Here’s what

I am pet-sitting for a co-worker, and I had no idea it would be so stressfully time-consuming. Though I’ve determined that there are four Confrérie parts remaining (unless any one of them grows so much that it has to be divided into two), they are not ready to post yet. My apologies to my reader on the delay of the end of this story.

Eventually I’m going to be really annoyed about this; I loathe breaking a great streak, especially so close to the end. But honestly, right now I’m hella indifferent about everything. So much damn going back and forth between my house and this other house; so much getting up early to come let these dogs out on days when I should be sleeping in. I could have just stayed here nights, but I miss my cat too much when I’m away. Seriously, though? No more pet-sitting.

Other stuff needs to be reported, but did I mention indifferent? I can’t work up the energy to mention anything else. Oh, but I will post a picture of one of these dogs, at least, to show how cute she can be. I mean, it’s not like this is all bad.

His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 56-0²

No verbal indication of Quatre’s thoughts was necessary for Trowa to understand or at least put a name to them. Hadn’t he, after all, spent the better part of the last hundred years hating himself for something he’d once done? Even if his guilt had arisen in consequence of actual misbehavior, whereas the innocent Quatre’s was entirely misplaced, that didn’t make the mental state less recognizable or less in need of repair.

Not long ago, Trowa’s initial response to a situation like this would have been to withdraw in silence, to remove his obtrusive presence and allow the sufferer to recover in solitude in his own good time — and even now, this was somewhat his first instinct. But there was little or no inclination left to obey that lingering impulse. It would be unthinkable here and now.

Moving slowly, trying not to startle his lover, he slid over to Quatre and put his arms around him. Despite Trowa’s best efforts, Quatre stiffened and made a harsh noise of discontentment, but did not resist the proximity or the contact. In fact he leaned closer, as he had last night, and continued his lamenting against Trowa’s chest.

“This isn’t your fault,” Trowa told him. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Surprisingly, Quatre’s sounds of unhappiness transformed into laughter. It was bitter, rough, and brief, but it definitely acknowledged some absurdity. “I guess,” he said brokenly, his faltering voice muffled by Trowa’s chest, “compared to what you feel like you did wrong, everything I’ve done lately wouldn’t seem like much.”

“You didn’t turn anyone into a doll for eighty-seven years,” Trowa agreed. “But I can’t think very badly of anything else you’ve done, either.”

“Trowa!” Quatre sat up and cast almost accusingly skeptical tear-reddened eyes on him, but quickly removed them from Trowa’s face as his expression melted into one of misery again. “I hit you, hard enough for it to bruise already! I made you guys go all the way to Louisiana trying to find me, and I don’t even know how you got there… I’ve forced these two–” he gestured to where the altercation between Hajime and Sano had ranged into the front room– “to fight, to actually fight each other… I’ve said all sorts of unforgivable things to my best friends, including you, and poor Heero… I’ve made life miserable for my family and everyone at home and at work — oh, god, those performance reviews! I’ve been actively hurting everyone for weeks… how can you possibly say you don’t think badly of all of that?!”

“It… hasn’t been pleasant,” Trowa admitted, deliberately understating with greater smoothness than he’d expected of himself. “But none of that was actually your fault.”

Now Quatre faced him, looking indignant, and Trowa had to remind himself that the exorcism wasn’t complete; Quatre still had energy remaining, and therefore must still be angered by things that would not otherwise have upset him. It was entirely possible that nothing Trowa could say right now would make a lasting impression, but the conversation was happening right now, so he would say what he needed to say right now.

“You think I haven’t been making my own choices?” demanded Quatre. “That I haven’t been under my own control or something?”

“I do. You’ve been in an altered state of mind. All those unpleasant things you mentioned — you’re not responsible for them.” To prevent any protest, Trowa daringly raised his voice and insisted, “This magical energy you’ve internalized has caused you to behave in ways you never normally would. You couldn’t get rid of it yourself, and you couldn’t fight it, so it’s not your fault.”

As Quatre stared, a tear followed a shining pre-established track down his face and fell off his chin where his jaw was working soundlessly as if all words had been snatched from him. He acted almost as if he were recoiling from a blow, but, from his expression, that blow had been more startling than upsetting. Trowa’s point seemed to have taken him somewhat by surprise — or at least that he’d made it, and spoken so loudly and assertively to make it, if not necessarily the idea itself — and Quatre didn’t know if he could accept it. Presently he leaned forward and laid his forehead against Trowa’s shoulder. “I can’t just… dodge responsibility like that.”

“It’s not about you trying to take responsibility or avoid it. This is magic beyond your control. If the energy that possessed you were weak enough that you could resist its influence, the Confrérie wouldn’t have wanted it from you, and it wouldn’t be strong enough to force Sano to fight Hajime like this. It was definitely too much for you to resist. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

If Trowa’s one area of expertise hadn’t been so involved here, he would certainly have found offering these terms of reassurance much more difficult. He wasn’t good at reassurance, and even in the face of that expertise it didn’t seem Quatre was particularly reassured. At least, his hands were tight as he raised them to clutch at Trowa, and his voice was tight with unhappiness and anger as he spoke in reply:

“But even if that’s true, it doesn’t change anything about the person who’s actually possessed — it doesn’t make me a different person. The energy has to have something to work with in the first place, doesn’t it? And it’s all been real — every nasty little thing I said was something I really think, something that would already have been in the back of my head even if I hadn’t been so mad!” His gripping fingers pushed at, slightly shook Trowa for emphasis; but then, undoubtedly remembering the contact between those hands and Trowa last night, Quatre let go abruptly, though he did not cease or slow his rant.

“Every stupid, childish, unfair, mean thing I’ve said or done since this started — just because I wouldn’t normally have said or done those things doesn’t mean they’re not all there inside me.” He pounded against his own chest, not with great accuracy if he was aiming for his heart but just as effectively for conveying his meaning. “I’m a terrible person at heart, Trowa! Yes, it took being possessed to bring it out, but that doesn’t change what I am!”

It made Trowa ache to hear these words and the seriousness behind them, and he wondered if this was how Quatre had felt when he had expressed similar beliefs about himself in the past. He couldn’t let Quatre become any more firmly entrenched in the horrible concept; he had to say something to pull him back away from it. He just didn’t know if he could say the right thing… though he was, of course, going to try.

“Quatre… If that’s what’s in your terrible heart… if that’s the worst of it… then I still think what I’ve thought all along: that you’re probably a better person than most of the rest of the world.”

“What?” Quatre almost snapped.

“You’ve been rude and unpleasant, and sometimes… petty… and thoughtless… but is that the worst that’s in your heart?”

“Trowa! I hit you!” Quatre shook his head in jerky, horrified anger. “Obviously my heart has some abusive tendencies in it, at the very least!”

“That’s not true.” There was some impatience in Trowa’s tone this time as well. “It wasn’t abuse; you obviously had no idea what you were doing. Even under the influence of that energy, you wouldn’t have done it if you’d been aware of your surroundings. And I don’t believe you’ll ever do anything like that again.”

“But you can’t be sure!”

The exchange raised in Trowa’s head a memory of a somewhat parallel discussion earlier this year, and he wondered if Quatre recognized it as well when he replied, “I can’t. But I believe it anyway.”

Again Quatre was shaking his head, somewhat convulsively, and Trowa decided to try a different point that had just come to mind before Quatre could collect another argument. “And even if you think you see all these terrible things in yourself, it did take supernatural possession to bring them out. Under your own control, you don’t say or do things like that. I think recognizing those impulses and restraining them makes you an even better person than if you didn’t feel them in the first place.”

“But…” Quatre looked as if he might be convinced against his will. “You can’t just ignore or erase the fact that I’ve been hurting people.”

“You must know I know how difficult it is to get over something you’ve done wrong. But you can regret it without hating yourself. That’s what you’ve been wanting me to do all along, isn’t it?”

Once more Quatre’s jaw and lips worked soundlessly, and his brows contracted as his eyes welled with tears. Then he pushed forward again, clutching. Abstractedly, Trowa rather hoped Hajime and Sano were still busy with their violence some yards away — his attention was too engrossed to check — because it would appear to them, if they were watching, as if Quatre was bouncing off Trowa’s torso in slow motion throughout this strange conversation. Now he was almost inaudible against Trowa’s shoulder as he asked, “Where did all this confidence come from?”

“I’m just trying to help you,” Trowa answered in some embarrassment, raising both arms around Quatre’s back.

“After how I’ve treated you lately…” Quatre sounded both wondering and irritated, and Trowa thought one emotion was directed at him, the other reflexively.

“I absolutely forgive you,” stated Trowa immediately. “Anyone who loves you will forgive you. They’ve probably all forgiven you already.”

“Not my family,” was Quatre’s wretched reply. “Not the people at work. You and Heero and Duo understand what’s been going on, but nobody else I really care about does.”

“Actually, your parents know.” Trowa’s intention had been to go on, to offer the comfort that the Winners’ only desire was for Quatre to return to them safe and sound, that they had evinced no unhappiness with their son, but after only those four words Quatre broke in:

“What?! How?” Yet again he pushed away from Trowa, shocked and irate. “Since when?”

And as Trowa prepared, somewhat regretful, to tell the story as unincitingly as possible, he wondered whether it had been a significant mistake to mention this at all. To keep up this conversation, pressing his opinion so continually, had been such an effort, had already rendered Trowa so emotionally tense and tired… if this was his first significant mistake, it would be something of a miracle.

At least recounting his interaction with Quatre’s parents and any subsequent discussion on the subject might be a good method of passing time. Trowa wasn’t sure how long they must wait before further exorcism was available, and he doubted they could sleep the hours away in this instance. It might, however, be exactly the wrong news for Quatre right now; it might only serve to make him feel unduly guilty again, whip him up into another emotional frenzy. And was he in the correct frame of mind to call his parents yet? He would probably want to, and Trowa didn’t think he could refuse if Quatre insisted, but was that a good idea? Indeed, this might have been a mistake.

It was too late. All Trowa could do was press on and hope for the best.

The door was answered eventually by a weary-looking Trowa, who welcomed them in with pleasure that formed a significant contrast to his apparent overall emotional state. The first thing he said was, “There’s never any reason for you to knock on my door. Just come in.”

“Well, if it’s locked…” said Duo reasonably as he moved forward for a hug.

“Then you can unlock it with magic,” Trowa replied with a faint smile, returning the embrace. And though Heero had no power to effect the mentioned magic, he felt he was specifically included in this admonition.

“How’s Quatre?” asked Duo next.

Trowa’s facial expression in response was so mixed as to be unreadable, but his words were more definitive: “Cured. The energy is entirely gone as of about an hour ago.”

“But…?” Heero prompted.

Trowa lowered his voice to match Heero’s quiet tone. “He’s not exactly happy. He’s thinking pretty badly of himself right now.” And there was such a sense of grimness and guilt about him as he said it, a clear mirror of Quatre’s reported state, that the hearts of both his friends went out to him.

“It isn’t up to just you to make him feel better. We’ll all help.” In fact Heero longed to talk to Quatre as soon as possible, to see how he was and do what he could to improve that condition, and to demonstrate to himself that Quatre really was completely cured as Trowa said. “Where is he?”

“In there. He’s…” Trowa’s initial gesture indicating the living room turned to one of helplessness, which drew the other two men immediately to him.

“Hey… Trois… it’ll be OK…” Duo was hugging him again. “We’ll figure it out.”

In his pity, Heero actually put a hand on Trowa’s arm as he reiterated Duo’s statement. He wanted to continue reassuringly, but, fearing it would take too long to decide how to word what he had to say, just sent the idea mentally instead: that he’d become convinced in the last couple of days — if he hadn’t already known — that even if things weren’t perfect right now and might take some time to fix, it wasn’t hopeless; it was a situation they could get through, that would improve.

Trowa, from where he remained enveloped by Duo and couldn’t quite turn any look toward Heero — comforted or otherwise — at least nodded.

There was more Heero could have sent. He needed to recount what had happened at Galerie de la Lune after Trowa had taken Quatre home; he needed to inform him that the weird agents had promised to deal with the magical painting, and in fact he needed to tell him about the magical painting in the first place and discuss the weird agents and whether Trowa knew anything about them and whether they were likely to encounter them again.

But Heero felt no urgency about any of this right now, not only because there were more pressing matters at the moment, not only because none of it would make Trowa feel better, but because opportunity for this conversation would be available to them at any time. As Trowa had essentially said, his door was always open to Heero. And there was always, Heero considered with resigned glumness, texting. At the moment, since he sensed that Duo was going to remain attached to Trowa in an effort to offer what further solace he could, he simply turned and headed into the next room.

Mismatched shorts and t-shirt rumpled, hair disheveled, demeanor guarded, Quatre stood near the sheet-covered sofa staring into the back yard. He looked very much as he had that day in his office when they’d waited for Hajime to arrive, but today, presumably, it was a different set of emotions that had him so stiff. This wasn’t a defensive standoffishness; rather, it was as if Quatre still smarted from recent events, and had drawn himself up in fear of being touched.

Not knowing exactly what he would say, Heero approached quietly to join Quatre at the window.

“I thought I heard your voice,” Quatre said in a pale imitation of his normal tone. “And Duo’s. You guys made it back OK, then, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Heero didn’t feel the need to mention how bad Duo’s nightmares had been in the Louisiana hotel, nor his belief that anxiety on other subjects stirred them up; nor that Duo, tired and agitated after his disturbed night, had slept through much of the flight and again missed his chance at reveling in the new human experience, though he’d awakened sufficiently at disembarking from the plane to drive them back to Trowa’s house from the airport.

“It was amazing that all three of you went all the way out there.” Sluggishly Quatre turned to face Heero. “I may have acted like a jerk when you showed up, but now I really appreciate it.”

Saddened but unsurprised at the redness of Quatre’s eyes and the puffy bags beneath them, Heero nodded acknowledgement.

“And I’m sorry, too. Dragging you all the way out there just because I made a bad decision…”

“It was inconvenient,” Heero admitted, “but it’s OK. I’ve always wanted to try some authentic Cajun food in New Orleans.” He wasn’t about to bring up the relationship drama that had taken place there, since that would undoubtedly have arisen eventually no matter what the circumstances or where they were. Heero blamed Quatre no more for that than he blamed Duo himself.

Though he didn’t necessarily feel hurt or betrayed by his boyfriend’s behavior or attitudes of the day before, he perhaps felt a little hurt and betrayed by his own nature, and couldn’t help dwelling on it to some extent even in the midst of this business with Quatre. It almost seemed he’d had a mean trick played on him by destiny, or heredity, or magic, or something. It was as if he’d walked away unscathed from a car accident: in something of a daze, he almost couldn’t believe it had happened, and now there was nothing to be done but adjust to the change it had caused in his life. In this case, the change was nothing he could specifically pinpoint; it had to do with his closeness with Duo, a state he had not lost but in which something was altered, some aspect put on hold until a certain remedy could be enacted, and Heero could only wait patiently for that time.

He would want to talk to his best friend about all of this eventually. Honestly, he’d love to talk to him about it now. Quatre was one of very few people in the world with whom he would feel comfortable discussing such personal details, and whose opinion and probable offers of comfort he would value. But at the moment Quatre would, most likely, consider some or all of it his fault, so Heero wasn’t going to broach the subject.

“Running off to New Orleans in a tantrum wasn’t the only thing, though,” Quatre continued with a sigh. “I also said things to you that nobody should say to his best friend.”

“You pretty much said,” Heero agreed, “that I’m no good in a manager’s position because I don’t like exercising authority over people, and I’m a less than perfect friend because I have a hard time telling people important things.”

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre murmured.

Heero shrugged. “It was totally true. You’ve known me for ten years; there’s probably not a lot of what’s wrong with me that you don’t know.”

“I still shouldn’t have said it.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know whether or not friends should point out each other’s problems and maybe help each other change. It might actually be a good idea. I… don’t know.”

“Well, I shouldn’t have said it the way I said it.”

“I’ll give you that,” Heero allowed. “It hurt, and, honestly, it kinda still hurts to remember it.”

Even more faintly and unhappily this time, Quatre repeated, “I’m so sorry.”

“I forgive you,” replied Heero immediately.

Quatre gave a self-deprecating snort. “Just like that, huh?”

“Yeah.” Heero raised his hands one at a time to illustrate his two points. “You hurt me, and I forgive you.” As he watched fresh tears spring into Quatre’s tired eyes he added, “I think you’ll do better if you know exactly where we stand.” He feared that, despite his entirely believing it, if he walked in here and said, ‘None of it was your fault,’ Quatre would only feel worse. “You hurt me,” he reiterated, “and I forgive you: that’s what you have to deal with.”

“I hurt more than just you.”

“I think this applies to everything you said and did. You’re… sometimes stupidly responsible about things, so of course you can’t just let go of something you did wrong, no matter what the circumstances were. You hurt people, and they forgive you, and you have to learn to accept that. It’ll be completely understandable if it takes you a while and you have to struggle for it.”

Abruptly Quatre threw his arms around Heero, pushing forward into a close embrace. “Thank you,” he said brokenly. “You’re right: I appreciate you putting it that way.” After a moment he added, “And I’m sorry… you’re not really a huggy person.”

“But you are,” Heero replied, any awkwardness that might have colored his tone overridden by his amusement and the relief he felt at Quatre’s altered demeanor. “Whatever it takes.” The truth was that Quatre was also one of very few people in the world Heero was (more or less) comfortable accepting this kind of physical demonstration from, and he didn’t mind too terribly raising his arms to squeeze him in return.

For several seconds — probably not as long as Quatre would have liked, but longer than Heero did, though he didn’t begrudge it him — Quatre dragged out the hug, then finally let go and stepped back. He didn’t exactly look happier than before, but there was a new determination about him that had replaced the vulnerability.

“You’re going to be OK…” Heero wasn’t sure whether he was asking or commanding.

Quatre took a deep breath and then puffed it out in a sound like a sigh that was trying to be anything else. “It feels really good not to be angry.” He said it like an admission of wrongdoing, which fit perfectly with his next words: “I feel a little guilty about feeling so much better, but feeling this much better — and some things you and Trowa have said — makes me believe I should be OK.

“Right now,” he went on, “I want to curl up in a ball and avoid the whole world for a while — so it’s lucky it’s Friday — but at the same time I’m just so happy not to be hating the whole world anymore, which is a strange contrast. I feel guilty about being so happy, like I said, and guilty and unhappy about how I’ve been behaving, especially what I’ve said and done to my friends. And then, again, at the same time, I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to have you guys around, to have friends who would go all the way across the country to drag me back home and then jump straight into trying to make me feel better even after everything I’ve done.” Quatre shook his head, and this sigh sounded much more like a sigh, perhaps even a little like a sob.

Heero usually wasn’t able to come up with quotes at appropriate moments — Duo was not only much more skilled at that than he was, but much more inclined to try — so he was rather pleased with himself now when he managed, “One person can’t feel all that at once. They’d explode.”

Weakly Quatre laughed, and hugged Heero once more. “Thank you for everything,” was his muffled statement. “Thanks for being my friend.”

“It would take more than a magical bad mood to change that,” Heero replied seriously.

“Speaking of magic…” said Quatre as he again pulled out of the hug. “Well, first, I apologize for being so snippy about it before. I didn’t even realize I was jealous about being the only one without magic until all that nonsense brought it out.”

“It makes sense to be jealous,” Heero shrugged. Then, when it looked like Quatre might press the issue, he added more pointedly, “I forgive you for that too.”

Quatre pursed his lips briefly, then let out another sighing breath. Accepting clemency really was going to be his major struggle in days to come. “Anyway,” he said at last, “I understand I’ve entirely missed the beginning of your magic.”

With a wry monosyllabic chuckle, “It’s been… interesting,” Heero said.

“I want to hear all about it, if you don’t mind telling.”

“If you need distracting that badly.”

“I do, but I also really want to know. I’m annoyed that this whole thing has made me miss watching it firsthand.”

“All right,” Heero smiled. “It actually started just when you destroyed that artifact…”

Duo was forced to desist hugging Trowa as the latter, very much like a dog with its pleading eyes locked on the bearer of desired treats, swiveled insistently to watch Heero walk into the other room. Trowa had undoubtedly spent the last twenty-four hours agonizing over Quatre’s state and trying to figure out how to help him, and was now anxiously waiting to see what effect Heero might have on this endeavor. Yet when he turned back to Duo, there was a surprising amount of tranquility in his face and bearing. He seemed to have nothing to say at the moment, for he just moved to the nearby staircase balustrade and leaned against it.

Feeling likewise no need to say more for now, Duo followed and threw himself down on the third step, leaning back and looking at the ceiling high above. He heard the voices of Heero and Quatre distantly, and, though he could make out none of their conversation, he had no problem leaving them to it. He was tired anyway, and after a while closed his eyes.

Presently, though, it did occur to him to ask, “Is that exorcist still here?”

“They’re both still here,” Trowa confirmed.

“Oh, Sano’s here too?” Duo sat straight and twisted around to look up the stairs toward the second-floor room where he assumed the exorcists must be. “I should go see if he wants to come over and watch the game on Sunday.”

“I would recommend waiting until they come out on their own,” replied Trowa. “You didn’t see their exorcism method.”

“Why? What was it like?” Duo wondered with interest. And as Trowa told him, he found himself grinning and wincing. “OK, yeah,” he eventually agreed, “maybe I won’t go bug Sano yet, then.”

Placing a hand on the staircase’s off-white finial, Trowa stared at it as if into the crystal ball it somewhat resembled. “Quatre feels like he forced them to fight each other. Of course he feels guilty about that too.”

Duo nodded, screwing up his lips thoughtfully. “It makes sense for him to feel guilty. He’s put everyone — especially you — through a lot, and, if I know Quatre at all, he probably doesn’t care much that it wasn’t really his fault. But you know what? I’m not nearly as worried about it as you guys obviously are.”

Trowa looked over at him, clearly curious, silently soliciting Duo to go on.

Duo did, with a smile. “Heero got annoyed at me, back when this started, for not taking it seriously enough, and he might get annoyed again now… but the thing is, I’ve been watching a different friend of mine, who did something way worse than what Quatre’s done, working on getting over that and accepting himself as still a good person, and he’s been doing pretty damn well so far.”

Weakly Trowa returned Duo’s expression. “He’s had Quatre to help him, though.”

“And now Quatre has him,” Duo replied matter-of-factly: “a guy who didn’t give up trying to help a friend for eighty-seven years.” He rolled his eyes, not as a gesture of sarcasm but to emphasize his point. “I’d have to be out of my mind to be worried with that guy around. Though, like Heero said, it’s not just your– that guy’s job to make Quatre feel better.”

For a moment Trowa’s smile strengthened as he seemed to accept this offer of confidence, but then it faded again. “Are you still upset with… that guy?”

“Um… not really,” Duo answered after a brief search of his emotions. “I was pretty mad and hurt for a while, but it’s mostly faded away by now. Plus Heero thinks I should go easy on you, and I kindof agree.” He hadn’t planned on bringing this up so soon — he’d thought it would be best to wait until the business with Quatre was good and over, so as not to heap too many troubles onto Trowa’s head at once — but since Trowa had introduced the subject, they might as well get it over with.

“I am sorry I didn’t tell you,” Trowa said. “I haven’t really had much opportunity to think about it since the airplane, but I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“It’s all right. Just, when you do get around to thinking about it — and you’ve probably got a lot to think about right now, so don’t even worry about it if it takes a while — think about not keeping important stuff like that secret in the future.”

Trowa nodded. “At the time, I didn’t think it was worth giving up your chance at being human just to keep me alive, so I didn’t want to run the risk of you deciding to cancel everything.”

“I guess I’m not really surprised,” Duo said unhappily, “but it’s really awful to think about you thinking your own life’s so worthless.”

“That’s changed.” This assurance was quick and definite. “Quatre pulled me out of that way of thinking… rather aggressively, really.” Trowa smiled again. “In fact, by the time the curse actually broke, I was ready to admit to him that I hoped I would survive, that I wanted to live.”

“But you still didn’t tell me.”

“At that point it didn’t even occur to me that I should, I was so caught up in other things. If I’d thought about it, though, I probably still wouldn’t have told you… I wouldn’t have wanted to spoil your hope and your excitement with something I wasn’t even sure about.”

There was something about this line of reasoning that, the more Duo thought about it, struck him as chillingly familiar. He pondered quickly and intensely, and as the complete memory occurred to him all at once, he could almost hear his own voice — an enchanted doll’s overly quiet voice — saying, “Don’t anyone mention this to Trowa, OK? He shouldn’t have to worry about it before he has to. Especially if it turns out he doesn’t have to worry about it at all.”

“Good god!” he exclaimed inadvertently with a horrified laugh. “I did the exact same thing to you!”

“Did you?” wondered the startled Trowa.

“Yes! There was this one time Heero and I got far enough apart that we were afraid it might have screwed up breaking the curse — though we didn’t know for sure — and I told him and Quatre not to tell you for that exact same reason: I didn’t want to spoil your hope with something I wasn’t sure about.”

“Oh, yes. When Quatre’s dog took you out of Heero’s psychic field? Quatre mentioned that.”

Bristling at the offhand way Trowa made this acknowledgment, righteously indignant at himself, Duo jumped up from the stair and glared at nothing. “Here I was thinking about how you not telling me something important and not letting me make my own choices was a controlling thing I was going to have to ask you to promise to not do again, and I did the exact same thing!”

“I don’t think it was ‘the exact same thing,'” Trowa said, and there might have been a hint of amusement to the protest. “The secrets we kept were very different in scope, and we were each in a very different situation, so the effects were different.”

Duo couldn’t deny this, especially since it seemed to indicate Trowa’s specific understanding of the problem, but that didn’t make him less annoyed with himself. He was just opening his mouth to say so when, at the last possible moment — practically in the middle of his first syllable — it occurred to him that expressions of self-blame from him right now would probably be the exact heaping of troubles of Trowa’s head that he’d been seeking to avoid.

Miraculously, Trowa seemed to be in a pretty decent place emotionally at the moment — perhaps Duo’s presence and conversation really had helped to comfort and distract him — and adding a second guilty friend to his concerns was not likely to move him in any good direction. And in any case, this was all six-month-old news — no need to belabor it any further; Duo himself probably shouldn’t be dwelling on it in the first place.

So he closed his mouth, took a breath, reconsidered, and said instead, “Look at you and me trying not to hurt each other and getting it completely wrong.” He grinned, and raised a formal hand. “I solemnly swear, from now on, to tell…” Realizing abruptly that he had the wrong hand up, he quickly corrected himself and resumed, “To tell you anything that has to do with you and choices you need to make for your own life, so help me whatever.”

Trowa chuckled, and, stepping forward, reached out to pull Duo’s upthrust hand back down in his own right for a firm handshake. “It’s a bargain,” he said. “We won’t keep important things from each other.” His tone was a little sardonic as he added, “Quatre once said we should all four get together and make a pact not to do that, so we’ll need to let him and Heero in on this when we have the chance.”

Duo struggled not to frown. What with Quatre’s guilty, unhappy frame of mind and the totally stupid and unforeseen trust issues between Duo and Heero, that might be easier said than properly done.

But Trowa, rather unexpectedly, evidently seeing Duo’s shift in mood, was suddenly the one to say, “Don’t worry. We’ll all be fine.” He squeezed Duo’s hand and released it, then leaned back against the balustrade again, the picture of patient faith for the future.

Duo found his grin returning. “Yeah, of course we will,” he said firmly. And he meant it.

From how he’d felt at waking on Friday, the difference in Quatre’s sensations Saturday morning was, he believed, a symbol of his general improvement. Sleep, as it so often did, had settled everything into its proper place and given him not only some perspective on what he felt and what he needed to do, but the rest for both body and mind that would allow him to deal with both.

He was still conscious of guilt in response both to the wrongs he’d perpetrated and to feeling so much better about life after having perpetrated them. He still had a growing mental list of things he needed to say to people, and a looming awareness of the probable difficulty of some of those conversations. But he deemed himself nearly prepared, now, to plunge in. In fact he seemed so energized, so fit and well, that it might have contributed to his guilt if it hadn’t already contributed to his determination and readiness to work on everything he needed to accomplish.

Today Trowa had evidently awakened first, and had probably been patiently waiting for Quatre to wake up and set the tone of the day. And Quatre determined instantly to be extremely careful about that tone, to avoid starting things out wrong and threatening poor Trowa with another day of unpleasantness. This was difficult when a sharp pain of heart stabbed Quatre all over again at the sight of those bruises, but he forced himself to smile at least a little as he sat up and looked over at his boyfriend on the other side of the air mattress.

Trowa returned the smile with apparent relief, and Quatre reflected that the prediction he’d once made — that he would never cease being moved by the sight of a smile on that often emotionless face — was still entirely borne out even months later.

“Good morning,” Trowa said, also shifting into a seated position. And though there was caution in the phrase — he couldn’t know, yet, how Quatre would behave or what his mood might be — the fact that he’d initiated the greeting, the first exchange of the day, spoke of a probing, a testing of circumstances, rather than a tentative response made only by necessity. He really had grown more confident, and, though this was nothing more than the natural progression Quatre had long foreseen, it seemed to have been accelerated somehow over the last few weeks. Shameful as it was to consider, perhaps there had been effects of Quatre’s awful condition that weren’t entirely negative.

