Part 2 - Lifeline
Catherine had gone good on her promise, finding him a vacancy in one of the trailers before the column of circus vehicles headed out of the open spot of the colony toward the space dock, to board a cargo vessel heading for the next colony on their tour. Well, not entirely true - Quatre's new quarters were but half a trailer, one of the clowns occupying the other half. He hadn't really gotten a good look at the small section before the convoy hit the road, and later space. Still, it had felt good to have a future hiding place.
After securing what little luggage he had with him within his new home, Catherine had dragged Quatre into one of the trucks, one carrying securely fastened, covered animal cages and towing a residence trailer. As it turned out, Trowa was the driver. The short journey to the space port had been a quiet one, and as Catherine sat between them, Quatre did his best not to even look at Trowa, afraid she'd disapprove - or maybe more afraid Trowa would see some predatory glare within his usually innocent eyes, like Catherine had.
The trip through space had been equally uneventful, save one incident when hovering through a zero gravity zone with an observation window. Most of the passengers had gathered there to admire the view of space, and of the stars, the planets and moons - all of which were normally closed away from easy viewing on the colonies, which rotations made it even trickier to observe the outside. Trowa remarkably enough got his foot caught by a section of railing, sending him a bit out of control, practically landing in Quatre's arms. Trowa had flashed his thin smile, thanked for the good catch and floated away, never seeing how Quatre turned a fair shade of tomato mere seconds later. Catherine had, however - and it was obvious she was snickering behind the hand covering her mouth.
Other than that incident, the hours of travel passed slowly, and according to his watch, day turned into night. Quatre got a few hours of sleep in one of the chairs of the small passenger lounge of the space freighter, as did most of the other travelers aboard. With all the trailers stowed away in the cargo bay, it was impractical to go back there to sleep. Trowa and a few others went down into the cargo bay every now and then to tend to and calm down the animals, though. By the time Quatre was awakened by Trowa gently shaking his shoulder, his watch showed early morning. For a brief moment, he was happy their destination used the same time zone as their colony of departure - most of the colonies operated on a unified time code. At least he wouldn't have to reset his watch.
The new colony was about the same size as the previous, and Quatre was told they'd probably stay here for at least a week, if not even two, depending on turnout. Upon asking, Quatre learned that the circus had rather flexible agreements when it came to plot rental for their visits, so their travel schedule could be just as flexible. The new location was an open grass field next to a small park. School was evidently over for the day when they arrived, as a big bunch of toddlers were soon running around the perimeter of the fences some of the laborers immediately put up. The trailers were parked in one corner, most of the animal cages unloaded in another. Pens were set up, and all the elements of the big top laid out. Quatre's eyes were as filled with awe as those of the many children hanging over and on the perimeter metal fences as the masts went up, colorful canvas following. Trowa balanced up some of the support ropes to reach the top and put up the finishing touch there; a streamer. Quatre felt his heart in his throat through it all, worrying Trowa might fall. The incident aboard the transport shuttle had shown even him to be struck with the occasional bad luck - or bad footing.
Quatre wasn't left idle for long, however. He had returned to his temporary residence and had barely finished unpacking the meager contents of his luggage when three quick knocks sounded on the door. Beyond it was a short fellow, friar's ring of gray hair attesting his age, broad nose, broader smile, a worn gray cap in his left hand and his right extended.
"Hi there - I'm your new neighbor. Name's Joseph."
At first a bit struck by the man's particular accent, which his first guess placed as a variation of a Russian one, Quatre got out of his puzzled state and shook the odd little man's hand. "Hello. I'm Quatre."
The grinning man blinked. "Oh, I know, I know, son. Catherine told me we had an addition to our little family. Gave me orders to teach you the ropes - you were to work in the booths, correct?"
Joseph clapped his hands together for a quick rub. "Okay, then - why don't you get your shoes on, and we'll see if you're as bright with business as the papers say."
So ordered, so done. Quatre followed the odd looking Joseph - much too worn brown tweed jacket making him stick out among the colors of the circus - to a group of trailers placed in front of the main entrance to the big top. Two were placed so they formed a hallway extension. The third blocked the path off at the end, both metal sides folded down so that you could walk up on one side, go through the wagon - which had two ticket booths, one at either end - and down on the other, ready for the circus show. Of course, you'd have to walk past the temptations offered in the shop trailers at either side before you got inside the tent. What really caught the eye in the extended entrance was the big sign above the ticket stalls - proclaiming the proud name of the circus - 'A Circus'. After spending but a few moments not listening to Joseph's 'shop clerk conduct' lecture and pondering the odd name instead, Quatre made a mental note to ask someone about it later. He faded in on Joseph's speech.
"...and never, ever make small talk in the last half hour before show time. No time for that then, because you have to sell, and sell quickly. Small kids might push their parents into buying popcorn or cotton candy, but they sure don't have the patience to stand in line for long." He chuckled, shooting a quick smirk at Quatre. "If you're stuck in the pre-order ticket booth in the afternoon, then you can chit-chat - as long as there's no line, of course."
"In addition to these two stands, there are two vending machines inside the tent too - they offer soft drinks, chocolate bars and such. That stuff is generally cheaper, so that's why we keep it out of sight from here. If anyone asks for something to drink, just tell them there's a machine inside the tent - okay?"
"Now, your face is rather famous, son. Aren't you worried that'll be a problem for this kind of work?"
Quatre smiled, shrugged. "Maybe. I could just say I 'look like him'. If it's really a problem, I could change hair styles, or dye it, use glasses or some other form of disguise."
"I really don't think people will notice, though. I'm not that famous."
Chuckle. "You believe what you want, son. Don't be surprised if one of those gossip reporters comes visiting one day, though. Just imagine the headlines - 'Winner heir disowned? Ran away with the circus.' - stuff like that."
Sigh. "We'll see. One problem at a time."
