Not so long ago, a great and terrible thing happened. My father died. So useless, so senseless, so unexpected, was his death that it pushed me into madness. I can not describe to you how frightening and isolating insanity is. Imagine being frozen in a block of solid ice. You can't move, you can't breath, you can't scream. Your entire reality is twisted and fragmented through this icy barrier. That is only a little of what it is like. When my father died, I became an orphaned, abandoned child, frightened and vengeful. I wanted to destroy everything, but mostly myself for the pain and disappointment that I knew I had caused him. I could never make it up to him now. A frenetic, desperate sort of chaos filled my mind as for once I gleefully brought about the torment I had fought so hard to prevent. Only a friend's words and his near ultimate sacrifice succeeded in bringing me back to myself. Trowa. It chills me now to know how close he came to dying at my hands. If Heero hadn't been there...the shudder I suppress is not a physical sensation but a tremor in my very soul. Allah, Allah can you forgive me when I can't forgive myself? I did not truly realize how much Trowa had paid for my sanity until I faced him again...and he did not know me. I cried then. I have no shame in the admission. Guilt, loss, and another emotion I was not yet ready to define ripped my tears from me.
As I said, that was sometime ago. Since, Trowa has recovered his memory; my fellow pilots and I have fought in many more battles. I am as effective a soldier and warrior as I ever was and I efficiently aid my sisters in the management of the Winner estates and finances. My heart isn't in it, though. Too many issues were left unresolved. Issues, now that my father is gone, I may never be able to bring to a close. The others can sense my turmoil. We are too close, have to depend too much on one another for them not to have felt something. Heero watches me with eyes that say "what ever it is, don't let it get in the way". Wufei is quiet, respectful. He understands family bonds and obligations. Duo doesn't say anything, but he stays close to me. He talks to me, ever buoyant, his natural cynicism suppressed for my sake, trying to distract me from my dark thoughts. I love him for this. He is a good friend, and a good person. I think, though he recalls little of his past prior to meeting Solo, that he must have been a well-loved child, one who knew trust and security. How else could he be the resilient, optimistic, joyful person he is today? As for Trowa...Well Trowa doesn't say anything either, and he suffered most for my actions. But he watches me sometimes with those beryl eyes, forces me to meet his solemn stare. But I can't decipher his silent language.
Finally came one of those rare points in the war (the eye of the hurricane, as Duo liked to say) where calm prevailed. We had no assignments, OZ was quietly recuperating from the last defeat we had handed them, the world was deceptively peaceful. Talk inevitably turned to vacationing. Should it be surprising that I wanted to spend the time alone?
"Sun and sea, man!" Duo crowed happily, bobbing in his seat as he prowled through the array of maps and brochures strewn over our small dinette table. " I want white sands, blue waters, babes in bikinis...." Heero rolled his eyes, but I could see the tiny half smile that crossed his lips. Obviously he didn't think the beach was such a bad idea, either. Wufei snorted.
"Maxwell, you have the maturity of two year old. What you could possibly find enjoyable about all that sand.... I'd like to go site seeing. There are some historical ruins in Old Central America that are supposed to be really fascinating. " Duo's hands came down with a resounding smack on the table, his face bordering on indignant fury.
"No way! I'm not traipsing through some old dusty ruins on my three day vacation." Trowa in the meanwhile had picked up one of the brochures and flipped through it idly.
"Catherine and I, with the circus, have been here." He put in quietly, tossing the pamphlet to Duo. "We only stayed to perform and had to move on but it was nice. Populated, but not too crowded." He gave Wufei a little smile. "There were no ruins but they had an exceptional art and natural history museum. Volcanic caves as well."
From Trowa, man of few words that he is, that was a glowing endorsement. Both Duo and Wufei were more than satisfied. I couldn't help but smile at Trowa. Trust him to see a compromise. He saw me smiling and gave me a wink, though his expression didn't change.
"Quatre, what do you think?" Duo asked, gaze flittering from me to the brochure. I cleared my throat, looking at my feet.
"Ano...I'm not going, Duo." Four sets of eyes looked up at me with startled curiosity. I was more than a bit uncomfortable, feeling wholly revealed to them for some reason. "I...I'm not really up for the ocean, desert child that I am," This I added to lighten things a bit but they weren't fooled. They all silently demanded an explanation. " I have some work I need to do at home and...." Here my voice failed me. I swallowed with difficulty around the lump in my throat and cast a hasty glance at Trowa. Again he had that indecipherable look that I could not--quite--read. Feeling my cheeks reddened, I went back to staring at the floor. " I just need to be by myself for awhile."
"Where are you going, then?" Trowa asked quietly. I shrugged.
"I haven't decided yet." I had but I didn't want to tell them. They'd insist on coming along. "I'll make up my mind after I take care of my affairs." Duo was pouting some but seemed to be adjusting to the idea that I wasn't going to be basking in island sun with him and the others, while Heero and Wufei shrugged and went back to perusing the information booklet. Only Trowa still held me in his intense regard. I started to squirm. Could he see the turmoil inside of me?
"Quatre." His voice...I loved his deep, soft, calm voice. It was as comforting, as reassuring, as a hand ruffling my hair or touching my shoulder. "You don't have to handle things alone, you know." I looked up at him then, his quiet words stunning me completely. It was as if his words had two different contexts and I had heard and understood both. Goosebumps peppered my skin. Could he possibly know? Wufei, though, saved me, breaking the subtle tension.
"Some things, Trowa, we do have to handle on our own." I smiled at him gratefully. Wufei, I thought, we underestimate you I think. As if he heard my thought he gave me the tiniest smile and a little nod. Duo came to me then and threw a companionable arm about my shoulder.
"Well, if you really need some space, I guess I understand...But you realize you are condemning me to vacation with these three paragons of congeniality. I'll be bored out of my mind! No one else knows how to play except you." I laughed. Duo grinned back. I didn't feel too sorry for him, though I knew what he meant. The other pilots could be a bit stiff and withdrawn. But if anyone could draw them out, Duo could. He loved teasing and harassing Heero and Wufei. Trowa, he had said on one occasion with a twinkle in his violet eyes, he left to me.
