The Christmas Arc
Part Six: Green Tea
by D.C. Logan
"So, you're lookin' for an old pilot huh? Well, my nephew used to be in the service, but he's passed on now. Let me think. There's the old man down the street—the little house on the corner with all the gardens? That guy's lived there for years, and he knows everyone hereabouts, you might want to ask him."
The aged Chinese man leaned heavily on his staff and turned in the direction the housewife pointed. Indeed there was a squat, well-maintained house at the end of the lane. And yes, it did have the requisite trees and ornamental fences and gardens she had specified. He bowed his thanks, shifted his walking stick, and moved carefully with his three-legged stride towards the corner.
As he approached the structure, he noticed that what had appeared immaculate from the distance was actually a bit shabby upon closer inspection. The trees were in sad need of pruning—though they bloomed heavily—and the paint was peeling away from the siding in large ragged sheets. But the walkways were swept clear of debris, and there was a fountain welling fresh expensive water just inside the gate. Windchimes and noisemakers were scattered about the garden to frighten off the birds that roamed wild in the colony. They stirred in the light ever-present breeze.
Wufei stopped in front of the gate and peered into the yard—looking for indications of the owner. Although his leg gave him nothing but trouble, his hearing was as acute as ever, and he thought he detected the sound of running water and shift of gravel behind the house. Curious, and accepting the lack of a latch on the gate as a tacit welcome for visitors, he eased his way into the yard. He paused to take inventory and moved up the two wide polished stones to the wide veranda that extended around the back of the house.
Preferring not to announce his presence, he walked with a surprising quietness for a man with his handicap. Carefully easing himself around the corner of the building, his eyes widened in wonder.
The U-shaped dwelling sheltered an exquisite private garden. A gentle stream of water coursed over a ledge of rock and through a landscape of miniature trees and artfully rendered terraces and bridges. Sculptures of bronze and stone vied for attention with the lush foliage. He thought he recognized the artist. He wondered what it would have looked like under a blanket of fresh snow. An area of raked gravel bordered the low porch and was currently occupied by a solitary figure. The man dressed in casual garments and was carefully rinsing a pail of gravel.
As Wufei twisted to get a better look, his foot shifted onto one of the trick boards intentionally built into the structure. He flinched at the unwelcome creak, but turned his face to the gardener.
Heero had been waiting. The front gate (not nearly as shabby as it looked) was fitted with a simple electronic switch—when the contact points separated from each other, the wind vane at the apex of the roof turned. Heero knew someone was approaching—but he certainly wasn't expecting the person he found.
"Wufei?" he questioned, putting the bucket aside. "Is that you?"
"Heero," he replied, moving forward. "It's been a long time."
The two old men stood apart from each other. No hands were offered. Heero looked Wufei up and down, noting the ebony walking staff and the leather pouch slung across his chest, nodded, and motioned Wufei into his home.
Unlike the exterior, the inside of Heero's house was in pristine condition and showcased an eclectic mix of traditional design married with recent technology and sweeping forms of modern art. Wufei moved closer to a life-size sculpture of a running cat and unobtrusively checked the signature. It matched the signatures on the paintings as well. Heero might have collected art for personal reasons, but he had accumulated a small fortune's worth in his home.
Wufei smiled inwardly. Heero hadn't changed much since last they'd met—still as economical with words as ever. He looked tired though, and pinched at the edges with tension.
"Tea would be nice," he replied. And followed Heero into a modern kitchen.
"I don't imagine you came all this way for nothing."
"It's the Christmas holidays Heero. And you and I are the only two left now. We haven't spoken in years, you won't leave your home, and I've been busy with mine. One of us has to take the initiative—although I admit it would have been easier and I might have come sooner if you'd told me where you were living." There was a note of censure in his voice, but it was mild—tempered both with time and understanding.
