By Kat Reitz and tzigane

The night was nearly black when Duo came to a stop on the old dirt road, lightning strobing in the sky with vicious thunder rolling just afterwards. He'd been heading out to Quatre's house, a little two story place at the end of the road, but the small pond that resided halfway down it had spilled over its banks as a result of all the rain. If he'd been in his Bronco, he'd have tried bulling through it -- after all, the water wasn't THAT deep yet. Unfortunately, his Bronco was at Quatre's house because he'd borrowed the other young man's Jaguar for a date. /'S the last time I do THAT,/ he decided with more than a little disgust as he glared at the tree that had fallen across the way. /This is just great. Stuck between a tree and a flooded place!/

With a sigh, he dropped his head against the steering wheel. Well, that left him without much option. He could get out of the car and try WALKING to Quatre's through the woods, but God only knows if he would make it with the weather so bad. *OR*... he could try the road on the left halfway between the felled tree and the overflowing pond...

That road, in all sanity, was probably the best choice -- after all, what if the pond spilled higher, and God forbid, Quatre's jaguar got flooded out?! That thought left him with even less of an option, as he let it drift through his mind. "What the hell," he muttered to himself. "What's the worst that can happen? Another overflowing pond dam? A tree falling *ON* the car? Better than just sitting here..." That decided, he put the car in reverse and carefully backed down the slick clay road to the left turn, taking it sharply to get the car off of the first one.

With his luck, that road probably went down into a pond. Or, if he was *really* lucky, it would lead him to another house -- but for the moment, it was narrow, and lined with trees that creaked and groaned with the weight of the wind and the rain's pounding. "Jesus," he whispered, half a curse and half a prayer. "There's gotta be SOMETHING out here..."

Another flash of lightning gave sight of a clearing up ahead and he slowed down, uncertain of what might be there -- pond, field, or even another road. "Why's he gotta live way out in B.F.E.?" Duo sighed to himself even as the vague shimmer of a window came clear in the bright flash of another lightning strike. "Wonder if anybody's home..."

Even if it was some deserted place, if it was dry, Duo was sure that he could pry open a window or bust a door to use it for a shelter. Just for the night, until it was daylight and he could navigate to Quatre's on foot if the roads didn't dry up come morning. He'd manage.

Pulling up to park, he was surprised to see exactly how big the house was -- one of those three story monstrosities you usually only found in the rich part of town, the gleam of candle flame shining from one of the upstairs windows. "Guess I won't have to break in after all," he muttered, parking close to the porch so that he might not get *too* soaked as he made a dash for it.

The steps of the old, unpainted wooden porch sagged precariously as Duo bolted up all four of them, to knock on the heavy, tightly sealed door. The small porch roof kept most of the water off of him, but the occasional gust of wind blew it in to soak the legs of his jeans and the tip of his braid, bringing a fervent curse to his lips as he knocked again. "Somebody's gotta be home!" he muttered to himself.

Slowly, the door opened. A slender black-gloved hand that held a guttering candle could be seen first, then a head of long black hair. "Can I help you?" a soft voice asked, as the door creaked open all the way.

"Yeah, the pond dam down the way's overflowed and there's a tree down at the other end of the road. This was the only house I could find... urm... I was hoping I could stay out the storm," Duo suggested, blinking slightly. /Man. Gloves??/

"You mean, you want to come in?" that soft, breathy voice asked him, pale red lips barely moving to voice those words.

"Uh..." Well, DUH. "Yes. Please, if you don't mind. It's really miserable out. I promise I'm not an axe murderer or anything," the young man promised, holding up his empty hands.

That got him a soft, nervous laugh. "All... all right." Then the owner of the house stepped back, letting Duo enter. "You can stay for the night."

"Thanks," he sighed, moving in and taking his first real look at the... PERSON...? who'd opened the door.

Small, though only a little shorter than he was, Asian in features, flat chested and boyish, but wearing what was clearly... a lacy, black gown, right down to a veil that was pushed back from the silky black hair, and above the elbow gloves. "You're welcome," that soft voice told him, giving a very faint smile.

The urge to *ASK* what the hell the get-up was for struck, but he decided with a shiver that it was *much* better not to know! "Ah, if you'll show me a room, I'll try not to bother you any... I'm really sorry about this," he said.

"A room..." that was echoed almost emptily, though the black-haired head nodded after a moment, almost bobbling a little. The candle flickered, as if it were a piece of saran wrap that was catching an unknown light source -- not the sort of flicker a candle normally gave. "Yes, follow me. What's your name?"

"Maxwell," he told the... IT... uneasily, following behind as they headed towards a stairwell. "Duo Maxwell..."

"It's nice to meet you, Duo Maxwell," was the gentle reply as the way was led up the stairs. Each footfall on the steps ahead of Duo was almost a 'click' -- like wooden heels on the wooden stairs, though beneath the billow of the dress he could see nothing.