A little more than forty-eight hours later found me beside a mountain river fumbling with the perplexing ties and buckles of a bright-orange life vest. As planned, I had gone back to L4 first to tie up some last legal matters involving my father's estate and holdings then headed for the Smoky Mountains in what used to be Southeastern United States. When I arrived I had been in awe of the towering, humbling beauty around me. I'd never seen anything the like. All about me nature was painted in vivid reds, yellows, oranges, even a touch of green and a hint of winter-gray. I'm accustomed to a more muted pallet. Yes, this was truly an alien heaven to my desert-bred spirit. The mountains' aggressive outline jutted in sharp relief against the background of the blue sky. Tall pine trees swayed and whispered with the autumn wind-- nothing like a desert's rolling dunes and unrelieved vastness. Only the stoutest of life survived there. It was the perfect destination. The war, my responsibilities, everything seemed so far away, so removed, that I could imagine nothing existed at all except these mountains and me. Something inside of me began to uncoil. It was as if slacks two sizes too small in the waist had been removed; I could breath again.
I had made arrangements to stay in a cabin right on the river. It was an old fashioned log cabin with a wood floor covered in woolen throw rugs. A wood-burning fireplace provided heat and the cabin had a real wood-burning stove as well. Thankfully, it came with an indoor bathroom. Toiletries, linens, dishware and the like were provided, but I had to bring my own food. There were two bedrooms, and a pullout sleeper, which, as it turned out, was fortunate because I ended up needing the extra space. The Magarnacs were not near as easy to leave behind as my friends were.
"Alone, Quatre-sama? In the *woods*? In the *mountains*? Anything could happen to you." Rasid could have been right but he made me angry all the same. I could go to war, pilot a Gundam, perform my duties as my father's heir, and yet not be trusted two days alone on a camping trip? We reached a compromise, though. All of them didn't come, just Rasid and Kalil. Those two I made swear to leave me to my own devices and to give me the time alone I needed.
As it turned out, I was glad that they came. The first night we built a camp fire and spent the evening telling tall-tales and ghost stories in hushed voices, drinking hot apple-cider, and roasting marshmallows for s'mores. We laughed hysterically as sticky-sweet marshmallow and gooey chocolate got all over us before eventually making it to our mouths. I enjoyed hearing about their escapades, their trials--they had lived entire lives before I had even been conceived. Despite all they had been through, they still saw life as good thing. That night strengthened me more than I could have imagined. I must have fallen asleep at the fireside for I awoke warm in my bed, tucked in as securely as any mother's child. The fireplace crackled in the background, but otherwise there was silence. I snuggled deeper into my blankets with a little sigh. I knew Rasid had brought me to bed and made sure I was warm and safe. He loved me like his own son. If only my own father, I couldn't help thinking, had loved and understood me so well.
So the morning found Rasid and Kalil at camp and me some 20 kilometers upriver preparing for my first canoe trip.
"You ever been canoeing?" I looked up from the task of securing my vest. The guide watched me with an expression of mixed concern and amusement. "N..Nooo...but I've done some research..." He laughed, a warm, friendly sound, and reached forward with efficient hands to secure the vest I had made a mess of.
"There you are, laddie." He said, giving me a clap on the shoulder. "Now let me give you just a bit of advice to go along with your 'research' " For no good reason at all I felt myself blushing. He didn't seem to notice, thank goodness. "Our lady river isn't so bad. A right nice river for a beginner. She has a few rough spots but nothing like the ol' Colorado. Avoid any trees, and if you end up in the water, don't grab onto 'em. If water gets into your canoe, just hop out--the river isn't too deep in most parts and you should be able to stand. "
"Uh...thank you, " I answered as I gingerly climbed into the single-man canoe. It rocked slightly in the water as my weight settled, prompting the guide to reach out a steadying hand. He then handed me my back pack in which I had packed a sandwich, a small bottle of water, a map of the area, and an extra sweater, and with an easy shove, set me adrift.
It took me only a few moments to get used to paddling and steering my canoe, and soon I was journeying down the gently flowing river. Being early still, it was a bit cool, but the sun was out, its lovely warmth radiating off the clear-green surface of the water, providing, along with my flannel shirt, more than enough heat. The day was beautiful, possessing that clear, sharp, almost brittle quality one sometimes felt in the spring or fall. Above me, a large predatory bird winged, my eyes following it until it disappeared from view. A fish occasionally jumped out of the water, snatching insects from the air. Dragonflies buzzed curiously about me, skimming back and forth over the water. Contented, I pulled my oar from the water and lay back, allowing the river to take me where it would. At that moment, I wasn't a warrior, wasn't anyone's heir. I was only a 15-year-old boy. Without the distractions of my day to day life, all the pain and secret confusion buried so deep began to surface. Tears gathered in my eyes but I didn't wipe them away. Who was there, after all, to see? All I wanted at that moment was my father. We had so much we needed to say to one another. "Father..."I whispered, "Oh father, please forgive your disobedient son."
A change in the rhythm of the water caught my attention. Sitting up, I saw that the river was flowing faster. A quick survey showed a twist in the rivers' path and not far ahead, rapids frothed like boiling water. Jutting from the left bank was a downed tree, its gnarled old roots and branches shearing across the water. The once peaceful, friendly body of water now seemed malicious. My pulse galloped inside my ears as I plunged my oar into the water, trying to steer my way clear of the coming obstacle. Compared to piloting Sandrock during a dogfight, it should have been simple, but my canoe had a mind if it's own. For every bit of ground I gained against the current, my canoe surged ever closer to the looming tree, and its grasping, hungry-seeming branches. At the last moment, I ducked, leaning away from those woody fingers. Not the smartest move I could have made. With a tooth-rattling jolt, I collided with that tree. My next awareness was of being underwater. Freezing water. Cold! It was so cold! I felt momentarily frozen down to my bones. Then I was thrashing and gasping in the water, aware that I was rapidly being carried down stream. I knew how to swim, but an indoor pool in my home, and a fast moving icy river have nothing in common. Panic set in and I tried to find some surcease against the churning water. My flailing hand seized upon the first solid something it encountered; a low hanging branch from that same sabotaging tree. Allah be thanked! It didn't break under my weight. Holding on to that branch as if it were the hand of God, and with the aid of my life vest (and to think I had briefly considered not wearing the silly thing) I was able to get my head above water. Coughing, I shook drenched bangs from my eyes... and groaned. My canoe was wedged under that damned tree! I'm not one to curse like Duo, or Wufei, or even Heero but I wanted to then. With a grunt, still keeping a firm grip on my branch, I attempted to make my way those few meters up river.... And found myself face down again in water. Obviously walking upstream, against rapids, over a slick river bottom, wearing hiking boots was not going to be as easy as I thought. I tried again, staying as close to the tree as possible, where the current seemed less strong. Slowly I sloshed my way to the canoe, at last coming to a point where I could climb upon the downed trunk. A few solid efforts at pushing at the canoe with first my bare hands and then my feet confirmed my worst fears: that craft was well and truly stuck. The force of the water kept it firmly wedged against the tree and the river bottom. I tried not to groan, but this wasn't good at all!
