Standard disclaimers apply.

Pairings: tentatively, 1+2, maybe 3+4, and 5xOCs (plural) if any of those can actually be considered relationships.
We're still calling this PG-13ish for the time being, but it may bump up to R. For the moment, warnings for language some mild grisliness.

Feedback craved and worshipped. All positive makes me paranoid, though, so tell me what I'm doing wrong. :smile:

Obscured Reflection
Chapter Four
by Saro

It started raining again as Heero walked, a thin drizzle that couldn't clean the neighborhood they passed through. The water dappled the already wrinkled flyers that colored the telephone poles, smearing promises to lose weight and blurring the faces in the band playing Thursday night only. Duo led the way through a tangle of dirty streets. The buildings that lined the road had been nice fifty years before, and Heero could still almost see that in them, hovering over them like the ghost of a time when this had been an upscale area peaking through the mosaic of concert posters and missing persons. It was the staples, the elf thought sadly. They pinned the past down and held it there unhappily. Eventually it would thin the veil between worlds and Faerie would leak out here, too. He could already feel the tingle of it in the air, follow the shadow of a shiny new nineteen-fifty-four Mercury Monterey following a rusted eighty-eight Corolla.

Duo brought them to a windowless building with rod iron security doors. The crow gave Heero an apologetic look as he landed on the rim of a trashcan. "Sorry, buddy. Didn't think about that."

Heero shrugged. He'd live.

The sign over the door proclaimed the place "Smoke and Mirrors" in wavering pink letters. A blue caterpillar reclined lazily on a mushroom beside the name; there was a tall hookah on his lap.

"Here?" Heero asked, grinding the spark of his last cigarette under his heel as he studied both sign and door incuriously. He thought, perhaps, the building had once been a pharmacy.

A sharp, decisive head bob answered him. "Why else do you think I'd bring you here?"

"How should I know what you think?" Duo just chortled in response, the closest a bird could come to laughter, and leapt into the air. A few heavy strokes of his wings brought him across the distance between them. The UnSeelie landed on his shoulder and gave Heero's ear an encouraging peck.

Iron bit his hand when he opened the door, and crossing the threshold put a sick ache between his shoulder blades. The store's smoky, dim interior reached out and pulled him in. Music assaulted his ears with a sound at once mellow and dissident, sung in a distinct patois. Patchouli incense coated his throat and burned his eyes. Slowly, his eyes focused in the alien glow of a black light.

Racks of clothes crowded together on the floor. The glitter of metal here and there resolved into jewelry or wind chimes, or candle sconces made out of pierced aluminum cans. Display cases dominated an entire wall, their glass fronts showing purple shadows and distorted reflections. Most were filled with brightly colored pipes, swirled with blue and yellow or green.

"Hey!" the girl behind the counter shouted, and Heero realized suddenly that she'd been speaking before that. "You can't bring that in here. Sir, you can't bring a crow in here. You'll have to leave it outside."

"Oh?" Heero glanced at his companion. Duo was inspecting the girl's nose ring with a greedy eye. "Why's that?"

She blinked, running her tongue stud over her teeth thoughtfully. The crow watched the shiny end of the barbell flash briefly and then disappear behind the girl's lips. "Because we don't allow animals in here. It might shit on the merchandise or something."

"Oh. It's not a problem, then."

"How isn't it a problem?" she demanded, and Heero shot Duo a quick glare. His attention was fixed on that nose ring again.

"He's not an animal. And he won't shit on anything," he told her confidently.

"Listen, I don't know what you're on, but..." the girl said, an argument written in her frown and the way she laid both her hands on the counter top. "You are gonna have to leave. We don't allow birds in here. Don't make me--"

"They're fine, Emmy," a new voice broke in, punctuated by the splash and clatter of a body passing through a beaded curtain. "Heero and I go way back." The arrival was a short, youngish woman looking, her black hair spiked back from a sharply featured face. An embroidered blue kurta nearly slid off her skinny shoulders. At first Heero didn't recognize her; she had cut her hair since the last time they'd met, and some of the softness had melted from her.

"Hilde," he said, the name surfacing like a bright fish in murky water.

"Hey, Heero," she greeted him, smiling. "It's been a while. Why don't we move this into my office? Save Emily here the boredom of listening to us reminisce, y'know." As she spoke, Hilde cast a pointed glance at Duo, still eying the cashier's jewelry with fixed intensity.

Heero made a noise to show his agreement and shrugged the shoulder Duo was perched on to get his attention. The crow squawked, scrambling to keep his place. Then he shook himself out. Black down floated to the floor.

"Hi, Duo," Hilde said, arching an eyebrow. She lifted one hand, and Duo hopped over to it. If she cared about his claws on her bare skin, she showed no sign of it. Birdlike, Duo studied her with one eye then the other. He shook his head and Heero could almost hear him commenting on the changes he saw in the woman.