Brief laugh. "Right you are, son. Now, for a quick introduction into the ticket dispensers and food machinery..."
Hours later, Quatre found himself struggling with the cotton candy machine, shirt sleeves rolled up and a few sweat droplets forming on his forehead, Joseph doing his best to teach the rookie how to twirl the stick within the machine in order to get the proper level and shape of pinkish-white fluff onto it. Quatre's latest creation resembled more of a spear than a sphere. The older man pinched the bridge of his nose, attempting to ward off both a snicker and a headache. Undeterred with yet another failure, Quatre reached for a new stick, and gave it one more try. This time, he ended up with the sweet mass twirling out of control, ending in a lump at the wrong end of the stick - that is, in a small ball around his hand. He could hear Joseph chuckle, then sigh.
"Looks like you won't be tending this booth often, son - unless all us clowns got sick. You'd make a good substitute artist with this act."
Quatre frowned a bit, though not insulted. Joseph was right, this wasn't nearly as easy as mastering the popcorn machine. Even he could handle a scoop and a salt shaker - though he did get the proportion of unpopped matter to put into the machine wrong the first time around. He'd spent a good fifteen minutes removing the excess evidence of that initial blunder, but had made good on the second run, getting Joseph's approval.
He was still studying his sugar-covered hand when a soft knock brought him back to attention. Trowa had appeared before the booth, vague smile on his face. "I see this isn't going all that well?"
Joseph sighed again, though still showing his yellowing teeth through the slight grin. "No, it isn't - I think your friend isn't cut out for this job, but in time he might master it - or at least get enough of the sugar mass onto the stick to pass for adequate."
Quatre shot him a quick glare. Sometimes, the truth hurts - if but just a little. His disappointment in self was quickly replaced by surprise however, when Trowa grabbed his wrist, pulled the cotton candy-covered hand over the counter and giving the back of it a quick lick. Quatre found his eyes and mouth open, yet he was unable to speak.
Trowa released Quatre's wrist and swiftly licked his lips clear of the remainder of the sugar mouthful stuck there, nearly grinning at observing Quatre's expression. "Waste not, want not."
Joseph shook his head. "I think we can consider this batch a waste, though. Quatre, It's probably best for you to man the ticket stand or the popcorn booth for now. We'll leave this for later. Wash up, I'll clean out the machine."
At last fully returning to reality, Quatre gave a rapid nod. "Uh - Okay."
Trowa leaned in over the counter. "Hey, Quatre - if you're done here, want to grab a late lunch? Cathy told me about a place she spotted when she was out distributing fliers earlier."
Instantly, Quatre beamed. "Yeah, sure."
The path Trowa led them through the colony streets avoided the more crowded areas, and hence it didn't take long for the two to stand in front of the small foodshop Catherine had recommended. The place was rather anonymous, black facade and darkened windows with significant plant life on the inside made it rather private-looking from outside. There wasn't even any glaring name plate stating the shop's name, nor arched letters naming it on the glass windows. Momentarily hesitating, Trowa reached for the door, opened it and went in, Quatre close behind.
The interior was as toned down as the outside, most of the greater room sectioned into small, walled-off stalls. It was hard to tell if there was many customers present because of this, but the gentle buzz of voices attested there were quite a few. The line before the ordering counter counted at least a dozen, though it was hard to verify that assumption, cramped together as the queue was. Trowa tugged gently on the collar of his turtleneck, absentmindedly giving his neck a soft scratch, focusing more on the line. "Uhm, Quatre - why don't you order us something, and I'll find us a place to sit - okay?"
Quatre had been a bit preoccupied studying the interior, and barely registered what Trowa said. "Huh? - Yeah, sure."
Trowa nodded and went off, leaving Quatre to join the queue.
The line moved slowly, very slowly. At least it gave him a chance to study the images, names and numbers of what the shop offered of foodstuffs, mostly baguettes and soft drinks. A minor worry grabbed a hold of him as he realized Trowa hadn't given the slightest hint about what he wanted Quatre to order for him - upon which Quatre began to carefully evaluate each of the available alternatives, trying to guess what Trowa might want. By the time it was his turn to order, he was still at a loss, and ordered two basic ham and cheese baguettes, along with two soft drink plastic cups. Minutes later, he carried the tray with the order in search for Trowa, finding him in one of the most hidden-away booths at the back of the shop. Though faintly smiling upon seeing his friend, he eyed the tray suspiciously.
"I'm sorry if this isn't what you wanted, but you ran off without telling me your order."
Trowa reached for one of the plates. "It's not that, Quatre. I was just wondering what this was." He carefully opened the elongated, puffed-up sandwich wannabe, giving the contents a quick once-over.
"Oh - It's a baguette. I just ordered something simple - It has ham, cheese, salad and tomatoes, I think." He grabbed his own plate, taking a decent bite off one end. "Better eat it while it's warm, Trowa."
Trowa nodded, and began nibbling on his own baguette, every so often sipping from his soft drink.
Quatre chuckled at Trowa's continuing somber mood. "Didn't Catherine tell you what they served here? Is that's what's bothering you?"
"Hm? - No, that's not it. The food's good. I was just thinking about something."
"Oh? Like what?"
He shrugged, preparing to take another bite. "Nothing important."
Quatre put his baguette down. "Oh, come on. It has to be of some importance, making you fade out like that."
Bite, shrug, swallow. "I was thinking about how long since I've done something like this."
He nodded. "With friends. I mean, Cathy drags me along all the time - not that I have a problem with that. It's just been a while since I've had a friend visiting."
Slight depression. "Oh..."
Trowa's barely-a-smile returned. "But since you're going to work with us for a while, I guess we'll be able to do this more often."
"I - I'm sorry I didn't make time to visit more often - it's just that in the last months, the workload at the company kept increasing, and-"
"That's okay, Quatre. I'm not upset about it. I do just fine on my own, you know."
