All the regular disclaimers apply.

Author's Notes: I'm sort of letting the characters lead me on this one, so I honestly don't know the rating or the pairings for the future. For the time being, probably PG-13ish for language and a little grisliness. Very, very AU. This is sort of a dark urban fantasy/fairy tale, though I am taking some pretty heavy liberties with the folkloric elements.
Many thanks go to Merellia and Merith, whom I tortured with much insecurity and pleas for advice, and because of whom the last scene is readable.

Obscured Reflection
Chapter One
by Saro

A constant stream of water trickled down the back of Heero's neck as he made his way through a tired neighborhood. Worn old Victorian homes lined the street, faded and peeling. Grass pushed up through the cracked sidewalk. The rain washed the colors of chalk off the pavement and made broken, oily puddles in driveways and on the shoulder of the road.

Duo hunkered dejectedly on his shoulder. Heero could almost hear his complaints. "I can't believe you dragged us out in this. I know you think you're going to find her, but it's not like we're just going to trip over her or something. I don't understand you sometimes. All we're doing is getting wet."

Heero wouldn't have been distracted by the complaints. It was just something Duo did.

At least, that was how it was supposed to be.

"You don't have to come with me," Heero said aloud, halting the monologue in his head. "You could go back to the van."

Duo shot him a scathing look. "Thanks, I didn't know I needed permission." Heero frowned, head bowing a little. That wasn't how I meant it, and he knows it. The crow had always come and gone as he pleased.

As though to prove that point, Heero felt the claws on his shoulder tighten, weight shifting forward as Duo jumped off his shoulder. With a strong downward stroke of his wings, he flew ahead to perch on a stop sign.

A woman out walking her Rottweiler spared Heero a second glance, her eyes fixed on the crow that had been riding him. The bird stared back at her, beak open. Heero knew the smile Duo would have worn if he could, sharp-edged and aggressive, one corner of his mouth higher than the other. When Heero caught her eye, she blushed and quickly turned away. Her dog whimpered a question at him, tail tucked up to its belly. He offered it a smile, and its ears shifted forward hopefully. The tawny spots over its eyes quirked in a strange imitation of human brows. Then the woman tugged on the Rottweiler's leash and they were both behind him.

Suddenly, the sidhe's surrounding crashed in on him. Whatever he was looking for, he wouldn't find it here. He could feel her, like something he couldn't quite remember tugging at the back of his brain. Something missing...

He pulled his coat a little tighter and fished a cigarette and matchbook out of the pocket. Duo tilted his head disapprovingly. "It's a bad habit."

"I've seen what you eat," Heero said and lit a match, cupping his hand around the little flame protectively. "You have no room to judge."

The crow made an indignant squawk, refolding his wings, and pulled himself up. Then, as though it had decided he wasn't worth paying attention to, the bird began grooming his breast. Tufts of black down floated free with the force of his preening.

"Are you coming?" he asked Duo as he started walking again.

Duo flipped a wing at him dismissively, still pretending to be engrossed in arranging and smoothing his feathers. "You go on," Heero's mind supplied. "I'll catch up later."

More small, downy feathers drifted to the ground as he worked at the underside of one wing. Heero frowned, but he nodded as he passed. He didn't know what the other did when he went off on his own, but Duo never seemed to have a problem finding him again when he wanted to.

With nothing there to keep his attention, Heero soon moved out of the pocket of suburb he'd wandered into. The air took on the smell of rubber and Thai spice under the heavier scents of car exhaust and rain. There was more magic here, in the casual spells laid in signs and graffiti. There were more people here, too, shopping or loitering. He spotted a pair of elfs waiting in line outside a rundown theater; the heat-shimmer of illusion was around them both.

Since Treize defeated him and the others, the sidhe had as a rule ignored him, looking through him with polite disdain. These two were no exception. One's eyes flicked his direction with a spark of recognition, then away. Heero knew his name. It was Laszlo. The other, a girl, was Danika. Neither had been more than an acquaintance to him, but they had served the Bright Court together before he pledged to Relena.

He treated them with the same indifference they showed him, practice having made him better at it. Not slowing, it wasn't long before he had put them behind him as well.

_____ _____ _____

Duo watched Heero go. He wondered, sometimes, if he ought to leave him alone so often. He talked to himself more and more, which wouldn't have worried the crow normally, but the fact that Heero used him as the voice for one side of the conversation did.