Small blessing, my backpack had been snagged in some riverweeds and I was able to retrieve it. My lunch was ruined-- my sweater as well; my water bottle floated somewhere downstream. Sighing, I felt some relief that my site map, though a soggy mess, was still readable. A quick review showed I had two choices for making it back to camp: I could walk back up river--according to the map, that was a 15 K hike through unmanageable brush or, if I walked down river about half a K, I would hit a mountain hiking trail that would cut the trek back to camp in half. I shrugged. The choice was obvious. A mountain hike it was. If I were lucky, I'd make it back to camp quickly enough to prevent Rasid from getting too worried.
Hiking wasn't bad, but it was more than I had anticipated. My idea of a hike involved a leisurely walk over manicured garden paths or over gentle, rolling green hills. Trekking around a mountain proved an altogether different experience. Moist dead leaves covered unexpected holes eager to cause unwary ankles to twist and tree roots appeared out of no where to snag my feet. Creeks and streams had to be crossed; downed trees had to be climbed; sharp, slippery rocks had to be avoided. Twice I lost the trail; obviously the woods had not consulted my trail map. Some genius intellect had thought it a wise idea to mark the trail with splotches of white paint that were easily counterfeited by various species of tree moss and lichen. I ended up surrounded by brush and shrubs with every direction seemingly blocked by viney, thorny plant-life before I realized I was off the beaten path. This forced me to back track repeatedly. Despite the frustrations, I soon found my rhythm. The steady shuffling trudge of my feet, the intermittent rustle of wind-tickled leaves became soothing and hypnotic. The experience had an elemental quality that I found to be invigorating and cleansing. Just what I needed.
I can't say how long I remained in this indifferent state, not thinking, only experiencing the natural world around me. But an idle mind goes it's own way and my bruised spirit demanded expression. Images and voices began fading in and out of my consciousness: myself as a smiling young child, carried on my father's shoulders; my father laying in my small hands my first violin; playing a different violin years later, lost in the sweet music, only to have a shyly smiling Trowa join me on his flute; my father's shuttle, erupting into silent flames; a colony blown to a million glittering fragments; a friend's life nearly destroyed...
"No!" My own voice jerked me out of my numbed mental state. Tears were coursing hotly down my cheeks and with an angry hand I brushed them a way. I thought I had run out of tears. I increased my pace first to a jog and then to a run. My own ghosts were chasing me. My father's voice rang in my ears: "Disobedient, disrespectful son!" Disobedient. Disrespectful. I saw Heero's face as he prepared to kill me to save Trowa. Trowa...
I ran and ran, the wind carrying away my sobs and drying the tears on my face. But no matter how fast I ran, I still felt trapped and surrounded. Finally I stopped when the trail became sharply inclined, my exhausted legs not taking more than a few sliding steps before I collapsed into the loam, my lungs afire.
"Trowa," I panted, "Trowa, I'd never hurt you. I'm so sorry...so sorry, father."
I had apologized to Trowa. He had looked at me out of calm, gentle eyes that held a smile and, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder, said that there was nothing to forgive. I suspected then, that maybe...he loved me.
I had known before then, that moment at the circus when I approached him, when he looked at me and did not know my name and my heart contracted into a pitiable, wadded up ball, that I loved him; that I was in love with him. The realization had come bundled with contradictory sensations. Elation warred with sheer terror and no small amount of confusion.
Sex was a shrouded mystery to me-- a little black box I was afraid to reach my hand into. Maybe because I was afraid of what I would find inside. Whatever the case, at 15 I was sexually unawakened. Then the moment Trowa had placed a chaste hand on my shoulder, lust descended upon me like a fever. I must have stammered something but all I knew at the time was that I had to get away from him. I'd run to the room I shared with Duo and locked the door. And for the first time I performed that blissful, intimate activity that brought quick, blessed relief. The warm pleasure left me surprised and embarrassed. Embarrassment though quickly gave way to guilt rapidly followed by despair. A boy! I was in love with another boy! However was I going to tell my father! The thought of confronting him terrified me. My over active imagination conjured images of his face morphing through expressions of anger to disgust. I could hear the words, disinherited and deviant added to his current litany. I was overwhelmed. On top of all that had happened, this new burden was too much! For a brief moment I wanted to kill myself. It would solve everything and I wouldn't have to face my father's anger. But reason reasserted itself. I knew suicide wouldn't solve anything; it would only deprive me of the opportunity to ever set anything to right. Of course, I never had to tell my father anything, a little voice reminded me coldly in my head, he was dead.
Slowly, I hauled myself to my feet. It was useless, I knew to circle back to that one point again and again. Dispirited, I resumed my trek.
The sun was westing when my legs began their slow burn. Fatigue, hunger, and dehydration were beginning to take their toll on my body. Also, as the sun began to set, the air became cooler, causing my muscles to cramp and stiffen. Bending forward, I absently massaged the muscles of my calves and thighs, considering the path before me. I barely suppressed a groan. Uphill. But I could see what looked like a trail marker at the top of that hill. Energy renewed, I sprinted those few meters, knowing that I was nearly back at camp. I'd been walking for well over 2 hours.
Panting like an athlete at the end of the race, I reached the marker. Pulling out my much abused trail map, I compared it to the etched path on the wooden plaque and froze.
