Circle of Friends
The campfire was small, more red coal than flame; its light spread in a short radius, barely illuminating those around it. Teens, who couldn't quite be called men, sat in a loose circle, two on the same felled tree, and three separately - on ground and rock and cut log. A bottle was opened and a drink taken before it was passed to the next on the right.
"Why are we here?" Wufei demanded before accepting the bottle. Though his voice was as gruff as his expression indicated, its tone was soft.
A quick exchange of glances, and Quatre leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Relena's mother..."
"I know that!" Wufei snapped. He jerked the bottle held out to him, and drank quickly, holding back the gasp from the burn. Closing his eyes, he willed his body to accept, and not react to the liquor. A deep breath later, Wufei thrust the bottle away. "Why are we here?" His hand gestured to each in turn. "Why are we not with Relena, instead?"
Duo held the bottle with one hand, dangled it between parted knees from where he sat on the log. "I was kind of interested in that myself." His look focused on Quatre.
"We have all..." Quatre shifted, sat back a little, and glanced at Trowa sitting next to him. "Lost someone at one time in our lives. I thought it would...help us, and help Relena, if we could talk about it."
Heero exchanged a look with Duo, and faced Quatre. "You want us to talk about people we don't know or remember?" Quatre nodded slowly. "What is the alcohol for?"
Even in the dim light, Quatre face flamed. He mumbled to the ground. "It's a circle of friends thing."
"A what?" chorused three voices. The fourth merely tilted his head to the side and watched as Quatre flushed deeper, struggling for words.
"I read about-about a tradition. A 'circle of friends' tradition, where when something happens to the group of friends, or touches them in some way, they meet to pass a bottle and talk." His look darted around the circle. "Missus Darlian's passing has touched us, and I thought we'd..." He smiled weakly, his eyes suddenly bright.
"Let me get this straight," Duo began, still holding the bottle. "You read about this tradition, and think we all fit that kind of scene?" His lips were curving upward. Wufei grunted, but didn't turn from watching Quatre, and Heero stared at Duo, his eyebrows drawn faintly together.
"Yes." Quatre lowered his head to his hands. "We don't have to do anything. I just thought it-"
"Okay, I'm in." The bottle tilted to his mouth, and Duo swallowed, lowering the bottle immediately, coughing, and choking. "Damn!" But he was grinning, and passed the bottle to his right, and Heero.
Heero was still watching Duo, but accepted the bottle. "Isn't the tradition to 'confess' or tell a part of the story otherwise missing before taking the drink?" he asked softly.
"That is how it happens in what I've read," Quatre said, straightening and looking to Heero. "I wasn't sure how to start-the discussion."
"Then I will." He turned slighting, the rock he sat on shifted under him. "I have no memories of either of my parents. The first person I remember, whom I considered however remotely a father, died when I was eight." He took a small swallow; a slight shudder shook his body. His eyes watered, but he passed the bottle on to Trowa.
Trowa read the bottle's label, offered Quatre a faint smile. "I don't know what my mother looked like. But I remember being held, being comforted." He drank from the bottle with little reaction, and passed it to Quatre without further comment.
Smiling briefly in return, Quatre looked at each one in turn. "I have been told my mother passed away when I was born." He dropped his gaze to the bottle he held. "Pictures of her show that I resemble her, and...and I've been told I am like her." His head lifted, and he flashed a wavering grin. "Obstinate and stubborn, most say."
He lifted the bottle and drank quickly, passing it even as he coughed, and wiped at his mouth with a sleeve. A handkerchief appeared, and Quatre wiped away the tears his coughing produced. A murmured 'thank you,' and the handkerchief was returned. Trowa tucked it away, and offered another slight smile.
"I was older when my mother was killed." The bottle rested on Wufei's crossed ankles. He was staring into the fire, pulling from a time before the eradication. "She was a tiny woman, but when she walked into a room, you thought she was a giant." He held the bottle before his lips, lowered it, and glanced at Quatre from the corner of his eyes. "Her voice was soft, but her words could cut deeper than my sword." The bottle was raised in a rapid motion, the mouthful swallowed, and the bottle passed.