"You've looked better, girl." A gaping beak implied his old, teasing grin.

"You've seen better days yourself," she replied to the unspoken comment, smiling sadly. Smoothing the feathers on Duo's breast affectionately, Hilde carried him back through the beaded curtain, leaving Heero to follow after them. The elf forced himself to ignore the itch of being in an iron-sealed building and pushed the long strands of plastic aside, stepping into a small office.

"Go ahead and sit down." She already had, and lowered Duo to the desk. "What can I do for you guys today?"

"I don't know," Heero answered honestly, pointing to the crow with his chin. "It was his idea."

"Great. Time for show and tell, then." Hilde rolled her eyes. "Okay, Duo. What do you have for me?"

Duo flipped a wingtip at her irritably and walked across the table. Heero watched him, forced to bird-walk from point to point. Flying wasn't so bad, and riding seemed to have become the privilege of being trapped in the body of a crow, but the stiff, forced steps were an insult to a creature who used to move with fluid, thoughtless grace through the paces of battle. Then the crow cut off that line of thought, dropping down to Heero's knee and boldly fishing through his coat pocket.

"Excuse me?" The elf brought up a hand to stop him. His stomach turned with a sudden, irrational fear, and the tingle of iron pressed in on him.

Duo stabbed his palm with his beak hard enough to draw blood. The look the UnSeelie gave him hurt more than the pinking. "Give me some credit," it said, but in that tone of voice that meant that Duo knew he wouldn't, and he felt heat in his cheeks and ears. Still, he couldn't entirely tamp down the nervous roil in his stomach as Duo began picking though his pocket again.

A moment later he surfaced triumphantly with his prize: the shiny internals of a pocket watch. Heero blinked. Hilde opened her mouth, a question in her eyes, and he could only shrug. He didn't know where Duo had gotten that, or what it was -- and he was rather disgruntled that it had been in his jacket.

Carrying the broken watch, Duo managed to strut back across the desk. After presenting the strange object to Hilde, he hopped back so she could examine it. The woman picked it up, turned it over, poked at the tiny mechanized pieces, and set it back down.

"Okay, I give up," she said at last. "What is it?"

Huffing, Duo looked at Heero as though he expected the elf to offer an explanation. He met the beady gaze blankly, wondering what the other thought he knew. His mind reeled backward through the past few days, but he couldn't think of what the importance of a broken watch might be.

...the goblin, limp with disappointment when he refused to rise to its baits, then tensed to spring. The streetlights caught a dull flash of metal at its neck. He hadn't known what...

Black head tilted to one side, the voice Heero imagined was serious and just a little concerned. "Have you figured it out yet?"

Heero licked his lips. "Maybe." Shaking off the last off his memory, he turned his attention to Hilde. He was aware of the bird's eyes still on him as he spoke. "The other night, I was attacked by a goblin. I think this was on him."

She waited a moment before speaking. "Is that all?"

"I think so."

Duo nodded, turning his attention to the woman expectantly. Apparently, it was her turn to guess what he wanted of her. "Well?"

She sighed. "Shot in the dark here: you want me to find out where this came from, and tell you about who owned it."

A pose, head high, wings folded imperiously, more like the raven from the poem than a common gutter crow. The image evoked some of Duo's old power. Condescending. "There now, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"With you, there's no such thing as too easy," Hilde muttered, and Heero blinked. That didn't quite make sense. The woman continued, oblivious to her own non-sequiter. "I'll see what I can do. No promises, though."

The regal stance dissolved and Duo shrank, just a crow again. "That's all I ask for."

Snorting, Hilde pulled a brown cigarette out of a pack on the desk and lit it. Cloves teased Heero's nose. She balanced the cigarette between her fingers, playing with the butt idly. "Is that all?"

"Thank you," Heero said into the silence that followed, remembering belatedly that it was his responsibility now. Since this woman didn't seem as capable of reading Duo as well as she thought, he voiced the sentiment aloud for both of them.

Hilde blinked, startled, then smiled wryly. "No problem. It's not like I have much else to do these days. Most of the Courts have forgotten I exist, I think. So I get to run the shop in peace. Stoners and would-be-witches get boring." She wrinkled her nose. "I wonder what some of the old crowd would make of them."

"Do you buy into this?" he asked and gestured to the beaded door behind him, including her whole shop with a spare motion of his hand.

"What? The stoners?" She raised one shoulder, nearly unseating her blouse with the motion. "They're the same in every generation. It doesn't matter if they're smoking pot, or eating 'shrooms, or just drinking themselves blurry. As for the witches... these people have forgotten there's a price for that sort of thing, and they think most of the 'spiritual' world is something friendly and supportive. I've only ever found one way to get the kind of powers they think they want." The pushed up her sleeve to elaborate, revealing a neat row of three smooth warts on her wrist. The fear in Heero's stomach twisted a reminder as he looked at them. The skin wasn't even scarred where she'd sewn in the carbuncles and stole the power of their original owners.

