The China Mist

By kumiko


Hong Kong, 1925

"All aboard! Singapore, Bombay, Alexandria, and all points west!"

A large puff of steam escaped the stack of the China Mist, a smart new trunk steamer, as her crew readied her for departure from Cathay. The steam itself nearly engulfed Wufei Chang, a slender Chinese boy of 18 years, who was standing on the top deck of the ship. He stared out across the waters of Victoria Harbor and said his last goodbyes to the land of his birth.

Orphaned, with no prospects for employment that would truly use his skills, Wufei had agreed to take a position as teacher to a large family from Kowloon who were currently residing in London. He was apprehensive, as this would be not only his first teaching post, but also his first time out of Hong Kong, and he had heard rumors among the booksellers of Victoria Harbor that the English were practically devils and that if you looked closely, you might make out their horns.

The ship pulled out into the harbor, with lots of well-wishers waving to them from the docks, and as Hong Kong disappeared behind them, Wufei sought out his cabin so that he might rest before dinner.

He emerged some two hours later, dressed lightly in a traditional tunic and pants, against the balmy air of the South China Sea. The night was calm, and a large shaded moon was rising in the east, the view of it obstructed now and then by the delicate mist that was rising off the warm waters.

Dinner was intimate but elegant, all the passengers wearing their finest for the first night at sea. Having no traveling companions, Wufei was seated with several others who were also there alone, but they were all much older and found good conversation with each other - three vigorous businessmen speaking of the textile trade, and an elderly man and woman reminiscing about times they had spent in Hong Kong's Victoria Club.

The young Chinese man ate rather quickly and made his excuses, none of which were heard. Leaving the dining room, it was clear that what had been a light mist when he went into dinner had thickened to a dense fog since then. With difficulty, he tried to make his way to one of the social rooms on the opposite side of the ship and had just reached the promenade deck, when, rounding a corner, he stopped short, nearly running into a tall man he hadn't seen in the swirling mist. The man was leaning against the deck railing and staring out into the ship's foamy wake. He was slim, with long legs and a broad chest. But what struck Wufei was the man's hair - pale, pale gold, shining nearly silver in the light of the moon, and flowing down his back in one, smooth river of silk.

He turned when Wufei bumped him going by, and looked down on the Chinese boy with curiosity. "Hullo, there - watch your step," came the deep, murmured voice.

"Uh - oh! I'm sorry. I didn't see you in the fog and... well, I apologize." The only thing Wufei could think of doing was to bow and he did, wondering what this foreigner would think of it.

To his shock, the man reached out a hand and touched him lightly on the arm. "No need to kowtow, my good man," he said smoothly. "The mist is bloody heavy tonight - I'm fully expecting the ship to go down in it." Then he laughed, a warm and amused chuckle.

"Don't say things like that!" Wufei pleaded. "You'll bring down bad luck!"

The man turned and leaned his back against the railing, arms draped out to either side. "Will I?" he chuckled, smiling softly at Wufei. "Well, heaven knows I wouldn't want to do that. But - if I can't make dire predictions about our fate, what shall we talk about?"

Wufei reddened. The feeling of isolation that had grown on him during dinner was intense to the point of being painful, now, but he wasn't going to let it show. Not to this foreigner. "You... you're not obliged to talk to me," he said, voice nearly a whisper.

"Oh, well... yes, I suppose that's true," said the tall blond. He looked slightly taken aback but his voice remained as calm and smooth as the water they were traveling through. "If you'd rather repair to the smoking lounge, I can tell you that there is a lively conversation going on about the last cricket match between Oxford and Cambridge. Or perhaps you'd prefer the ladies circle, which has taken up the topic of the fascist threat from Japan and how it would interfere with the dinner party season in Hong Kong. Oh," he added, "I almost forgot - the two physicians aboard the ship are on the starboard side trading stories about particularly nasty diseases of the tropics. So of course, *we* don't have to talk to each other. There are *lots* of perfectly decent conversations to be had all over the ship..." He smiled slowly at Wufei and tilted his head a bit, letting long, blond hair spill over his shoulder.

