It didn't seem right for the sun to be shining as brightly as it was. It seemed like this should be a dark day, a gloomy, rainy one, and indeed rain was predicted for later. But right now, it was warm and calm. Heero felt an irrational burst of rage. It was not a day that a child should have to say goodbye to her parents.
Linra's hand trembled on the small box she held, but she stuck her chin out bravely and walked toward the water. Watching her, Jazz knew that she had to force herself to take each step. When it was over, there could be no more pretending, no more laying in bed in the morning telling herself that all she had to do was open her eyes and it would all be a bad dream. She carried the ashes of her parents in the box, but something more as well. She carried the ashes of her innocence.
Heero had gently offered to do it for her but she had refused. "I need to." She had told him. "I have to."
The River of the Brave it was called, and ran the entire length of the Deran main continent. Jazz had a flash of something as he walked his friend kneel by the flowing water. The Brave were the living, sending the ashes of those they loved on their final journey. For those gone, there was no longer any need for courage.
He glanced at his father, who was holding Rosemary. He hadn't understood Pops' fear about losing him, not really, until this had happened. It had taken a lot of courage for him to go on after his foster parents had been killed, and after his wife had died. He glanced down at Linra again, a new respect in his eyes for both his friend and his father.
Linra placed the carved box in the water, and taking a breath she gave it a slight push. The current caught the box and spun it around once, and then it began a haphazard journey down the River of the Brave.
She stood up and walked back toward her new family, her eyes dry, her face far too old for a child of eight.
"Let's go home now." She said at last. As beautiful as this place was, this glade by the riverbank, she could feel the sadness here as well, as if it had lingered after the grieving loved ones had returned to their lives.
"Are you okay?" Heero asked, and Jazz gave him a look that said plainly that his pledge-father was being an idiot. He took Linra's hand in his. "You're not okay." He stated. "But you will be. I promise. We'll find a way to make you okay again."
"Yeah." Linra nodded, smiling. A real smile, not the ones she had been faking for them the last few days. "I will be." Her hand curled around Jazz's.
Rosemary laid her head against Duo's chest and sighed, and he rubbed the fuzzy dark hair. The baby was too young to understand that her mother and father weren't coming back, and unlike an Earth child time would not dim her memory of them. Still, Duo got a feeling she sensed what was going on. She was anxious when they were out of her sight, especially her sister. Plus, she also had to sense the tension around them ever since Trowa's announcement.
"Heero." Duo said later, after the children were asleep. "There's nothing else to find there. It's been cleaned completely."
"I know. I know it's being investigated but I can't... do nothing!" Heero paced back and forth. "Why?" He punched the wall. "Why them? They didn't have a lot of money, not a lot of power. They were just ordinary people. WHY?" He hit the wall again.
"Koi, you'll wake the kids." Duo said firmly. "Right now all we can do is wait and make sure their children are all right. That is our main job right now. They need us to at least pretend to have it together. But we will learn the truth. We'll find out who killed them and we'll bring them down. They will pay."
"When?" Heero snapped. "When Rosemary is of age? When Linra demands to know what I did to avenge her parents' loss?"
"What you did, or what you SHOULD be doing, is realizing that you've just become a father of two scared little girls. Right now you've been uncle to them. Spoiling them and playing with them, but it's different now. First rule of being a parent is that what you want, and what you need, are secondary. We've got to be strong for them." He repeated. He'd keep repeating it until Heero understood.
"You be strong. You're the parenting expert." Heero said bitterly. "All I did was play uncle and spoil them. You handle this your way, I'll handle it mine." He stormed out of the room.
"Damn it!" Duo slammed his fist down the bed. This was the last thing he needed right now, the Perfect Soldier showing up. "Fine, dump it all on my head!" He snapped at the empty air.
He flopped down on the bed, then bounced back up again and left the room. A quick check showed him that Heero had left their apartment. Wonderful. In the mood he was in he was either going to get arrested or killed.
He stopped to check on the children. Rosemary was asleep in her crib and he pulled the blanket higher around her, kissing her cheek. His daughter? He let it sink in. He had daughters now, not just for a while but for the rest of his life. He thought for a minute, then admitted he was clueless about little girls and what they needed. A boy he understood. Well, he had to learn, didn't he? He was needed. He had survived Hilde's death, leaving him alone with Jazz. Somehow or other they'd muddled through it.