He never talked to me that much when I could talk back, Duo thought wryly, mantled against a gust of wind. Heero could take care of himself, and madmen always had the best luck.

Besides, he had other things to do. Heero might stumble over their queen's hiding place just wandering around aimlessly, but Duo doubted it. Even if he did, what then?

Duo took off. It wasn't his favorite weather for flying -- he'd have preferred a sunny day, with thermals to ride on instead of struggling for lift with soggy plumage. Seagulls could have this shit. The tick of water working through to his skin made him itch for a dust bath, distracting him from his thoughts.

The city grew smaller below him, looking more and more haphazard as it shrank, the angles and intersections of roads canting around hills or diverging for no reason he could see. It was all grey and dull from rain. As he gained altitude, he caught sight of the sinuous brown line of a river. It was sneaking up on the high water mark.

Wheeling, he flew over the city.

His destination appeared as a plot of variegated green; regularly placed stones and dark evergreens broke the carefully tended grass. Flowers made occasional splashes of color on the lawn. As the white limestone markers turned pocked and mossy, the flowers became fewer and farther between. The particular magic of graveyards never changed. The veil that separated this world from the Other thinned, darkening the atmosphere. There were no banishments that could have held him out of a place this steeped in death. He landed on an old headstone and knocked sharply.

"Ah, didn't think I'd see you ‘round today?" Howard said from behind him. "Do you have anything for me?"

The leader of the Barrow Folk stood leaning against the trunk of a cedar, wearing a Hawaiian shirt flamboyantly patterned with surfboards and panel wagons. The sunglasses he wore were dark enough to block out the tropical sun, but in this climate they mostly served to hide his eyes from scrutiny.

Winking at the old man Duo bobbed his head in a nod.

"You're a good kid," Howard told him, a smile splitting his face, smile-lines peaking out from behind his glasses. "You want to show one of my boys where you stashed it?"

Duo puffed himself up. After years like this, he was used to having to pantomime in order to get his point across. He was ready to squawk about it, if he had to.

"Hey, hey," the Barrow man said quickly, before Duo could start making noise. "I didn't say right this minute. You just got here. What sort of host would I be if I didn't offer you something to eat and catch up a bit? No reason to get outta shape."

Duo shot him a sideways glance, flicking his tail.

Chuckling, Howard pushed himself away from the tree. "I'm offering now. Come on. I don't think we have any eyeballs laying around, but I'm sure I can find something rotten enough for you to eat."

He hopped into the air and flew the short distance to land on Howard's shoulder.

"Shit on this shirt and I'm having crow for dinner. Consider yourself warned," the old man said lightly. Duo ruffled primly and snorted, then jabbed at Howard's earlobe.

A cigar appeared in the Howard's hand as he turned, plucked out of thin air, and they made their way across the green toward a low hill. The waif-like faces of the Barrow folk turned toward them now and then, half visible through the thin barrier between worlds. Behind them, he could just make out the hollows of their mounds and the glimmer of treasure looted from the graves.

As they walked, Duo listened to Howard summarize Court gossip, sketching in the air with his cigar as he spoke. "Don't know what Treize did, but the UnSeelie have their panties in a bunch," he explained. "He's been stepping on a lot toes lately, and the NicNiven is ready to spit nails. The Seelie are with him at the moment, mostly because Her Majesty UnSeelie is so friggin' upset."

Duo nodded in understanding. The Seelie and the UnSeelie hadn't stood together in millennia. If one Court claimed the sky was blue, the other would staunchly maintain that it wasn't -- the sky itself had no color, and what appeared to be blue was merely an optical illusion. Then one or the other would get offended and start a war.

Some things would never change. It was reassuring, in a way.

"The elfs in the Bright Court are doing the same thing they always do: as long as it doesn't concern them directly, they just stand back and shake their heads sadly. Pricks, the lot of them." The Barrow man stabbed the air in emphasis, then added, "That crazy boy of yours excepted, of course."

Chortling, the bird hopped impatiently. Howard sat down on the wet grass and clamped his cigar between his teeth. "Not much more to tell, really. So far as I can see, it's mostly just the usual. The Small Folk are saying there was a ban sidhe washing bloody clothes in the river, but I haven't heard anything to confirm that one way or the other."

Duo perked. Ban sidhe meant someone was going to die.

"Nothing to get excited about," Howard told him reprovingly. "It's just a rumor. Now, I promised you something to eat..." He looked around, reached through the veil and caught one of the Barrow Folk.