The Chinese boy felt a heated blush steal over his cheeks as he looked at the man. He really was beautiful, almost like an angel with his long, gold hair and lovely face. The thick, flowing mist surrounding him just added to the image. Surely there wasn't any harm in talking to a man like this and Wufei thought that it certainly offered more promise than any of the other conversations.

"Well," he said hesitantly, "they don't sound very interesting, do they? At least... not to me."

"Good," the tall man said firmly and smiled. "If they had I would have been very disappointed with you. Shall we go for a stroll around the deck?"

Wufei nodded, feeling happy and shy both at once, and they headed off along the main corridor of the ship.

"Are you bound for Europe?" the tall man asked.

Wufei replied that he was and gave the blond a short summary of the position he would hold on arriving in London. "Are... are you... English?" he asked hesitantly, fearing the stories he'd heard and looking surreptitiously for horns in the pale, silky hair.

"Yes, I am - " the man answered, "I live in London. It will be nice to be home for a bit, but unfortunately I won't be able to stay. I'm leaving for Switzerland two days after I arrive home."

"What's in Switzerland?" Wufei asked, feeling strangely attracted to the man, and wanting to know more about him.

"My companion on this journey took ill in Nanjing and it's been recommended that we seek help with a specialist at a clinic in Lucerne. They say he's very good..."

The man seemed to drift off mentally at the mention of his companion and Wufei felt a tiny wave of disappointment that disturbed him no end.

"Oh," he said quickly, "am I keeping you from her?"

Shaking his head softly, the tall man smiled over at him. "Him, actually, and no - really - he needs to sleep a lot of the time and always presses me to go and 'enjoy' myself with the other passengers. Silly fool..."

They had walked to the corridor in which Wufei's room was situated. "Oh," the young Chinaman said, somewhat surprised. "Ah - this is mine," he murmured, indicating the door.

"I see. Well, if you'll excuse me then, I think I'll take one more look up on the foredeck and then return to my room as well...." Then he fixed Wufei with a soft, seductive stare and held his hand out to shake. "It was a *pleasure* meeting you... Wufei, is it? Perhaps we will see each other tomorrow?"

Wufei's jaw nearly dropped. Was he seeing what he thought he was seeing in the man's face? In that sultry voice? And why was he suddenly blushing so fiercely?

He mumbled something incoherent to the man and watched him walk down the corridor, all ease and grace, his long hair swaying around his waist. When he was out of sight, Wufei slumped against his door frame and sighed heavily. Tomorrow, in his opinion, could simply not come fast enough. And it was only after he'd gotten into bed and turned out the light that he realized he hadn't gotten the man's name... and hadn't told the man his...

He was up at 6:30 the next morning and spent half an hour trying on the same two pairs of trousers he'd brought with the same two shirts. None of the combinations was to his liking, but it was pick one of them or stay in the room all day and he couldn't do that. So, at 7 am sharp he was on the foredeck - alone. The man was not there, and, as Wufei hunted the ship for the next hour or so, the tall blond seemed to be nowhere at all. He was about to give up when he wandered onto the starboard mid-deck and there he was, the tall graceful blond that Wufei had spent the night dreaming about.

The man's back was to him. He was dressed in a stylish white suit and he seemed to be looking out to sea, his hair blowing around him.

"Hello," Wufei called shyly and the man turned. For a moment, Wufei felt he couldn't breathe. The man just seemed to glow, what with the clean white linen of his clothes, the paleness of his hair, and the light reflected from off the water. Then the moment passed, the light changed and Wufei shook his head as the man approached him.

"Good morning, Wufei. How did you sleep?"

"Oh, fine... I've never had trouble sleeping on boats -" He stopped. It had happened again. The man had used his name and he didn't remember giving it.

