, and Heero wondered if he was bouncing up and down on the sofa as he said this. His thoughts, however, after that initial burst of wonder that had broken down his barriers, were becoming more difficult to hear as the walls rebuilt themselves. This was interesting to observe, and somewhat promising in relation to Duo’s tendency to project everything that crossed his mind.

Finally Duo presented the meat of the story. “Trowa accidentally cast a curse on me in 1923 that made me a really sucky sort of immortal for 87 years. We only just managed to break it this May.”

“Holy shit! Does that — no, don’t turn that back on yet!” It seemed as if Duo, in his amusement, fumbled the remote, for it was a couple of seconds before the reinstated TV sounds disappeared again. “What really sucky kind of immortal? And why would that make — I know jack-shit about curses.”

“There’s always a kind of backlash to a curse, so the person who cast it is part of it until it’s broken. I couldn’t die because I was made of plastic, so Trowa couldn’t die that whole time either. He didn’t even age.”

“Made of plastic?” Sano echoed, and it was clear that any frustration Duo had felt earlier at Sano not pouring out gossipy details all at once was being amply repaid.

“Yeah, I was a doll.” There was a pause during which some facial expression must have asked the next question, for eventually Duo added, “Like a Barbie doll? Obviously I wasn’t an actual Barbie doll, but I was that same size. I could wear Ken clothes.”

At this statement Sano gave an incredulous laugh. “That sounds like… not a lot of fun.”

“Oh, you don’t even have any idea.”

Duo began to expound, with no great organization of topic, upon his trials as a doll over the many decades — how he’d lacked most physical sensation, the limitations to his personal movement, how he’d been considered a child’s plaything and passed from hand to hand with no stability of home or relationship. The sound on the television remained muted, and no thought of football crossed Duo’s mind; Heero, listening, wondered whether those two even remembered there was a game going on in front of them. Though admittedly the doll story was far more fascinating.

Of course the breaking of the curse had to be touched upon in greater detail as well, and Heero could tell Duo felt awkward talking about Heero’s part knowing Heero heard every word and probably more but wasn’t actually involved in the conversation. Hoping to assuage this, Heero got up and went into the next room under the pretense (and with the actual intention) of getting more M&M’s.

“So of course everyone else who worked there,” Duo was saying, “wondered what that was all about.”

“Yeah, I just fucking bet!” Sano chortled.

“Actually that’s an understatement.” Heero made sure to keep his tone light despite the sardonic nature of his comment, just to be sure Duo knew he didn’t mind the conversation being about him more or less in his absence. “People were visiting my desk nonstop for almost the entire month just to see Duo.” He smiled at his boyfriend as he lifted his fresh handful of candy, then turned to head back to the computer room.

More relaxed, Duo went on about the curse-breaking month. Heero, having been present for its telling once before in different company, already knew it made a pretty good tale — more engaging, at least, than trying to get his computer to run faster. And when it transitioned to a discussion of Trowa’s powers and the artifact — which Sano, of course, was somewhat familiar with after having extracted its leftover energy from Quatre just above a week ago — the talk did not become any less interesting.

The way Duo told the story — even the manner in which he referred to the misery of being a doll and the long years of suffering — made it seem light and funny, as if his tribulations had been no more than the ‘pain in the ass’ Sano remarked they sounded like, tedious and inconvenient and annoying rather than harrowing and traumatizing. Of the gregarious Duo Heero found this a little surprising, but at the same time thought it wise: Duo and Sano probably weren’t close enough yet for that kind of pain to be shared, no matter how (possibly inappropriately) open Sano was about his own relationships and experiences.

And Sano was open. Despite not being able to read his mind at this point, Heero judged him completely straightforward when he eventually remarked, “Shit. And I thought I was special just because I was possessed by a ghost one time.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to be surprised. “What? That sounds pretty special to me! Aren’t ghosts super rare?”

“Yeah, but not as rare as people who get turned into fucking dolls and then live forever!”

“Hey, the curse is broken,” Duo protested. “I’m not going to live forever. I wouldn’t want to!”

“My point is that your experience was really… one-of-a-kind, you know? I was thinking it was pretty cool that I got to do something most people will never do, but you–”

Duo interrupted with, “Hey, you’re supposed to not be a crazy fan, remember? Mine was not cool.”

Sano laughed. “Yeah. Right. Sorry. I wouldn’t want to trade or anything.”

“But how did you manage to get possessed by a ghost? You mean a real ghost, right?”

“Yep, a real ghost.” Sano seemed pleased with himself, and Heero believed he’d really meant that he wouldn’t want to trade, despite probably not fully understanding how not-cool Duo’s experience had been. “This poor guy got killed by — it’s really complicated.” Sano paused for a moment as if considering the best way to relate the information, and Duo waited eagerly for the story. Today was turning out to be a much more compelling and involved meeting with the exorcist than he’d expected, and the fun aspects of it were balancing out the uncomfortable pretty well.

“OK, someone was being threatened,” Sano resumed. “Did you know we have an actual yakuza right here in town?” Duo didn’t seem to know the word, and Sano said, probably in response to a confused expression, “You know, Japanese mafia?”

“Oh, is that the real way you say it?” Duo sounded enlightened. Heero’s laugh wasn’t quite loud enough for them to hear down the hall.

“Yeah, we’ve got one. And there was this… person… being threatened by this yakuza — some of them — and had to kill someone for them to save someone else from being killed.”

“O…K…” Duo thought he’d worked through that statement fairly well, but wondered why Sano was being so vague. Heero guessed it was because murder and other criminal activity had been involved and Sano didn’t want to implicate anyone. In this context it was probably even a client confidentiality thing.

“So this guy who got killed really wanted to make sure the person who killed him knew he wasn’t mad about it. He understood they did it under duress to save someone else’s life.”

“Wow, that’s really big of the guy.” Duo was thinking uncomfortably of the circumstance as he imagined it. “I don’t think I’d be looking out for the person who killed me like that.”

Heero wondered whether that was true. Duo had, after all, always been looking out for Trowa, who had, if not killed him, done about the next best thing. He remembered Duo telling Trowa that he’d forgiven him ‘back in, like, the forties.’ It might take some time for Duo to forgive, depending on the provocation, but he would probably always do so. Proportionally speaking, the twenty or so years that had passed before he’d managed to forgive Trowa for cursing him might translate into a matter of weeks to ‘forgive’ Heero for being able to read his surface-level thoughts. It was an unexpectedly reassuring idea.

“Well…” Sano sounded a little uncomfortable right alongside Duo, though probably for different reasons. “I’m… really oversimplifying here. The point is that he really, really wanted to talk to the person who killed him, which is why he became a ghost, but he couldn’t talk to them because they weren’t necrovisual.”

“So you volunteered, like a badass, to help him.”

The grin was audible in Sano’s tone as he replied, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Was it scary? What does it feel like?”

“It was pretty easy, actually. I mean, I collapsed afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t a lot of work for me. You sort of get… pushed back… like you’re in another room… The ghost just sort of takes over, and you don’t really have to worry about anything that’s going on. Actually it took some effort if I wanted to know what was going on.”

Heero was reminded by this description of the Imperius Curse, but Duo hadn’t read Harry Potter yet and would not, of course, make the same connection.

“So afterwards,” Sano went on, “a lot of the stuff he said I had a hard time remembering, even though he was talking through my actual mouth.”

“Which I guess didn’t matter so much, since it wasn’t you he was talking to,” Duo speculated, “but I bet it was pretty weird anyway.”

“Yeah, it was like some movie I watched forever ago… or more like some movie someone else watched in another room, but over and over and over again so it’s like, ‘I should remember this really well, but I don’t.’ Or maybe–”

At this point, both Sano and Duo interrupted the meandering description to give the first indication since the long-term muting that they were still aware of the television. Their sudden, simultaneous reactions to the body-slamming of a Ram by and over the shoulder of a Raider were loud and enthusiastic; apparently some things were every bit as cool as the details of ghostly possession. Heero gave a rueful smile and shake of head as he listened to them go on about it for a bit.

He’d set the hard drive to defragmenting, a process that would undoubtedly take longer than the rest of the football game and probably Sano’s visit. He sat back in his chair and ate some M&M’s as he listened for further interesting conversation in the next room.

Eventually the body-slam evidently ceased to engross, for when the sounds of exultation had faded Duo finally asked, “So did you get to find out all sorts of interesting stuff about ‘Heaven’ or whatever?”

“You know, I was more interested in getting the guy to move on, because he was haunting me for weeks and weeks and it was a pain in the ass. But Hajime had a long talk with him about that kind of shit, and I don’t think he really learned all that much. I mean, somebody becomes a ghost by not going to the afterlife, so he couldn’t really know all that much to tell Hajime about.”

“But there is an afterlife of some sort.”

“There’s something.” By the sound of Sano’s voice Heero was reminded of Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, and was given to believe that this subject didn’t interest the exorcist much. “Hajime said the ghost said something was ‘pulling him’ or something. And I know a good medium who likes dead people better than he likes living people. So it’s not like people stop existing when they move on… but that’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Now Duo sounded unusually pensive, and it seemed that most of what interested him about this lay somewhat deeper in his mind than the superficial level Heero could pick up on. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess some kinds of magic kinda answer some questions about how the world works…”

“Not the really big questions, though,” Sano shrugged. “You still have to decide for yourself about God and shit.”

“Right,” Duo snorted. “God.” There was an unaccustomed bitterness and derision to his tone that made Heero prick up his ears even more than he yet had.

Sano, for his part, chuckled, with just a hint of the same sound to his voice. And Heero found himself slightly jealous that, however little they’d actually touched on the topic, they were in there discussing something he and Duo had never really talked about. He could guess, but he didn’t know precisely what had caused that tone in his boyfriend’s voice — but Sano seemed to understand it. Which of course was a normal and acceptable thing for a friend to do, though Heero had just been thinking Duo wasn’t close enough to this one yet to be sharing a number of personal feelings. But maybe Heero’s ideas of closeness were less than entirely applicable here and in many social situations. He tried to quash his jealousy.

There was little else to incite it. After the nearly shared feelings on God, enough moments of silence passed that apparently both men in the living room thought it appropriate for the television sound to come back on. And though at first they didn’t seem much given to discussing the game or even reacting audibly to it — in fact, Heero could hear Duo in his head turning over the information he’d received today — eventually, gradually, they seemed to grow more and more engrossed. By the time the two-minute warning rolled around, they were enthusiastically discussing football again, assessing the Raiders’ eventually satisfactory performance and the near guarantee of winning at this point.

What currently worried Heero most was that Sano might want to hang out for some indefinite period after the game talking football or curses or possession or whatever. He chided himself for being so selfish, for wanting the guy out of the way so intensely, but that didn’t change the feeling of pre-emptive annoyance at the basically hypothetical thought of not being able to talk to Duo about personal things for so much longer. He would never have guessed Sano’s appearance here could possibly raise such emotional topics that would need to be covered after his departure.

The level of celebration when the Raiders took a knee and the game ended at 16-14 was no more than expected, and there remained only the question of when, now the purpose of hanging out was fulfilled, Sano would get up and leave and Heero could have a nice private chat with Duo. And at first it did seem that what Heero feared would come to pass, for both speakers in the living room sounded relaxed and complacent, as if ending their conversation and their continual snacking on leftover Chinese food was the last thing on their minds. And though after canvassing the Raiders’ prospects for a while they went back to discussing magical experiences, a topic not entirely uncompelling, Heero couldn’t rouse the same interest within himself for eavesdropping as he had before.

Every bit as anxious and impatient as he’d been in the car around halftime, he sat drumming his fingers almost audibly at the computer desk, wishing Sano gone, longing for the intimacy of aloneness and a conversation that would mean a lot more to him than this one did. Eventually he started responding to every statement Sano made with a semi-sarcastic but silent response such as, “Yes, that’s a lot of fun; why don’t you go think about it at home?” or, “Why don’t you go tell your boyfriend that? I’m sure he’ll be interested,” or, “Don’t you have homework to do?”

And at that point he heard Sano say, “Well, I got homework to do, so I better get out of here.” And Heero, recalling what he was and what Sano supposedly was, blushed at the thought that the statements he’d intended as entirely silent and private could possibly have gone out and been heard. No worse than rude they might have been, but still he wouldn’t have said any of them aloud. Attempting some sort of apology would be far too awkward, though, so he planned to stay firmly put in this room until Sano had gone.

The process of Sano getting gone was progressing apace. Often with Duo, a goodbye conversation was really just a continuation of the previous conversation in a different, last-minute-addendum sort of tone, so technically they were discussing football yet, but Heero could sense the goodbye coming. Eventually, though still on about quarterbacks and stats and such, they even removed from the sofa and toward the door. Restraining any further sarcastic remarks, Heero listened intently until finally he heard actual goodbyes and the opening and closing of the egress.

Then he took a deep breath and stood. It was funny how much he could long for something he doubted could be terribly enjoyable. At least there was still approximately a ton of almond M&M’s waiting for him out there.

Duo was waiting for him out there too, staring straight into the hall from which Heero emerged as if, though lacking any mind-reading abilities of his own, he knew perfectly well what Heero was thinking now. Wordlessly they moved into first a hug and then a kiss, then separated; Duo went to flop back down onto the couch, Heero to move the M&M’s bowl onto the end table whence it could be easily reached from the spot beside Duo.

Mostly empty Styrofoam boxes of expired Chinese food stood open here and there on the floor in an arc between sofa and television, and Coke cans were taking up more space than Heero would have thought a six-pack could account for. It would all need to be cleaned up… but not yet. For now he just sat in awkward silence next to Duo and ate M&M’s. He was starting to feel he’d had a few too many M&M’s today.

Duo was reflecting that, if Sano’s conversation about magic and magical experiences was going to lead to uncomfortable topics and panicky tension between him and Heero, maybe Sano, harmlessly fun and amusing as he seemed, wasn’t the best person to be inviting to the apartment.

With great effort, Heero restrained himself from responding to this, waiting for Duo to bring it up aloud so they could hold the conversation properly. But Duo’s thoughts then shifted to how uncomfortable it still was to be aware of Heero reading his mind, and with a sigh and a bit of a frown he said, “I’m starting to recognize the look you get when you’re hearing something in my head but not saying anything about it.”

And there it was again: the unjust resentment. All Duo disliked was the combination of Heero’s ability with his own lack of control, but it sure sounded as if he was complaining about something Heero actively chose to do. Heero didn’t quite know what to say, since much of what he was thinking would have come out sounding bitter and combative if he’d attempted to arrange it in words.

When Heero thus remained silent, Duo continued, “So you might as well just say whatever you wanted to say. About Sano, I mean.”

Struggling to put unpleasant thoughts behind him, Heero did as he was told. “I don’t think you need to keep Sano away. Stuff like that’s probably going to keep coming up until we get this fixed, so there’s no reason to cut yourself off from something that will make you happy.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to see you freaking out.”

“It’s… OK, though.” Heero dropped his head onto the couch cushion behind him, unwilling for the moment to look at Duo. “You weren’t being unreasonable or anything…”

“But why should you have to hear that kind of thing at all? It’s not fair!” Clearly Duo meant this was unfair for both of them, but the reasons he felt this way that flashed across the surface of his mind were so tangled that Heero could barely understand any of it. But he definitely caught a hint of the involuntary mistrust he’d sensed in Duo before; Duo obviously felt, whether he wanted to or not, that Heero spying on his private thoughts — even if Heero received his own punishment in so doing — was a big part of the unfairness of the situation.

Heero wondered whether if, instead of their powers being one-sided, they could each read the other’s mind, all these problems would be alleviated… or doubled. He was certainly glad that just at the moment he was able to hide his resentment at Duo’s feelings. He felt something that echoed Duo’s words somewhat, though — why should he have to feel this resentment at all? Why should this situation exist? It seemed pointless and foolish.

Duo took a deep, frustrated breath. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind I told Sano about — a little bit about it. I didn’t want to — I mean, it’s funny the way he talks about his boyfriend, but it seems pretty awful too, and I didn’t want to be like that…”

Hastily, looking over again at where Duo was staring down at fidgeting fingers in his lap, Heero assured him, “No, that’s fine. That’s why I left — so you could talk about it with someone who might understand.”

Duo nodded. “I just told him I didn’t like you being able to read my thoughts either, but I haven’t figured out how to control my thoughts to keep them private.”

Heero mirrored the nod. He appreciated Duo’s restraint in this matter, agreeing that, while he truly didn’t mind Duo discussing their issues with someone that might understand, and while there was a certain entertainment value to the way Sano talked about Hajime in the latter’s absence, he wouldn’t like to think Duo was quite that open about him.

“And he said Hajime can probably help, at least a little. If I hang out with Sano and Hajime’s around, Hajime can let me know every time I’m projecting thoughts, so then I can get a feel for how to… not do that.”

It seemed that Sano, when presenting this informal and rather uncertain-sounding plan, had done it as casually as he did most things, and Duo, though he’d accepted the offer and thanked him, hadn’t given it much real thought at that time. Now, in repeating the idea to Heero, though his words had been somewhat listless with lack of investment, he began to reflect upon it properly at last… and, in so doing, awakened in himself that remarkable optimism that carried him through so many trials. All of a sudden he was considering the plan in greater detail and with a growing feeling that it was a really good one. And abruptly he was filled with a hope that was easily — indeed, almost overwhelmingly — detectable in his head.

He didn’t need, after all, full and proper communication training working one-on-one with someone devoted to teaching him everything a non-communicator could possibly master of that branch of magic; he just needed to learn how to stop shouting out his thoughts all the time. And if he could do that without inconveniencing Heero, without constantly reminding Heero of this problem, that would be great. And if he could do it while making a better friend of a sympathetic fellow magician? It sounded perfect.

Duo’s optimism was catching, and in addition to simply feeling better about the entire situation, Heero was, almost against his better judgment, inclined also to think this a very good plan. In fact, beyond some possibility of jealousy on his part that was in no way a deciding factor (nor even something he would ever bring up), he couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea except for one particular. “I don’t know Hajime well,” he said carefully, disinclined to mention this at all in the face of Duo’s (and his!) sudden optimism but feeling he must, “but is he really likely to want to help you with this?” Heero specifically remembered one conversation in which Hajime had made it pretty clear, without actually saying so, that he wasn’t interested in teaching random people about communication magic.

The grin Duo’s mouth spread into was as infectious as his optimism. “Sano said he’s sure he can convince him.”

And Heero, grinning back, had the sudden amusing mental image of Sano and Duo watching football over at wherever Sano and Hajime lived (in Heero’s imagination it was a mirror image of this apartment), with Hajime sitting in the next room at the computer totally disinterested in the game but occasionally poking his head out to let Duo know he was projecting. There would probably even be Chinese food in Styrofoam all over the floor… but certainly no almond M&M’s.

“It sounds great, then,” he said.

Duo reached for Heero’s hand. He was reflecting on how much he wanted to get this problem solved, and Heero thought Duo’s determination toward that end was even greater than his. It seemed to sting Duo even more that he felt this irrational mistrust and irritation than it did Heero to be the victim thereof. But Duo was also still filled with hope and cheer at the thought of a plan that might — that he was sure would — help. And in light of that, though he knew it must be impossible to banish completely from his mind an issue so recurring and provocative, he wanted to try to think about something else. So he said, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Read Oz.”

That was true. Though they’d read far less together since the curse broke, they had managed to get through a few more installments of the Oz series… but they’d finished the latest one in August and never started the next. And beyond an inherently entertaining and bonding experience, pressing onward would be an excellent method of distraction from anything they might not want to think about — allowing them to share reactions and opinions about story and characters that, though casual and perhaps frivolous, were genuine and often reflected deeper feelings.

It occurred to Heero, as he considered this suggestion on how they should spend their next few hours, that perhaps Duo’s growing autonomy, for all Duo wasn’t as sure of it yet as he would like to be, was to some extent the source of his optimism. As a doll, he couldn’t have had much he could use to reassure himself and maintain his sanity, and therefore his optimism, though a crucial resource, couldn’t have been more than blind, unsubstantiated, ephemeral. But now, as a human free to move and choose, making money and again a part of society in a meaningful way, his optimism could be based in the knowledge that he had the personal power to effect change in his own life — that things could be better because he could work to make them better. Even when his personal power had nothing to do with the situation in question, when he seemed every bit as powerless to deal with some problem as he would have been as a doll in that same situation, the mere knowledge of how much more effective he was overall must boost his optimism regardless of the specific circumstances.

And at the moment, when he had a plan for the future and a plan for the present, it was no surprise he was beginning to feel unstoppable and almost ecstatically cheerful.

“You’re right,” Heero said, smiling and squeezing Duo’s hand. “And we only have four books left, I think.”

“Which one’s next?”

“I think it’s The Lost Princess.” Heero rose and pulled Duo after him.

“Ooh, sounds like more Ozma stuff.” Duo was very fond of Ozma. “Or… maybe not, if she’s lost.”

Heero, who couldn’t quite remember what happened in this particular book, said nothing to confirm or deny, only pulled Duo in a stumbling sort of near-dance across the minefield of food boxes and empty soda cans that was the living room floor toward the computer room and the bookshelves.

“It’ll probably still be awesome either way,” Duo added cheerfully as they went, demonstrating yet again his admirable, semi-inexplicable, to some extent sharable, always wonderful power of, even in the face of frustration and disappointment, becoming and remaining happy.

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His Own Humanity: The New Familiar

It was not a scent or a visual or a sound… he couldn’t quite describe to himself what it was, but it fascinated him.

Cairo thinks about the changes in his life, and about Quatre and Trowa.


Of course by the very nature of the circumstances he couldn’t be certain, but Cairo didn’t think he’d done nearly as much thinking during the entire length of his life prior to some recent point. All his memories before that point — and it was hazy exactly when or what that point was — were unfocused and far more a series of ideas than specific recollections of events. He knew he’d always had a human companion, but had he always recognized that that companion had a name just as he did? He knew other humans had always been around, but had he always been aware of the precise relationships among them? He knew he’d had friends in the form of other dogs, but, while there had always been a certain pack hierarchy that had come naturally to them, had he always been conscious of exactly who and what they were to him, or to the humans they all interacted with?

He knew now that his particular human, called ‘Quatre’ (a name, not merely a common sound), was still fairly young in human terms and loved Cairo in spite of being busy with many human things. He knew now the degree of relationship to Quatre of many of the humans around him — Bernard and Catharine were Quatre’s father and mother, for instance — though there were still some pack dynamics he had yet to fathom, such as where exactly Darryl fit into the scheme of things. And he knew his friend Scrat was very young and a relatively recent addition to the home, though why she was never his mate (and why this didn’t seem to bother either of them) he wasn’t clear on.

And then there was Trowa. Trowa seemed to be an even more recent addition than Scrat to Cairo’s sphere of experience, but, once again, Cairo couldn’t be exactly sure of time frames before that mysterious point when he’d started thinking. Even now he didn’t do much tracking of the passage of time, but felt he could if he wanted to. He knew about days’ beginnings and endings, and he could count, and determine how long it had been since such-and-such if he were inclined to pay attention. In any case, he wasn’t certain how long Trowa had been around, but he was certain it hadn’t been very long.

Trowa was interesting, though. Quatre kept him around as his mate, and quite a bit of time — tracked or otherwise — could probably be spent puzzling over this. Quatre and Trowa were both distinctly male, and yet, Cairo had come to recognize during the meetings he’d had with the newcomer, just as distinctly mates. It was an exercise in this thinking business looking at that relationship from all angles and trying to determine the reasons for it, and he’d had little success thus far. Though he thought he remembered, with the vagueness of all pre-thinking memories, particularly liking the smell and shape of some male dog or other in the past, still the idea of taking another male for a mate seemed strange. Perhaps it was a human thing that would remain forever beyond him.

Trowa was interesting, too, because there was something about him that Cairo had felt about no previous acquaintance. It was nothing he detected with any of the senses he’d always been familiar with — not a scent or a visual or a sound… he couldn’t quite describe to himself what it was, but it fascinated him. Every time Trowa was around, Cairo found himself drawn to him in further attempts at defining — and also the mere desire to experience — this odd sense.

Trowa was kind to him, but did not exactly seem invested. He would play tug-of-war with the rope willingly enough, and gave out pets whenever Cairo came near, but was obviously far more engrossed in whatever Quatre did. That was only to be expected, given the obvious bond between the two humans and the fact that Quatre was pretty clearly alpha; but it also confused him that the unexplained sense about Trowa could exert so much pull when Trowa obviously wasn’t deliberately attempting influence or dominance with it, when his thoughts weren’t even fully on Cairo at any given moment.