"Th..anks," he said hesitantly, peeking at it. WAS it a boy? It *looked* like a boy in a dress, he was pretty sure... "What's your name? Have you lived here long?"

"My name is Chang Wufei." The soft voice... could be placed as male, if Duo strained when he listened to it, though the Asian lilt was undeniable no matter what the gender. "I've only lived here a few months."

"Guess it must be nice way out here, huh?" he asked, making conversation. "Well, unless the electricity is off..."

"Must be the storm," the... -- yes, dammit, he'd save his mind a throbbing headache and settle that the thin it in the dress with corn-silk black hair was a boy! -- the boy told him in a shivery breath.

A nervous little laugh seemed to escape Duo as he glanced around at the shadowed corners of the upper hall, the dark wainscoting giving him the shivers. "Maybe it'll come back on, then," he offered, shivering again. "Hopefully, soon..."

"In the morning," Wufei almost promised him, stepping into the hall. The candle guttered again, nearly plunging them both into darkness, but then its gauzy light returned, those wooden steps moving along down the hall. "There should be room in the chamber at the end of the hall."

"Are you..." He wondered if he should ask that question... "Are you alone? I mean, it doesn't seem like a nice place for a..." A what? Lady? Ha! "For somebody to be alone way out here..."

"Not entirely alone. My... employer is here, too," he smiled emptily at Duo, head turning loosely to look back at the braided man.

"Employer..." Okay, that was eerie, just plain WEIRD, that shift of head making him shiver. "Ahh." An employer who apparently liked boys in black wedding dresses and elbow length gloves... fucking *WEIRD*, in other words!

And possibly, quite possibly, fucking the weird boy in front of him! Why *else* would an... 'employer' have a boy in a black dress...? "You can meet him, if you'd like." Wufei looked forwards again, head making that same almost bobbling swivel to peer down the hall before he carried on.

"That's okay!" Duo said, shaking his head quickly. "I really don't have to. I mean, I'm sure he's busy, right? Right..." It'd just creep him out even worse... He shuddered.

"I need to take the candle back to him," Wufei said, that soft voice almost sheepish, "so he can go back to working."

"You only have one?" Ohh, that wasn't a pleasant thought, either. He wasn't so sure he wanted to be left in the dark in this place!!

"Just my candle," Wufei affirmed. "Made just for me. The master is good to me that way." The last door on the hallway, and he laid one gloved hand on the knob of the door; it clicked softly with the contact of hand to metal -- jewelry?

It opened into darkness, the strange light spilling inside the room. It was an odd sort of place, something like a taxidermy workshop and study combined, like something out of a horror novel or something. It gave him the creeps, like everything else had so far, and he shivered violently as the... boy went in ahead of him.

"Master, I brought who was knocking at the door," Wufei chirped out, now sounding frighteningly cheery. He stepped loosely over a pile of leather cutting, moving over to the darkness enshrouded figure sitting in the corner, back to the door, at a worktable.

"Oh, did you?" A fluid voice, but its owner didn't turn yet.

Reluctantly, Duo remained in the doorway, shivering. "The storm out's pretty bad and I got stuck between the dam and a fallen tree, so... I'd like to thank you for letting me come in out of the weather." Even scared to death, he knew how to mind his manners! Thank God for Momma Helen...

"You're welcome," was the smooth greeting. The owner of the voice finally turned around... and didn't turn out to be the ugly, overweight man that Duo thought of when he thought of the sort of men who'd want to fuck a boy in a wedding dress. No, when he sat up straight from the bench, he was lithe, well formed in strength, with a face that could stop traffic on a busy street. One forked eyebrow raised ever so slightly. "What were you doing out so late, this far out, though?"

"I... was going to visit a friend. He let me borrow his car for a date," Duo babbled, trying to keep his jaw from hitting his chest. /DAMN!!! He's *HOT*!/ "So, I was bringing it back, 'cause he had my Bronco..."

"Bronco...?" Eyes like diamond cut sapphires flickered brilliantly for a moment, brighter than Wufei's candle. "What color was it?"

"Black," Duo answered. "Why do you ask?"

"Can you take my candle, master?" Wufei broke in, clicking his way across the floor almost coquettishly, candle held out in that black-gloved hand. For a moment, a larger, long fingered and pale hand closed over the black glove, and then the candle was pulled from Wufei's grasp.

"Oh, the black Bronco... There was an accident just down the road this afternoon, before the rain, and I'd swear that one of the cars involved was a black Bronco."

"Was anybody hurt?" Duo asked, suddenly greatly worried. "Was the driver okay?" God, and what about his *car*!? Damn, he loved that thing!

"Well, it's up in the air, the state of the driver," the man shrugged, setting the candle down on his work table, turning just a little to almost absently work again. Duo saw a tiny chisel.