"Have you had breakfast?" the tall man asked and then began leading Wufei to the dining room. "I always eat in my cabin, my companion prefers it, but I'd be happy to sit with you."

Wufei blushed and stammered out a thank you.

When they were settled at a table in the corner of the dining room, Wufei broached the delicate subject of names. "How... how do you know my name? I don't know yours, and I don't remember telling you mine..."

The man looked at him and smiled softly. "But you must have done," he said amiably. "How else would I know it?"

Wufei looked at him, puzzled, and then the man laughed.

"Don't trouble yourself about it. I'm Zechs, and my companion is called Treize. Perhaps he'll be strong enough to come up on the deck later today and meet you."

"Oh... oh I'd like that," the dark-haired boy said. /Especially if he's as nice as you.../

They talked through breakfast, with Wufei asking Zechs question after question about London and Zechs asking him the meaning of several Chinese words in a small novel he had. It turned out to be quite a risqué tale and by the end Wufei was a bright red and Zechs was shaking his head in amusement at the boy's embarrassment.

Then they walked up to the foredeck and sunned themselves, chatting every now and then until lunchtime came and Zechs said it was time he got back to the cabin he shared with Treize. His leaving left an ache inside the Chinese boy and he picked at his lunch, seated again at the solo travelers' table.

Then there was nothing at all to do, so he found a deck chair and tried to nap, cursing himself for not being able to get the blond man out of his thoughts.

He's been dozing, a hazy dream of running his fingers through silvery hair, when a voice broke through. "Wufei? Are you awake? I want you to meet Treize."

Swimming up from the light sleep that had enveloped him, Wufei saw Zechs sitting in the deck chair next to his and he couldn't help but break into a brilliant smile at the man, who smiled back and chuckled. "Do you always wake in such an amiable mood?" Zechs asked and to Wufei's astonishment he heard himself answer, "Only when angels like you do the waking..."

"Oh, what *have* you done to this poor child, Zechs," came a strange voice from just beyond where Zechs sat. "You really *must* stop this, it's beginning to look like cradle robbing."

Wufei sat up with a start and scrubbed at his eyes, peering over at a slender man who sat in a wheelchair to Zechs's left. Once again, he was dumbfounded by beauty.

Compared to Zechs, with his long, silky hair and stylish manners, this man seemed reserved, contemplative even. It was also evident that he was very, very sick. Not only was Treize thinner than Zechs, who was himself slender, but his skin seemed pale to the point of being ghostly, just a thin, delicate covering for the beating heart and frail organs underneath. And although he seemed to glow softly in his paleness, it seemed to Wufei that all of the man's energy was focused in his eyes, which were a stunning, sapphire blue.

/So much desire... so much love of life, and yet... there was an aspect about Treize that spoke of the peace of resignation. He knew how sick he really was, knew he didn't have much time, and he'd accepted it, Wufei was sure.

At last, Wufei's reverie was broken when Zechs stood and told Treize he was going to get him something cool to drink. With the blond gone, Treize turned to Wufei and said, "What is it, Wufei? You seem puzzled by us."

"I am," the Chinese boy admitted shyly. "You... you look..."

"Like a dying man? That's true."

"But Zechs," Wufei said, looking off in the direction that the tall man had gone, "he seems to think -"

"That I'll get better," Treize finished the sentence for him once again.

"Yes," Wufei whispered. "Won't you?"

"Zechs believes so strongly in me that sometimes I think it's him who's kept me alive." Treize voice was tired, but his smile was a softly shining thing. "If he wasn't with me, I would have been gone long ago."

"Does he know how bad it really is?" Wufei asked, feeling a wave of deep sadness pass through him.

"No," Treize replied. "He really doesn't. But someday, perhaps... someday I *know* he'll come to accept it. In the meantime, though," Treize continued, "he makes friends, and that's good."

Something in the comment made Wufei frown, but he couldn't get it out.

