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Witching Hour

Lys ap Adin

"Goddamn, Quatre, you drive like an old man," Duo complained, as Quatre braked yet again for a vicious highway curve.

"That's because I want to live to *be* an old man, Maxwell," Quatre retorted, guiding the car through the tight curve and down the hill.

"You were born old," Duo muttered. "If I were driving, we'd be there by now."

"How much longer, anyway?" Hirde piped up from the back seat.

"We're almost there... say, did anyone remember the flashlights?" Duo asked.

"What do you mean, did anyone remember the flashlights?" Trowa asked, voice low and dangerous. "We've already turned the car around twice for you, Duo--"

"Relax, I'm just funning with ya. I got the flashlights, *and* the candles, *and* the lighter, *and* our friend Mr. Beam." Duo smirked.

"Are we *there* yet?" Hirde demanded. "I can't stand to be in this car with him for much longer, guys."

Trowa looked at her. "He's *your* friend, Hirde."

"Yeah, well, that doesn't mean he doesn't get on my nerves."

"Amen," Quatre agreed.

Duo sniffed. "A guy could get to feel pretty unloved around y'all, you know."

"Lay off, Duo." Quatre braked again, turning into the state park. "We're almost there, Hirde."

"Thank God... now, remind me again why we're driving out into the middle of nowhere to freeze our asses off?"

In his best imitation of Zero Mostel, Duo snapped his fingers and boomed, "Tradition!"

"Ignore him," Trowa advised Hirde. "We've been doing this since high school. It's just something to do around Halloween."

"God, Quatre, can't this thing go any faster?" Duo complained. "At this rate, even Heero'll be there before us."

"Duo, do you want to *walk* the rest of the way?"

"I'm shutting up now."

The other occupants of the car sighed in relief as Duo hunched his shoulders against the hostility in Quatre's frazzled voice.

"So, who's 'we'?" Hirde asked, to break the irritated tension.

"It started out with the three of us, Heero, and Wufei," Quatre said. "Then Wufei got a girlfriend, so she started coming along... and somewhere along the way, we picked up Relena, and her brother--is he Zechs this month, Trowa, or Milliardo?"

Hirde raised an eyebrow as Trowa thought it over. "I think he's being Zechs right now."

"Ohh-kay. So Zechs started bringing Noin along, and now Duo's bringing you."

"Oh! Damn it, I forgot to tell Hirde the stories!" Duo piped up.

"I thought you were shutting up," Hirde observed.

"I changed my mind. Seriously, this is important." Duo twisted around, hanging over the back of his seat to address her. "This place has two ghosts, okay? One of them is this woman whose kid died when he was like a baby, or something, right? So the legend says she would go out to the graveyard every night to keep watch over his grave, sing him lullabies, the whole nine yards. So her ghost haunts the place."

"Don't forget the stump," Trowa murmured.

"Oh, right. So there was this tree next to the grave, which was shaped like a seat, and that's where she'd sit and sing. It's supposed to be bad luck to sit on the stump."

Hirde rolled her eyes. "I'll keep that in mind. The other ghost?"

"He's like the guardian of the place. He's called the trench man, and he just keeps watch over things. His grave even says 'Never at rest' on it. Cool, huh?"

"Uh... yeah. You guys do know this is the shit that becomes urban legends, right? College kids go to graveyard at night, ax murderer kills them all, the end?"

Duo snickered. "Yeah, that's why it's so much fun."

"Why do I hang out with you people?"

"Because," Quatre said, "you're underage, and have no car, and we're willing to supply you with booze and rides... and we're here." He pulled the car off to the side of the road, right behind Wufei's car.

"Looks like everyone's here but Heero," Trowa said.

"He had to work late. He'll be here. He never misses an appointment," Duo grinned, hopping out of the car and shouldering his backpack. "Damn, wouldja look at that moon? We don't really *need* flashlights."

Hirde had to admit the sight was impressive as she stared up that the bright moon and stars. "How often do you get a full moon on Halloween?" she asked.

"Not often... it's this way." Trowa showed her how to squeeze between the bar that kept cars from driving right up to the cemetery and the low rock wall.

Hirde shivered. "Good grief, it's freezing. Why are we doing this again?"

"Relax, babe, it's fun. Here." Setting down his backpack, Duo shrugged off his coat and handed it to her. "Wear this, you'll feel better."

"What about you?" Quatre asked.

Duo leered. "When Heero gets here, I'll have him to keep me warm." He scooped up the backpack and trotted ahead into the darkness.

"God, I wish I had some of whatever it is he's on," Hirde muttered, trudging up the uneven path with the other two.

"No kidding," Quatre agreed. He stopped. "Did you guys hear that--?"

"Hear what?" Trowa asked, just as a pale figure leaped out from behind a tree, shouting.


