"We’re not sleeping together, Duo."
"So you say." My best friend had a huge grin on his face. "What’s the matter? Is he so good in bed that you don’t want to share, or what?"
"Duo, I told you, he’s just staying here. He’s an old friend of mine." I felt bad about lying, but there wasn’t much else I could say. If I told Duo that Trowa was from another world, and he was here to help me find some "magic" keys, he’d think I was going insane or something. "He just needed a place to stay."
"And a person to keep him company," Duo added wickedly. "Anyway, if you two are totally platonic, why were you lying on the floor all tangled together when I came in here? That looked a little friendlier than you’ve been trying to get at."
"I was trying to reach the light bulb by standing on Trowa’s shoulders," I replied, almost being honest. "But you distracted me when you started threatening to pick the lock. So I fell on top of him."
"Oh, su-u-u-ure, you did." Duo siddled up to me. "So tell me – does he show any kind of emotion when you’re screwing him silly, or does he keep that same expression the whole time?"
"Duo!" My face was turning bright red. "We’re not…having…sex!"
"Quatre." I spun around at the sound of Trowa’s voice behind me. Oh great… Don’t tell me he was listening… "Is everything all right? You were shouting."
"No… it’s fine. Duo, now’s not a good time to hang out. I have to show Trowa around, too." I smiled apologetically. "Maybe tomorrow?"
"Oh, sure. I understand if you two want to be alo-o-one." He playfully elbowed my shoulder. "Don’t worry, I’ll make myself scarce. Just give me a call when you’ve got a little free time, hmm?"
"I will," I promised, following him to the door.
"Oh, and don’t forget." He paused and turned back to face me briefly. "We’ve got that dinner to go to tomorrow night. Why don’t you bring Mr. Sunshine here along? You can show him off to everybody."
I sighed. Arguing with Duo was like having a laughing contest with a hyena. "Don’t worry, we’ll be there."
"Good. See ya tomorrow, kid." My best friend hurried out the door, pulling it shut behind him. "Don’t have too much fun!"
I smiled ruefully, turning back to Trowa. "Sorry. That was Duo – he’s usually my best friend. When he’s not making embarrassing comments about my social life."
"I see." Trowa glanced away from my face for a moment, then looked back up. "I meant to ask you about that statue, Quatre. Is it an antique?"
I followed his gaze, though I knew what he had to be talking about. "Oh," I forced a laugh. "That’s just a carnival prize." I bent to open the small glass case and drew out the form of a shining red-gold form. "When I was about seven years old, my father won this for me at a ring-toss game." I studied the jumble of elaborate objects carved into one figure, and felt that memory rush back, painfully. "It was one of those great happy times that everyone likes to remember. Except, my father is…" I found it hard to finish.
Trowa didn’t comment – blessedly – instead kneeling down beside me. "Interesting piece of work." He reached out and traced a finger down one part of the statue. "What do you think this looks like?"
I smiled slightly, feeling those memories flood me. "My father and I used to try and guess what each part looked like. That part was…" My voice caught, and I felt irrationally frightened. "A key," I finished softly. "It looks like a key."
He took the statue from my hands carefully, and put it back, closing the case. "Have you checked that note again?" he asked, purposefully changing the subject.
"No." I tore my eyes from that precious object, trying to shake off that sense of foreboding. So there was a key shape in my statue. That didn’t mean anything. It was probably a coincidence. "I’ll do that right now."
The note was still where I’d left it on the table. Trowa had been right about it changing when I found the key it spoke about, though – instead of the previous message, about Ice, it now read ‘Rowan from the dangers among the trees’.
I handed the note to Trowa with a small smile. "There’s just one problem with that," I said. "The only trees around here that could possibly be considered ‘trees’ and not just ‘a tree’ would be in the park."
"That narrows it down then, doesn’t it?" He handed the paper back.