"Shi -- Cold!" The startled mound faery said as it was pulled into the human world, swearing when it suddenly found itself outside in the rain.

"Watch it," the leader warned the faery-- a pale creature, with stringy white hair. "Now get my friend here something to eat. This is a graveyard; there must be something dead laying around here somewhere."

_____ _____ _____

The window was cool against Wufei's forehead, a solid point in reality while he let his mind roam. He's been in this apartment for three months, living with her. Before that, it was another woman. There wasn't even a break between; when the last kicked him out, this one had taken him in.

His thoughts drifted back in time, past the last woman and the woman before her, and all the women who had come before them. Before his Queen had been lost to Courtly machinations, when he had wrapped the girls in glamours so thick they pined to death wanting him. There were only a sad few who had the power to resist him, back then.

And the one who had the most power had chosen not to.

Drops of water slid past his eyes, leaving trails like tear-tracks on the glass. Outside, the sky had turned the grey of gunmetal, the clouds rolling visibly. The wind was picking up, bringing worse weather with it.

Hearing her fuss with her keys, he turned toward the door. A moment later, it opened, and she stepped in, her bangs slicked against her face. She met his eyes briefly, hopefully, but turned away from whatever she saw in him. "I thought maybe..." she began, but trailed off. She was pale beneath the natural creamed-coffee shade of her skin and the flesh under her eyes was shadowed.

"You thought?" he prompted, turning back to the window.

"I thought maybe we'd go out to dinner tonight," she said then in a rush. "I had a long day, and I don't want to cook right now." She paused, and he let his eyes close, pushing down the swelling disgust that rose in him at the note of eagerness which crept into her words. Why did she bother? Then she was speaking again, "I thought it might be fun. You could wear that black shirt I bought you, and I haven't gotten to wear my new shoes yet. What do you say?"

"Where did you want to go?" he asked, distancing himself from the scene he was in, from the way he could almost feel her desperation floating in the air like ash.

"Misha says the French restaurant that just went in on 10th is good," she answered and he nearly winced to hear the tentative smile in her voice. "I thought we might try that. I have the money, so that's not a problem."

They met at a party, he remembered, something the last one had taken him to when she was trying to save their relationship. She'd introduced herself when he stepped outside for air; she was with a friend of hers who'd needed a cigarette.

"I'm going for a walk," he told her, opening his eyes and straightening.

"You're--" She blinked. "What about dinner?"

Shrugging, Wufei pushed past her, not bothering to grab his jacket. "Maybe when I get back."


"But what?" he shot back sharply. But you're going to fix it? But you had a plan? You knew if you gave me one more chance, I'd see? Snorting, he repeated, "But what?"

"I'll see you when you get back," she said, surrendering. "Maybe then."

He shook his head, almost wanting to laugh, and stepped outside.

_____ _____ _____

It was starting to get dark, night spreading from the Eastern horizon like a bad bruise. The clouds took the color, brown and purple fading into black and blue. Heero walked back toward the Volkswagen, looking forward to the Eurovan's cold, damp interior without enthusiasm.

He hadn't found what he was searching for today, but there was tomorrow. He could still sense her, there but not. Eventually, he would find her.

Duo hadn't found him yet; Heero wondered if the crow would be gone all night. He disappeared occasionally, sometimes for days at once, but he always came back. Normally Heero would wake up to find him there, squatting on the back of one of the van's seats or poking through the pockets of his coat.

Cutting through a vacant lot between housing projects, he pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders. Field grass whipped around his calves and soaked his pant legs. The chill of iron mingled with that of the rain. It was getting cold, and the rain was coming down harder, the wind blowing it in his face with stinging force.

If I knew what he was searching for...If I knew where to look... Even if I only knew what had happened to Relena in the first place...

There were many ifs.

If I had been with her when whatever happened, happened. If I could have stopped it. If I could have seen it coming. If I still had my power. If my heartstone weren't flawed and sealed. If Duo weren't trapped as a crow. If Trowa's magic wasn't locked away in his flute. If Quatre still had his Sight. If Wufei was free. If Milliardo had sided with his sister.

And none of them did him any good.

The streetlights were starting to flicker on, casting strange shadows against abandoned garbage. Grey and black, and sere brown, mottled with the red of dead leaves.

One shadow didn't move with the others, catching Heero's eye. He stopped, looking closer at a figure on ground a few yards off.

