The Christmas Arc
Part Four: Noodles At Wong's
by D.C. Logan
It was night, he was tired, and he was alone again. Normally his work was sufficient to keep his mind occupied and his hands busy, and it usually had the added benefit of tiring him out enough for a half-night of fitful sleep. But when Heero was away, he didn't sleep well. It was lonely in the bed with only an extra pillow for company.
He wondered briefly what the rest of the colony would say if it were public knowledge that a hero of the Eve War suffered from hellacious nightmares. They haunted him always, but it was easier to drive the demons away when he woke in Heero's arms. When Heero was out of town, gaining the courage to lie down in bed was half the challenge; remaining there was the rest of it.
The air temperature wasn't cold—but he was thought weary and body tired. He craved warmth and the contact of living souls and people. His feet had taken him from his drafty studio buried deep in the salvage district along the familiar path back to the house he slept in. But then his legs and his body (that apparently had a better idea of his priorities than he did) had taken him down this side-street detour.
Which explained why he was stumbling his way half asleep down the sidewalk, hands pushed deeply into his pockets, head down against the night, shoulders hunched against an invisible chill only he could feel. A cold heavy weight rested uncomfortably in the hollow between his neck and back—accompanying him on his ramblings through the district. And the small part of his brain that still functioned recognized the path to Wong's.
He trudged along mechanically, and was brought back to himself in brief confusion. His body had brought him here, but something was different—it took his muddled mind a few moments to grasp it though. The door was a different color than it had been on Tuesday. Bright electric blue this time—the same shade as Snapp's new scooter if he wasn't mistaken. He must have had some paint left over. As usual, someone had transcribed the name of the shop onto the freshly painted door in bold marker. They were up to three languages now. Hmm. He paused, and then pushed the door open once his brain re-verified that this was indeed the right place.
The restaurant was nearly empty, and he wondered briefly about the time. Mom Wong's noodle shop didn't have a clock on the wall (one of her Rules), and his watch was buried between the cushions of the ancient and venerable sofa in his studio—and had been hiding there for nearly a week now. Without Heero around to nag him about appointments and when to meet him for dinner, time ceased to have any of the importance he usually held for it. Without his partner around he sculpted when he felt the urge, slept when he was tired, ate when his stomach reminded him, and followed the pattern driven by his craft—not a timepiece strapped to his body. Heero called it "Duo time" which was as good an explanation as any.
He entered the warm room. There didn't seem to be much of a crowd tonight. That was unusual for Mom's, but welcome in the mood he was in. He was craving warmth, not noise. Snapp was on duty at the front of the room. His slack stance and the slow casual ease about him said that relations with Kimi were going well. Duo lifted one finger, pointed to the counter, and was summarily waved in the right direction. Snapp couldn't resist though, and delivered a smart comment in passing.
"Hey Duo, you look like shit. Is that the style now?"
"Remember, sarcasm is just one more service we offer." The comeback line came off his lips smoothly, but was delivered with less than his usual enthusiasm for their verbal contest. The tall black man shot him a puzzled look before turning to usher an older couple out the door.
Duo persuaded his feet to dog their way over to the counter that paralleled the galley kitchen along the side wall. The long bank of seats was empty, and he chose one by the grill area from long-standing habit and custom. He shifted his body onto the stool and his elbows to the counter—using his hands to prop up his suddenly heavy head. He should have gone straight back to the house and to bed. He had no business being out on the streets by himself at this hour of night. Well, whatever time it was...
He was second- and third-guessing his decision to stay in his seat when a steaming cup of designer coffee slid under his nose without asking. They knew him here, and the staff as a whole watched out for him. It was one of the benefits of being a regular. Lupine stared back at him when he raised his tired eyes above horizontal. Shit, she worked the clean-up crew—it must be later than he'd thought. That explained Mom's absence from the restaurant though. He blinked fuzzily and glanced about. He'd never seen it without her working behind the counter. It seemed odd, and he briefly felt out of place. Then the coffee fumes kicked-started his brain cells and his hands shifted to enfold the warm mug. He spared the energy for a single optimistic thought—he might actually live after all.