"It can't be!" I said out loud, "I can't be only half way there!" I wanted to scream in frustration! In stead I tossed my map to the ground and stomped around uselessly, kicking at the heartless stones. Half way! And I had been hiking in these mountains for hours! And to make matters worse, the devious trail forked into two trials. I gave into cursing then; Duo would have been impressed with my vocabulary! Finally my useless but at least emotionally satisfying tantrum came to an end and I crouched down to review my map and consider my options.
Going back was out of the question. I had to go forward but which path? Frowning I consider my map and the trail marker. The fork wasn't on my map; from what I could tell it headed south from my present location and seem to join up with my trail somewhere about 5 kilometers eastward. It actually bisected the arc of my trail. It was marked in red on the trail marker; I assumed that meant that the trail would be marked by red paint instead of white. An improvement in my book. A quick calculation showed that by distance alone, considering I maintained my present pace, the fork should cut an hour off my time back to camp. I glanced at the sun; that one hour would be important.
Having made my decision, I set off. I was always reassured by a set course of action. No more leisurely appreciation of the scenery; this hike had become a race with the sun. I knew if I did not make it back to camp by dark, I could well be stuck out here in the mountains over night. As I did not have a flashlight, I would not be able to see the trail markings or find my footing. Fear nagged at me. I didn't want to admit it but I had a dread of being among these tall trees and imposing mountains at night. I imagined small animals coming out of their burrows to gnaw on my toes and fingers; giant beetles crawling into my hair, snakes coming out to hide in my shoes, and larger animals, black bears which I knew frequented this area, and maybe even bobcats (I wasn't so sure about those) who might think a blond, Arab Gundam pilot was a nice snack. I shuttered and picked up my pace. Even worse then the fear of wild animals was the fear of having to be rescued. I was mortified at the thought of hearing Rasid say, "I told you so." No, I would beat the sun back to camp.
I soon found out why the trail was marked in red. It was treacherous and difficult. The first leg was easy. I was going down which I felt was a good sign; surely I was getting off this damn mountain. But I soon discovered that my downward tread lead to the base of a valley. And now I had to go up. And up. My spirit lagged. I stood for several minutes at the base of that valley. The trees here were all gray bare branches, dying sooner than the other foliage because the light did not penetrate down to their level as well. It created an eerie affect; an illusion of a fog enshrouded haunted forest. The image, combined with the ever-waning sunlight, chilled me. But again I was faced with no choice but to go forward.
So up I went. Seemingly forever upward. My muscles were screaming with pain and even breathing was becoming a chore. My throat was sore from the rush of cold air into my mouth with each labored breath and my eyesight blurred from both sweat and fatigue. For the most part, I didn't look up; I just watched my feet but even so I was stumbling more often. At one point I actually slipped and fell. I couldn't move. My legs were seized with such a cramp that I whimpered with the pain. I sat there kneading the feeling back into my legs for several minutes before I could resume my hike. I glanced at the hateful sun. It had become my enemy now. It seemed almost happy to be seeking its rest on the other side of the world. My body was also becoming my enemy. It was in league with the sun to keep me here on this mountain. Every cramp, every stumble, delayed me and let the sun get a head. But I was too tired by now to increase my pace. A steady resigned trudge all I could manage.
I thought of the other pilots, my friends. What would they be doing if they were here? Heero would be stoically persevering, neither weakness of body or of mind deterring him. Getting back would be as much a mission to accomplish as blowing up OZ bases. Wufei would perhaps say something to bolster my spirits, say something about the importance of strength and endurance. Duo would be cursing all the way, going on about how we could be so stupid as to get into this situation in the first place. And Trowa? It was nice to think that he would plod on beside me, lending a hand if I stumbled, his quiet determination subtle encouragement. I sighed. How I missed them. Maybe the beach would not have been so bad.
I had finally reached somewhat level ground and was able to move much faster. It was near dark now, only the after glow of the sun lighting the sky. Already the moon was visible, preparing to unveil its glory. I had to strain my eyes to make out the red blotches on the tree and I became more afraid of truly becoming lost. Fear gave me energy I didn't have and I found myself walking faster. At last I came to another trail marker. I took out my map and compared my position.
"Yes!" I exclaimed, tossing my sweat dampened hair from my eyes, "Yes! Less than a mile to go! Oh thank you Allah!" Camp! I was almost there! I laughed out loud! I could not wait to see Rasid and Kalil! I could not wait to tell them of all that had happened since I left late this morning. Eagerly, I went forth, confident that though it was nearly dark, being so close to camp, I could make it. Even the terrain seemed to be in my favor, taking a steady down hill course. But I hadn't gone a half-mile when I ran into another obstacle. Rocks. I had rounded a bend in the trail and found a sharp decline covered with large, sharp rocks. I looked about for some semblance of a path and found none. About 50 meters below, I could again see the loam covered trail. Resigned, I tentatively placed my foot on what looked liked a flat, stable out cropping and felt the stone slide under my feet, triggering a mini rock slide.
"Damn!" I cursed. My exhausted legs felt like spaghetti; navigating those rocks would be an ordeal. And a dangerous one at that. But there was no other way down and all I wanted was to get back to camp; to get home so that Rasid and Kalil could rant at me and tell me how foolish I was. Carefully I set out, deciding that the safest way down the rocks was to creep down them in a sitting position. Even so, every few feet I would find myself sliding, the rocks tumbling behind me. But slowly I was making my way. About 3 meters from the bottom, I tried to stand, planning to jump the rest of the distance. No sooner had I gained my feet then those rocks began to slide, my legs, weak as they were couldn't find their balance and contracted in painful spasms from the sudden stress. With a cry, I went down hard, tumbling down the rocky slope, feeling the sharp stones cutting into my skin. As I came to the bottom, my head struck a jutting stone with a sharp crack. Sparks exploded behind my eyes and a horrible pain blossomed inside my skull. My sight was consumed by blinding whiteness and hot oranges and then I knew know more.
"Quatre." A soft voice was drawing me fitfully back to consciousness, in spurts and jolts. Awareness came reluctantly in the sporadic sensation of a hand gently brushing the hair back from my eyes, of warmth, of the green smell of grass and flora. This sensory input warred with my memories of falling, fear and pain.
"Wake up, gentle prince."