Frantic, Duo gnawed at his lip. Damn, there just wasn't any way to get out, was there? Not to check on Quatre *or* his car. /Shit./ He wished he'd come earlier! "So, you don't know anything..." he said slowly. "Hm. I'm sorry to intrude on you and then ask so many questions, only I'm worried..."

"Oh, no, that's all right -- ask all the questions you want -- I'm more than willing to tell you what I can remember," he granted. "Wufei, why don't you prepare a pallet for our guest, so that he can sleep?"

"Yes," the boy granted with another empty slight smile, and a bobbling pivot of his frame, to leave the room.

"Um... There aren't any beds?" Duo asked curiously, the hair on the back of his neck standing up in a sudden shiver. He SO didn't want to stay in *this* room!!! Huh-uh, no way, nada!! No!

"Well, there's one bed," the ginger-haired man granted in a purr of voice, "Though I doubt you'd wish to join Wufei and I, hmn?"

"No! No, no, that's perfectly all right, you're right! A pallet will be *much* better," Duo said quickly, shivering. GAH! Just the *thought* of being in bed with two people that weird... Ew!

"Why don't you sit down, then, while Wufei finds you something to sleep on," was the kind offer.

Nervously, Duo glanced around, looking for a chair. There was only one aside from the one that the 'master' sat in, and since it was fairly close to him, Duo decided he'd be better off to seat himself on the floor. "Wufei said you'd only been here a few months?" he asked curiously.

"Yes -- we move often because my job takes me to many places," he drawled, turning back to his work table. One arm absently reached to pick up a small screw-driver that was within the reach of the candle's light.

"What is it that you do?" Momma Helen had always said that his curiosity would be the death of him!

"I create... puppets," the man smiled at him, turning his head back to look at Duo. "It's a wonderful job."

"Oh, you mean like...say, those things on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, or maybe like Howdy Doody?" Duo asked. Well, THAT would explain why he was kind of weird, wouldn't it?

"Not quite..." A thoughtful pause, and then a curling smile. "More like Geppetto."

THAT gave him even more of a chill than before. "Oh," he said, and that was all he could think of *to* say! Geppetto, that was the fellow who'd made Pinocchio, who'd turned out to be a living puppet... God, it was almost grotesque to consider it!

"Yes, more like that... only..." The beautiful aquiline face cracked a dark grin. "Only I work it the other way around."

"Wh...what?" Duo asked, not quite sure he'd heard right. He stood up, deciding maybe it would be safer out in the car after all. "I mean, no, don't tell me, I don't think I want to know..."

The door creaked open again, showing Wufei bearing an armful of blankets.

"Poppet, put those down, lock the door and come here, hmn? Our guest seems a little hyper." Sapphire eyes flashed again as Wufei did *just* what he'd been told, then moved to sit in Treize's lap. Slender pale hands began to take off Wufei's gloves. "You see, the hands are always the flaw -- if I keep them looking real, they don't move properly -- and when I augment with screw and hinges, they don't look real at all."

"Wh..." He started to say that word again, shaking wildly as violet eyes darted around the room. /Gotta be some way out, gotta be a nightmare, *CAN'T* be real...!/

"Master," Wufei sighed with empty-headed delight as Treize kissed the scarred, screwed wrist, lightly folding the fingers into a fisted ball.

"My puppets, though, sell all over the world to... discreet buyers," he said, with a crinkle around his eyes, "though some I'm too fond of to sell. Wufei here was my second puppet. And my first is always with me. He's in need of repair, though, so I thought I could use bits of this blond boy here to fix him... what luck I could push that Bronco into the pond!"

"Oh, God, *NO*!" Duo cried, rushing forward. Without doubt, the hollowed out table held the body of his friend, pale and lifeless, Quatre's aquamarine eyes shining blankly. "Oh, GOD!"

"Just a little from him to touch up my dear first, and then I can make this boy here as lovely a puppet as my Wufei," he uttered, nuzzling against the black hair and the veil with it. "You could help, you know."

"I don't WANT to help! I want to LEAVE!" Duo cried, heading for the locked door and tugging at it wildly.

But it *was* bolted, just as the ginger-haired man had recommended. Gently, he slipped Wufei off of his lap. "You'd make a darling puppet, too. A wild boy..."

"I don't WANNA be a puppet!!" Duo cried, frantically looking left and right for any way out. There was a window, but they were on the second floor! It was then, in his frenzied need, that he realized there was another door, and he turned and ran for it, pushing the boy in the black dress over against the puppeteer as he went.

That action, though it distracted the mad puppet maker for a moment, did him little good. The door he opened wasn't an escape. All it got him was another puppet, this one as big as the puppeteer himself, slumping down atop him with a heavy, wooden weight and a reedy moan.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!" he screamed, shuddering wildly. God...!!!

Momma Helen had been *SERIOUS* when she'd said his curiosity would kill him!!