Heero motioned him toward the kitchen table—simply set with a single fresh-cut flower in an ugly metal vase and bordered by two comfortable chairs. Eyeing the formal low table in the dining area, Wufei granted Heero a point for tactfulness. He must have picked that up during his services as a bodyguard after the war. Wufei eased his body into the proffered chair and gentled his leg into a comfortable position. Heero raised an eyebrow in unspoken question and accepted the elegant walking staff from Wufei. He checked its length appreciatively before setting it against a nearby wall, ready for Wufei's convenience—but not, Wufei noted, within easy reach to use as a weapon. So there were doubts there still. Interesting.
While Heero heated water and prepared cups for tea, Wufei filled the room with idle chatter: his time spent with the Preventers, meeting Keri and their prolonged courtship and eventual marriage, becoming an instructor at a local school, and his three children—now mostly grown. While he talked over the past, he watched Heero prepare the tea. His movements were as accurate as ever, and his degree of dexterity and deftness was something Wufei envied.
"So we're the last are we?" Heero sat down opposite from him and handed him a handmade pottery cup. The hot kettle was settled on a steel trivet built into the table. "I heard about Trowa being killed in the troubles on Earth. I saw it on the global telecast. What happened to Quatre?"
"Hmm." Wufei paused to structure his thoughts. "I think Quatre felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of operating Winner Enterprises. He wasn't the same after Trowa was killed. I saw him a few times, did you know that?"
Heero shook his head.
"I went to his wedding. Trowa had been gone for, well, about four years by then, and I think he was looking for someone to help him run his life and give him a reason to keep living. He married a pretty young heiress. Pretty, but not too bright. He told me that in his heart, he loved her, but his eyes told a different story. But there was compassion and understanding between them, and marriages have survived on less than that. They tried to have children, but it wasn't to be. She died during an operation two years ago. He was a shadow of his former self the last time I saw him, and he died in his sleep. His sisters are running everything now." He tapered off his speech and sipped at the hot tea. The warm ceramic felt good in his hands. Small comforts rather than large interested him now.
Heero had seen the news of course. It would have been difficult to miss. But he hadn't connected the closed casket or the images of the emaciated man with the vibrant youth he'd known years ago. What a waste. It looked like Wufei had been the smartest of the five of them. Children. If his life had taken a different path all those years ago, he might have had children to comfort him now. But instead he had memories that haunted him even as they comforted. Other men might have regrets, yet it was enough for him.
"What did you do after the end of the war Heero? Quatre tried to find you soon after, but you'd gone."
"I spent some time working as a bodyguard, then freelanced as a security consultant for some private concerns. Worked for Relena for a while, but that didn't last long." A long pause followed, and Wufei let the conversation lapse while Heero searched for the words he needed.
"I guess you knew about Duo and me, right?"
"We had. Something." He paused again, considered, and said. "It was very intense while it lasted. The good times were very, very good. The bad times were equally terrible."
Heero stood and handed Wufei his staff. Wufei looked up, surprised, and wondered if the audience was over now, and what he'd done to breach etiquette and Heero's prickly sense of privacy.
But no. "Do you mind if we move out to the gardens. I haven't talked about him in a long time, and it's easier out of doors."
As the two of them walked down the paneled hall, Heero pointed out some of the artwork. "That was one of his pieces, and that painting over there as well. Didn't know he painted? Well, his sculptures earned him his reputation. Not that he wanted that. He loved to create things, surprised by the ease at which he could do it I think. There was a great deal of wonder in him."
Once outside he indicated a low stool for Wufei, and lowered himself to the edge of the porch where he could look out over his garden.
"After the war. Well. He started out running the salvage yard with Hilde helping him out whenever she could lend a hand. But the government called to her, and he needed a simple predictable life I think. I went to see him one day, an unannounced visit, and found him in the yard welding and fusing parts of wreckage into something large and whole. He'd been doing it for a hobby—something to keep him occupied he'd said. And it was ugly and raw and powerful and very Duo. I think I started to truly understand him then. His quiet power of creation after a life filled with death. A complex juxtaposition of talents. Heh, getting poetic in my old age. Huh Wufei."