Quatre too had been less invested than usual in interacting with Cairo lately. At least, Cairo thought it was less than usual — he believed Quatre had been more attentive to him in the past, but that same barrier to specific memory was still in place. In any case, he put together, over the days of watching and thinking more, an impression of distraction on Quatre’s part based (he theorized) on the new interchange with Trowa. Trowa certainly did not threaten to replace Cairo, as there was a world of difference between the type of relationship each had with Quatre, but he did take up a lot of Quatre’s time and energy that could otherwise have been spent on the dog.

Cairo was saddened by this. Again, it seemed logical — a mate must always be distracting — but to a creature that enjoyed spending time with and having the attention of a beloved companion, it felt tragic to have lost so much of that companion’s notice.

Today was a happy day, however. Quatre had evidently recognized Cairo’s forlornness, and that recognition was the reason for this car trip. Cairo enjoyed riding in the car — though not, evidently, as much as did the frantic Scrat — and considered the experience more than sufficient apology for recent neglect. Quatre made cheerful human noises to him as they went along, and Cairo looked out the window and saw all the incomprehensible things, and it didn’t much matter that he was beginning to feel a little sick — today was a happy day.

He’d partially emptied his stomach, which felt a bit better in consequence, by the time Quatre let him out of the car, but he was still salivating a great deal, and thus was pleased to see one of Quatre’s human friends nearby with a bowl of water for him. This friend must have a name — almost everybody did, Cairo was learning — but he couldn’t remember it; he was fairly sure he hadn’t encountered this one since the thinking had begun. He appreciated the water regardless.

As Quatre and his friend vocalized at each other and Cairo finished his drink, the dog’s interest suddenly piqued at an unexpected touch of the familiar. At first he couldn’t be certain he was really detecting something present and not remembering something past — did memory work that way? — but after a short while he was convinced he really did sense it: that same strange feeling he always had about Trowa. But Trowa was not present. Where did it come from?

Since sniffing around was essentially the only way he knew to search out any phenomenon and made him feel as if he was accomplishing something, he set to, though well aware it was not a smell he sought. Just the seeking movement involved must be productive; he became sure of this when he was successfully able to track the sense over to the immediate vicinity of Quatre’s friend. Was it the friend himself? The humans were still largely ignoring him while making loud noises at each other — they were some distance apart — so he continued his investigation.

There it was: an object held loosely in the hand of Quatre’s friend, making, like many objects, its own noises similar to the human sounds. And it definitely felt the way Trowa did. That strange sense was unmistakable, and just as compelling as when Trowa exuded it. Cairo went right up to the thing for closer examination.

It seemed to imitate the humans’ noises very well: though it was quieter, Cairo’s ears could detect no other significant difference. Perhaps, then, it only imitated that other sense too? Human objects were often remarkable that way.

Still, did Quatre know about this? Was he aware that a sense identical to his mate’s, whether genuine or imitation, hung about an item seemingly in the possession of his friend? Cairo wasn’t certain Quatre knew about the sense in the first place, but the similarity seemed worth noting even so. This might be something important, something he would want to attend to. What was the use of Cairo being able to think if he couldn’t make decisions that would help his dear companion? He would have to show him.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: Consummate Timing

It started with a feeling out of nowhere that she should omit the green onions, and she laughed at the unexpected strength of the impression as she removed the vegetables from the thin produce-section bag and set them on the cutting board. She liked green onions, and part of the reason she’d even decided to try this recipe was the anticipated combination of these with chicken broth and soy. And yet, as she reached for a knife to begin chopping and raise the crisp smell, she was struck yet again with the bizarrely strong thought that she would like this concoction better without green onions.

She tended to prefer trying recipes as they were written, and deviate the next time only if she’d found some element specifically inhibiting her enjoyment of the finished product. There was no reason to strike green onions from this lineup her first time through; it would be silly and slapdash. But now with each crunching contact between knife and cutting board, the idea reiterated itself more emphatically and with more detail. Green onions were a bad addition to this recipe. She wouldn’t like their texture here. They wouldn’t keep well if she wanted to freeze some of this for work lunches. Better to save these ones she was chopping for the enchiladas.

Finally her hands stilled, and she let out another laugh more puzzled than the previous. What was this, chef’s intuition or something? Had her subconscious decided she was an expert master of the kitchen all of a sudden, for it to be throwing these baseless ideas at her? Well, if she was so determined, on some level or other, not to have green onions in this soup, who was she to argue with herself? With a shrug she finished chopping them and then swept them into a Tupperware container for enchilada use later.

In the next room, Goldie started barking. Cathy turned down her cooking music a trifle and went to see what that was about. Before she had traversed even the short distance from the kitchen to the living room, however, the answer came to her: Goldie had seen a rabbit out the window and lost her head.

Cathy paused. She’d managed to curb her pomeranian’s urge to bark at every single thing in the world, but rabbits, for some reason (perhaps because they were just Goldie’s size) were more than the dog could tolerate in silence. Therefore, that Goldie was currently protesting the presence of a rabbit minding its own business out in the bushes in front of the apartment was not only a perfectly natural assumption, but really the only assumption. But Cathy hadn’t assumed. She knew Goldie was reacting to a rabbit as surely as if she’d already seen it; in fact, much in the style of a memory, she felt as if she had seen it: white tail, ragged grey-brown body, round at rest and scrawny in motion…

With a bemused smile, she went to fetch her dog off the back of the sofa. “Come on, Golden Crust, time to shut up.” The glance she cast toward the night-dark outdoors revealed no lagomorphic invaders, but it didn’t really matter.

Goldie twisted in Cathy’s arms to try to keep looking out the window, but she’d stopped barking as soon as she’d been lifted from her perch. Cathy filled the absence of yapping by singing along with the song that was playing in the kitchen, into which she carried her pet. There, she distracted Goldie with some little bits of chicken before leaving her on the floor under the table, turning the music back up so she could sing louder herself, and getting back to her recipe.

Her vocalization faded, however, in the middle of what would otherwise have been a particularly satisfying held note, when she knew that Celine Dion’s The Reason, one of her favorite pieces to accompany by one of her favorite artists to imitate, would be playing next.

Now she was frowning. She turned from her barely resumed cooking endeavors to stare up at the iPod docking station on top of her refrigerator. All conjured visual details aside, knowing about the rabbit was one, fairly explicable thing. But this? The mix was on shuffle, as usual, so there was no way she could know what would play next. The chances of guessing were one in about six hundred — worse than that, really, since she didn’t even remember everything on there.

For the full minute and a half or so that remained of the current song she stared, motionless, at the red iPod that looked disproportionately small between its accessory speakers, while Goldie hindlegged up toward her knee to request more chicken. Only when the strings, piano, and synthy-sounding brass thing that started next had turned center stage over to the pensive voice of Celine Dion did Cathy turn her own pensive attention to her dog.

“Goldie,” she said, “how did I know that?” She bent and lifted the pomeranian to face level and repeated, as her nose was licked, “How did I know that, Goldie Gold Rush?” After kissing the top of the little head, she replaced the dog on the floor. “No more chicken right now, baby.”

Goldie did a jumping wiggle dance in a full circle around Cathy, then ran out into the living room again. Cathy, meanwhile, threw another glance at her iPod — and the aural equivalent of a glance at Celine Dion — before trying to focus once more on her late dinner preparations. “Baby, you know what I mean,” she sang along experimentally, and then fell silent, frowning again.

How had she known what song would play next? How had she known what Goldie was freaking out about? How had she known not to put green onions in her soup? Why was she suddenly knowing things without having to go through the usual steps of finding out?

The intense scrutiny she’d been giving the recipe since turning back to it had led nowhere, as the decision on how to alter the preparation steps to accommodate the lack of green onions had been put off by her wondering how she knew what she knew. Now the decision was further postponed when a jumbled set of information, like a handful of colorful beads that hadn’t necessarily all broken from the same necklace, came to her just as the previous knowledge had. In this instance, however, she believed — no, she knew that the idea — if such an incohesive collection of thoughts could be called that — had arrived specifically in answer to her question.

“What is all this?” she wondered pensively as she went about her mental examination. Individually, the little bits were fairly understandable; some, like the rabbit, were precise enough to call up or even provide a visual in her head. In brief vignettes that faded in and then out she saw faces, and with each came a concise encapsulation of how she felt about the person (though for the last it was merely the awareness that she didn’t know him). And they, in combination, had somehow prompted or led to this thing that was happening. So far, so clear.

This clarity provided little assistance, however. What exactly did her elderly next-door neighbor, her co-workers, her newly discovered relative, and some spiky-haired guy she’d never met have to do with this odd experience she was suddenly having? She couldn’t think of anything in common among the five of them.

“Emily, Heero, Dorothy, Trowa, some guy I’ve never met,” she said contemplatively, then repeated it twice more in a sing-song chant of curiosity as she started giving specific thought to each.

Emily was a funny old lady that lived in #9 with her chihuahua. The latter liked to play with (and to some extent bully) Goldie when their humans met at or on the way to the nearby dog park, but accepted his mistress’s fond remonstrances about his overbearing behavior, worded as if to another human, with surprising obedience. Always having been fond of Emily, Cathy sometimes took her dinner or lent a hand with her chores.

Heero was a decent guy that generally just wanted to be left alone and do his job, an attitude Cathy respected even if she did prefer a touch more social interaction than he seemed to. He’d had a difficult time lately, what with the unpleasant behavior of one of his few friends and the sales team’s seeming obsession with the matter. So far there had been very little Cathy could do to help, other than try to put a damper on any gossipy conversation she happened to have any influence over at work so as to spare both Heero and Duo the discomfort of hearing Quatre endlessly speculated about.

Dorothy was not a bad manager, despite sometimes coming across a little like a puppeteer entertaining herself rather than an audience by trying to whip up the most interesting possible interactions among those under her charge — which was the reason, as Cathy had overheard Heero speculating just yesterday, she was considering having Duo train with Wufei. Dorothy was somewhat strange, even without taking those eyebrows into account, and always had an air about her of knowing more than she was saying. Perhaps she too, then, sometimes knew things she had no rational way of knowing.

And Trowa… Trowa was, for all practical purposes, still a stranger. He and Cathy had determined their relationship, at that chance first meeting in Quatre’s office, by tracing their lines back to shared great-great grandparents Sinead Barton and her common-law husband Walter Young, and there was very little rhyme or reason to the closeness Cathy seemed to feel with such a distant relation she’d talked to for a few hours at most. Ever since she’d met him, she’d had this somewhat inexplicable desire to help and comfort him, almost as if he were one of her actual brothers rather than a previously unknown cousin to the fourth degree. Maybe this unprecedented sense of family had something to do with this unprecedented trickle of improbable knowledge… though she couldn’t imagine what.

Even in the midst of wondering about tonight’s strange business, she still managed to hope Trowa was doing all right. If Heero was having a hard time with Quatre’s predicament, Quatre’s boyfriend must be even more unhappy — especially since Quatre’s problems seemed to date back to that fight Trowa had mentioned they’d had the day she’d first met him. She wondered how Trowa was handling the disappearance.

In answer — once again, she knew it was in answer to her concerned curiosity — she got a sense of Trowa that took her breath away. Without knowing how she could possibly be so certain, she was aware all of a sudden that Trowa, this very moment, was suffering deeply. She could almost see his pale, freckled face, half shadowed by its concealing fall of hair in the darkness of some dimly lit place, concentrated in despair and helplessness. No, there was no ‘almost;’ she did see it, briefly but clearly. Trowa was at a park somewhere, beside a grove of trees, standing stone-still and hurting.

Cathy made a mournful sound as she tried to reorient herself to the things around her, remind herself where she still was. “Sorry, but you’re distracting,” she said to the iPod as she moved to turn off the music above the refrigerator entirely. Then, just as sluggishly, she started to put away the soup components. She wouldn’t be finishing this tonight; it was a little late, thanks to the shopping she’d done immediately after work, for dinner anyway, and suddenly she was peculiarly devoid of appetite.

She still had no idea why she was knowing and seeing what she was. Something strange had started, for some reason, had entered her life without warning, and thus far she seemed to have little or no control over it. Would it continue?

Yes, it would.

Would it improve?

Yes, the beginning was always the most grotesque and difficult to deal with, the time when manifestations were unbidden and unbiddable.

“Well, that’s good to know!” she said with a nod.

Possibly, though, none of this mattered at the moment. After all, if it was going to continue and it was going to get better, she had time and optimism on her side. Others might not have such happy resources.

Continuing her tidying efforts one-handed, she pulled out her phone and called Trowa.

After two rings she guessed, “His phone is off;” after three, “He doesn’t have it with him;” and after four, “He doesn’t want to talk to anyone;” but when Trowa actually answered, with the deadest-sounding greeting she’d ever heard, she said in facetious triumph, “Ah! There you are!”

He made no reply, so she went on. “Since you aren’t willing to call your cousin when you need cheering up, your cousin has to bring the cheering up to you.”

“Cathy. That’s so kind of you.” He didn’t ask how she’d known he needed cheering up. It was probably a pretty consistent need lately. “Today has been… bad.” There was in his voice, immediately under the dullness and lack of energy, a sound of something agitated and miserable pent up and building.

“On top of everything else lately?” she commiserated. “I’m sorry!”

“Just now I had to overhear an argument that led to romance, and I couldn’t stand it. They didn’t remind me at all of myself and Quatre, but romance two doors down was too much for me; I couldn’t stay to hear any more of it.”

“Of course you couldn’t.”

“It was foolish of me to come here, though.” He said it more to himself than to her. “Quatre and I came to this park the first night I met him, for a few minutes, and… I haven’t seen him in a week.” His volume rose slightly. “I believe most people could easily last a week, but I…”

“You miss him and you’re worried,” Cathy supplied. It felt as if Trowa needed to confide in someone, needed to pour out in full whatever was weighing him down. Would he have sought anyone to hold this therapeutic conversation with if she hadn’t called?

No, absolutely not.

Well, it was a damn good thing this silly knowing-things thing had started tonight rather than tomorrow, then.

“Quatre is one of the most important parts of my life,” was Trowa’s quiet response. “Before I met him, I was… for so long… for so many years…”

He was only about Cathy’s age; how many years could he possibly have spent in the state he was beginning to describe?

The answer was no exact number, but it was very distinctly a startlingly larger span of years than Cathy had been expecting (and she was getting to the point where she was beginning to expect these answers to some, at least, of her questions). Breathless, she continued listening as the anticipated outpouring seemed to build momentum:

“I did something terrible once, something that separated me from the rest of the world and put me into a world of my own where the only thing I could do was work to make amends. There was nothing else in my life. Nothing else existed to me. Just trying to fix what I had done wrong.”

Wondering what Trowa could have done that was bad enough to be described in such terms, Cathy got the feeling Duo had been involved somehow — and that it had, indeed, been very bad.

“It’s over now. The problem is solved, though I didn’t have much to do with its solution. And Quatre is… I can hardly describe it… he was the first part of the real world to come into my world — my little, miserable world that was all about penance and had no room in it for anything that would make me happy — and try to pull me out, now that I can come out. He’s not just someone I love because of his personality; he is the entire world to me. He represents everything that exists outside of those 87 years and all the unhappiness and the person I was for all that time.”

There it was. 87 years. Trowa probably hadn’t meant to mention that exact, mind-boggling number, but, lost now in his cathartic monologue, might have forgotten whom he was talking to.

“He wouldn’t want to hear me say that I can’t live without him, but I can’t live without him. I don’t mean that I’ll die if he doesn’t come home or if we can’t find him; I mean that what people consider ‘really living’ is impossible for me as I am now without him. Even with the curse broken, I would still be trapped in that other little world, I would still be that other, miserable half person if Quatre hadn’t pulled me out.”

A broken curse, was it? ‘Magic,’ then, Cathy supposed, was the word she wanted to describe this night, utterly incredible as that seemed. And actually she was accepting it remarkable calmly — maybe with this improbable knowledge thing that seemed to be her share in the supernatural came a heightened ability to accept the things she improbably knew.

“And every day he’s not here, I feel like I’m slipping back, losing ground. I’ve been working on becoming more my own person and an active part of the real world, but I’m not strong enough to stand on my own. I’ve made resolutions, and I’m trying just as Quatre wants me to, but I’m not there yet. I need him. I don’t want to depend on him, I don’t want to be a burden on him, and I think, with his help, someday I’ll be beyond needing him — but I’ll never be beyond wanting him around or loving him. And right now I do still need him, and I miss him for that and every other reason.”

Sounds like you could do with some psychiatric help, cousin, she didn’t say aloud. He was probably well enough aware of that.

“And listening to these people tonight talking about their relationship and how it should be changed by one of them being in love with the other… I said it didn’t remind me at all of Quatre and myself, but in some ways it did — just the fact that it was two people connecting like that, and talking about the ways they work together, and what their future should be. It made me miss Quatre so much… it was just such bad timing…”

And then, after he’d further tormented himself by leaving for a place that would only remind him more of Quatre, the state of the night’s timing had somehow reversed when Catharine had called at precisely the right moment to trigger this outpouring of thoughts and feelings that would probably otherwise have remained unproductively dammed up behind Trowa’s habitually tight lips. And that had only taken place because her weird knowing-things power (was it a power? Yes) had only started to manifest, in some kind of unexpected awakening, at precisely the right moment to prompt her to think about Trowa and sense his needy despair.

Was some supernatural hand guiding this process? God? Fate? Some magical overlord? Or had Trowa’s plight, perhaps, spurred his cousin’s new spiritual development? Or was it all, including the miraculous moment at which it had happened, merely an unthinkable coincidence?

To these questions, unfortunately, there came no answer.

Meanwhile, Trowa continued to pour out his heart. “Because it wouldn’t even have been so disturbing to overhear if, earlier today, just today, I hadn’t found out that Quatre may be in danger. We thought he was hiding; we thought it was simple. He’s the kindest person in the world, so of course we believed he doesn’t want to face anyone while he’s possessed and acting so unkindly to everyone — it was horrible to think of him going through that alone, but it made sense.”

Possessed?? To a list that included living for 87 years and still looking 25, knowing things with no way of knowing them, and invoking and breaking curses, Cathy added demonic influence. No wonder their projected completion date kept getting pushed out!

“But earlier I discovered that he sent a dangerous email that may have gotten him kidnapped. I know he’s not dead, but I haven’t been able to find out anything more than that yet — not where he is or how he’s doing or what kind of trouble he might be in. I was never very good at divination, but I’m unforgivably bad at it since my drop in power.”

Cathy filed away the very useful word ‘divination,’ which it would have taken her some time to come up with on her own, while pitying Trowa thoroughly for considering a lack of natural talent in some area ‘unforgivable’ simply because it would have been a useful skill in a certain situation. She just wanted to hug him. Feed him some chocolate, maybe.

“My computer was destroyed in the fire, so I have to sneak into Quatre’s room and use his just to access the internet. I’m more helpless than ever. I thought before that this is a little like all that time I spent trying to find Duo, but now it’s almost worse. I can barely divine anything, I have no computer, I’m not ready to trade favors yet, and the person I’ve been counting on to help me become effective and self-sufficient in some area other than surviving to see the curse broken is the person who’s possessed, missing, and possibly in serious trouble with a moon-worshiping cult that contains at least a fire commander and a brainwashing communicator.”

Even as she added brainwashing and the ability to command fire to the list she’d mentally headed ‘Magic That Exists,’ Cathy noted that this seemed to be the end of the rant. She hadn’t interjected at any point, wanting neither to break Trowa’s flow nor to remind him that he was talking to someone supposedly unfamiliar with the supernatural life he seemed to be so deeply entrenched in. Now she tried to think of something to say.

Before she could, however, he cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said in the placid tone she was more familiar with, though he also sounded somewhat embarrassed, as if he’d just come out of a deep reverie and remembered she was on the line. “I don’t know what made me go on like that.”

She did. She didn’t understand why it had started when it had started, but the consummate timing had been everything.

“Probably the majority of that made no sense,” he went on, “and you believe I’m crazy now, but…” There was no mistaking his sincerity as he finished, “thank you for listening.”

Listening had clearly been key. Useful as some of his statements had been to her, with what was happening to her tonight, he hadn’t really needed her to understand most of what he’d said. The mere opportunity to say it to a sympathetic listener seemed to have been invaluable to him.

“I’m happy to listen to my crazy cousin any time,” she answered lightly. “But Trowa…” Despite the greatest benefit having been drawn merely from her open ear presenting itself at just the right time, she felt that what she was about to say would form a capstone to that, and be of no little importance. “Please remember that you and Quatre both have other friends! Other people care about you and want to see you be the person you want to be, and other people care about Quatre and want to see him safe. You’re not alone, even without him around, and you’re not the only one who wants to save him! I think you’re stronger than you think you are. And even if you feel like you’re more helpless than ever, your friends will help. Don’t forget about us!”

After a deep breath he said slowly, “You’re right. I think sometimes I feel it’s not fair to rely on one of my friends the way I used to, after what I did to him, even if he has forgiven me. And I’m only just starting to think of another as a close friend. But you’re exactly right. I’ve even had strong proof of it lately, but tonight made me lose track for a while. I can count on them, and I shouldn’t forget it.” He’d stopped using names, she noticed; he’d recollected himself.

“And me too!” She voiced it facetiously, but she meant it. “I’m your cousin, aren’t I?”

No, she wasn’t; their precise relationship had some other name she wasn’t getting at the moment.

She did know she wasn’t his mother, though.

Trowa didn’t elaborate either; how much he realized she grasped now that he wasn’t quite as he’d originally presented himself, she couldn’t be sure. “Thank you so much, Cathy. You don’t know how much better I feel after talking to you.”

“Like I said, bringing the cheering up to you!”

“And you don’t know how much I needed cheering up after this awful day.”

“Actually, I think I figured that out.”

“I can’t say I’m happy, but… I’m less unhappy. I’ll survive.”

“Make sure you do! And also remember you can call me if you want to talk crazy at someone? You don’t have to wait for me to call!”

He gave a faint, sad-sounding laugh. “You’re right.” Then with a sigh he added, “I should check whether those two lovebirds at my house are done with their drama yet so I can get back to work.”

“They’re at your house?”

“Yes, one’s a guest and the other showed up looking for him so they could make a scene. I have no idea what they may have been doing in my absence.”

“You should kick them out,” Cathy advised. “That’s so rude of them!”

“They should eventually be useful. One of them has already been useful. And they had no idea what I’ve been through today and how their conversation would affect me.”

“But still, in somebody else’s house…!”

Again Trowa laughed softly, then said formally, “Thank you for your concern, and again for your call.”

Sensing that the latter would end now if she didn’t say anything to prevent its doing so, Cathy briefly considered bringing up the new magical ability that had set all of this in motion. Trowa obviously knew a fair bit about magic, and could probably explain what was happening to her tonight, what circumstances involving himself and a few others had set it in motion, and what she could expect in the future — if not necessarily whether God had had a hand in it.

But after only a moment’s thought she decided against this. She didn’t know whether magic had told her what advice to offer Trowa a little earlier, and she didn’t know whether magic was the impulse of her decision now, but she was sure it would only add to Trowa’s stress if she sought guidance and information from him tonight. The power she’d gained was odd and inscrutable so far, but not yet unpleasant or disruptive; she could get by without harassing her friend and relation about it for now.

“Of course!” she said. “Go boot some people out of your house.”

“Good night.”

“Bye!”

Cathy looked down at where her lap had been occupied by a yellow-orange, lion-shaved pomeranian ever since she’d wandered with her phone into the living room and sat down on the sofa. “Well, Goldie Bacon Pie,” she said contemplatively, “it seems like I’m an oracle, Trowa’s at least 87 years old, and Heero and Duo and Dorothy are probably all in on it. What do you think about all that, Goldie Goldmine?”

In reply, the dog gave Cathy that happy pomeranian grin, turned a circle on her lap, and jumped down off the couch.

“You think more chicken, I can tell.” Cathy shook a finger at her pet and stood. “You are not healthy, Goldie Glutton!” Though what, exactly, she wondered, was the caloric benefit or drawback of small bits of chicken to an also-small dog?

Nothing good, apparently.