“Good morning,” Quatre echoed, reaching out. Trowa reached back with a hand so warm and strong that Quatre’s confidence increased. He was unexpectedly secure in Trowa’s support, and his joy at seeing that Trowa had come so far as to offer rather than require support was something over which he was determined not to experience any guilt.

“How are you feeling?” Trowa asked, just as he had yesterday.

“Guilty, dirty, and hungry,” Quatre replied, “in that order. And like I have a lot to do. And…” The desire to be honest with Trowa, and to reassure him if he could, compelled him to confess, “And I’m extremely happy not to be so angry.”

Trowa’s relief, not to mention his smile, remained in evidence. “I’m happy to hear you’re happy about anything,” he said. “As for hunger, Heero promised yesterday — declared, really — that he’s coming over to make breakfast this morning. And as for guilty and dirty…” He evidently wasn’t sure what to say about guilty and dirty. “Why dirty?”

“I mean actually — physically dirty.” Quatre pushed the blanket down his naked body, seeing no visible grime but feeling no less grimy. “I don’t know how many days it’s been since I had a real wash.”

“Oh. That can be helped.” Trowa let go and rose in a motion whose near-complete lack of abashment even more than its revelation of his lean, pale body, bare but for his briefs, could only raise admiration in the man that subsequently sank further into the air mattress as he became the primary weight thereon.

In a prediction similar to that about the smile, Quatre doubted that he’d ever cease being attracted to Trowa. He might even be in the mood this very day for some physical reassurance, some proof that Trowa still considered him someone worth being attracted to in return — later, when his own body wasn’t quite so nasty after the many imperfect sponge baths in a muggy New Orleans basement, and when he’d at least made a start on the reparations for his own behavior of recent days that were nagging at him.

Rising as well, he followed Trowa into the master bathroom that, though he’d seen it abstractly a few times while making use of its toilet as needed during the previous day and nights, he had not yet examined properly. Now he found it to be spacious, nicely equipped, and painted in decent blues that went fairly well with its grey appliances; and, fond as he wasn’t of carpet in a bathroom, he could get over that.

After his first glance around, his eyes were drawn, thanks to Trowa’s gesture, to a step leading up into a huge corner bathtub walled such that it could be curtained off and used as a shower as well, though the curtain Trowa had once expressed uncertainty about his reason for owning was absent. Perhaps it had been destroyed in the fire.

Quatre gave a vocal sigh of happiness and surprise when he recognized some of his own personal care products lined up along the edge of this bathtub, and he moved swiftly forward to seize the closest of them. “These survived? I can’t believe it.”

“If they hadn’t,” said Trowa, “I could easily go pick up new ones for you. But, yes, they did.”

It struck Quatre anew, much less miserably but no less forcibly than it had in New Orleans, just how much of life he’d missed out on over the last few weeks. This was Trowa’s new house, wasn’t it? How much had he paid for it? How had he managed to move in so quickly? How big was it? Where, in fact, was it? Quatre had visited only a few rooms and stared unseeingly into what he assumed was the back yard, and none of that in a frame of mind conducive to any real analysis. And he had no idea how many of Trowa’s possessions had made the transition from one home to another, how many essential items Trowa might be lacking now.

Answering only a fraction of this question, “The shower curtain survived too,” Trowa went on, “if you’d prefer a shower to a bath. I’ve had it up in the hall bathroom so Hajime could use it, but I can bring it in here.”

Perplexed, Quatre looked up from the shampoo bottle in his hand and asked, “How long has Hajime been here?” It made some sense that the two exorcists had spent the last couple of nights here after the effort required for the three-stage absorption process — though what they were sleeping on and under Quatre could not guess — but it seemed, from Trowa’s words, as if at least Hajime had been here longer.

“About a week.”


Only reluctantly did Trowa answer, undoubtedly uncomfortable at providing information he knew would make Quatre unhappy. “The police wanted to question him when you disappeared, and he wanted to avoid that.”

And indeed Quatre’s heart sank. He had more to apologize for even than he’d realized, and Hajime was just one entry on a list, ever-growing like that of people Quatre needed to talk to in the first place, of those that might not accept his apology. At least he could substantiate that apology with money, since his relationship with the exorcist was solely professional in the first place. With many others he would not have that luxury.

He took a deep breath. “Well, don’t worry about the shower curtain; a bath sounds amazing. We can talk while I scrub my skin off.”

Trowa pushed forward to turn on the tap, murmuring something impossible to catch over the sudden roar of water into the big echoing tub; but when the latter noise vanished entirely, Quatre realized what (in purport, at least) Trowa must have said. It was fascinating to watch the water pour down in complete silence as if it were a muted video rather than reality, and it was delightful, as always, to observe Trowa working magic.

“Thank you,” Quatre smiled, stepping into the pooling water. It was cold yet, but he sat down anyway, pushing a swiveling plug to seal the drain and then turning to take stock of exactly which bathing products he had access to here.

“You’re welcome,” replied Trowa. “Leave some of your skin, though. You may want it later.”

Quatre threw a grin toward where his boyfriend now leaned against the counter beside the sink, and saw that Trowa was eyeing him covetously. The fact that this grin was the happiest expression Quatre had worn for some time, coupled with that shiver-inducing gaze from someone that obviously still loved him and desired him in spite of everything, seemed to set his heart on fire, which made the water around him feel even colder by contrast.

“You’ve changed,” he said. “I like it.”

Trowa blushed, which was very sweet, and admitted, “I did have a bit of a breakdown at one point while you were gone, but I also made up my mind to… to be what you — to be what we both needed.”

The first tears not prompted by wretchedness in quite a few days sprang into Quatre’s eyes, and his heart burned hotter than ever. “You’re amazing. You’ve certainly done better than I have lately.” He fumbled the bottle of body wash he’d just picked up, and it fell with a soundless splash into the deepening, warming water. “You even managed to move into a new house insanely soon after your old one burned. I’m sorry, by the way, for what I said about that. You obviously didn’t need your hand held.”

“You don’t need to apologize for every individual thing,” Trowa said a little awkwardly. “I probably could have used some hand-holding… buying the house when I did might not have been the best idea.”

Quatre, lathering up with body wash he’d recovered from its brief floating evasion of his hand, let go the issue of apology and only asked, “Why?”

“As I said the other day, I have almost nothing left in my bank account… I need to sit down at someone’s computer and manage some of my investments before any of my new monthly bills come due… and besides…” Blush deepening, Trowa turned abruptly and stared at his own face in the mirror above the counter. A flick of eyes would have allowed him to look at the reflection of Quatre, but he kept them locked with their counterparts in the glass. “I want you to move in with me.” The perfect steadiness of his words was perhaps facilitated by that self-encouraging gaze. “And I should have waited for your input. Buying a new house made me feel more proactive, and better about everything, but–”

He got no farther with his explanation, since just then he was pinned against the counter in an enveloping hug from behind by a Quatre whose rise from the bath had been completely unheralded, thanks to Trowa’s silencing spell, by any splashing sounds that might otherwise have given his movements away. As Quatre crushed him with the unexpected, intense embrace, the only further sound Trowa could make was one of breathless surprise.

From where he’d laid his face against Trowa’s shoulder, Quatre whispered his lover’s name, then continued, “It is completely inappropriate of you to be rewarding me at this point.”

Squirming around — an effort made easier, most probably, by the soapy substance all over Quatre’s skin — Trowa wondered in a facetious murmur, still somewhat breathless, as he put his own arms around Quatre’s wet back, “So you don’t want to move in with me?”

Of course I want to move in with you. But thinking about all the trouble I’ve caused lately makes me feel like the worst person in the world for accepting something that makes me so happy.”

“I don’t want you to feel like the worst person in the world when I consider you the best,” said Trowa gravely, “so I’ll propose a compromise: move in with me after you’ve talked to everyone, when you’ve put things right.”

“Putting things right may involve more than just talking to everyone…” Looking into Trowa’s serious eyes, Quatre didn’t know if he could handle this much swelling emotion. “But that’s an excellent compromise. If I get discouraged, I’ll have moving in with you as an extra incentive.” Again he laid his face on Trowa’s shoulder and clasped him tightly. “And I would kiss you very thoroughly right now if I had brushed my teeth yet.”

“Keep hold of that thought while you finish your bath. Then you can brush your teeth, kiss me very thoroughly, and go downstairs for whatever Heero’s making for us for breakfast. And take a tour of your future home, if you want.”

“I do want.” Reluctantly Quatre pulled away from Trowa and returned to what was by now a nicely hot and nearly half-full bath — it really was a big tub. “And then I can call my parents and have a more coherent conversation than the other day and figure out how much trouble I’m in for keeping them in the dark for six months — oh, and make sure they talk to the police and clear all that up — and then I can arrange to give those exorcists some huge amount of money, after I apologize for my rudeness. I have no real problem with Jos Banks.”

“As always, working from a well organized list.” Trowa was again leaning on the counter, bare skin gleaming where Quatre had pressed against him.

“These are preliminary items,” Quatre sighed, “that I have to get done before I can even start on the list.”

“Let me know if I can help in any way. With anything.” Trowa still seemed a little awkward making such a blatant offer of assistance and support, and Quatre, far from being put off by the impression, more or less adored it.

“Just keep reminding me that you love me even after everything.”

“I love you even after everything.”

Quatre sealed his smiling mouth, and washed the tears from his eyes by completely submerging his head in the water.

Between this part and the epilogue is That Remarkable Optimism.

Dear, Awesome Person,

You are invited to an amazing party, that is basically my doing, but is also co-hosted by one of my best friends, Quatre Winner. This party is happening for several, very good reasons, which are as follows:

1. To celebrate something, that happened earlier this year, which I’m not going to give details about here, but definitely needs to be celebrated.

2. To be a housewarming party for Quatre’s hot boyfriend, and another one of my best friends, Trowa Barton, who you may or may not know, and whose new house the party is at. (Trowa says, that I’m not allowed to request presents for him, but he’s not getting this email, so he doesn’t know what I’m requesting. He has practically no furniture, or household stuff, since his old house BURNED DOWN, so if you want to bring him something, and don’t tell him I told you, DO IT.)

3. To celebrate Trowa’s birthday, which was a month ago, but which we never celebrated right at the time. (If you want to bring him something, you can pretend it’s a birthday present!)

4. To celebrate Quatre getting out of a bad situation, which I also don’t need to give details about, but which we’re all really happy he was able to get out of!

5. To let Quatre make a sort of formal apology, (by paying for this whole thing,) which some of us don’t think he needs to do, but he thinks he needs to, for anything he said, or did, in that bad situation, that made anyone else unhappy.

6. To give me a chance to hang out with all my new friends, and introduce anyone of them, who haven’t met each other, to each other!

If not one, single one of those very good reasons, seems like a good enough reason for you to come to this party, you need to rethink your life. Plus, we’re going to have all sorts of food (including birthday cake, that Heero’s making, and if you haven’t tasted Heero’s cooking yet, you also need to rethink your life), and good drinks, and play some great games.

There followed the date and time of the event, Trowa’s address, a further exhortation for the recipient to attend, a surprisingly flourishless closing, and a post-script reiterating the point in even more forceful language. It was, overall, a very effective communication, and almost never failed to make Heero laugh out loud. He tried to avoid doing so in front of Duo, of course, and mostly only reread the thing whenever he was a little bit down, which generally happened out of Duo’s presence anyway.

He’d reread it just now, and was shutting off the computer reluctantly, because the day of the party had arrived, the hour of the party was approaching, and he needed some cheer to help brace him for the prospect.

Since Duo hadn’t yet mastered the art of blind carbon copying, Heero had a fairly good idea of whom he would encounter tonight (assuming they weren’t too busy rethinking their lives), and he predicted the Winner Plastics employees would have the highest attendance percentage of the various groups on the list. Duo had convinced Quatre to let him send out this invitation a week and a half ago so as to give people as long as possible (without setting the party for a later date) to clear their schedules for tonight — which also meant the gossips had had eleven days of fresh frenzying over phrases like ‘one of my best friends’ and ‘Quatre’s hot boyfriend.’ To meet the latter, to try all over again to winkle the truth out of any of the people involved, to get more fodder for their endless speculations, the curious Winner Plastics folks would probably die before they missed a chance.

Of course Heero had plenty of practice putting up with the work crowd, even at parties, so he wasn’t terribly worried about that. Then, some people he counted as friends — including his sister and her husband, and Treize and Zechs — had also been invited, and of spending time with them, even in combination, he wasn’t afraid. But then there was the second half of the list. Some of them might have been requested by Quatre (or possibly even Trowa, though Heero highly doubted that), but it was still a large set of people whose names Heero didn’t recognize and that he wasn’t sure how Duo had met and become friendly enough with to demand they come to a party. And Heero would probably have to be introduced to most if not all of them.

But he would put up with it for Duo’s sake — and for Quatre’s, since, as Duo had mentioned in the email, the evening would be something more than a standard party to him as well. Hell, even for Trowa’s sake, since Duo’s not-so-subtle hints might win him some much-needed presents.

The present Duo had bought for Trowa, not a much-needed item but still one Heero thought Trowa would have a good use for, appeared suddenly very nearby in its bright new dressing of multi-colored star-sprinkled wrapping paper and a huge red bow. Readable in Duo’s head was the fact that he had proceeded, not admitting it aloud, with the plan Heero had expressed disapproval of: putting a load of shiny star-shaped confetti inside the wrapping paper so as to cause a huge glittery mess when the gift was opened. Heero opted to say nothing about this, but he would not be the one cleaning it up.

“What do you think?” Duo asked eagerly. “Not bad for someone who hasn’t wrapped anything in paper for ninety years, huh?”

Taking the rectangular package in hand from where Duo had been holding it right in his face, Heero examined it at a more propitious distance and from various angles. “Yes, you did really well, especially on the corners.”

Duo radiated pleasure and satisfaction, and Heero could tell that his joy ran deeper than mere pride in skillful handling of paper, tape, and scissors. He was extremely happy about several aspects of the situation, including that his very first purchase with his very first paycheck earned in his new human life had been a birthday present for his best friend.

Heero liked that too, though he remained silent about it. He considered the present, which had been rather expensive, a symbol of Duo’s willingness to forgive and move on after a painful event in a relationship — and he couldn’t help finding that significant.

Duo was also pleased about the nature and origin of the gift. Heero, having combined two memories — Duo’s statement, “He was pretty good at clarinet back in the day,” and Trowa’s text, I haven’t played for years — with the fact that the extremely musical Quatre would sooner or later be moving in with Trowa, had suggested this particular gift when Duo, overwhelmed even more than usual at the staggering number of possible purchases he could make with his first paycheck, had wondered in something of a daze what he should buy first.

The suggestion had delighted Duo as an indication of increased friendship between Heero and Trowa; it seemed to demonstrate a growing understanding not only of Trowa personally and what would help him reestablish a life removed from curses and penance, but of Trowa’s relationship with Quatre and what might strengthen it. Though Heero didn’t feel he was owed any special credit for this, he did consider it true, and didn’t really mind when Duo insisted on including him in the ‘from’ slot on the tag. Though he refused to take credit for the confetti any more than clean it up.

He handed the boxed clarinet back at last and added, “You wrapped that better than I could have.”

“I miiiight have watched a tediously detailed YouTube video about wrapping presents yesterday,” Duo admitted. Of course Heero already knew this, but he was working hard to keep from mentioning aloud anything he picked up from Duo’s head so as to avoid making him uncomfortable. “And anyway, you made the cake, and I couldn’t have done that.”

“Cake mix,” said Heero with a smile as he stood from the chair by the computer. “You wouldn’t have any problems.”

“Yeah, but I might not have the patience,” Duo replied, mirroring the expression and reflecting that for the six dozen cupcakes Heero had made, to match and eke out a cake far too small for everyone at the party, he would definitely not have had the fortitude. Even merely trying to help Heero frost them had only been able to hold his interest for about five cupcakes before he’d turned his attention to creative arrangements of sprinkles instead. Cookery of any sort was clearly not something he was cut out for.

Heero chuckled and leaned over to kiss Duo briefly. “We should probably start carrying everything down to the car.”

“This first!” Duo hefted Trowa’s present like the hard-won prize that, in a way, it was.

“You’ve got two hands,” Heero told him sardonically, and headed out of the room.

As they set out with Tupperwares full of cupcakes in stacks, one with a giftwrapped clarinet balanced on top, Duo asked with serious casualness, “Do you think Quatre’s ready yet? I kinda got the feeling he might be making The Big Announcement about moving in with Trowa tonight.”

“I honestly don’t know,” Heero replied. “He’s been working hard–”

“Harder than anyone else thinks he needs to,” Duo put in.

“–and I think he’s feeling a lot better by now,” Heero continued with a nod of agreement. “But he has his own standards to live up to, and I don’t know if he’s there yet.”

Their conversation had to pause as a couple of fellow apartment tenants, whom Heero recognized only by sight, fell into step with them. Evidently Duo not only knew their names, but had invited them to the party, so there was confirmation of attendance to be sought and given. In fact the two were on their way, like Heero and Duo, down to the parking lot so as to leave early — in their case to pick something up on the way as a housewarming gift. By the time they parted to head for their separate vehicles, Duo was gleeful.

“This is going to be so awesome,” he gloated. “Trowa’s going to be flooded with stuff.”

Heero shook his head with a smile, setting his burdens on top of his car in order to unlock it. “Only you could get people to come to a total stranger’s house and bring him presents.” He added as he began stacking the cupcakes in the back and pondering whether or not to seatbelt them in, “That’ll be an incentive for Quatre to move in sooner: if anyone brings Trowa anything Quatre doesn’t like, it’ll drive him crazy until he can get in there and sell it so he can replace it with something better.”

Duo laughed triumphantly. “Maybe that was my plan all along!”

“Sure,” Heero allowed in a tone of amused doubt.

“So let’s go!” Duo, having deposited his cupcakes next to Heero’s in the back, opened the driver’s side door impatiently and leaned in to set the wrapped present in the passenger seat. “We’ve got friends to force into cohabitation!”

Again Heero shook his head. “We’ve got to go back up for the cake,” he reminded him. “Or at least I do.”

“I’ll come with you,” Duo declared. “For moral support.”

“OK,” Heero allowed. “Cake, moral support, and friends.”

“Sounds like a perfect night!”

And whatever Heero might feel about parties specifically, in general he had to agree.

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.

For some author’s notes (none of them very interesting) on these final parts, see these four Productivity Logs.

I’ve rated this story . This is currently the last chronological story in the His Own Humanity series, but keep your eyes open for more!

ebooks for this story: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré by itself and La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré Plus, which includes Guest Room Soap Opera, Consummate Timing, and That Remarkable Optimism in their chronological places (.zip files contain .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).

His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 51-55

“Still 100% failure, guys! Is there some magical record you’re going for for the highest number of attempts at a spell without doing one single damn thing right?”

The spellcasters had taken to ignoring Quatre completely when he started in on them, which meant his verbal attacks weren’t nearly as relieving as on previous days… but he’d become so accustomed to doing it that he wasn’t going to bother trying to stop himself.

“We need to take Roussel out of the wording when Becotte’s not around to concentrate on him,” one of them was insisting, as he had several times already. “He’s the only one who cares enough about Roussel personally for it to make a difference.”

“Mentioning Roussel is absolutely essential to a spell designed to manage the energy from Roussel’s artifact,” someone else said, the slight weariness of her tone a reflection of the fact that she too had made this argument several times already.

“I don’t even have any magical abilities,” Quatre put in derisively, “and I could be less completely useless than you failures at this.”

“The energy itself wasn’t Roussel’s, though,” the third remarked doubtfully.

“Where did everyone go?” wondered the first.

Quatre had been aware that something must be happening out in the parts of the building he wasn’t really familiar with ever since the spectators and concentrators had quietly left the room in the middle of the ritual. At the time he hadn’t said anything — not only because he’d been warned very seriously about the dangers of interrupting a spell like this, but because the damn thing was painful and whatever he might have said would probably have come out as an inarticulate groaning snarl — and he didn’t feel like saying anything now because he honestly didn’t give a crap what the obnoxious extraneous Confrérie members were up to.

“Buh,” said one of the people that remained in the room with him.

“That sounded really stupid even for you guys.” Quatre turned in his chair to glance at the source of the idiotic noise, giving as he did so a frustrated grunt of his own. The sensations of whatever the hell they did during their worthless rituals tended to linger for a few minutes, so it still felt as if his body was being pulled in several directions at once, threatening to tear apart, every time he moved. And that was only top of a headache that never had gone away.

In growing curiosity and irritation, Quatre scowled as he observed not merely the person he’d been looking for but all three of the Confrérie members around him heading toward the floor: one sitting down deliberately, cross-legged, and leaning against a chalk-covered wall; one sinking to his knees so sluggishly it almost looked as if he’d somehow been cast into slow motion in real time; and the last simply toppling forward and face-planting onto the concrete, losing her glasses in the process, in a movement that looked extremely uncomfortable but for which Quatre had little room for pity at the moment. What was going on?

And then a voice he knew extremely well said his name from the direction of the door.

No. No. Trowa could not be here now — now, when Quatre had spent the last week deliberately getting into the habit of saying aloud every last nasty, irrational thing he could think of in order to work off some of his anger; now, to see the spirit-extinguishing depths of powerlessness Quatre had sunken to, the wretchedly different person he’d become; now, when the unhealed Quatre could not accept, could not allow anything he loved near him lest he ruin it forever.

Remaining in his uncomfortable twisted position in his chair, unseeing eyes fixed on the collapsed Confrérie member behind it, Quatre took a deep, shuddering, stabbing breath. He wanted to look around and confirm Trowa’s presence, because, little as he wanted Trowa here, he wanted Trowa here with a desperate ferocity that stiffened his entire body and made his pressurized head throb. He wanted to run to him, cling to him and never let go… but he couldn’t allow himself to try to take comfort in something that would only force him to admit how much he needed comfort, how completely out of his control was his situation.

And what emerged around his clenched teeth was, “Why the hell are you here, Trowa?”

The quiet reply, “To bring you home,” came so immediately and earnestly that it erased any idea of wishful thinking or that Quatre might actually be collapsed like the spellcasters around him and dreaming that one of the things he wanted most in the world had come to pass. The word ‘home’ spoken in Trowa’s voice seemed to lance into him and draw blood, and it must be impossible to deny how ardently he longed to go there with the man he loved.

But what he said was, “You just decided that, did you? ‘Time to pick Quatre up from daycare,’ was it?”

“Come home,” said Trowa as quietly and seriously as before, “and we’ll get this problem fixed.”

“Seems to me you’ve got plenty of problems of your own to worry about before you try to fix someone else’s.” Quatre still hadn’t turned, and the twisting of his chest and stomach was becoming worse than the fading pain from the ritual. He wanted so much to look around, to see Trowa’s face that he so missed, to seek solace there, but he just couldn’t. “Why don’t you work on that instead of trying to make my choices for me?”

“We need to get you out of here.” Did Trowa sound somewhat hurt? Trowa sounded somewhat hurt. Quatre had hurt him again, had done specifically what he’d come here to avoid doing.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the irate tears burning them, Quatre shouted, “I didn’t ask you to come here!” Except that he had — every moment he’d been here, he’d been silently calling to Trowa with all of his angry heart. “It’s not your responsibility to fix my problems!” Except that Quatre’s own attempt at fixing his problems had failed so miserably; someone absolutely needed to intervene. “You need to mind your own damn business!” Please don’t leave me. “Just get out of here!” Please don’t leave me!

“We won’t leave you.” It was Heero’s voice, quieter than Trowa’s, more horrified, but perhaps equally hurt. Was everyone Quatre most cared about here to see him in his weakness, this supreme state of wretched, culpable, powerless rage and misery?

“We’re not going anywhere without you,” Trowa agreed, and audibly took two firm steps into the room.

Clearly set in motion by these familiar and beloved voices, something was building inside Quatre, perhaps toward a climax of sorts, as if all the anger and unhappiness was coming to a boil. He couldn’t go much longer like this, having an exchange if not entirely rational at least composed of the usual back-and-forth of conversation. What would happen when this peaked he didn’t know, didn’t want to know, but it couldn’t be much longer.

Finally he turned, though his emotions didn’t untwist along with his body, and took one single, brief look at his friends that had come so far to rescue him: at Trowa’s solemn face, shocking in how much Quatre loved the sight of it after what felt like an eternity apart, and his slightly outstretched hand that offered reunion and comfort Quatre could not allow himself to accept; at Heero’s stiff form in the doorway, features appalled and pitying; and, oh, was Duo here too? Quatre should have expected that. But the sight of him peeking around Heero with concerned and would-be-helpful eyes — again, offering comfort Quatre simply could not accept — was as infuriating as that of the other two. Burning with directionless fury, Quatre could feel the shrinking of the fuse that had been lit inside him.

“They took my phone,” he snapped, standing and moving forward so abruptly that he kicked the horrible old chair over and probably into the face of one of the Confrérie members behind. “I have to find it.” And he pushed past his friends, avoiding a second look at any of them or even touching them lest the touch become a blow before he could stop it, into the hall.

Though he’d momentarily escaped the ritual room and the people in and around it, he had not escaped and could not escape the turmoil inside himself. The heat was still rising, warping his vision and turning his steps into stumbles as he made his way toward the locked office where he believed his cell phone had been held hostage ever since he’d arrived in this terrible place. This maneuver had bought him time, but whether it would do any good in the long run he couldn’t tell.

The door opened under his hand — whether because La Confrérie had left it unlocked or because of something Trowa had done, Quatre neither knew nor cared — which was fortunate, since he would otherwise have kicked it or even thrown himself against it until it let him in. Now he knocked aside the chair he encountered and started ransacking the desk beyond half blindly, looking for something he was only partially certain was there. What he would do with his phone if he found it he wasn’t sure; he just needed some pursuit that would turn his anger away from his friends and give him some time to try to get even the faintest hold on himself.

It felt good to rip out the squeaky drawers, empty them onto the floor, then throw them across the room, and he thought there might be some hope of working off enough of his surface-level emotion that he could manage to articulate some thoughts that did not arise purely from a wrathful desire to strike and wound… even if the sight of everything in this desk that was not the phone he was looking for took him another step back toward the anger and away from rationality.

Though it was a couple of minutes before he discovered what he sought in nearly the last drawer, nobody accosted him and none of his friends had followed him into the room. Deeply relieved that they’d had the sense to see the intolerability of their presence at the moment, Quatre was simultaneously hurt and increasingly irate that they weren’t bothering to help him, to continue insisting he come home with them, or to offer further comfort he couldn’t possibly countenance. As he waited for his phone to turn on, bombarded by conflicting emotions and waiting in helpless tension to see whether or not he was going to be able to avoid the critical mass he’d already predicted, he listened to what he thought was shuffling and breathing just outside the door where he couldn’t see.

The phone’s little startup jingle had been annoying, but nothing compared to what happened now the device had finished booting and located its signal. Had the evidently brainless designers really been able to think of no good reason for playing a single text tone to indicate the presence of multiple unread messages? In the cacophony of text tone after text tone, continually overriding each after the first two notes, the voicemail sound (which did only play once for multiple messages) was mostly lost, and the email icon appeared subtly at the top of the screen without any audible indication in the midst of the din.

Increasingly agitated and headachy as he tried to wait this out, Quatre came gradually to hold the phone at arm’s length in distaste for the jarringly repetitive sounds, and he felt his stomach clench as it struck him just how much of his life he’d missed lately. He’d transformed monstrously, hurt everyone he loved, run away to Louisiana to absolutely no benefit, and left everything behind in shambles. What was there to go home to besides a greater ordeal?

When the aggravating chiming finally stopped, he found his hands trembling slightly as he dragged down the alert bar to see what he’d missed since dropping out of contact with his entire world. And when he was greeted with the information that he had 33 texts, 14 voice messages, and 27 emails, that was, somehow, the final straw, the catalyst needed to bring about the emotional apogee he’d been dreading.

With a roaring sob he hurled his phone away from him in a motion like a hard tennis smash that resulted in a loud crack against a wall, but he didn’t see what had actually happened to the missile since his eyes had entirely clouded over with an upwelling of uncontrollable tears. Everything around him was hot chaos, anger, despair, throbbing pain, and voices crying out his name; it crashed over him like a tidal wave, tossing and battering and drowning his sprit.

When he felt someone take hold of him, try to draw him into insistent arms as if for a consoling embrace, he fought back viciously, striking out against the nearby body with both fists. He couldn’t; he couldn’t; there was nothing of that in this hell; there was nothing left but rage and suffering.

“I did tell you it would be better to let us knock him out too,” said an unknown voice, sounding completely unperturbed, in the midst of the others calling out to Quatre.

“I’m going to jump him home,” replied another voice, very familiar and very close by. It slipped around behind him, evading his flailing blows and speaking in the magical language, as arms clamped decisively around his waist. Then a sudden disorienting weightlessness briefly paralyzed Quatre’s lungs, so that when he next drew breath it was of different air in a distinctly different place.