In slow degrees my eyelids fluttered open. I squinted against the bright sunlight that painted haloes in my vision. Sunlight? I gasped aloud, sitting up with a start. Dusk had given way to bright morning and autumn glory had become spring radiance. The air abounded with the music of songbirds and the heavy scent of spring flowers. Never had I suspected that the mountains could be so gloriously green. My fingers wonderingly ruffled the mountain grass, a mossy-emerald that reminded me of Trowa's eyes. A chipmunk scurried over the ground and peaked at me from behind a tree, little whiskers quivering. Further away, a young buck deer, its beautiful antlers a true crown, watched me with placid curiosity before bounding away into the thicket. Insects hummed and buzzed about me, one brave jewel-like butterfly hovered within centimeters of my face before winging away. I was in awe. Everything was so beautiful, like my first images of earth all those many months ago.
"I must be dreaming, " I whispered aloud, pulling my knees to my chest and encircling them with my arms. Only then did I notice that I was bare foot, dressed in my usual slacks, rose shirt and vest and not the outdoor wear I had donned...who knows when. I huddled further about myself and beat down the sudden fear that bloomed with in me. "Either dreaming...or dead."
"Actually, neither, sweet Quatre." The voice again! I had forgotten that a voice had called me to wakefulness. It was gently amused, young and feminine. I jerked about and my eyes rounded with surprise.
And so she seemed. The person before me was a young woman, fair complexed with light blue eyes. Her short, gold blond hair fluttered in the breeze. Her pink lips were curled upward in a reassuring smile. Her slim figure was dressed in loose white slacks and a pale blue sheer silk blouse that fluttered like her hair. She was the very image of my older sister.
She laughed at my bewilderment and held out a hand to draw me to my feet. Hesitating only a moment, I accepted. I was amazed to find it warm and solid.
"Iria, " she began lightly, her eyes sparkling. " So that is the form you have given me?" Her head tilted to the side. "You must love and trust her greatly."
I did. Iria was one of the few of my sisters I actually had a relationship with. I remembered none of the others from my childhood though now we were making an effort to know one another.
"You...You aren't her?"
She shook her head slightly.
"I am because you want me to be but I could have been anyone your subconscious chose."
Suddenly, Duo stood before me, his wide grin gracing his elfin face, hands on hips and legs braced apart in his accustomed stance except he wore white instead of black. Then Duo was gone and Trowa stood in his place, light brown hair falling to one side, obscuring one of his green eyes, arms crossed over his chest, his expression solemn and serious. Then it was Iria again. I stumbled away from her, my heart pounding. My palms were slick with sweat that I tried unobtrusively to wipe away on my thighs.
"Dear Quatre, " she said, closing the space between us. "Please don't be afraid. No harm will come to you." She reached again for my hand and held it securely in both of hers, giving it a light squeeze. " I'm only your guide."
"My g-guide?" I stuttered, still quivering all over.
"Yes." She answered. "Come with me. Even here we do not have all the time in the world."
I wanted to ask where "here" was but I was too afraid of the answer. Still holding my hand, she led through the mountain brush. I followed along as docilely as a puppy. I felt that I had again tumbled into madness but this time with out the assistance of Zero-system or Father's death. I had nearly the same detached, encased-in-crystal, feeling that I had had then.
Finally we came to a point where the remnants of a trail could be discerned. Iria turned to look at me with her sweet smile and eyes as luminous as stars. She released my hand.
"You must traverse the rest of the way alone." She nodded her head in the direction of the path. As I had observed, it was difficult to make out, and obscured by brush and overgrowth. It ascended uphill a ways then took a turn beyond which I could not make out much more. I looked down at my bare feet not relishing the journey. For reasons unknown to me, I suddenly was afraid.
"Don't worry Quatre. I'll be waiting here when you return."
"But where am I going?" I blurted out, suddenly wanted to cling to this almost familiar person. I did not even try to hid the quaver in my voice. What use had I for pride or bravado here? "What lies ahead of me?"
The not-Iria laughed, a light tinkley sound I felt in my bones. "Those are the hardest questions a mortal can ask, my sweet Quatre." She gracefully motioned toward the trail, "And ones only you can find the answers to." She laid her palm lightly on my chest. "Trust you heart. Now go"
It seemed I had no choice but to obey. Hesitantly, I made my way, pushing aside thorny branches that snagged at my fingers and cloths, ignoring the sharp rocks that gouged at my feet. I had just made it to the top of the incline when I detected the sound of rushing water. A falls it sounded like. Pushing my pace just a bit, I came to a clearing. As my ears had told me, a waterfall plunged into a river sending mist-like spray into the air, making it moist and cool. The sunlight seemed to have gathered here and was refracted through the mist, painting the clearing with delicate rainbows. On the bank of the river, a man sat gazing out into the distance, seemingly lost in the vision of the magnificent falls. His back was too me, but his posture spoke contemplative repose. He was dressed in gray slacks and white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His bare feet were buried in the soft grass. I must have made some noise for he turned to me and the eye visible beneath his fall of thick, dark brown hair lit with a smile that just barely touched his mustached mouth. A toss of his head threw the longish hair from his face, making his joy evident.
I gaped at him like an idiot, my mouth hanging open like some cartoon character's. Surely my eyes too would have popped from my head if I had been made of ink instead of flesh. Rising to his feet, walking in graceful deliberate steps toward me, was my father. My empathy confirmed it, screaming his reality to my befuddled mind. My senses attempted swift denial. He's dead! I saw him die! I saw his shuttle explode in silent flames under enemy fire, his pacifist ideals going up in flames with him.
But there was no room for doubt when he grasped me to his chest making a mantra of my name. My own voice startled me for all I could do was sob and cry, father, father. His tears wet my hair and when he pressed his cheek to mine, they mingled with my own and those salty drops ran over our chins and dropped into the earth. My arms had automatically entwined themselves about him. I held him so tightly that I was sure he would complain.
At last we were able to part enough so that we could look into each other's faces. His hands still rested on my shoulders; mine still gripped his forearms. Looking up at him, I saw all the love, all the pride I could ever have hoped to see. Something old and powerful twisted deep inside my heart. I swallowed hard.
"Father. Father h-how...How is this possible? How are we...How are you...? I saw you die!"
His firm but gentle finger pressed across my lips, silencing me.