To that, Quatre could but give a faint grin.
"Anyway, what have you been up to for the past few months - surely you've done something else than just shuffle papers, right?"
And with that, the two friends began a lengthy discussion on the events of the last five months, each little and great event in their lives retold, things that had happened, people they had met; Quatre's last meeting with the board of directors, all approving of him, Trowa's encounter with an opinionated gamekeeper from an African wildlife habitat, high-society arrangements, near-accidents at the high wire, the first of 30 marriages, Fang's serious strife of fever, oddly formulated contracts and shady business offerings, Catherine's assumed knife 'accident' trimming the tip of Trowa's bang during their last big quarrel... Through it all, Quatre delighted in seeing the faint smile he'd missed so much, and every time it faded away, he did what he could to coax it back. All the while, neither forgot to eat, and the baguettes were both gone, plastic cups nearly empty. Quatre took another sip of his, thoughts going back to a point just five months ago.
"I'm glad you decided to keep your name, Trowa."
Trowa shrugged. "Well, you said it sounded fine - and Duo was right. Names aren't all that important. I'm still not sure, though - it isn't easy to call yourself 'Barton' without asking for trouble. People won't forget that name any sooner than 'Peacecraft' or 'Kushrenada'."
"Have you thought of a new name, then?"
Another shrug. "Cathy said she'd be delighted if I'd consider myself a 'Bloom'. I'm not sure, though."
Quatre put his soft drink down, barely containing a burp behind a covering hand. He grinned. "Well, 'Trowa Bloom' sounds fine to me, too."
"Yeah... But that'd make us even more like family - don't get me wrong, I love Cathy, she'll always be my sister. I'm just not sure I want to make it that... formal."
Quatre's turn to shrug. "I'm sure whatever you decide in the end will be fine, Trowa. You'll be the same person, no matter what name you choose."
Spinning his cup, Trowa sent his straw searching for the last few drops amidst the melting crushed ice. "Maybe... Oh, I completely forgot-" He went for his back pocket, fished out his wallet. "How much do I owe you?"
Quatre waved him off, still beaming. "Oh, that's okay, Trowa. I can afford to treat a friend to lunch, you know."
"No, I insist - I don't want you to think I asked you to come just to trick you into paying for me." He fished out a few bills, reached for Quatre's hand and put them in his palm. "Here."
Reluctantly, Quatre folded his fingers around the bills, not wanting to hurt Trowa's pride. Although, he did neglect to mention the sum was still just a bit short, and felt some slight glee in that.
Trowa put his plastic cup back on the tray. "I'm done. You?"
Quatre nodded. They gathered up the trash on the tray, emptied it in the garbage bin and put the tray back in place before they left, again seeking out the less crowded streets on the way back to the circus. Along the way, they made a quick stop at a grocery store - after all, Quatre had a fridge to fill in his new cramped residence.
The afternoon went by quickly. After stowing away the contents of the shopping bag, Quatre had helped Trowa tend to the animals, before returning to his trailer-half when the artists gathered for a rehearsal. Catherine notified him his first shift in the ticket stand was set for tomorrow morning - the manager wanted to ease him into the job by giving him the less crowded shift, pre-orders were generally far more sporadic than the queues formed as performances were about to commence.
It took a while to get used to the tiny section of truck he now lived in. At one end there was a small couch and table that could be folded into a bed. The other end had a door leading to a tiny bathroom; a sink, toilet and shower he shared with his neighbor - there was even a sign reminding users of the facilities of this little detail, so that one would remember to lock both doors, leading to their separate residences. Though he could but speculate, Quatre thought the writing of the sign appeared female - suggesting what situation brought the sign into existence in the first place.
Beside the door out of his new home, there was a cramped closet. Opposite of that was the cooking plate, a few cupboards, a fridge and a kitchen sink with a dish brush trapped behind the faucet. All in all, the small space was put to remarkably good use - although there was little in terms of frills. Quatre finally inspected what he'd actually bought in the grocery store - he hadn't paid too much attention to what went into the bag when they were there, far more intent on observing what Trowa picked for stocking up his own cabinet. All in all, he'd gotten at least a few items he could use. Far more troublesome was the fact there was but one tiny kettle, three glasses, and a few assorted knives, forks and spoons left of kitchen utensils in the cabinet. He couldn't help but chuckle before he sighed, making a mental note for even more items he'd need to purchase tomorrow.
Quatre briefly considered asking Catherine or Trowa for a handout, but decided to make good with what he had - it wasn't like he hadn't done it a few times during the war, after all. In the end, his combined dinner and supper was a heated can of soup complemented with bits of bread and whatever else he thought would taste reasonably well together with the soup. Sometimes, the very taste of self-accomplishment could cover the true blandness of a meal.
Upon considering cleaning up, he realized yet another few items he'd have to add to the shopping list. A quick glance at the bathroom door added even more, as the toiletry bag he had kept in his backpack didn't contain an endless supply of soap, shampoo or toothpaste. He stowed away the last remains of his luggage into the closet, though a few choice artifacts went elsewhere - such as few framed pictures and a set of pilot goggles. He came across his cell-phone and grinned at the thought he had neglected it for a whole day, something he hadn't done for very, very long. He sat down on the couch, and flipped the 'on' switch. It didn't even take a full minute before it rang; starting the first of many conversations, both with his sisters, Rashid and the occasional bewildered company official seeking advice. Reassuring the latter was far easier than the two former - Rashid made an offer to come to the circus and act as a guard just in case, which Quatre refused as politely as he could. The artificial lighting outside had dimmed considerably by the time he thought it safe to put the phone away without the concerned people launching a search-and-rescue operation. The table and couch folded into place easily, and after making the little nook into a decent bed, Quatre closed the curtains before the trailer's plastic windows, and fell asleep before he ever knew what hit him.