Everything had happened so quickly, event after event after unexpected event, magic and realizations in such rapid succession, that Heero, though he stood perfectly still on the sidewalk outside Galerie de la Lune with Duo equally motionless at his side, felt as if everything was transforming and rearranging, and his head was spinning.

Cars passed behind him along Burgundy Street, and people occasionally walked by, their thoughts sometimes detectable. The world progressed in the warm, humid evening, but Heero was frozen for the moment. What might be going on inside the building he’d left, though he could speculate to some extent, he didn’t know for certain and almost didn’t want to think. He merely continued to stand still, hugging to himself the clothing he’d recognized as Quatre’s and therefore confiscated in order to return to his friend when they got back home.

Finally Duo took a deep breath and shook his head, sluggishly at first but vigorously after a moment as if awakening from a trance of stillness and indecision similar to Heero’s. “I guess…” he said, but didn’t finish the statement.

Heero managed to rouse himself enough to agree, “Yeah.” He looked down at the suit, shoes, and broken-faced cell phone in his arms, then back at Galerie de la Lune in front of him, and shook his own head. “Yeah, let’s…” Then he and Duo turned simultaneously in the direction they’d originally come from, heading vaguely back toward the parking garage and their rental car.

It was no surprise that Duo was the first of them to manage an entire sentence. “I guess Trowa doesn’t have to worry about those weirdos anymore.”

Though he knew, from Duo’s thoughts, the answer to his question, still Heero asked sardonically, “Which weirdos do you mean?”

Duo chuckled darkly. “The Confrérie weirdos, not the secret agent brainwashing sunglasses weirdos.”

“Yeah, the secret agent brainwashing weirdos specifically said we won’t have to worry about La Confrérie in the future.” Again Heero shook his head. “And practically offered me a job.”


“Apparently I have ‘a lot of raw talent.’ Someday I could be a sunglasses weirdo too, I guess.”

Duo was torn by multiple internal responses to this: he liked the mental image of Heero in sunglasses and a stark secret agent suit, but the idea in general weirded him out as well; by the mention of Heero’s magical ability, he was reminded of things he wanted to discuss with his boyfriend and had been putting off, but he wasn’t sure, even with Quatre safely jumped home, that it was a good time yet.

Silently Heero sighed. Whether there would ever be a good time he didn’t know, but right now, with little more they could do for Quatre beyond worrying pointlessly, might be an acceptable time. Even with Quatre’s mental shouting, the first thoughts Heero had ever picked up from him, still echoing poignantly through his head and heart — Please don’t leave me; please don’t leave me! — it would be better to force himself not to concentrate on that when it could accomplish nothing.

Trowa, after all, must be taking care of Quatre back home even as they walked, and Hajime was there at his house; things could progress now as they’d all been wishing. Heero could even hope that Quatre would be entirely returned to normal by the time he and Duo, after catching their scheduled flight tomorrow, saw him again. So this was probably as good a time as any for Duo to say everything he’d wanted to say — at least everything he’d wanted to say to Heero — ever since the plane ride here.

“I think,” Heero began slowly, “I will not be able to forgive myself in the future if I leave without getting something at a decent New Orleans restaurant.”

Duo looked at him sidelong, with little to no emotional response for the moment beyond some curiosity. “I saw you looking up restaurants last night, and I wondered what you were doing. Can we afford that?”

“We didn’t spend any money to get here, remember? I may not have thousands of dollars, but I have enough for a dinner for two.” He felt a little guilty about the proposed expenditure, after Quatre’s parents had paid for plane tickets, a rental car, and two hotel rooms (not anticipating that Trowa and Quatre wouldn’t require one), but they did need dinner somewhere tonight. And that he would regret for the rest of his life (or at least until he managed to visit this city again) passing up an opportunity to sample New Orleans food had not been a lie.

“I guess there’s really nothing more we can do for Quatre right now,” Duo said pensively.

“Right,” said Heero. With a deep breath he added, “And we can… talk.”

“You want to… talk… in public?” Duo made no effort to hide his surprise.

“When you’ve been so thoughtful about waiting, not making you wait any more is the least I can do, I think.” Still hugging Quatre’s possessions to his chest, Heero watched the sidewalk in front of him instead of his boyfriend as they continued moving from the circle of one streetlight to the next.

“I didn’t want it to get in the way when we were doing more important stuff,” Duo said a bit awkwardly.

Heero’s statement was no less awkward. “I don’t know which was more important, but it was still really nice of you to put it off.”

“And it’s really nice of you not to make me keep putting it off… but I might get kinda loud about this.”

“You always get kinda loud.”

“OK, then. I guess if you can handle that, let’s find a restaurant and… talk.” And as they kept walking, Duo was thinking very seriously and with greater concentration about everything he wanted to discuss. It was a chaotic set of reflections, and he wasn’t really sure where to begin. After a few moments, Heero noticed that Duo wasn’t sure when to begin, either. Were they waiting until they actually reached a restaurant, or should he get going right away?

“So talk,” Heero urged.

Question answered, Duo cleared his throat determinedly, fixing on his starting point. “I… I really can’t believe you agreed with Trowa about not telling me he might have died. I couldn’t believe Trowa didn’t tell me that in the first place! Well, no, I could totally believe Trowa didn’t tell me that — actually it was more of a surprise that he let it slip at all; it would have made sense if he’d never told me, but I think he was scared Quatre was going to, and he felt like he’d rather be the one to say it, but still… the point is that the news was a surprise, the fact that Trowa never told me wasn’t, and then when you agreed, it was again.”

The great benefit to having postponed this until a fairly long time after it had arisen was that Heero had been granted, at disparate moments, the opportunity to consider it and choose how to respond to some of what he knew Duo wanted to say. He wasn’t always skilled at on-the-spot self-expression in heated discussions, so this had been a blessing. Now he was able to reply immediately, despite the publicity of the sidewalk and the difficulty he often had with these words, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Really sorry.”

Before Heero could proceed, however, Duo went on; it seemed he wanted to get all his thoughts on this particular point out into the open at once. “And I know you’ve been getting better with Trowa lately, and that’s great. I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me to see you guys being better friends; that’s something I’ve wanted to see this whole time, like, ever since we all met. But then to hear you say something like that to him… it’s like you took something that was exactly what I wanted all along and used it to stab me in the back.”

Heero found this dramatic wording a little hurtful, but wasn’t going to say so; as he had this morning, he recognized now the baffled sense of betrayal in Duo’s head, and understood why Duo would represent it in such strong language. He merely tried to explain. “You said I agreed with Trowa, and I can definitely see why that bothers you so much. But I didn’t ‘agree’ with him. I told him I understood why he didn’t tell you, not that I agreed with him not telling you.”

Briefly Duo looked over without saying anything, then back to the street they were crossing. He could already see some of the distinction Heero was trying to make, but waited for Heero to elaborate.

“I’m sure he couldn’t stand to tell you something that might make you think you couldn’t keep trying to become human.” Heero lowered his voice, moving slightly closer to Duo, as someone passed them. It really was an effort to be talking about this in public. “He didn’t want to ruin your chances, and since he wanted the curse to break so much that he didn’t care what happened to him, he felt like it was a better idea not to tell you something that might make you call the whole thing off.” Before Duo could offer the violent protest against this idea that was exploding in his head, Heero continued quickly:

“And I wanted him to know I understood those feelings — it wasn’t exactly the same situation for me, of course, but I completely understood feeling like getting you human again was much more important than whatever I was going through on the way, because that’s what I did feel like. But that doesn’t mean I think he did the right thing, or that I would do the same thing in his shoes.” Not that Heero, who had never suffered anything like what Trowa had suffered, could say exactly what he would have done in Trowa’s shoes, but to mention that would be straying from the point.

Now Duo paused, his brain still in turmoil, before the entry into the parking garage they’d reached, and faced Heero with a frown. “That’s… OK, I see your point… And the fact that you felt that way was… But, I mean, not telling me something like that…”

“I think I understand your end of it too,” Heero said quietly, bumping Duo’s shoulder with his own in order to usher him onward into the greater darkness before them and out of the potential hearing of a nearby booth attendant. “Him not telling you that was taking a choice away from you, and you already had no control over your life because you were a doll.” Finding uncomfortably that his voice echoed a bit inside the expansive garage, he lowered it yet again. “I don’t think Trowa thought of it that way — I think he just saw it as what was best for you and what he had to do to try to make up for cursing you in the first place — but he really was kinda reinforcing the fact that you were a doll.”

“Yeah,” Duo said, with more certainty and emphasis than his previous half sentences. “Yeah. It’s not just that it’s horrible to think about losing my best friend when I got something else I really, really wanted… it’s this same thing it’s been all along, of having other people controlling my life like they’ve been doing for so freaking long. And this time it was my best friend, so I don’t even know how much I can trust him anymore. And now…”

Pausing, Duo scanned the line of cars they’d been walking along. “We parked about here, didn’t we?” he muttered. “What the hell did our car look like…?” He was obviously avoiding glancing at Heero, seeking the rental car so avidly at this point, because he couldn’t bear to discover, from Heero’s face, whether his latest thought, at the tail-end of what he’d been saying, had been audible.

It had.

“And now,” Heero echoed quietly, closing his eyes and drawing a deep, silent breath against the pain that had arisen in response to what he’d picked up from Duo’s head, “you’re not sure whether you can trust your boyfriend either.”

He’d hurt Heero. This conversation had been intended to work out and overcome Duo’s hurt feelings, not retaliate against Heero; that was the last thing Duo wanted. But somehow he’d managed to hurt him… and perhaps it had been inevitable.

At the moment he was concentrating intensely on backing out of the parking space — something still close to the bottom of his driving skills list — and that endeavor probably kept the specific reflections he needed to voice sufficiently subdued that Heero couldn’t hear them… but eventually he must continue.

He was trying his hardest to put every little thought he had about all of this into words, because he felt better saying it aloud than being aware of Heero reading it from him without his having voiced it. It seemed more honest, and partook more of precisely what he wanted to express, to put everything on the table of his own free will than simply to know that Heero could see his hand whether he played it or not.

“Turn left,” Heero commanded as they approached the parking garage’s exit. He didn’t sound hurt or angry; in fact his tone was completely flat and emotionless, a sound Heero was particularly good at but generally didn’t direct toward his boyfriend.

Duo turned left.

And eventually, forcing himself to get the damned explanation underway, he said, “The thing is, I know Trowa really cares about me, and I know you really care about me, and you and him have some things about you that are pretty similar — more than I ever really thought about before — so when you said you understand why Trowa wouldn’t tell me something like that — even if you say you don’t necessarily think he made the right choice not telling me — I can’t help thinking…”

“Left again at the next intersection,” Heero put in.

“I can’t help thinking, how do I know you wouldn’t keep something like that hidden from me? Hell, how do I know there’s not something like that already that you’re not telling me? Like that after the curse broke, there was some kind of backlash on you and now you’re cursed, but you think I don’t need to know because it would ruin my happiness as a human or something? Or… it wouldn’t even have to be magical… like, what if you had some awful disease that was going to kill you, and you weren’t telling me because you thought I should have all the time I possibly could to… or, I don’t even know.”

“Keep going for a while on this street.”

“Because, yeah, you did say you felt like he should have told me, and you even obviously completely get why he should have told me, but that’s just one situation… how do I know something else won’t come up — or already hasn’t come up! — where you would agree with Trowa? Sometime when you would feel like it’s more important to try to ‘do what’s best for me’ or whatever, try to keep me happy in the dark, than give me the choice and let me know?”

Into the ensuing silence Heero said, “You’re going to be turning left eventually.” Then the silence resumed as Duo attempted to find an opening in the left lane.

Finally, pensively, Heero spoke again, clearly aware that it was his turn but having taken this long trying to decide how to spend it. “So this really is a lot more about not trusting me than what Trowa said on the plane.”

“Yeah, I think this has been coming for a while…” Duo admitted with some regret. “What Trowa said just brought it out finally. I’m definitely going to have to talk to him about it, because he can’t keep doing things like that, but…”

“Go easy on him,” Heero advised. “He’s changed a lot since when he decided not to tell you, and he obviously realizes now that he should have, or he wouldn’t have thought of it as a secret he was worried about Quatre giving away.”

“Yeah…” No matter how easy he went, though, that conversation was likely to be as difficult as this one.

Another silence followed as Duo continued to sort out his thoughts and navigate the New Orleans streets in an unfamiliar vehicle, until Heero informed him, “Left at this light, and then you’re going to have to park somewhere.”

Realizing what that meant, Duo groaned. “I have to parallel park on top of everything else?”

“I have faith in you,” said Heero quietly.

Despite this declaration, the atmosphere in the car became even tenser than before as Duo went about the tricky and delicate task. Oddly, though, as he removed the key from the ignition, he was brought to laughter by the realization that it was possible to increase the agitation between them at the moment with something as frivolous as the difficulties of getting a car into a properly square position in relation to the curb and the other nearby cars. This conversation wasn’t exactly fun, but evidently it also wasn’t as horrific as he’d been thinking it must be.

Heero smiled a little, undoubtedly in response to this idea, as they disembarked, and it gave Duo courage to continue. Because, when it came down to it, the problem arose not so much (if at all) from Heero’s behavior as from the very power he’d just demonstrated. It wasn’t something he’d done wrong; Duo was not accusing him.

“Yeah,” Duo said on the way toward the restaurant door, at which he barely looked, resuming the conversation from the point his thoughts rather than his words had left off, “it’s stupid. Just because you can read my mind — and not even all of it! just some of my mind! — that shouldn’t make it harder for me to trust you; it shouldn’t have anything to do with that!”

Though the interesting smells inside the restaurant did distract him slightly, only the fact that an employee was talking to Heero prevented Duo from continuing immediately. This was probably for the best, since it gave him time to decide how to articulate the rest of his reflections before they were walking to and eventually seated at a table somewhere.

“People who don’t have magic and can’t see into each other’s heads have to trust each other based on things they’ve gotten to know about each other and things they’ve seen each other do.” Perhaps it was a bit of a shame, but later he wouldn’t be able to describe this place: not the decorations nor how big their table was nor how many people besides themselves were here nor even the name of the restaurant. The smell might linger, but nothing more, so wrapped up was he in this other matter.

“I mean, you get to know someone, and you have this pattern recognition that tells you, ‘He wouldn’t do such-and-such,’ right? But there’s always some, I think, sort of blindness to it too — because, even if you logically think, based on all this stuff you’ve seen, ‘He would never do that,’ you can’t really know. But you believe it anyway. It’s a sort of… faith thing, I guess.”

Heero, who had pulled his chair close to Duo’s, nodded his understanding.

“And I think that’s good for people. It’s a human thing, having to trust blindly, and I think it brings us closer together, especially whenever we get some evidence that we were right. And that’s where I am: having to trust you in this totally normal, human way, which is absolutely fine… except that then all of a sudden you get an advantage. You can see into my head when I can’t see into yours, so suddenly the way you trust me is totally different from the way I trust you. You’ve got a sort of… head start…” He laughed briefly and somewhat bitterly at the unintended pun. “You’re on a different level. It’s… it’s not fair anymore.”

Once again he had to shut up for a minute while a waiter talked to Heero — was that quick service? were they ordering drinks and food at the same time? did Heero just order for him, knowing full well that Duo hadn’t looked at the menu and couldn’t concentrate on it long enough to make a rational selection? — and once again, during this period, he examined and amended what he was and would be saying.

He regretted sounding as if he considered human interaction and trust some sort of contest, some sort of fight or race in which things like ‘advantage’ and ‘head start’ came into play; but inequality could make a difference in any field. Maybe it shouldn’t, but simply saying that something shouldn’t change things didn’t mean it didn’t change things.

“And it really shouldn’t,” he went on when they were alone again. “I’m still in exactly the same place, in that normal situation, and it shouldn’t make a difference that you’re not. How you trust me shouldn’t make any difference to how or if I trust you, but it does, for some reason. I kinda feel like I’m on the defensive, somehow, because you can look into my head, and then it makes it harder for me to trust you, even though I don’t have any real reason not to trust you and a million good reasons to trust you.”

This was about the extent of it, though Duo felt some annoyance when he considered that Heero probably understood his point better because of what he’d read from his head than because of how Duo had worded it. But at least it was all shared between them now, one way or another.

They sat silently for some time, Heero gazing down at the table with a pensive half frown and Duo staring at Heero. He wasn’t even demanding a response, willing him to say anything, because it wasn’t as if Duo had made some allegation Heero needed to refute; it was just that he couldn’t look away.

Finally, slowly, Heero said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m sorry,” Duo offered, perhaps belatedly. Probably belatedly. “It’s not your fault you’re a communicator and I’m taking it weird.”

Heero smiled faintly. “I wish there was something I could do to prove…” He shook his head. “But I guess that might not actually help.”

Silence recommenced, and Duo continued to watch his boyfriend in frustration. This whole thing shouldn’t really be a problem, and he was annoyed that it had become one. After all the time he’d spent with Heero, after everything he knew of him — that logical trust he’d built up over the months — for something like this to hit them now, in the middle of other concerns…!

If he ever again had one of these shrimp sandwich things, he would surely associate its scent and flavor and texture with the memory he was reliving tonight as he ate at least part of one almost without noticing it: a memory of Heero, back in July or so, making a half-facetious verbal list of apology for every instance he could remember (some of them very insignificant indeed) of having taken advantage of Duo’s doll helplessness. As Heero had demonstrated this very evening, he really did understand — and seem to regret — how little control Duo had had over his own life because of the long curse.

Heero also opened up to Duo much more completely than he did to anyone else. Duo recalled the time, shortly after his first meeting with Heero’s parents, when he’d asked whether Heero now considered himself more out of the closet than he had before; and Heero had explained with obvious embarrassment or even shame, but little to no reluctance, that he wouldn’t feel properly out of the closet until he managed a more active part in the gay community and the struggle for equal rights, a struggle he hesitated to join in any manner more involved than his voting because of the uncomfortable publicity he perceived as being necessary thereto.

Heero didn’t hide things from Duo, and he did understand Duo’s need for autonomy. As Duo had said, there were a million reasons to trust Heero, and the awareness of them should be something Duo could cling to even through the doubts that had arisen because of his reaction to Heero’s communicative magic. It formed a sort of trust that, he discovered now, he still had in Heero despite his questioning.

This was a bittersweet realization, because, although it was a comfortable and reassuring place to return to, it was a place he never should have left — even if that trust was yet imperfect. Not only that, but if he was just going to come back around to this spot after his little jaunt through uncertainty, why had it been necessary to drag Heero through that with him and hurt him in so doing?

Well, he’d probably had to hash the thing out with Heero (out at least aloud in his presence) in order to get it resolved in the first place, so it had probably been, as he’d feared earlier, inevitable. Some things didn’t come naturally, after all; they had to be worked for, with their attendant discomfort and inconvenience. That was as part of being human as learning to trust in adverse circumstances, he supposed.

“You know what might help?” Heero said pensively, surely having picked up on everything that had gone through Duo’s head but letting it go without comment. “Hajime said that even non-communicators can learn not to project what they’re thinking. If you train so I can’t hear you anymore, except when you want me to, you might feel better about this thing I can do.” After a moment he added, with some of the same awkwardness that had colored several of his statements since they’d left Galerie de la Lune, “I don’t want to make it sound like this is a problem it’s your responsibility to solve or anything, but… that still might help.”

Despite things having been less resolved than postponed, Duo hastened to agree with this excellent idea. Heero was so considerate; he might not excel at this type of discussion, and he might occasionally have a hard time opening up, but he tried… he always displayed a genuine desire to work through problems when they arose, and he seemed so good at recognizing various sides of a situation like this.

And all of a sudden, as if this had been a much more definitive resolution than was actually the case, Duo felt he was, for the moment, very done with the entire thing, that putting off was exactly good enough for now. “I’m really freaking tired,” he announced, setting down with finality whatever he was eating.

“You’ve been through a lot today,” Heero agreed, displaying no lingering hurt or worry or anything more than quiet sympathy — whether because he really was that calm about this or because he also was satisfied to postpone for now, his companion was too weary to guess. He put his napkin on the table next to his own only half-finished meal. “Let’s go find our hotel and get some rest. We can eat these leftovers for breakfast, if there’s a fridge in our room, and then we can get home and find out how Quatre and Trowa are doing.”

Trowa’s right cheekbone ached, and he wouldn’t be surprised to find more than one bruise already growing where Quatre had hit him without appearing to be aware of it, but the tears slipping down his face were, he thought, only caused in small part by the pulsing pain. His heart, in the metaphysical sense, hurt far more than his body ever could, and he was tempted to say he’d found a new superlative.

It had taken some time for Quatre to calm — how much time, exactly, Trowa hadn’t measured — and this largely empty house had proven an optimal environment for directionless rage. There was very little to damage here, beyond Trowa himself, and Quatre’s frenzy had eventually burned out with no real destruction done. Now he sat sobbing in Trowa’s arms, pressed painfully against the tender spots he’d caused on Trowa’s chest and shoulders, shuddering and tense but growing quieter and more coherent by the moment.

Having found that comforting words of any kind, for some reason, had an effect precisely the opposite of the one intended, Trowa had said nothing for quite a while. When they’d first arrived, he’d immediately shouted Hajime down from the guest room and ordered him to get his partner over here as soon as possible. Then he’d made a few attempts at soothing Quatre, but, having discovered the aforementioned contradictory result of such efforts, had ceased and merely concentrated on keeping him from hurting himself. Eventually they’d settled onto the sofa, though the protective sheet had been torn from it and smoke from the stained upholstery was undoubtedly now transferring onto their clothes. Given the odd and poorly matched outfit Quatre currently wore, he probably wouldn’t care; Trowa certainly didn’t.

The living room had been bathed in afternoon light at their first appearance, and the fading of this into sunset dimness and then more serious darkness in which he never bothered to step away from Quatre to turn on anything electric had been Trowa’s only indication of the passage of hours. As Quatre first railed inarticulately against the entire world, then huddled pathetically against Trowa, suffering a mixture of unpleasant emotions that had taken him over and with which Trowa, for as deeply as he sympathized, couldn’t even empathize, it felt as if an eternity was passing; but a more coherent estimate suggested it was around 7:00 when Hajime entered the room to inform him that Sano, though he’d managed to escape the rest of his work shift for the evening, couldn’t get his car to start, and would have to be picked up and brought here.

A bleak, painful, surreal stretch of evening ensued, characterized by Quatre’s tears and Trowa’s heartache on his behalf, its length probably exaggerated by the helplessness and misery of its participants. How long it was before the exorcists returned, therefore, Trowa couldn’t guess and didn’t really care. He was so lost in his concentration on Quatre, in fact, that he didn’t even notice until the lights in the living room blazed on, piercing the strange grey bubble of unhappiness that had built up around the two men on the couch.

Quatre, who had fallen completely silent and gone mostly still, started and made a noise like a sob that was as irritated as it was sad, but he didn’t look from where all he could see, assuming his eyes were open, must be Trowa’s shirt, and he said no word. But Trowa glanced up at Hajime and Sano standing in the space where this room transitioned into the next.

The younger of the two exorcists appeared to be discernibly abashed and trying not to show it. The last time he’d been in this house, after all, he’d rendered its owner extremely uncomfortable and unhappy with a private conversation he hadn’t done much to keep private, and he probably wasn’t terribly optimistic about what Trowa’s opinion of him must be at this point.

The truth was that Trowa cared not the littlest bit about that right now; Sano was here to help Quatre, and any past indiscretions were entirely forgotten in light of that. And to convey this idea Trowa said quietly and very sincerely, “Thank you so much for coming. I’m sorry if it was inconvenient for you.”

Evidently, somehow, Quatre was aware of who was present and why, for he added to this, in a harsh, angry, desperate whisper into Trowa’s shoulder, “This had damn well better work.”

“Yeah, of course,” Sano replied, with some evident sympathy, as he and Hajime advanced. He seemed to relax a little from his concern about what Trowa might think of or have to say to him as he turned his attention to the miserable-looking Quatre. “We’ll get this done.” To the man at he side he muttered, “You were right — that’s a shit-ton of energy.” He frowned a bit, pensive, as he came to a halt in front of the sofa, and added, “Yeah, I think… yeah, you were right about how we oughta do this.”

Hajime nodded, and, turning to Trowa, explained, “It’s best if we do this in batches, so Sano doesn’t have to absorb too much at once.” He reached out toward his partner’s arm in a motion that, though restrained, struck Trowa as far less professional than his tone: it was an almost protective or even possessive movement; in fact it was the most personable and least self-contained gesture Trowa had ever seen him make, and for a brief moment cast him in an entirely and unexpectedly different light. By indicating that Hajime had some strong and deeply felt reason to want Sano not to have to absorb too much angry energy at once, it entirely negated any protest Trowa might have been inclined to make at the idea of not getting this done all in one go. So Trowa merely nodded.

“If you don’t mind Sano staying here with me tonight,” Hajime continued, “we’ll do a second round first thing in the morning after everyone has some rest.”

Choosing to trust that the exorcist knew what was best in this situation, Trowa nodded again.

Sano, meanwhile, had been studying Quatre intensely, worrying at one of the rings in his lowered eyebrows with a single finger in an absent gesture of pensive consideration. Finally he grinned darkly, as if in anticipation of a challenge, and squeezed a fist with his other hand. “All right, let’s do this.” And, finished with the noisy cracking of his knuckles, he reached out for one of Quatre’s slightly trembling shoulders.

Quatre started at the touch, letting out an angry breath, but did not otherwise move or say a word; he didn’t seem to want to face or deal with this situation in any way. Trowa fervently hoped that, in a few minutes, he would be at least a little easier and less miserable.

With a deep breath and closing his eyes, Sano, in a nearly complete and very tense silence, began the absorption that was his method of exorcism — and, despite the agitation of the scene and everything unrelated Trowa had been and still was feeling, he couldn’t help watching in great and growing interest.

The energy streaming off Quatre didn’t change, since the fact that it was emerging from him visibly meant it was already expended and dissipating into the air, but other energy was palpably moving from him in a different direction. What fascinated Trowa most about the process was that this energy became less and less discernible as it traveled from Quatre to Sano, until by the time it actually entered Sano’s being Trowa could no longer detect it at all.

Presumably this was because it was a two-part mixture of magical energy and death or shade energy, and only the latter component, which the non-necrovisual Trowa could not see, was actually transferring; the rest of it, the pure magic that Trowa could feel, was being stripped from the rest in a process like the chemical division of molecules into component atoms, and was crackling in the air in little continual bursts of power between Quatre and Sano.

Stripping one type of energy away from the other, pulling one into himself and letting the other explode in the air in front of him, must have constituted a serious struggle for Sano, and Trowa greatly admired his ability to do it so smoothly — especially since he’d probably never had to absorb quite like this before. His frame was stiffening as he continued, his free hand slowly clenching into a fist and his facial expression turning gradually to a grimace. Conversely, Quatre was relaxing a bit, his breathing becoming less angry and rough and his grip on Trowa less painfully tight.

Eventually Hajime reached a hand out toward Sano’s free arm in another surprisingly invested human motion, murmuring as he did so, “Enough.”

Sano jerked away from the touch and took no heed of the admonition, continuing to draw power from Quatre with, though his eyes remained closed, an increasingly angry and determined look on his face.

Hajime rolled his own eyes and this time took Sano’s arm in a grasp that presumably could not be ignored. “Enough, idiot.” And he pulled at him hard enough to rock Sano’s entire body. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

With startling suddenness, Sano discontinued his absorption, let go of Quatre’s shoulder and, wrenching his arm free, whirled with a clenched fist aimed at the other man’s face. Hajime, who had clearly been expecting this, dodged the blow and, taking hold of Sano’s shoulders with both hands, jerked him entirely away from the sofa.

Trowa watched in open-mouthed astonishment as Sano stumbled on the steps up out of the sunken living room area, caught himself, spun, and went at Hajime again, managing to land a hit on his shoulder even as Hajime simultaneously punched him squarely in the cheek with an agitating cracking sound. Sano reeled backward one step, making an angry noise, and threw himself forward once more.

This was so unexpected that Trowa had no idea what make of it. He couldn’t say he was surprised that Hajime, who seemed to enjoy startling people and then smirking at their reactions, hadn’t bothered to warn him that this would be a part of the exorcism process… and honestly the empty living room and front room where there was no furniture to dodge or worry about damaging was as perfect a venue for a fist fight aimed at working off the anger Sano had just absorbed as it had been for Quatre’s somewhat similar demonstration of that anger when they’d first arrived… but this violence still came completely out of nowhere, and Trowa had no idea what to say or do.

It wasn’t necessary for him to say or do anything about it, however, since just then Quatre whispered his name and tore his attention away so thoroughly that it didn’t really matter.

“Quatre,” he replied, losing track of the bizarre scene in front of him and tightening his grip around Quatre’s back. He found the blue eyes suddenly turned up toward him so abruptly, so poignantly clearer and more present, more Quatre, than they’d been since the reunion in New Orleans, or perhaps than they’d been since the beginning of this mess, that he suddenly couldn’t breathe for relief.