How was she to go about getting more specific answers to things she wondered about? It seemed a fairly useless talent if all she could summon was a general sense and the occasional vague vision.

It would involve speaking aloud. These spontaneous answers to mental questions were a sign of her awakening talent, and wouldn’t last. Eventually she would have to do things properly.

“All right, universe,” she tried, “how about a more specific answer about poms and chicken?”

No reply.

On a whim she asked next, “Where is Quatre Winner?”

No reply.

She shrugged, unsurprised and undisappointed that this wasn’t working for her yet. If magic ran in families, it was even possible that her divination would be, like Trowa’s, unforgivably bad. And she wouldn’t be quitting Winner Plastics and setting up a crystal ball stand on a corner somewhere no matter what her unexpected talent turned out to be like.

She did think she might have a look on the internet to see if anyone else had ever experienced a sudden awakening of visionary ability, and how they’d dealt with it if they had. Other options might be to talk to Heero (though much the same restraining considerations applied to him as to Trowa), to Dorothy, or to Emily next door. Oh, and she never had given much thought to the unknown young man whose face she’d seen in connection with the beginning of this affair.

All of this might turn out to be a bit of a burden, really: an unknown, unexpected magical power, and she ethically barred from discussing it with the people that might be most helpful… a bundle of possibly confidential information having been laid on her shoulders during a friend’s moment of weakness… a desire to help and support that might be far more difficult than she’d originally imagined…

And yet dealing with burdens was something she secretly rather relished. She enjoyed a busy schedule full of responsibilities, doing her best at difficult tasks others shied from, pitting herself against challenges. She really feared very little in the world, and the positive stress induced by the importance of any given venture only honed her skills toward dealing with it.

A need for research on an obscure topic? A set of friends not what they seemed, possibly dangerous and in danger? An awareness of the existence of cults staffed by kidnappers and brainwashers, a world into which she might, if she pursued this, be dragged? A side of herself she’d never imagined?

Bring it on.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

The title of this fic has an obvious meaning and two secondary meanings or references. The first person to guess what those two meanings or references are will win a ficlet from me on the topic of their choice.

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera

His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera

Part 1

The amount of work available to an exorcist at any given time was completely unpredictable. Hajime could — and sometimes did — go weeks without hearing from anyone, and feel grateful that he had another source of income a little less fickle. And then, because that was the way the world moved, he would get multiple requests for help in a single day, and send a fifth call to voicemail because it came in the middle of the fourth. This was satisfying, and, as he connected to listen to the message the last caller had left, his mood was complacent as he looked forward to an upcoming week of work.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou. This is Bridgestone Gains at U.S.Seido.”

Hajime stiffened. It had been an ongoing relief not to hear anything from Seido for the last five months, but just under that relief lay always the awareness that it wasn’t impossible that he might. He’d been keeping his ears open for any news about the yakuza that might concern him, such as any hint of haunting of premises or possession of persons — since, after the service he and Sano had rendered them back in March, any subsequent necrovisual problems were sure to prompt Seido to contact no one but him — but as yet hadn’t heard anything to worry him. He’d carefully kept himself from anticipating never having to deal with them again, and was glad now that he hadn’t allowed hopes to arise that would have been dashed today.

“It has come to my attention,” Gains went on, “that the police want to question you.”

Hajime’s frown deepened. This was news to him, and hadn’t been one of the reasons he’d conceptualized for Gains to be calling him.

“They can be so inconvenient…” The old man’s voice was easy and fairly cheerful, so very different from how he’d sounded when Hajime had interacted with him before. “Especially when there are important parts of your life they just wouldn’t comprehend.” Gains chuckled. “It’s like a drama class exercise just talking to them! I very well understand the position you’re in: even if you had nothing to do with the young man’s disappearance, there are a lot of questions you’d rather not answer. I have certainly been there.”

Disappearance? Hajime made a sudden gesture of understanding.

“So I thought you might appreciate a place to stay for a while. I can offer you somewhere to relax and be sure nobody will bother you until a more convenient time… after all this business with your missing client has been sorted out, for example. It’s an extremely comfortable suite with everything you could need, and there’s more than room for two, if you wanted to bring your partner.”

Now Hajime smiled grimly. Apparently ‘this kind of queer bullshit’ wasn’t so much a problem in this context. He’d known at the time that the homophobic sentiment had been a subconscious one brought out by Gains’s shade-induced anger, something he wouldn’t have verbalized under normal circumstances, but it was still darkly amusing to hear him now offering Hajime a sort of luxury vacation or retreat with his presumed gay lover.

“So call me back and let me know whether or not this would help you out. The offer stands as long as you need it.” Gains left his personal cell number, something Hajime assumed not a lot of people were allowed — his initial call had come in from ‘Restricted’ — and said a friendly goodbye.

Pensively Hajime saved the message, hung up, and pocketed his phone. He had a lot to think about all of a sudden.

So Gains was keeping an eye on him, was he? Looking out for him, apparently, and minutely enough that he knew about things like related police agendas before Hajime himself did. What a lovely thought. Who didn’t want a mob secretary peering silently over his shoulder?

That was all Hajime had time for before his phone vibrated again. If this was Gains with a second try, he was just going to have to leave another message, because Hajime definitely hadn’t decided on a response yet. It was with some reluctance that he withdrew his phone once more and looked at it, but then he answered quickly when he saw the caller’s name.

“Someone is leaking police information to U.S.Seido,” was how he greeted his friend.

“What?” demanded the startled Chou. “How do you know?”

“Because I just got a call from Seido about the police wanting to question me.”

“Shit. Even I just heard about that.”

“I assume this is about Quatre Winner?”

“That’s right.” Chou sounded distracted now; he was probably running through various co-workers in his head, trying to decide who he thought was passing information to the local yakuza. “Yeah, Winner senior reported Winner junior missing, and you talked to the son the last day he was around, I guess? The guys on this just want to ask you some questions — you’re not a suspect or anything — but I figured you’d still want a heads-up before they showed up at your door.”

Hajime thanked him with genuine gratitude. And when Chou said nothing in response, Hajime added a little impatiently, “You do remember I can read minds? If you want to know who’s spying on the police, we can come up with a way to find out.”

“Yeah…” said Chou slowly. “I’m not sure I do want to know. You know we don’t touch Seido unless we absolutely have to.”

“You’d probably be better off knowing anyway.”

“Yeah…” Chou said again. “Yeah. I’ll let you know if I want to set something up.”

“And let me know if you hear anything else about me.”

“Right. Or if that Winner guy turns up.”

“I’ll probably hear about that before you will.”

“What, from Seido?”

“God forbid.”

Chou laughed darkly. “Well, try not to get yourself killed by the mob, OK? I’m already working on a shit-ton of paperwork.”

“I’ll make it as complicated as possible just to keep you late.”

“Yeah, you have a nice day too.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Hajime re-pocketed his phone and cast a calculating glance around. He barely noticed, though, such details of the room as Tokio asleep on the couch or the DVD’s of the series he and Sano were currently watching strewn across the coffee table. He had a decision to make, and it needed to be made quickly.

Of course there was the option of just letting the police talk to him. He wasn’t a criminal, after all, and had no reason to fear the law. But the possibility that the specific officers that came to talk to him would happen to be aware of magic and would understand what was going on did not strike him as great — and otherwise, explaining that, carrying a sword, he’d talked to Winner junior the last day he was around because he’d been hoping to exorcize angry supernatural energy from him might provide a reason to fear the law.

If his last few months’ independent study of communication magic had progressed in that direction, brainwashing the police into believing that the completely unsuspicious Hajime Saitou had nothing useful to tell them would have been quick and convenient… but that had never been a technique that interested him much, so he hadn’t looked into it.

Conceivably he could make something up the normal way, invent some other, less magical reason to have visited that Winner Plastics office last week — but if he was going to mislead them, why bother having the conversation at all? They had a job to do, and the missing young man needed to be found in any case (not least so he could be exorcized); rather than complicate things (and probably get himself in trouble later for obstructive behavior), it seemed better to avoid the questions entirely, to fade out of sight until the matter had been resolved.

But did that mean taking Gains up on his offer? In some ways it was tempting — it would certainly be a very neat solution to the problem, and Hajime had to admit to some curiosity about the kind of accommodations Seido would provide — but in others it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine accepting what was essentially a friendly favor from a mob secretary. And yet how would it look to Gains if he refused? U.S.Seido was an organization that needed to be dealt with carefully, and he certainly didn’t want to stir resentment by appearing antagonistic toward them.

What inoffensive excuse, though, could he offer Gains for not accepting? Where else could he go? Of his three friends, one lived across the country, one was the cop he’d just talked to, and one was likely to be visited at home by police looking for Hajime should Hajime not be immediately locatable; he couldn’t stay with any of them. And a hotel would probably not satisfy Gains — why pay for an impersonal room when Gains was offering one much more convenient and luxurious for free? And if Seido people continued watching him, engaging a hotel room and then claiming he was doing something else seemed unwise.

This was irritating. Just when Hajime had been anticipating a happily busy week, something like this had to come up. Now, no matter where he stayed, he would probably have to put off the appointments he’d made, leave people hanging that really did need his help, and probably lose business because of it. Quatre Winner had chosen an inconvenient time to disappear.

It undoubtedly hadn’t been his fault, though: his was a particularly severe case, and the young man couldn’t really be blamed for rash actions under the influence of that anger. Furthermore, the artifact possession added an interest to the situation that made it impossible for Hajime to be annoyed with Quatre personally, despite any inconvenience he might have caused.

And these thoughts had given Hajime an idea. He scrolled through his contacts to the B’s. Then he couldn’t help gazing, motionless, at the name for a moment with an echo of the wonder he’d felt at their first meeting; it seemed impossible that he should really have this person’s number. He remembered hearing him described in college as ‘an immortal magical superhero who can do pretty much anything’ — and now he was about to casually call him. Suggesting to such a person such an imposition as he now had in mind displeased him, but alternatives were scarce.

“Hello?” came the tired voice from the other end.

“It’s Hajime. I understand that boyfriend of yours is missing.”



2>>

Part 2

Sano stared down at the message again in puzzlement and perhaps a bit of annoyance. Can you feed the cats? it said without a word of explanation. And though he’d written back, Sure, why? a good thirty minutes ago, word of explanation was still lacking. At least Hajime had said ‘can you,’ and ended the text with a question mark, rather than making it an order.

Tokio and Misao wouldn’t be expecting their dinner for another hour or so, which gave Sano some time to make plans before he headed over there. Not that his plans took terribly long: he wanted to know what was going on, why Hajime had texted him such an unexpected request and then started ignoring him, and that meant camping until the exorcist came home and explained himself. Sano would only be working on homework (and then probably video games) for the rest of the evening; he might as well do that at Hajime’s house. He was pretty sure he’d left his physics textbook over there the last time he’d used it anyway.

So he packed up what books he did have as well as his 360. This, of course, meant taking his own car, since he wasn’t going to haul around an X-Box on the bus, but he tried not to grumble too much when the circumstance couldn’t be avoided. At least tomorrow’s bus ride to school from Hajime’s house wasn’t a bad route, and quicker than from his apartment.

Misao jumped up his leg and climbed to his shoulder the moment he was inside the door. She always seemed aware, somehow, when someone was approaching the house, and Sano wondered a little whether she had some kind of divinatory ability Hajime knew nothing about. Though with Hajime, it was more likely that he knew perfectly well and just hadn’t mentioned it. He had, after all, gone almost half a year without deigning to tell Sano that he believed him capable of subconsciously using every different branch of magic. Sano still wasn’t quite over that yet.

“Hi, Misao,” he greeted the little cat as she sniffed at his face. “You hungry?”

She replied that she was, and that he should definitely give her a lot of the wet food she liked so much.

Sano laughed, and didn’t bother responding except by heading into the kitchen. Walking with Misao on his shoulder was always something of a challenge — especially because, even in the few months he’d known her, she’d increased in size, and eventually probably wasn’t going to be able to ride up there anymore. At the moment, she splayed out and dug claws into Sano’s flesh. He’d gotten used to this by now, and resigned himself to its effects on his shirts.

As he entered the kitchen, Tokio gave him an indifferent-sounding greeting from where she stood beside her food bowl. Sano bent to retrieve her water dish, at which point Misao jumped down. As he then moved to grab the other one and rinse them both out, he asked, “Do you guys know where Hajime is?” He might have said something like, “Where’s the uncommunicative bastard who normally feeds you?” but had learned that the cats didn’t do very well with sarcasm. In any case, they didn’t know where Hajime was, so it mattered very little how Sano referred to him.

He went through the somewhat complicated process of doling out a specific amount of dry food alongside a specific amount of wet food for each of the animals, then stood back against a counter while they ate. His eyes were turned toward Tokio’s almost manically quick gulping motions, but he wasn’t really watching; he was puzzling, somewhat annoyed, about Hajime.

It wasn’t as if Sano wasn’t a regular fixture of this house these days, well known to the cats and well versed in their care. It wasn’t as if he minded. He would do much more than just feed the familiars for his friend and sometimes professional partner, provided Hajime asked at least relatively nicely… but where was Hajime? Normally a request for Sano to feed the cats came when Sano already knew what Hajime was about. Though admittedly, now that he thought back on previous instances, this had always been because Sano had known beforehand where Hajime would be rather than because Hajime had actually told him at the time of the request.

Assuming that standing around being frustrated and curious would get him nowhere, he wandered into the den and set up his X-Box. To assuage his annoyance, he would play some Madden for a bit before starting his homework. Hajime, though he sometimes watched a game with a compelling atmosphere, could work up no interest in Madden, so it was better to play it when he wasn’t around in any case.

Then a couple of hours passed without Sano realizing, and the next thing he knew, it was 9:30 and he hadn’t actually started his homework and Hajime had never appeared. Swearing for multiple reasons, Sano pulled out his lovely phone and texted, Seriously where the hell are you? making sure to spell all the words out properly so Hajime would not completely disregard the message. Of course he might — today’s precedent suggested he would — completely disregard the message anyway.

Then, reluctant but aware he needed to hurry, Sano turned his attention toward his books.

The next morning, at what felt like a hugely early hour on a day when he didn’t have to work at oh-dark-hundred, he was partially roused by Misao attacking his feet. It took several instances of him shifting so she fell off the couch, her jumping back up, and him grumbling at her to stop before he reached a greater state of consciousness and realized that it must be breakfast time for the cats. Which meant Hajime must never have come home, since he would have fed them by now.

He dragged himself up and into the kitchen, where Tokio was waiting looking reproachful. Waking sluggishly as he moved, Sano set out food and water and gave slow thought to his day. He needed to check his phone for any response to yesterday’s texts, then get ready for school. Maybe Hajime would answer him or come home while Sano was nicely distracted in class. Assuming class was able to distract him at all.

As he was heading back to the den, however, to look at his phone, the doorbell rang, so he turned again in the opposite direction.

To his surprise, it was two police officers. And if the unexpected advent of badges and uniforms at such an early hour hadn’t startled him, “We’re looking for Hajime Saitou” certainly would have.

“What?!” After this outburst and the jump that accompanied it, Sano shook himself. These guys didn’t appear stern or combative — in fact they seemed fairly friendly — but, well, cops were cops. And the fact that they’d shown up here right after Hajime’s already aggravatingly mysterious disappearance was worrisome. He apologized for his reaction, then added, “Hajime better not have stabbed someone.” Though not a joke the officers would fully understand, this might at least make him appear a little less wary.

“I don’t think so,” one of them smiled. “We just needed to ask him some questions; he’s not in trouble.”

This was probably all the information they would relinquish about what they were here for, so Sano would have to deal with the situation based on only that. If Hajime wanted him to relay some specific story or something, he should have left better instructions than, Can you feed the cats?

Sano stepped aside and said, “He’s not actually here right now, but you guys can come in if you want.”

At that moment Misao, from beside Sano’s leg, yowled up at the officers, greeting and demanding attention.

One of them smiled and stepped inside, crouching to the cat’s level to pet her as Sano moved back to allow him to do so. “Well, hey, there,” the cop said. “What a pretty baby!”

Misao remarked that, while she often wondered what non-communicative humans were saying to her, she was well aware that it probably wasn’t anything she would really care about. Sano thought he might tell her sometime and see what she thought about being a ‘pretty baby.’

“So Mr. Saitou isn’t home,” the second cop, less interested in meeting the cat, remarked. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“No idea.” Sano looked around for the inevitable appearance of Tokio, and followed her movement toward them as soon as he saw where she was. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts.” This was true, but, without mentioning the original Can you feed the cats?, didn’t give any indication that he was aware Hajime was up to something odd. He shrugged. “He never tells me where he’s going, but he usually doesn’t stay out all that long.”

Now the cat-friendly officer had transferred his attention to Tokio, and said from his crouched position, “So you think he might be back here later?”

“I really don’t know,” Sano answered. “I’m heading off to class pretty soon here, so I won’t be around, but you guys could come back and check.”

The officer nodded as he rose, and at the same moment Sano darted to catch Misao around the ribcage before she could bolt out the front door — something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but apparently couldn’t resist trying. “Nope,” he told her. She protested, squirming, in his arms.

“Are you his roommate?”

“Nah, just a friend.” Sano tried not to sound bitter; no reason to indicate to the police that he wished he were, in fact, a very specific type of roommate, more than just a friend. “Sano Sagara.”

The first cop nodded, while the cat-friendly officer smiled and said, “Well, we’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Sano was wrestling with Misao, trying to encourage her up onto his shoulder rather than any other direction, and didn’t look at the face of either policeman.

“Have a good day,” the first said as the two men turned and walked down the front steps.

Sano closed the door behind them, ceasing his struggle with Misao, who batted vengefully at his ear and then started to slide down his arm so she could jump to the floor from a slightly lower altitude. Sano turned to face the house with a frown, looking slowly back and forth between the two cats and feeling the frown grow into a scowl.

“What the hell do the police want with Hajime?” he wondered aloud.

Neither cat entirely understood him, but they picked up on the fact that he was simultaneously angry and concerned, and that both emotions were, to some extent, aimed at Hajime. Misao, losing track of her annoyance about being prevented from leaving the house, wondered whether Hajime was all right; while Tokio, in her superior way, asserted that Hajime was a very effective and powerful being that probably didn’t need anyone to worry about him.

He could hear the alarm he’d set on his phone going off in the next room; he didn’t really have time to pursue this issue right now if he wanted to get to class on time. He made a frustrated noise, which startled Misao, and headed for the den.

Well, if he put off showering until tomorrow, he would have a few spare minutes right now. He decided right away to take this route, and thumbed through the contacts in his phone looking for a specific one.

Though he’d spent some time with Chou and did have his phone number, Sano couldn’t remember ever having called him before. So far they’d gotten along in that way people did where it wasn’t obvious whether or not they actually liked each other, and in fact it could easily be inferred that they didn’t; Sano wasn’t sure what the case actually was, nor how Chou would react to a call from him, but he wasn’t about to refrain when Chou might have some answers.

“Well, this is new,” was how the cop greeted him. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Yeah…” Sano wouldn’t have minded some banter with Chou — the guy was kinda fun to mess around —
but it was more important to seek information. “Have you heard from Hajime? Do you know where he is? And why are your buddies coming around bugging about him?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Chou sounded amused.

Sano made a frustrated sound.

Chou laughed openly. “You guys are a trip.”

“So do you know where he is?” wondered Sano impatiently.

“Nope.”

“But obviously you knew he was going somewhere,” Sano insisted, very impatient. “And what do the cops want from him?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that kind of thing.” Chou’s languid tone was clearly calculated to annoy. “I’m not really supposed to, you know?”

Sano tried very hard to keep from rising to the bait, because the more calmly he could deal with Chou, the sooner he could find out what he wanted to know. “Probably not,” he agreed, sounding annoyed despite his efforts. “But it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Might lose me my job, though.”

Sano took a deep breath. “Come on, you know it won’t. I don’t know where he is, and some cops showed up at his door looking for him and didn’t tell me why.”

“Well, he runs around doing weird shit,” Chou replied lazily, “so that’s no surprise.”

“Seriously,” Sano growled. “If you know where he is, tell me.”

“I already told you I don’t know.”

“What do you cops want with him?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Obviously he didn’t tell you anything.”

With a loud sound of irritation Sano said, “Fuck you!” and hung up. He probably shouldn’t have done that, but he felt like Chou had been deliberately giving him crap and wouldn’t have provided any answers even if he happened to have them. So he went to get ready for school.

On every break during and between the two classes he had that day, he texted Hajime continually. Finally, as he prepared for work, he called. Hajime had never once broken his promise to answer whenever Sano called, and in return, in a sort of unspoken covenant, Sano had refrained from abusing that promise: instead of bothering Hajime whenever he felt like hearing the guy’s voice, he only called when he had a legitimate reason to.

And it was not because he felt his current worry about Hajime’s whereabouts and safety wasn’t a legitimate reason that he had not yet called in this scenario, but because he dreaded initiating the first phone call that would not be answered, dreaded pushing Hajime to break that promise. It felt as if they were progressing toward some sort of crisis… perhaps one that had been long in coming. And now, as his call went directly to voicemail for the first time he could remember, there was a palpable painful clenching of his heart. Agitated, he shoved his phone back into his pocket and headed for the Panda.

He couldn’t bear to try again that day — try calling, anyway; he kept texting at every available opportunity. When he returned to Hajime’s house that night, he tried not to rush inside in the hopes that Hajime might be there, but was still disappointed when he wasn’t. So he just apologized to the cats for the lateness of their dinner and went to bed on the couch in the den again.

Tuesday was much the same, except that he gave up texting about halfway through the day. But by the time he was done with school and work, he was so desperate for answers that he cast about for anything else he might do to get some. He scrolled, aimless and agitated, through his phone contacts again, trying to think who might know anything about what was going on, and stopped at the name of a new friend. It was a long shot, he supposed, but by now he would try anything.

Duo had informed Sano that the number he’d given him was actually his boyfriend’s, since he didn’t currently have a phone of his own, so it was no surprise that it took several rings to get an answer — the taciturn Heero had probably seen the caller name and handed the phone over. And when Duo’s cheerful voice finally answered, Sano got right to the point:

“Hey, this is going to sound weird, but have you heard from Hajime? I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, and weird shit’s happening.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Duo wondered, sounding immensely curious.

“So you know where he is.” Sano’s irritation at the déjà vu the conversation thus far impelled didn’t allow Duo a chance to reply, as he then burst out with, “No, why should he tell me where he’s going? I’m just the friend who can feed the cats when he’s got something else to do, and talk to the police for him, and go fucking insane worrying about him! Why should he tell me anything?”

“As far as I know, he’s perfectly fine.” Duo’s tone of reassurance sounded no less curious and interested than before. “He’s staying at Trowa’s new house.”

“What?” Sano was so surprised that he’d already followed this up with, “Why?” before the very obvious answer — to keep away from the police — occurred to him. That they’d even met one of the biggest celebrities in the magical world was already hard to believe; that Hajime was staying at his house was next to impossible.

“The security guard at the office last week got his name when he came in,” Duo was answering, “and then when it turned out Quatre had disappeared, she remembered Hajime was there the last day anyone saw him, so then when Mr. Winner called the police, Hajime’s name came up.”

“Oh.” So Quatre failing to show on Friday had been upgraded to a disappearance, had it? And the police wanted to question Hajime about it, and Hajime didn’t want to have to explain that he’d been visiting Winner Plastics to perform an exorcism — yes, officer, I’m perfectly serious; no, sir, they’re just normal cigarettes. It all made sense, even if the involvement of Trowa Barton — the real Trowa Barton — still seemed improbable. But, “Why the hell couldn’t he have told me that?” Sano demanded of no one.

“He wanted you to be able to convince the police that you really didn’t know where he was?” Duo suggested.

“You know,” Sano replied sourly, “I might think that might have been his reason if it wasn’t so totally normal for him not to tell me things. You don’t happen to have Trowa’s address, do you?”

“Going to go give Hajime a piece of your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I wish I could see that,” lamented Duo. “Hang on.”

Once he had the address and an admonition to ‘break a leg’ that Duo might or might not have known he would be at least a little tempted to take literally, Sano set out with grim purpose. Now he was glad he’d driven to Hajime’s house, since it meant he could (assuming his car would start) head straight to his next destination without working out an unfamiliar bus route and nursing his impatient irritation for however long that would take.