I stared at him. "You want me to go searching through a public park in broad daylight? Trowa, there’ll be people coming and going the whole time! They’ll think I’m crazy!"
He met my gaze calmly. "Don’t go in broad daylight then."
"You mean I should go at night?"
"If it makes you feel better."
I felt just slightly ridiculous. Trowa was obviously interested in results, not methods. As long as I found the key, what did it matter how I’d chosen to look for it? And that was probably the right attitude to have about this.
"I guess you’re right," I gave in. "It doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ll go later tonight, and until then I can do what I told Duo I was going to, and show you around. It’d probably be a good idea for you to know where everything is anyway."
He smiled. "So you’re beginning to understand. That’s good."
"I’m glad you approve." I returned the smile. The words may have sounded like something sarcastic, but when I said them to Trowa, I was being totally sincere.
"Is this the place?"
I glanced up at the shadowed park area, and felt a shiver go down my spine. It was a totally familiar place, but for some reason, tonight it felt almost dangerous. There was a slight fog out that night which I didn’t think was natural at all. "Yeah," I finally said in answer to Trowa’s question. My voice sounded tense.
"Relax." Trowa headed for the park gates. "As long as you stay close to me, you’ll be in no danger. Concentrate on finding the key."
I swallowed hard, and tried to push aside that uneasy feeling. "Right," I agreed, following him into that misty dark area.
The problem I found in searching for the Rowan key was the lack of directions beyond the fact that it was somewhere in the park. The area I had to search was huge, and I had no clues to tell me which part of it to look in. I’d have to go through every inch of the place until I found that key.
The idea wasn’t all that appealing.
Well, I might as well get started. I sighed and bent to look through the bushes beside a small cluster of trees. I could feel Trowa behind me, silently watching.
I’m not sure how long I searched for. I didn’t feel that irrational fear any more, though; a few hours of digging through bushes and peering into knotholes on trees had me unable to feel anything but frustration, weariness, and irritation. There were some scratches on my arms, I was hot and sweaty, and all I wanted to do was collapse and sleep for a year. And I had only been through about a third of my search area. That key had better be worth it.
"Can we come back another night, Trowa?" I asked, forcing myself to stand again on aching feet. "I’m about ready to fall down."
"Trowa?" I turned. The mist had gotten heavier, and I couldn’t see the taller boy anywhere. He’d been right behind me a minute ago. "Trowa! Where are you?"
I licked my lips nervously and looked around. There was a slight breeze that seemed to whisper in my ears, almost like something calling me: Seeeeeeker…
My head shot up. Was that an actual voice, or just the breeze? "Seeker… Seeeeeeeeker…" I could feel my heart pounding hard in my chest. Trowa said I’d be safe as long as I stayed close to him. But he’s not here…
"Here," the breeze whispered, and my eyes were drawn in a different direction. "Here… here… here…" I was left staring at a single spot.
Where something small and wooden lay on the forest floor.
I had a feeling about this – not a bad feeling or a good feeling, just… a feeling. As if moving in a dream or through water, I walked forward slowly, hearing the breeze seem to urge me onward. When I reached the spot, I halted and gazed down at what had focussed my attention.
A shrewdly carved wooden key.
"Trowa!" I didn’t expect him to hear me, but I had to call for him anyway, I was so relieved. Finally! Now we could go home. "I found the key! Where are you?" I bent to pick up my prize.
The second my fingers closed around the small wooden object, the world went cold.
"Seeker… Seeker…" Those were definitely voices. There was a mocking note to them that hadn’t been present before. "Here, here… Seeker, here…"
I considered questioning them, but decided it would be wiser to keep silent. Other than my heart – which refused to calm down – I was completely still. My body felt frozen in place; I couldn’t even move, much less run. What’s going on? What are these things?
And where’s Trowa?