“Trowa, it… That worked…” The tears in Quatre’s eyes didn’t alter their increased clarity, the striking diminishment of rage in his overall expression and demeanor. “I feel… so much better… still angry, but…”

Squeezing out sudden new tears of his own in gratitude and overwhelming happiness, Trowa pressed his lips to Quatre’s forehead, pulling him tight against him. He could hardly bear to draw back far enough to reply, in as trembling a whisper as Quatre had used, “You’ll feel even better in the morning. They’re going to get rid of the rest of it too.”

Quatre made a whimpering noise, clutching in return, seeming to be experiencing much the same emotions as Trowa was — with the addition, of course, of the anger that still remained and that was probably still powerful. Trowa pulled him to his feet and, keeping his arms tight around him, spoke a spell that would jump them upstairs to his bedroom. Despite the distance being so short, he didn’t want to try to walk past the fist-fight going on between them and their destination; that could work itself out without them, and Hajime and Sano, in whatever condition of bruises and exhaustion, could go to bed in the guest room without input from the others in the house.

And what Quatre’s ability to sleep in his current emotional state might be, Trowa had no idea; but at the very least he seemed willing and able now to accept comfort. Trowa himself was mightily strengthened by the vast improvement to his lover’s temper, and ready to do whatever was necessary to help Quatre get through the night. One way or another, looking forward to further improvement tomorrow, they could survive until morning.

That Quatre had managed any sleep at all astonished and provoked him — astonished because he’d been so agitated the night before that sleep had seemed impossible; provoked because this wasn’t the time for it, because sleep was such a waste right now. Lying around unconscious for several hours contributed exactly nothing to any solution to his problem.

There had been some mention, yesterday evening, of drawing the energy out of him in batches, but Quatre didn’t remember hearing any convincing reason given for this plan, and it was extremely frustrating to find himself so angry so soon after the first session. Still, his attempts at not allowing that anger to be too pointedly directed at those around him — at the exorcists, one of whom Quatre knew not at all, or at Trowa, with whom Quatre had no reason whatsoever to be angry — were much more successful than any such efforts had previously been. It was easy enough simply to be angry with himself. God knew he had plenty of reasons to be.

The room in which he had spent the night was as new to him as the one to which Trowa had brought him from the Confrérie headquarters yesterday, but the presence of an air mattress beneath him and a blanket he recognized as having come off Heero’s guest bed atop him allowed him to make a guess as to where he was. And the ire aroused by the thought of Trowa’s having gone ahead and replaced his home in Quatre’s absence and completely without his input was also easy to rechannel toward himself; after all, Quatre was the one that had been unpleasant, unfeeling, and unavailable when Trowa needed a new house.

In addition to the trembling heat of anger, Quatre felt his eyes prickling as he looked around at the empty room, pale in the light of early morning through bare windows, to Trowa’s back turned toward him nearby beneath the blanket. He should be happy to find Trowa at his side, so close he could feel his warmth, but if he felt happiness ever again he would be just as astonished as he had been, upon awakening, to find that he’d slept. Abruptly he sat up and scrambled off the air mattress, turning away from the sight of his boyfriend before it entirely broke him.

He still wore the horrible clothing he’d been given by the cheap and tasteless Confrérie people, and the sight of it brought his rage right back up to something like its usual level. Why was he wearing this? Wasn’t there anything else here he could have changed into last night — or couldn’t he just have gone to sleep without clothing? Hadn’t Trowa considered the effect it would have on him to wake up in this outfit?

That was unfair, and again Quatre found it not too terribly difficult to bend the aggression around toward himself, where it was more appropriate, away from the innocent Trowa. His condition had definitely improved; he was capable of facing things much more rationally, and in fact capable of recognizing the irrationality that had gripped him for so long… but the fact that this was only relative, that he was still mad, still irrational, despite the improvement, actually increased his anger and made him long for something to strike out at.

“Quatre,” came Trowa’s voice from behind him, and it was like an echo of yesterday: it stabbed into Quatre with its beautiful familiar sound and its clear concern and pity, stirring in him all the desire he felt to be with Trowa, to allow Trowa to help and comfort him, and the contradictory desire he felt not to be with Trowa since he knew he would only hurt him with his behavior. Just like yesterday in the Confrérie basement ritual room, Quatre did not turn. And this time he said nothing; it was much easier to control himself today, now that he’d been brought back some distance out of the abyss of overwhelming fury.

The rustling of the blanket and the sound of the mattress shifting indicated that Trowa too had risen from the ‘bed,’ and a moment later arms slipped around him from behind. A slight hesitance to the movement immediately raised some annoyance in Quatre, but that emotion was tempered as he realized that this reluctance seemed based on uncertainty about Quatre’s possible reaction in this frame of mind rather than the old uncertainty about the entire world and inability to take initiative that had always bothered Quatre about Trowa. Something had changed, and trying to analyze it was an unexpected distraction.

“How are you feeling?” Trowa murmured.

Whether thanks to the aforementioned distraction or because of the general improvement to his condition since last night, Quatre managed to restrain himself both from shrugging out of Trowa’s arms and from retorting with something to the purpose of, “How the hell do you think I’m feeling?” The answer he did give, “Better, but not good,” was short and unfriendly enough.

“Should we see if those two are ready to help you again? Or would you rather find some breakfast first?”

Now Quatre did pull away from Trowa’s embrace. The thoughtfulness and practicality of the offer were too much at the moment, and only increased the snappishness of his reply, “Let’s just get it over with.”

As Trowa moved wordlessly past, he placed a hand on Quatre’s shoulder again briefly, squeezing, as if in acknowledgment of Quatre’s wishes, spoken and unspoken, and the gesture’s surety was another blow to what little composure Quatre had. He turned sharply so as to continue not looking at his boyfriend as the latter left the room, but he yet listened to the ensuing footsteps and the knock on a door not far off. Then there was a low conversation he couldn’t quite make out, the unknown door closed again, and the steps returned.

“Come downstairs,” Trowa said. “They’ll join us in a few minutes.”

With a nod, Quatre finally, reluctantly turned. Then his breath caught and his throat constricted painfully as he saw Trowa’s face for the first time today. For, although his memories of certain parts of yesterday evening were uncertain and difficult to summon, he knew without any doubt that he had occasioned those bruises. The sensation of solid resistance against his flailing fists flashed across his recollection with sudden, heart-rending clarity. He had actually struck his boyfriend, had offered physical violence against someone he loved. How Trowa could even bear to look at him at this point he had no idea.

With a growling sob of despair and self-loathing, Quatre ran past Trowa out of the room. He didn’t know where he was going, but ‘downstairs’ had been mentioned, so he descended, barely conscious of the rapid thumping of his heels on the unfamiliar steps. And as he moved into an echoing, high-ceilinged space, he felt he recognized the place somewhat. When he looked to his left into a lower room, in the far corner of which he could make out faintly, through his tears, the familiar colors of Trowa’s old sofa, he knew that this was where they’d sat last night.

Slowing his steps and wiping fiercely at his eyes with the back of one hand, Quatre made his way over there and, having no other evident option, seated himself. He couldn’t run away again; now that he knew with certainty that the techniques being used here were positively effective, he had to stay, had to get this condition eradicated. After that… after that, he didn’t know what. Maybe then he could run away again.

When he observed Trowa coming toward him, he swiveled with a gasp where he sat, forcefully, miserably directing his gaze toward the wall. And when Trowa sat down beside him, both of Quatre’s hands flew to his face, clutching angrily to block his view of anything that would only make the situation worse. Then the two men waited for a few minutes in silence but for Quatre’s ragged, unhappy breaths that echoed loudly off the palms in front of his nose and mouth.

The sound of a couple of voices, one Quatre somewhat recognized and one he knew only from last night, conversing as they came down the stairs and this direction, caused him to lower his hands but not to look around. He stared now at his knees, bared by the awful shorts he wore, and the floor he could see beyond them, and presently there moved into that space a pair of big bare feet. The less familiar of the two voices, deep and easy-going, said, “You’re looking better already.”

Grudgingly Quatre raised his eyes, up a pair of worn slacks, past a red polo with the words Imperial Panda II beside an embroidered representation of the appropriate animal, to a youngish face decorated with a number of piercings as well as bruises beneath spiky hair that looked like it had been slept on while the gel was still in. And while Quatre couldn’t help frowning at the absurd and juvenile overall picture, he did manage to restrain his scornful comment. Saying anything else in its place was beyond his power, but his attempt at a nod was successful.

“Well, let’s get some more out,” the young man suggested, raising a hand. Bruises dotted his arm in addition to his face, but Quatre was almost certain he hadn’t been the cause of these. He swallowed and nodded again.

Today he was in a better frame of mind to pay attention to the process and exactly how it felt. In contrast to the completely ineffectual rituals of La Confrérie, this apparently rather simplistic but perfectly sound technique was strange and uncomfortable, but did not hurt; he might have compared it to having bits of shrapnel magnetically extracted from his flesh if he could have imagined that process without the pain that must have been involved. It was agitating, though, and he felt increasingly tense as minutes passed and the expression on the young man’s face in front of him contracted into a scowl.

And at the same time, he could feel his own anger steadily decreasing. The stupid eyebrow and nose rings were irritating him less with each passing moment, and wondering why this couldn’t have been accomplished all at once last night was causing less annoyance each time his mind came back around to it.

That question was eventually answered in any case. The first exorcist, Hajime — whom Quatre had not yet seen, though he knew he was present — eventually took an abrupt step forward into Quatre’s line of vision and put his hands on the other’s arms in a firm grip. “That’s enough for now,” he said, evidently exerting some physical force.

The young man’s expression turned from anger in reserve to anger in full earnest, and as he wrenched backward, away from Quatre, and spun to face Hajime, he snarled out something that, though largely inarticulate, sounded a bit like, “You always fucking think you need to tell me what to do.”

“Because you’re too much of an idiot to–” Hajime had to abandon this reply in favor of dodging a punch that came flying at him evidently with all of the young man’s weight behind it.

Startled and appalled, Quatre stared as an all-out fist fight, complete with ducking, weaving, and loud, serious blows to body and face, began to range across this mostly empty room. It didn’t take much to interpret the reasons behind it, either: the younger exorcist had pulled so much angry energy out of Quatre and into himself that he was willing to attack his partner at the drop of half an insult, and this fight was what it took to work it off. In other words, the bruises the young man already wore — undoubtedly from last night’s batch of energy — really had been caused by Quatre, if only indirectly.

And his own anger still wasn’t entirely gone. Though the drawing-off of energy had, like last night, made that discernible difference to his attitude, the sight of the aftermath was dragging him back into rage and despair. It was as if all the blood had been cleaned from the surface of an oozing wound, only for more to well gradually up from within to take its place. He’d abused all of his friends, most especially Trowa, and put them to massive inconvenience; he’d forced a wretched state of mind and a violent, painful confrontation on the exorcist that was trying to help him; and his own anger was still coming back. Was there no escape from what he was, from the evils he had committed?

In a motion so forceful it seemed to mimic the hits going on out there in front of him, he once again buried his face in his hands, and once again found himself succumbing to anguished, angry tears.

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: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 46-50

How Duo got through the trip to New Orleans he supposed he would never know. Prior events had rendered unfeasible sitting still and thinking, and the whole plan had been so last-minute that he hadn’t brought anything with which to entertain himself. The flight, of course, did have some engrossing features, but these were not nearly as distracting as they would have been prior to Trowa’s revelation… and whiling away the time by talking to either of his companions was obviously out of the question.

He did eventually insist, in as friendly a tone as he could command, that they buy some in-flight refreshments. This had a threefold purpose: first, because Duo couldn’t imagine neglecting this important part of an airplane ride; second, to get some caffeine into everyone’s system for the upcoming confrontation, whatever it might be; and, third, as proof that, while some on Duo’s part might be less than perfectly soft, there were at least no hard feelings that would survive a proper discussion after their important business had been dealt with.

And eventually they did arrive. At their destination it became easier to think exclusively about what they were here to do and about poor Quatre than about what he’d been striving all day to push aside. He hated having to push it aside, having to put off confronting it and getting everything worked out, but that was what the situation demanded. And at least the interestingly humidity, the sights and sounds of another airport, the process of locating the proper car rental place, the extraction from their backpack of the map they’d carefully made back home, and the fascination of getting the feel of an entirely new car were distracting and invigorating circumstances.

Still, it was at least seven minutes into the twenty-five they spent driving away from the airport before anyone said anything more than was absolutely required. Heero, looking up at last from the map in which he’d been rather unnecessarily buried (since the route to the part of Burgundy Street they needed was fairly simple), took a deep breath as if steeling himself and said, “We should decide what we’re going to do when we get there.”

“My guess,” Trowa replied reluctantly from the back seat, “is that at least some of the members of this group will recognize me on sight, and I don’t know how they’ll react. It may not be a good idea for me to walk straight in there.”

Heero nodded. “So you wait in the car while Duo and I go into the gallery and see if I can pick up anything helpful from anyone’s head.”

“Not in the car,” Duo put in. “Remember, the place we’re parking is, like, half a block from the gallery? He’ll want to be closer than that.”

At his words, he thought the tension among them palpably lessened. Though he didn’t feel he’d been in the wrong with his reactions, it only made sense that his friends had been wary of him since his very obvious displeasure with both of them on the airplane; it was good for them all to come back from the edge they’d been on and focus on the matter at hand. Not that the matter at hand was all that far from the edge to begin with. But perhaps this was a different edge.

“Outside, then,” Trowa amended. “Maybe just around the corner. Then you can text me anything you think I need to know, and I’ll join you whenever it seems best.”

They spent the rest of the drive fine-tuning this admittedly very basic plan in much greater ease of interaction than they’d had all day, and the atmosphere among them had decidedly improved by the time they reached the parking garage for whose use they’d already paid online last night.

It felt surreal to walk, thereafter, through early-evening streets that, while certainly novel and picturesque and enjoyable to someone only relatively recently human, were still just normal streets. It seemed as if there should be more to this, more required of them to get to where Quatre was, and it called to Duo’s mind something Heero had once said: “That’s it? No blood sacrifice? No dragons to fight or Nome Kings to outwit?” Of course the real test was yet to come, since they had no idea how La Confrérie would react to their presence and their demands, but at the moment their heroic endeavors toward the rescue of their friend amounted to getting on an airplane and driving a rental car (neither of which they’d paid for), then walking half a block. It seemed too easy.

“Knock on wood,” Heero murmured as he evidently picked up on this reflection. Duo gave a brief, grim laugh.

Galerie de la Lune was exactly as they’d seen it in the vision Dorothy had provided with her divination, but in person could be examined at greater leisure and in more detail. Clearly the place had undergone many a repurposing since it had been built several decades or even over a century ago and gone since then undamaged, like much of the neighborhood, by hurricane and flood. The doors opening onto the balconies on the front of the building had evidently long been sealed up, probably because (as could already be observed through the windows even from outside) the interior second floor no longer existed.

A number of poles bearing multicolored banners stood out at regular intervals from the balcony railings, and though at the moment a lack of any wind hid many of their designs from sight, Duo remembered a few of them from the vision: besides the United States flag that was easily recognized even in a half folded state, there was that of France, something with fleur-de-lis on it, and a couple in black with white crescents of various widths.

The hand-painted, mural-style sign that identified the place against a backdrop of colorful nebulae and glittering stars, with an enormous moon in the foreground beneath the word ‘Lune,’ he remembered from the divination, but now he had time to read the sign beside the door as well:

Celebrating magic and the revered moon since 1874
New display every month      Most art available for purchase
½ of every $5 admission and ⅓ of every art sale donated
To Mercy Corps for the assistance of Hurricane Katrina victims

As Duo’s eyes ran over the hours the gallery was open to the public, then the other half of the sign that said presumably the same things in French, he remarked in some interest, “This place is older than we are, Trois.” But when he looked up to find his friend and get his reaction, he found that Trowa had fallen out of step with them and was waiting, as discussed, in the shadows between this building and the previous. Duo nodded, waved briefly at him, and turned back toward the door.

“Ready?” Heero murmured, reaching for the handle. When Duo nodded again, Heero opened the way forward, and they both went inside.

They found their view of the bulk of the interior immediately blocked by a large false wall of canvas on which was painted a giddy set of conflicting images advertising the current show. The path further in was strung across with a velvet rope beside which stood a bored-looking employee. Less bored-looking was the woman behind the desk that, with its fantastic painted color scheme, was almost camouflaged against the equally colorful canvas behind. The woman herself appeared somewhat new-agey with her long dress that melted from white to pale grey to deep blue and back and her jewelry composed of various stones, and the silver moons scattered throughout made her fit right in at Galerie de la Lune.

“Hi! Come on in!” she greeted them. “Tomorrow’s the last day of our Vitalité show, so you’ve made it just in time!” Duo had been expecting a southern accent such as he’d heard in passing during the walk from the parking garage, but was disappointed to find that she sounded as dully Midwestern as he did himself. “It’s five dollars per person.”

With a gravity disproportionate to the role of casual museum-goer, Heero nodded, withdrawing his wallet and stepping toward the desk without a word. When he’d paid for their entry, it looked like he would again have said nothing, only given another nod and turned away, but he rallied himself — perhaps in response to Duo’s mental concern that his silence seemed a little unnatural — and gave instead a verbal thanks. Still, Duo thought the woman was watching them curiously as they bypassed the velvet rope lifted for them by the other employee.

This latter said nothing to them, but as they walked away he made some low comment to his co-worker, and Duo was pleased to catch the accent he’d been waiting to match up to those he imperfectly remembered from the last time he’d been in Louisiana some sixty years before.

“The woman thinks I’m an Asian tourist who probably doesn’t speak much English,” Heero murmured, sounding faintly amused.

Duo laughed absently, his attention straying to the free-standing wall and the paintings thereon that were obviously designed to give a striking first impression of the gallery’s current collection. And striking they were. Unsurprisingly, the main feature, on a canvas perhaps eight feet tall and half as wide, showed the moon in a set of completely unnatural yet very attractive lime greens and bright yellows that made the scene look more like a flower garden than a cold view of space. This was surrounded by contrastingly small square pictures asymmetrically arranged, in complementing colors and often themes, so that the whole setup, not excluding the little white informational tag next to each, came together in an effect greater than the sum of its parts. At least, so Duo thought.

“They’re trying to decide how to pronounce my last name on the credit card receipt,” Heero said next.

“Nothing useful so far, then.” Duo glanced around, taking in at once a feeling of openness and distance created by the ceiling full of skylights far above and an almost mazelike quality to the moveable walls of varying heights set up throughout what seemed to be a fairly vast area — probably the majority of the building having been cleared of individual rooms. “Anyone else in here?”

Heero frowned faintly. “I think there are at least two more people, but they’re further away. Come on.” He took Duo’s arm and guided him into walking around the first display.

Next they found themselves in a sort of lane between another pair of free-standing walls, these full of colorful images of very inaccurate and dramatic-looking spellcasting. Of course the art La Confrérie collected did not necessarily need to show real magic when fictional portrayals could celebrate the practice just as well, but some of the poses and dazzling visible effects shown here were a little silly. Duo, however, didn’t spend very long looking at any of the many paintings arranged along this aisle, as a large piece down at the end had seized his attention and drawn him toward it.

Heero moved with him as if similarly compelled, and they came to a halt at a T-junction facing the picture on the next wall, staring in mutual discomfort for several long, still moments.

“That’s definitely Trowa,” Duo said at last, in a near whisper.

Duo’s quiet but harsh pronouncement seemed to carry uncannily through the high-ceilinged room, bouncing off one canvas after another as if determined to reach the wrong ears. Heero just nodded.

The picture, done in some kind of thick paint that looked solid inches deep in places, showed the Trowa of the curse gazing down at them with cratered crescent eyes from a face with barely any human tint to its bleached skin. The window that framed him opened onto a deep blue-black night, against which his old-fashioned suit coat of similar color was barely visible but his unnatural paleness stood out vividly, much like the moon that was half concealed by and formed a sort of halo around the top of his head.

Heero was reminded of a certain type of old portrait in which the subject would hold some expensive treasure in a casual, accidental sort of way (in direct contrast to the stiffness of their pose and the overall contrived nature of the piece) in order to document the family’s ownership of said trinket. The pictured Trowa held a silver candlestick as if it he’d just happened to pick it up before stepping in front of the window, and yet very clearly it was as important a part of the whole as Trowa himself — though this feeling of importance might have been caused by the slicing rent in the canvas that neatly bisected the artifact just above where the white hand of the painted Trowa clutched it.

“That’s how they knew,” Duo said with absolute certainty in his tone. His unspoken expansion on the subject Heero also caught: Duo could feel the power in the piece, which had probably been painted and enspelled simultaneously in some sort of artistic ritual, and knew beyond any doubt that this was the sympathetic magic Trowa had suspected La Confrérie of using to keep a distant, generalized eye on both him and the artifact. The damage to the canvas must have occurred spontaneously when the candlestick was destroyed, leaving the group to believe, very naturally, that Trowa had done it.

“I think Trowa probably shouldn’t see this if we can help it,” Heero murmured, thinking that the unease he felt in looking at this curse-era picture of his friend would only be stronger in that friend himself.

Duo glanced at him sharply, conflicted. Though signs of concern for Trowa from Heero still pleased him, this couldn’t but remind him of Heero’s unexpected traitorous declaration of understanding on the airplane. But Duo was determined to deal with that later, and so said nothing.

He had no chance to say anything in any case, for at that moment someone else spoke in evident reply to Heero’s statement: “You know Trowa Barton??”

Physically she had approached without noise — or at least quietly enough to be masked by their engrossment in the painting — and psychically Heero had (and still) heard nothing from her. But in her excitement, her words just now had echoed far more loudly through the room than Duo’s whisper had done, and Heero immediately caught from somewhere off to his right the sense that someone else had heard, recognized the name ‘Trowa’ even from afar, and started immediately in this direction.

“We–” Duo turned toward the newly arrived woman, and cut himself off sharply before he could reveal anything. Though he did not look at Heero, he clearly intended him to hear the what-to-do-next options turning over in his head.

Heero was for a moment unsure. This woman’s silent mind wouldn’t be much help, but perhaps whoever was making their way over here could provide more information. Unfortunately, if that person wasn’t actively thinking about Quatre, they weren’t likely to reveal whether he was here, his mental and physical state, how to get to him, and whether Heero and Duo might be allowed to. Mentioning Quatre directly would probably prompt those thoughts, but it would also completely destroy any cover they had left. Wasn’t that cover already blown, though, by this woman having overheard Trowa’s name?

If the expert brainwashing communicator was in the building, all deception was probably futile from the beginning, but that was a chance they’d been aware they must take when walking into this situation. In any case, could Heero admit that he did indeed know Trowa personally without rousing suspicions that he might be connected to Quatre as well? Could he work a conversation about Trowa around to a point where it would spark thoughts of Quatre in one of these people’s heads without his having to bring him up?

He had to give it a try. Bluntness was a last resort here; he wanted answers to his questions before answering any himself. So he turned back to the portrait of Trowa and, feigning greater expertise than he really had, asked, “Who did this? It’s excellent magic.”

“I won’t give the tourist explanation,” the woman said breathlessly, “if y’all actually know Mr. Barton personally…” Here she paused, glancing from Heero to Duo as if hoping one of them would jump in with confirmation, but when they didn’t she continued. “It was done by a Mr. Jacob Comeaux, who was a great painter and a great diviner, in, I think, ’76.” She stepped over to the work in question and glanced at the informative tag beside it. “No, sorry, ’78. I never get that right. Did y’all say you actually know Mr. Barton?”

The other person had arrived and stopped nearby, off to the right where Heero couldn’t quite see him, and was now, having heard the woman’s query, waiting in eager silence for a reply. The amount of awe and excitement in his head regarding Trowa and the possibility of being in the presence of even merely someone that had met him in person was so pronounced as to be almost comical. That was, perhaps, a good sign.

Though of course neither Heero nor Duo actually gave the desired facts. While Heero was trying to think fast and decide what would be best to say instead, Duo jumped in. “Why’s the picture damaged?” he asked with a gesture, ironically reversing Heero’s act by feigning less expertise than he really had. Heero could tell that what he would really like to know was how much spying had been required back in 1978 in order to paint this so accurately and magically link it to Trowa in some way or other; but to ask this, besides being potentially antagonistic, would be to indicate at least a little concern for the privacy of his friend and might reveal that Trowa was, in fact, his friend.

“It’s linked to the Roussel artifact as well as to Mr. Barton.” Pride sounded in the woman’s voice as she revealed these details of magical craftsmanship, but Heero thought she was baiting them as well: only if they were already aware that the artifact had been destroyed would her words actually answer Duo’s question. She was still trying to find out to what extent they knew what was going on in Trowa’s life.

The exchange had been specifically useful, however, since it had gotten the other guy, who still hadn’t said anything, thinking about the artifact. The esteem in which that item seemed to be held by him was very similar to that in which he held Trowa — objectifyingly similar, Heero thought; it was a little creepy. But hopefully it was only a small jump from thoughts of the artifact to thoughts of the man that had chopped the thing in half.

So Heero hurriedly put in, “Yes, he destroyed the candlestick, didn’t he?”

The woman looked as if she wasn’t sure whether to be excited or disappointed. Heero’s words would probably seem, to her, to pinpoint his relationship with Trowa: close enough to know that he’d given up the artifact, but not enough to know that Trowa himself hadn’t carried out its destruction. “So you do know him?” she wondered yet again.

And he’d succeeded. Quatre had come up in the other guy’s head. Heero said nothing more, allowing Duo to do whatever he wanted with the conversation, and concentrated on getting all he could from the stranger.

Trowa’s boyfriend had actually been the one to destroy Roussel’s artifact — how weird was that? That Trowa Barton, who had been for so long little short of a demigod to so much of La Confrérie, had turned out to be gay, really changed the way a lot of people saw him. Some felt that it took them back to their roots, since many of the very first meetings of the organization back in France had involved a lot of gay activity… but since those original meetings had also taken place before the group had become serious about the moon and magic, some of today’s members regarded gay Trowa Barton a symbol rather of that early frivolity than of any more profound beliefs or intentions.

The group had already been divided about him, after all. Many considered him the pinnacle of magical mastery with a deeper connection to the moon than they would ever have, his immortality representative of the eternal nature of man’s connection with magic and with the moon. Others saw him as an interloper that had only come by accident upon Roussel’s artifact and the longevity it had subsequently granted, and therefore unworthy of reverence and having no right to decide what to do with the artifact that their predecessors had created and that properly should be in their hands and not his. Part of La Confrérie would have elected Trowa Barton their supreme leader for life if he’d so much as looked in their direction; another part had cheered when the news had gotten out that some of them had discovered where he lived and set fire to his house.

Very little of the anger of that portion of the group had shifted when they’d discovered that Trowa’s boyfriend had been the one to destroy the artifact. Quatre Winner couldn’t know the significance of what he’d done, as he wasn’t a magician himself — but there was another subject of shock and contention: how could Trowa Barton, the Trowa Barton, certainly old and skilled, whatever he meant to them, be dating a non-magician? He should have known better than to allow someone like that access to something as important as Roussel’s artifact! Now that power and that glorious link to the moon and all the years of Confrérie history were lost to him forever; his boyfriend had become extremely unpleasant to be around (assuming he’d been a decent guy in the first place); and La Confrérie had to go to a lot of trouble to put together a new artifact. Not that their efforts thus far had been anything more than harmful to the relatively innocent Quatre to no material effect.

Duo, it seemed, had continued hinting at knowing Trowa without actually confirming it, but Heero had been too busy following the nearby thoughts — more about Trowa than about Quatre mostly because the stranger was paying more attention to the conversation than Heero was — to listen carefully. And now, prompted by a few more stray reflections, he decided the exchange and what more it could accomplish didn’t much matter. He knew what he needed to know, and their last resort, he believed, had arrived.

Turning entirely away from the discussion, he pulled his phone from his pocket. That he had adequate service here had already reassured him a little; he hadn’t necessarily feared not having any coverage in the biggest city in Louisiana, but it would be just their luck at this point. Now he sent Trowa a text that read, Quatre in building. They’re trying their rituals, confirmed painful, on him RIGHT NOW. Come inside.

When Heero started moving away from the painting of Trowa into and down the next aisle, Duo of course followed, and this more or less towed the two Confrérie people after them. Why they were thus migrating Duo couldn’t be sure — whether Heero had picked up from someone the direction in which they would eventually find Quatre or whether he just wanted to leave the unnerving picture of their friend — but it seemed hopeful. Duo was getting tired of this stupid conversation anyway.

It nevertheless continued for another minute or so on basically nothing, Duo still providing evasive nonsense to the best of his ability and the woman he was talking to increasingly curious and frustrated, until everyone’s attention was seized by a shriek from the entrance. Interesting rather than worrisome, the sound led into a noisy and ongoing squealing that, while not clearly comprehensible from here, certainly contained the words ‘Trowa Barton.’

The two Confrérie members in the immediate vicinity threw Duo one more look, wide-eyed, then hurried off in some agitation. Wryly Duo smiled, and wondered as he and Heero continued more leisurely the same way, “Showtime?”

Heero nodded and said quietly, “I thought we’d have a better chance from here with Trowa with us.”