His curiosity about Trowa Barton was mostly referred, but that didn’t mean what he did feel was weak or transient. He was very interested in seeing this new house, since that would indicate Trowa’s financial situation. What kind of money did a super-powerful immortal magician make? What kind of home would he live in? This was secondary to Sano’s feelings in relation to Hajime, however. He was incredibly annoyed with the guy for letting him worry and not telling him anything about what was going on; and in addition to the annoyance, some of the worry still hung around as well for good measure.

The house turned out to be a nice, decent-sized one in a nice neighborhood, with the forlorn look of a newly purchased home. Sano hoped Duo had given him the right address, because he didn’t hesitate to park in the empty driveway and march right up to the door. And perhaps it was rude, but he first rang the doorbell and then knocked — just in case. After not too long a wait and the sound of footsteps descending a staircase inside, the door opened to disclose Trowa Barton, and suddenly Sano was a little embarrassed.

“Hello,” said Trowa. He didn’t look terribly surprised to see someone he’d barely met on his doorstep — he mostly looked tired and unhappy — but Sano had already noticed that his wasn’t the easiest face to read. In any case, Sano had already knocked, trespassing on the property of the Trowa Barton with a minimal acquaintance with the man and a demand that really had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t going to get any less awkward and embarrassing no matter what he said. He cleared his throat, preparing to explain himself.

“You’re here to see Hajime, I assume,” said Trowa in the interim.

“Yeah,” Sano replied, the word emerging hoarse and abashed.

“Come in,” Trowa said unenthusiastically. This only made Sano feel more awkward, but what other option did he have? He must reassure himself that Hajime really was all right before anything else — and if that meant inconveniencing the Trowa Barton, that was what he would do.

Silently Trowa led him up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the entry, onto which three second-floor rooms opened. Two of them were open, and beside one Trowa stopped. Before he pointed down past the second (a bathroom) to the last, closed door, Sano had a chance to see into this first room to note the full bookshelves and paper-littered table within. He wondered what Trowa was working on — the mystery of his missing possessed boyfriend, perhaps — but he didn’t have time or inclination to pursue that curiosity very far at the moment. He said his embarrassed thanks and moved toward the final door.

Here he didn’t bother knocking; he was too worried and annoyed. And though one of these states decreased as he entered and observed Hajime, obviously just fine, seated with a book on an air mattress — the only furnishing in the bare room — the other increased exponentially. Hajime’s phone lay atop a small suitcase, plugged into a charger at the wall beside him, clearly powered off. Moreover, the expression the exorcist turned toward Sano, though slightly curious, was otherwise perfectly calm.

“You complete dick,” was how Sano greeted him, letting the door fall from his hand as he stepped forward.

“Hello to you too,” Hajime replied with a faint smirk, setting down his book.

“Yeah, fucking hello! Good to see you’re not arrested or committed or dead in a ditch somewhere!”

As he got to his feet and stepped off the air mattress, Hajime asked, “Did you really think any of those options were likely?”

Sano threw up his hands in irritation at Hajime’s obtuseness or whatever it was. “I didn’t know what was likely! How could I possibly have known?”

“This situation isn’t nearly as dramatic as you seem to think it is. There was no reason for you to be so worried.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? A client disappears — our client — and you don’t tell me, and the police think you’ve got something to do with it, and you don’t tell me, and then you fucking disappear, and all I get is Can you feed the fucking cats? until the fucking police show up looking for you, and I have no idea where you are or what to say, and two fucking days pass, and you might be in some serious fucking trouble, and you expect me to be not even a little bit worried about this?”

“You’re dragging it out far past its logical end point. Once you found out where I was, you could have stopped worrying.”

“Yeah, maybe, if I wasn’t in love with you.” As these words burst out, unexpected probably to each man in the room, Sano’s heart gave a heavy throb and started to race even as the temperature of his entire body abruptly rose. He plunged on. “Don’t you get that? I love you, so I was fucking worried even after I knew where you were, OK? I love you. You probably don’t want to hear that, but I’ve damn well said it now.”

Hajime nodded slowly, his expression having turned somewhat dark. “And I suppose you expect it to change something.”

“You know…” Sano clenched a frustrated fist. “I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t come here to talk about this. I came here to make sure you were OK. But now I see you’re goddamn fine, let’s talk about this.”

“All right.”

“So, yes, I expect it to change something when I tell you I love you! I’ve been waiting months to say it, trying not to, wondering what I should do and what’s wrong with you or what’s wrong with me that nothing’s happening, and now it slips out because I’m just that pissed, and, yes, I fucking expect it to fucking change something!”

“Sano. You’re at my house three or four days out of the week, and when your car won’t start you spend the night. And I don’t think most of your textbooks have seen the inside of your apartment for months.” Hajime’s tone held no remonstrance, only perfect seriousness. “I’m not sure what you want to change.”

Taken aback by what seemed a rather strange argument, Sano had no idea what to say next. Was Hajime really unsure what Sano wanted, or just playing stupid to try to avoid the point? Well, that had been the question all along, hadn’t it — had Hajime always been aware, and just opted to be an asshole about it, or was he actually genuinely ignorant? This certainly wasn’t the first time Sano had wished he could read Hajime’s thoughts, but it might be the most intense instance of that desire.

“You’re right,” Hajime said with a faint sigh. He looked simultaneously a little annoyed and somewhat defeated. “I shouldn’t avoid the point.”

“No, you shouldn’t!” Sano seized on the concession as if it were a life preserver and he drowning. “And if you know you’re doing it, you’ve probably known all along, you bastard, haven’t you?”

“That you want a romantic relationship?”

“God, it sounds so… formal… when you say it like that…” Sano shook his head, looking away from Hajime just for a moment as he dealt with the feeling of awkwardness that wording had instilled in him. Hajime and his professionalism…

“How would you prefer to put it?”

“I don’t know… it’s not like that’s not perfectly accurate… but I don’t feel like it covers everything.” Sano’s gaze rose again to Hajime’s steadily somber expression, and he took a step closer. “I want you to want me around!” He sounded almost desperate as he began his list. “I want to feel like, even when we’re annoying the hell out of each other, we’re still happier there than anywhere else. I want to hear you say you like me. I want–”

“I do like you,” interjected Hajime calmly. “Though I’ve never been entirely sure why.”

“I know! I mean, I can tell. You’re a jerk, but somehow I always feel like you do like me. It seems like you do like having me around, and you practically treat me like family… I’m pretty sure I’m closer to you than your actual family is, anyway… It already feels like we are closer than friends, but… but not quite…” Again he shook his head, and took another step toward Hajime. Though he would rather fling himself across the remaining space, he didn’t dare take more than one slow step at a time, as if he feared Hajime would run from him if startled.

“And I want something physical too,” he went on, “and it seems like you wouldn’t even mind that, except nothing ever actually happens. It was, what, like, a week and a half ago when I fell asleep pretty much right on top of you, and you didn’t move me for the whole second half of the movie, and when you did get up… I mean, you kinda suck at being gentle, but you were with me…”

Hajime, frowning faintly, said nothing. He’d agreed to talk about this, but hadn’t actually done much talking thus far.

Sano took a deep breath. “I don’t think we can keep having this both ways. Me liking you and you ignoring it, I mean. This is driving me crazy. We’ve been hanging out forever; I’ve had plenty of time to get over you and just settle down to being friends or whatever, so I think if that was ever going to happen it would have already. I can’t stand wanting you and not having you and at the same time not being able to get over you. I can’t keep going like this. I can’t be just your friend anymore. It hurts too goddamn much. But you’re not into guys,” he speculated, as he had speculated all along, “or you’re not into me, or you’re not…”

Still Hajime said nothing. It fit the pattern so well it made Sano want to scream and punch the bastard in the unmoving mouth. If he would just say something, just explain himself even a little…! That all of Sano’s emotion toward this man, built up to such a strength over the last few months, was not worth a single word of explanation, cut deeper even than the rejection he’d been fearing.

Again he threw a hand up in despairing helplessness, and it came down to clutch at his bowed face, covering his closed eyes. “I can’t figure you out. I’ve never been able to, and you just won’t tell me no matter what I say, and you know what? I can’t do this anymore. I thought it might work, but obviously I was wrong. I mean, I am an idiot. You’re always so fucking happy to remind me of that, but never…”

He shook his head, dislodging the hand, and turned away before he opened his eyes again so as to avoid looking at Hajime even one last time. “I’m done.” Turning fully toward the door, he repeated, “I’m done. I’m glad you’re OK, and I’ll feed the cats, but let me know when you’re coming home, because I don’t want to be there. Just… Bye.” And though it felt akin to tearing himself from something to which he was physically attached, breaking himself mercilessly open in the process, he started to walk away.

Part 3

Hajime had known this day would come. He’d been bracing himself for it for months. He’d watched Sano’s infatuation stubbornly refusing to fade, and known that Sano would eventually demand more than he could give. And that when he refused, Sano would walk away forever, unable to continue wanting without being able to have. Hajime had known all this would happen, and believed himself ready for it.

What he hadn’t known was that it wouldn’t go that way at all.

“Sano, come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that he wouldn’t be able to let Sano go, no matter what it took to hold onto him.

“Come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that the desire not to hurt Sano and the inverse of wanting to make Sano happy, not to mention the unexpected awareness that his own complacency was somehow inextricably involved with this as well as with Sano’s mere presence in his life, would be too much for him; that watching Sano walking away forever was simply more than he could stand, would take hold of him and force him to offer what he’d thought he could not give. He hadn’t known that he’d never really known how much Sano meant to him and what that realization might impel him to do. He could never have been ready for this.

“If all of that’s what you want, you can have it.”

Sano had paused to look back over his shoulder at the first call, and turned slowly at the second. Now, his expression of near torment unchanged, he stared at Hajime in wariness that bordered on complete disbelief.

Hajime attempted to smirk, and knew it wasn’t working very well. “Change your Facebook status to ‘in a relationship with Hajime Saitou’ if that’s what it takes to make you happy.”

“You know how I feel about Facebook,” said Sano’s mouth; his expression said something more along the lines of, “That type of sarcastic bullshit is especially fucking annoying right now.” But he took a step away from the door back toward Hajime.

“Then at least you can text it to all your friends: ‘I finally got Hajime to go out with me.'”

“They’ll never believe it. Kaoru thinks you’ve been trolling me this whole time and you’re really secretly married or something. Katsu thinks you’re stringing me along to make sure I keep helping you with shades you can’t deal with.” Sano sounded extremely suspicious even as he took another step closer. “Are you serious about this?”

Excising sarcasm completely, with all the earnestness he could command, Hajime said, “I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me. I’ll even give you something physical.” It surprised him to find that it was, more or less, all true. “What else was there?”

“You really are serious.” This half whisper still didn’t sound entirely convinced, and Sano looked wary.

“Come here.”

Before Sano could obey (or indicate that he wasn’t going to), they were interrupted by a knock. Soft though it was, it caused the imperfectly latched door to swing slowly open, revealing the owner of the house lowering his hand. He looked even more haggard than Hajime had seen him yet, and the exorcist realized with a stab of chagrin that Trowa might well have overheard much of their conversation. It hadn’t exactly been quiet, nor the door completely closed.

“I’ll be out for the next few hours,” Trowa said flatly — though there seemed to be both a touch of weary resignation and a subtle sort of accusation to his tone. “If you need anything from me, call my cell phone.” He didn’t give them a chance to respond, but turned away so abruptly it was as if he didn’t want to look at them for one instant longer. Even as he started walking up the hall he was muttering a spell, and presently the sound of his voice and footsteps cut off all at once.

Into the ensuing silence Hajime murmured, “We’ve just embarrassed or annoyed Trowa Barton — the Trowa Barton — out of his own house.”

Sano stared out of the room, mouth slightly ajar. His head was unguardedly busy with a rather comical equation between this scene and Forrest Gump dropping his pants before the president, and simultaneously hoping with a fervent, almost magical intensity that somebody somewhere had the wherewithal to mend Trowa’s mood before he decided to come back and get revenge for this. When Hajime cleared his throat, wanting to get back on track no matter how humiliating the prior circumstance, Sano moved quietly to close the door — properly this time — and turn toward him.

And then, because it was expected of him and what the situation called for, Hajime kissed him.

Sano, who leaned into Hajime and wrapped insistent arms around his neck, probably wouldn’t have liked to know what Hajime was thinking as he went about this task: how in the world had kissing become a thing people did? What couple first decided to press their mouths together, writhe their lips against each other, and tangle their tongues in this more or less nauseating fashion? How had such an unpleasant and unhygienic activity become a sign of mutual esteem?

He already knew, from experiences such as Sano had mentioned a minute ago involving close proximity on the sofa, that Sano’s body operated at a slightly higher temperature than most people’s. He could have guessed that Sano would taste like Chinese food, though he hadn’t guessed and would rather not have known, since what someone’s mouth tasted like should be, in Hajime’s opinion, exclusively that someone’s business. But at least Sano seemed to be enjoying this. However he felt about kissing, Hajime did enjoy Sano enjoying something. And it couldn’t last forever in any case; there was more conversation to be had.

“But, seriously, why now?” This came out in a near whisper as Sano withdrew, apparently with some reluctance, from Hajime’s lips and looked into his eyes, but the rest of the demand rose into more of a rant. “It’s not like it’s been a big mystery all along that I wanted you like this, even though I’ve been trying to be subtle about it — I mean, more subtle than I usually am about things — because it seemed like I got better results when I wasn’t outright flirting or whatever… but I think it’s still been pretty obvious. But you’ve been ignoring it all along, I have to think on purpose. So why’ve you changed your mind now?”

“Because I don’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing. But for you I’m willing to make an exception.” This fragment of the real explanation might be misleading, but at least it was true.

Sano let out a breathy laugh that was more indicative of surprise than anything else, and there sprang up out of nowhere a horizontal pink patch stretching from one of his ears all the way around to the other. “Really?” As he searched Hajime’s face, clearly wondering whether the words were a lie meant to placate and distract him, this pink stripe intensified and spread. “Just for me, huh?”

Solemnly, Hajime nodded.

Though it hadn’t actually been a lie, it did appear to have placated and distracted Sano, who now, instead of asking why Hajime didn’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing, leaned up — almost sprang up — and kissed him again. The new volume of blood in his face seemed to have perceptibly increased the already high temperature of his lips, which was interesting; that, combined with an accompanying interest in the ferocity of Sano’s movements brought on by the intensity of his emotion, made the action less tedious and distasteful than before. There was something about the fierce demonstration of Sano’s desperate pleasure at being the exception that rendered that demonstration, if not precisely enjoyable, at least acceptable to its recipient.

This time when Sano withdrew, the expression he turned up toward Hajime had a touch of something that seemed almost like drunkenness about it; and the idea that Hajime specifically was a sort of intoxicant to him… well, that wasn’t so bad either.

Leaning forward again, Sano ran moist lips across Hajime’s face to his ear and half whispered, “You’re going to fuck me now, right?” And before Hajime could even draw breath to answer, Sano reiterated, “Right?” in a tone that made it clear he was accepting no refusal. So like Sano to discount entirely the possibility that agreeing to enter upon a romantic relationship did not equate to being immediately ready for sex.

“If you insist,” Hajime replied. Deciding that this wording sounded almost as reluctant as he actually was for the proposed activity, he added, “I’ll do whatever you want.” Which he really would, even if it killed him. He did feel the need to remind Sano, however, “Don’t forget we’re in someone else’s house, though.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.” Sano drew back once more, embarrassed and determined. “And if I told Katsu I finally hooked up with you in Trowa Barton’s house, he’d laugh my ass right out of the room. But you know what? I don’t fucking care where we are. You’re going to make up for all those months you made me wait and jack off all the fucking time without having any idea how you’d actually do it if you were really there.” He was grinding against Hajime now, his words coming in a breathy growl. “You’re going to make me come hard enough to make up for trolling me all this time.”

Unsavory as was the scenario Sano described and the pictures beginning to bleed through from his eager imagination, not to mention the stirrings of reaction in Hajime’s own body to the grinding, Hajime couldn’t help but be somewhat amused by his new boyfriend’s wanton phraseology. “I told you I wasn’t trolling,” he murmured, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Sano stepped back and threw a calculating look around, and at the idea Hajime was hearing pretty clearly from his head the exorcist said his name in a sharp, remonstrating tone.

“What?” Sano demanded. “I want you to fuck me for real, and Trowa Barton’s as gay as all fuck.”

“He’s not likely to have any–” Hajime began, but Sano had left the room before he could finish the sentence. With a sigh, he reseated himself and began to remove his tie while he waited for the younger man’s return.

He wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into by agreeing to this. It wasn’t, after all, just a one-time occurrence: he couldn’t grit his teeth and get through the coming sexual scene and then be done with the whole thing. A relationship meant a long-term commitment to a way of life and a set of behaviors he’d never planned on having to deal with again. He didn’t know if he would be capable of it and hadn’t merely put off the time when things would fall apart.

But he felt no temptation whatsoever to go back on his word. His realization and ensuing statements had been completely true: he couldn’t let Sano go. Whether he could return the love Sano claimed to feel for him, whether he could maintain the sort of interaction Sano wanted, whether this whole thing he was entering upon wasn’t or wouldn’t become an elaborate deception, he didn’t know, but he did know that Sano was important enough to him that he was perfectly willing to move out of his comfort zone to make sure he kept Sano in his life.

And that apparently meant he would be having sex with Sano in Trowa Barton’s house, of all places, on an air mattress he’d purchased on the way over when said Trowa Barton had informed him of a nearly complete lack of furniture. Well, he could grit his teeth and get through that, in the interest of knowing what he would be up against in the future. Though presumably, in the future, the severe embarrassment of being at Trowa Barton’s house would be absent.

Emotional scenes tended to break down Sano’s mental defenses, so Hajime picked up on the success of Sano’s venture before the younger man made it back to the room with a bottle of what appeared to be actual lube designed for sexual purposes. Based on what Hajime had understood of Trowa’s current circumstances — the burning of his previous house and the absence of his boyfriend since before the occupation of this new one — he really hadn’t expected Sano to find anything of the sort here… but he supposed that not only wasn’t it even a little of his business, he should also be glad of it, since it would (in more senses than just the literal) help things go more smoothly now.

Sano, certainly pleased about it, held up the bottle with a wickedly smug arrangement of lips and brows — which look, however, changed rapidly to one of slightly irritated disappointment. “You already took off your tie,” he protested as he again made sure the door was completely closed behind him and moved forward with no hesitation. “I wanted to do that!”

Hajime had read this desire in Sano’s head on a couple of previous occasions, and if he’d remembered it today, he might have allowed Sano to live out that peculiar little fantasy. Instead, as Sano dropped to a crouch and began to puzzle with spiky boots, he said, “Maybe next time.”

The thrill these words gave was just as evident in Sano’s thoughts as from his deep but sharply indrawn breath. And if Sano was really that happy at the prospect of removing Hajime’s tie… well, that was no difficult indulgence to offer him. Certainly easier than the probable sequel.

Sooner that could have been expected given the numbers of buckles and laces involved, Sano kicked his absurd footwear aside and began crawling across the air mattress toward Hajime. He came to rest — though ‘rest’ was a very inaccurate term — on top of the older man, legs straddling hips, fingers immediately busy with shirt buttons, and lips seeking out Hajime’s again. Hajime responded as best he could, running his own hands up Sano’s sides, considering reciprocating on the undressing front, and trying to ignore how uncomfortable Sano’s resumed grinding made him feel. At least Sano’s choice of pants today was not as dangerous as the boots; this could have been a good deal more uncomfortable.

Though the sexual stimulation frankly irritated, it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have Sano’s body against his in a more general sense and to explore it with his hands. He could appreciate the casual muscularity, the admirable symmetry, the warmth, without too much trouble — but far more than that, he could appreciate the eagerness Sano displayed that was very clearly directed specifically at Hajime. It was, he supposed, only natural to respond positively to someone else’s adoration of and desire for you, even if those feelings were somewhat alien, difficult to understand, and probably impossible to return. He slid his hands under Sano’s shirt.

Eventually, after further kissing and grinding that Hajime was struggling to deal with, some tugging manipulation of clothing, and some squirming that, at least on Sano’s side, was calculated to move things along, they were fully horizontal and closer to naked. And even nakedness was nothing particularly onerous… it was what people would insist on doing with it that galled. In this situation, however, Hajime was forcing himself to acclimatize.

Actions that further reiterated Sano’s eagerness to be with him bore a certain unexpected charm. It was palpably awkward that Sano, who had shifted half off of Hajime onto his side in order to reach a lubed-up hand down the back of his own loosened pants, was groaning as he presumably prepared himself for penetration; but the way Sano simultaneously rolled his shoulders toward Hajime as if trying to hug him even when that was impossible, trying to stay close and inclusive, and mouthed his arm and chest in tickly, moist, almost desperate kisses showed just how much Sano associated with Hajime the pleasure he was actually giving himself, how good it was to be here with him.

And though, when that was finished, the strong fingers that found their way past Hajime’s zipper and clasped the erection there made Hajime want to push Sano off of him and walk away, the satisfaction evident in Sano’s thoughts — as if he’d just attained some long-sought goal — mollified the older man somewhat. He allowed himself to be stroked into greater hardness, heard his own breaths coming less evenly as moments passed, with solid forbearance, because it was what Sano wanted, because Sano obviously wanted it so much.

This was, after all, not about getting through something unpleasant; it was about giving Sano what he wanted. Making Sano happy… which, in turn, for some inscrutable reason, made Hajime happy. As such, Hajime needed to start tailoring his own actions toward optimal enjoyment for Sano. So he rolled over on top of him and tried both to engage Sano in the kind of kiss Sano had thus far been the one to initiate, and to ignore that they were now right at the edge of the air mattress and liable to fall off at any time.

The latter circumstance was rectified after not too long when they were forced to separate, panting, in order to remove their remaining garments. Had Hajime been in the frame of mind he believed generally accompanied this sort of activity — the hazy, lust-driven mood that filled Sano’s head like a hot, oily mist — he had to think it would have been disrupted by this awkward procedure. Apparently this was no problem for Sano, though he did laugh rather charmingly at the flopping removal of pants and underwear before making a grotesque sound of anticipation at the sight of Hajime’s exposed erection.

And then he was sliding close against Hajime again, encouraging Hajime on top of him and lifting a bare leg up over Hajime’s back. Though not unwilling to take charge once more, ready to grind for a while and tolerate Sano’s noises in response before getting on to the actual penetration, Hajime very much wished for a couple of condoms at the moment. He wondered whether there hadn’t been any wherever Sano had found the lube, or whether Sano simply hadn’t considered them important. He rather doubted he could have brought himself to explore Trowa Barton’s taste in condoms in any case, and supposed this was just another part of the sacrifice he was making… and perhaps a sign of how far he returned Sano’s trust.

Sano was kissing him at random, much in the same manner Hajime was thrusting against various surfaces lower down, and the young man’s current thought was perceptible in his mind — with accompanying visuals and sharply anticipated sensations — before it emerged as a muffled, breathless verbal demand against Hajime’s neck: “Come on, I am so fucking ready to go.”

“Are you?” — an inane question, and perhaps a reflexive attempt at putting off the big moment.

In response, Sano only groaned at first, scraping his teeth against Hajime’s skin as Hajime’s penis scraped against the space between his buttocks and picked up some of the apparently excessive lubricant that had been applied to the area. But then he managed, “Fuuuck meee,” in a tone equal parts silly insistent drawn-out vowels and growling desperation.

“All right.” Hajime found himself in the odd position of being rendered increasingly uncomfortable by the demand and simultaneously unable to keep from smiling. Sano could be winning and entertaining even at such a moment; nobody else in the world, probably, could have pushed Hajime into doing this.

It was a dozen years since the last time he had done this, and, though he’d never anticipated doing it again, he remembered well enough, and it wasn’t exactly rocket science in the first place. With one hand supporting his weight on the air mattress and the other on his erection, he guided himself to Sano’s anus and pushed inward. He might have worried a little about hurting Sano with his unlubricated penis, but evidently Sano had used a gallon or so of the stuff on himself and felt nothing but thorough enjoyment at the entrance.

“Oh, fuck, Hajime,” he groaned, clutching at the man above him and thrusting upward to hasten the process. Whatever he said next was too inarticulate to interpret, but the flood of mental adoration that poured from him was perfectly comprehensible.