It had been Joseph that woke him up. The old clown had been remarkably silent the night before, barely making a noise as he returned from rehearsals in the big top, but he seemed more than happy to serenade for them both at seven in the morning - or was it opera, or even a tune from a musical that came through the bathroom door? It was as impossible to tell as it was to sleep through, not that it mattered much, as he was to report in the ticket stand by nine, anyway.
A pair of hastily prepared sandwiches made up his breakfast, along with a glass of water. He waited for seniority to relinquish the rights to the bath, making a quick stop there and later before the closet before heading out, locking the door behind him.
It wasn't the last he had heard of the elderly man though, as Joseph awaited him by the ticket stand, and proceeded to give him another quick run-through of how the whole thingummyjig worked. Quatre smiled, nodding along through it all, and was barely able to suppress a yawn or three along the way. He considered crossing out 'alarm clock' on his shopping list, but as he didn't know if Joseph got up this early every day, and even more importantly because he wanted a more gentle way of waking up, Quatre left it on.
Friar Clown left him alone once he'd sold his first three tickets, and from then on the morning became mid-day, bit by bit. Joseph had given him a few newspapers and magazines to pass the quiet periods, and they came to good use. As lunch hour arrived, a short line of busy office rats briefly escaping the exercise wheel took shape, though it dissipated as quickly as it had formed. As the clock approached three, he was replaced by a gentle, plump woman, one of several people Joseph had introduced him to the day before during their first training session. It took Quatre a few seconds to remember her name - Sylphie - and greet her. After all, his mind was deep in the intricacies of one of the many soap/romance stories featured by most of the magazines he'd sifted through during the day. Even so, he wasn't sad over not finishing the story - it was already clear where it was heading; to happiness - which, coincidentally, made him somewhat depressed.
Quatre was heading back to his little hide-out when Trowa intercepted him, wheeling a cartload of unmentionable material to the new biowaste dumpster. At least he was considerate enough to stop a fair distance away, limiting the odor. "Hi, Quatre - done with your first shift?"
Quatre nodded, mild depression giving way to his usual smile.
Trowa responded in kind, if but vaguely toned down. "How did it go?"
Shrug. "Fine, I guess. Wasn't much traffic. Only got a few odd stares during the lunch break - I assume a few of the clerks recognized my face, or at least thought they did. Nobody asked, though."
Single snicker. "What would you have said if anyone had asked?"
"I'd probably lie. I'm not here to attract attention to the circus, and if reporters began swarming here for whatever reason, I wouldn't be able to conduct my little experiment, now would I?"
For several awkward seconds they just stood there, neither sure of what to say to fill the silence, neither in a rush to leave. In the end, Quatre gestured towards his trailer. "I should probably go back - have to pick up my wallet and go shopping before the stores close."
"Didn't you shop yesterday?"
Quatre grinned. "Yeah, but I didn't know about the shortage of kitchenware."
Vague surprise. "You could have asked yesterday, I'm sure I'd have something you could borrow - did you get something to eat last night?"
Soft laugh. "Don't worry, Trowa. Yeah, I still managed to make myself supper. I'm not helpless, you know."
Trowa nodded. "I know."
Another short silence.
Trowa reached down for the handles, and lifted them up. "Cathy asked if you'd like to join us for dinner - she's cooking her famous mystery soup. Should be ready around five."
"Mystery soup? What's that?"
Grin. "Should I fear the meal since you haven't been able to identify what's in it?"
Another shrug. "That's up to you. I've survived, at least."
Brief laugh. "Then it's probably just fine - tell Catherine I'd be happy to come."
Trowa began pushing the wheelbarrow. "Okay. See you at five, then."
Quatre nodded in confirmation, and went on his way back to his trailer-half, giving the mental shopping list another run-through.
At five sharp, Quatre tapped the door of Catherine's trailer. She opened the door, blew aside a lock of hair threatening to fall across her face, fastening it with a swift hand gesture first swiping against her large green apron, orange ladle in a firm grip in her free hand. Despite the pot making funny plop sounds over at the heating plate, she smiled, making room for him to come in. "Hi, Quatre. Glad you could make it. Trowa's not here yet, he's always late when he's dealing with Fang. Just get seated by the table, it'll be a while before the soup's done."
Quatre nodded, removed his shoes before stepping inside, and did as he'd been suggested. Catherine returned to the simmering pot, sending the ladle into it with a few steady stirs. "So, how did your lunch date yesterday work out?"
Quatre frowned. "It wasn't a date, and you know it."
She snickered. "Just teasing you, Quatre. Look, I know you wouldn't break a promise - you're not the kind that'd do that."
He sighed. "I said I wouldn't tell him how I felt until I knew what the answer would be."
She gave the pot another stir, and looked over her shoulder. "Giving up already? Have to give it time. Trowa's not the kind of guy that displays his thoughts or feelings openly."
"Yeah... I keep feeling I'm just grasping at a straw of hope that isn't there."
Two more spins of the ladle, a quick adding of salt. "You don't know that, Quatre - We don't know that. You know, I've tried just about everything to get Trowa to socialize more, go out and meet people his age. The few times I've managed to drag him along, he could barely speak to the ones that approached him. Always ended with him standing alone again - by the looks of it, intentionally. Think he was just trying to tell me to back out of that part of his personal life." She shrugged. "I did, mostly. Hoped it was just a phase, and that he'd grow out of it."
"...but he hasn't, has he?"
Ladle dropped within the pot, soft sigh. "No, he hasn't."
"That place you told him about - that choice was intentional, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. He could hide from the crowds in such a place, just like he wants to." She turned around, leaned against the counter and folded her arms. "I'm glad you went with him, Quatre. He wouldn't have gone alone."
Faint smile. "It was my pleasure, Catherine. I just wish there was something else I could do to help him."