The sound of excited chattering grew louder as they approached, and Duo heard nothing of Trowa’s voice from the midst of it; he wouldn’t be surprised if Trowa had not one single word to say to these fans until he’d gotten a clearer idea of what was going on here. Wouldn’t that frustrate the Confrérie members!

They stopped before the green and yellow moon again, and from there could make out some individual parts of the conversation (bombardment, more accurately) on the other side of the big canvas wall.

“…hoping you’d pass by us here when your friends…”

“…so incredibly honored to have you here in our…”

“…not too much trouble, could you possibly sign…”

“…can’t believe the real Trowa Barton is actually…”

Suddenly, the guy that had previously manned the velvet rope came sprinting out and disappeared deeper into the gallery, and the startled Heero barely had time to report that he was heading off to fetch some magical trinket he wanted Trowa to autograph before Trowa himself also appeared.

He moved silently toward Heero and Duo, followed by the still-chattering other three Confrérie members, and, as he stopped in front of his friends, reached out and took a hand of each. “No one else should be able to hear what we say as long as we’re linked by skin,” he informed them. He cocked his head as if to listen — probably feeling out the spell to make sure it had taken properly despite not being cast in the presence of two of its subjects — and seemed satisfied.

“Good thinking,” Duo commended.

Heero wasted no time. “There’s an entire faction of this group that doesn’t like you, and that guy who just ran off is likely to tell practically everyone that you’re here. These three will probably do whatever you say, though.”

“Are any of them communicators?” asked Trowa.

“Not that I can tell.”

Trowa nodded sharply and, releasing his friends’ hands, turned back to face the breathless others. They’d fallen silent while attempting (futilely, Duo hoped) to listen to the exchange between the real Trowa Barton and his friends, and now they all leaned forward in a comically simultaneous motion as the real Trowa Barton spoke to them for the first time:

“I’m here for Quatre Winner. Please take me to him.”

Two of the Confrérie members gave meaningless exclamations, possibly merely from the excitement of having been addressed directly, and the third looked uncertainly at them and then back at Trowa. They didn’t quite go into a huddle, since they all seemed loath to turn away from their idol, but they did put their heads together and speak in low tones.

“Are you sure we should–”

“Do you really want to say no to–”

“But the ritual’s still–”

“Everyone’s back there anyway, and they’ll all want to–”

Meanwhile, Heero mimicked Trowa’s earlier movement and seized both his hand and Duo’s. “Back this way there’s a door into the warehouse; stairs down at the other end lead to the offices, and Quatre’s in the farthest room.”

Having heard this, Trowa didn’t wait for the Confrérie folks to reach a consensus; he turned immediately in the direction Heero indicated. They’d barely gone four steps, however, when one of the people behind them called out, “No, I’m coming, sir; I’ll show you!”

The guy darted out in front of them and began hastening along backward (still obviously reluctant to take his eyes off Trowa) in the character of very awkward guide, while the two women hurried after. The pace of the entire party was set by Trowa’s quick, determined strides, and their course far more by Heero’s slight gestures than by the movements of the man before them. He kept running into walls and pillars, setting paintings askew without seeming to notice or care. And the entire time, he was talking:

“You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to meet you, Mr. Barton, sir, but it’s been most of my life, ever since my dad told me about you when I started magic when I was six or seven. I’ve always been trying to do something like what you did in Beaumont back in the 50’s — with the railroad tracks, I mean, sir — but I could never figure out the spell, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite had enough power for something like that anyways — though I keep trying! How did you manage to make– oh, merde.” As he paused to replace the painting he’d actually knocked down this time, the others passed him.

The wall they reached that separated gallery from warehouse had, of course, no windows, and therefore looked very tall and broad in this two-storey space. This had been taken advantage of by using it to showcase the largest of the paintings, some of them perhaps fifteen feet high and all of them attention-grabbing. Duo tried not to get distracted by their interesting depictions of the same subjects as before (some of them now larger than life) as they moved toward a big pair of swinging double doors, like those leading to the back areas of grocery stores, marked Employés Seulement.

Even as Trowa reached to push one of these open, however, Heero simultaneously reached out for Trowa’s hand to stop him. He fumbled for his boyfriend’s as well, without looking at him, as he started talking urgently to Trowa, so the audio kicked in a little late for Duo: “–mostly not your fan club collecting in there. I think — yeah, one of them definitely helped burn you house.”

Duo glanced at the windowless swinging doors with a scowl. Damn that stupid guy running off to get his whatever for Trowa to autograph. They really should have stopped him… though there hadn’t exactly been time.

“Any sign of the brainwasher?” Trowa asked.

“No, but I might not get any signs of someone that good.”

Duo’s suggestion was, “I say you threaten them. Walk in there like, ‘I’m going to level this place if you don’t take me to my boyfriend right now.’ Yeah, they know you don’t have the artifact anymore, but even the ones that don’t like you much have gotta know you’re still the best.”

Trowa shook his head slightly, frowning. “I can’t be sure of that.”

“Look at them, though.” Despite the supposed situational deafness of the three Confrérie members that were somewhat pressing in on them, Duo’s tone fell almost to a whisper as he glanced around. “These people are low-level nerds! They don’t stand a chance against you — or at least they won’t think they do; they’ve practically worshipped you their whole lives!”

“He’s right,” Heero agreed. “Try the threat first, and if they don’t want to let us past to Quatre, let’s be ready to fight.” When Trowa, after very little time spent weighing this, signaled his concurrence, Heero mirrored the gesture and added, “Everything we talked about in the car.”

Again Trowa nodded, more firmly this time. The possibility that they would have to engage in a magical battle of sorts had been discussed as they drove, and that they knew, in general, what they each must do under such circumstances was reassuring even if they had no idea what kind of situation they would be facing in the warehouse beyond.

“Hey,” Duo put in, struck, “can you tell if there’s some back door we should be worried about?”

With a frown Heero went wordless for a moment. “No,” he finally said. “At least nobody’s thinking about trying to smuggle Quatre out before we can get to him, anyway.”

Trowa asked, “You said they’re in the middle of a ritual down there right now?”

“That’s what I’m getting,” Heero confirmed, with his own glance behind at the silent, eager, uneasy Confrérie members, who were undoubtedly wondering what the holdup was… unless some communicator on the other side of the wall was already transmitting everything being thought out here to much of the group.

“We’ll have to let them finish,” Trowa was saying. “Whatever they’re trying can’t be as dangerous as interrupting it could be.” He took a deep breath. “One spell, and then we’ll go in.”

As Trowa cast an augmentation of the silence he’d already placed on them to prevent their being affected by magic that sought to touch their minds or bodies directly, Duo could feel the strength behind the words. It was a good idea, but he had to wonder how much energy Trowa had used on it that he might want for other purposes in just a few minutes.

Then they all shared a quick glance of silent inquiry as to whether they were ready — agreeing that, as much as they could be, they were. Hands were released for the moment, nerves were steeled, and they turned and pushed forward through the great swinging doors.

Had Heero neglected to warn him that those gathering here were primarily not his fans, Trowa would nevertheless have recognized this fact the moment they entered. Every expression turned toward them was at the very least grim, some disapproving, and a few angry and even hateful.

Despite this space being less open, seeming to have a second storey unlike the previous, it felt more like a warehouse even than that had. Metal shelves rose all the way to the ceiling, full of neat stacks of what must be paintings sheathed in cardboard for protection. The aisles between these were long and wide, no doubt to accommodate the handling of larger pieces on the big, awkward-looking dollies that stood currently unused at various points nearby, but the overall effect was still somewhat claustrophobic.

Across the aisle leading from the doors toward the back of the room, the area they wanted to reach, six Confrérie members were ranged in the variety of expression previously mentioned; to the right and left, about the same number of people had divided to block those aisles as well. Counting those that had entered behind them, Trowa and his friends were surrounded. Hopefully this wouldn’t make some terrible difference.

“Trowa Barton.” One of the six people in front of them had come forward — just slightly, a step and a half; she looked and sounded a trifle nervous, and didn’t seem to want to leave the very near vicinity of her companions. “You and your friends are welcome here, but y’all can’t go any further this way.” There was some stirring and muttering at ‘welcome here,’ most pointedly from one of the aisles beside them.

Heero edged closer to Trowa, and the latter felt the former’s hand brush against his in a subtle connection that allowed the murmur, “Second guy on the left burned your house.”

Breaking the brief skin contact with his friend, “I don’t need to go any further this way,” Trowa announced, “if you’ll bring Quatre out.”

“Mr. Winner can’t leave until we’ve pulled the energy from him,” the woman replied without hesitation. Someone else had joined her line from behind, and her neighbors shifting to make room seemed to give her a boost in confidence.

“Your rituals aren’t going to work. Surely you have a diviner who could tell you that. Stop whatever you’re doing and bring Quatre here.” Trowa could feel Duo also drawing closer to him, half turning so his back was more to Trowa than to the Confrérie members behind them.

“It’s our energy.” This came from the left, and, glancing that direction, Trowa identified the voice as coming from the second man blocking the aisle in that direction — the arsonist Heero had pointed out. He sounded vindictive and ready for a fight. “You have no right to walk in here and make demands about something that was never yours in the first place.”

“That energy may belong to this group,” Trowa answered, looking back at the spokeswoman rather than addressing the arsonist, “but Quatre does not.”

“Mr. Winner is here of his own free will,” the woman said. “He doesn’t belong to you either, and if he wants to stay with us, that’s his choice.”

“In a situation like this where his judgment is impaired, I have a better right than you to make decisions on his behalf.”

Heero touched Trowa’s hand again, and his quiet words overrode, in Trowa’s ear, whatever the woman had to say next. “She plans on arguing you in circles; nothing you say is going to convince her. She’s on the fence about you personally, but she absolutely won’t let us at Quatre if she can help it.”

Trowa glanced to either side, noting that both lines had been joined by at least one more person, and that others were gathering in spaces beyond that he couldn’t see as clearly to both left and right. Not that he had any desire to go left or right; the most direct path to Quatre was all he cared about. He only had to reach a few inches to find Duo’s hand, and on his other side he curled his fingers around Heero’s. “Let’s push straight through.”

La Confrérie must have a communicator in here somewhere, because almost the instant Trowa made this pronouncement, and before he and his friends had advanced two steps, three or four voices around them started to speak in the magical language. A couple of them, directly targeting Trowa and seeking to disable him from casting, but not powerful enough to overcome the protection he’d placed on himself and his companions, failed completely; the others began immediately erecting a barrier that would prevent the three intruders from physically reaching their goal.

This was the most obvious step for La Confrérie to take at such a moment, and, having been part of the predictions Trowa had made during the drive from the airport, had already been discussed by him and his companions. As such, after only a moment, Heero said, “Duo, the woman who was talking to us first.”

“On it,” was Duo’s reply, and the spell he then began aimed at silencing the woman in question. He’d worried a little, in the car, about still being somewhat rusty with his casting, not having done extensive magic since the breaking of the curse, but he must have been working through potential spells in his head, because this one was quite solid. Knocking her out would have been more effective than simply silencing her, but a spell of unconsciousness touched on aspects of the mind that were difficult to manipulate for someone with no communication magic.

Trowa targeted the barrier itself, which he could feel but not see only a couple of feet in front of them, more probingly than aggressively at first in order to test its strength. Typically, a spell contained only as much power as the caster chose to expend at the moment of casting, and if La Confrérie wanted to have any energy left over to do anything else, no one person would put more than a moderate amount of power into this barrier at any one time. But they could periodically reinforce it, in between their other attempts, and it was this behavior Trowa had asked Duo to try to stop if he could.

The instant Duo’s silencing efforts took effect, and the spokeswoman’s spell to boost the shield’s power blew up in her face, was discernible to Trowa, who was still feeling out the barrier’s level of energy. If Heero and Duo could coordinate to identify and target the most powerful reinforcers of the barrier, they could prevent the invisible wall from becoming too strong, and Trowa could assess its precise power and punch through it — assuming no one around them figured out a way to get around Trowa’s protection and damage or incapacitate them first.

“Mr. Barton, I’m so sorry about this!” someone called from behind the seven or eight people blocking the path in front of them. Whoever it was, he sounded highly embarrassed and unhappy about the situation.

“The guy in the blue hoodie to the left,” Heero said.

“Got it,” Duo replied.

More slowly and pointedly, Trowa struck out at the barrier again.

“Normally we’d have never attacked you if you walked in this place!” somebody was agreeing with the first that had shouted, this one from the right. There were sounds of unhappy concurrence from the people behind Trowa, a small group that as yet had cast no spells and seemed unsure what to do.

“This isn’t right!” someone else protested. “This is Trowa Barton, y’all! We should do what he wants!”

“He’s not one of us; he’s not even close.” This growling voice from the left had previously spoken a particularly nasty spell designed (though unable) to permanently damage Trowa’s vocal cords, and the fact that the speaker now wasted time on argument instead of casting was promising.

Meanwhile, Duo had silenced the arsonist with the blue hoodie, but someone had undone his previous silence on the spokeswoman, so she’d reinforced the barrier again. Trowa decided to join Duo in trying to put their enemies out of commission before attempting to deal with the shield.

“Their communicators can hear everything you’re thinking, Duo,” Heero said in some annoyance. Duo swore.

“Nothing to be done about it,” Trowa said.

“Except try to think about pink elephants,” Duo muttered.

“He’s a thief and a bully!” This person, from the aisle to the right, was obviously referring to Trowa.

Somebody else cried, “He’s never done anything to us!”

“And he always used Roussel’s artifact to help people!” another put in.

Trowa could hear someone in the jumble already undoing the spell Duo had placed on the arsonist. They were going to have to move faster.

“I think third place is that guy in the white shirt on the right,” Heero said, and Duo immediately went after him.

And the arsonist chose this moment to raise a roaring line of golden white just in front of the advancing party, who might not be hurt by spells that targeted them directly but could certainly be scorched by a pre-existing fire. With a startled cry, Duo jumped back and stumbled to the floor. In that instant, losing Trowa’s hand as he fell, he was hit by a retaliatory silencing spell from one of the Confrérie members, who’d obviously liked his magic enough to copy it. Whatever Duo had been casting, broken off in the middle, released its energy where he’d previously been standing with a cracking sound like gunfire, knocking Trowa down beside him with a sensation like a fist to the face.

Worse consequences might have come of this had not a dozen Confrérie voices from all directions protested the arsonist’s choice of attack. The gist of their complaints had less to do with Trowa and more with potential damage to the art all around them and to the building, and several people spoke to put the fire out almost immediately. Trowa, though he was seeing stars through the throbbing pain of the raw magical energy that had struck him, nevertheless managed to take advantage of the distraction to scramble back up and regain the hands of both his friends.

Un-silencing Duo was easy enough, but Trowa could hear that some of their enemies, skilled at thinking on their feet, were altering their contributions to the barrier, rewording their spells so that the shield would draw power directly and continually from them. Now whether or not they were silenced and unable to cast, or possibly even whether they were conscious, would make no difference. Of course, that also meant that by attacking the shield, Trowa could use up their energy reserves much faster and put them out of the conflict more easily.

“Someone’s casting a protection spell like yours on everyone,” Heero informed him. “One at a time, though.” He was looking around intently, trying to figure out who it was; in the mess of voices echoing up and down the aisles, some muttering spells and some shouting argumentative points, it was nearly impossible to tell who was saying what.

“That woman’s already protected,” Duo complained.

“Get back on blue hoodie,” Heero said.

“Help me do it,” Trowa commanded instead. “Both of you concentrate on knocking him out.” Even universally restricted by his companions from using fire, the arsonist was a powerful magician that Trowa would like to see out of this picture. So he spoke a spell to render the man unconscious using the willing donation of power from his friends, put a decent amount of his own energy into it, and watched as the blue-hoodied man crumpled to the floor.

Two of the arsonist’s neighbors cried out in shock, and someone in their vicinity demanded, “He’s never done anything to us, huh?”

“He’s just trying to get his boyfriend back!” This reply sounded less certain now that its speaker had seen one of her comrades fall dead for all she knew.

“So? We’re not some gay rights group!”

We’re trying to get our power back!”

This was such an absurdly magician-style conflict. Trowa had never been interested in the magical dueling he knew was popular in some circles, but this progressed very much along those lines — the combatants standing still and hurling spells at each other in between more mundane verbal exchanges, distracted from the physical to the point that anyone could easily have ended it by the unthought-of tactic of walking up quietly behind Trowa and hitting him on the back of the head.

Not that ending it thus was necessary now somebody on the opposing side had starting casting protective spells over their allies… because now there were two layers of magic between Trowa and the possibility of advancing. If he could just break through the barrier, though, he might not need to worry about the protective spells. It would be a gamble, since he would have to risk most or all of his personal power, and probably much of Heero’s and Duo’s, but it could be the finishing move he needed. The longer he let this go on, the greater risk he ran of someone finding some way to hurt him and his friends — and the more of his own power was frittered away on something other than his main goal of forward motion.

Yes, he thought, that was wisest: one great strike through the magical shield, preventing a new one’s being erected, which would hopefully incapacitate at least the strongest of the Confrérie command magicians. Heero had agreed that even those not terribly fond of Trowa believed him to be incredibly strong yet, so such a move would function as proof of his power and a threat that would, he hoped, force them to back down — as long as La Confrérie wasn’t aware just how little energy he might have left afterward.

Otherwise, Trowa didn’t really see any way past these people; there were just too many of them willing to fight him, despite the arguments of his fans. If the latter would actually take a hand, things would be different, but obviously they didn’t revere him enough to stand up to their own comrades for his sake. He supposed it only made sense.

Running through and tweaking the words of the spell he proposed, gathering up his strength around him like a garment, he prepared to make what would surely be the decisive move in this conflict and hopefully end it in their favor. He glanced at his companions in turn, making sure they weren’t in the middle of something else before he commanded, “Concentrate on helping me bring down this barrier.”

It was difficult to focus on any one thing in this maelstrom of voices and thoughts, but Heero had definitely been aware of Trowa drawing magical energy from him for one of his previous spells. Though he didn’t entirely understand the mechanism, he’d definitely been conscious of the power flowing along a channel formed by his own willingness to donate it; therefore he could easily replicate that channel now.

The tone in which Trowa had declared he was going to try to break the force field that stood between them and Quatre, not to mention the grim set of his jaw, indicated to Heero that this was an important move. Whether and to what extent it would work Heero had no idea, but he was busy formulating what they should try next in case it didn’t.

It seemed like fighting dirty, and should possibly be saved for a last resort, but it was obvious that if Trowa and Duo targeted the art on the shelves around them, La Confrérie would abandon whatever they were doing and jump to protect the stuff. The problem remained, of course, that there were so many more of the enemy than of Trowa and Duo; if they coordinated properly, they could probably fend off attacks on the art and still hold the room. But it was an option if whatever Trowa was trying now didn’t do what he intended.

Trowa had barely opened his mouth to speak his spell, however, when he paused, closing his lips into a faint frown. Heero also felt whatever had halted him, and in some concern and curiosity turned his concentration toward figuring out what it was: some unfamiliar magical sensation, some newly begun influence originating he wasn’t quite sure where.

Bizarrely, Duo hadn’t noticed it — how had he not sensed it yet when the less experienced Heero had? — and after a moment of silence he wondered, “Trowa?” If Trowa wasn’t going to borrow power from him, after all, he was free to cast something himself.

“Wait,” Heero commanded.

It felt as if something was moving silently through the room, perceptible far more in its results than in itself, affecting the spells being cast and already cast in a manner Heero could only describe as unraveling them from the inside out. Magic was gradually falling apart in a sort of wave, and a mental state that he recognized with some shock was spreading through the Confrérie members: a sort of vagueness, as if they were confused but didn’t know it and probably didn’t care.

“Brainwashing,” he said in almost a panic, looking around physically and reaching out mentally with a wild desire to find out who was doing it and how he could stop them.

“Damn,” said Trowa.

And yet, Heero realized as the state progressed around them like a river encompassing a high, secure islet, they three didn’t seem to be in danger. Were the unknown communicator’s efforts really foiled by Trowa’s protective spell? Had that person taken a chance and sent a wave of debilitating communicative magic throughout the room in the vain hope that it would affect Trowa and his friends as much as the communicator’s allies? That seemed absurd, but also the only explanation for what was happening around them right now.

Especially given that this magic was stronger than it had been outside Trowa’s burned house. The Confrérie members not only ceased their spellcasting, but sank to the bare warehouse floor with looks of dazed disinterest on their faces. Nearly everyone — fans and detractors of Trowa alike — seemed to be wilting, and one or two of them even sat down deliberately, leaned their heads against the shelves behind them, and closed their eyes. Those that resisted longest were those that Heero had already guessed to be La Confrérie’s communicators — confirming, if confirmation were needed, that this was communication magic.

“What the hell is going on?” Duo demanded at a hiss. Trowa shook his head.

Glancing back behind them, Heero found the fans that had followed them from the outer room now on the floor in slumped positions similar to those of everyone else, but his gaze didn’t linger long there. For two people stood just within the great swinging doors, one of which the first stranger held open for the second, and, though Heero could read nothing from the mind of either, yet it seemed obvious both that the unknown magical influence came from them and that these were not members of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré.

With an alerting noise, Heero jerked on Trowa’s hand to get him to turn, and, after an awkward moment in which the three of them struggled to spin around without losing skin contact, they were all facing the newcomers.

The latter both wore expensive-looking and well fitted black and white suits of the plainest design, and sunglasses, and after barely a moment Heero started again as he realized he’d seen one of them before: it was the man he’d observed across the street from Trowa’s new house while helping with the move — the one he’d thought at the time, not entirely facetiously, looked like an FBI agent.

“And that was an excellent guess,” said the other stranger, a woman, evidently not entirely facetiously herself. “We do fit the stereotype, don’t we?”

“It’s about the only stereotype we fit,” the man remarked somewhat smugly, stepping forward alongside the woman and letting the door swing shut behind them. Though it was difficult to tell with those sunglasses, he appeared to be examining the Confrérie members scattered around, none of whom were left standing, as if to double-check that they really were all in a state to offer no further resistance. To a communicator this must be obvious from the abrupt drop in the level of mental noise in the room, but evidently this man wanted to be sure in detail.

“Who the hell are you?” Duo demanded, more confused and curious than concerned. “What are you doing?”

The woman, the slight sway to her hips somewhat at odds with her sensible shoes, kept to the man’s side and seemed to be making the same examination he was. Her gaze appeared to linger (again, the sunglasses rendered surety difficult) on the arsonist that now lay, since Heero had turned, to his right — the only Confrérie member already unconscious before the unexpected intervention. “The dear little Confrérie…” She had an almost mocking voice that sounded just one step away from laughter. “They’ve been incredibly noisy lately. Kidnapping and arson; really!”

“How they thought they could compromise magical security so blatantly and get away with it, I have no idea.” The man turned in a sweeping gesture from his scrutiny of the defeated and headed directly for the three in the center, stepping casually over fallen forms without so much (as far as Heero could tell) as a glance downward. He was, Heero noticed as the man drew closer, really quite startlingly large: well over six feet tall, exceptionally broad-shouldered, and thick with what was undoubtedly muscle. Though it was neither entirely relevant nor at all helpful under the circumstances, the thought did cross Heero’s mind that it must be very difficult to find suits to fit that body shape.

The next thing that crossed Heero’s mind, even less relevant and helpful under the circumstances, made him start back a half step in surprise and chagrin: the specific image of the man buck-naked in what bodybuilders called a side chest pose, every shining bulge and chiseled crevice of his unbelievable musculature in high relief.

“Must you do that?” the woman wondered with a roll of eyes toward her companion.

“I’m offering the young man a clarification of reality,” the other replied. “Besides, you can’t claim not to enjoy it, Fox.”

While Heero wondered whether that was an X-Files reference and whether these two really were secret agents of some sort, the big man had planted himself solidly before Trowa. “Good evening, Mr. Barton,” he said, extending a large, strong-looking hand. When Trowa appeared reluctant to release those of his friends in order to shake, the man added imperiously, “If we had any intentions of influencing you magically, your low-powered protection spell would be meaningless.”

After a calculating glance, Trowa seemed to decide that this was true enough, for he freed his hands and shook that of the stranger. “Who are you?” he asked as he did so.

“You may call me Thirteen,” said the man. (Heero couldn’t help noticing that the woman rolled her eyes again at this.) “But since you, unlike this foolish group here–” he gestured around at the out-of-commission Confrérie– “have demonstrated over the last century that you seem to have some sense of propriety and subtlety about magic, you’re of little concern to us.”

“And who’s ‘us?'” Duo wondered. “Are you guys government magicians, or what?”

“That’s classified,” Thirteen replied, essentially (to Heero’s mind) answering the question. Then he turned abruptly away, as if sweepingly declaring his business with them finished, and moved past like a mountain on wheels. “There are five more of them in the building, and it should only be a few more minutes before they’re finished with their latest futile ritual spell.”

Trowa, shaking himself quickly as if a little stupefied by what had just happened and trying to break out of it, turned nearly as suddenly to follow the man. Duo looked back and forth between the two suited newcomers for a moment before, with a half-scowling-half-skeptical facial expression that very well reflected his mixture of curiosity and vexation, he jogged after Trowa. This left Heero, for a moment, more or less alone with the woman called Fox.

She gave him a sympathetic smile and raised a finger to her lips as if what she was about to say was or could possibly remain a secret with at least three listening communicators in the room. “Thirteen–” she gave an amused emphasis to the name– “takes a lot of things very seriously, including himself. All you really need to know is that we’re here to deal with the Confrérie, and they won’t bother any of you again. We’ll see you safely off with Mr. Winner, and you can pretend we were never here.”

“You’re not going to brainwash us into believing you were never here?” Heero wondered dryly. Though all the details still weren’t entirely clear, he thought he understood a bit better, now, what had gone on outside Trowa’s burned house.

“Not if you don’t force us to,” Fox replied. Then she too moved past Heero and headed toward the back of the big room.

He followed, intending for a moment to ask why, if they were so strong and yet so set on subtlety, they’d chosen their timing as they had, chosen to reveal themselves to Trowa and his friends at all; these agents could have swept in and incapacitated everyone ten minutes earlier, then temporarily stepped aside while Heero and Duo entered a building full of semi-conscious Confrérie members disinclined to resist as they, confused but pleased at the ease of their mission, made their way to Quatre and removed him from the premises.

But Heero wondered this only for that moment before he was struck by what was probably the answer. These two were hiding in Trowa’s shadow, masking themselves in his reputation.

What ‘deal with the Confrérie’ entailed, exactly, he could not know, but if it involved no conscious or remembered contact between these agents and the members of that group, then this entire coup would be attributed to Trowa. By coinciding their attack with his, the agents had ensured that La Confrérie would recall only their crushing defeat by the great Trowa Barton — and probably think nothing of the fact that they had awakened with a bizarrely altered attitude on the propriety and safety of carelessly flaunting their magic anywhere and everywhere, including in front of the non-magical populace. Trowa’s prestige would be enhanced (whatever his feelings on that might be), La Confrérie would be chastised without knowing it, and the very existence of whatever organization Fox and Thirteen worked for would not even be hinted at.

As Heero stepped over Confrérie members and worked his way through these thoughts, the woman in front of him stopped suddenly and turned back, this time giving him a look of more profound assessment. It wasn’t just a look, either: he could feel her in his head somehow, a dim, unreadable, professional presence that seemed to be rifling through aspects of him as she might shuffle through papers in a filing cabinet. He wanted to squirm under the scrutiny, but forced himself to hold still.

Finally she gave a brusque nod. “You have a lot of raw talent. Keep developing it, and it may bring you job opportunities in the future.” Then she turned again and kept walking.

Heero shook himself just as Trowa had, and also continued in the same direction, trying futilely to decide which event of the last ten minutes had unsettled him most.

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: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 41-45

“Quatre has been infected” –Heero was glad Trowa chose this word rather than the more accurate and definitely more agitating ‘possessed’– “with a large amount of magical energy from a destroyed magical artifact. This is what caused him to act the way he has been over the last few weeks. And we’ve just learned today” –Trowa didn’t mention how, which Heero believed Dorothy would appreciate– “that the group of magicians who originally created the artifact want that energy to create a new artifact with. They’ve taken Quatre, partly against his will, to their headquarters, where they’re trying magical rituals to extract the energy from him.”

As if they weren’t sure whether or not Trowa was finished or what should be said if he was, Quatre’s parents continued to stare at him after he’d closed his mouth. And Heero, regardless of how strange and uncomfortable it felt to be prying into the head of someone that was his best friend’s dad, his boss, and an elderly man he’d known and respected for a decade, listened very hard to all unspoken sentiments.

Mrs. Winner had a mind as neatly organized (and therefore quiet) as her son’s, but Mr. Winner’s more volatile thoughts jumped out readily for Heero to read. At the moment they were a jumble of very understandable sentiments, but predominant was a drive to get to the bottom of all this, figure out where Quatre was and what was wrong with him — and, to this end, to act as if he believed everything (which he wasn’t sure yet that he didn’t) as long as necessary. It reminded Heero of how Quatre had treated Duo at their first meeting.