"Oh, don't worry," Treize said, leaning forward to smile at him. "He's *quite* taken with you. Much more so than any other person we've met, I'd say."

The words brought a flush of color to the younger man's cheeks, but before he could add anything Treize spoke again.

"It's all right, Wufei. I'm very taken with you, too. And I can see how you feel - it's very plain. We've been waiting for someone like you to come along."

"H-have you?" Wufei whispered, staring at the man.

"Yes, we have - but for completely different reasons. Zechs... well, Zechs is drawn to those who have a strong sense of life about them, who relish what they're doing - it's like a moth to the flame with him. And I..."

Treize was silent for a moment and Wufei frowned slightly. "Yes? And you -?"

Sapphire eyes caught and held the dark brown-black of Wufei's. "And I look for someone who can really speak to him... someone who can reach him, at some fundamental level that he'll listen to. It can't be me... it has to be someone like you... and I truly hope you're the one."

Wufei frowned in confusion at the deck chair he sat in, then looked up at the ailing man. "Are you worried about him - what will happen to him, I mean, after you're gone?"

"I used to worry about that a great deal. He was always so full of life, and before my illness I was just able to keep up with him and all he wanted to do." Treize paused a moment and stared off at the intensely blue sea around them, seeming to be lost in a memory of their time together before he fell sick. "But after the illness... well, I just couldn't do all the things we'd done before. And I became very, very afraid..."

"Of what?" Wufei asked, leaning forward a bit more, drawn by the sadness on the man's face.

"Of losing him... to someone else... someone who was healthy and energetic and who could give him everything he wanted in a partner..."

Wufei recalled the small novel, the eroticism of the imagery, and nodded his head.

"But," he said, looking up at Treize again, "he *didn't* leave you, did he?"

"No, Wufei... he never did. It meant more than I could say to have him there every morning... to hold him at night... He never once left my side, bless him..."

Treize appeared to have grown tired and was just turning around in his chair to look for Zechs when the blond appeared with a tall, frosted glass. Handing it to Treize, he squatted down beside the chair and peered into the pale man's face, frowning. "I've let you get over tired, I'm sorry Treize. It took ever so long to find the bloody barkeep. Shall we go back to the room?"

Treize nodded and then looked over at Wufei. "Thank you for listening to me," he said, "and for being kind to Zechs."

"Oh, come now," Zechs protested, "you make me sound like a dog that he visits in the shelter on Sundays." He leaned down and nuzzled the other man's neck. "Silly Treize."

Treize's arm came up, slowly, and his fingers tangled in Zechs's long, fair hair as he held the blond man's head close to his, smiling at Wufei as he did so. "Like I told you, Wufei," he said, voice low as a whisper. "He's never left my side."

"As if I would," Zechs said in mock offense as he turned the wheel chair towards the door to the cabins. "You need me far too much for me to do anything else..."

Treize chuckled, and looked back once at Wufei, his eyes intent, as if trying to send a message to the young Chinaman,

As they disappeared around the edge of the deck, Wufei found himself saying, "No, Zechs... you're the one who needs... needs... me..." Then he stood there like a dumb thing, wondering why on earth he would *ever* say such a thing.

The next week was very pleasant and the three of them saw a lot of each other. Zechs would always sit with Wufei for breakfast, and they would walk around the ship and talk until lunch time. Then Wufei would lunch alone and wait for three o'clock, when Zechs would bring Treize up to the deck and they would talk and play cards and read to each other until it was dinner time. The two lovers would take their evening meal in their cabin and afterwards Zechs saw Treize to bed he would come back up on deck again and spend the evening with Wufei.

On their second week out at sea, the steamer docked at Kuching, in Malaysia, to take on food, fresh water and fuel, and to trade crews. It was a common practice to take on fresh deck hands before attempting to navigate the narrow Straight of Malacca that would take them from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. Wufei had hoped to see the two of them on shore, but they didn't appear along with the other passengers waiting to leave the ship, and he had to go alone, wandering through the streets of the city, and wishing they were there to talk to.