After a few seconds of quiet, she let her sleeve fall back into place and finally raised her cigarette to her lips.

"These kids don't understand the sort of bargains you have to make to get real power," she finished finally. "Either you're born with it, or you buy it, but for humans, there's always a price."

"If you're not human, there's a price too," Heero told her, thinking of himself and Duo, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei, all rendered impotent. Humans could be killed, but they didn't have the sort of weaknesses sidhe did. He thought of Relena, alive but lost.

Hilde's smile canted sideways, losing whatever humor had been in it. "I'd never pretend otherwise."

The smell of incense and cloves was cloying, mixed with the uncomfortable presence of iron on the door, on the single, narrow window into Hilde's office. Heero swallowed, but it didn't clear the thickness from his throat. He could still hear the music from the front of the store without their conversation to cover it, the distinctive up and down beat of reggae. Bells jangled as someone came in -- he hadn't noticed the sound when he came through the door himself.

Duo jumped up to his shoulder, flapping his wings to keep his balance as he came down. Feathers brushed Heero's cheek softly.

"I think it's time for you to go," Hilde remarked, amused. "I'll see what I can do for you about this, but it might take awhile."

The crow nodded; Heero told her, "We'll be back in a few days."

"I'll see you then. Take care of yourselves."

From the corner of his eye, Heero caught his companion's exaggerated haughty pose, heard him chortle. "I think we'll manage," his mind supplied.

"Take care of yourself too, featherbrain," Hilde chided mockingly, and confused Heero. What did she think Duo was saying? He turned the words around in his head, sure she'd misunderstood the UnSeelie's intent. Still, he couldn't see what good it would do to correct her.

They left the store quickly after that, and Heero was happy to be outside. The rain was coming down harder now, making thin streams at the curb and clearing some of the exhaust from the air. He lit his own cigarette and let the familiar flavor cover up the lingering taste of Patchouli and clove.

_____ _____ _____

Quatre woke from a dream he couldn't remember even as he struggled free of it, the rain that rattled at his window pane mixing with a sound distant, yet almost within his grasp. Something from the past. A flute played, high and solemn, mixing with the thready autumn wind. Laughter, maybe, the kind that wasn't coarse with alcohol and humanity. A sharp, cutting sort of humor. Golden light that had no place on a drizzly afternoon, like glamoured coins spilling from faerie fingers, turned to dead leaves and gum wrappers.

Heart pounding against his ribs, he pulled himself free of his dream to find his apartment. He was bolt upright in his own bed, legs tangled in sheets that had been clean when he climbed into them that morning after work. His breathing calmed slowly as he looked around. The same off-white walls he had woken up to every day for years now, the same beige curtains and tan carpet. They were the same colors that had been in his last apartment. Faded pictures of human friends were tacked up on the walls, smiling at him encouragingly.

He let himself fall back on his mattress without straightening the blankets he'd thrown off dreaming. The air felt good against his skin, cool and real. Blinking sleep out of his eyes, he stared at the white ceiling and listened to his humming body until the buzz faded away.

When it finally did, Quatre pulled himself out of bed and staggered into the shower. Hot water washed away the last remnants of his dream, leaving him feeling gritty and more drained than he had been when he went to bed, but it still an improvement. He cleaned himself quickly, washed his hair. His hands were still shaking, and he had to force them steady to shave, but he managed.

The mirror was fogged when he stepped out of the shower stall; he didn't bother wiping it clean. In all the decades since his Sight had been sealed, he hadn't dreamt. He didn't want to know what he looked like now, with that still in his eyes.

_____ _____ _____

Trowa walked home, unhurried. The rain had already seeped through his coat, and he was soaked to the skin. His hair was plastered against his skull, bangs falling in his eyes and dripping water down his face. Realistically, he was as wet as he was going to get, and his flute was safely tucked away in its case. Somehow he couldn't see any purpose in rushing home to get out of the weather. It was a clean, tempting sort of cold, numbing his fingers and aching in his knuckles.

He tilted his face up, squinting into a grey sky while cold drops cleaned away another day spent on a street corner, playing his music and pretending. He remembered telling someone that he'd done worse. Quatre? he asked himself, cringing inwardly at the awkwardness of their encounter. He could see the Seelie, mug cradled in his hands, vivid eyes focused intently on something only he could see in the depths of his coffee.

No, Trowa realized, it was Zechs. I said that I'd been lower after Zechs told me that I'd fallen a long way.