Hirde shrieked, startled.

Quatre rolled his eyes. "Zechs, aren't you getting a little too old to be doing that shit?" he asked, as the older man adjusted his white sheet, grinning.

"You're never too old to have fun," Zechs announced smugly. "And you should have *seen* Wufei jump. He must have cleared three feet, straight up. Who's this lovely lady?"

"This is Hirde Schbeiker, Duo's friend. Hirde, this is Zechs Merquise."

"A pleasure," Zechs murmured, bowing. "Now, gentlemen, I believe we have a ritual to attend?"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever... let's get moving before I freeze my ass off," Hirde muttered.

"Someone's heart isn't in it?" Zechs, falling in next to Quatre, whispered.

Quatre just shrugged. Ahead, they could hear Duo's triumphant whoops. "Sounds like he's already opened the booze," Quatre said instead.

"Maxwell has no temperance," Zechs said gravely. "I like that in a man." They came in sight of the moon-drenched graveyard, where the rest of the party was passing around the bottle of Jim Beam and a handful of flashlights.

Duo jogged over to meet them. "Hirde, let me give you the grand tour!" he cried, gesticulating with a flashlight. Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed her arm and trotted over to the first tumbledown gravestone. "This is the witch's grave--see the flames on the headstone? If you put a candle on the grave, it'll blow out, even in the stillest air. We'll try it later, okay?" He dragged her off to the next grave, a patient Hirde in tow.

Wufei chuckled, greeting Trowa and Quatre. "He hasn't changed since high school, has he?"

"Unfortunately not... he's still a pain in the ass on a car trip," Quatre said ruefully. "I think he's too used to riding with Heero."

Relena shivered dramatically. "Heero's driving scares me. He drives like a madman."

"Where is Heero?" Noin asked. "He's usually the first one here."

"He had to work late," Quatre explained. "Duo said he'd be here soon."

Meiran wrinkled her nose. "God, working on Halloween--can you imagine? He's probably going to be cranky when he gets here." She paused. "Well, crankier than usual, anyway."

"How much longer till midnight?" Quatre asked, with a nod to Zechs as he accepted the bottle from Wufei.

"Heero's got about half an hour," the blond replied, swirling in his sheet. "Should I try to scare him?"

"Old granite-face? You'd have better luck with one of these headstones," Trowa snorted.

Duo came bounding back over to the group, flashlight bobbing like crazy and Hirde, laughing, following. "Well, I gave her the grand tour... Hey, while I'm thinking about it..." He dug around in his backpack, and began handing out slender white tapers. "I sprang for some good candles this year... not like Mr. Quatre 'El Cheapo' Winner."

"Hey, I *told* you I was short on cash last year," Quatre protested. "Those little yellow emergency candles were all I had."

"Sure they were, Q-man... anyway, here you go. I'll go set up the candles on the graves, okay?" Duo bounced off.

"It's so still out here," Hirde murmured, huddling deeper into Duo's jacket.

"Yeah, you wouldn't be able to sneak up on anyone out here," Relena agreed, stirring her foot through the dead leaves on the ground for emphasis. "Isn't this place great?"

Hirde looked around the moon-shadowed graveyard. "It's kinda nice. So what is this ritual, anyway?"

"Well, for starters, it makes a lot more sense when you're at least a little toasted," Noin advised, handing her the bottle. "We put candles on all the graves and light them up so that at midnight the ghosts can speak to us."

Hirde swallowed this with the mouthful of alcohol, and then asked, "So... do they?"

"Well... not yet," Quatre admitted. He grinned, cheeks flushed with the cold and the booze. "But we figure it'll happen one of these days."

"This is fucking ridiculous," Hirde murmured, but smiling. "You guys are all nuts."

"Time, Zechs?" Wufei asked.

"Um... ten till. Yuy'd better get his ass moving if he wants to make it."

"He'll make it," Duo said firmly, rejoining them. "Hey, it's so still out here tonight... I think we can go ahead and light the candles."

"Might as well," Relena said, digging in a pocket for her lighter. "I'll start on this side."

She, Duo, and Noin fanned out through the small graveyard, stooping at haphazard intervals to light the candle on each gravestone. Soon the small clearing was carpeted with the small points of light.

"Where the hell is Heero?" Duo fretted, coming back to the group and rolling his candle between his hands. "He's only got a couple of minutes."

Warm arms snaked around his waist. "I'm right here," Heero announced in Duo's ear.

Quatre yelped. "Christ, Heero, how'd you sneak up on us?!"

Heero smirked, as Duo snuggled against his chest. "I'm good. Sorry I'm late, I got held up... and I can't stay for very long, either."

"You mean you're not gonna stick around and get drunk with us?" Duo pouted.