When he reboarded the China Mist late that afternoon, the two men had still not emerged from their cabin and he began to wonder if he should seek them out, in case there had been a sudden turn for the worse in Treize's health. To his great relief, Zechs appeared on deck after dinner, although at first he didn't noticed Wufei, just strode to the foredeck and stared out into the darkened sea.

Hoping he hadn't done something unintentionally to upset the man, Wufei walked up to him cautiously. "Good evening Zechs."

The tall blond spun around to face the Chinese boy, his face pale, eyes wide and hands trembling. "Oh -" he said, relaxing just the tiniest bit, "Wufei... how... how are you?"

Wufei frowned, puzzled slightly at Zechs's jittery air. Normally the tall blond was as easygoing a companion as one could hope for, but tonight he was different and that seemed cause for alarm.

"Is it... is it Treize?" he asked, putting a hand on the taller man's sleeve. "Is something wrong with him?"

Zechs pulled back from him as if he'd been burned. "Treize?" he repeated in a distracted tone. "Treize is... sick... and won't be able to get out in time..."

"Zechs?" Wufei asked again, this time with more concern. "Zechs does Treize need help? Should I find the ship's doctor?"

The tall blond sighed and shook his head, the trembling in his hands growing worse. "It won't help," he whispered. "That's not what he needed..."

"All right, Zechs - you really have me worried. Now I want you to take me to him. Take me to Treize, right now!"

"Oh... Wufei don't make me do this..." Zechs's face, as he turned towards Wufei, was a mask of pain. "It never happened," he said, "it didn't happen. Someone found us... and... and... I got him out in time... I know I did..."

Trying to make sense of what the blond was saying, Wufei took hold of Zechs's hands, now shaking so badly he couldn't grab hold of the handrail. "Come on, Zechs... what's your cabin number?"

"It was... 307... he always said he felt safer at the bottom of the ship..." Zechs voice had broken on the last word, and Wufei wrapped an arm around him, walking faster and looking at the cabin numbers as they went.

On the lowest deck of the ship he found cabins 303-307 and then they were at the door. Wufei knocked softly and heard Treize call, "Come in, Wufei."

He opened the door, stepping inside and bringing Zechs reluctantly along with him. They heard the ship's bell chime the hour of eleven o'clock and Zechs nearly collapsed where he stood. "I have to leave..." he whispered in something akin to terror. "I... can't stay here... I..." He backed away from the other two, moving towards the door.

Treize caught Wufei's hand and squeezed it hard. "Please!" he said hoarsely, "convince him to stay! He needs to stay or we'll have to do this all over again. Please Wufei!" Those sapphire eyes were beseeching him, every ounce of the man's will behind his gaze and Wufei knew he couldn't refuse the man.

Zechs had reached the door, his hand on the doorknob, his entire body trembling. "I'm sorry, Treize..." he said, voice breaking as Wufei put his arms around him. "I can't stay... it's not true and if you make me stay here than it *is* true... Please let me go... Please..."

From his wheelchair, Treize seemed to summon every ounce of energy he had to call to Zechs. "Stay with me love! It's just this one, last time, and then we'll be free of it! Just once more... once more, my love..."

Wufei could feel the tall blond struggle against him, amazed that his arms could hold a man who was so much bigger and stronger than he was. It took everything Wufei had to hold him there - to stop him from bolting out the door, but he did it.

He held onto Zechs for a long, long time and then they heard the ship's bell again. It chimed only once and Wufei gave a start. /One o'clock? How did it get to be one o'clock? Have I been holding him for two hours? How is that possib -"

His thoughts froze as he look ahead of him. Zechs wasn't there. Wufei was holding onto the doorknob of the cabin and he could hear voices behind him - worried voices, one Zechs, the other Treize. As he turned to look at them, he had to clap his hand over his mouth to stop the scream. The entire room had taken on a hazy, misty appearance as if most of the color had been washed out of it. The two men didn't seem to know Wufei was there. Treize was laying on the berth, looking ashen and weak, while Zechs sat beside him, holding his hand and talking to him calmly.