"I do not know, Quatre. I do not question Allah; I only rejoice in the gift he has given me."
I wanted to press him, my mind too questing and logical to simply accept this extraordinary situation at face value. I kept reaching for some rational explanation: that I dreamed, that I hallucinated, or as I had first thought, that I was dead (despite the words of my guide who I told my self was as much an element of this dream as anything else was) My father seemed to follow my thoughts for he gave me a look that said leave it be.
"Come," he said aloud, "walk with me a bit." His voice was as it always was --half conversational, half commanding, though it had softened considerably. I readily complied.
We walked along the riverbank in pregnant silence. It seemed that both of us were waiting for the other to speak or else we were both trying to shape our wayward thoughts into coherency. As always, my father was the first to break the impasse.
"Quatre, why are you here?"
I blinked, caught off guard by this line of questioning. The twitch of his mouth into a smile made his mustache rise.
"I..I don't know. I don't even know where 'here' is!" I stammered.
Father shook his head, a bit of impatience suffusing his features. "Where and how Quatre--those aren't the important questions. Ask the right ones."
A slow flush creeped over my face. The comment irritated and embarrassed me like so many of his words often had in the past. I shrugged, frowning down at the rich grass beneath my feet, noting a ladybug that had settled on my toe. I flickered her off gently.
"I can only think, "I said, "That it is because there are so many things unsettled between us..."
"Aa." Said the man beside me quietly, "Now we get to it." He stopped walking and looked down at me, his expression grave. "I too feel that we have things between us that must be put to right. My soul cannot rest yet in Paradise. So now is the hardest question: Where do we began?"
I didn't know. Just like I had never known how to cross the chasm that separated us. It was funny really. For weeks and days I had long to have the chance to see and speak with my father once more and now that it was here, I stood a mute. But I had fought harder battles. I was a Gundam pilot after all. I took a steadying breath.
"I'm sorry. That's what I must say to you, Father." I whispered, "I'm sorry that I'm not the son you wanted."
There. I said it. That sentence was the core of my pain. Growing up, I had felt weak and worthless; that everything I did was an insult to him or a betrayal. Yet I did it anyway. How could he ever have loved me? So I stood before him, shoulders hunched, my hands tucked into my pockets waiting for the scathing words I knew to be coming. But only silence answered me. Warily I looked up. His face wore the oddest expression. Then slowly storm clouds gathered over his countenance.
"Why would you say that? Is that truly what you think?"
My mouth opened and closed soundlessly a few times before I found the power of speech.
"Yes! Father, since I was nine years old, all you have ever done was tell me what a disobedient, disrespectful son I was!"
"You were! " He interrupted, "You were disobedient. And I thought at the time, disrespectful. But maybe I don't think that now..."
Something in my expression must have caught his attention for his words trailed off and one side of his mouth quirked up wryly. His shoulders drooped slightly and he ran a hand nervously through his hair. Instead of at me, he turned to look out into the distance. From our vantage point, we could see the hazy outline of distant peaks in their spring glory.
"Quatre. You can't understand what it is like to be a father to a son. When you have a son you want him to be like you and to surpass you. You want him to think like you do but at the same time, you want him to be his own man." A wistful little sigh escaped him. "You have so many hopes, desires, dreams...expectations focused on that bit of flesh." He turned back to me. "I suppose I was disappointed," he continued. "When you chose your own path instead of mine. I was also hurt and angry. It was that part of me that spoke those words. I can't say I didn't mean them at the time, Quatre. But I regret, now, that I said them."
I shook my head, more in bewilderment then denial. I felt overwhelmed by this disclosure. I would have laughed but I was too close to tears.
"Sons have expectations too, father. I wanted to be an obedient, respectful son but you didn't give me any room to breathe! I couldn't be true to myself and be the person you wanted at the same time. I always felt like you would disown me or go to the biolabs and have another son ordered up who would better suit your needs."
"That old topic again?" He demanded, irritated. "It always comes back to that for you. How may times have I told you that you are my child no matter how you came into the world. I love all my children the same."
"It makes a difference! I've always felt...expendable. Replaceable! I've always felt that the only reason you had me was because you needed an heir. I have 29 sisters, father. 29! What made you decide you wanted a son after all that time if not because of what I've just said?"
"I didn't decide!" he almost shouted, pain and anger mingling in his expression, "Allah decided. He gave you to me through the willfulness and devices of a beautiful, glorious, stubborn woman!"
"A..A woman?" I gasped out, taken aback, "What do you mean, a woman?"
"I don't mean an egg donor. " He retorted, " What do you think I mean? You weren't engendered in the lab Quatre but in my marriage bed. No artificial womb nourished you but one of flesh and blood. You had a mother."
This dream world tilted. The sky became green and the grass blue. The fish took wing and the birds took to water. A mother? I had a mother? How could I have had a mother and never have known?
"Her name was Quaterina. " father continued softly, his voice reminiscent and distant. "She had hair like the sun and eyes as blue as truth. All she wanted was to give me a child."
I listened, mesmerized. Quaterina. I was named for her, then.
"Why did you never tell me?"
He sighed deeply. "Iria always said I should. I always thought it was irrelevant. As I said, I loved all my children the same. And I supposed...I never wanted you to feel responsible for her death. She knew it was dangerous but she wanted you any way and died at your birth."
"You kept this from me?" I was trembling violently. My mother died giving birth to me. I wasn't a test tube baby... a failed design. I wasn't in existence just because my father decided it was time he did something about perpetuating the Winner name. I had a mother. A woman had loved my father enough to risk bringing me into the world. I looked at him, seeing him with completely different eyes. The realization struck me, like it had that night spent around the campfire with Rasid and Kalil, that my father had had a life before and apart from me that I had never known. I was seeing myself in a different light; I was an expression of love and passion between a man and a woman.
"Father, " I stuttered, "How could you have kept her from me?! All these years, you could have shared her with me; she could have been alive to me through your memories." I sank down to my knees, my legs to weak to hold me. My father placed a hand on my shoulder. I felt his fingers tighten on my flesh.