Duo was smiling, his boots scuffed at the dirt. He shook the bottle gently measuring how much was left. "Didn't have a mother. Didn't have a father. Didn't have anyone - at least, not for long." He drank swiftly, two quick swallows, and passed the bottle on without looking. His head turned away, and once the bottle had been taken, both hands clung to the log; Duo bowed low, drawing deep breaths.
After the first look, Heero faced the remaining three. "I remember campouts, in settings similar to this one, if not for the same reason, with my guardian." His lips twitched faintly. "Though we never shared a bottle." Heero drank as Trowa smiled, Wufei snorted, and Quatre gave a quiet chuckle.
Passing the bottle on, Heero turned to watch Duo scrub at his face, and sit up. Duo's eyes were red, and his face splotchy - not all from the liquor and the force of his cough. Wufei was back to staring at the fire, and Trowa spoke in a low voice; another vague memory of someone long passed. Heero stretched a leg out, and rubbed at the tense muscle, his eyes not missing the gentle smile exchanged between Trowa and Quatre.
"My mother used to play the piano," Quatre said, "and the conservatory has many recordings of her music." His smile was soft, his eyes distant. "I used to listen to her play for hours, and sometimes I could almost see her at the piano. It was as though she was playing just for me." He sighed, drank a small sip, and passed the bottle on without looking up.
"Mother was a scholar, and would read aloud to me." Wufei glanced away from the fire, his look almost chagrin. "My favorite stories were the ones she made up. The ones she would put me as the main character." His eyes were bright as he took his drink. He passed the bottle on in silence.
"Nuh huh," Duo said, pushing the bottle back. "I want to hear about these stories." He was smiling, the maniac element now missing. "What were they about?" His voice became softer, wistful.
Wufei looked as though he would refuse, but in a quick glance, he saw the encouraging expressions. "They were only children's stories - small adventures a young boy would dream about." He sat the bottle on the ground between him and Duo's log. "There was a dragon in one, and outsmarting a band of thieves in another."
"Do you remember them?" Trowa asked.
Nodding his head, Wufei held his knees with each hand. "They were part of my early training."
"Then please tell us a story." Quatre added his voice to the request.
"As you wish." Wufei closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, releasing each slowly, before opening his eyes again. "In ages long ago, a young boy lived with his father and mother in a poor village. This boy did not know that his family was poor. At least, he did not until there was a stranger who came to visit, telling stories of a terrible dragon who lived in a cave..."
Heero watched Wufei as he told his story; watched as his expressions changed, and his hands rose from his lap, gesturing in turn with a part of the story. Heero was smiling faintly, recognizing the story's base as one he'd read years before. But in that story, the boy was older, and did not live in China. Heero recalled there had been a princess to rescue, but the theme was the same as a dozen other tales.
Turning to the two sitting on the tree, he wasn't surprised to see Quatre's hand in Trowa's; both sat in rapt attention. Quatre's lower lip caught between his teeth, and Trowa's mouth parted, his eyes growing wide and narrowing in turn. In belied casualness, Heero turned to Duo, to see him sitting forward with elbows on knees and chin in cupped hands. His braid had swung off his back, dangled down his side, and swept the ground with its tuff.
The sudden quiet drew Heero's attention back to Wufei. Wufei's story had ended, and Quatre began to clap softly. Duo still sat with his head in his hands; his eyes now closed. And Trowa was nodding, his smile less hesitant that before. Heero met Wufei's look, and nodded slightly.
"If she were alive today," Wufei added quietly, "I would be honored to introduce all of you to her." He inclined his head in Quatre's direction. "As my friends."
"Thank you." Quatre's smile widened. "If my mother were alive, I know she would love to play for us."
His eyes still closed, Duo spoke, "Not that it happened, but I used to believe my mother read to me, too." His eyes snapped opened and he stared at Wufei. "That she'd tell me stories."
"I am sure she would have, Duo," Wufei's tone was solemn.