There was some kind of strange play unfolding before Wufei and all he could do was watch with mounting anxiety for the well-being of the actors.

"Zechs," Treize was saying, "please - go *now.* You can come back for me, but you have to go up there and find a way off the boat."

"I'm not going anywhere without you!" Zechs replied sharply. "There's got to be a way to get you out of that hatch." He was looking up at a small wooden hatchway in the ceiling of the cabin. Tentatively, he stood up on the berth and pushed at it, but it seemed stuck tight. Just at that moment, the ship gave a sickening lurch and the frantic bell for all hands on deck was sounded.

Terrified, Wufei managed to cross the room and look through one of the portholes, It was completely underwater. The waves thrashed the parts of the boat above them, causing it to list dangerously and he could hear cries from other parts of the ship. He had lived along the South China Sea long enough to know what the small steamer was facing - a massive, tropical cyclone that brought high winds and terrifying seas. He also knew that the China Mist was going down.

A voice from the other side of the room caught his attention and he turned back to the two men. Someone was breaking through the hatch from above, and Zechs was telling Treize to hold on - that help was coming and that they'd be dry and safe soon enough. When the hatch was finally breached, a stout looking deck hand peered down at them. "You'll need to pull yourselves up here. There's very little foothold and she's going down fast."

"My friend can't walk," Zechs shouted over the torrent of rain that was pouring onto them from the opened hatchway. Can I lift him out to you?"

"I don't know if I can lift him, but I'll -"

There was a sound like thunder that interrupted the man's words and a massive wave, over twenty feet high, broke over the railing of the steamer. Wufei saw the deck hand lose his footing and fall, swept overboard into the thrashing sea. Zechs stood, staring in disbelief at the swiftness of the man's disappearance. The water poured into the cabin through the hatch and the only sounds they heard were distant shouts of people floating past in lifeboats.

Treize raised himself up on weak arms. "Zechs!" he shouted over the howling wind, "climb up there and get yourself on one of those boats! I want you to live!"

"And I want *you* to live!" Zechs shouted back at him, eyes blazing. "I'm not going *anywhere* without you, do you understand me?" He was practically choking on the water that poured in, but he stared at his lover, eyes challenging him to say anything against him.

Treize braced himself against the sides of the berth and stared up at Zechs. "I love you," he said softly, words nearly carried away on the wind.

Zechs wiped his face on his drenched sleeve and stared up through the hatch that was becoming more and more swamped with every roll of the ship. The he jumped up, hands on the edge of it and seemed to pull himself through... only to jump back down, bringing the hatch door down with him and ending the flood of sea water that had been pouring into the cabin.

"No..." Wufei whispered. "You can get out, Zechs..."

The two men, however, didn't seem to hear him. There was water trickling in from the hatch and from the portholes which seemed about to lose the bolts that held them fast. As much as Wufei wanted things to be different, this room was a death chamber, and the two men inside it knew it as well as he.

Zechs lifted Treize up and moved him to the other berth, which was not directly under the hatch. The he looked around the cabin and spied a shelf of books that, miraculously were still dry. He took an especially well worn volume down and then curled up next to Treize in the berth, opened it at the first chapter, and began to read.

"Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Part 1: A Voyage to Lilliput.

"My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons. He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge, at Fourteen Years old, where I resided three Years, and applyed my self close to my Studies: But the Charge of
maintaining me (although I had a very scanty Allowance) being too great for a narrow Fortune; I was bound Apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent Surgeon in London, with whom I continued four Years..."

Wufei could only stand and stare at them, cuddled together on the berth, Zechs reading in a voice perfect for the irony of Swift, Treize lying back against his lover's chest, smiling softly, and losing himself in the words. The water continued to pour in through every opening it could find, but Zechs kept reading, steadily, until the water reached them.