Here was the remembered slimy tightness, and, as Hajime began pumping in and out, the stimulation grew steadily enough to make him believe he could probably orgasm eventually — which, despite his achievement of an erection, had been a matter of question. Perhaps he was aided by the awareness of how Sano would be likely to react if Hajime wasn’t able to maintain and enhance his arousal during their very first sexual encounter.

To his own surprise, however, Hajime found himself distracted from such gloomy thoughts when he was actually, after a few minutes, somewhat enjoying the experience.

He didn’t like the way Sano’s fingers dug desperately, bruisingly into him; he didn’t like the way Sano’s body writhed beneath him, always straining for more, more intense sensation; he didn’t like the animalistic timbre of the noises that broke from Sano’s trembling lips… and yet he loved the message all of these combined to send, which was echoed emphatically in Sano’s mind: that this contact, this apparent proof of Hajime’s returned regard, was practically everything Sano had ever wanted, that some profound and very specific need was being gloriously, perfectly fulfilled by Hajime’s actions right now.

Mentally, Sano was giddily, overwhelmingly happy; physically, as he rose toward his sexual climax, still he was already satisfied as he had never been before. And to make him feel these things, to see himself as their sole and exclusive cause, Hajime too was happy and satisfied. It almost completely overrode his disgust at the expanding tension in his groin. This awful friction, these awkward movements, the suffocating smell of sweat and pre-ejaculate — none of it was too high a price to pay to make Sano feel this good. And that was something of a shock.

Sano’s groaning whispers might have been repetitions of Hajime’s name, and then again might have been as meaningless as they sounded. Even his thoughts were becoming little more than a mess of positive emotions thrown over and over at Hajime like a tangled ball of yarn in a soft, absurd, repetitive beating. Sano was drawing closer and closer, and something attempting to shout louder than the chaos in his head, still struggling for coherency, urged him to wait for Hajime, to try to achieve that romanticized and highly improbable mutual orgasm.

“Don’t hold back,” Hajime murmured, and kissed him. Not only had he no desire to draw this out more than necessary, he also looked forward to Sano reaching his peak for more reasons than just that it would be the penultimate milestone on this ambivalent road.

Again Sano groaned, in another apparent attempt (failure) at saying something intelligible, and was clutching even more greedily than before; in fact he’d wrapped both legs around Hajime’s waist for an awkward entwining that would have been logistically inconvenient had the air mattress not deflated slightly and put them in a sort of trough that was perfect for their present positioning and movements.

Hajime supposed he should have been paying attention to things like hip angle and what specific arrangement of bodies Sano enjoyed most, so as to make this even better for him, but that kind of nonsense really was asking too much of him during their first sexual encounter. It also didn’t seem to matter; as Sano’s clinging kept Hajime in such close, swift-moving contact with himself at every moment, it was evidently enough. He stiffened, arching upward, crying out, spasming in his pleasure.

The mental feeling of Sano’s orgasm wasn’t nearly as interesting as Hajime had hoped; instead of a burst of joy to correspond with the burst of bodily ecstasy, it was a white blankness that, while certainly happy, was more distracted by the physical than involved with it. Even so, he was pleased to have induced such feelings in Sano.

The latter now loosened his grip, grinning slackly up, gripping with his legs yet but content to lie back somewhat and let out another string of breathy vowels in time with Hajime’s continued thrusts. His eyes, bright even in the shadow Hajime cast over him, blinked only occasionally to interrupt their rapt stare at Hajime’s face. They were such a rich shade of brown, these eyes, sparsely lashed but perfectly shaped, and Hajime did not at all mind returning their gaze as he tried to finish up this business. Sano was still so happy.

He’d also tightened abominably around the foreign organ inside him; Hajime remembered this increased pressure as one of the worst parts of being the penetrator in anal sex, and hoped he could get through it. He believed, inexpert a judge as he must be, that he was fairly close to his own orgasm but that concentrating on it would be counterproductive. So he concentrated instead on the returning order in Sano’s mind, the untangling of all those positive emotions and the straightening out of all those happy thoughts — none of which suffered any diminution for their increased clarity. He let Sano’s happiness wash over him and distract him from everything, and eventually the moment came.

He couldn’t quite help a deplorable grunting sound, but did manage to withhold any indication of his distaste at both the sensation and the positively gruesome awareness that he’d just shot semen up into Sano’s rectum. Then he took a deep breath and stilled, forcing himself not to pull out so quickly that his discomfort would be evident in the movement. Simultaneously he was congratulating himself on surviving this ordeal.

But the ordeal hadn’t quite ended. Sano was petting his hair and neck, still breathing loudly and happily, and Hajime was pricklingly aware that one of those hands of Sano’s had, not long ago, been exploring regions significantly less hygienic. In fact a general desire to make use of the bath in the next room was growing with shudder-inducing quickness and intensity in Hajime. A cigarette would be delightful as well, but he had neither any with him nor permission to smoke in this house. With an iron will he restrained his urge to get up and leave.

He did, however, ease his penis out from where he felt it should never be (but where it would undoubtedly spend some time in the future), slide his arms around Sano again, and settle into a more comfortable position. Some standards of cleanliness (no petting of hair with fingers that had recently occupied anyone’s ass!) would have to be established for future encounters, but at the moment he wasn’t going to ruin Sano’s enjoyment of the scene.

And his own, really. This hadn’t been so bad. Well, it had been bad, but not intolerably so, and its wonderful aspects had at least balanced if not outweighed the horrible. At the moment Hajime was actually fairly content; if he could ignore the discomfort of what people that liked this sort of thing called ‘afterglow’ and of his awareness of sexual fluids potentially leaking or smearing onto his proposed bed for the night, he even enjoyed lying here with Sano in his arms feeling Sano’s intense satisfaction and anticipation of times to come.

“I hope that made up for the trolling,” Hajime murmured at last.

“Mmm, not really.” Sano stretched, rubbing his body languidly against Hajime’s as he turned his face toward him. “But it was a good start.” And he kissed Hajime just as languidly. This prevented him from finishing his statement verbally, but Hajime caught, faintly, the remainder of it in his head, around which the shields had been gradually reforming: I mean, it was really good, but it only lasted, like, ten minutes or something, and I bet we could go twenty times that long.

Thankfully Sano hadn’t said this aloud, since how to respond would have been an unpleasant mystery Hajime might not have been able to solve. He was impressed with himself for managing to orgasm after only, like, ten minutes of stimulation, and simultaneously appalled at the idea of having to attempt to put up with sex for twenty times that long. And what else would Sano demand of him? He would probably want to do the penetrating on occasion, and then there was fellatio and anilingus and god only knew what. Well, Hajime would just have to draw a line somewhere.

But it wouldn’t be a line debarring sex entirely. He wouldn’t deny Sano that. And maybe this wouldn’t have to be as much of a deception as Hajime had been fearing. He had, after all, legitimately enjoyed some aspects of tonight’s encounter, and felt he could manage to make sex with Sano a part of his life. He could and would do what was required to keep Sano with him, to keep Sano happy.

Finishing at last the lingering kiss that had allowed Hajime time for all these thoughts, Sano drew back a bit and sighed contentedly. “Yeah,” he said in a luxuriating tone, “I think I could stand to do that a fucking lot from now on.”

And he undoubtedly didn’t recognize the complete lack of facetiousness in Hajime’s reply, “I think I could too.”



If you’re curious where Trowa went when he left the house, see Consummate Timing.

Part 4

The most infuriating thing was that then Sano had to go home. Back to Hajime’s house, anyway. He’d run off in such an outraged state of worry and confusion, he hadn’t given any thought to the cats’ dinner — and if he had thought about it, he would never have guessed that a situation might arise wherein he would be tempted to put off returning to the hungry familiars in favor of having sex with Hajime again. And then maybe again.

The other problem was that Hajime pretty clearly didn’t take much pleasure from the fact that they’d celebrated the upgrade to their relationship in somebody’s guest room — especially given who that somebody was — and probably wouldn’t have been willing to have sex again (and then maybe again) in that venue in any case. Though he’d seemed ready enough to cuddle Sano on the air mattress for a good long time, he’d also seemed to want a shower very much as well. Evidently he was going to be a fastidious lover; Sano couldn’t say he was surprised.

And the cats still needed to be fed. This and the awareness of morning class (for which all his things were at Hajime’s house) had forced the very reluctant Sano out.

Despite the severe annoyance of having to drive home, Sano barely remembered the drive home. There had probably been stoplights and other motorists and… gasoline… and stuff. Obviously his car had started without too much trouble. Hopefully he’d worn his seat belt. It was all more than a bit of a blur. At the moment he was standing in Hajime’s kitchen, not quite sure how he’d arrived there, watching the cats eat food he wasn’t quite sure when he’d given them, grinning in a mixture of dreaminess and triumph and savoring the last of the sensations fading throughout his body.

“For you I’m willing to make an exception.”

The sensations in his heart weren’t fading.

He was tempted to do what Hajime had suggested and text an all-caps, possibly multi-message announcement to everyone that had ever put up with his complaints about his lack of progress in this area — or even actually sign onto Facebook for once and change his relationship status. But he held off for the moment. He was thinking about Hajime’s lips on his neck. He would, of course, relate the gleeful news to his friends after while, and rejoice in so doing and in their reactions, but right now it was too close, too precious to share with anyone.

“I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me.”

It wasn’t as if Sano had never been in a relationship before, never believed himself in love before. But he’d never had to wait this long for someone he liked this much, and he’d never had anyone make so much of a concession for him. Though it hadn’t been overtly stated, he thought he had the answer to the question he’d been silently asking for so long: his interest had been ignored all this time because Hajime disliked relationships.

That… that Sano really should have predicted. Hajime had moved to a different country to get away from his family and admitted, as far as Sano knew, a total of two friends. Maybe two and a half. And yet, when push came to shove, he would go against his own evidently fairly strong disinclination and accept Sano as his lover. Make an exception just for Sano. Who knew perfectly well that Hajime Saitou wasn’t much given to making exceptions.

“Don’t hold back.”

If he concentrated, he could still call up the sensations of Hajime touching him, kissing him, fucking him… he could still smell him. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that he was in Hajime’s home, but the memories were so visceral it seemed like more than merely that.

A shower here to supplement the handwash Hajime had insisted upon at Trowa’s house might have been a good idea, but that scent Sano swore he could still detect all over his own body was, at the moment, something he could not bear to lose. Besides, such considerations barely registered through the preoccupied felicitous haze in which he currently operated. Maybe tomorrow. For now, happily brazen, he stripped off his clothing for the second and less interesting time tonight and, after a trip to the toilet that was as far as he was willing to recognize mundanity, crawled into Hajime’s bed.

With hands behind his head on the pillow, he stared up toward the ceiling, but his line of sight was broken by memories like visions that arose in front of his eyes: Hajime’s expression when he called Sano back, having finally made the choice to accept him in full spite of his own habits… Hajime waiting for him on that air mattress, having done the unthinkable and actually removed that uptight tie of his… Hajime’s gorgeous eyes boring into Sano’s from above as he finished inside him, having just made him come if not quite hard enough to make up for all the lonely masturbation at least pretty damn satisfyingly.

“I do like you.”

“You really do, don’t you?”

Misao, who had curled up beside Sano on top of the blanket at some point completely unnoticed by him, wondered now what he meant. He reached down to pet her, scratching her head absently as he replied that he hadn’t been addressing her.

He’d begun mentally reliving the entire evening, in the level of detail with which only that kind of exquisitely indelible event can be recalled — earlier, more aggravating parts not excluded — and gotten as far as the extremely embarrassing entrance of Trowa, when noise arose from the pocket of his pants on the floor.

The tone he’d set for text messages from Hajime, a cheesy harp sound that had come pre-loaded on the phone, had felt appropriate not even remotely for Hajime’s personality but for the silly sense of romantic longing it seemed to convey. Hearing it now, Sano let out a cry of triumph and joy. He would have to change it — he would definitely change it to something more befitting his official boyfriend — but at the moment it carried vindication of his long wait and congratulations for tonight’s events.

Misao expressed annoyance at being disrupted from her comfortable position as Sano scrambled up and leaned over the side of the bed to find his forgotten phone, but his placating reply trailed off into distraction as he unlocked the device and read the message Hajime must have sent once he was done with his much-desired shower:

Thanks for the 67 texts. I apologize for being inaccessible. It won’t happen again.

The same stupid grin Sano was pretty sure he’d been wearing since he’d left Trowa’s house now widened perceptibly as he typed, I can forgive you for just about anything right now.

So if I wanted to stab you again… Hajime suggested.

Sano wished he could convey an eyebrow vigorously pumped, or at the very least a licentious tone, with his reply, Depends on what kind of stab we’re talking.

Idiot, Hajime sent.

Sano flopped onto his back again, laughing out loud in his delight and then continuing to grin up at the phone he now held above him. This is so high school. Where you go to a friend’s house whose parents aren’t home so you can fuck and YOUR parents won’t know, and then you go home before curfew and text about it all night?

Somehow I’m not surprised you were doing that kind of thing in high school.

And YOU weren’t? Immediately he’d sent this he rethought it. No, of course you weren’t, kouhasan, why would I even ask.

Idiot. Sano had liked being called ‘idiot’ by Hajime (some of the time) for quite a while, since it had often seemed, counterintuitively, a sign of friendship. But he’d never thought he would come to love the sound (or in this case the look) of it quite this much.

Idiot’s going to sleep in your bed by the way

Feel free.

Mentioning the bed had raised a question. Also by the way, why Trowa Barton’s house? If you went to a hotel, we could be fucking again right now.

No, we couldn’t. You wouldn’t have found me at a hotel.

Not with you not answering your damn phone!! So you went to TB’s house SO I could find you?

No, it was because Gains from Seido called and offered me a place to stay while the police want to talk to me. I had to be able to tell him I was already staying with a friend.

On reading this, Sano sat up again, giving the not-so-good news the first frown he’d worn since before Hajime had kissed him. He supposed Hajime’s choice made some sense, under the circumstances… though he could already think of other options that might have been more convenient. At some point he would have to ask Hajime why Trowa Barton’s house in particular had seemed the best place to go. Not right now, though; anything to do with Seido was a spectacular buzz-kill. So the only remonstrance Sano offered at the moment was, You should TELL ME about shit like that instead of making me worry.

Are you saying you’re dissatisfied with how tonight has turned out?

Haha no. Now he was able to smile again, and to pet Misao when she crawled into his blanketed lap. The message he then composed one-handed would certainly have made him blush if he’d been saying it face-to-face, but in writing seemed calmly straightforward: I hope you’re happy with it too

Hajime’s reply was gratifyingly immediate: I am.

I meant when I said I love you, Sano told him.

This time the response was not quite so quick. I hope you know that saying that puts you at risk of not having it said back.

Sano didn’t stop smiling at this, but he felt the expression go a bit wan. He hadn’t really expected Hajime to pour out his heart or whatever… but he wouldn’t have objected. Well we already figured out that you suck at telling me stuff.

And yet you love me anyway.

Here Sano made an indignant sound, which was echoed by the cat in his lap at his cessation of caresses. He didn’t resume just yet, though, since he wanted both hands to hasten the composition of his protest. Hey, it is completely unfair to say you can’t say you love me and then turn around and give me shit about saying I love you.

Your definition of “unfair” is so elastic.

Sano wasn’t sure how to reply to this, and a little annoyed at the turn of the conversation — which feeling threatened to translate to dismay under the current circumstances. But he’d barely resumed petting Misao, and hadn’t yet decided what to say, when another message arrived:

Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life.

Just as if Hajime had actually been in the room speaking aloud, Sano could hear the words in his boyfriend’s deep voice, Japanese accented, perfectly serious, devoid of any of the sarcasm that often colored it. And while not a declaration of love, still the statement meant the world to him. He wondered if Hajime knew just how much it meant to him.

I guess that will do for now, he sent. Then, staring at the words, he found another frown on his face as he decided he was not at all satisfied with that reply. Wow, that looks so cold, was his addendum. I mean I’m really happy to hear that, it really IS good enough for now. After another moment’s thought he added, REALLY good. And then, REALLY REALLY GOOD.

Does each “REALLY” have a cumulative effect? Now it was amusement Sano could hear in Hajime’s words as easily as if he’d actually been there.

Yes, 10x, he replied at once.

So is that 100x or 1000x good?

Again Sano laughed out loud. Now YOU’RE being an idiot

You must be rubbing off on me. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

DON’T YOU DARE, Sano texted fiercely, replying with very serious insistence to what he believed (hoped!) had been only a facetious threat.

All right, fine, Hajime answered. But I AM going to stop texting you so you can go to sleep. I know you have class in the morning.

First tell me I won’t wake up and find out this was all a dream.

You tracked me down intending to (try to) beat me up, then embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Trowa Barton. That sounds more like a nightmare to me.

While this was actually a fairly reassuring response to Sano’s demand, part of it had to be picked at. What’s that (try to)?

Consider the last time we fought. Actually consider every time we’ve fought.

You’re a bastard.

And you still claim to love me.

Sano wondered if this teasing regarding his professions of love was going to become a problem. At the moment it didn’t significantly bother him; in fact he was glad of the banter, and glad to have his true feelings out in the open at last… but if Hajime kept it up, it might become somewhat painful. It seemed to imply a real disdain for the emotion, which in turn implied that not only was whatever Hajime felt for him at this point not love, it might never be.

But Sano refused to think about that right now. And in fact the next message from Hajime, on the heels of the more worrisome one, distracted him: Go to sleep. I’ll call you in the morning. What time do you want to wake up?

It was exactly the promise Sano needed, and probably the only thing that could get him to abandon this conversation instead of continuing literally all night. Seven, he replied.

I’ll talk to you then. Good night.

Good night. There was something oddly and delightfully intimate about exchanging these wishes after what had evolved between them. Even via text, ‘good night’ meant something different now. It meant what Sano had always wanted it to mean.

He wondered, as he set his phone on the nightstand and then lay down again, how long Hajime would stay at Trowa Barton’s house — how long it would be before Sano could make the use of this very bed that he’d yearned to since March… undoubtedly, somewhat depressingly, not until some new development occurred in the situation with Quatre Winner. Between now and then, it seemed unlikely that any further sex could occur between him and his lover. Indeed, Sano wasn’t sure he could bring himself even to visit Hajime at that place, could manage to look Trowa Barton in the face any time soon after having searched his sparse bedroom for lube and actually found it.

But knowing that Hajime did care about him, knowing what had already passed and what would come to pass, made him strong. Phone calls and texts, probably limited to off-hours when the police weren’t likely to try calling, would do for a while. Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life, he felt, would make him remarkably patient.

Again absently, he petted once or twice the cat that had settled against his stomach when he’d turned onto his side. He’d believed he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with so much to think about, with the memories of this evening still so strong and the scent of Hajime still so perceptible around him, but found as he closed his eyes that he was surprisingly drained — a good kind of drained that seemed ready to pull him straight into placid depths.

And, though in his startlement at the unaccustomed ringing of his phone at 7:00 in the morning he did not immediately recall how beautifully everything had changed, it all came rushing back to him when the first thing he truly comprehended upon awakening was a beloved voice saying, “Good morning, idiot. It wasn’t a dream.”



<<3

I’ve rated this story .

His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré

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

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

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

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

It was from Quatre.

It said simply, Help.

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

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

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

Duo clung tighter. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

“As many as it takes,” Heero replied.

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

“I always will,” Heero promised.

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

“I do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trowa just shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not very enjoyable for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so sure, Trowa said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which time zone?”

“Mine. So, midnight here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtly, Heero returned the gesture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did. Because of your dreams.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He starts Monday, I believe.”

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

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

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

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

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



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: Cross-Cancellation

The current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was.

Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre make good use of the beginning of a short vacation to think extensively about each other.

“You know, you guys don’t all have to go completely silent like that every time I back out of a parking space,” Duo was grumbling as he slowly guided Heero’s car in the manner specified.

“I was already completely silent,” Trowa pointed out.

“OK, Trois, you’re exempt. But you two–” Duo glanced at Heero, who sat in the passenger seat, then into the mirror at Quatre in the back beside Trowa. Ironically, he wasn’t able to tell these two what he thought of their behavior, since the accusatory movement of his eyes toward them in preparation for doing so caused them to break in with almost simultaneous protests that he needed to be watching what he was doing.

Duo was right, though: the car had fallen suspiciously silent the moment he’d started it up and moved to leave the parking space… but Trowa wasn’t certain this had been due entirely to the nervousness of his passengers about his ability to negotiate the lot — at least where Heero was concerned. Because Trowa and Quatre had only just gotten into the car at that point, and it was nothing unusual for Heero’s general volume to drop in direct proportion to the number of people around him.

Instead of whatever facetious rant he’d had in mind, Duo was grumbling, “…just because I still suck at parking lots…” and giving more attention to the latter than the rant probably would have allowed.

“You know, Heero,” Quatre grinned, “I was pleased with myself for getting our time off arranged right this time — the right number of days in advance, vacation pay set up, and everything — but I realize now that what I really should have done was updated my will.”

It was Duo that replied, this time with mock haughtiness. “Well, I wasn’t planning on driving us off a cliff, but now I’m having second thoughts.”

Shaking his head with a regretful sigh, Quatre seemed to lament this inevitable sealing of his fate. “I just hope Goldensea is worth it.”

“If we get there at all,” Heero put in. And because Trowa’s thoughts had drifted in that direction, he specifically marked the tone in which Heero said it. ‘Theatrical,’ he thought, was the best description for it, though that did imply more drama (and perhaps volume from the diaphragm) than he could ever imagine a speech of Heero’s containing. But there was definitely a performing quality to it, a consciousness of audience, and far more calculation than candidness.

Duo now shifted to offended dignity, and almost managed to make his portentous accusation with a straight face. “You two are no true friends.”

In general, however, Duo’s driving was not so bad. Trowa had found he wasn’t terribly fond of being a passenger in any car, but he hadn’t yet actively feared for his life with Duo at the wheel as his companions pretended to do. And despite the tendency of those companions to try to micro-manage lane-changing, acceleration, usage of turn signals, and most especially the distance maintained from other cars on the road, Trowa knew they would both offer reassurances to Duo, in between their teasing, that everything was actually fine.

In fact, he thought Heero was already doing so. Trowa couldn’t quite make out what he was saying in that low tone up there; four adult bodies in the car on a July afternoon required more air conditioning for comfort than would allow any remark not specifically aimed at everyone to be heard by everyone.

Trowa himself had repaired the air conditioner, which apparently hadn’t functioned correctly for many years, with a few spells a few days ago in preparation for this little road trip. Evidently more out of interest than skepticism, Heero had then insisted on examining the vehicle’s internal workings, and had emerged, greasy and fascinated, probably with a better understanding of what the magic had done than Trowa possessed. But even if the air conditioner hadn’t been working, Trowa did not doubt that Heero would have found an opportunity to murmur whatever statement he wanted to make to Duo in privacy great enough that he could deliver it in one-on-one mode.

Of Heero’s array of interpersonal settings Trowa had pieced together his awareness after a great deal of observation that had never been intended to unearth any such information. Several instances of coming into Heero’s apartment very quietly (ready to retreat immediately if it seemed that something private was going on), and overhearing thus how Heero behaved with Duo, had displayed the fact that this behavior was subtly but markedly different once Trowa joined them. He’d had occasion to observe Heero alone with Quatre once or twice too, and, though of course there was no romance involved, the openness and ease of Heero’s manner at such moments were much the same as with Duo.

At first, very naturally, Trowa had attributed this to the fact that Duo was Heero’s boyfriend and Quatre his longtime best friend, but after a couple of months observing and interacting with Heero he’d realized there was more to it than that. Because Trowa himself had been alone with Heero a few times, trying, at Duo’s urging, to assist Heero with magic. That process hadn’t gone very well, but the experiences had been enough to prove that, though Heero might not have quite the same degree of openness and friendliness toward Trowa that he displayed with Duo or Quatre, those aspects of his behavior yet remained — up until even just one more person came in.

When that happened, Heero seemed deliberately to shift gears. It had taken Trowa a while to realize that what Heero was actually doing at that point was closing off, putting up barriers, since Heero did it so smoothly: he did become quieter, yes, but he also seemed to start more carefully calculating everything he did say so as to cover up the fact that he was so much less inclined to speak at all.

They stopped for gas at a busy station, where Duo flirted shamelessly with the women at the next pump and then clearly startled them a bit when he replied to their teasing remarks about the apparent age and dilapidation of his car that it was actually his boyfriend’s. Said boyfriend and car owner maintained his stony silence and stillness in the passenger seat.