The creature was easily lost in the tall grass where it crouched, long hair sticking out at odd angles, obscuring most of its features. Gangly arms and legs bent in on themselves. Heero could make out the sharp protrusion of a nose, and the low, yellow glister of its eyes. Long hands traced idle patterns on the ground as the goblin looked up at him, grinning toothily.

Half straightening, it matched his stare.

Heero felt a cold flare of anger. This thing should never have been so bold with him. He could have killed it, once, with an off-hand gesture.

"What do you want?" Heero asked, eyes narrowing at it made a show of studying him.

"Want?" it repeated, then laughed; its voice was oddly childish. It moved forward with the graceless agility of a monkey, padding on four limbs. "What makes you think I want anything?"

Heero scowled. It thought it could tease him.

"Ask me what I'm doing here," it dared him as it circled. "Go on. Ask me."

Silence. Heero's hands knotted into fists, but he didn't respond.

The goblin huffed, a disappointed caricature on its face. "I won't tell you if you don't ask."

"Then don't tell me."

It paused, drooping visibly. "Don't you want to know?" Even its hair seemed to lose its energy, pressed down by the rain. The streetlights caught the glint of metal around at its neck. It tensed -- Heero barely had time to register the movement before it was on him. He caught it out of reflex, saving his face from the broken claws that ended its fingers. Then it was twisting and struggling against his grip; wiry muscles bunched and flexed. "I doubt a pot pixy like you could tell me anything I'm interested in hearing." Heero responded coolly.

"Fucking arrogant elf," It hissed through its teeth. Lunging, it bit his hand hard enough to break the skin, but Heero held on determinedly. It grinned at him when it pulled back, blood around its mouth. "You're nothing but a has-been."

Heero snorted, not bothering to respond.

It lashed out with its feet next, and the air exploded from Heero's lungs and it planted both firmly in his gut. The thing's long toes tangled in his coat, scraping at his stomach as it looked for the leverage to wrench itself free. His bitten hand throbbed in time with his heart, blood making his grip slippery. Heero looked around, scanning the area for a weapon.

Scraps from the construction lay in haphazard piles, littered with bottles and cans, plastic bags and pieces of piping that people had abandoned here rather than transport to a dump. Left over fencing and rusty, broken ends of rebar. Plenty of things that would serve his purposes.

Taking a chance, he let go of the goblin. Over balanced, it fell hard on its back. Heero made a grab for a metal stake -- iron, burning and freezing at once so he struggled not to throw it away immediately -- and brought it down hard on the recovering creature.

It screamed, jaundiced eyes flying wide, as it clawed at the stake nailing it to the ground. It was still screaming when Heero had to let go of the bar. The sidhe staggered back a step, clutching his hand to his chest, and sat down heavily on the ground. Slowly, the pain faded to a dull ache.

He was still standing over the body when Duo appeared. The crow landed on the dead goblin, looking a question at Heero.

"You would show up now," he accused the bird wryly.

Duo preened innocently, and Heero almost heard him say, "I always liked to make an entrance." Then his attention fell to the corpse. Heero turned away, preferring not to watch his friend picking at the body of a goblin which had just tried to kill him. The bird was studying something shiny around the goblins throat with first one eye, then the other. Apparently, as long as there was not competition, he was willing to take the time to scavenge a bit of jewelry off of the dead goblin before he ate it.

Heero could hear Duo's voice as he said, "Oh, I love goblins. Nothing is crunchy quite like goblins." That was nearly a century ago.

"It attacked me," Heero explained.

"Why did it do that?" Duo should have asked. He heard a pop from where the UnSeelie crow was beginning to pick at his meal and preferred not to consider what the sound might have been.

"I don't know," he said, answering the unvoiced question. "It wanted me to ask."

"Why didn't you?"

Frowning, he answered, "I didn't like it playing games with me."

"Well, a goblin wouldn't have just decided to come after you," Duo's voice pointed out reasonably. "Even they aren't that stupid."

He nodded. "Someone must have sent it."

But who, and why? Rubbing his injured hand gingerly, he considered. It had been years since he was a threat to anyone. The Courts had all but forgotten him. Without Relena, even if he'd had his powers still, he'd only be one disenfranchised Knight. If he found her, maybe then he would be something to fear again.

If he found her.

Suddenly, Heero smiled. For the first time in almost two decades, he was close enough to finding Relena that someone was scared.

on to chapter two

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