"I know son. I think I was protecting myself as well as you. I loved her madly. When she became pregnant, I was angry with her-- she didn't tell me until she was months along. Then you were born and she...died." His hand left my shoulder and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him kneel beside me. "I've never been good with words Quatre, particularly when angry. My last words to her weren't of my love for her, of my gratitude for what she had given me, but of how foolish and stubborn she was. All she did was smile at the sight of her husband holding the son she had given him."
I looked at him, noting the sadness and regret on his face. "Do you blame me father? For her death?"
He raised an eyebrow, "Blame you? Never, Quatre. Quaterina was her own woman. She knew the risk she took. You are innocent of her death. Never think otherwise. You see? The thought crossed your mind. I would not have wanted you to see that as the motive behind every disagreement that we had."
I had to smile ruefully at that. He was in all likely hood right. But maybe we would could have gotten past it...if only he had allowed us the opportunity. He reached a large, gentle hand to stroke the hair from my face, used a finger to outline the shape of my cheek.
"My Quatre. You are so much like her. Her spirit resides in you I think. You have her looks, her stubbornness, and her bravery. You were all I had left of her. I wanted to keep you safe and protected."
My tears had started again and there was no stopping them. Everything was so perfectly clear to me now. If only we could have said these words to each other sooner, so many things could have been different. I leaned forward suddenly and took my father in a fierce hug.
"Father! I didn't know! Forgive me!"
"Hush, boy." He muttered in my ear, his own voice thick with emotion, "There is nothing to forgive. I'm the one who is so sorry. You have always made me proud. I've rejoiced in your honor. True, I would prefer you walked a different path but you have always walked your path impeccably. Your mother would be as proud of you as I am."
For an endless moment, we just clung to one another, not wanting this time of perfect understanding and acceptance to pass. But finally we both sat up.
"I love you father. I've always loved you and respected you and wanted to please you. You were my model for every thing."
"I know, son" was all he said, tenderness in his eyes. He rose to his feet, drawing me up with him. "Come, I think it's time for us to be heading back."
Silence reigned as we made our slow way back to the clearing but this silence was comfortable and easy. My mind was whirling in fast dizzying circles. A mother. I had a mother-- Quaterina Raberba Winner! I could not wait to tell everyone. Rasid-- well, maybe not Rasid. After all, the fact of a our shared origins was part of our bond. But Duo...I wanted to tell him. He would be ecstatic; almost as if he'd found his own mother. And Trowa...would I see Trowa smile? Would his green eyes light with happiness for me? Trowa...
I stopped in mid stride, suddenly ill and cold. Trowa. What I felt for him. Surely my father would hate me for it. After coming so far, after receiving what I needed and wanted from him after all this time, I was deathly afraid of loosing him. But in this place, I knew there was no room for untruths.
"Father, wait. We.... I can't leave yet."
"What is it?" he asked, voice curious.
My face was flaming. "I-- I'm ...there is someone I...You see, there is this B--boy, Trowa and I think...I think that I..."
"Stop, Quatre." My father order quietly. "You are trying to tell me that you are attracted to this boy?"
Too numbed and mortified to speak, I simply nodded. I was relived to not have to say the words. I hunched my shoulders as if preparing for a blow. I would not be surprised if he slapped me, telling me that the Koran forbade such things.
"Just this boy? Or boys in particular?" The calm question wasn't what I had expected. In honesty, I hadn't thought about it. I had been completely consumed by my attraction for Trowa. I mentally reviewed the men I knew. The Maguarnacs-- I never thought of them in that way. My fellow pilots? Frowning, I thought of Heero and Wufei. They were good men and I found them aesthetically pleasing but I never thought much beyond that. Duo, I saw more as a playful, teasing younger brother. His personality completely overwhelmed his looks so much for me that I had never stopped to think whether or not he was attractive. It seemed, for the most part, only Trowa had moved me so.
"I think...just this...particular boy." I finally managed, flustered, "But I really don't know..."
My father closed his eyes briefly, inhaling and exhaling in a slow rush. "It's ok, Quatre."
"Wh... What?" I stammered, shocked for the thousandth time that day. He smiled.
"I said...It's OK. Perhaps in the past such a thing might have mattered to me. Now it doesn't."
"But I thought you would be...be."
"Disgusted. Horrified. Ashamed?" He shook his head. "What do any of those emotions mean now, Quatre? You are young. What you are now may not be what you are in 5 years or 10. I'm not your judge, Quatre. All I want for you is your happiness. And if Trowa makes you happy, if he can love you, then he is what I want for you."
After that, nothing more needed to be said. Further words would have been superfluous, ruining that sweet moment. My father placed an arm around my shoulders and we continued back to the clearing in reflective quiet.
"It's time for us to part, Quatre." My father said softly. He kissed my forehead and stepped away from me, hands dangling at his sides. I nodded, feeling a distinct, insistent inner pull.
"Will... I see you again, " I asked, gesturing at the greenery about us to indicate this...dreamscape. "Like this?"
"No. I must move on and you have a life to live. But when you have finished all Allah has assigned for you, we will meet again. You, me, and your mother."
I smiled, finding that I could be content with that. I could wait. I hugged him one more time before starting back down the path. My father watched me the entire way, his hand raised in farewell. Soon I could see him no more. As I made my way back, I notice that the thorns were gone and I could hardly feel the rocks beneath my feet at all. As she promised, Iria waited for me. I greeted her smiling broadly.
"Quatre!" Taking me in her arms in a brief embrace, she looked me over with warm regard. "Your eyes are much wiser than when you left me. What have you learned, young prince?"
"Everything, " I answered eagerly, still smiling, "Everything important."
Her expression warmed even more and she nodded. "I am pleased, Quatre. Now, I have something for you."
So saying she took my hand and slipped something into my palm. I started to look, curious, but she stopped me.
"Not now. Later. Now it's time for you to go."
And gently she cupped my face between her two soft hands and pressed a kiss to my lips. My first kiss, I though hazily before I was enveloped in velvet darkness.
I awoke all at once, momentarily disoriented by the darkness. In the time I had been unconscious, the sun had finally fled to the West and the world was rendered in shades of gray and shadow. Then memory rushed over me. I had fallen and hit my head and had the most wondrous...dream. Unbidden, my eyes prickled with unshed tears and the skin of my face felt tight and painful.