Before they’d left Heero’s apartment complex, when Duo and Heero had been the only ones in the vehicle… well, Trowa had been busy talking to Quatre at that point, but even the briefest glance at the others had been enough to show the greater level of responsiveness and candid animation in Heero’s demeanor, as he and Duo looked over the map to their destination on Heero’s phone, than in a moment like this when surrounded by people and observed by strangers.

And earlier than that, when Trowa and Quatre had come from Trowa’s house, where they’d been changing clothing and retrieving what luggage they meant to bring with them (and Quatre had insisted Trowa pack, on the grounds that teleporting back home in search of needed items defeated the entire point of a vacation), they’d found Heero’s apartment full of the sound of Duo’s excited discussion of the reception they’d all just attended, as well as the wedding that had preceded it — and Heero animatedly agreeing with him on many points. But of course he’d changed his tone when he’d realized Trowa and Quatre had arrived, because it was evidently impossible for him to behave the same with three people as he did with one.

Though it was obviously not just the type of relationship Heero had with those around him, but also a simple matter of arithmetic, Trowa deemed it still made a difference that those three were friends; he had no real idea of how Heero behaved around other types of people. It hardly mattered, though, since the overall point remained the same: subtly, even somewhat unexpectedly, Heero was shy. This was a brief and simplistic description of a complicated set of attributes, and Trowa had been a little surprised when he found he’d boiled Heero’s behavior down to that one word in his head, but there it was… and Trowa worried that it might cause problems one of these days.

Not with him, of course. While he wouldn’t have applied the same description to himself, he had definitely developed certain social anxieties and dislikes, and some extremely withdrawn tendencies, over the many years, which couldn’t leave him anything but sympathetic with anyone else’s desire to avoid social situations. No, he worried it might cause problems one of these days with Duo.

The latter had finished filling the car and said goodbye to his admirers, and was now, to the sound of some fairly idiotic but no less amusing banter, guiding them toward the interstate. There, Trowa knew from prior experience, Heero and Quatre would be a little less inclined to backseat drive, as long as Duo refrained from ‘riding the ass’ of the car in front of them as he was, apparently, wont to do; to Trowa, who was far more agitated by constant non-joking harassment of Duo than he was by any minor traffic law infractions, this would be a relief.

The conversation had turned to Duo’s job prospects and all the money he planned on making. “It’ll be so cool to do my taxes next year,” he was saying.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that,” Quatre replied with a laugh.

Eagerly Duo said, “I’ll do yours for you too!”

“Thank you, Duo.” Quatre’s tone made it very clear that this service, which removed his immediate influence over a part of his finances, was one of which he would never avail himself.

Picking up on this, Duo made a sulky face that Trowa could only partially see from this angle. “I’ll just have to do Heero’s taxes,” he declared.

“Hmm…” Heero’s reluctance was every bit as pronounced as Quatre’s.

“You can do my taxes,” Trowa offered.

“I will do everyone’s taxes!” was Duo’s fierce insistence. And he started listing all the people whose taxes he would do — though it sounded more like just a list of all the people he could think of, starting with his friends, broadening to acquaintances, then people he didn’t really know, then strangers whose names he’d seen on billboards and TV ads and people he wasn’t likely ever to meet. It probably would have continued into historic figures and fictional characters, but before that could happen, George W. Bush joined the roster, and this led to an energetic and very silly tangent.

Describing Duo as ‘outgoing’ was understating the fact. Duo had always been interested in people, which usually translated to his being equally interesting to people, which made friendliness levels rise exponentially when he was in company. If Trowa hadn’t known it perfectly well after growing up alongside Duo’s jovial and usually reciprocated interest in everyone they ever happened to encounter, those brief months of money and upward mobility just before the curse would have proven it. Duo had been politely invited to someone’s party the first time because he was Trowa’s friend; he’d been enthusiastically invited the second time because they’d realized that the gathering simply wouldn’t be complete without him.

As far as Trowa could tell, Duo’s time as a doll, being passed from one person to another for nigh on a century, had only given him a deeper and broader understanding of humanity in general, and done nothing to lessen his interest; if anything, he was more socially inclined now than ever before. He didn’t have a phone yet, since apparently he wanted to start earning his own money before thinking about that kind of monthly bill, but he did have at least one email address, and appeared to have made friends with just about everyone in the apartment complex in addition to several of Heero’s co-workers (somehow).

Trowa didn’t think Duo had started intensively hanging out with his new friends yet, inviting and being invited, but he assumed it was only a matter of time, especially once an income and a phone entered the picture. And what was Heero going to do then? Trowa feared the result of the first wanting to mingle and the second to avoid people would inevitably be constant discomfort and possibly pain on at least one side; surely, even if they managed to meet halfway between Heero’s preference for interacting with as few as possible and Duo’s for as many as he could, those two conflicting desires were going to drive them apart.

On the other hand, Heero had proven himself both adaptable and tenacious thus far… and Duo’s sociability, naturally, included a talent for overcoming interpersonal conflict… they would surely figure something out.

“No, obviously Heero will be my running mate,” Duo was saying, “if JaMarcus Russell says no.”

“Our junction’s coming up,” Heero pointed out. “You’ll want to be in the right lane.”

Since the difficult process of exiting and merging onto a different highway was apparently an engrossing prospect to Heero and Quatre, all conversation that held any immediate interest to Trowa ceased for the moment. Which simply meant he could carry on his contemplations uninterrupted.

Of course his friends’ relationship wasn’t strictly any of his business… but not only had disinclination to see Duo hurt become more or less a way of life for him, his own level of sociability had come into play as he’d been realizing that having friends again meant once again being both entitled and obliged to care about them. And he cared about Heero. They weren’t exactly close, but Trowa thought they liked each other well enough — and that he understood this potential problem, at least to a certain extent, from both sides.

That didn’t mean there was really anything he could do about it… he certainly wasn’t going to bring it up with either of them, especially while it was only hypothetical as yet… He would just have to wait and see how things developed.

*

General conversation had faded into pensive, window-gazing quiet, as it not infrequently did on long drives. Heero was fine with the relative silence, but unsurprised to find that his boyfriend was not; in fact Duo was squirming somewhat alarmingly in his seat, attempting to get something out of the pocket of his jeans with the hand that was required for the gear shift. It turned out to be his iPod, which (rather than allow him to attempt to connect it, while still driving, to the cassette adapter in the stereo) Heero immediately took from him.

“Thanks,” said Duo. Then in a sly tone he added, “If you just let it play from where it was, that’ll be fine.”

Heero rather suspected he knew what he would hear when he obeyed this injunction, and thus was braced for it. The back seat, on the other hand, had no prior warning, and the look on Trowa’s face at the first sudden sound of Baby, baby, baby, no! from the speakers was priceless. Quatre, who wasn’t much of a popular music fan in general, raised such a protest that Heero (nothing loath) had to skip the song and promise to avoid anything else by that particular artist for the rest of the drive.

Duo made a sound of exaggerated disappointment and an absurdly sad face.

“I’ll make it up to you.” Heero hid his smile in favor of the solemnity necessary for this promise.

With a sudden grin Duo said, “Hah! see, just a couple of lines of that song put you in the mood to make it up to me.” And at Heero’s expression he added, “I know, I know, it’s really weird that Justin makes you want me; I totally admit that. But since we’ve discovered that this is a true, proven scientific fact, there’s no reason not to take advantage of it, right?”

Even as Heero echoed skeptically, “‘Justin?'” wondering since what point Duo was on first-name terms with the celebrity in question, he glanced reflexively into the mirror on his sunshade to determine whether or not Quatre and Trowa were listening to this ridiculous exchange. Observing that they had begun a conversation of their own, nothing of which Heero could hear over the music and air conditioner, he deemed himself safe.

The mirror did inform him that he was blushing a little, though; he would have pushed the visor away so as to ignore this fact if they hadn’t been driving straight into the sunset… which just meant he had more opportunity (or perhaps excuse) to watch his friends in the back seat. So, giving one ear to Duo’s continued, excessively silly Justin Bieber talk (talk that eventually transitioned into energetic singing along with whatever was currently playing) and one eye to a surreptitious watch of Quatre and Trowa, Heero sat in silence for a while.

There was often, he had noticed, an almost severe earnestness to Trowa’s demeanor when he conversed privately with Quatre, as if Trowa threw everything he was into these interactions. Under most circumstances, Heero would have considered this a good sign, a proof of devotion and engagement… but with Quatre, he was afraid it was actually something more the opposite.

Duo had once declared that Heero loved fixing things. And while Heero didn’t necessarily think this inaccurate, he felt it might apply to Quatre equally well or perhaps even more than to him. Or, at least, where Heero loved fixing things, Quatre loved fixing people. Certainly Quatre was drawn to people that needed help, the pathetic, people to whom he thought he specifically could be of use… so it amounted to about the same thing.

Heero couldn’t count the number of times he’d received from a yawning, ring-eyed Quatre a report of all-night counseling sessions with the latest disturbed boyfriend — nor the number of times Quatre had mentioned having been called away from something he was doing, up to and including formal family functions, to see to some problem that really shouldn’t have been Quatre’s in the first place.

He couldn’t count the number of times Quatre had unburdened himself regarding the personal issues he just couldn’t manage to solve for Eric, Gabe, or Scott — issues that, while perfectly legitimate, were unlikely ever to be solved when Quatre seemed to be the only one working on them.

He could, unfortunately, count the number of times Eric, Gabe, Scott, or any of the rest, had made even the most pathetic attempt at returning the favor, at offering the same level of emotional support they so consistently demanded of Quatre. That he could count on one hand.

Abruptly Duo stopped singing, and remarked with intense complacency, “I am going to run down the beach in slow motion for two days straight.”

Though the sentiment was nothing new — Duo had been listing all the things he was going to do at the beach on and off ever since they’d decided on this little vacation, and the list became more and more elaborate with each repetition — Heero had still been deep enough in his own thoughts to be taken unawares by the statement. Thus he wasn’t in time, before Duo went on, to reply that he hoped this wasn’t all Duo intended to do for the next two days.

“And I’m going to get a towel and a drink with a little umbrella in it and lay in the sun all day.”

“You won’t be happy if you get a sunburn the first day and have to spend the rest of the time inside,” Heero smiled.

Duo returned the expression, but his was more of a somewhat sheepish “Actually, I probably would” smile. He still took an inordinate amount of pleasure in anything that reminded him he was human. Rather than admit this out loud, however, he began to wax enthusiastic about how long it had been since he’d visited an ocean beach (a couple of years), how many times he’d been to a beach in total (fewer than ten), and how many of those instances had taken place while he’d been human (a big fat zero).

The excitement Duo manifested at such moments never failed to make Heero smile… but since, similar to the description of what Duo was going to do at the beach, there was nothing Heero hadn’t heard before in this particular dissertation, he wasn’t required to pay minute attention, and could resume the train of thought regarding Quatre and Trowa he’d been busy with a minute or two ago.

There was a name for the kind of treatment Heero had observed in Quatre’s past boyfriends: abuse. None of them had meant to do it — Heero would give them that much — and in fact he didn’t think any of them had even been aware of the extent to which they were taking advantage of Quatre’s unfailing kindness. But that didn’t change the facts.

And Quatre, with his determination not to give up on someone he cared about, his confidence in his own abilities and good will, and the disciplinary side of his managerial inclinations dampened by the personal nature of the situation, continued to enable the abusive behavior long past when he should have given the effort up as a bad job. Eventually he tended to turn each boyfriend loose in what was probably worse shape than when the guy had caught Quatre’s eye in the first place.

And as for the number of times Heero had attempted to suggest tactfully that perhaps Quatre should be a little more choosy about his partners, and had his friendly advice completely ignored… he didn’t even want to try to count. It had been a source of more or less constant frustration for seven or eight years, but Heero supposed he couldn’t really blame Quatre for a faulty behavior born of an overdeveloped sense of pathos combined with a perseverant desire to improve people’s lives… and perhaps, in this, Heero was every bit as enabling as Quatre was.

“Oh! And I’m going to get drunk,” said Duo complacently.

This was new. “Are you?”

“Yes! I’ve barely ever–” He raised his chin and his voice. “Trowa! Tell Heero how much money we had to spare for alcohol back in the 1910’s.”

Breaking off whatever he was saying to Quatre, Trowa turned with a skeptical expression Heero pretended not to be able to see in his sunshade mirror. “We occasionally had alcohol, but whether we ever once had money to spare for it is a different story.”

“So I’ve never really been drunk,” Duo concluded. “And the Goldensea website said something about a happy hour. Quatre, you got the happy hour thing in the reservation, right?”

“I think it applies to anyone who stays there,” Quatre smiled. “So you can make up for everything you never had money to spare for back then.” And his expression took on a speculative, perhaps even somewhat suggestive interest as he went back to his quieter conversation with Trowa. Trowa, with whom the current problem lay… a problem that would probably not be in any way improved by the application of alcohol, however curious Quatre might be.

After how long Heero had spent irrationally jealous of and unfriendly toward the magician, he hated even to entertain the thought, but it just wouldn’t go away: Trowa, as Heero had specifically feared back when Quatre had first mentioned they’d become lovers, fit the prevailing pattern. As far as Heero could tell, Trowa’s self-esteem was easily as detrimentally low as Eric’s had been… he was about as unhealthily reclusive as Gabe… and he had more tragedy in his past to overcome and put behind him than even Scott had.

And Heero liked Trowa. He was pleasantly tranquil to have around, though he could also be unexpectedly amusingly sarcastic when he wasn’t too busy effacing himself. And the world of magic with which he seemed to be thoroughly, unpretentiously familiar was very interesting. But none of that, nor even the fact that he was Duo’s best friend, mattered in the slightest if he was going to be abusing Quatre.

They appeared happy enough in the back seat right now, but that didn’t really mean much; of course there must always be periods of happiness, or else Quatre wouldn’t be in these relationships in the first place. It was just that the trade-off was usually so painfully imbalanced.

“You know, to be honest, I never really liked the taste of alcohol much.” Duo admitted this as if it were a little embarrassing. “Which might just be because everything we got our hands on back then was so cheap… but still… it might actually be kinda hard to get drunk, if it all turns out to be as gross as I remember.”

With a slight laugh Heero replied, “You know there’s a whole world of experiences out there, right? Getting drunk isn’t strictly necessary when there’s a big percentage of the list you already know you won’t get to in one lifetime anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s true, but getting drunk is way easier than, say, skydiving. Hey! skydiving didn’t even really…” Duo paused thoughtfully. “Well, actually, I guess it did. But it wasn’t so much of a recreational pastime back then, and I definitely never could have done it.”

“We can go skydiving sometime, if you want,” Heero offered. He’d seen advertisements occasionally for someplace relatively local offering that service, and, though it was probably fairly expensive, he didn’t think that would bother him much if it would gratify Duo.

The latter threw him a sidelong grin. “Oh, you’ve already taken me skydiving,” he said, with an emphasis that made his meaning clear.

And Heero blushed faintly again, not necessarily because of the words themselves but because they’d been spoken in such close proximity to others. This, of course, dragged his thoughts once more to the people in the back seat — not that those thoughts had strayed too far even during this last exchange. It didn’t help that just then the song changed to some kind of hip-hop number that seemed to be about both getting drunk and sex, the appropriateness of which absolutely forced Duo to sing/rap along and Quatre to glance up with a wearily skeptical expression so Heero was able to study his face minutely in the rear-view mirror.

Heero had been, Heero was always watching for the signs: Quatre sluggish from lack of sleep, perpetually downcast, and losing weight; Quatre seeking Heero out, looking first for random conversation to distract him and then, breaking down, talking at length about the actual problem; Quatre refusing reasonable invitations (of a type he usually accepted) from his friends because he was too busy dealing with the boyfriend or too emotionally spent to consider other entertainment… but then taking up the type of invitations he usually didn’t accept in order to distract himself even further with more alcohol than he typically indulged in… On a couple of occasions, when things had gotten particularly bad, Quatre’s father had actually emailed Heero looking for insight or at least commiseration.

Quatre had been ignoring his other friends quite a bit lately; Heero knew because he was always eventually contacted by them, when this was the case, so they could find out what was going on. Heero believed at the moment, however, and had assured them, that it was just the first phase of a particularly engrossing relationship causing this behavior, that Quatre would get back to them eventually.

Heero had also noticed a bit of baggy-eyedness in Quatre over the last couple of months… but, again, he believed this was due to nothing more than the enthusiastic nighttime activities of that aforementioned first phase — the same could probably be said of Heero. So, having carefully examined and dismissed the only two possible symptoms (he didn’t consider that little spark of interest in alcoholic experimentation a minute ago a symptom), Heero was cautiously withholding condemnation of Trowa for now.

He hoped he would never have to condemn Trowa. He wanted this one to work out for Quatre. No, ‘for Quatre’ wasn’t expansive enough — Heero hoped this one worked out for everyone’s sake. It would be great to see Trowa, whom he really did like, happy and making good psychological improvement without tearing someone else down in the process. Then, the current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was. And if it didn’t… if Trowa and Quatre didn’t work out… it would hurt more than just the two of them.

Mostly he just didn’t want to see someone mistreating Quatre and Quatre determinedly toughing it out again. Quatre, the beloved friend whose support, understanding, and companionship had always been invaluable to Heero, deserved better, and Heero had always been discontented with his own lack of influence in the thus-far-unpleasant area of Quatre’s love life.

He’d never been able to do anything about Quatre’s awful boyfriends before, but this time he felt he might have to try harder. Which would be even more difficult than in any previous scenario, given that Quatre’s boyfriend was Heero’s boyfriend’s best friend. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have any idea what he thought he would even try, or how he would stave off the awkwardness and pain that might result. So for his own sake as well as everyone else’s, he hoped this worked out.

*

Quatre and Trowa really didn’t seem to notice, but if Heero thought Duo didn’t see him watching them in his sunshade mirror, he underestimated how practiced Duo had become at observing him. By now Duo knew perfectly well that Heero suffered at least a touch of discomfort about the relationship between their friends, and it was not difficult to guess that this was on his mind right now as he kept a surreptitious eye on their interaction in the back seat.

Not wanting to hear Trowa criticized, Duo had never inquired into the particulars of Heero’s discontent; and, unless Heero decided at some point to make his concern public, Duo saw no reason to discuss it at all. It was a topic on which it was only natural that Heero should be biased, given not only the strong devotion of long standing that existed between him and Quatre but the pretty obvious neediness Trowa had going on these days.

Of course Duo knew Trowa well enough — or at least, despite how his friend had changed, Duo had confirmed the continued presence of traits he’d known and loved in the old days even if in altered form — to be aware that the difficulties Quatre must face in being Trowa’s boyfriend were definitely worth the trouble. Heero couldn’t know that yet, and therefore must be forgiven his doubt. Whether or not he recognized the potential issues in the relationship that arose from the other side of things was uncertain, as was to what degree his probable blindness in that quarter should also be forgiven. But Duo saw them.

Earlier he had laughed to himself as he’d watched Heero and Quatre subtly butting heads over the arrangement of luggage in the trunk. It was a silly argument, since they were only staying three nights and didn’t have all that much luggage to begin with. It was an argument they probably weren’t even aware they were having, since they certainly weren’t unpleasant to each other. It was an argument Quatre eventually won (as far as it was winnable) when Heero, with an unusually expressive gesture (“This is not worth this much effort”), walked away from it.

After that, though Duo had been too busy looking over their route on Heero’s cool phone to pay close attention, yet he hadn’t missed the debate between Quatre and Trowa before those two got into the car. Evidently Quatre was insisting Trowa wear sunscreen, and Trowa protesting on the grounds that it smelled bad. Several shades paler than it had been eighty-seven years before, Trowa’s skin had already demonstrated a tendency to burn since the onset of summer and a new lifestyle that included the occasional outdoor activity, so this seemed reasonable. But Quatre eventually lost that argument (as far, again, as it had been winnable in the first place) when Trowa cast a protective spell instead.

So Quatre had been one and one when he’d entered the car, but his tally of wins and losses didn’t really matter. It all went as further evidence of a fact to which Heero had once alerted Duo and that Duo, since then, had never doubted: that Quatre was every bit as controlling as he was kind.

Of course Duo had always thought this exactly what Trowa needed. Trowa had long been in emergency mode, with all functions not absolutely necessary shut down, all power channeled into a primary purpose to which he was honed sharp and hard — and a way of life that had lasted the better part of a century was a difficult habit to break. He’d needed a skilled organizer to help him rearrange his priorities and reallot his energy, remind him that, with that primary purpose fulfilled, it was all right to relax and diffuse at least a little. He’d needed someone with the will to insist, the determination to persist, and the kindness to try it all in the first place — and Quatre had fit the bill in every respect so precisely it was as if some force of destiny had been involved in bringing them together.

But as Duo watched a second little scuffle over the luggage in the trunk upon their arrival at their destination, he had to admit he could see how Quatre’s nature could eventually become somewhat… annoying… to his boyfriend, at least under certain circumstances.

This scuffle took place solely between Quatre and his own sense. Duo, hearing the sound of the ocean as he disembarked and full of a glee that had been growing ever since the highway had brought them close enough to catch the occasional glimpse of it, would have run off eagerly toward the building in whose parking lot they now found themselves, but had been restrained by Quatre’s authoritative reminder that they had things to carry inside.

Then Quatre had wondered whether it wouldn’t actually be more practical to go check in first and bring the luggage afterward, since there would probably be another entrance more convenient to their rooms that would save them an unnecessarily circuitous walk. And if that might be the case, whether three of them hadn’t better wait out here until the fourth had gone inside and come back with keys and more certain information. The others, none of them having any opinion worth voicing, remained silent as Quatre rhetorically debated this and cast calculating eyes between the trunk of the car and the entry to the building.

Moving into an appropriate position in front of Quatre, Duo placed a half-clenched hand near his mouth and said, “This is Duo Maxwell of KTVU, coming to you live from the parking lot of a fabulous beach place where world leader Quatre Winner is pondering the fate of the nation. In just a few moments — or maybe, like, twenty minutes, since something this important requires a lot of thought, apparently — Mr. Winner will reveal his plan to end world hunger, stop all wars, and force them to make more seasons of 24. Mr. Winner! Do you have any comments for our viewers?”

Into the invisible microphone, Quatre laughed. “I never watched 24.” He seemed to have taken the point, though, as he added, “Heero, can you open the trunk?”

Shaking his head, Heero moved to comply.

“‘Never watched 24,'” Duo muttered, turning away in disgust. “You and Trowa deserve each other.”

Of course when you were sick you wanted a doctor around… but the last thing anyone wanted was to have a doctor looking over their shoulder when they were well, berating them on every little thing they were doing unhealthily. Trowa’s conditions might take a lot of doctoring, but what then? Once he was convalescent, how would he respond to Quatre’s well-intentioned decisions about what was best for everyone he was concerned with?

As they crossed the parking lot, luggage and all, Duo’s attention was split between observing Trowa and Quatre in much the same manner Heero did (though undoubtedly with rather different thoughts) and looking around excitedly. Lines of hugely tall palm trees marched along between the rows of cars, reminding visitors that this was a venue where a luxurious ocean-front atmosphere was to be had. Though palm trees were not particularly rare at home, these ones seemed to have a particularly special vacationy atmosphere about them, and Duo grinned up at their ragged heads in great pleasure and anticipation.

Inside the first building — Duo didn’t know what it was called, but it seemed to be the main check-in area and other administrative bits of the resort — they made their way past an array of potted plants, some of which looked fake but all of which looked nice, and a lounge-like collection of furniture that was probably very comfortable but that Duo didn’t really see much use for. Who was going to be hanging around here in front when there was a beach in back?

As they approached a tall driftwood reception counter in the center rear of the room, the guy behind it greeted them with scripted cheer, “Welcome to Goldensea Resort! Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes, it’s Winner, Quatre,” the latter said.

“OK, let me get you…” The desk guy trailed off as he began working the computer in front of him. After a few moments he asked, “OK, how’s that spelled?”

“Last name’s Winner,” Quatre reiterated. He added with a smile, “I wouldn’t ask you to try to spell my first name.”

The guy chuckled a little, though it didn’t seem he’d actually found what he was looking for in the computer yet and therefore couldn’t yet know how Quatre’s first name was spelled. Then several long moments passed in silence. “OK…” he said again finally. “It’s Winner, like, you won?”