“All right,” Mr. Winner said now, trying to match Trowa’s admirable calm and almost managing it. “So if this group succeeds in extracting this magical energy from him, he’ll return to his normal behavior and come home?”

It was not Trowa that answered, at which Heero was unsurprised. Only having met Quatre’s parents a couple of times before, Duo had been holding back from entering a conversation in which he would seem an outsider to them — but he could only restrain himself for so long. He burst out, “Yeah, but only if they can! If they can figure out how to make it work, fine, but in the meantime they’re keeping him in some crappy little back room without even a real bed to sleep on, while all the time we’ve got guys here who could do it without hurting him if we just had him here!”

Mr. Winner started to inquire about this method that could reverse Quatre’s condition, but stopped himself and allowed his wife, who’d begun a question at the same moment, to speak first: “They’re hurting him? These people trying to extract this magical energy?”

“Not yet,” Trowa replied, “as far as we can tell. We believe he went with them somewhat willingly, and he still seems to be going along with their rituals as of this evening, but we’re afraid their rituals aren’t going to work and will become more harmful as they keep trying — and that, even if Quatre isn’t being held against his will right now, he will be eventually.”

Anticipating the remainder of Mr. Winner’s aborted query, he added, “We’re in touch with a magical specialist who can cure him with no danger, but Quatre had already left before we had a chance to call him in. Now we want to go to Quatre and bring him back, but we don’t have the money to fly to New Orleans, which is where these people have him. We were hoping you could lend us money for plane tickets.”

The room grew heavy with the type of shocked silence, like the aftermath of electricity in the air, that falls in the wake of an unexpected disaster. Mr. Winner, suddenly exponentially more suspicious, still struggled to work out how much if any of this he believed, and Heero was struck with interest (and what might under other circumstances have been amusement) to recognize a consideration in the man’s head that had once occupied his own: though the magical proofs that had been offered were pretty thoroughly convincing, the mere existence of magic did not verify the story in its entirety. Some of this, in increments, Mr. Winner might have been able to accept, but the sudden announcement that Quatre’s already doubtable boyfriend wanted to borrow money made the whole thing come across as little more than a very bizarre scam.

And unlike when Heero had secretly wanted to believe Trowa’s story back in March — since believing at that point had meant accepting the humanity of someone he was developing a romantic interest in — Mr. Winner had no real desire to believe that his son had some kind of supernatural infection and was in danger from a mysterious group of unknown powers. He couldn’t quite decide whether that was better or worse than a sudden drug addiction, but at least the latter was something he could comprehend and take steps to assist Quatre away from.

At the same time, Mr. Winner trusted Heero to a degree that rather surprised and flattered Heero himself. Heero had been a top-notch employee for several years, and a faithful, supportive, reasonable friend to Quatre for even longer, and his presence here now backing Trowa’s claims carried a great deal of weight. In fact, Mr. Winner reflected that if this had been coming solely from Heero, he would have believed it much more easily and considered the request in a much more positive light. Had Heero been aware of this, he would have taken immediate advantage of it to get the money they needed, but he hadn’t in any way guessed Mr. Winner held him in such high esteem.

Nor had he been aware until this very moment that Mr. Winner wished Heero, rather than anyone else, were Quatre’s boyfriend. This Trowa fellow had seemed almost acceptable for a while, but now…

Aghast, Heero demanded, “How long have you wished that?”

In the previous instance of Heero responding to his private thoughts, Mr. Winner had written it off as an astute guess based on prior knowledge that he suspected Trowa of causing Quatre’s attitude change and disappearance. In this instance, there was no way he could interpret Heero’s question as anything other than a specific reply to what he’d just been thinking.

“Wished what?” Mrs. Winner wondered, even as her husband shook his head almost convulsively in his astonishment. His brain busied with the concurrent reflections that mind-reading must be the manifestation of the magical power Trowa had mentioned Heero possessed, and that he’d wished Heero and Quatre would get together ever since Quatre’s first post-high-school boyfriend, Eric, had developed a habit of calling Quatre at all hours of the day and night looking for reassurance on this or that emotional matter.

“Mr. Winner, that was six years ago. How can you have gone so long–” Heero cut this protest off as unproductive, took a deep breath, and began again with a firm bluntness that couldn’t but make him blush. “I love Quatre. He’s my best friend and probably always will be. But I’m not and I never will be in love with him, or him with me. We’re not right for each other like that. I’m not even sorry, because we each have someone who is right for us.”

As he gestured to Duo on his left, still seated on the step between the carpet below and the wood floor above, and Trowa on his right, still in that hideous green chair, he noticed that they both seemed a little surprised at this turn of conversation. But he plowed on.

“I know this doesn’t seem like the most important thing right now, but I feel like we need to get it out of the way.” He face continued to burn as he addressed the Winners again, looking from one to the other in serious appeal and speaking, his own chagrin, as if he and they were all the same age and on the same level:

“It’s hard to not be suspicious of anyone Quatre picks up; don’t you think I know that as well as you do? It makes perfect sense for you to be suspicious of Quatre’s boyfriend, and to take a long time to learn to accept him… but you need to stop hoping that, if you can just get him to get rid of this one, I’ll be the next one in line, because that’s never going to happen.”

Here he ceased, because his own boyfriend was about ready to burst again, and Heero thought it wisest to allow it. Duo leapt to his feet and made a frustrated gesture in the air. “This isn’t about who’s a better boyfriend for Quatre! — which, by the way? I love Quatre too, but he can’t have Heero. This is about rescuing Quatre from those damn cultists before they magic his brains out or something!”

There was an aggression to Duo’s tone and movements that seemed to demand of Quatre’s parents, “Are you or aren’t you going to help us?” and perhaps even imply, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us!” …and unfortunately this was the wrong tack. Mr. Winner clearly didn’t like having a long-standing attitude plucked from the privacy of his mind and then challenged, then being told that it wasn’t what this discussion was actually about as if he had led them off on some inappropriate tangent.

“If Quatre’s been kidnapped by someone,” he said with some heat, “and you three know about it and know where he is, you need to tell the police. They’re already looking for him; it’s not up to you to do their job.”

“Do the police use magic, though?” wondered Mrs. Winner quietly, sparking in Heero a sudden hope that she might be more convinced than her husband was. He couldn’t read her thoughts and hadn’t been able to read her face all along, so this was a promising sign.

“I don’t know if I believe anyone uses magic!” In fact Mr. Winner did believe that what he’d seen was magic, but he was playing devil’s advocate against the points he couldn’t quite believe yet. “Trowa here has done a couple of tricks and then asked us for money without offering any proof that this is really about Quatre.”

That was what it came down to: anything that had even the least bit of suspicion about it and then ended in a request for money was probably a scam. Heero couldn’t even say he blamed the man. He really had no idea what to say.

Mrs. Winner nodded, then used an apologetic tone very much like one Quatre sometimes did: “Gentlemen, it is a little strange that you’re bringing all of this up just when Quatre isn’t around to verify it.”

“Precisely.” Mr. Winner nodded vigorously. “That’s an excellent point.” He didn’t quite seem able to decide whether he wanted to voice his new suspicion, though: was it possible that Trowa had, after all, done something to put Quatre out of the way long enough for this strange request to be made out of his presence? And yet Heero would never be party to a scheme that would hurt or endanger Quatre, would he? But for someone the Winners had already viewed a little askance to make such a bizarre demonstration all of a sudden and then ask for money…

Helplessly Trowa shook his head. “I don’t know what else to tell you. There’s plenty more I could tell you, about magic and myself — and I will tell you sometime, I promise — but I don’t know that it would help you to trust me now. Can I ask you at least to trust Heero, though? Can you believe that his intentions are good and honest, and that, if he says this is the best way to help Quatre, it truly is?”

Though this was probably optimal wording at the moment, the Winners exchanged a grave look that held a touch of the same helplessness Trowa had evinced. Heero could easily see that the husband still hadn’t made up his mind, and guessed the wife was in much the same state; they didn’t know what to think, and it agitated them even further to be asked point blank to make a decision on such shaky grounds.

And then a new voice spoke from behind Heero and his friends, startling them with both its entrance into the conversation and its words: “You need about $3,000; is that right? I can easily lend you that.”

Everyone turned to look in the direction of the newcomer, Trowa even jumping to his feet in order to do so. And, while it shouldn’t really have been a shock to find Hajime standing just where the living room transitioned into the more open front room, Duo at least had entirely forgotten the man’s presence and was very surprised to see him. He’d also lost track of the fact that the exorcist was (primarily, according to Heero) a communicator, so the accurate announcement (by someone that hadn’t been informed) of how much money was needed in this situation came as a surprise as well.

“If you had asked me first,” Hajime went on, taking a few more steps forward and stopping again with a gesture around at the assembled group, “you could have avoided all of this.”

“And who are you, sir?” Quatre’s father looked wary, and Duo, remembering the reason Hajime was in this house at all, wondered whether Mr. Winner recognized the man described by the security officer at work. If so, he must consider this more a hoax than ever, and consider any suspicions he’d been harboring regarding criminal or otherwise underhanded dealings all but confirmed. And having someone in a position of control over the entire immediate future completely dismiss what Duo had to say as impossible was not a situation the former doll was pleased to revisit.

Simultaneously, though, Duo realized that, if Hajime was willing to lend them money, it didn’t actually matter much. Callous as it seemed under the circumstances (under any circumstances, really), the Winners could be dispensed with entirely at this point in favor of the unexpectedly helpful exorcist. Like Trowa, Duo turned his full attention on the man, so that the only person left looking at the Winners was Hajime himself.

The latter had introduced himself very politely by name and as “the specialist Mr. Barton mentioned.” Then he turned toward Trowa and said, “It’s too much to ask of them all at once — to suddenly believe in magic and lend you money.” There was a touch of ‘you should have known better’ in his tone, and with this sentiment Heero quietly agreed:

“We should have realized that.”

“I can buy you plane tickets on my phone, unless you’d rather go somewhere else and find a computer.”

Trowa, the one directly addressed, seemed to have been too struck by the abrupt good fortune and total change in conversation to say anything before this, and now he appeared blindsided by Hajime’s professional expeditiousness. And before Trowa could get out the first thanks toward which his eventual attempt at speech tended, Mr. Winner spoke instead:

“I think this is all a little hasty. Maybe it was a lot to ask of us at once, but I think it’s just as bad to move forward without us without even allowing us to tell you what we think.”

“I apologize for going over your heads,” Hajime replied, “but I don’t think there can be too much haste in this situation.”

“But are you the right person to be providing the money in this situation, Mr. Saitou?” Mrs. Winner wondered. “It seems to me that you should be being paid, not paying.”

“Your son is my client, ma’am. It’s my priority to help him by whatever means necessary.” Hajime’s words held a reserved but courteous sort of businesslike friendliness, and it struck Duo, who hadn’t seen him act like this before, as a little creepy.

And yet it seemed to be hitting the right note with the Winners. Hajime had an aura of competence and authority that was only augmented by his current behavior devoid of disdain or sarcasm. Perhaps the suit helped as well; it said something about a man that he would be fully decked out in tie and jacket under such circumstances. If Duo had thought of that, he might not have removed both of his and rolled up his shirt sleeves.

“It seems more appropriate for his family to pay for this, though, doesn’t it, Mr. Saitou?” Mrs. Winner persisted.

“Certainly,” the exorcist agreed. “If they’re in a position to do so.”

“And we may very well be in that position.” Mr. Winner spoke with a touch of remonstrance, as if there had never been any doubt on this point. “It’s certainly a very strange situation, but if anyone is going to be paying for a flight out to where Quatre is, it really should be his parents.”

“We’re only asking for a loan,” Trowa reminded. “I will pay you back as soon as possible, of course.”

Mr. Winner gave him a pensive look not entirely free of suspicion yet. “I’m inclined to ask where you would get the money, since I have my doubts about what you’ve told us in the past about your income, but I suppose that’s something to discuss later. At the moment I’m thinking it might be best for my wife and I to go to New Orleans ourselves to find Quatre and see if all of this is true.” When this suggestion was met with surprised and dismayed silence, Mr. Winner finished, “We can take Heero with us as a guide.”

Not only did this addendum assist Duo’s gear-shifting attempt at coming up with a response, it also galvanized him into protest as he realized all at once, uncomfortably, that he really wasn’t ready yet to have a couple thousand miles between him and Heero. He would have believed that nearly half a year must have been long enough for him to get over the five-foot thing, and he would have been incorrect.

Obviously Heero read this nervousness in Duo’s head, for even as Duo spoke Heero moved silently to stand beside him in a gesture that seemed to say, “I’m not going anywhere without you.”

And Duo said, “Heero’s got communication magic, and he’s new at it, and that might not be enough if these people don’t want to give Quatre up!”

“They can’t hold him against his will,” Mr. Winner insisted. “Not if we get the police involved.”

Trowa shook his head. “The police can’t help. When these people set fire to my old house, they also brainwashed the police and the firefighters into thinking it wasn’t arson. I hope we’ll be able to get Quatre out of there peacefully, but it’s possible we may need some magic, and Duo’s right — Heero’s communication powers will be useful, but may not be enough.”

Mrs. Winner had made a startled sound at the news that the group holding her son was also responsible for the burning of Trowa’s house, and now got in ahead of her husband asking, “And would you be enough against people like that? Do you suggest we take you with us instead?”

“I suggest the two of you stay here and leave this to those of us who have magical abilities.” Trowa was clearly growing somewhat impatient and trying not to show it. Of course he and his friends were the ones requesting a favor, and shouldn’t expect to be able to dictate the speed of that request; and of course the Winners were in a difficult position, and should be given time to adjust, but the drag of the conversation was maddening. Duo felt exactly the same, and guessed Heero probably did as well.

“Don’t forget I can pay for your plane tickets under any circumstances,” Hajime murmured to Trowa.

“We will pay for plane tickets,” Mr. Winner said with emphatic haste, while his wife nodded her immediate agreement, and Duo thought he saw now what was going on: they perceived what little control they could have over any aspect of the situation slipping from them as this complete stranger volunteered to do what they were somewhat reluctant to, and they were jumping at the chance to remain part of the proceedings. At Duo’s side, Heero nodded faintly as if to confirm this guess.

“We just have to decide who needs to go and who needs to stay,” Mr. Winner was adding.

“We could all go,” his wife mused.

“That’s certainly an option,” Trowa agreed at once. “Quatre might be happy to see you.” Duo guessed he said this merely for purposes of placation, to indicate to the Winners by his willingness to include them that his intentions really were as stated. This guess — that Trowa didn’t really believe what he’d just said — was reinforced by Heero’s quiet, head-shaking reply:

“Quatre’s not going to be happy to see anyone. Not until we get him cured.”

Trowa frowned, probably anticipating the welcome he was likely to receive when he showed up unasked to remove his boyfriend from a situation Quatre hadn’t been entirely unwilling to enter in the first place.

Mrs. Winner pursed her lips and looked at Heero. Then she too shook her head, with a decisive sort of finality. “Bernard, I say we trust them and send them on their own,” she said in a tone to match her gesture. “I get the feeling we would only be in the way.”

Her husband glanced at her, followed her gaze to Heero, then looked quickly at the other faces in the room. Finally he nodded. “All right. We’ll get the three of you to New Orleans and back. I suppose you’ll need a rental car there, so we’ll pay for that too.”

Duo felt as if he’d been forced to hold his breath throughout the interview and had finally, light-headed and with straining lungs, been allowed to release it now. Relief filled the room so thoroughly that he realized he’d still been hoping for this method of attaining their goal even when Hajime had suggested another.

Perhaps, though, what he thought he felt was shared only by himself and Heero, for Trowa still looked pathetically tense, as if the Winners’ promise might be retracted again at any moment should he so much as blink improperly. He probably wouldn’t be able to relax at all until plane tickets had actually been purchased and there was no going back — and perhaps not even then. The worry about Quatre, after all, remained under everything else.

In a voice slightly lowered and with words somewhat slowed in sudden, deliberate pointedness, Mr. Winner went on. “But I want you to understand that if it turns out you’re not actually acting in my son’s best interest–”

Here Trowa interrupted, equally low and intense: “There is nothing in the world more important to me right now than helping Quatre.”

“You say that,” Mr. Winner said grimly, “but it seems you’ve lied to us before. And if I find out you’ve–”

This time it was his wife that broke in, clapping a hand down onto his arm in a clear indication that he needed to refrain from finishing his threatening statement. She murmured, “Trusting them, remember?”

“Let me know when you’ll be back,” Hajime advised Trowa at this point. “Sano and I will be ready here, unless you’d rather meet us somewhere else.” And when Trowa replied that here at the house was fine, Hajime gave the Winners a polite nod and walked away as quietly as he’d entered.

When the exorcist was out of sight and his footsteps could be heard climbing the stairs, Mr. Winner stood up and looked around as if he’d just been broken from a reverie and now had to recall what he’d previously been doing. Slowly he bent to retrieve the teacup he’d dropped on the floor earlier, and when he stood straight he found Trowa before him with a hand out to take the item back to the kitchen. Mr. Winner looked at him steadily as he relinquished the cup, then, as Trowa turned to take the other from Mrs. Winner, said, “We’ll head back home and see about getting you boys some plane tickets. Can you print your own boarding passes?”

Before the retreating Trowa could explain that his computer had been destroyed in the fire, Heero interjected, “Trowa, do you remember how you first demonstrated magic to me and Quatre?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied. “Do you think that might be advisable here?”

“It would make a good finishing touch, and might give you a useful opportunity. Duo and I will go home, and you can text us flight times in a little while. We’ll meet at my apartment tomorrow and go to the airport from there.”

Returning from the kitchen, Trowa was nodding despite not seeming terribly enthusiastic about this idea. Duo, who wasn’t sure what the first demonstration of magic to Heero and Quatre had been (though he’d certainly been told at some point, and had merely forgotten), watched with some interest.

Trowa went to stand before Quatre’s father again, with a look as steady and emotionless as Mr. Winner had given him a minute before. Finally he said, “Excuse me, sir,” and startled the man somewhat by putting an arm around his shoulders in a gesture that in the present instance looked far more awkward than comradely. Realizing the undoubted purpose of this movement, Duo knew what Trowa intended and was therefore not surprised at the spell that followed, nor at the sudden disappearance of both Trowa and Mr. Winner from the room.

Sticky, stiff, headachy, angry — it never seemed to change.

Unless something very serious had happened just before he went to sleep the night before, Quatre typically awoke refreshed and with his mood a blank slate for the coming day. But he endeavored not to think about the contrast between ‘typically’ and ‘now.’ Here, in this terminally wet air, on this narrow cot, bloated with magical energy he couldn’t get rid of, waking from aggravating dreams, his state upon rising was every bit as unpleasant as it had been upon going to bed last night.

Last night? He wasn’t even sure what day it was. Thursday, he believed, which meant he’d been in this place for almost a week now, and to no goddamn purpose whatsoever. It was difficult to ignore the fact that his entire life had evidently become a complete waste of time.

He threw off the blanket and sat up, making an annoyed noise as his bare feet touched the bare floor. It couldn’t be called ‘clammy’ because it was already warm in here, but the effect was much the same: an uncomfortable moistness that made him feel dirty and his breaths thick and difficult to draw. Who the hell had decided this was a good place to settle down? Even when it wasn’t being torn apart by hurricanes and submerged in floods, it felt as if it was only one step away from those or some similarly wet fate.

As he tried to stretch out the stiffness induced by a bed on which it was nearly impossible to find any more comfortable position than board-flat on his back, he looked for the millionth time around the room as if something in it might have changed during the night. But there was no alteration whatsoever to the quality of the morning light from the little cloudy windows beside the ceiling, the desk from which he’d swept its few surface contents in irritation, the locked file cabinets whose handles he’d pulled off and thrown across the room in an attempt to open the drawers, or the three remaining sticky-tacked corners of the poster he’d ripped off the painted brick wall a few days in when its grinning, Mardi-Gras-masked face had more or less sent him into a frenzy.

When Nancy, a representative of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré that seemed to believe she could use magic and enthusiasm to make up for a lack of intelligence, had approached Quatre last week with the promise that her organization could rid him of the enraging energy that was the root of all his current problems, she’s also promised they would provide him with everything he might need while he stayed with them. Thus far this had meant some incredibly cheap clothing — since he’d gone with her on the spot and therefore hadn’t packed anything — and fast food at two irregular intervals each day.

Despite his being thus furnished with pajamas, however, he’d slept naked since the third night. The way the thin cotton stuck to his skin in this atmosphere was unendurable, made him want to tear the polka-dotted shirt and pants into rags and then burn them, assuming he could get them to burn without the aid of gasoline. So now he seized the equally flimsy and unattractive robe they’d provided him as well and donned it before heading out toward the bathroom.

It had been an impetuous decision to go with Nancy, based on simultaneous desires to escape and to have his condition reversed, as well as on a subtle understanding that Nancy could probably abduct him by force if she wanted, and his irritation at his own thoughtlessness had been little tempered by the subsequent realization that, while he was here, he could endeavor to discover who had been behind the burning of Trowa’s house and attempt to exact some recompense from them. He was trying not to think about how little thought had gone into all of this, how little he liked to think about any of this… but had he known beforehand what the living conditions would be, he might have given the matter more consideration at the outset notwithstanding.

The bathroom could better have borne the British appellation ‘toilet,’ or even the more universal ‘shit-hole,’ since there was no bath and the existing appliances barely functioned. For his personal hygiene, therefore, Quatre was forced to resort to sponge baths with hard-won water from the sink, which device further disturbed him with its old-fashioned shape and appearance by reminding him a little — enough for discomfort, though he tried with desperate anger not to feel it — of the one in Trowa’s previous bathroom. La Confrérie had offered to clean him up by magic on a daily basis, but this Quatre had somewhat profanely refused. As if they weren’t trying enough magic on his person as it was.

Originally the terrible mirror had been merely ancient, not broken, but after the third or fourth application of Quatre’s fist it had developed a spider’s web of cracks that split his glaring reflection into a hundred angry fragments. He could still make out the bruise-like dark spots beneath his eyes, however, and the sunkenness of his cheeks — could he really have lost that much weight in only a week? Or had that process started back when he’d first become possessed? Either way, damn this place.

He sponged off, brushed his teeth, and used the toilet with a vigor that became no less irate for his having to flush three times just to get the thing to work properly. Then he threw his horrible bathrobe back on and returned to what, for lack of any better term, he must refer to as his bedroom.

Five different members of La Confrérie had introduced themselves to him during his stay here, one of them the Vallis Rheita — a title, not a name; legally, she was much more mundanely called Tammy Killinger — and none of them admitted to being the ones that had set fire to Trowa’s house. On this latter point, before he’d stopped himself out of a growing, self-preserving desire not to think about his boyfriend at all, Quatre had made such angry and persistent inquiries that he believed he’d rendered the entire group reluctant to talk to him except when necessary, for now they all tended to avoid him whenever it wasn’t actually ritual time.

Evidence of this was the breakfast and newspaper that had been left for him while he’d been busy in the bathroom, with no sign of who had brought it. The sight of the paper — the cheapest best option they could come up with for his entertainment during the day — incensed him; what the hell did he care about New Orleans news? What he wanted was his goddamn phone! Even some random book would be better than this.

But it wasn’t as annoying as the greasy McDonald’s bag and Styrofoam cup standing on the desk next to the fan, which had been replaced from where Quatre had knocked it to the floor last night. Quatre loathed McDonald’s breakfast, especially the coffee whose scent now filled the room. Well, at least it all still appeared to be hot — he tended to wake each morning pretty systematically at the same time, even under such circumstances, so they knew when to send somebody to buy him breakfast — and at least they’d scraped together a few grains of sense and supplied him with a new bottle of Tylenol to replace the one he’d used up.

Though he really saw no point to it, he turned his attention to getting dressed before he made an attempt at mixing enough cream and sugar — assuming they’d had the brains to bring him any — into his coffee to make it drinkable, or to brave the horrors of the paper bag and find out whether whatever the hell was in there might be edible.

He donned the thrift store camouflage shorts, the t-shirt advertising something from last year called ‘A Night in Versailles’ into whose details he didn’t care to inquire, a pair of socks that would form a minimal barrier between his feet and the slimy floor, and no shoes. Of these last La Confrérie had provided him none — perhaps the local Goodwill hadn’t had his size in stock — and the Allen Edmonds Oxfords he’d been wearing when he’d come here would probably melt their own seams and fall apart just to get off his feet if he forced them to be a part of the dreadful outfit.

By the time he’d finished this process and the subsequent doctoring of his coffee, the latter was cool enough to drink, and along with his first gulp he swallowed three Tylenol. Something stronger would serve his needs better, since this headache certainly had the tenacity to merit a prescription, but if he were to make such a request of his ‘hosts’ and have it denied, it would force him to face squarely just how powerless he was in his present situation, and this he was attempting to avoid thinking about at all costs.

The cheap smell of the hash browns and sausage biscuit that comprised his unsatisfying breakfast took him abruptly back to a lunch he’d once had with Trowa during the days when their acquaintance had been characterized by an interest and engagement almost entirely against Trowa’s will — a reminder of former, better times with someone he loved and missed combined with the idea of a situation entered upon almost entirely against its participant’s will. Perfect.

Quatre slammed his fist down onto the McDonald’s bag, crumpling it to the surface of the desk and feeling the food inside smash, warm and moist, beneath his hand. Then with a growling noise in his throat he shoved the nearby fan for a second time so it clattered once again to the floor where he could not see it. His scowling eyes alighting next on the bottle of Tylenol he’d just made use of, he picked it up and hurled it against the wall with such ferocity that it popped open in an explosion of pills.

It had come to this — his not merely not bothering to restrain displays of anger, but actually embracing that emotion and letting it suffuse him like the humid air of this abominable place since it was preferable to anything else he might be feeling, to sitting calmly and facing the complete lack of control, the fear, the misery — but how long he could possibly go on this way he did not know. Tears already blurred his vision, and his breaths were more like sobs for almost a minute after his outburst as he forced himself to sit down on the cot and try at the same time to get a grip and continue not to think about what he didn’t want to think about — which was practically everything that mattered to him.

When he was able, he would eat what he could of the mutilated breakfast, and undoubtedly get angry at how bad and unhealthy it tasted. Then he would attempt to read the entire newspaper, getting angry about every story and struggling not to be reminded of anything, as slowly as possible so as to drag the activity out for the maximum amount of time. How he would spend the remainder of the day after that he did not know; how he had spent the remainder of each previous day he tried not to think.

Eventually someone would come and take him back to that room down the hall. He had access to it himself, and didn’t need to be led — it was two unlocked doors away — but there was nothing in there besides scuffed chalk-marks and an old, plain wooden chair, and therefore no reason to visit the place without reason.

This evening, per routine, he would assume that uncomfortable seat while whichever Confrérie members happened to be present this time bickered about the nuances of the latest variation of their ritual until his fingers twitched to wring all their necks. Then they would settle down and attempt the spell, more or less painfully to Quatre and generally futilely. After this, they would argue further about what alterations to make next, and try a second and even a third time depending on the lateness of hour when each debate was finished.

And Quatre would take advantage of having people he didn’t care about around on whom he could vent his endless anger. He hated himself for this, and some of the tears that had soaked his pillow over the last several nights had certainly been in response to a recognition he could not entirely evade of his own monstrosity. Yet there was a definite if miniscule relief to hurling verbal abuse at the Confrérie magicians — a relief augmented by the awareness that he was not hurling verbal abuse at his friends. At least he had the awareness to cling to, along with his distracting rage, that he was not actively hurting those he loved. If he could keep hold of that, and simultaneously, paradoxically keep from thinking too much about them and how wretched he was without them, he could survive another day of this.

Despite having flown to a decent number of places over the years, in some cases before many of the people around him had even existed, Trowa always felt like an outsider at airports. This was undoubtedly because flying was a secondary if not tertiary travel option for him, and he didn’t make the use of the system most people did — he took planes back far less frequently than he took them out, for example. And he certainly would have preferred the luxury of a speedy magical jump over a tense and lengthy flight in this situation.

As a consequence, he tried to ignore his surroundings. This was easier than it might have been, wrapped as he was in thought and allowing his friends to find their way and lead him through the twisting security line and then down the long corridors (Duo insisted on riding the moving sidewalks) to the proper gate. All around him people talked arrival and departure times on cell phones, chatted excitedly about what they’d seen and done on vacation, or speculated morosely about what the weather would be like when they arrived home. Though some part of Trowa’s brain recognized the general purport of these conversations — especially when any similar consideration applied to his own situation, such as what the weather in New Orleans would be like when they arrived — overall it was so much meaningless noise to him.

Having slept not at all the night before and being preoccupied with their mission, he had sat in silence during the drive here. Heero, though when Trowa glanced at him he did appear as if he might have something to say, had never said it; he probably had more sources of preoccupation even than Trowa did, what with the recently awakened communication powers that still made it wiser for him to let Duo drive than to do so himself. Duo, also more agitated than normal, had made only the occasional random comment about other drivers on the road.

Now, however, as the three of them sat down to wait for their 9:15 flight — Heero and Duo side-by-side in the connected seats, with their shared carry-on backpack between them on the floor and Trowa across the small aisle from them — Heero leaned forward and asked quietly, “Did you have any luck with Mr. Winner last night?”