He went down to Jazz's room, which Linra was now sharing. They had gotten her a bed of her own but a glance showed her cuddled up next to Jazz, the boy's arm around her, the way she had held him on that picnic that seemed so long ago. He swallowed a lump in his throat. Until now Jazz had seemed like a little boy to him, but in the last few days he had seen glimpses of the man his son was becoming. As if the layers of the child were peeling off, showing the glint of the gold beneath. He was humbled, proud. Somehow or other he'd gotten it right.
He watched them for a minute then left the room again, finally heading back to his own bed. He flopped down on his back, staring up at the ceiling in the dark.
"Raise you 10."
"Raise you 20."
"Hah, read um and weep. I win."
Duo huddled with the other children they had dragged off the street that night, trying to blend into the wall. It did no good. Someone was reaching for him; he could smell beer and stale smoke. He tried to run but he was frozen in place. The dirty hand was on his arm shaking him.
A hand was shaking him.
"Duo! Duo, wake up. You're having a nightmare!"
Duo sat up panting, looking wildly around the room, his heart a thunderdrum in his chest. Strong arms pulled him close, stroked his hair, muttered soothing words, the way he'd do with Jazz. Finally he was able to calm down.
"I'm sorry." Heero was whispering. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay." Duo managed to get himself composed. "I'm okay now."
Heero flipped on a light next to the bed. His clothing was damp, and Duo could hear rain pounding on the window. "Where did you go?"
"Out. Just walking." Heero touched his cheek. "Realizing what a baka I was being. I had no right to take what I was feeling out on you. You're right. We have to be strong for the kids. Forgive me?"
"Nothing to forgive." Duo smiled. "Come on, get some sleep." Heero turned off the light again and they curled up together in the big bed.
"I don't NEED you. Go away. Go home!"
"You need me. You know you do." the voice stated calmly. That was what she hated most, that calmness. She preferred hearing him riled up, which fortunately was an easy state to get him in. However, he was insisting on thwarting her at the moment.
"I've lived here for five years. I know where everything is!"
"Until your eyes heal, the doctor says you should have someone here to help you." Still that calmness.
"You had no right to turn away that nurse!"
"I was fond of your friends. They would want me to take on this responsibility."
"Responsibility?? GET OUT!"
"I will. I'll call the police and have you thrown out of here."
"Go right ahead. Do you want me to show you where the phone is?"
He was laughing at her. The bastard was laughing at her!
"Why are you DOING this? Are you that cruel?" She tried appealing to his sympathies.
"I am needed here."
"Wufei... this isn't easy for me. Has it occurred to you that I'd like to be alone to come to terms with what has happened? My friends are dead, and I know that my chances of ever seeing again aren't 100%. What I want more than anything else is to curl up on my couch and wallow in self-pity for the next few weeks."
"And those are the reasons you should not be alone." A pause. "I know how easy it is to lose yourself in self-pity. I have been there."
"I was married. Pledged, you would call it."
"Did she run off screaming in terror when she realized what a first-class jerk you were?"
"No, she honored our marriage. However, she never missed an opportunity to tell me exactly that. She was one of the strongest people I've ever known in my life. She was aware, like you, of my flaws and didn't mind telling me about them."
Denea was quiet for a while. "She died, didn't she?"
"Yes. She was a warrior. If you've read Heero's book you know about the war we fought. She was the one chosen to fight for our colony's freedom. I was no fighter. I only wanted to be left alone with my books. But she died, died in my arms. And I honored her courage by taking her place."
"I thought you hated all women." She admitted.
"Women... frustrate me, Denea." he admitted. "Most of them will speak of how brave they are, and yet at the merest shadow will look for a man to protect them. I am torn between the need to care for them and the urge to shake them and tell them they are capable of caring for themselves."
"That's a little general to paint all women with that same brush." Denea said dryly. "If you've noticed, I'm not asking you to protect me."
"Exactly." Wufei agreed. "Which is why I feel the need to."
"Men. Only a man would think that argument actually makes sense." But she was smiling a little. "I'm not going to be able to get rid of you, am I?"
"I don't like you."
"I don't like you either. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Fine. If you're going to invite yourself to move in, you're going to make yourself useful. Cooking, cleaning, ordering groceries. I'm going to work you so hard you'll be begging me to let you leave."
"Your challenge is accepted." She felt a hand on her arm, guiding her toward what she sensed was the kitchen. "Your world and our home world have something in common. Hospital food leaves a bit to be desired. Sit down." He put her hand on a chair. "You need a good meal. Perhaps an increase in blood sugar will make you a little more pleasant to live with."
"You know where the door is if you don't like it."
Wufei bit his lip to keep from laughing. You'd be surprised, onna, just how much I do like it.