“That’s right. You can probably guess what people who wanted to make fun of me called me as a kid.”

Again the employee chuckled, and, though it seemed more genuine this time (in response to a joke he actually understood), it also seemed more nervous as he continued to work at a computer that evidently wasn’t giving up the information he wanted. “Well,” he said, obviously trying to cover his difficulties, “you all are going to love– how long are you staying?” When Quatre informed him that they would be leaving on Tuesday after lunch, the guy completed his statement. “Well, you’re going to love it here; the Sugared Rim bar out on the walk just got renovated, and it’s really great. If I could just find your…”

“Don’t you love these unintuitive programs?” Quatre commiserated. “The people who design them are never the people who actually use them.”

Heero made a low noise of agreement.

Appearing much comforted by these kind sentiments, the desk guy nevertheless continued to type and click in vain — but at least his growing panic had been quelled.

Finally Quatre leaned over the counter to peer around at the monitor. Given the manner in which this presented his posterior for everyone’s admiration, Duo looked immediately to see whether Trowa was duly appreciative. Observing that he was, Duo turned back with an approving nod in time to see Quatre pointing at something on the computer. “Where it says ‘Seasonal’ there — is that your problem?”

“Oh, yeah,” the guy said in a tone of enlightenment. “I’m in the… OK, I see… yeah. Thanks.”

Quatre, having resumed his natural stance on the floor, just smiled.

“Yes, OK, here we go. Winner, Quatre.” He pronounced it wrong despite prior indications, but sounded relieved as he added, “Everything looks fine. Yes. OK, two rooms; let’s see…”

The guy was quite visibly relieved when they at last walked away with key cards, directions, and pamphlets, and Quatre’s reassuring smiles definitely had something to do with that. Which was why it was almost a shock when, upon entering a long glassed-over outdoor hallway between this building and the next where their rooms were, Quatre remarked in a low, amused tone, “I give that guy a month.”

Duo’s laugh sounded his surprise at this cold assessment. “After you went out of your way to make him feel better and everything?”

“Everyone has a talent,” Quatre shrugged. “And receiving isn’t his.”

It would have been nice to look forward to Quatre being a little less blunt about Duo when he eventually started working at Winner Plastics, but Duo couldn’t really entertain any such hope. This mixture of criticism and sympathy was Quatre’s nature; though he might go a little easier on people he cared about, it was neither likely, nor would it feel at all right, for him to exaggerate even the kindness that was so integral to that nature.

And as Duo considered the matter further, he came to the reassuring conclusion that it would be equally unlikely for Quatre to exaggerate his dictatorial side. He was overall, Duo thought, a well balanced person. In his compassion he might feel like taking control of everything around him to an improper degree so as to make sure things got done optimally, but that same compassion would probably temper the desire and produce only rational behavior. Duo had seen this type of personality before in others, and thought it was a safe assumption that it would follow the pattern of his prior experience.

Heero, apparently, was finished with today’s (or at least this moment’s) contemplation of the relationship between Quatre and Trowa, for he was giving his attention more completely to his surroundings. He seemed interested and anticipatory about what he saw, Duo was pleased to note; it was about time Duo followed suit and wrapped up his own thoughts about their friends.

This was easy enough to do. The long and short of it was that, though he could see the potential for problems, he had no real fear of their developing to any worrisome extent. He trusted his best friend, trusted the best friend of his lover and the lover of his best friend, and believed they were a good enough match both to be of mutual benefit to each other now and to adjust their interaction appropriate to any personal changes made by either of them in the future.

Over the years Duo had learned at lot about optimism. For one thing, he’d learned that when he wasn’t legitimately feeling it, he wasn’t very good at faking it. But he’d also learned to draw it from a number of seemingly mundane sources. These days, when he was surrounded by, inundated with such sources — things that, to others, while they might provide pleasure, could never mean as much as they did to Duo — it was impossible to remain pessimistic about anything for very long.

It didn’t matter that he was starting to have nightmares on a regular basis about his time as a doll; it didn’t matter that he still worried about his level of independence and to what extent he qualified as a real person; and it didn’t matter that he could see potential complications in a romance between people he loved. In the end, the optimism came welling back up in response to anything and nothing — the taste of the sea air, the feel of cool glass against his trailing hand. In the end, he had to be happy.

Trowa and Quatre would be fine. More than fine; they would surely be every bit as happy as Duo was, if probably for different reasons. They were all very happy at the moment, if not perfectly so; everything was pretty great. The only imperfection Duo could even acknowledge right now was that Heero was not as confident of this as Duo was. But even that would come with time. Everything was going to be fine.

*

Duo had been entertaining Quatre’s peripheral attention all day with his constantly increasing excitement and glee, but now all of a sudden he seemed to have had an exponential jump of sorts. Quatre had seen this in him before, and, while it was almost alarming in its intensity and abruptness, it was also a pleasure to watch for more reasons than one. Beyond just the simple joy of seeing a friend so satisfied and the amusement that arose in response to Duo’s apparent ability to manufacture severe happiness out of no immediately evident material, there was also the effect it must always have on Trowa to consider.

Duo’s contentment was still one of Trowa’s highest priorities, and Quatre might have thought Duo sometimes, with this in mind, showed more than he actually felt… if this intensity of emotion — any emotion — didn’t seem to be pretty standard for Duo and therefore totally unnecessary to fake. And the reminder and reassurance it represented for Trowa — that the curse was broken and Duo was more than all right — was not just pleasant; it was invaluable.

“Aha!” Duo said in a triumphant tone, as if their rooms had been deliberately eluding them and the effort it had taken to catch them in the act had required a great deal more cleverness and heroic endeavor than a mere walk of hallways. But as he drew level with the door to his and Heero’s, he put a pensive hand to his face. “You know I’m not sure if this room is going to work?”

Worried, Quatre wondered why.

Instead of actually explaining why, Duo threw Heero a sly look. “Yeah, I definitely think it’s going to need to be pretty thoroughly inspected first thing. Before we do anything else. You know… to make sure it’s OK.”

“Oh, I see,” said Quatre wisely as Heero rolled his eyes with a slight grin.

Duo turned an expression of deep concern on Quatre. “You guys should check your room out too. Right away. I mean, you can’t be too careful.”

“I think you’re right.” Quatre struggled to school his features. “I should probably have Trowa do some magic, even, to make sure everything’s OK.”

“Oh, yes.” Duo nodded vigorously, lips twitching wildly. “Magic is a very good idea.”

“And then we can go check out the bar or something. Let’s say we meet back out here at–” Having no free hand to pull out his phone to see the time, Quatre moved to set down his bag, but Heero gave a slight vetoing wave.

“I’m not going to commit to any specific length of time,” he said levelly.

“Oho, aren’t you?!” Duo chortled, turning on him.

Heero just gave him a look and held out his hand toward Quatre for the key to their room. And Quatre relinquished it, mind busy with something that had been rising from his subconscious probably over the course of the entire day but that had only just emerged into his real awareness during the last ten minutes or so.

Could noticing something because it was ceasing to exist be called an epiphany? In any case Quatre didn’t really have another word for it. He supposed that was what it must have been, and also that everyone probably had moments like this: a moment in which it occurs to you suddenly that you’ve been believing a certain thing or thinking a certain way a while, for years and years in some cases, possibly for your whole life, without ever noticing it or recognizing the folly of your own attitude; and the abrupt, startling realization is so overwhelming that for quite some time it’s all you can think about.

It had occurred to him suddenly that he’d been subconsciously feeling a little threatened by Duo all along. Jealousy he’d been aware of, at one point, but never until now this more widespread sense of threat — pertaining, he saw, not merely to Duo’s relationship with Trowa, but also with Heero. What caused him to realize this was the consciousness of a weight he hadn’t even recognized being removed from his mind as that sense of threat gradually eased: he was noticing it suddenly only because it was fading.

His initial reaction was to look back at all his interaction with Duo, ever since the first day he’d seen him in plastic form on Heero’s kitchen counter, in great apprehension lest he’d ever been rude to him. He didn’t think he had; he didn’t think he’d ever shown it. If he had, he probably would have recognized the attitude sooner.

This was a relief, since Quatre was very much attached to Duo and would have deeply regretted ever having mistreated him. But he knew he was going to be looking at Duo in a different light for the rest of the weekend, if not for the rest of their acquaintance, now that he’d come to this startling conclusion.

Heero had been the origin of the problem, Quatre felt, because Quatre loved Heero very dearly. Heero’s friendship was much more profound than that of any of Quatre’s other friends; Heero understood him on a much deeper level than anyone that wasn’t a blood relation (and many that were), and was endlessly tolerant and supportive despite knowing all of Quatre’s worst characteristics. In response, Quatre had always taken an almost proprietary interest in Heero’s life, and any difficulties therein, and been a bit frustrated at how little a difference he’d apparently been able to make.

To impose order and keep control over a world that intimidated him a bit, Heero liked to compartmentalize things, liked rigidity in many areas of his life. This was a fabulous trait when it came to organizing just about anything — sales data, for example — and therefore a trait Quatre, who deeply appreciated organization, could never complain about. But it often caused Heero to compartmentalize himself right off from things that might have done him good.

To Heero, there was some behavior that was appropriate in one setting but not in another, or between people in one type of relationship but not between those in another — and this was part of the reason he’d never been able to flirt successfully. His inability to break down certain walls made him come across as cold and withdrawn to many people, which therefore also formed part of the reason he’d dated so little and had (whether he realized it or not) been so consistently lonely.

Obviously Duo hadn’t encouraged Heero to date more — except as far as jumping right into a live-in relationship with Duo himself counted as dating more — but he certainly encouraged him to flirt more. He’d slipped in and solved a number of problems relating to Heero’s walls that Quatre had been working on for years. It was no surprise at all that this performance should present a subconscious threat to Quatre, especially since, in some areas, Quatre still wasn’t even sure how Duo had managed it.

And as for Duo’s relationship with Trowa… of course it was only natural to feel a little threatened by someone your boyfriend had frankly admitted he’d once been in love with. But there was more to it even than that.

Earlier, as they’d pulled out of the gas station after a rather lengthy process of tank-filling, Quatre had remarked very innocently, “I could have sworn you just exchanged phone numbers with those girls, Duo.”

“Email addresses,” Duo corrected. Seeing that he was trying simultaneously to drive and look down at the scrap of paper he now held, to the possible detriment of everyone’s safety, Heero snatched the object from his hand and read out the first halves of the two addresses it contained:

“‘hottkitten91…’ and… ‘tattooed Jen,’ I think — ‘tattoo-3-d-j-3-n’. They sound like just your type.”

“We’re going to discuss hair care,” Duo said righteously. “There are so many products these days!”

“Quatre uses enough of that stuff to tell you everything you need to know.” Heero’s jealousy over Duo’s flirtation with strangers right in front of him probably held a touch of perfect sincerity, but still he made it clear that he was teasing; in any case, Duo seemed gratified by it.

“That’s right,” said Quatre, rolling his eyes. “Unlike Heero, apparently, Quatre is extremely gay; he can give Duo hair-care tutorials better than any girl.”

“Ooh, Quatre’s offering to give Duo private lessons,” said Duo in that over-the-top licentious tone of his that never failed to make Quatre laugh.

“No,” Trowa contradicted levelly. “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

“Oh, well,” Duo sighed. “Poor Duo. At least Quatre has good taste.”

“Heero is wondering,” said Heero, “why everyone is suddenly referring to himself in third person.”

Duo groaned at the use of what he perceived as a grammatical term, and the conversation shifted (as it often did, since Duo wasn’t over it yet) to the G.E.D. he’d recently passed. But one statement from the silly prior exchange stuck in Quatre’s head — “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed this: Trowa had reached a point where he could tease Duo more or less easily, but Quatre doubted he would ever be able to threaten him, even in the context of such a playful, meaningless conversation. If Heero — an utterly absurd thought, but for the sake of argument — if Heero had been the one to make that suggestion directed at Quatre, Trowa would have put a threatening tone into his reply at the very least, possibly even made an entirely different, overtly threatening remark. But to Duo…

It wasn’t unlikely that even joking threats between friends were better eschewed in any case, but the point was still that there were certain relatively innocent lines Trowa could not cross with Duo… and this gave Duo a sort of unconscious power over Trowa. Duo could probably say anything in the world to Trowa without fear of even mental recrimination; he could probably treat him however he wanted, and Trowa would accept it without question, be that acceptance as detrimental to his development as it might. So in a way, Duo had a disproportionate amount of control over Trowa’s mental recovery. And to someone concerned with the latter, that would of course feel threatening.

The gradual diminution of this sense of threat had only just progressed to a noticeable level, which drew attention both to itself and to the condition to which it was a response. Because Duo was nothing but careful and kind in his behavior toward Trowa, to the extent that it seemed almost as systematic and instinctual as Trowa’s treatment of him; Duo was obviously devoted to Trowa’s good, and, though he might not be consciously aware of the power he had over his friend, it seemed just as unlikely that he would ever take advantage of it.

The memory of the gentle tone in which Duo had jokingly lamented the failure of his flirtation with Quatre must be Quatre’s surety… that and his trust of Duo himself. And that had been solidified by Duo’s treatment of Quatre.

Duo gave no signs of truly disliking anyone — he seemed to have a talent for finding something to like about even the most unlikable people, for speaking with jovial fondness about even those that specifically annoyed him — but Quatre had heard his intense disapproval expressed about circumstances and concepts; and the conclusion he’d reached was that if Duo really didn’t like someone or something, he probably wouldn’t be either inclined toward or capable of concealment. If Duo disliked or disapproved of Quatre, Quatre would undoubtedly know it.

Even the exchange in the parking lot just now, wherein Duo had pretty specifically pointed out that Quatre made more of mundane circumstances than perhaps he should in an attempt to control situations that perhaps didn’t actually need controlling, had been nothing but friendly teasing. And pointing out someone’s flaws with no hurt intended nor edge to the words seemed rather a sign of affection, of real friendship, than antipathy or falseness.

In this Quatre was reminded of middle school and its frantic pubescent worries whether or not his friends really liked him. Maybe it was juvenile, but it seemed just as important now as it ever had to his twelve-year-old self. And he was convinced not only that Duo did like him, but that there was no rivalry between them. Quatre’s relationships with Duo’s boyfriend and friend did not appear to be any sort of threat to Duo, and — out of respect for Duo as much as any other consideration — Quatre could do no less than to consider the inverse true as well. Or at least working toward becoming true.

Quatre was not the type to allow distraction to mar his ability to deal with the world around him, so, though his head had been abruptly flooded with these thoughts, he’d had no problem finishing up the banter that was apparently required before anyone could leave the hallway. And now he had entered the room he would be sharing with Trowa, and was exiting his whirlwind reflections at almost the same time. He’d pretty much reached a satisfactory conclusion to them, even if the ramifications of his realizations might last a while; and the room, with its huge tinted window overlooking the boardwalk and the beach beyond, demanded undistracted examination.

Trowa seemed to have noticed that Quatre had something on his mind. He probably wouldn’t ask — which, though less than a perfectly desirable behavior in general, was for the best in this instance where Quatre felt no need to share — but Quatre liked to have Trowa’s attention in any case. As he moved slowly into the room and looked around at its pleasant furnishing and decoration, aware of Trowa’s eyes following him, he started to set his small suitcase down on the bed, but thought better of this placement and put it on the floor nearby instead. Unzipping it there, he bent at the waist all the way over to start rummaging through it. He wasn’t actually looking for anything, though. At least, not anything in the suitcase.

“Duo is probably right, you know,” said Trowa from much closer behind Quatre than he’d been only moments before.

Yes, Duo was probably right — right to be happy and optimistic, planning all sorts of pleasant activities at this resort, looking forward to times thereafter that would provide further and greater pleasure, without, apparently, worrying too much about what might go wrong.

“Duo’s a smart guy,” Quatre replied in satisfied agreement, not straightening up just yet. “We should probably do what he suggests.”

Trowa did not answer in words, and gave Quatre no chance for any further coherent conversation either. Very soon the suitcase lay forgotten as the two of them followed their wise friend’s advice (and undoubtedly example) in making a thorough examination or test run of the room the first step to enjoying their vacation.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

How accurate are all the assessments made by these guys as they think about themselves and each other? Sometimes any assessment, accurate or otherwise, tells more about the assessor than the assessed. I’ll leave you to interpret.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the His Own Humanity: Through July ebook.



His Own Humanity: Fast Decisions

The Wal-Mart electronics department was a stormy sea of temptation in which Sano, when foolish enough to venture there, not infrequently foundered. The broad ‘electronics’ heading simply held too many items he would be more than happy to own for him to approach even such a homogenized selection as this without going into a sort of trance in which all thoughts of prudence or the need to eat for the next month were swallowed up in the desire to shoot enemy soldiers and/or aliens underscored by some badass guitar.

Today, however, he had a specific and reasonable purpose — even an inevitable, necessary one — and hoped to avoid spending too much on anything he didn’t need by concentrating hard on what he actually did.

His cell phone provider was cheap in every sense, and the part of the rack that bore their logo had the smallest variety of phones of any of the assembled companies — but they had, at least, finally acknowledged modern times with a single smartphone option, and over this Sano lingered longingly. It looked a bit outdated compared to those from other providers — though still five or six times more expensive than the plainer phones from this provider — but in any case it had to be worlds better than the device Sano had come to replace, which was by this time not so much on its last legs as ignoring its vestigial organs in favor of a sidewinding slither.

Of course he always had the option of switching providers. It would be more expensive per month, but also nice to have voicemail included in the plan rather than as an add-on, as well as, probably, some other little features he’d been entirely doing without all this time… and then he could get a much prettier smartphone than this one here. Like one of the new iPhones made with indestructible helicopter fiberglass or whatever. He could see what that Angry Birds thing was all about.

But did he really need to see what that Angry Birds thing was all about? And aside from games he could play anywhere, how did a smartphone actually compete with the less intelligent kind? Of a phone, after all, he only required standard communicative functions, and that purpose had been adequately fulfilled by a much crappier one this whole time. What use could he possibly have for a smartphone?

Stupid question. A smartphone was a little computer, and nothing like a computer could ever be a bad thing to own or a waste of money, right?

But if he wanted to buy a new computer, wouldn’t it be better to buy an actual new computer?

This train of thought was, presumably, the reason he found himself looking at laptops when he’d come to find a new cell phone. His desktop occasionally crashed for no apparent reason, and some games the video card in particular just couldn’t handle. It would be nice to be able to take notes at school in a more organized fashion, too.

But it wasn’t strictly necessary. He hadn’t made any real attempts to do anything about his current computer, and a system restore — a much less expensive option than an entirely new machine — might solve its solvable problems. It seemed extravagant to buy a new computer outright when the old one still functioned at a high level. And he needed a phone in any case, and certainly wouldn’t get a laptop and a smartphone.

On the other hand, laptop prices had come down drastically in the last few years… four or five hundred dollars would give him the chance to stop rocking XP Professional and finally try out that copy of The Saboteur he’d never gotten to work, and then he could grab the least expensive phone his current provider offered and come out of the shopping trip not too much poorer.

Who was he kidding? Four or five hundred dollars poorer when he’d come in planning on a twenty dollar phone?? Also, if he did decide to switch providers — which seemed like a good idea, on the whole — that would cost him extra to get started too. And he might still actually want a more advanced phone than the least expensive one available. More than twenty dollars, sure, but less than four or five hundred.

But it still seemed silly to buy a miniature computer instead of an actual computer. And he wanted a laptop.

But he didn’t need a laptop.

“If you know you don’t need a laptop, walk away from the laptops. Don’t stand here staring at them like some broke idiot who’s wandered into a bar hoping someone will buy him a beer if he just looks thirsty enough.”

“I wasn’t doing that!” Sano turned to face the suit-coated man that had appeared unexpectedly at his side. “I wasn’t doing that at all!”

“Close enough.” Hajime, obviously picking up on Sano’s brainwaves, couldn’t possibly miss the rush of joy that always filled the younger man at the sight of the older; but in this case, before Sano’s effort at keeping his thoughts in check (an automatic response to Hajime’s presence) took hold, there must also be a rush of annoyance as the exorcist moved to stand between him and the computers on display. “You clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a communicator,” Hajime went on, putting a firm hand on Sano’s shoulder. “It’s bad enough that I have to hear irrelevant thoughts from half the people around me… then someone like you comes along and starts broadcasting his problems.”

Though Sano immediately protested that he hadn’t been broadcasting, he allowed himself to be directed — almost pushed — away from the laptops and back toward the cell phones.

“I could hear you from all the way across the store.”

Sano grumbled something mostly indistinct, but he did recall what his mental state had been before Hajime popped out of nowhere. Though not about to admit it, perhaps he could see how he had maybe been broadcasting just a little. That it seemed to have summoned Hajime, though, like a genie at the rub of a lamp, wasn’t likely to make Sano think too badly of the activity.

“You were radiating indecision like a criminal who wants to get caught so he can get help. So here I am to rescue you from your complete lack of self-control.” With the final shove necessary to reposition Sano before the rack he’d originally been examining, Hajime also came to a halt. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason,” he continued in a businesslike tone, “for you not to switch carriers and buy a reasonably priced smartphone if that’s what you want. In this society a reliable phone with reliable service is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As long as you know you’re up to the monthly bill and won’t let the phone get damaged so you have to replace it.”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t broadcasting, ‘Hey, Hajime, come over here and lecture me,'” Sano muttered.

“I’m not lecturing.” That Hajime released Sano’s shoulders at this point was a mixed blessing. “I’m reminding you of what you already know. Make up your mind about your new phone and then come find me in grocery.”

Sano felt a little thrill at the command, as it pretty much guaranteed this chance meeting would lead to them hanging out. And though that was a fairly standard result of a chance meeting between them, with Hajime chance meetings weren’t so plentiful, nor friendly declarations of such low value, that Sano could fail to take pleasure from them. So, much more gleefully than before, he turned his attention seriously back to the rack he’d come to examine.

All of a sudden the choice of carrier and model didn’t seem nearly as complicated as it had a few minutes ago. In fact, it was now perfectly obvious which company would be the best option and which smartphone he wanted. And though veiled laptop desires still danced, sparkling, at the edge of his awareness, they no longer significantly tempted him.

It turned out he had no need to go find Hajime in grocery. The process of obtaining the fixed attention of an employee qualified in the workings of cell phone accounts, then waiting while that person set him up with a monthly plan and initiated a port process, necessitated a longer time spent in the electronics department than Hajime could possibly take looking for and even purchasing food and whatever else he needed throughout the store. He rejoined Sano just as the latter had finished setting up an automatic recurring payment on his debit card and was receiving lengthy and repetitive instructions on how the service switch would progress over the next twenty-four hours.

And as Sano, ridiculously pleased at his new acquisition and excited to play with it extensively, finally turned away from the counter to the sound of the employee’s polite goodbye, Hajime asked with just the tiniest touch of impatience, “Do you need anything else here?”

“Nope, this was everything.” Triumphantly Sano held up the box containing his new phone.

“You came in your own car?” And when Sano confirmed this, Hajime replied, “I’ll bring you back here later to pick it up, then.”

Under some circumstances, Hajime’s dogmatic assumptions about coming events, what people around him would do, irritated the hell out of Sano. But he could never be annoyed by the assumption that the two of them would be spending the evening together. And anyway he would only be exploring his new phone all night regardless of where he was. He did wonder a little, though, how Hajime would react if he told him he had somewhere else to be.

“We can’t finish season two if you’re not going to be paying attention.” Hajime, now sounding somewhat amused, had clearly foreseen Sano’s primary activity this evening. Without divination, even.

“You’re right,” Sano admitted regretfully. “It’ll have to be something else.” And his inevitable preoccupation ruled out a number of options — any show he particularly cared to see, all games of any type — but Hajime never had a problem finding something to do while Sano hung around pointlessly. That this was the case blatantly delighted Sano.

“The movie I just rented is supposedly extremely funny,” Hajime informed him, lifting a shopping bag through which the shape of a DVD showed vaguely among the obscure purchases. “We’ll see if it can distract you from your new toy.”

“More like I’ll be distracted watching you,” Sano retorted as he waited for the click of lock to let him know he could climb into Hajime’s car, “to see if you’ve grown a sense of humor lately.” Since Hajime generally seemed to enjoy laughing at what he considered folly in Sano more than at anything else. Which Sano actually didn’t mind much.