This was probably what Heero had wanted to ask ever since Trowa had jumped to his apartment this morning, the circumstance being one in which Heero put more faith than Trowa did. Heero was, after all, the type of person to whom conversing one-on-one came much more easily than doing so in a group — and one of the reasons he’d suggested Trowa initiate that private discussion had undoubtedly been to provide what he believed would be a greater chance at connecting with Quatre’s father and convincing him of the truth and sincerity of what they’d said. It had been a kind and savvy thought, but Trowa was not like Heero in that respect: nothing he could say to Mr. Winner in private was any more meaningful than he what he could say (and had said) in front of his friends and Mrs. Winner (and, to some extent, Hajime). So when he answered Heero’s question, he focused on the other probable reason Heero had made the suggestion:

“You were right: jumping with him was an excellent finishing touch. It left him with no more doubts about magic.”

“Doubts about us are what I was more worried about.”

With a shake of head and a gesture at the counter not far off, behind which airline employees had only just begun to gather, Trowa said, “We have our tickets; the rest can wait.” Seeing that Heero did not look entirely satisfied with this, he added, “I did promise to have Quatre call him as soon as he’s in a position to do so.”

Duo, who had been craning his neck to look out the big window behind him at the planes taking off and landing, now turned back toward Trowa with, “Yeah, but we have no idea when that will be. Even if we find Quatre today and get him out of there, he might not be in the best frame of mind for calling his dad right away.”

“I know.” Between Trowa’s feelings of helplessness at the thought of his current relationship with his boyfriend’s parents and his undeviating determination to do anything and everything required to get that boyfriend back as soon as possible, there was a contrast that was crushing, almost suffocating if he examined it too closely; he felt hemmed in, trapped in a narrow space with only one way out — and that a blind one. He would do what he must, but he had no idea where that would lead, and the uncertainty was stifling. “I know,” he said again. “I’m afraid we’re just going to have to leave the Winners to believe whatever they’re most likely to about us at this point. Hajime was right — it was too much to ask of them all at once.”

“He was definitely right about one thing,” Heero agreed regretfully: “we didn’t really think that conversation through beforehand. If we hadn’t been in such a hurry, if we’d sat down and thought about it longer and more clearly, we could have approached Quatre’s parents more effectively.”

“We were lucky Hajime was there to step in,” Trowa murmured, “and that he was communicator enough to know exactly what to say.” Realizing belatedly that this wording might be taken as an attack on Heero’s inferior skill, he began again quickly. “Not that you–”

But Heero cut him short with a shake of head accompanied by the faintest trace of a smile that told him not to worry about it. This forgiving expression faded, however, as Heero said, “You know he really would have bought our tickets for us?” Whatever silent conversation between Heero and Hajime had revealed this fact did not seem an entirely pleasant memory, and Trowa wondered if Heero had taken more telepathic censure for their lack of forethought than Hajime had offered aloud. “He didn’t want to, if he could help it, but he would have.”

Duo made a sound of indifference that was belied by its own intenseness. “Who cares? We’re on our way now, and we’ll get Quatre back here, and everything will be fine!” The tone of his voice and the movement by which he jumped to his feet and faced the counter, where some kind of preliminary boarding had just been announced, held a restrained agitation or even excitement that was not entirely explained by the situation but which Trowa did not mind. He must appreciate any enthusiasm directed toward reaching and helping Quatre right now.

It felt like an hour and a half before they were permitted to get on the plane, in the wake of the first class ticket-holders, the ‘Platinum Premier Members,’ the handicapped and elderly, and those with young children, though in reality it couldn’t have been more than about ten minutes. Trowa spent this time continuing or retreading the considerations and plans that had occupied him all night and morning.

Five in the evening would have come and gone by the time they found the place, which probably meant the gallery was likely to be as full as it ever was of Confrérie members having finished up at their day jobs. Could Trowa possibly count on the esteem in which they held him to carry his point? Could he anticipate walking in there like a celebrity condescending to the masses and getting exactly what he wanted? Or was he in for a fight?

In the former case, the encounter would be as smooth and easy as any other meeting with weird fans. In the latter… he mustn’t forget that the spell used to burn his house had been neat and powerful, the one that had brainwashed the onlookers almost incredibly so. He would be up against formidable foes here, armed himself with only a diminished strength whose use he was relearning and two supporters that, while staunch, were not exactly optimally trained.

He’d thought about the artifacts that had formed peripherally to the candlestick, considered bringing one of these with him to augment his own magical energy, but decided against it. The problem with artifacts was that they affected all nearby spellcasting, and therefore couldn’t be depended on to aid only the person that owned or carried them. In any case, he hadn’t yet had time or inclination to examine these peripheral artifacts in detail, so it was probably better to leave them alone for now.

Even in the midst of this reverie, Trowa couldn’t help but notice the distinct spring in Duo’s steps that resounded in the hollow Jetway down which they walked toward the plane. Whence this excessive alertness came could not be guessed, but it raised Trowa’s spirits a little to see how ready Duo was for today’s venture.

A glance at the folded paper he was scarcely aware he held led Trowa to an aisle seat about halfway down, and it only occurred to him belatedly that he should have paid attention to their divergent placement earlier so as to trade with Heero, who’d broken from them three or four rows up, and allow him to sit nearer to Duo. Deeming it too awkward and inconvenient to conduct this shuffle now, he merely sat, having no luggage of his own to worry about, and watched abstractedly as the other passengers situated theirs.

In contrast to Trowa’s detached observation, Duo’s attention seemed to be endlessly and minutely engaged by everything around him. Evidently he greatly relished the placement of his backpack in the overhead compartment, but even more to examine the various parts of the cabin and its passengers; his braid swung and twisted and whipped with the enthusiasm of his turning in various directions to get a good look at everything, and more than one of their fellow travelers glanced at him with some amusement or annoyance before he managed to take his seat across the aisle from Trowa.

Then, casting his gaze over at his friend and opening his mouth, he checked briefly, seemed to rethink what he’d been about to say, and instead offered in a reassuring tone, “Don’t worry, Trois…” He had to wait for someone to pass between them before continuing. “When we looked the gallery up online, it was really easy to find…” After another pause he finished, “And we made a map and everything, so we should be able to drive straight there from the airport.”

Trowa nodded gravely, and, though he had little to say and much to think about, decided somewhat impetuously to come up with a reply that would turn this into a lasting exchange. Duo’s conversation was almost always cheering, and talking to him, even around other people and across the aisle, was sure to help keep Trowa distracted over the next five hours. At the very least, it would prevent him from actively counting down those hours, and the minutes and seconds that comprised them, and driving himself crazy long before they reached New Orleans.

Driving the route to the airport for the very first time; taking note of which lot they’d parked in so as to be able to find the car again whenever they came back; the desire, repressed only with difficulty, to have luggage to check rather than just a carry-on; the necessity of shoe removal and a search of pockets for metal objects at the security check; another barely repressed desire, this one that the TSA folks would find some reason to scan him with that wand thing; the moving sidewalks that went faster than you expected; the sights and sounds of planes taking off and landing outside the huge, convenient window; the feel of the tunnel thing leading to the airplane; the hum of the latter, its compactness and unique smell — with an ongoing effort of gladiatorial proportions, Duo had restrained a comment or even a lengthy rave on each of these aspects of this his very first flight as a human.

Heero, of course, had heard it all, and had on more than one occasion repressed a smile. Duo was aware that his feelings must be evident to his boyfriend, but, as in at least one previous instance, thought it would be a poor gesture to show his excitement and thereby perhaps seem to make light of the reason they were taking this flight at all. He was worried about Quatre too, naturally, and determined to help him, and didn’t want to appear to be disregarding the worry and determination of his companions. Heero respected this attitude, and, though he personally wouldn’t have objected to overt expressions of the happier side of Duo’s frame of mind, had merely appreciated that happier side in silence.

Now, however, actually seated in the airplane, Heero wished he had said something.

His friends were across the aisle from each other three rows behind him, and Duo’s increasing anticipation was by far the most easily discernible thought in the sea of thoughts close-packed around Heero. Duo’s desire to share with someone his excitement about the impending takeoff was growing with every moment, and not only did Heero wish he could indulge that desire, he thought it would cheer Trowa to do so as well.

One thing he’d already learned about his communication powers as they thus stood was that trying to piece together the conversation of two people he could not physically hear, only one of whom could he get anything from mentally, was difficult and generally not very successful. The comprehension the first person had of what the second said usually took place on a mental level just below the one that was all Heero could currently access, and the surface thoughts he could read didn’t always entirely relate to the conversation.

Nevertheless, what he was vaguely picking up from Duo’s head at the moment, through the mental noise of many other passengers and Duo’s own mixed frame of mind, was the idea that Trowa was talking somewhat disjointedly and at random, seeming distracted but probably in reality seeking distraction. He might appreciate having a pleasant and engrossing topic introduced, but it didn’t seem to have occurred to Duo that it might not be inappropriate to introduce it.

Heero was, therefore, about to take this upon himself from afar. True, it was embarrassing to think that he and Trowa might not be the only people on the plane with communication magic and that, in his unpracticed inability to send ideas precisely to one person, he might alert more than just Trowa of the fact that this was Duo’s first flight as a human, but he thought it would still be worth it. He was busy trying to package the thought as concisely as possible in preparation for sending it out when he was abruptly checked.

Surprise and pain replaced Duo’s excitement and joy so swiftly and completely that the shift came like an electric shock out of nowhere to Heero, which prevented him for a few moments from determining its cause. But as he subsequently filtered clumsily through the maelstrom of thoughts that was Duo’s reaction to whatever had just happened, he began to realize what it had been.

What had prompted Trowa to say it could not be discerned — something about Quatre and secrets — but he had revealed that, back when he’d been looking forward to the breaking of the curse, there had also been some concern that he might die when that otherwise desirable event took place. And that this, several months later, was the first Duo had heard of that concern, unmerited as events had proven it, fully explained Duo’s sudden alteration of mood.

Heero himself was very surprised at the news, though not necessarily at the fact that Trowa had concealed it for so long, but more than that he was aching, all at once, with echoes of Duo’s shock and betrayal. Reeling with the suddenness and unpleasantness of this revelation, Duo was all the more unhappy because it seriously threatened his hopes of getting any enjoyment out of this flight. And Heero, separated from him by a vast gulf of three rows, was unable to offer any comfort.

Impetuously, though, he decided to do more than just curse the seating arrangement. While they were still taxiing, at least, he had options, delinquent though they might be. Before he could talk himself out of it, he snapped his seat belt open, silently grateful that he too was beside the aisle and didn’t have to climb over anyone, and stood. He moved so quickly that he’d actually reached his friends and fixed his eyes on the place next to Duo before anyone could say anything. Then he ignored the call from further down the plane of, “Sir, please go back to your seat!” as well as a subsequent announcement over the speaker reiterating that the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign was turned on and the plane about to take off, in favor of addressing the startled woman beside his boyfriend:

Please will you trade seats with me.” He gestured in the direction he’d come.

Whether his low tone was serious enough to convince thoroughly, whether she’d observed Duo’s sudden agitation and recognized that Heero was here to help, or whether she simply didn’t want to start a debate that would lengthen an awkward scene, Heero didn’t know — he wasn’t reading anything from her head — but it didn’t matter much. As she immediately undid her own seat belt, rose, and squeezed past Heero in the direction he’d indicated, he murmured a thanks as intense as his request. Then he took her place, buckled in, and looked at Duo for the first time since they’d separated.

As usual, Duo’s demeanor was a fairly good mirror of his mental state. He was astonished at what he’d discovered, appalled that an event for which he’d so long yearned might have killed his best friend, angry and pained that Trowa had left him ignorant of such an important consideration… and it was all as evident in his face as in the thoughts Heero could read. But the fact that that face was turned down toward where his hands shook in his lap showed that his instinct not to hurt Trowa was as strong as ever, reflected his struggle not to shout out that this was something that never should have been concealed from him.

A flight attendant appeared just in time to see the hand Heero had reached out clasped tightly, irately in both of Duo’s, and Heero picked up from her a sudden belief that the seat-changing had only taken place in order to offer support in the face of pretty severe anxiety on Duo’s part. She didn’t think it worth offering a reprimand, and therefore, after confirming that Heero’s seat belt was properly fastened, made her way back to her own place for takeoff.

Duo still hadn’t said anything, which would have been disconcerting if Heero had been unable to see the effort that was going on in his head: he was trying to calm his whirling thoughts, trying not to lash out at Trowa, and trying hardest of all to push everything away for now in order to grasp at the last scraps of gratification available to him today. There were a couple of very good reasons not to dwell on what he’d just learned and how it had made him feel, and he tried to behave in accordance with them.

In late July, Heero and Duo had driven up to the state fair and spent the day on thrill rides, and with those roller coasters for contrast, the physical sensations of taking off could be nothing particularly spectacular even to someone that had never felt them before… but it was the principle of the thing: this experience was something to be interested in and concentrated on at every minute point, and if sorrow and wrath overwhelmed his other feelings, it couldn’t be properly checked off the list of experiences he needed to have.

Heero felt Duo’s grip on his hand loosen somewhat. Duo took a deep, shoulder-lifting breath and looked over at him with a determined expression, at which Heero nodded his understanding and encouragement. Duo had always been good at gleaning satisfaction from a collection of negative feelings; he should be able to do it again now.

Unfortunately, Trowa could not know how the situation progressed. Undoubtedly he still hadn’t realized this was Duo’s first flight as a human, nor that Duo, in order to enjoy that flight and avoid suffering unduly for the rest of the day, was attempting not to think about what had just come to light. All Trowa could be aware of right now was that he’d misstepped and hurt his friend, and that he needed to do what he could to put it right.

“I’m sorry, Duo,” he said, leaning into the aisle with dismayingly bad timing as the plane began to pick up speed. “I probably should have told you then instead of now, but I didn’t want–”

Instead of starting to mend things as had surely been intended, these words only served to drag Duo back down into the thoughts and emotions he was trying to avoid at the moment. He interrupted, loudly and far more harshly than Trowa had spoken and without turning his eyes toward him: “Can we talk about it later?”

The wretched Trowa looked like a person overloaded, who has had added to his burden another awkwardly shaped item that, far from settling into and balancing with the rest, has actually tumbled off and now needs to be chased and retrieved with hands that already aren’t free. Heero didn’t know why Trowa had told Duo what he had in the first place or what he’d thought the result would be, but guessed that Trowa hadn’t anticipated such a strong reaction and that now, not relishing a source of additional turmoil as they headed into an already emotional and potentially dangerous situation, he very much wanted to get this dealt with.

Continuing to press the issue, however — as it looked a bit like Trowa planned to do — was not, Heero deemed, the most desirable course of action. Not only did Duo want to put off thinking about it, there was also the matter of their neighbors to consider: more than one of the people in the seats around them had, thanks to Heero’s precipitous move, had their attention drawn to the discussion and were now watching surreptitiously but curiously to see how this drama they so little understood would play out. The conversation would be better held in private another time when there were fewer conflicting desires and fewer eavesdroppers.

To this end, Heero leaned forward past Duo and said firmly, “Later, Trowa. Really.” Then, out of pity for his friend’s evident misery and hoping an expression of empathy would help Trowa feel better enough about the situation to drop it for now, he added, “I understand why you didn’t tell him, but you can explain it to him later.”

Even before this statement was finished, Heero realized he’d committed the same blunder Trowa had: failed to consider fully the probable effect of his words before saying them. As Duo’s hands withdrew abruptly from his and a rerun of the sudden shock and betrayal from earlier played in Duo’s head, he saw he’d only managed to make things worse.

Duo turned an unhappy look toward him, about to demand how Heero could possibly claim understanding with the hurtful thing Trowa had done, then shook his head and straightened instead to stare fiercely at the seatback in front of him. Similarly, Heero opened his own mouth to explain, to contradict the notions that were already springing up in Duo’s mind… and then, with an effort of will, shut it in an attempt to follow his own advice.

The problem with following that advice was that he and Trowa had managed, between them, to make a huge mess of the upcoming five hours, if not far beyond that, rendering the time between now and the later Heero had urged a painful prospect indeed.

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: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 36-40

They hadn’t seen Trowa since helping him move over the weekend. It would have been logical to assume he had been reveling in again occupying a home of his own, though he’d only been in theirs for just over a week — Heero and Duo had certainly thoroughly celebrated their renewed privacy — but, unfortunately, the email Heero had received last night indicated that Trowa’s solitude had been short-lived and his time in the new house, thus far, unhappy.

It had begun by informing him that Quatre, before he’d disappeared for his ‘vacation,’ had sent a message to La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré letting them know that he had been the one to destroy the artifact. Trowa had tried divination after divination, apparently, hoping to find out for sure where Quatre might be and whether La Confrérie was involved in his disappearance, but something (or someone) was blocking his attempts.

The second half of the email, though perhaps less worrisome — even, possibly, somewhat reassuring — was more thought-provoking still:

I was talking to that exorcist, Hajime (he is staying at my house for the moment because the police want to question him and he would rather avoid that), about what I was trying to divine, and I realized he was under the impression that we must have known all along where Quatre is and were only trying to determine how to get him back or how to get to him.

He was surprised when he learned we don’t know where Quatre is at all, because apparently your coworker Dorothy, who refers necrovisual cases to him, is an accomplished diviner. All of my divinations regarding La Confrerie and Quatre’s whereabouts are being blocked, so I don’t know if she can do us any good, but since she knows Quatre personally, she might be worth a try. Would you ask her if she would perform some divinations for us?

This information conjured some guilt in Heero for a couple of reasons. First, he might have prevented the necessity for Hajime to hide out at a near stranger’s house (and destroy that near stranger’s newly attained privacy) if he had thought to say something about the exorcist on a couple of different occasions. The police must have heard that Hajime had visited Quatre’s office on the last day Quatre had been seen, and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for Hajime to explain what he’d been doing there with a sword. Heero and Duo had told the police they’d been waiting for Quatre on Friday to join them for dinner with some friends; if they’d mentioned the names of those friends, Hajime might never have been sought for questioning.

Next, Heero had long been aware that Dorothy was a diviner, but that awareness had always stayed in the back of his head as something he didn’t need to care about. If he’d remembered it earlier, they might be three steps ahead of where they were now. Of course he couldn’t know how ‘accomplished’ she really was, and, as Trowa had mentioned, something was blocking divination on this subject… but it was an avenue worth exploring. Any and every avenue was worth exploring with Quatre’s safety potentially on the line.

So, for a second time, he kept a sharp lookout for Dorothy on Wednesday morning as they pulled into the parking lot. There was no sign of her all the way inside, and Heero had already parted with Duo (with the same promise as last time: to tell him all about it at lunch) before he encountered her — at her desk, and in the middle of a professional conversation even at 7:59.

Heero waited impatiently nearby, passing the time by working through surrounding thoughts, cataloguing them as he’d been actively practicing lately. Of course many of them were about Quatre, to match his own, so this wasn’t much of a distraction.

It still irritated him that his connection with his best friend provided no concrete way to assist in this situation. He’d glanced at the website Hajime had referred him to, and noted that it would probably, as the exorcist had suggested, be very profitable — but that first glance had told him nothing about the specific things he would like to accomplish right now with this ambivalently useful power of his. He needed to look through the site more thoroughly and see if there was anything on there about helping someone close to you with nightmares or telepathically connecting from afar with someone else close to you.

Finally Dorothy finished her conversation. It occurred to Heero that he’d now wasted nearly ten minutes doing almost nothing, and that, if Quatre had been here, he might have faced some trouble for it — but it didn’t matter; that Quatre wasn’t here was the entire point. Purposefully he advanced on the Sales Manager, noting her expectant and somewhat amused expression at his hovering.

“Yes?” was all she said. How much she knew about what was going on Heero didn’t know or really care.

“Quatre’s missing.” He spoke quietly, not wanting to contribute to the chaos of gossip that already existed in the near vicinity. “He disappeared before we could get him exorcized.”

Dorothy looked a little surprised. “Oh, I thought he must be taking some time off to recover,” she said. “Where has he gone?”

“We don’t know. There’s a possibility he may be in some trouble, and we were hoping you could do some divinations for us to help figure out where he is.”

“Of course,” she replied immediately with a sharp smile. “I’m quite interested in Quatre’s condition.”

Heero let out a relieved sigh. “Apparently there’s some divination-blocking going on.”

“Excellent!” As usual, she sounded far more intrigued — and in this case anticipatory regarding the challenge — than concerned or sympathetic.

“Can you stay late tonight?”

“Much as I’d like to, no,” she replied. “I have to pick up my niece immediately after work and keep her all night.”

Heero took a deep breath. Why did they always have to wait for people to help them on this? But he couldn’t demand that Dorothy rearrange her schedule for them, and it wasn’t exactly guaranteed she would be able to assist them in any case. “I’ll tell Trowa,” he began. “Maybe–”

“Trowa?” The edge in her voice suggested sudden engagement.

“Trowa Barton,” Heero confirmed. “Quatre’s boyfriend.”

The Trowa Barton?”


For a moment she was silent, and for Heero to say he could practically hear the thoughts racing in her head was less a figure of speech than it would have been for many others. “He must have been the one who cursed Duo,” she said at last, almost to herself. “That explains why it was so powerful and long-lasting.”

Heero nodded.

She fixed him with an accusatory look. “You never mentioned that.”

“No,” Heero agreed. He was tempted to ask why her divinations on the subject of Duo’s curse hadn’t informed her of this, if it was something she would be that interested in knowing, but he held his tongue.

“Well!” She seemed a little annoyed with him now, but her next statement was actually more promising even than if she’d been particularly happy with him. “I could go pick up my niece and bring her back here. She’s interested enough in magic that it shouldn’t hurt to have her here for a few divinations.”

Heero wondered a little how old this niece was, and whether her parents knew that the babysitting aunt didn’t mind exposing her to serious situations involving magic, but he doubted it was any of his business. He just said, “Thank you,” very sincerely. “I’ll let Trowa know.”

Dorothy’s eyes glittered.

“We’re going to meet after work in Quatre’s office. We’ll tell you all the details then.”

“Don’t let the team know you have a key to Quatre’s office,” Dorothy smirked with a slight gesture at the room around them. “It’ll just be more evidence that you were dating him.”

“I don’t have a key to Quatre’s office,” Heero replied somewhat coolly, not entirely appreciating her attitude about all of this even if he was grateful for her promised assistance. “I have a command magician.”

“Of course.” Dorothy’s smile widened. “Trowa Barton can probably get into anyone’s office he wants.”

“Like I said, Trowa is actually dating Quatre. This is very important to him. And to me. And Duo.”

“Well, you can tell Mr. Barton I’ll be there.” Again her eyes seemed to sparkle with extreme interest as she said the name. Despite the emphasis of Heero’s words, she didn’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. It reminded him of how Duo had behaved at first — but in Dorothy’s case, it was probably more that she lacked natural sympathy than that she didn’t respect potential negative outcomes. “It will probably take me about forty-five minutes to pick up my niece and get back here, so expect me just before six.”

“Thank you,” Heero said again, and the irritation she had impelled didn’t lessen his sincerity. “I’ll see you then.”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Trowa had looked unhappy pretty consistently lately, and no wonder. Duo knew that, in addition to being upset about Quatre’s condition — and actively afraid for him now his absence had been cast into such an ambiguous light — Trowa had also been seriously considering, even rethinking, aspects of his own character, which could induce a somber mood in anyone. At the moment, though, Trowa looked more particularly unhappy than usual, with traces of disturbed agitation and some annoyance in there as well.

Duo went over to him and threw a friendly arm across his shoulders. “What’s going on, Trois?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

Trowa’s faint facial expression deepened into a definite scowl. “I had a soap opera in my guest room last night. Given what’s going on right now, it was… difficult to listen to.”

That second statement made Duo feel slightly guilty. “You OK?”

“Yes,” Trowa sighed. “After what I found out about Quatre yesterday and then that, I was very upset last night… but I’m doing much better now.”

“Sorry,” Duo said, squeezing Trowa’s shoulders. “I should have warned you… Sano called us last night trying to figure out where that exorcist boyfriend of his was, and then he stormed off to tell him what he thought of him going to hide out at your house without telling Sano where he was going.”

“Well, he did that,” said Trowa. “And ‘boyfriend’ now appears to be the correct term, though it wasn’t before.”

This time Duo couldn’t restrain his grin. “I was so curious. Man, I wish I could have heard that conversation.”

Trowa shook his head dourly, but before he could make any further comment, the door opened.

Heero and Duo, as instructed by Trowa, had stationed themselves after work in Quatre’s office, in the hopes that divinations about Quatre would be more successful in a room that bore his psychic imprint. Trowa, when he’d arrived just a few minutes ago, had brought a box of candles — Duo wasn’t sure whether they were preserved from the old house or newly purchased — and set it on Quatre’s desk, so they were about as ready as they could be and only waiting for the actual diviner.

Now, as she entered, Duo felt his own tenseness increase. None of them knew whether Dorothy could be any help here, or, if she turned out to be, what they would learn from her divinations this evening — but Duo had his fingers crossed. This was, of course, in part because he loved having the ability to cross his wonderfully separable fingers, but the wish for good luck, for a positive answer to both questions, was also sincere.

Dorothy was accompanied by a girl of perhaps eight, who looked around the room with curious, calculating eyes. Duo smiled at her, but her gaze crossed him too quickly for her to notice (or at least to return) the expression. One thing he might be willing to admit he missed about the long doll years — if in a sort of paranoid, almost superstitious reluctance to do any such thing he was willing to admit to anything positive about the experience — was the opportunity to spend so much time with children. Happy as he was with his life now, he sometimes regretted that loss.

“Why don’t you sit here?” Dorothy suggested, having pulled one of the chairs beside Quatre’s desk into a position from which its occupant could easily watch whatever went on in the office in the next few minutes.

The little girl nodded her red-haired head and took the place indicated, folding hands in her lap and fixing her attention on the others in the room in a remarkably mature-looking gesture. Dorothy’s gesture, on the other hand, was remarkably predatory-looking as, satisfied with her niece’s behavior, she turned toward Trowa.

“Mr. Barton,” she said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to meet you. Ever since I heard about the amazing work you did for the Whitley family — I think I was still in high school at the time! — I’ve wanted to meet you. Dorothy Catalonia.”

Trowa accepted her warm, lingering handshake with a nod. “I can’t say I appreciated the Whitleys publicizing that,” he said, “but it’s over and done with now. Hajime tells me you’re a very good diviner.”

“I wouldn’t have thought there was anything I could help you with,” Dorothy replied curiously, letting go of Trowa’s hand at last, “though I’m certainly happy to try.”

“My divination is very weak,” was Trowa’s blunt response. “Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but right now I need to know where Quatre is.”

“I’m impressed that someone as powerful as you are is willing to admit weakness in some area.” Dorothy’s expression held genuine admiration, and she’d clasped her hands together so tightly they’d drained of what color her pale skin had. It was, Duo thought, a little creepy.

“I’m not necrovisual at all either,” Trowa said somewhat dryly, and turned toward the desk. “I don’t know if candles are your style, but I brought what I have.”

“Oh, excellent.” More businesslike now, Dorothy moved to join Trowa. “Heero told me someone is blocking.”

“I assume it’s deliberate, but I could be wrong,” Trowa nodded.

Dorothy gave him another appreciative look, but quickly transferred her attention back into the box on the desk. “And what are these?”

“All the records I have of the group I believe is blocking.” Trowa lifted a slim book and a manila envelope from among the candles and set them on the desk. “I think Quatre may be with them.”

Briefly but carefully, Dorothy flipped through the stiff pages of the old book. Then she lifted her eyes, clapped her hands, and said, “All right! Let’s have the whole story!”

As Trowa told it, Duo moved restlessly around the room, impatient to get started but knowing this was a necessary step. Trowa explained about La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré and what he knew of them while Duo looked out the windows onto the parking lot and nearby buildings; about the artifact and its creation and destruction while Duo reexamined the digital picture frame on the desk, picking it up and putting it back down again; about Quatre’s possession by the power of the artifact brought somewhat to life or undeath by the hypothetical anger of La Confrérie while Duo looked over the books — mostly corporate literature — on Quatre’s shelves; and about the most recent emails Quatre had sent before he disappeared while Duo tried again to get the little girl in the chair to smile at him.

In the latter endeavor he succeeded this time, but the kid’s smile was as calculating as her initial glance around the room had been. Duo was starting to think she might be every bit as creepy as her aunt.

Heero, who hadn’t spoken and had barely moved in quite some time, now took Duo’s hand and drew him to stand at his side — undoubtedly wishing Duo would hold still. Duo squeezed the hand and didn’t let go, and tried to stop fidgeting.

“So this group…” Experimentally Dorothy said the name, and her French pronunciation sounded better than Trowa’s, though Duo couldn’t be sure. “When they learned that Quatre destroyed this artifact they practically worshipped, it’s possible they kidnapped him for some kind of revenge.”

Trowa confirmed this summary with an emphatic, “Exactly. He’s alive — or was when I asked an hour ago — but I need to know where.”