Lupine finally stopped staring at him. It was her one bad habit—staring at people. He supposed it was considered polite wherever she was from, and she hadn't been able to break the habit, even in a part of the world where it was considered an insult. Convinced that he would live, she moved away from him and back out of view into the prep kitchen.
He looked up and around. Warming up. And when he started to take an interest in his surroundings, he realized that it was much later than he thought. He must have lost track of time again while working in his studio. It looked like the stragglers were just leaving for the night. No wonder Snapp and Lupine had goggled at him. Oh well, he could live on coffee for a few days if he had to. That sparked another thought, and he tried unsuccessfully to remember when his last meal had been.
He'd never had this problem before Heero—eating had been more of a priority then. He wondered briefly when his priorities had shifted—but he couldn't remember. And his thoughts slipped through his mental fingers, chased there by his physical exhaustion. And he followed them into darkness.
Mom Wong held court from her hall five days out of seven. And she did it with guts, style, and a reputation that preceded her. She emerged from the back kitchen and looked around her place with pride. It had been a busy evening for a Tuesday; they were running low on ginger and limes. Snapp was busy turning chairs onto tables, Lupine wiping counters. It had been Lupine who had called into the back room and asked what she should do with Duo. Mom craned her neck to look at the young figure slumped at the counter with exhaustion. He looked to be in danger of slipping from his stool. Yet even in his semiconscious state he retained a death grip on his cup of coffee. He must be at the end of his rope. Poor boy. Her heart went out to him. He and Heero shared a powerful love, but it often wasn't easy on them.
Tonight it was Duo's turn at her counter.
Decision made, she ladled a portion of the Thai soup into a pan for reheating and filled her antique copper teakettle and put it on to boil. Snapp and Lupine wandered into the back room with equal questioning expressions on their faces. Mom grinned and waved them off with a grateful smile. She swatted the music box controls in annoyance, and it obligingly switched over to an ancient John Coltraine recording—much better. It had been a good night; she'd handle Duo.
There was someone standing next to him. That was enough to wake him up no matter how tired he was. He looked up, blinking gritty eyes, and saw Mom Wong standing on the other side of the counter from him. He muttered apologetically and shifted off his stool to leave. He'd outstayed his welcome and was pushing his luck tonight. It was time to go. She surprised him by walking out from behind the counter and enfolding him in a smothering hug.
"You looked like you needed that."
He sank into the warmth of her arms, needing human contact, any contact. And thankful for it. "Tonight more than usual. Thanks."
She released him, pulled a chair off a nearby table, and motioned for him to sit. A little puzzled at the personal attention, he did as bidden. She felt the side of his coffee cup and tsked at the cool surface.
She stared hard at him. "Stay. Don't move. I'll be right back."
One didn't disobey Mom Wong—not if one ever wanted to eat in her place again. Besides, he wasn't sure his body would listen to him anyway. He watched her exit into the back room before his vision slid sideways into dark again.
The slide of a tray across the counter and the shift of the other chair at his table woke him from his stupor. Mom set a bowl of his favorite noodles in front of him. In his favorite bowl. Accompanied by a cup of her special blend tea. His heart lurched in grateful response. And then another surprise—a second bowl appeared, and a matching cup of tea. And Mom settled her considerable mass across from him and motioned to his bowl.
"Eat Duo. You look dead on your feet and in your eyes."
Too tired to fight with chopsticks, he grabbed a fork from the next table and speared a carrot. It had been cut into the shape of a fish, as had the other vegetables in the soup. He looked up at Mom.
"Heh. Just the way you like it. Thought I didn't notice hm? Extra coriander and hot bird's-eye peppers too. Eat."