Whatever Hajime said in response was largely inaudible between the crackle of his shopping bags settling into the back and the closing of one door before he opened the other and took his seat behind the steering wheel, but, judging by a familiar tone, Sano thought it must be some variation of, “Idiot.”

Only belatedly, as they left the parking lot, did Sano realize his old phone was due to stop working any time and the new one might require some figuring out. With this in mind, the text he immediately sent might have been just a little more hastily composed and poorly spelled than usual, but he believed his friend would get the gist of it.

Sensing a mental outreach from Hajime as he would detect something he didn’t want to collide with in the dark, Sano glanced over at the other man and remarked, “You know I’ll tell you what it says if you ask? You don’t actually have to intercept them.”

In a tone that acknowledged the truth of this Hajime replied, “And you don’t have to cancel all your other plans every time you run into me.”

Sano grinned crookedly. “You were the one who just decided I’d be going home with you without even asking.”

“I assumed you’d tell me if you had other plans.”

There were a few things Sano could say in response to this. Unfortunately, “You really think you’re not first priority?” was probably too much of a come-on, which type of remark always seemed to irritate and put off Hajime. And, “Funny how you assume I’ll tell you things when you suck so much at doing that,” might well start an argument Sano’s good mood wouldn’t tolerate at the moment. So what he decided to say was, “It wasn’t really plans, just ‘we’ll hang out if nothing else comes up.'”

And then Hajime did that mixed message thing where he seemed silently pleased that he counted as ‘something else coming up,’ but would obviously get miffed and more offensive than usual if Sano were to make some leading comment about this pleasure.

Never before had Sano gone this long liking someone without saying something openly about it, and he often wondered whether this indicated an interest stronger than or different from any previous crush, or that the two of them simply weren’t meant to be more than friends. Because two months was an extremely long time not to raise the issue definitively, especially with someone he saw in person with tolerable frequency; and it just wasn’t his style to wait around hoping for the development of reciprocation from someone already aware he was interested.

Admittedly logic (something that, whatever Hajime had to say about it, Sano did regard) was on his side in not behaving in a manner that would push Hajime away while he waited for the jerk to return his feelings or at least explain why he never would… but it couldn’t last forever. A sense of novelty hung about this unusual patience and forbearance, but even that couldn’t maintain his silence indefinitely. And Sano was watching with some fascination, with a sense almost of detachment as if he were outside the situation, to see how long it would take him to snap and demand Hajime like him the way he liked Hajime.

In the meantime — and this was undoubtedly the only reason he’d held out for so long and had any hope of continuing to do so — he could still enjoy the exciting and not infrequently aggravating company of a man he should probably consider himself lucky to have even as a friend.

*

Not entirely to Hajime’s pleasure, Sano was sitting there thinking about their relationship again. He did that for at least a few minutes, if not off and on the entire time, whenever they spent time together; and though he appeared aware that bringing it up aloud would be counterproductive, and though it didn’t agitate his companion enough to make avoiding him a better option, Hajime still disliked it.

The eventual decision that to state bluntly his total disinterest in romance would probably drive Sano away unhappy, and that Hajime hated that thought, had involved them in a sort of waiting game: Sano waited for Hajime to suddenly feel like falling into bed with him, and Hajime waiting for Sano to get over his infatuation. The wild card of Sano’s impatience would force both of their hands sooner or later, since Hajime was never going to feel like falling into bed with Sano, and then everything would probably be ruined; so Hajime had been working to resign himself to the fact that this friendship was a temporary arrangement. And in response to this knowledge, there might have been some of the dictatorial assumptions Sano always accused him of: he wouldn’t waste chances to be with Sano while he still had them.

Thinking-about-relationship time ended when Sano’s friend returned his text. Incoming messages were much more difficult than outgoing ones, since, if you weren’t reaching unceasingly to catch anything that appeared, you had to know when they might be coming to know when to reach at all — it took a lot of practice to get any warning of an approaching message, and Hajime didn’t quite manage to read this one. Sano’s reply, an affirmative in all lower case, was easy enough, but gave no clue as to the question it answered.

Once again Sano noticed what Hajime was up to. “I think I’m starting to see how you do that.” He’d tilted his head as if a different neck angle served his magical senses better. “Sometime when you’re not driving, you should text me and see if I can grab it.”

Thinking this worth immediate pursuit, Hajime pulled so abruptly into a turn lane pointing toward a gas station that Sano made a surprised noise. Soon he had the car in park and his cell phone out. He would be interested to see whether or not Sano really could do this trick without ever being specifically shown how.

Sano held his old phone closed before him, staring at it with an amusing degree of concentration, as Hajime sent his first message, and frowned slightly with effort as Hajime sent his second. His mental nets were perhaps a little too intense, certainly very unsubtle, but he did seem to have the general idea of how this worked. After an unusually long time, the dilapidated phone chimed only once. Still frowning, Sano opened it, compared the text with what he’d picked up magically, then waited impatiently for the other to arrive. As he realized the transition of service was probably just taking effect and had robbed him of the second message, at least for the moment, his frown deepened into a scowl even as some of his previous excitement about the new phone reappeared to mix with the annoyance at having the experiment interrupted.

“I think I got both of them,” he said at last. He threw his old mobile a dirty look. “But I only know for sure I was right about the first one.”

Hajime, who had already repocketed his own phone, moved to leave the parking lot. “And?” His first message had asked, Why were you worried about spending a few hundred dollars on a computer anyway? The second had added, You can’t have spent all the money Gains gave you already. Now that he was satisfied on whether or not Sano could teach himself to intercept text messages mentally, he wanted answers to his other questions as well.

“Oh.” Sano cleared his throat. “I kinda… gave half that money to Kaoru.”

It took only a moment’s consideration for Hajime to reply, “I can’t say that comes as a big surprise.”

“It just seemed too unfair.” And Sano’s quick response just seemed too defensive. “Sure, we did Gains a favor, and it was a pain in the ass — and the shoulder — but it was his boss’s fault her husband died and her life got fucked up. Why should he just give us money?”

Hajime chuckled. “Your logic’s a little flawed, but I’m sure she appreciated it.”

“My logic’s just fine,” Sano insisted. “You’re just a jerk who wouldn’t ever think about someone needing money in a situation like that.”

Hajime believed Sano’s defensiveness resulted from an internal battle between concern for Kaoru and old indoctrination that money was to be retained as long as possible at all costs. That Hajime found Sano’s hang-ups about money entertaining and more or less adorable would be taken exactly the wrong way by Sano, the exorcist knew well, and he didn’t plan to mention it. Instead he said, “Just because I have no interest in being her friend — especially since you seem to have that base covered — doesn’t mean I have absolutely no sympathy for her or her situation.”

Sano gave him a disbelieving look. “Yeah, but I don’t think you would have given her any of your share.”

“Which would be normal behavior. You went above and beyond in your usual extravagant way; don’t expect the same of me.”

“I don’t,” Sano muttered.

“But in any case, even with just half the payoff left, you should still have plenty of money. Why was the computer such a problem?”

“Because I’m trying to save that other half,” said Sano irritably. “You fancy exorcists with your inheritance and stocks and house that’s already paid off and shit might not know what it’s like for poor college students who work at a cheap-ass restaurant.”

Hajime, not bothering to point out either that his house was not, in fact, paid off, or that Sano’s plurals were getting a little confused, merely laughed at him again.

Though he opened his mouth to continue, Sano reclosed it as he seemed struck by a thought. In pensive silence he turned to his phone packaging, then the puzzle of how the battery and back cover went into or onto the device; and, though a certain interested part of his attention was genuinely caught up in getting the thing powered on, a large part of his consciousness seemed to be grinding away furiously at whatever had just occurred to him. Curious though he was, Hajime continued the drive toward his house in equal silence and relatively solid patience.

Finally, as they entered Hajime’s neighborhood, Sano said, “You know what I should do…” His tone sounded distracted, and light from the new phone glittered in his eyes, but he went on almost immediately: “I should have you hold onto all the money I’m trying to save. That way, whenever I wanted to spend some of it, I’d have to tell you what I wanted to buy, and then you’d give me hell about it; and plus even if I still decided to go through with it, it would be a huge pain to get the money back to my account. So I’d really have to want whatever it was, and it would force me to really think about it.”

Normally Hajime had a prompt reply for anything Sano said, even if only “Idiot,” but this one required an unexpected amount of thought. In continued silence, therefore, he pulled into his driveway and shut off the car. Then he turned toward Sano. The latter appeared to have his full attention on the phone in his hands, but this did nothing to lessen the impression of sincerity in the proposal he’d made. He really had just thought of this idea, given it perhaps a minute’s contemplation not undivided with more frivolous thoughts, come to a conclusion, and presented it immediately to the other party involved. Perfectly simply.

Whatever nickname Hajime chose to give him, Sano was not actually unintelligent. And that an intelligent person could reach and divulge such an important decision so quickly without seeming to worry about it at all was… well, stupid. But in a way it was also impressive. And something about such an alien manner of seeing the world, of thinking about things, fascinated Hajime, too. Stupid, impressive, fascinating… it was almost Sano himself in miniature.

He must also consider the issue of Sano’s apparent level of trust. Though Hajime remembered with unusual clarity the unhesitating way Sano had told him, “You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to,” in regard to a certain fairly serious injury a couple of months back, he hadn’t properly recognized, even then, to what degree Sano trusted him. At the moment he had not only the evidence provided by what Sano had put forward, but a mental sense of that confidence not terribly difficult to pick up on now he actively looked for it.

Of course Hajime had no intention of betraying or taking advantage of Sano in any way — and didn’t anticipate any unless in the unlikely event there arose some moral demand superior to that of not betraying or taking advantage of a friend — but despite Sano’s trust in him being (probably) perfectly justified, its level after this amount of time seemed easily as precipitously attained as Sano’s other choices. Simultaneously, though… no matter how silly it was and no matter how logically Hajime argued against the sensation… he liked it. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever trusted him to that degree, and that Sano did specifically and recognizably pleased him.

Perhaps equally pleasing was a sense almost of domesticity about the suggested arrangement — the idea of stronger ties to Sano and perhaps a lesser degree of brevity to their friendship than Hajime had previously been assuming. Unfortunately, despite the allure of these concepts, he couldn’t fail to recognize their other implications as well. Domesticity did rather go hand-in-hand with romance, or at least often formed its natural result, and there was an almost marriage-like quality to this type of financial cooperation. Entering into this agreement would not have to indicate increased interest in a romantic relationship on Hajime’s part, but that indication would undoubtedly be fabricated by the eager Sano. And it was this more than any other consideration that determined Hajime against the idea.

“No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t think so.”

Raising his eyes from his phone and appearing to realize for the first time that the car had stopped, Sano gave Hajime a petulant look. “Why not?”

“You don’t really need my help with this. You’re perfectly capable of controlling your own spending habits.” Not that the idea had been entirely unreasonable… but it also wasn’t necessary, and could be dangerous.

“Hey, you just swooped in to rescue me from buying a laptop,” Sano reminded him with some defiance.

“You wanted someone to swoop in. What you really wanted was for someone to swoop in and give you permission to do what you already wanted to do but knew you shouldn’t.”

“But I got you instead.” Whether Sano considered this better or worse — or simply different — than whatever rescue or justification he’d subconsciously desired was not evident. “What do you think I would have done if you hadn’t come along?”

“I don’t know what you would have done. But I know you could have made the right decision even without me.” Hajime said this fairly casually, but Sano would know just how seriously he meant it. Sano’s trust, and the satisfaction the offer thereof had unexpectedly raised in Hajime, deserved that serious response. More typically shallow interaction could resume afterwhile.

“Really?” One corner of Sano’s mouth and part of each of his eyebrows rose, apparently almost against his will, to change his somewhat annoyed expression into a dubious half grin. “Because I’m pretty sure you said I have a complete lack of self-control.”

“Your self-control is fine. When you’re not being too lazy to bother with it.”

“Well, then,” Sano demanded, both gratified and irritated, “why won’t you help me with my laziness?”

“I will.” It had occurred to Hajime that, though he couldn’t respond the way Sano wanted, he also couldn’t respond to the not-entirely-unreasonable idea and the pleasing indication of trust with cold and complete refusal. “But not the way you suggested.” He spent a lot of time shooting Sano down, but at the moment it needn’t be to such a depth as was often the case. He could return haste for haste, and hopefully keep from injuring his friend more than necessary. “Here’s my offer: whenever you’re tempted to buy something stupid you don’t need, call me.” He gestured to what Sano held. “You have a phone that should be reliable at any time of day, so you’ll have no excuse not to. Call me, and I’ll tell you exactly what I think of whatever you’re planning.”

“So you’re saying… I’m allowed to call you any time of day.” Sano’s tone was almost perfectly flat but for the tiniest hint of skepticism. “Just… call you whenever. Doesn’t matter what time it is.”

“Yes.” Perhaps this had been a bit impetuous, and perhaps that worried him slightly, but Hajime held steadfastly to his stated purpose.

“Just so we’re clear: ‘any time of day’ means any time of day?” Now a feeling of impending… something… colored Sano’s voice.

“Yes.” And perhaps Hajime hadn’t entirely considered the possible ramifications of this course of action… but that was the price of fast decisions. Sano probably didn’t appreciate Hajime’s willingness to pay that price for his sake, and would only have taken it the wrong way if he’d known.

“So, like, three-in-the-morning any time qualifies as ‘any time?'” It was glee building up in there, taxiing toward a runway Hajime could practically see behind Sano’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“All twenty-four hours? For real?”

“Yes.”

A sudden suspicion seemed to put a momentary brake on the takeoff. “But you’ll have your phone off half the time.”

“I won’t. Why would I miss a chance to tell you you’re an idiot? You call, I’ll answer.”

And they had left the ground. Sano made not the faintest attempt to hide the pleasure this exchange gave him: his mouth spread into a wide grin, his eyes crinkled at the edges, his entire body seemed invigorated by his rising elation. “Really? Even if you’re in the middle of something?”

Hajime nodded. Unwarranted as this level of happiness seemed at the promise of something so simple, so nearly meaningless, it was nothing but a joy to observe. He’d always loved to observe Sano’s emotions, and the contagion of his happiness in particular was at times only just short of thrilling.

“What if you’re meeting with a client or something? Or in the shower? What if you’re on another call?”

Again Hajime nodded. And maybe an offer like this, and the exercise of Hajime’s apparently stupidly great influence over Sano’s mood, provided the young man with undue encouragement — though not nearly as much as Sano’s suggestion, had Hajime accepted it, probably would have — but Hajime couldn’t regret having excited such felicity even if it did.

“What if you’re in the middle of a nail-trim on Misao?”

Here Hajime hesitated. Of course the perseverent Sano would find an exception. “If I actually have Misao pinned down so she can’t move, I may not answer the phone even for you.”

“Man, I wish someone had been around to take that out of context — hey!” Abruptly Sano started laughing, and his late exclamation indicated it wasn’t so much at the notion of someone getting incorrect ideas about who and what Misao was and what Hajime might be inclined to do to her as at some new thought. And eventually he had to be prodded, since, though Hajime had been practicing getting at people’s thoughts in spite of their mental barriers, he hadn’t mastered the technique yet. But in response to an impatient demand, Sano seemed perfectly willing to share: “I’m going to give Misao my old phone.”

To Hajime this intrigued more than amused, since chances were that having her own phone would deter Misao from climbing people trying to get at theirs. He didn’t really mind her climbing in general, but sometimes her interjections into serious conversations, such as with potential clients, were somewhat problematic. “Not a bad idea,” he told Sano. “But you’ll have to remind her what will happen to it if she constantly leaves it where I’m going to step on it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll remind her you’re an unforgiving tyrant,” Sano promised. Neither his broad grin nor his overflowing happiness had faded. “Come on, let’s go tell her.” As he reached for the door with one hand, the other held up his new phone so he could glance at it once more before leaving the car. And the look he gave it seemed extraordinarily pleased, now for more than one reason.

Was the assurance of an answer to a call at any time really so wonderful? Wonderful enough to make Sano completely abandon his previous idea with no apparent regret? Though Hajime loved to see Sano happy, he doubted the rationality of the origin of that emotion. Sano clearly read more into this than was intended. But that had been inevitable, and Hajime still couldn’t truly regret it. Their interaction could only ever be full of mismatches, and Hajime thought it was probably worth it.

So he disembarked with a faint smile at the pleased agitation of the young man waiting now beside the kitchen door, took up his shopping bags from the back seat, and headed toward the house and an evening that both he and his companion were likely to enjoy despite any possible — even probable — ambivalence to the proceedings.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.

Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

Wafting incense smoke and the cheerful greeting of the most cheerful of the various cheerful young ladies that worked here assaulted Hajime as he stepped into Forest of Four. He’d grown accustomed to the first — apparently no self-respecting follower of shallow mysticism would set foot in a store that did not reek of incense, and he recognized the need to appease the customer base — and, to be honest, he didn’t mind the smell too much. The second, however, was consistently jarring.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” the clerk chirped. Her thoughts, though noisy, primarily related to work, and Hajime could appreciate her professionalism if not her mental control. When he nodded at her, she went on, “He’s with another client right now, but you can wait for him over by the hall.” She pointed to the area in question, with which he was familiar enough, and he nodded again.

The chairs against the wall beside the corridor leading to the employees’ area were, to all appearances, designed for people waiting for friends in the fitting room. Hajime didn’t appreciate being mistaken for the companion of someone that would shop a place like this, but had little choice; fortunately, Aoshi usually didn’t keep him waiting too long. Aoshi didn’t care much for people — living people, at least — and even this circumstance of having two appointments on the same morning was unusual.

It would be an even more unusual circumstance if the medium had three appointments on the same morning, but a young man sat crookedly in the chair closest to the hallway very much as if he too awaited a conference with Aoshi. This was a little irritating; now Hajime would be forced either to sit beside this stranger, one of whose legs was drawn up so the foot protruded under the armrest onto the next chair over, or take the seat closest to the fitting room. Disliking both options, he decided to remain standing. He did give the young man a dark, somewhat annoyed scrutiny, though.

The guy didn’t really seem to fit here. He didn’t sparkle, for one thing. He didn’t have that empty-headed look Hajime had seen on the faces of so many patrons of this establishment — the look that promised to believe (and consequently purchase) anything at all that said ‘cosmic’ somewhere on it. Actually, the best word for this kid was ‘punk’ — assuming Hajime had his subcultural terms straight, that is; he was fairly sure the absurd hair, excessive jewelry, spikes, and chains signified this. In general it strengthened the impression that the young man had come to see Aoshi and not to shop.

The young man had been mirroring the examination, and now asked lazily, “Exorcist?” He gestured casually to the sword in Hajime’s hand.

Hajime nodded, his guess confirmed. Nobody here just for an ‘I do believe in faeries!’ bumper sticker would have made the connection between his weapon and his profession.

Removing his foot from the chairs and stretching spiky-black-jean-clad legs out in front of him, the young man said, “You can sit down… I don’t know what’s taking him so long, but he’s gotta be finished soon…”

Tacitly declining the invitation, Hajime glanced down the hall at the closed door to Aoshi’s office. “You’d think with as much as he prefers to be left alone, he wouldn’t schedule appointments so close together.”

The young man laughed. “You’ve met him, huh?”

“Many times.”

“And here I thought I knew all his regulars.” The young man, Hajime found when he turned back, was gazing thoughtfully up at him. “I must just have missed you every time. You come here a lot?”

“Sometimes.” Hajime’s tone was slightly skeptical at the prying question. He didn’t really care who or what the guy was, or he would already have pushed past the somewhat blaring thoughts into a deeper part of his head to find out, but he couldn’t help feeling a little curious about a punk teenager he’d never seen before that seemed to know Aoshi as well as he did.

“He dig up for work you,” the kid wondered, “or what?”

Hajime raised a brow. “None of your business.”

The young man scowled faintly, coiling back into a less relaxed position. Hajime was interested to see a slight aura appear around him at this, but it faded along with the scowl as the young man shook his head. Then he reached out. “I’m Sano,” he said.

Wondering why they were doing this, Hajime stared at the extended hand for a moment before shaking it and giving his own name.

“I see red,” Sano explained unnecessarily, stretching his legs out again and putting his hands behind his head. “Aoshi keeps me medicated.” His grin turned somewhat harried. “I especially don’t need to be dealing with this shit this week; I’ve got papers to write and finals.”

Hajime nodded his understanding. Sano, he guessed — actually, it was more of a sense by now than a guess — went to the local college, and angry shades were undoubtedly distracting at the end of a semester.

“You really can sit down.” Sano patted the seat next to him.

“I have no desire to sit on your dirty footprints.”

“Wow, fine.” There was that aura again, flaring up with Sano’s annoyance. “Jerk.”

Hajime smirked. “You don’t just see red,” he observed.

“No,” Sano replied, a little wearily. “I absorb ’em for people sometimes; good way to make money, which you probably know, but then I have to find a way to get rid of it all.”

With a disdainful laugh Hajime said, “Stupid of you to absorb anything when you knew you had finals coming up.”

As he’d expected, Sano flamed again. “Hey, I’m not just going to–” But his anger faded as he realized Hajime had done it deliberately. Then he seemed torn between mild appreciation and continued irritation at being manipulated. Eventually he settled on a low simmer, his angry aura minimal and his face merely resigned.

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

At that moment, the door at the end of the employees’ hallway opened, and they heard someone saying, “Thank you very much, Mr. Shinomori!” in a tone far too bright for Mr. Shinomori to be likely to appreciate. Sano stood and watched the cheerful customer emerge from the hall. Then he turned to Hajime and smiled slightly. “Well, it was good to meet you,” he said with a wave. And for some reason he actually seemed to mean it.

Hajime hesitated, then nodded. He saw no reason not to, since he would probably never run into the guy again.



1>>

Part 1

To dial the number he’d been given, Sano found himself a little hesitant. The man hadn’t exactly been pleasant to him when they’d met before, after all. What eventually convinced him was the reflection that the worst that could possibly happen was Hajime being rude to him again and perhaps hanging up without listening to everything he had to say — whereas the best that could happen was getting rid of this little problem. Sano glanced over his shoulder, grimaced, and hit the ‘send’ key on his phone.

“This is Hajime,” came the voice he’d expected after only a few rings.

“Hey,” Sano began. “You probably don’t remember me, but I met you at Forest of Four, like, last December…” He cleared his throat. “My name’s Sano… I see red… You were there with a sword…” He paused, waiting for Hajime’s acknowledgment. Hajime, however, said nothing, and eventually Sano went on. “Well, Aoshi says you’re good, and I’ve got a problem. There’s this shade that’s been hanging around for a couple of weeks now — I mean hanging around me, specifically, not just around somewhere where I go or anything; it’s like the damn thing is haunting me, but I have no idea who it came from or why it would be — and I can’t get rid of it.”

“Red?” Hajime asked.

“That’s the thing!” Sano turned to face the shade, which was still drifting around his living room. “It’s perfectly red! I should be able to deal with it, but every time I absorb it it just comes back! It’s weird, too; it’s not… solid… like they usually are. There’s this empty shape of a person, and the red’s around that like an outline.”

Hajime’s tone sounded completely different than before as he asked, “When you say you absorb it and it ‘comes back,’ what exactly do you mean?” He seemed far more interested all of a sudden.

“I mean the same anger comes back,” answered Sano in some aggravation. “It’s like it never ends; no matter how much I absorb, there’s always more! And I can’t just keep taking it in, or I get so mad I start destroying stuff!”

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

“Do you know the park off 32nd street?”

“Uh, yeah?” Sano was fairly certain he did, anyway. “The one by that toy store?”

“Can you meet me there in half an hour?”

“Um…” This was not what he’d expected at all. “Yeah, sure.” Of course, he’d been basing his expectations on the one brief conversation they’d had and Aoshi’s warning that Hajime was neither a people person nor likely to want to do any kind of work for free.

“I’ll see you there, then.” And Hajime ended the call.

Sano’s car being a piece of shit, he didn’t greatly appreciate having to drive to a park twenty minutes away, and from the suggestion of locale he guessed Hajime didn’t live in the Asian district. He hadn’t objected, though, since he was the one essentially demanding favors in this situation. He did wish Hajime had named a longer space of time, however; he could have taken the bus.

The place had a playground, a field with a backstop, and its own parking lot. Here Hajime waited, when Sano arrived, beside a really nice car. Although individual j