"Can't tonight, Duo... so where's my candle?"

"Right! Shit, it's pushing twelve..." Duo hurriedly retrieved the last candle and handed it to his lover. "Brr. It's cold out here."

"Here, wear this." Heero pulled off his beat-up leather jacket and placed it on Duo's shoulders. "I don't need it."

"Hey, thanks! See, Hirde, I told you I'd be fine," Duo said smugly.

"One minute, guys. Light 'em up," Zechs commanded.

Everyone knelt at the nearest gravestone to light his or her candle, and straightened. Zechs kept his eye on his watch, and nodded to Quatre when the minute hand clicked over to midnight.

Quatre, the acknowledged mystic of the group, straightened and whispered, "It's midnight, the border between All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day... If there are any spirits here that wish to speak, let them raise their voices now."

The group waited... and waited. Around them, the candles bobbled merrily--even the one on the "witch's" grave.

"Five minutes," Zechs said finally.

"Maybe next year," Meiran sighed.

Heero blew out his candle and pulled Duo against him. "I gotta get going now," he said regretfully, wrapping his arms around his lover.

Duo pouted. "I'll go with you."

"Sorry, not this time." Heero softened the refusal with a deep kiss. "Bye, Duo."

"Bye, Heero." Duo made a face at him. "You'd better have a damned nice kinky surprise waiting for me when I get home."

Heero just snorted, letting go of him and stepping back into the darkness. "See you later, guys. Love you, Duo."

"Love you too, Heero." Duo sighed, watching Heero fade away into the darkness. "Well, so much for this Halloween, huh?"

"At least he managed to show up," Wufei offered.

"True enough," Duo admitted. "He did show up, which is saying a lot, if he has somewhere else to be." He frowned. "You know what, guys, I'm not going to be very good company tonight after all..."

"Well, truthfully, I don't feel like freezing my ass off out here," Zechs admitted. "Noin and I can get drunk in the warmth of our own home. Wanna lift?"

"Great... Hirde, you be okay with the rest of these weirdoes?" Duo asked.

"Yeah, Duo, I'll be fine. Go on, get out of here if you need to," she said absently, studying the fascinating curves of shadow on Relena's face.

"Thanks. See you guys later, then." Duo followed Noin and Zechs down to their car, quietly taking the back seat and not saying much as Zechs turned the car around and headed for the highway.

"Wonder what Heero's up to this late at night," Noin wondered out loud, breaking the silence.

"God only knows," Duo snorted. "He has all sorts of peculiar notions every now and then."

"He wouldn't be Heero Yuy if he didn't," Zechs said, chuckling, braking for a curve. "Oh my God, what's that?" He pulled off onto the shoulder. "Noin, get my cell phone, and call 911."

They stared in horror at the car wrapped around a tree, and the skid marks in the other lane that marked the driver's attempts to regain control of his vehicle. As Noin fumbled for the cell phone, Duo, voice strangled, said, "That's Heero's car."

"What--?" Zechs said, bewildered, looking at the skid marks heading south when Heero would have been going north after leaving the graveyard, but Duo was already unbuckled and out of the car, running across the highway.

"Hello, 911? I need to report an accident on Highway 37... just about a mile north of Stepps Cemetery... A car ran off the road, into a tree... Yes, thank you." Noin looked at Zechs. "They're on their way."

"Noin, I think it *is* Heero's car... but... how did he end up in that lane?" Zechs murmured. "Oh, God, Duo--"

They scrambled out of the car and across the road to where a forlorn figure stood, running his hands absently over the crumpled hood. "Did you call an ambulance?" he asked quietly.

"They'll be here as soon as possible," Noin said, trying not to look at the windshield and its starburst pattern of cracked glass.. "Heero's going to be--"

"His skin is cold," Duo whispered. "Cold. Icy cold. But he was just--ten minutes ago, he was just--how can this be possible? The engine's cold too. It shouldn't be cold, not after just ten minutes--"

Noin silently pulled Duo into her arms as he began to shake, comforting him as Zechs went to investigate the condition of the driver. He closed his eyes at the sight of the figured slumped limply over the wheel, but gingerly reached in to feel for a pulse anyway.

He recoiled at once, shocked by the chilly skin and the dried, rusty brown blotches staining the upholstery and Heero's work clothes. Zechs looked back at the road and the black streaks in the wrong lane, and then back at Heero's body, and the stump of a pale candle cradled in one limp hand. It was impossible, wasn't it? Spirits didn't really speak at the witching hour... did they?

Then again, Zechs thought, hearing the first distant wail of the ambulance's siren, Heero always kept his appointments, no matter what. He shook his head, turning back to his girlfriend and Duo and vowing that he would never meddle in anything remotely occult for the rest of his life.


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