In the same experimental tone she’d used to speak La Confrérie’s full title, but now in the magical language, Dorothy said, “Where is Quatre Winner?”

Everyone in the room was tense and silent for a long moment, and Duo struggled not to start moving aimlessly again. For his part, there was no answer whatsoever to the divinatory question, and when he glanced at his boyfriend he received a shake of head to indicate that Heero was having the same experience.

But a slow, fascinated smile had spread over Dorothy’s face as her strange eyebrows contracted somewhat and lowered. “Did you feel that?” she wondered.

Trowa nodded. “It’s the same as before.”

Again in the magical language she asked, “Where is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

This time Duo thought he could faintly make out what they were talking about: a dim muffled feeling, as if some answer should be manifesting but was cloaked from his senses. Not being a diviner himself, he’d never before, as far as he was aware, personally encountered divination-blocking, so this made for a fascinating experience.

Dorothy chuckled in triumph and increased interest. “Yes, it’s the same block. How stupid — if they don’t want anyone to know they’re connected with Quatre somehow, they shouldn’t have the same person blocking divinations about him and divinations about them.”

“Maybe they only have one diviner capable of blocking,” Trowa mused.

Purposefully, Dorothy started unloading candles from the box. As she did so, Duo was able to see that they were, in fact, the same ones Trowa had employed for the useless ritual he’d performed in March trying to figure out how to break the curse. Oh, but it hadn’t been entirely useless, had it? Now that Duo thought back, he recalled that it had been their first indication of Heero’s magical talents. He threw a grinning glance at his boyfriend, who returned the smile wryly.

When Duo turned back, he found Dorothy holding an armful of candles toward him. “Set these out,” she commanded.

Moving forward to take them from her, in which he was joined by Heero, Duo noticed there were more than five; Trowa must have brought the whole collection, which probably amounted to ten or fifteen. “Do you want them aligned or staggered or what?” he asked.

Dorothy glanced critically at the position of the furniture in the room, then pointed rapidly to five different spots. “Aligned.”

As Heero and Duo shifted chairs (including the red-headed girl) and arranged the candles in as even a set of five points as they could manage, with a second just inside the first, Dorothy went on. “Mr. Barton, can you temporarily disable the smoke detectors in here?” And when Trowa had considered for a moment, then cast a spell, Dorothy clasped her hands in delight once more. “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought to do it like that!” she said. “I would have based the fade on the presence of the candles, but your way is so much better. You really are impressive!”

“Are we ready?” was Trowa’s only response to this.

Again Dorothy gestured to spots in the room, within the double pentagonal shape formed by the candles and one of which was already occupied by her niece. “Four points, please.” And as the others took their places, she moved to the end of Quatre’s desk, roughly in the center of them all. Having pushed the few items that rested there out of the way, she leaned back against it so she was half seated, crossing one ankle over the other and looking around still with that intrigued and purposeful smile.

“Now, Mr. Barton, you may light the candles.” She stretched out interlaced fingers and cracked her knuckles in a gesture both casual and preparatory. “Let’s break this amateur div-block and find our Quatre.”

How upset was Trowa last night? Why is he doing better now? Read Consummate Timing to find out.

Though Dorothy started with the same divination she’d most recently attempted — “Where is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?” — it was significantly different now than before.

At her unnecessary bidding, all of them (except the somewhat familiar-looking niece whose name Heero did not yet know and whose brain was as self-contained as Dorothy’s) were concentrating on Quatre, their concern for him, and their desire to have him back among them. Dorothy had taken up the records Trowa had brought and, after removing a messy set of papers of various sizes from the envelope, clasped them to her chest. And the room was full of the scent of burning wax, and the hush of intense concentration.

All of this somehow — Heero didn’t really know how divination worked, but he could clearly feel this — greatly increased the power of Dorothy’s question. Her words in the magical language seemed to echo with the strength of her intention, a strength it felt as if no one and nothing could withstand. Here, then, was the answer to his wondering about just how ‘accomplished’ a diviner she was.

Something snapped. It reminded Heero of when Trowa had put out the fire in his house: some other magic was overridden so abruptly that it was like the shattering of old, brittle glass. The same muffled sense of hidden information that had arisen in response to this question before had come again as soon as Dorothy’s words were out, but had lasted for only an instant before it seemed as if a curtain was torn away from a clear, detailed scene.

The vision showed the interior of a large building like a warehouse, wide and open but for pillars here and there and free-standing walls that bore, like the perimeter, hanging paintings in a huge range of sizes. Completely undecorated besides these last, brilliantly lit by a multitude of electric lights as well as the sun through glass in the roof, uncarpeted, furnished with chairs and benches in an eclectic mix of styles, the place was a strange and probably would-be-artistic blend of utilitarianism and visual splendor.

“The art mostly has to do with the moon and magic,” Dorothy narrated. “They rotate it through the gallery in front, for viewing and for sale, and store it in the warehouse in back. Five dollars to get in, but two-fifty of that and a third of every art sale goes to a non-profit organization. The Confrérie owns this place, but they’re mostly volunteers with other jobs. This is more like a religion than a profession to them.”

“You are good,” Duo said, evidently inadvertently. In this he was voicing Heero’s thought aloud: how Dorothy had managed to read so much from what, though it had been a fairly detailed vision, hadn’t provided any such information to Heero’s understanding was utterly beyond him.

Dorothy ignored the praise and asked next, “What is the name of the art gallery owned by La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

Predictably enough, it was Galerie de la Lune.

“Where is the Confrérie’s Galerie de la Lune located?” Dorothy asked.

The next vision provided a wide view of what was evidently the front of the place. It stood in flat, balconied multiple stories right against the street, which was full of other tall, old, stone buildings of similar design for a rather claustrophobic feel.

“Is that the French flag?” Duo demanded, voice and thoughts full of worry at the prospect. “Oh, but there’s the U.S. too, and the Confederate.”

“New Orleans,” Dorothy said with conviction. “French Quarter. Burgundy Street.”

Trowa sighed. “There are a few places in France I could have jumped to, but I don’t know New Orleans at all.”

“We don’t know for sure you’ll have to go there,” Heero tried to reassure him.

Getting right to the heart of that matter, Dorothy asked, “Is Quatre in New Orleans with La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré?”

Yes, he was.

“Damn,” Duo muttered.

“Is Quatre at the Confrérie’s Galerie de la Lune?”

This time, all three of Quatre’s close friends caught their breaths as the vision appeared: a small room of painted brick, at basement level to judge by the tiny closed horizontal windows against the low ceiling, furnished with a couple of filing cabinets, an old desk, and a camp bed — and on the latter, Quatre himself, barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt. The large fan pointed straight at him from the desktop seemed to be doing little for his mood; despite his casual pose, hands behind head and legs crossed as he stared upward from where he lay, he was scowling, and a sense of deep anger and unhappiness overwhelmed, at least for Heero, any other feeling that might have come along with the visual.

“There’s a suite of rooms in back connected to the warehouse,” said Dorothy. “They use them for offices and small storage, and right now for keeping Quatre in.”

“Have they hurt him?” Trowa demanded.

“Is he there willingly?” Heero asked.

“Is there even a bathroom?” Duo wondered.

Dorothy cocked her head as she decided which of these simultaneous questions to pursue first. After a moment she queried in the magical language, “What does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want with Quatre?”

The feeling of Quatre’s anger heightened, though the vision they’d been seeing faded, and no other answer came.

With a frustrated sound Dorothy reworded. “Does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want revenge on Quatre?”

It wasn’t a definite negative; it was more of a ‘no, not really.’ Still, even that much was reassuring.

“Then why does La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré want Quatre with them at Galerie de la Lune?”

Here was another vague answer with jumbled parts: aspects of a ritualistic spell like random pages of the schematic of an unknown mechanism; the continued, even stronger sense of Quatre’s anger; and an inconclusive visual of something on a chain, filigreed in silver, that vaguely resembled the moon.

This time, rather than Dorothy, it was Trowa, with another catch of breath, that understood. “They’re trying to extract the energy from him and create a new artifact with it.”

“That’s ambitious,” Dorothy remarked.

“Is that even possible?” Duo said.

“I don’t know.” Trowa looked grim. “What I’m more worried about is the effect on Quatre of whatever spells they try.”

“What method,” Dorothy asked in the magical language, “is La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré using to try to get artifact energy out of Quatre?”

The aspects of the spell presented more coherently this time, but it was still, to Heero, very much like seeing the entire mechanical schematic would be: he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, even in a state closer to complete, without a better idea of the whole. More interesting to him in any case was the new vision: a different basement room, bare except for the chair in its center and the symbols chalked across the walls and uncarpeted floor. Currently the only light came from the windows and an open door invisible at this angle, and the chamber was unoccupied, but the place was clearly set up and used for serious magical rituals.

Slowly Trowa observed, “They’ve altered the spell a couple of times and tried it again because it hasn’t worked so far.”

“Will it ever?” asked Duo. “I’ve never heard of anyone being able to directly move energy around like that.”

“Remember that they — their predecessors — deliberately put power into the first artifact.” Trowa could gradually be seen shaking his head as the latest vision faded. “It’s the extracting of energy from Quatre that seems likely to be the difficult part.”

Dorothy’s next divination was, “Will the spell La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré is using to try to extract energy from Quatre ever work?”

No, it would not.

She shrugged as she glanced over at Trowa. “So depending on how much you trust answers about the future, there you have it.”

Heero might have inquired whether answers about the future were typically unreliable, but heard confirmation of this guess in Duo’s thoughts and therefore said nothing. In fact, everyone was silent for several moments. Trowa looked unhappily pensive, Duo was pityingly picturing Quatre in that small and not very comfortable basement room two thousand miles from home, and Heero was trying to determine what else they needed to know while they had Dorothy here. Dorothy herself merely waited patiently, and the little red-haired girl in the chair, though she seemed to be listening with an intensity to match the interest Dorothy had suggested earlier, hadn’t said a word.

Finally Heero reiterated his earlier question. “Does Quatre want to be there? Was he actually kidnapped, or did he go with them willingly?”

Obligingly Dorothy made the same inquiry in slightly more concise words in the magical language, and thereby called up a poignant combined sense of duress, desire to get away from everyone that might be hurt by angry behavior, and a sort of indifference or recklessness arising from a hopeless lack of control of the situation.

“He didn’t really want to go…” Trowa began slowly.

“…but he saw it as a way to escape,” Heero finished for him at a murmur.

“So it was half a kidnapping,” was Duo’s assessment. “I wonder if he’s regretting it now.”

Now Dorothy asked whether Quatre was complying with the current wishes of La Confrérie. And it seemed he was — there were no weapons or restraints to be seen in the answering vision of Quatre being walked by strangers along a hall from the room in which he was staying to the one where the rituals took place — but Heero felt a definite sense of ‘for now,’ along with anger and the swift disintegration of already compromised patience, about the entire thing.

“What happens if he stops going along with them?” Duo wondered. “If he snaps? There’s no reason for him not to be just as mad as he was before…”

Uncertainly Heero suggested, “He might eventually use up the energy, like we were hoping at first…”

“Or they might actually get the spell right and pull the stuff out of him.” Duo sounded every bit as uncertain. “That answer could have been wrong.”

“Even if I thought they could get it right,” Trowa put in, folding his arms, “I don’t know that I’d want to leave them to it. I tried to use that energy for spellcasting once, as if Quatre were an artifact, and it actively hurt him.”

“If he’s still putting up with them trying whatever ritual over and over again, they’re probably not hurting him yet… but who knows when they might start? And…” Obviously Duo would rather not make the next part of this speculation out loud, but felt he had to. “And if they hurt him enough, it won’t matter if he doesn’t want to go along with them anymore. I mean, what if he’s too… damaged… by whatever they do to insist they let him go or try to leave on his own?”

Trowa took a deep breath, frowning with pursed lips.

“Dorothy,” Heero said, “can you find out–”

But he was interrupted, and every head turned, at just this moment. Because the little girl hadn’t spoken at all yet, and perhaps because she was a child among adults, the first sound of her high-pitched voice — bored, skeptical, yet somehow pert at the same time — from where she remained still in the chair with her hands in her lap induced instant silence, seized the room’s full attention:

“Um, do you really need to ask anything else? Obviously you need to just get on an airplane and go to New Orleans and rescue your friend.”

It was as if the little girl’s words had broken a curse that kept them all motionless and uncertain: abruptly it flashed upon them that she was absolutely right, and discussing possibilities only wasted time.

Heero was on his way to Quatre’s computer. Trowa was quietly speaking a spell to put out the candles. Dorothy had stepped away from where she’d been half seated on the desk and moved to sit more properly in the other chair in front of it. And Duo had moved to look down at this so unexpectedly incisive niece of his manager.

“You’re a smart kid,” he said as she returned his gaze calmly with a faint smile almost as calculating as the one she’d given him before.

“My teacher thinks so,” said the girl with some smugness.

“Your parents think so too,” Dorothy supplied. Her sharp expression looked very much like the girl’s. “And so do I.”

Duo might have asked what grade she was in, but honestly she still creeped him out a little. This was the type of kid that, back when Duo had been a doll, would engage him in disturbing role-plays involving far too much mature understanding of human psychology. He remembered one in which he’d been assigned the part of a serial killer eventually hunted down and forced to jump off a bridge to his death by police Barbies. Fun times. Right now, he made his way back around the desk to join Trowa seeing what Heero was looking up online.

“I think the closest place to New Orleans that I’m sure I could jump to is in Kansas or New Mexico,” the frustrated Trowa was saying as he watched the computer over Heero’s shoulder.

“And no chance of targeting Quatre?” Duo knew perfectly well there was none — Trowa would have jumped to Quatre long since if he could have used him as a destination — but he yet felt compelled to ask.

“None. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that again, with the way it combines command and communion, but if I can, it won’t be any time soon. A flight seems like my best option.”

“Um, our best option?” Duo replied in a skeptical, accusatory tone. “Remember how he’s with a magical cult that burned your house down?”

“And,” said Heero, quiet and emphatic, “remember how he’s my best friend?”

“Oh, yeah,” Duo recalled, “and remember how you don’t drive?”

“Of course,” Trowa replied, raising a hand as if to ward off the protests. “Don’t think I wouldn’t rather have you two with me. But this is going to be expensive enough for just one of us.”

“Let’s see how expensive,” Heero murmured. Now that the computer had finished booting and he’d entered his managerial login, he opened a browser and typed ‘cheap flights’ into the search bar. Then, on the first site that came up, he requested the price of a flight from here to New Orleans tomorrow.

When the icon in the center of the screen had finished spinning and a list, organized from lowest fare to highest, had populated, a collective groan arose.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Dorothy remarked from where she couldn’t see what they were looking at.

“Airplane rides are expensive,” was the niece’s wise input.

“There’s nothing under a thousand,” Heero informed the ladies grimly. And without another word he started opening every single site returned by his original search in separate tabs, and entering the same information into each one.

“Trowa, are you still super rich?” Duo wondered in some concern.

“I just bought a house,” Trowa replied in a horrified half whisper. “I don’t have even a thousand dollars left.”

Duo’s concern blossomed into something more like panic. “How much do you have?”

“Maybe half that much.”

“And I don’t have anything… I haven’t even gotten my first paycheck yet.” Duo stared at the screen in growing consternation. “Heero? Please tell me my responsible boyfriend saves lots of money all the time.”

“Your responsible boyfriend…” Heero sucked in a regretful breath through his teeth. “…has student loans he’s still paying off, and has been spending all his disposable income lately helping somebody born in 1899 experience the twenty-first century.”

“Damn me and my stupid… everything!” Taut fingers interwoven with his hair, Duo clutched at his head and made a sound of frustration. He’d always known it was inappropriate to let Heero buy him so much stuff. Why had he given in? Of course he couldn’t have guessed that he might be contributing to Quatre’s eventual peril in so doing, but he’d already had reasons to think it was a bad idea. If he’d just stuck to his guns–

“Hey,” said Heero firmly, turning fully toward Duo and tugging at one of his belt-loops to get his complete attention. “We’ve been over this. It wasn’t your fault, and I probably wouldn’t have twenty-five hundred saved anyway. OK?”

Staring down into Heero’s earnest face, Duo took a deep breath and removed his hands from his hair. “Yeah, OK,” he said. “OK. So what else can we do?”

“I would be happy to lend you guys some money,” Dorothy put in at this point, causing hope to rise in every heart for approximately two seconds before she finished, “if I hadn’t just taken an expensive vacation.”

Silence fell while Heero continued to enter airports and tomorrow’s date into various websites. “Here’s a nine-fifty,” he said presently, not with much enthusiasm.

“I thought adults had credit cards,” the little red-headed girl mused.

A lot of headshaking came in response to this, and explanations from three of the four adults:

“I barely even have a legal identity,” Duo said.

“I already have enough debt,” Heero said.

“Mine is maxed at the moment,” Dorothy said. At a surprised look from Heero, she added, “And it’s only got a $600 limit anyway. I used it for food on my trip.”

“Where did you eat?” Heero wondered incredulously. “You were only gone a week.”

“I treated myself,” was Dorothy’s lofty answer. “A vacation is a vacation.”

“I believe we have three options to get to New Orleans tomorrow.” Trowa spoke as if he’d been completely ignoring the conversation in favor of thinking hard and fast. “First, I could get in touch with my contacts and see if I can borrow enough money for a couple of plane tickets. I’m still not in much of a position to offer favors in return, and I have many more email addresses than phone numbers, meaning it sometimes takes a while for people to get back to me — so this isn’t a sure option, but it’s still an option.

“Or, if we can decide on just one of us to go, I’m sure we can scrape up enough for a single ticket among ourselves.” When Duo started to protest this, Trowa overrode him. “I know it’s a bad idea; I know you two want to come, and I want you with me. But we have to look at all our options. It would be better for one of us to go alone tomorrow than to wait for something cheaper who knows how many days from now.”

“Fine,” Duo agreed. “So what’s the third option?”

“Ask Quatre’s parents for a loan.”

Everyone turned this over in silence for several moments. Finally Heero said slowly, “They would probably have the money to lend, but I think asking them for it would involve telling them everything.”

“Yes, I think so too,” Trowa replied.

“How will Quatre feel if he finds out you’ve told his parents everything while he was gone?”

“He wants them told. I think you heard him accuse me of not wanting to have that conversation even after five months.”

“And do you want to have that conversation?” For the gentleness in Heero’s tone, Duo loved him.

Trowa shook his head. “I don’t think it matters. If we could convince them, it would be the quickest way to get the money, and the most convenient way for you two to get time off to go help their son.”

Duo hadn’t thought of this, but Trowa was right; this was the big boss they were talking about. That ‘if we could convince them,’ however, remained ominously hovering over the proposed venture. “What if they say no?” he wondered.

“Then I send another mass email, and call everyone whose number I have, begging for money,” said Trowa flatly. “And if that doesn’t work, I go alone.”

It was rational, Duo had to admit. It wasn’t a very pleasant prospect, but it seemed like a logical multi-layered plan that would put someone in New Orleans tomorrow no matter what succeeded and what failed. “Good thinking,” he said soberly. “So how do we start?”

“By getting Mr. and Mrs. Winner to meet us at my house, if we can. I’ll go to them if I have to, but I’d rather not invade their home for this kind of conversation, especially since I may have to demonstrate magic for them and it would be better if they’re the only ones present.”

“Mr. Barton,” Dorothy said, rising from her seat, “I think you’re underestimating what your fans are willing to do for you, favors or no favors.”

“Even if I am,” Trowa replied, “I still think talking to the Winners is a quicker and more certain first option.”

Dorothy shrugged. “I’m sure that what Mr. Trowa Barton thinks is best is best, and I wish you all the luck in the world.”

Trowa stepped over to her with the offer of another handshake. “Thank you very much for all your help in this matter,” he said gravely. “We would still be in the dark without you.”

“It’s my pleasure. It was amazing to meet you and work with you. I’ll be very interested to hear how this all turns out, and to see how Quatre’s doing once you bring him back.” Having said this, Dorothy turned to where her niece had risen as well and added, “Shall we go?”

The little girl nodded, and together, avoiding the candles that still decorated the floor, she and Dorothy headed for the door.

“Thanks, Dorothy,” Heero offered from the desk.

“Yeah, thanks a ton,” Duo reiterated.

She threw that sharp smile of hers over her shoulder and said by way of goodbye, “I’ll expect not to see either of you here tomorrow.”

The little girl, on the heels of her aunt, also turned back to glance at them before leaving, and the disdainful young voice offered one last piece of advice: “Try not to be stupid about things, and maybe you’ll do OK.”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” Duo muttered, shivering slightly, when the door had closed. Then he shook himself and turned to where Heero was shutting down the computer, Trowa standing still looking contemplative. “All right, now what?”

Trowa’s pacing of his nearly empty first floor could almost be called ‘prowling,’ but it accomplished very little. He’d come back to his house ahead of the others (not that this was unusual, given their different modes of transportation) to ensure it looked as respectable as possible before Mr. and Mrs. Winner arrived, but there wasn’t much he could do toward that end. He’d brought his armchair down from the study to face the one piece of furniture here in the living room, and readied a couple of the dishes that remained to him so as to be able to offer his guests tea, and that was about as far as his preparations could extend.

They’d eventually decided that Heero, as a friend of longer standing, should be the one to make the call to Quatre’s parents and try to convince them to come to Trowa’s house. What he’d said to them Trowa didn’t know, just as he had no idea how Heero had managed to get Quatre to agree to see an exorcist last week, but Heero’s Winner-persuasion skills had evidently sufficed: he’d sent a text to confirm his success and that he and Duo were on their way here now.

Upon their arrival, there was a general milling about in subdued agitation very much like back in May when they’d waited for the curse to break. Here, though, just the opposite of Heero’s apartment, large and largely unfurnished rooms made for plenty of empty space to pace through. Duo still managed to get in Heero’s way repeatedly, and Trowa thought he might have been doing it on purpose in an attempt to alleviate some of the tension.

When the doorbell rang, they all jumped for it, but even Duo, after his immediate vigorous motion toward the entry, restrained himself from joining Trowa. The latter took a deep breath, readied a look of sober but friendly welcome, and went to open the door.

Aside from expressions that matched Trowa’s fairly neatly, Mr. and Mrs. Winner appeared as he’d ever seen them: they each had a tendency to dress — as was only to be expected in a couple old enough to be Quatre’s grandparents rather than his parents — in clothing that, though it seemed nothing particularly unusual to Trowa, he knew to be somewhat old-fashioned. In fact Trowa believed his own outdated wardrobe had won him points with at least the father, whose good-natured ribbing regarding coats with tails had seemed also to hold a touch of approval.

Now as this gentleman greeted Trowa, his wife had stepped into the entryway and was looking around with interest. “Yes, good evening!” she echoed. “Heero mentioned you’d just moved into town. It seems like a lovely house.”

Though the days were long past of soliciting parental approval and permission to remove their offspring from under their own protective roof to that of a hopeful suitor, Trowa couldn’t help feeling some pleasure at this statement of approbation, even if, that very night, he’d had cause to regret buying a home so large and fine. But that same offspring, and not the protective roof, was what they had met for, as Mr. Winner reminded them: “We’re here to discuss Quatre, not the house.”

“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Winner agreed, her gravity increasing. Turning to Trowa she added, “Heero said it was important.”

“Come sit down.” Trowa led the way through the echoing front room into the next and gestured to the sofa. “We have a lot to talk about. Would you like some tea?”

Busy first greeting the friends waiting in the living room and then examining with some interest and curiosity the sofa that was draped over with a large white sheet, the Winners neglected to answer Trowa’s question immediately; but when they were seated, Mrs. Winner, often the more courteous of the two, accepted the offer on behalf of both of them.

“I don’t know whether Heero mentioned it,” Trowa said as he moved to pour the tea and bring it out from the adjoining kitchen, “but my previous house burned down. I apologize for the sheet, but that smoke-damaged sofa and the chair there are all the seats I have left.”

Though Mr. and Mrs. Winner made sounds of surprise and sympathy at what was apparently news, Trowa didn’t allow them time to interject with questions or comments. “I’m somewhat attached to this sofa,” he went on as he handed them their cups, “and giving it up would have meant reducing the amount of furniture I have left even further.” As he settled down across from them into his own chair he finished, “I haven’t given up hope of getting the smoke stains out.”

Mr. Winner appeared a little impatient at this ostensibly irrelevant topic. Though Mrs. Winner also seemed somewhat confused, still she did her part in maintaining the conversation by shaking her head and saying with polite regret, “If it’s been a few days, even an expert might not be able to get it out now.”

“I wasn’t planning on a restoration service.” Trowa spoke with perfectly level coolness. “I’m going to try to do it with magic. I just haven’t had a chance to work out a spell for cleaning smoke out of upholstery yet.”

This lead-up wasn’t much smoother than talking about the sofa had been all along, but Trowa considered it better than plunging in with no introduction whatsoever.

Now Mr. Winner looked even more impatient than before, though, to judge by certain twitches of his white mustache, he seemed to be trying to come up with a jovial response and match his wife’s willingness to maintain the conversation. Once again, however, it was she that spoke first. She had undergone no change in facial expression, and her words were calm and pleasant:

“A good friend of mine, who seems perfectly rational in every other area, sometimes talks about magic and spells just like that — seriously, as if it’s a real part of her life. I hadn’t considered you the type for that kind of thing, Trowa.”

“Would you like to see some magic?” Trowa offered with the same levelness as before.

“We would like,” Mr. Winner answered, “to know what about Quatre Heero was so anxious to have us come here to discuss.”

Trowa gave a slight nod acknowledging the reasonableness of this request, but still had to insist. “This is relevant.”

Mr. Winner made a disbelieving noise. “Whatever you know about Quatre, you should just tell us.”

“No, it isn’t.” This sudden firm statement from Heero didn’t seem congruous with the discussion thus far, but when Mr. Winner gave Heero a sharp, startled look it seemed to Trowa that it must have been in response to an unspoken thought.

“I told you before it’s not his fault,” Heero went on quietly from where he stood beside Trowa’s chair. “We’ll explain everything, but you need to see this first.” And he broke the held gaze he’d been sharing with Mr. Winner and turned his head toward Trowa in a gesture that the latter should proceed.

Trowa took a deep breath as his boyfriend’s parents, with mixed expressions of surprise, concern, curiosity, and annoyance, granted him their full attention again.

He’d given this as much thought as time and agitation had allowed, and come to the conclusion that an early demonstration was a better idea than half an hour’s unconvincing dissertation on the subject (undoubtedly followed by a demonstration); then it only remained to determine which spells would be the most quickly and thoroughly convincing. Some he’d dismissed as being too easily mistaken for sleight of hand, others as requiring the setup of rituals he didn’t have resources for at the moment, and eventually he’d settled on a couple he hoped would be effective. Now it was time to find out.

He began by summoning objects from his office. This was a simple enough spell, especially given that he’d laid the things out in two neat rows on his table up there in preparation for it, and, with only the handful of items he planned on summoning, not at all tiring. The first book appeared out of nowhere, a few feet away from Trowa so as to look less like something he might have had beside him on the chair and a few inches above the carpet so as to cause some motion and a slight sound as it fell.

The people on the couch had been staring at Trowa, puzzled by the sound of the unfamiliar language in which he spoke his spell, but now Mrs. Winner’s head turned toward where movement had caught her eye. Her brow-lowered gaze remained on the innocent-looking object on the floor — clearly evincing the question in her head, “Was that there before?” — until a second book, in response to Trowa’s next spell, thumped down on top of the first, and she started visibly.

There followed an additional couple of volumes, a pack of cards, an empty cup, and Trowa’s desk lamp — which retained for half an instant the electric glow of having been plugged in up until now before going dark and toppling over. By the time this small pile had accumulated, both Winners were watching it with some concentration. The advent of objects had ceased to startle, but contemplation and some astonishment was written plainly in the bearing of each watcher.

“I know this is a very mundane demonstration,” Trowa said as he rose from his chair. Then with another spell he jumped from where he stood to the far side of the kitchen counter, fifteen or so feet away. This caused Mr. Winner also to rise and jump — though his motion was merely a non-magical springing to his feet off the sofa, dropping his cup and spilling tea onto the floor as he did so.

“I hope it convinces you,” Trowa continued in a louder tone, drawing the surprised gaze of both Winners toward his new position and causing the husband to take a step in that direction, “that I have magical abilities.” His next spell took him into the front room, so that when he finished his statement the startled snapping of attention brought the Winners’ heads ninety degrees around. “Magic is a normal part of life for many people — such as that friend you mentioned, most likely, Mrs. Winner.” Calmly he walked back toward them, gesturing to where Heero still stood beside his chair and Duo sat on the step up out of the sunken living room area. “These friends of mine are both magicians as well.”

Trowa resumed his seat, facing the still-standing Mr. Winner and his motionless wife, in whose faces it would have been difficult to pinpoint a single dominant emotion. The primary concern of their complex frames of mind, however, was soon evident as Mrs. Winner said in a baffled, worried murmur, “And Quatre?”

Her husband took up the query with an almost combative air, not bothering to restrain the disapproval in his glare at Trowa or the accusatory tension in his frame. “Yes! What does all of this have to do with our son?”

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.