The conversation tapered off into a comfortable silence. Heero looking out over his creation, and Wufei seeing the sculpture garden with new eyes. He noted the placement of each sculpture, and the way the gardens wandered about the sculptures rather than the common reverse. Someone had put a great deal of thought and effort into creating this showcase. Heero had done well by Duo's craft.
"Heero?" Wufei started, then paused. "What happened to Duo?"
"Well, I didn't think you came here just to visit an old comrade. But you're right. You have a right to know." He picked up his tea and turned the cup three times before lifting it to his lips and draining the contents. He set the cup aside and faced Wufei.
"I believe I killed him Wufei."
Heero turned and looked at the garden again. "We had a fight. We fought a great deal. But the both of us were passionate in all things with each other, and although the fights were common, making up to each other more than compensated." He smiled to himself in remembrance. "We'd had an unholy row that day. I don't even remember anymore what it was about. But Duo took off without a backward glance. He left me and everything and said he'd never come back." He paused again to collect his thoughts.
"I tracked him as far as the transport facility without any problems. He was used to me tracking him down. It even became something of a game between us after a while. But he was serious about not being found that day. And he hid his tracks with a skill I didn't know he had."
"It took me weeks of searching through cargo manifests and computer files before I found him. A weight difference in a cargo carrier destined for one of the outer colonies. But the carrier never made it to the colony—it was redirected at last minute and sent out into space with a refuse barge."
"If Duo was hidden in there... Well, that's the stuff of my nightmares. Can you imagine? Waiting in complete darkness. Waiting for the door to open so you can begin your new life. Waiting for death when you realize that something has gone horribly wrong..."
"I searched for him for years. I still don't know which is worse—not knowing if he's dead, hoping he managed to beat the odds somehow and he's out there somewhere living his life in whatever fashion he likes, or living without knowing the answers."
He paused and looked down at his hands. He'd clasped them together and was unconsciously moving them in a strange pulling motion. Heero stilled, and continued.
"For years. Well. Anyway. Every chance I got, I took a shuttle out into space to look for him. Even went to Earth a few times when the investigators I hired found someone who matched his description."
"And so, well. Now you know about Duo."
"I'll never meet anyone like him again." Heero looked down at his hands again. "I wish we'd had more time together. I wish I'd said things then. But we were careful with our words."
"You know those gold rings Quatre gave us that Christmas? Huh, I see you still wear yours. Duo and I exchanged ours after he moved in with me. We swore to watch out for each other, to keep our hearts in each other's minds even when our words got in the way. I haven't taken it off. Not even once. Not since then."
"God I miss him."
"You know. He gave me that vase on the kitchen table on the last day I saw him. We'd fought the night before, and he told me he wanted to give me something as ugly as my heart. I didn't realize until much later that as ugly and square and raw as it was on the outside, that he'd meant it to hold something beautiful and fresh and new—flowers. That was Duo's backhanded way of making a compliment."
Heero dropped his chin to his chest and fell silent.
Wufei considered what Heero had told him and carefully observed his reactions. He watched Heero slowly regain his composure. And saw the reflexive motion of Heero twisting Duo's ring about his finger. He was close enough to see the blurred features of the ring—worn smooth with constant contact. That alone told him what he needed to know.
"Heero, Heero? I thank you. And I don't wish to leave, but I must be going soon if I'm to catch the shuttle back home before the holiday."
Heero looked up at Wufei, and instead of derision, found understanding in his expression.
"Heero, you didn't kill Duo. Bad luck and unfortunate events did that. You should let it go if you can."
"You know. After the first year, I tried to erase him and the memory of him from my life. I sold his artwork, I burned his clothes, but it didn't take. It took me over ten years to buy back what I'd sold. And I haven't left the colony since. If he's out there, and he remembers, he'll come here. Even without him, this is home for me. I can still see him in his art. So I live among his sculptures and paintings and he stays here with me."