It was true. He had been on the heights, he'd been dropped to where he was now, and he'd been there without his music. The phantom pain of not being able to play had been worse than the real one in his hands as they healed.

Instead of stopping to catch a bus, Trowa turned off the road and into a park. There was a trail head there, part of a loop that cut through the city and suburbs, flung into the semi-wilderness beyond. He'd rather walk a while longer, with green on either side of him and rain running down the back of his neck, than get on a bus. Even bare branches and dead leaves were better than sitting between strangers, waiting for his stop.

This portion of the trail was paved. Easier for cyclists that way, he supposed. It ruined the illusion he wasn't still in the city that the maple and fir created. Heavy clouds blurred the tree tops, and the light made things darker than they were. With the afternoon dimming around him, the path was abandoned.

He walked for a while, just letting one foot fall in front of the other while the air got colder. There were no birds, no sound of traffic, no voices; just the peculiar quiet of rain pouring through fir needles and bare branches. He swallowed hard, listening to the silence as he moved. He passed mile markers and parking lots, other trail heads. But he wasn't ready to go home yet.

Eventually the vegetation drew back on either side, and he stopped, blinking at the sight of rusty, corrugated metal, graffiti covered fencing, and bricks. Stack upon stack of burnt red bricks. The place hadn't been used for awhile -- blackberry had grown up over the sides and thistles stood in tall clumps between the brick piles. The graffiti that marked the fence was, surprisingly, all the mundane kind. Normal tags, some gang marks, some personal, but all human. Trowa would have thought this was the kind of place someone would have claimed. There was a power to it, the transition from industrial to fallow that made slips in the framework around it.

The metal roofing was peeling off in sheets. In a wind storm, Trowa mused as the rain continued to fall on him, this would be a very dangerous place to stand. Or sit, yet there was a bench near by, sheltered by an awning.

It wasn't that windy now.

Shaking rain off his coat, out of his hair, the musician sat down.

The percussion of raindrops on metal was a constant, soothing thrum here, and he allowed himself to relax into it. The breeze whistled through the old factory's holes and cracks, under the eaves, through the broad, still green leaves of the blackberry brambles. Branches creaked and clattered softly. Closing his eyes, he leaned back into the bench and opened himself up as much as he still could, welcoming in the tuneless music.

Fingering his flute case, Trowa considered taking his instrument out and playing for awhile. He didn't play for himself often anymore, not when he had bills to pay and food to buy. Mostly it was busy street corners and a few smoky bars. In the summer, there were concerts, festivals. This time of year, though... his finger slid under the catch, and he opened the case. After a moment of just breathing, he lifted the flute, his fingers falling into place with an easy knowledge.

The first sound he drew out was low, and he wound it through the patter of rain smacking the ground. The second was lighter, but more soulful -- the wind whispering through the leaves and grass, creaking in the bows and in the thistle. The third note was metallic. He could feel the memory in it, recalling a time before vines lifted the roof panels one at a time. Fourth, and something higher grew in the melody, something almost unheard. It was strong, whatever it was.

A piece at a time, Trowa puzzled out the old brick factory's song. Once, he could have used it to evoke this place. He thought it would have been a powerful song.

"I wanted to talk to Heero originally, but I found his state less than I'd hoped."

He'd wanted to tell Heero what? That even Treize didn't know where Relena was? A noble gesture, but it would not do the elf any good. Even if Heero weren't more than half cracked, there was nothing he could have done with that information.

It was a slow song, coming together in its own time. Most man made things were not so patient, even when they became ancient, they retained a sense of their creator's quick view and hurried pace. Instead, this built upon itself slowly. Trowa let it, accepting the nature of bricks placidly.

There were furnaces hidden within the building, he knew suddenly. Quiescent, but they still knew what it was to blaze, and that knowledge found its way into the music, too, as the song grew deeper. Trowa's fingers moved over the holes confidently as he added the memory of fire.

How could Treize not know where the Queen was? He'd put her there. Then he'd taken it upon himself to remove the danger her Knights posed.

In a way he was merciful. He might have killed them.

The dying light came next, fading into deeper, richer tones. There were no colors in the sunset, no orange clouds against a pink sky, and he played to mourn they're absence. He shaped the colors of a deep night, grey and blue and black, shading the green. The trees hid the flush of city lights. Night was a very old song which altered slightly to suit this night. It absorbed the song of the factory, the rain, the season, and became something ponderous. Trowa let it ease itself to a stop rather than force it to continue. He no longer had the strength to carry a song like that.

When he lowered his hands to his lap, the flautist realized his lips were trembling and his wrists cramping. He blinked once and forced his eyes to focus. It was not surprising to find that it was full dark. He'd played it coming in.

He put the flute away after a moment, then scrubbed a hand through his bangs. Still not in a hurry to get home, he sat there until the rain began to let up before getting up to leave.

to be continued

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