Catherine shrugged. "Can't really help those who don't want to be helped, Quatre. I think the best thing we can do for him, is to be there for him, be his friends. Still, I think he'd go along with a few more lunches with you. I mean, he's got to be tired of going out with me all the time, and it's nice to see him at least have one friend to hang out with."
Vague smirk. "Even a friend with ulterior motives?"
Genuine smile. "Maybe - but you wouldn't act on those without good reason, Quatre. I trust you not to blurt something like that out on Trowa."
"I'm not sure I could tell him even if I did know it would be tolerated - if not welcome."
"Nonsense. You'd tell him if that was the case, I'm sure of it."
The pot made ever more powerful and frequent plop sounds. Catherine returned to giving the soup another stir. "Almost done." She opened one of the cupboards, took out three bowls and placed them on the table. Quatre got up to open another cupboard, searching out glasses and a pitcher, filling the latter with water and placing it all with the bowls. Catherine opened a drawer, revealing a variety of utensils, spoons included. Soon after, three of those were also at the table, as well as a insular mat for the pot. Just as Catherine carried the small black cauldron to the table, balancing it carefully with her oven mittens, there was a gentle knock at the door. She smiled, put the pot down, left the mittens on the counter and went to open the door. Sure enough, there was- "Hi, Trowa. You're late again."
He looked at past her shoulder at the set table, and then at her apron. "No, it looks like I got here just on time."
She rolled her eyes and stepped aside, removing her apron as her brother removed his shoes. Soon enough, they were all seated, Catherine quickly scooping up sizable portions of soup to all three, and then placed her palms together for the briefest of token graces. "Okay, dig in, boys." She grabbed her spoon, already at work. The other two followed.
Quatre could feel his face contort slightly at the first mouthful, fought to gain control of it and silently praying Catherine hadn't noticed. Trowa evidently had though, judging from his vague smirk and swift, amused sparkle in the visible eye. Taking another spoonful, Quatre adjusted to the odd taste. He tried identifying at least one item within the mystery blend - potatoes... carrots... celery - tomatoes? No, he couldn't make even one positive identification. Still, once his taste buds got used to the mixed sensations, it wasn't so bad, and it certainly did quiet his hunger. Already after a single bowl, he felt ready to burst.
Small talk during the meal did indeed live up to its name - Catherine inquired in how Quatre found his first short day of work, Quatre tried to pry out at least a few of the ingredients of what he'd just eaten - though only the first of these conversations brought an answer. Other swift discussions followed, but nearly all the talking done between two, rather than three. Trowa ate in silence, only giving two contributions to the chatter; one a reminder of the impending show, the other a quick run-through of tonight's program. Taking the former into account, they finished off the meal, Trowa excusing himself to prepare the animals for the performances, Quatre offering Catherine to help with the dishes - which was gratefully accepted.
Quatre followed Catherine over to the big top once they were done, though he politely declined her suggestion he'd stay to watch the show from behind the scenes, or get himself a seat in the sparse, still growing crowds of the stands. Instead, as the clock turned seven and the band began to play, he retired to his trailer section, knowing all too well there'd be enough calls awaiting him there - and now that his temporary address was more or less determined, he wasn't surprised when Rashid informed him a delivery man would stop by within an hour, bringing a few contracts his sisters had insisted he'd review and sign, should he so approve.
Hours later, after receiving the paper package and reviewing it - as well as pleading with a select few of his sisters to cease shunting the corporate control to him - he searched out another item Rashid had dispatched along with the documents, much to his joy; his violin.
Quatre took a firm hold of its neck, placed the other end under his chin, loosened his muscles and put the bow to the strings, producing a few faint, lingering tones before sending himself off on a sound of melancholy, not really a learned piece but rather selecting whatever combination of tones he felt best, competing and contrasting the happy tunes still emanating from the nearby circus tent - but at least his music was private.
Lost in the lack of thoughts brought forth by musical rapture, he never heard the band music stop, long since finding his own way along the scales. Indeed, it was the gentle shaking the trailer made when Joseph returned that made him snap out of it, and stop playing. For a moment, a little vindictive voice in his mind yelled at him to keep playing - and adding a few shrills just to seek vengeance for the morning serenade. Of course, no tiny cartoonish evil demon on a shoulder could win over Quatre as easy as that, heavily influenced by the minute angel-like figure on the other shoulder as he was. Instead, he got ready for bed, suspecting he'd be roused from his sleep either by the neighborhood song bird or the old-fashioned alarm clock he'd found in an antique shop earlier that day - and given how incredibly noisy the latter could be, he wasn't sure which was the preferable method to awaken by.
It turned out to be a tie - Friar Clown's shrill voice began but seconds before the old clock chimed off both its top bells, and albeit the latter shut the former up for a few seconds, the combination was more than enough to bring Quatre far away from the place of dreams.
The day went by in a hurry. Mostly he helped with the animals or cleaned up trash from the stands, occasionally taking a break to watch the rehearsals and training exercises the various performers attempted, be it within the ring or outside. A limited lunch and quickly prepared dinner was all he felt like making himself. He'd tried to invite Trowa out for either meal, but the boy appeared much too busy at either occasion. In the end, Quatre opted not to push his luck - he wanted to help, but as Catherine had said, you couldn't help someone that didn't want to be helped - unless you did it without their knowing, perhaps.