"Sounds crazy, and I suppose it is by some people's standards, but there you are."
"Be at peace Heero. Answers have a way of coming home when they're ready to." Wufei considered if what he was planning to do was the right thing for Heero. But closure could help him regain some balance in his life. And it was unlikely that Duo could cause him any more grief at this point in his life.
He considered the puzzle of the exchanged rings and smiled to himself. It all made sense now. Now he understood why Heero's ring had been found—not because Duo was trying to implicate Heero for his murder, but because it brought him comfort during his final hours. Given Duo's sensitivity, Wufei realized that the contents of the sealed letter would be unlikely to cause Heero any additional damage, and might go a long way towards easing his suffering. Decision made, he stood to leave.
Heero stood as well, uncomfortable under Wufei's close scrutiny.
"You've created a thing of beauty here Heero. Will I be welcome if I come visiting again?"
Heero nodded. "You're always welcome at my door Wufei. Anytime. I know what you're trying to do, but talking about Duo doesn't seem to help much. But remembering him with those who knew him is a gift. And I appreciate the effort you went through to come."
They moved in companionable silence to the front gate, and Wufei walked through, shutting the gate behind him. Separating his world from Heero's again. He reached into the satchel that hadn't left his side and extracted a slim box, wrapped in patterned paper. He extended it to Heero, who accepted it with a puzzled expression.
"It's Christmas Heero. I brought you a present, but please wait and open it on the holiday tomorrow. And no, don't look at me like that. You just gave me my holiday gift. It's been a pleasure visiting you. Keep well, Heero."
And he turned and walked down the lane with his flowing three-legged walk. And Heero watched him go and remembered that he hadn't thought to ask after his children's names.
Curious. Heero turned the box about in his hands. It had been a very long time since he'd received an unsolicited gift. The present was small and flat. He wondered if Wufei had wrapped it or assigned the task to one of his children.
He walked back around the house, thinking over what they'd talked about. And realized that he did feel better. Sad, yes. But it had been a relief to tell someone after all these years. He felt the package in his hand and thought pleasant thoughts about Wufei and his family—imagining him in his mind's eye with his wife and children. Christmas Eve. He didn't celebrate the holidays—but Duo had, he reminded himself. Remembering Duo, he set the present on the counter to wait until the next morning as was proper.
Heero considered the box while he made his morning tea. He was pleased with himself for having the resolve to wait until after breaking his fast to open his gift. His first cup was empty before he stood and reached for the package.
He turned it about, found the edges that joined the wrapping, and eased a finger under the adhesive—intentionally prolonging the moment and his enjoyment of it.
Inside the artfully wrapped box was a crisp white envelope. It was uneven, and there was a small hard object that slipped within the paper when he shook it experimentally. He tore the top edge open with his fingers, too anxious to use a knife.
Inside were three things, a folded sheet of paper, a second sealed envelope, and.... His heart stopped beating for a moment as a familiar gold ring dropped from the paper folder into the palm of his hand. His legs folded under him involuntarily and he sat hard on the ground with shock. He gripped the ring tightly and unfolded the sheet of paper.
Both this ring and the enclosed letter were found in a transport carrier drifting in space. I too have been looking for Duo. I found out about your search from the Sweepers. I wasn't given any of the particulars, but this ring and this letter found their way to me, and from me to you. I hope they bring you what you need.
The sealed envelope wasn't as clean as Wufei's note, it had obviously traveled farther, and by many hands.
He opened his fist, looked at the ring, and considered. The ring looked new, looked the same as it had when he'd placed it on Duo's finger all those years ago—but then, if what Wufei had written was right, it had been drifting in space for years. He gripped it tightly and closed his eyes to better savor the moment of its return.
Then, sitting still on the cold floor, he opened Duo's Christmas gift.