"So how did you know where I was?" I had to say the question louder than normal to make sure Trowa heard it through the closed bathroom door. Tugging off my soaked shirt, I added, "I didn’t leave a note or anything."
"Your friend, Duo, told me," his voice answered, as I shimmeyed out of my pants. "He was just coming back from the laundry room when I came out to go looking for you." There was a pause. "Does he find nicknames for everyone, or am I a special case?"
I started to towel myself off. "What do you mean?"
"He called me ‘Smiley’."
"Oh." Of course – classic Duo. "He’s just teasing you. It’s because you look so serious. He’s always kidding around, though. Don’t worry about it."
"Did you check the note?"
"Not yet." I pulled on a clean pair of shorts, then pants. "You can, if you want. It’s on my bedside table." One of my button-up shirts was next, and then I was done. The wet clothes were hung up in the shower. All right.
Trowa had found the note by the time I walked out of the bedroom. He held it out so that I could check the next clue. ‘Diamond in the fragments of the beast.’ I wasn’t too sure I liked the sound of that one.
"I guess we’ll just have to wait, won’t we?" I asked, looking up to give Trowa a rueful grin. "There’s no way we can go looking for this ‘beast’; it’ll have to find us."
"It’d be best to get out of your apartment," Trowa commented. "Unless you’d like to have a beast of some kind rampaging through it."
"Good thought." I pondered that for a minute. "Well, I do need to get you a new suit for tonight, if you’re coming to Dorothy’s dinner party. We could get that done early, then take a walk out around the lake – away from other people."
There was a slight smile on Trowa’s face at that. His eyes caught mine – they were gorgeous eyes, dark and mysterious and utterly beautiful – and my breath caught in my throat. Alone in a dark forest, just Trowa and myself… The idea made my heart start to pound. Get a grip! You were alone in the park with him last night, weren’t you?
"I wouldn’t want you to inconvenience yourself to buy me new clothes," he said, snapping me out of my self-induced trance. "I’m sure it would cost you…"
"That’s not a problem." I smiled. "I guess I forgot to tell you, I’m… sort of rich. By inheritance, though, not because I actually did something to earn it. As long as the money’s there, I might as well use it."
He nodded slowly, showing no surprise. "I see. Then you can buy me whatever you wish. I’ll have to leave myself in your hands on this matter." What a choice of words…
"I hope I don’t disappoint you." I grabbed my car keys from the counter. "Well, if we’re going to go, we might as well quit standing around."
Trowa turned out to be an incredibly patient shopper – which wasn’t at all surprising, considering that he was patient about everything under the sun. He endured the sales pitch, listening to it without changing expression and then predictably ignoring it. I helped him pick out the clothes he wanted – basically, I would select a style, and he would decide whether or not he wanted to try it. Trowa looked stunning in black. I don’t think I’d ever enjoyed shopping for clothing more in my life.
"That salesman overcharged you," Trowa observed as I made sure his new clothes were secure inside my car. "You shouldn’t have made it known that money was no object. People tend to take advantage of opportunities like that."
"It doesn’t really matter." I sighed, locking the car door again. "I have more money than I really know what to do with. And I’m not sure it’s right for just one person to have so much. I wish my sisters would take some, but I know they won’t – they’re too proud. So I settle for spreading it around when I can. When I’m through college and have a decent job, I’ll donate what I don’t need to charity."
"That’s a selfless act." We were walking away from the small parking lot, toward where the city gave way to forest land. I’d been there before, so I led the way, with Trowa strolling calmly beside me. "Why?"
"You mean, why do I want to give up all that money?" I was used to the question. "I don’t need it. And I’d like to experience life for myself rather than having everything handed to me on a silver platter. It’ll seem more like something that’s mine that way."
"You’ve got very strong morals for a university student." He turned to look at me and I was both startled and pleased to see warm approval in his eyes. "It’s amazing that you can hang onto your principles in today’s world."
I smiled. "Well, I did lead a fairly sheltered life."
"You went to school, didn’t you?"
"Of course. But what – ?"
"That’s where most people find their ideals get shattered. Those who have already been disillusioned don’t usually like to have people around them who haven’t."
I thought about it for a moment. "I never had a real problem with that. The people I knew seemed to genuinely like me – they never tried to change me in any way."
"It’s one of your gifts." Trowa gave me a sidelong glance, one of those small smiles on his face. "Quatre, in some ways, you are far more powerful than I could ever hope to be."
"What do you mean?"
"You draw people to you. They trust you instinctively, and as they get to know you better, you become easy to care about." His eyes closed briefly. "The human heart is a powerful thing to have control over."