She wielded her chopsticks deftly in her large hands, and ate quickly. After glaring Duo into eating his noodles and what she deemed a suitable length of time, she started to talk.
"So, Heero is out of town again, yes?" She met his eyes neutrally.
"How can you tell?"
"When you come to sit at my counter, he is always away. When you fall asleep over my coffee, he has been away far too long. Now, what is it that bothers you this evening?"
Duo shifted his booted feet under the table and stalled for more time to consider his response. He scraped his fork across the bottom of his bowl as the silence hung over the table.
"What we say will not leave this table, does that help you?"
He shuffled his feet again, uncomfortable under her stare. The sensation felt eerily like Sister Helen looking through him when he'd done something wrong. He struggled for a response that wouldn't compromise his vow to keep their private life private and came up with; "Heero and I... fight sometimes."
"So it goes. And what did you argue over before he left? Hmm?"
"We... had a difference of opinion."
Mom shifted back on her chair, sipped at her flavored tea, and thought for a moment or two—mentally reviewing what she'd seen and heard in her place. Ah, that moment perhaps. And she replayed the action in her mind. Yes, that was likely it. Duo had reached out to Heero, and quickly pulled the action back into himself when the contact wasn't welcomed. The timing was about right. Duo's expression after had been quite telling. Hmm. And her memory was good, honed by a previous occupation having nothing to do with running a restaurant.
"Some people need to touch—others do not. I think those that touch do it because it helps them accept and interact with their environment—it makes life more real for them. Those who don't, maintain their objectivity with more vigilance. You touch things in your life Duo. Heero does not. It does not mean he loves you any less."
He felt his jaw go slack in reaction to her intuitive response. She shifted her elbows onto the table, and he sensed another Wongism coming on. She borrowed them liberally from old Earth movies. He loved hearing them, even though he'd heard most of them often enough to have memorized the cadences and places where she stressed her words. But this was a new one. He wondered if she'd dug it from her vast memory especially for him.
"There was this movie, I remember not the name of it now, but it featured a funny man. In it there was an old woman that described relationships well. She said that some love was like a carousel at an amusement park—regular, predictable, safe—but not very exciting—round and round only. This wise lady went on to say that some love was like a rollercoaster —unpredictable ups and downs—loaded with thrills and excitement. Both types are equally valid. You and Heero are riding a coaster. Neither of you would be happy bouncing up and down on a wooden horse I think."
Duo looked down into his empty bowl. When had he finished his meal? He pushed the bowl away and pulled his cup of tea closer while he thought about what she'd said. It wasn't like her to waste words. Like Heero, everything she bothered to say usually had a good reason for being spoken.
She watched his face intently for any sign that he'd processed her words—and sighed a private breath of relief when a small portion of his usual sparkle crept back into his eyes. There was hope there again. Good. That, a full stomach, and a good night's sleep should put him back onto the path of balance again. Heh. 'Mission accomplished' to borrow words from the mouth of his partner.
"Time for you to get some rest Duo. I've a sofa in the break room if you're interested?" she offered.
Duo paused to consider, and shook his head. He felt better now. Maybe it was the food, maybe the nap, perhaps the advice disguised in a movie line from Mom's memory. Whatever it had been, he was grateful. But he needed to get back to his place.
"Thank you, but no. I need to be getting home." Home. And he realized something that had been evading him. It really was a home for him, even without Heero's presence in it. His memories were there, and the promise of his eventual return. That's what made it a home for him.
He stood, feeling refreshed, and carried their dishes to the back sink. On his return, Mom Wong opened her arms for another warm hug. "Take care of yourself young Duo. When you need to talk, my counter is always open."
"I owe you one" was tossed back over his shoulder, as he dropped a handful of bills next to the register and waved back to Mom.
Time to head home. And he hummed as he started his walk through the dark—more pleased with his destination than he been in many days. Life was good again. Heero would be home soon. And he'd be waiting for him.