"She used to tell me a story about a lost bear," Trowa interjected. "He wandered about, looking for his family." His look was rueful, becoming blank almost instantly. "He found them in the end, at a circus." Quatre leaned into him, taking his hand openly, and squeezing it.
Heero stood up abruptly. "It isn't good to dwell on the 'ifs' and the 'make believes'." His voice was suddenly cold, though his tone even. "If my mother were alive today, I wouldn't be here. And neither would the Earth." He turned his back to the fire, stepping beyond its light, crossing his arms and staring up at the stars. "If things had been different, we wouldn't be who we are now. I cannot think in terms of any other way."
"Heero?" Duo was standing at his shoulder, a step away, giving him his space.
"We know that, Heero," Quatre's voice added calm to the disturbed night. "It isn't as though we would trade-"
"But, I think I would." Heero blinked rapidly, and turned, dropping his arms to his sides. "If I were offered the choice to have everything remain as it is now, or to have my parents raise me, I-I would choose them." Heero swallowed visibly, holding Quatre's gaze steadily. "I would damn hundreds, thousands to death for a few selfish years."
"You don't know that's what would happen," Duo said, bumping a hip into Heero, and quirking a grin at the glare turned his way. "You might have been super hero this time, but who knows what would have happened if you hadn't been there." He shrugged a shoulder. "It could have been me stopping the Libra."
"Or Zechs might not have gone that far," Trowa added. "It was your battles with him that helped shape who he became, and what helped to push him to the edge they did."
"Dreaming of a few selfish years isn't a bad thing," Quatre said, standing and moving closer. "It's what makes us human, and that is forgivable." His lashes matted wet, but he reached for Heero, stepping close enough to circle his arms about Heero's waist. Heero stood ridged for a moment, and with a silent sigh, returned Quatre's embrace.
"Ah fuck, man," Duo complained softly. But, he moved forward a step, his arms coming around from behind Heero, his face pressed into Heero's shoulder. "You're okay, buddy. We're here with you."
Trowa and Wufei were in action at the same time; both coming from either side and joining with their own arms wrapping around the others. Duo sniffed; Trowa drew several rapid breathes; Wufei cleared his throat; Quatre wept. Heero whispered softly, his voice barely audible.
He told them of how he used to dream of waking in a warm, comfortable bed, in his own room, of having a younger sister, and a dog of his own. He went to school, and rode a bike, had a tree fort and toy robots - in his dream world. In this world, there wasn't a war, or Gundams or training to kill.
Heero's voice faded, and still they stood.
A long sigh and Duo began to pull away. "Shit Quatre. When you said 'circle of friends', I didn't think you meant it literally." He coughed, and turned his back, the heels of his palms wiped at his eyes.
Wufei backed away, returning immediately to his spot on the ground by the fire. Trowa's arm slid off Heero's back, but his other lingered around Quatre's waist. His eyes flicked to Duo's back, to Heero, and held on Quatre's face. His arm tightened. Quatre was smiling, though his chin trembled slightly. His eyes still brimmed, and his cheeks were wet.
"It's all right," he told Trowa, his hand on Trowa's arm.
"Thank you." Heero's voice was rough, and scratchy. He went to stand at his rock, and stare down at it. Duo was moving behind him, circling his rock to settle down in front of his log, leaning against it. Trowa and Quatre were back on the downed tree; Trowa's arm remained around Quatre's waist.
"Tell me-us another story, Wufei," Duo asked softly. He was sitting closer to Wufei, his knee inches from Wufei's knee.
"If you have one," Quatre added, "another story would be nice."
Wufei snorted, but began another 'ages long ago' tale, and Heero lowered himself to the ground beside Duo, their shoulders touching. Duo flashed him a short smile, shifted his seat to lean against Heero, and watch Wufei in the telling. Another familiar base tale. But this time, Heero listened to Wufei's story, let himself get lost in the adventure. This was a story he knew in parallel.
It was about a mythical creature, born from the ashes of strife and tragedy.