As the afternoon came by, Quatre reported for duty in the popcorn stand, doing battle with the infernal popping machine, and living up to his name. The cheerfulness of the people passing through, especially the younger children, was infectious. Still, in the opposing booth, busy twirling up fluffy, pink pieces of cotton candy, Trowa appeared completely unaffected, a faint smile the greatest sign of happiness he could form. Quatre spent every free moment he had observing his friend, and he quickly noted patterns. For one, Trowa's hand never touched that of the customer. Never. Instead, he presented the stick to the recipients with as much clearing as he could, pinning the stick between two fingers, right at the base of the pink fluff. In receiving the payment and giving back change, he used the tray above the cash register, never opening up his hand for the money. The barely-a-smile was all he really offered in terms of customer relations, his sentences became incredibly terse - if they at all formed. Nods were all he needed to take an order, leaving the task of stating the cost - which he occasionally left for the cash register to do. All in all, he was effective at his job, but still doing all he could do to avoid contact with strangers - unintentional or not. A few customers tried to engage Trowa in small talk, and each attempt failed miserably, unless you count a string of one- or two-word answers a conversation.
Even so, Quatre wondered if he was just imagining it all, or putting too much into it. Trowa had always been reclusive, and didn't talk much to total strangers. Using the tray on the cash register might just be a way to make payment more effective, making no doubt where the money was - they could easily get lost if left on the counter, after all.
As for himself, he did his best to smile and be friendly, not that that bit cost him much effort. A few of the popcorn-hungry eyed him up, and he had an idea of what they were thinking - but only two of the many buyers asked. He avoided answering truthfully though, leading them to think he just looked like the famed Winner heir, especially by giving them the reasoning 'if I were that rich, would I be working here?' - which they happily bought. They were after all far more concerned with the show than any novelty in the junkfood stands.
The rush hour between six and seven at last faded five minutes into the show, the last stragglers hurrying past the stands. The ticket stand closed ten minutes later, and Sylphie replaced Trowa in the cotton candy booth. She smiled, nodding with her whole body as she said hi to them both, and bye to one. The cheerful lady soon started a 'get to know you' conversation with Quatre, overloading the poor boy with all kinds of questions, not waiting for questions in return before giving replies to the same. In the very slow period leading up to the interlude in the show, Quatre got to know a little more about Sylphie, her family and just about every member of the circus troupe than he ever wanted to. One of the tidbits he'd caught onto was that Joseph's real name was 'Iosuf', apparently simplified in both writing and intonation to make interaction both with fellow artists and transit authorities demanding passports easier, though Sylphie knew quite a few rumors suggesting there had been far more spectacular reasons behind the change, including him being some kind of secret agent, or hiding from a vindictive family, or mourning a lost love so badly he gave up his old identity and ran off with the circus - and a few more that were just as unbelievable.
During the pause, they got far too many customers to have time to chit-chat - something Quatre thought was just as good; sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss, and he'd rather not develop a sense of paranoia about each and every co-worker at the circus. The customers had only a few repeats; the ones that had arrived with more than three children were the most prone to return, the rest was made up of those that didn't take the time to shop snacks before the show, or didn't have the craving for the same earlier. Sylphie had hinted that the manager had some kind of secret scent or charm hidden under the bleachers that made people desperate for the junkfood - of course, she had nothing to back that wonderful theory up any more than all her others. Still, she didn't badmouth anyone, not directly - and she did pick up a few truths, such that Trowa 'probably was a Gundam pilot'. Judging from what Trowa had told him, that little tidbit should have been obvious to all those that worked at the circus when he'd used Heavyarms during a performance, tearing up the big top with gunfire before assaulting the Oz troops in the audience and on the nearby base.
How Trowa had retained his anonymity after that, was a mystery even to Quatre. Maybe Catherine used her daggers to enforce a silence, or perhaps the manager threatened to withhold wages. The long shot was that Trowa had endeared himself enough among the employees to earn their silence - though a more likely twist of the latter would be they had taken pity on him. Regardless, Trowa's name was in the minds of most people - circus staff included - still more tied to the Barton Foundation than it was to the Gundams, for better or worse. Indeed, all the pilots had been able to go on living without that label - even Duo had escaped into obscurity as far as the public eye was concerned, despite having had his easily recognizable face and hair periodically plastered on TV screens and 'wanted' posters. Of course, that still left Quatre. As the new head of the influential and wealthy Winner family, his face carried significant recognition value - at least in some circles.
The interlude ended, customers done stacking up on popcorn, cotton candy and whatever those little treat and beverage dispensers within the tent sold returning to their seats for the final half - and without a doubt, the more spectacular one; after all, it was in this half most of Trowa's time in the ring would be spent.
Quatre and Sylphie cleaned and closed their respective booths, and Quatre made a hasty escape, not wanting to hear any more 'juicy details' - of which Sylphie seemed to have an endless supply. Some had been entertaining, but barely a handful sounded credible enough to make him dare ask Trowa or Catherine for verification.
As they say, speak of someone or something - be it the sun or the devil himself - and he, she or it appears. Not before had Quatre considered the idea of investigating Sylphie's claims did he run into Catherine, apparently heading back to her trailer to change out of a rather skimpy costume.
"Hi, Quatre - how did it go tonight?"
"Fine, I guess. Sylphie took the cash back to the safe in the manager's office, she said he likes to do the accounting himself."
Catherine shrugged. "Yeah, he does. His little Scrooge-complex, I guess."
She began to walk away before Quatre was able to think out how to phrase his observations. "Uhm, Catherine - I watched when Trowa was in the cotton candy stand today, and-"
She halted at her name, crossed her arms. "And he acted 'weird', is that what you're about to say?"
Quatre's eyes fell to the ground a bit beside and behind her. "I - I didn't say that, it's just that - well, it looked like he did his utmost to avoid interacting with the customers. I know he's a bit shy of strangers, but..."
She flashed a smile, briefly rubbed her upper arms for warmth and sighed. "Yeah, I know, Quatre - this is what I meant the other day. Trowa has grown antisocial, and I think it's getting worse. I've tried working out why, but every time I try to talk to him about it, I feel I end up pushing him even further away. You haven't figured out an answer, have you?"
Quatre shook his head. "It could just be his way of dealing with things."
"Maybe - but it isn't healthy, Quatre. We have to make him open up to people, somehow."