I could feel my cheeks getting hot. "I don’t know about that," I answered, trying to cover up my embarrassment and pleasure. Was that what Trowa really thought about me? "I don’t have any real power – it’s just being kind whenever there’s an opportunity…"
"You’d be surprised how much power that gives you." He turned to look at me again. "Take your friend, Duo, for example. This morning he asked me quite a few questions regarding my relationship with you. He also told me right out that if I ever did anything to hurt you, he’d have to put me in the hospital."
I couldn’t help but grin. "That’s Duo for you. Nobody hurts his friends, unless they feel like facing him. I’m sorry you had to go through that." Heat rose to my face again. "Duo seems to think there’s more between us than just friendship."
"I know. He hinted at it. I believe the exact words were, ‘You can screw with him physically, just don’t play around with his emotions.’"
I could’ve fried things on my cheeks by then. "Duo can be pretty blunt sometimes," I said, making a silent promise to have words with my "best friend" later.
"He shouldn’t make assumptions without having possession of all the facts," Trowa noted. "Though I suppose I can understand why he would think that way. We were in quite the compromising position when he walked in on us."
"I guess you’re right." The blush was starting to recede, thank goodness. "But I still don’t agree with you about people being drawn to me. I’d think more people would be interested in someone like you, Trowa. I mean, you’re mysterious and intriguing, and people can feel safe around you. I know I do."
Silence. I glanced up at my companion and was startled to find a faint tinge of red staining his cheeks. Trowa was blushing? I was both amazed and please; he’d always had that wall over his face, against emotion. I was honored to think that I could be the one to cause it to crumble.
"I’m sorry," I said, as the silence lengthened. "I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable."
"It’s all right." There was a softness in his voice, not in volume but in the tone. Made me feel warm all through. "But, you know, you’re only proving my point. Comments like those come easy to you – you make people feel good about themselves. It’s an attractive quality."
I decided at that point that arguing was probably useless. "Thank you, Trowa."
He nodded, then abruptly stopped walking. The look in his eyes, which had been some warm emotion I found hard to place, shifted to display caution.
I stopped and watched him curiously. "Trowa, what…?"
"Do you hear it?" he interrupted me.
I was quiet for a moment, and then I could hear it – a kind of distant howling, with a strange crackling feel to it, like electricity. It didn’t sound like any of the local animals – didn’t sound like any kind of earthly creature at all, even. "The beast from the note?" I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
Trowa nodded, not looking at me. "I know what it is now. We don’t have long to wait. Here." He pulled something from his pocket and handed it to me. "I thought we might need this."
The object was cold to the touch. I held it up so I could see it – the Ice key. "What do I do with this?"
"I’ll tell you when the time comes. It’s better if you have no expectations beforehand."
I started to respond to that, but found myself cut off by a loud snarling noise. Trowa stepped between the source of the noise and myself, but unlike in the park, today I was able to get a full, clear look at my enemy.
The ‘beast’, as it had been titled in the note, looked something like a giant wolf, but there were significant differences. Its teeth had a golden sheen to them, and the edges were knifelike. It was nearly as tall as Trowa, but there wasn’t much of its body visible. Instead of fur, the thing was covered in crackling, spitting electrical bolts. There were so many of them, twining and twisting and mingling about each other, that they seemed to serve as a different sort of fur – a coat of lightening. Its eyes were bright and intelligent – human eyes, not those of an animal.
The combination was horrifying.
I’m not sure what I’d have done if those horrible too-human eyes had been focussed on me. I’d like to think I would’ve been brave, but… Well, it wasn’t an issue. The beast was looking at Trowa, not me, and its gaze was decidedly hostile. Trowa gazed right back at it, almost disdainfully.
I was abruptly very frightened – and not for myself. "Trowa!"
"Just stay there, Quatre," he told me calmly. "I’ll tell you what to do."
He sounded so in control of the situation, it was hard not to feel reassured. But still… "You’re not really going to fight that thing, are you?"
"No. I don’t have the proper weaponry."
"Wait for my signal."
I didn’t have a chance to respond to that, because Trowa leapt to the side gracefully, just as the strange beast decided that it had given its enemies enough talking time and pounced on the place where Trowa had been. It gave a growl of frustration and tried again, moving quicker this time. My companion dodged it easily, flipping with an acrobatic ease out of its way. He crouched low, watching the stymied beast through almost bored eyes. The tall boy didn’t even look winded.
Actually, I was probably more terrified than he was. I nearly had a heart attack every time that thing jumped at him. "Trowa!"
"Not yet." He grunted, avoiding the now enraged, roaring beast. Crackles of lightening were starting to spark and flare around its coat. "I’ll tell you when, Quatre. Just wait."