My father, the revelation about my mother...all a delusion. The sense of loss was profound. I felt my subconscious had played a cruel joke on me. Fighting back tears, I focused instead on assessing my current predicament. My skull throbbed fiercely; tentative exploration revealed a painful knot but no blood or indention. The rest of me had not been so lucky. I ached all over. My knee sported a deep gash that bled sluggishly. The underside of my right arm was scraped from wrist to elbow and burned and throbbed as if the nerves themselves were exposed. Stiffly, I levered myself to my feet feeling more than a little shaky. The chilling mountain air didn't help matters much. Gingerly I put weight on my injured leg. It hurt like anything but I could manage. I had no choice. I wasn't about to spend the night out here in the mountains. Bears should be hibernating, I thought, but who knew about bobcats (if there were Bobcats in the area; I should have done more research)? At least the moon was fully out and the sky still had a touch of gloaming. I could just make out the flatted ground of the trail though the paint splotches on the trees were impossible to see.
Carefully I started out, reaching for the trees for support. That was when I noticed something was clasped in my hand. Puzzled, I slowly opened my palm and cried out in disbelief. There in my hand rested two rings. One was of old etched gold, heavy, set with a single square cut emerald. My father's ring; He had been wearing it when he died. The other was smaller, more delicate, of a whitish metal, either white gold or platinum and inlaid with a single, perfect solitaire that even in the muted light of the moon was brilliant. I knew it had been my mother's.
I collapsed to the ground, my injuries, the pain, the cold, the fear forgotten. It was real! That "dream" had been real! I had a father who loved me, had always loved me, and a mother who bore me. I felt giddy and a little lightheaded. Joy rushed through me like lightning and I started to laugh. I laughed so hard the tears blurred my vision. This time, though, I didn't mind them at all. Like a little child with his most precious possession, I rocked back and forth, clutching my tokens to my chest.
"Quatre-sama! Is that you?"
I jerked up at the sound of my name. Rasid? Kalil? Yes! I'd know those voices even in the midst of battle.
"Rasid! Kalil!" I called back as loud as I could, "I'm here! Here!" I could just make out the sweeping flashes of their searchlights. I scrambled to my feet, joy still bubbling deep inside of me like a fountain.
"Are you alright right, Quatre-sama? Stay where you are! We're coming!"
"I'm fine!" I called back. I looked down at the two rings nestled in my palm. "Just fine, Rasid." I said softly to myself. "Better than I've ever been."
I actually made it home before any of my comrades. I chose to return to my estate on L4 and sent a message for the others to join me; the old place now seeming warm and friendly rather than cold and intimidating as it had in my childhood. I wanted to search it over attic to basement for anything that could have belonged to the mysterious Quaterina Winner, my mother. I was determined to find out everything about her. The Maguarnacs and the house staff gave me odd looks, wondering at my happiness and sudden mania. But I just smiled and went about my way, offering no explanations.
Within two days of my arrival, the other pilots made it to my estate. Duo greeted me with a whoop and a bear hug that I returned as enthusiastically. The others were a bit more restrained in there greetings but no less sincere. I felt as if a lifetime, rather than four days, had passed since last I saw them. Duo stepped back, eyeing me critically. He obviously noted my new bruises and limp.
"Quatre-man! What happened to you? You get hit by a truck or something?"
I laughed. "Or something. I had a run in with a mountain."
Wufei snorted. "Lucky you. Duo had a run in with a volcano!"
Duo shot him a look to strip metal and shot him the finger. Wufei snickered and followed a servant upstairs with his luggage. Even Heero and Trowa couldn't repress a chuckle. I raised an inquiring eyebrow. Duo pointedly turned his back on them.
"Ignore the peanut gallery, Q-man. But really, it's not just the bruises, you look different...I don't know..."
I spun around. That was from Trowa. He watched me out of eyes curious and appraising. I felt myself blush. Nonplussed I turned back to Duo, who was nodding his vigorous agreement with Trowa.
"Yeah! That word he said."
I wanted to talk to my friend, share my discovery and adventure with him, but not now. Later maybe, in private. "Duo, I'm fine. We'll talk soon, OK?"
"But..." He began to protest.
"Duo." Heero's voice, succinct and clipped as always. "Help me take these things upstairs. We're cluttering the foyer. Most of this stuff is yours anyway." He gave one of the over stuffed duffels a nudge with his foot.
"Hey!" Duo answered, trotting over to where Heero stood, temporarily distracted, "Be careful with my souvenirs! What a jerk!" He hefted two of the duffels over his shoulder and made his way up the staircase, reminding Heero of his personality deficiencies the entire way. Finally it was just Trowa and I.
I cleared my throat nervously.
"Did you have a good vacation?" It was a weak beginning but all I could bring myself to say. I looked at my hands, the Persian carpet covering the hardwood floor, the painting of my father on the foyer wall. I looked everywhere but at him.
"Aa." He responded quietly, striding over to me on silent feet. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"What?" I asked, looking up sharply. His green eyes were softer than I had ever seen them.
"You went looking for something, Quatre. I could tell."
I simply nodded. "I didn't even know I was searching."
He smiled then, like I knew he would. And Trowa smiling was a rare and beautiful thing. My heart stumbled within my chest and I had to gasp a bit for breath.
"Ah well. The best journeys are the unexpected ones. " He bent down to retrieve something from his totebag and handed it to me. "We met a composer of all people; his music was beautiful. Duo and Wufei are convinced he'll be famous someday. I brought you some of his music. I thought you would enjoy it."
Speechless, I unrolled the sheet music, hand written on vellum in the old way. I read over the notes, already hearing the sweet harmonics in my head. I looked back at Trowa.
"You're welcome." He looked away from me then, gathering his backpack and tote and turned to head up the staircase to seek his room.
"Trowa...wait. M--Maybe we could try some of the music tonight? After dinner? If you have your flute..?" He always did. I waited, holding my breath.
"I'd like that." He answered simply and continued on his way.
I stood staring at the place he had been, lost in thought, when my butler gently cleared his voice to get my attention.
"Master Quatre. The call you have been waiting for."
I flushed and took the telecom from him.
"Hello? Iria! Yes, it's me, Quatre. I've been trying to get in touch with you for two days! Yes I'm fine but I need to ask you a question. Please...tell me everything you know about ...my mother."
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