"Catherine - if we pushed him into something like that, he might-"
She threw her arms up. "I know, Quatre. I know..." She pinned the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, swiping her eyes to remove the few tears appearing.
Quatre walked over to her, placed his hand on her shoulder in a vague attempt at comfort. "I'm sure we'll think of something. Maybe-"
"Figured you'd try to recruit him, sis. Didn't think you'd be this quick about it, though."
They both looked in the direction of the new voice. Trowa was leaning against a trailer, arms folded, still dressed in full clown suit - sans the half-mask. As the other two appeared to temporarily have lost all abilities to speak, Trowa used the foot resting on the trailer side to kick away with, and walked over to them.
"T - Trowa - how long have you stood there?"
He shrugged. "Long enough, Quatre."
Again, Quatre's eyes sought out grass.
"Catherine, I know you're concerned about me - but you have to let me live my own life."
Her moist eyes hardened, arms akimbo. "But it's not healthy, Trowa - you can't just avoid people!"
Trowa barely blinked, face as expressionless as his tone of voice. "I'm not doing that, Cathy. I just don't like crowds or strangers, that's all."
"That's bad enough!"
No answer but silence.
Quatre looked up from the local flora. "Trowa, we just want to help-"
"You want me to change who I am, Quatre. That's not fair. You two are probably the closest I've got to a real family, but that still doesn't give you the right to dictate how I should live. Influence, maybe, but not control me."
"Trowa, you have trouble even going into a crowded store, much less shake a stranger's hand! You have a problem, Trowa - why can't you see that?"
Again, Trowa didn't answer, albeit he pumped his fists a few times, unobscured eye bordering on a glare. He turned to walk away.
Quatre was about to rush after Trowa, and continue his attack when a fourth voice intervened.
"Mister Winner!" Quatre spun around only to be faced with the flash of a camera, temporarily blinding him and making him rub his eyes. "Ah, so it is you! Damien Swift, Colonies Today. Mr. Winner, care to comment why the heir to the Winner fortune and corporate whiz-kid leading the Winner corporation now earns a living as a cashier at a circus?"
As the dancing spots of light vanished from his vision, Quatre could see enough to confirm what he already knew; a paparazzo reporter using one of the oldest - and dirtiest - tricks in the book to make a positive identification. Normally, he wouldn't mind such reporters at all, but this one had decided to interrupt at a most inconvenient moment. He looked around, but Trowa was gone. He could see Catherine run towards Trowa's trailer, probably to catch up with her brother. Quatre wanted to follow, but first... "Please leave me alone."
The short reporter rubbed his neatly trimmed moustache with his free hand, the other using a small tape recorder almost as a sword, hovering it merely an inch away from Quatre's face. "Now, surely you can give me a better comment than that. Come on, why are you here? You can tell a mere messenger from Colonies Today, can't you? Did the Winner corporation decide to fire their young, inexperienced executive? Is the company on the brink of bankruptcy? Any comment?"
Quatre's brows nearly met in the v-shape they began to form, and his hands became closed fists. "How did you find me?"
"Anonymous tip. The magazine thought it was bull, but I decided to check it out anyway."
Both the invisible creatures on his shoulders, angel and demon alike, spoke to Quatre in the same voice now, and his own became a low grumble. "You shouldn't have..."
The short, slick man grinned. "Oh, I don't mind - not every day I get an angle as good as this."
Quatre's eyes flashed. "No, you really shouldn't have."
And with that, his fists opened, hands flying out towards the paparazzo, one grabbing the camera dangling on a leather strap around the man's neck - until Quatre's swift move ripped it off, that is - and the other snatching the reporter's wrist, squeezing hard enough to make the man loosen his grasp on the tape recorder, making that device follow the first in being slammed towards a sizable rock popping out of the grass, small bits of plastic, metal and mechanisms flying everywhere.
The paparazzo just stood there gaping. "I - You - Assault! I'll sue you for personal assault!"
Quatre reached inside his vest to pull out his wallet, took out a few sizable bills and threw them at the man. "Here. That should cover the damages to your equipment."
"You won't get away with this, you dirty little rich brat - I'll-"
"You said you worked for Colonies Today?"
"I - Yes."
Quatre turned away, and began walking as he spoke. "This was a dead end, understand? If not, tomorrow there will be no Colonies Today - and you most definitely won't ever be hired again, anywhere."
"That's blackmail! I'll-"
Quatre spun around, glare alone silencing the reporter. "You will do nothing. Behave, and I'll make sure you get an exclusive interview at a later occasion - but not now. Do you understand, Mr. Swift?"
Jaw still drooping, the reporter gave a few uncertain nods.
Quatre resumed his walk. "I'll have someone call you tomorrow. Now, please leave."
He didn't look back to see if his near-order was obeyed. He didn't have to. An exclusive was far more than any low-level paparazzo sent to investigate rumors could hope for. At least the man had a shred of intelligence, despite his poor career choice.
With every step he picked up the pace, and by the time he approached Trowa's trailer, he was nearly running. Catherine sat on the steps by the entrance, crying. Quatre's footsteps alerted her. "Quatre..."
"I've lost the reporter - how is he?"
She wiped away her tears. "He ran inside, and locked the door. He always locks that door when he's alone inside, but now he refused to open when I knocked. He hasn't done that before. He has to be really angry this time."
Quatre could feel his face fall. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I shouldn't have spoken so harshly to him - I-"
She stood up, and hugged him. "No. No, that's okay, Quatre. I think that's just what he needed - a shock."
Quatre could feel her shiver. "You should go change. I'll try to coax him out, okay? In any case, I'll be here until you return."
She nodded. "Thanks, Quatre - I'll be right back."