That mist was getting thicker, floating around my head, making me feel confused and dizzy. I felt like it could swirl in inside of my head and take over me, or drag all the knowledge from my mind. But I couldn’t see whoever was speaking no matter how I tried. My vision was starting to blur, and I felt a demand being made – no words, just a sense that something was wanted that I had.
"What?" I whispered, barely able to think. I struggled to remain aware.
"Keys." Nothing else; just that one word. "Keys… keys… Seeker, keys…"
I think I’d been more or less expecting something like that. I fought with the instinct to give away everything. "I don’t have them," I breathed – which was true, since they were in my top drawer back at my dorm room.
"Lie!" That was more a shriek than a whisper. "Lie… lie… lie…"
"It’s the truth," I whispered back. My voice wasn’t working, and I felt myself stiffen as if that cold grip which held me were tightening its hold.
Something shifted inside my head, almost as if they were probing…
"Closed…" The voice sounded angry. "Seeker… closed…"
Heavy footsteps sounded from behind me, and I was abruptly assaulted by a chorus of shrieking voices. A wind rushed by me, and even with my sight blurred, I could see the mist seem to swirl about wildly. "Darksbane!" they screamed, almost – I would think – in hysterical terror. "Darksbane! Darksbane!"
And then Trowa was beside me.
"Just relax, Quatre," he told me, setting a comforting hand on my shoulder. The blurring of my eyes started to clear. "Look at me," he said. "Don’t look anywhere else – just at me."
I obeyed, feeling too weak and confused to question anything. Trowa seemed to be staring hard at something, and then – I thought I saw a flash of moonlight shimmer over his eyes, like a reflection of something silver. But there was too much heavy fog around to allow for that. So what…?
Something beside, behind – all around – me started to shriek.
I clamped my hands over my ears, unable to keep in a gasp of pain. The sound was horrible! I’d never heard anything like this; it seemed to pierce through every inch of me and sink into the places where I could be hurt the most. My eyes were shut tight, but tears squeezed out and streamed down my cheeks all the same. And just when I felt for sure that I couldn’t bear it any longer…
Trowa gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and I cautiously opened my eyes. The mist seemed to have vanished, and he and I were standing alone in the middle of the park. "It’s all right," he told me calmly, turning back toward me. "It’s over."
"Wha… What was that?" My voice was shaking. Trowa looked perfectly normal, no silver shimmerings over his eyes. There was a look of concern in them, though.
"A few of them. I had a feeling you’d be meeting some before long." He slid his hand off my shoulder and bent to retrieve the key I’d unintentionally dropped. "The key was a trap. They thought that you’d be unable to defend yourself if separated from me."
I flushed at that, glad that it was too dark for him to see. Perhaps it was unintentional on his part, but that comment made me feel horribly incompetent. For some reason, it was almost unbearable to think that I couldn’t measure up to Trowa’s expectations. I could feel a painful lump in my throat, and did my best to swallow around it, fighting back tears of shame. What would Trowa think of me if I started bawling like a baby? "What happened to them?" I asked, to distract myself. "And… what was that shrieking?"
"I took care of them. They won’t be coming back."
My eyes widened involuntarily. "But how?"
Trowa shrugged. "It’s a gift. They always make that shrieking noise when they go."
"I didn’t get a chance to see any of them," I commented lamely.
"It’s better that you didn’t. You might have lost your mind otherwise."
"Oh." There wasn’t much I could say to that.
"We should go back," he suggested, not letting the silence hang in the air too long. "You look tired." That protective hand rested on my shoulder for a moment, and then he moved to lead the way back out of the park.
He thinks I’m helpless. I couldn’t believe how horrible that felt. Trowa thought I was weak. That I was some childish, silly, defenseless boy playing at an important job like finding these keys. It was like I couldn’t handle it; Trowa had to be there, the faithful babysitter, making sure I didn’t hurt myself.
I’ll show him otherwise, I promised to myself, following the tall form out of the park. I’ll do this right – and I’ll prove to Trowa that I’m worthy of his respect!