"And what happens if you make a mistake while I’m waiting?" I demanded, gasping a little as those huge teeth snapped down, just inches away from chomping off some part of Trowa.
"I won’t." He gracefully side-stepped an attack of sharp golden claws.
There wasn’t much I could say to that. I tried to relax and trust Trowa to do things right, but it felt like I was going to crush the Ice key in my finers. Oh Trowa, be careful!
I have no idea how he did it. He might’ve jumped up into a tree – which was probably what he did – but he moved so quickly that I just blinked and then he was gone. No leaves rustling, no noise… nothing. Trowa just wasn’t there any more.
The electric beast seemed confused and extremely frustrated by this new development. It halted, looked around, and growled menacingly, eyes clouded with puzzlement and no small amount of anger.
I just blinked. Trowa…?
"Now, Quatre." His voice seemed to be coming from all around me. The creature he’d been fighting looked around it as if searching for new enemies. "Now you can act."
I glanced about helplessly. "What do I do, Trowa?"
"Use the key."
The beast in front of me didn’t look amused. It was snarling and spitting angrily as it searched for its vanished opponent. I had to wonder how long it would be before those very human eyes focussed on me.
"Hold it up," Trowa instructed. "As if you were going to unlock something."
I followed this direction immediately, holding the key up with the toothed end out in front of my hand. My head felt suddenly very heavy, and there seemed to be a tightening in the air around me, as if I were drawing some essense from the atmosphere to that one place. I felt pressure around the Ice key, as if it were actually in a lock of some kind.
"Good," Trowa said approvingly. "Now, concentrate on that spirit creature – think of nothing else – and turn the key."
The beast in front of me was wide-eyed and whimpering, with a half growl mixed in every few seconds. It seemed to be terrified of the energy gathering around me – or around the Ice key. I tried to keep that image in my mind and focus on it.
Then I turned the key.
And the creature we’d been fighting turned to ice.
I gasped and nearly dropped my prize. "Trowa!" I breathed, amazed. "Was… that supposed to happen?" The brand new ice statue was starting to tremble ominously. "Uh… Trowa…?"
"Watch out, Quatre!" He jumped in front of me from out of nowhere and grabbed me around the waist, pulling my surprised form tight against his chest and offering his back to the now dangerously rocking sculpture.
It exploded half a second later, fragments of ice flying everywhere. Trowa let out a series of pained grunts as they struck him in the back, but didn’t loosen his grip. I had a feeling… like in the park, I just knew what I was looking for, and how I was going to get it.
I thrust out my hand and snatched the Diamond key right out of the air.
"Trowa?" I tried to pull my head back and get a look at his face. There weren’t any more flying chunks of ice, but I was worried by his silence and lack of movement.
He loosened his hold on me reluctantly, pulling back to look me in the eye. "Are you all right?" he asked softly, beautiful green eyes full of concern.
"I’m fine. But I should be asking you that." I showed him the key. "We got what we were looking for, at any rate. But what was that thing?"
"We call them spirit creatures. They come from their world."
Oh. Them. That made sense. "Then… how did it get here?"
"I’m not sure." Trowa actually looked angry. "Someone from your world had to have acted as a channel in order to bring it here. I don’t believe they are our only enemies this time."
That didn’t sound good. I felt a shiver go down my spine and tried to shrug it off. "So how did you know it would explode when I turned it to ice?"
"It’s composed purely of energy," he replied, more calmly. "Ice could only contain that for so long. It had to either explode or melt."
"Why didn’t you tell me that the keys could do things like that?"
"It wasn’t necessary for you to know."
I decided not to argue that one. "Well, why did you let yourself get hurt just to keep me from getting hit by those ice chunks? You could’ve just stayed where you were and been unhurt by any of it."
Silence. I was confused for a minute, then I realized that Trowa still had his arms around me, protectively. No. It couldn’t be. It’s…
"Trowa?" I looked up at his face and forgot what I was going to say.
Trowa was smiling.
And it touched his eyes.
I stared up at that achingly perfect vision, transfixed by the warmth I felt radiating from him – a warmth that was directed entirely at me. "Trowa…?" His name was barely a breath – just a whispered question I couldn’t quite put into words.
I’m not sure who it was that started to lean forward first. All I know is that we were both tilting our heads toward each other, breathing intermingling softly, before my lips brushed against something warm. Warm and soft and perfectly delicious, as Trowa gently reciprocated my kiss. It seemed as though my whole body felt that beautiful contact; every part of me tingled in reaction. Even when we slowly broke apart, I still felt him kissing me.
And I couldn’t help but return it.