Catherine ran off, leaving Quatre by the closed door. He climbed the few steps and knocked the surface twice, not getting any answer, be it word or action. "Trowa? Trowa, please open up - we need to talk." He knocked again, no response. With a sigh he sat down on the stairs, elbows on knees, chin in hands. He let his fingers close over his eyes, giving them gentle rubs. Restless, he got up again, and knocked on the door yet again, bordering on pounding. "Trowa! Open up, okay?!"
But nothing. He looked down at the door handle, reached for it - and lo and behold, the door had been unlocked all along, and opened without a sound in objection. Evidently, Catherine had been so used to the door being locked this possibility hadn't even occurred to her.
The interior of the trailer was dim, none of the lights were on. Tentatively, Quatre took a step inside. "Trowa?"
In the darkness, he sensed a vague motion in the far corner. He took off his shoes, placing them next to a set of oversized clown shoes discarded in a hurry next to a small wooden footstool. Quatre approached the movement slowly, not wanting to alarm someone he knew could kill with a sudden move - usually triggered by the same.
Trowa sat in the right side couch of the little sofa group at the end of the trailer, leaning in over the table, eyes focused on his opening and closing hand. There was something in it, but in the poor light, Quatre couldn't make it out. With barely a sound and in definite slow motion he sat down on the opposite end of the table, waiting for Trowa to give the slightest of sign he'd registered his presence. Minutes passed, the hand still folding around the object within, and loosening the grip again. The shape followed the fingers, as if it were a sponge or other soft artifact. At last, Trowa's fist closed around it tightly, and he withdrew his arms, raising his gaze to stare blankly at his friend.
Quatre brought forth his most disarming smile. "Hi."
Trowa nodded, free hand reaching for the closest light switch, little red-shaded lamp at the end wall coming to life.
Quatre blinked a few times to adjust, and looked at Trowa's closed fist. "What have you got there?"
Following Quatre's eyes, Trowa looked down on his hand, bringing it back out on the table, slowly unfolding his fingers, revealing the content - a small, soft ball, split in eight sections by thin black lines, sporting the seven colors of the rainbow, plus white. Trowa gave it a vague squeeze, bringing it from palm to fingertips, offering it to Quatre.
Quatre reached for it, let his fingers gently move along the fabric surface, took it out of Trowa's hand, though taking care not to touch said hand, and held it up against the red lamp. The fabric was riddled with creases, attesting to frequent use. He closed his fingers around it, felt the warm fabric and soft stuffing give in.
"It's a memory."
Quatre refocused on Trowa, handing the squishy toy back. "A good memory?"
Trowa shrugged. "Not sure. I've had it for as long as I can remember. Don't know if it's something I have from my original family, or if one of the mercenaries gave it to me. Can't remember anything before the mercenary group."
Quatre smiled. "I'm sure it's a good memory, then."
A sigh. "Maybe... I think there's a rattle deep inside it - I remember the sound of a rattle, but I can't recall ever hearing a sound like that from this thing."
"We only hear what we want to, don't we?"
Faint smile. "Yeah..."
"Trowa, I didn't mean to-"
"No - No, that's okay, Quatre. Cathy and you are probably right, I - I just don't want to admit it. I've grown used to living alone, even when in a group. I guess that's why I don't like crowds, or strangers. What is unfamiliar or uncontrollable is a threat."
Quatre folded his hands on the table. "You can't turn into a hermit, Trowa - that's no way to live."
Trowa copied him, placing his own prayers enclosing the ball but an inch away from Quatre's. "I know."
Again, quiet fell upon the two.
"What are we going to do now, Trowa? Catherine and I want to help you - all you have to do is ask for it - you know that, right?"
Quatre leaned back, patiently waiting for a reply.
"Look, just let me think on this for a while... I know you guys mean well, but I know how either one of you can be when you decide to do something - I'm not sure I could take being the focus of that from the both of you."
Quatre's turn to nod. "Okay, Trowa. Just don't withdraw from us, okay? We're your friends, and we care about you. We don't want-"
Trowa waved him to stop with one hand, putting the ball away behind a couch cushion with the other, ending with a sigh. "I know that, Quatre. Thanks."
Two soft knocks could be heard at the door.
"The door is open, sis!"
Within a heartbeat, Catherine was inside, the door again closed, and a certain boy in a clown outfit embraced in a tight hug. "Trowa, don't do that to me - not ever again! I thought you'd - you'd-"
He chuckled, wrapping one arm around her. "I gave you my word long ago I'd never even think of that again, Cathy. I was in a bad mood, I wasn't planning suicide."
She loosened her grip, just enough to let her brother breathe. "Not in a bad mood anymore?"
The vague smile returned, and he shook his head. "No. Quatre helped."
She turned to Quatre and silently mouthed a 'thank you', before giving Trowa a last solid hug, letting go and sitting up straight.
Trowa looked at her, then at Quatre, then at the table corner on the far side. "I know you're both worried about me. I'm grateful for that, I really am. I just - I just have to deal with this in my own pace, okay? I admit I have a problem, that's more than I did this morning."
Catherine nodded, placed her hand on his shoulder. "We understand, Trowa. We'll try not to push you, but you have to make an effort - we'll help you any way you can, all you have to do is ask."
Another chuckle. "Yeah, I know. Quatre said just the same thing a few minutes ago."
For the third time, the trailer was engulfed in the lack of all noise.
What broke the silence, was the gentle growling of Trowa's stomach. Catherine laughed. Quatre chuckled. Trowa at first gave a scant expression of indignation, but broke into a soft smirk soon enough.
Catherine got up. "I'll make us some supper. You did go to the supermarket today, didn't you, Trowa?"
Sigh. "Yes, sis, I remembered. You only reminded me four times."
She grinned, and searched through the cupboards and the fridge for things to raid and make a decent meal out of. The three ate without barely speaking a word; there had been enough talk for one day, and nightfall would soon bring a new day, perhaps a better one.