Treize seemed to have fallen asleep, for when the water came over his face he did nothing to stop it. It was harder for Zechs, but in the end he took a last breath and slid down next to Treize and in moments was gone.

Wufei felt himself drop to his knees and he let out a wail that seemed to last forever. For a long, long time there was nothing but that piteous sound and unending grief as he curled himself into a ball and sobbed like a child.

He had been dreaming of them, as they must have been before Treize's illness, for they were both standing, smiling at him, full of health and vigor. He was trying to talk to them, but either they couldn't hear or perhaps weren't listening and every attempt ended in frustration. He was torn from the dream by a rough hand shaking him.

"Here now - what are you doing here? This isn't for passengers or servants... this part of the ship is closed to all but the crew."

Wufei sat up and blinked, staring at the deck hand that stood above him. "The ship... the ship! What happened?"

The man gave him a frown. "Nothing happened aside from you falling asleep where you're not supposed to be. How'd you get down here, anyway?"

"Zechs brought me..." Wufei said, his voice trailing off as he looked around the corridor he was in. "Cabin 307!" he said, standing quickly and regretting it as a woozy feeling hit him. "Where's cabin 307?" he asked the startled man.

"There *is* no cabin 307," he said contemptuously. "Not on this boat, anyway..."

Wufei put a hand to his head. "I don't understand..."

The deck hand had had enough. "All right, you. You come along with me. I'm taking you to the captain and he's going to sort this out."

Twenty minutes later, Wufei sat in the Captain's quarters with a strong cup of black tea to fortify him. He had told the man everything that had gone on - how he'd met Zechs and then Treize, how they'd spent time together, and about the odd change that seemed to grip Zechs after they'd pulled out of port at Kuching and headed for the strait. He even went into the horrible shipwreck he witnessed, how the sea had poured in and how the two men had been trapped in cabin 307 - well, one had been trapped. the other had refused to leave his side.

When he'd finished, the Captain rose and poured both of them a stiff brandy. "They weren't real," he told the young Chinaman. "You've been spending your evenings alone - the people at your table have talked about it. There were no men with you. There never were."

"But I *saw* them!" Wufei insisted. "They were as real as you or me..." He trailed off and the captain looked at him curiously.

"Were they?" he asked.

"Well, Zechs certainly was. I admit Treize looked very pale, almost as if -" he broke off when he realized what he'd been about to say.

His captain filled it in for him. "Almost as if he were already dead?" he murmured.

Wufei gave a shudder.

"You aren't the first to meet up with the tall blond. Nearly every time I take this ship from Cathay to India I hear *something* about him. Although I will say, no one has ever been so detailed before. Most just say he likes talking to them. Seems very friendly - a real personable gentleman - with a quick laugh."

He took a large sip of brandy and looked over at Wufei again. "You say that he was normal up until we left Kuching? Let me show you something, boy." He stood up and pulled down a rolled map, laying it across the table and pointing to Kuching. "This is our last stop before the Straight of Malacca, which we went through last night. Three years ago, the original China Mist was caught in a cyclone just out of Kuching, on her way to the Straight. She was lost with all hands - although many of the passengers were rescued from lifeboats that were launched from her. But when the passenger count was taken, there were two men missing. They were single gentlemen - British - one very sick and the other taking care of him. Their bodies were never found. It's assumed they're both with the ship at the bottom of the South China Sea." He rolled up the map and restowed it.

"Well, the company that owned the China Mist built a new one - this boat we're on now - to replace the old one, but they used a lot of flotsam from the original to fit her out. Occasionally we have visitors who have claimed to see the tall blond aboard, only when we check as they insist we do the man never turns up in the passenger manifest. And it's only while the ship is in the South China Sea that people see him. No one's ever reported seeing his companion but you. Once we pass through the Strait, though, and into the Indian Ocean, he disappears. I doubt he or his companion will trouble you again."

For the longest time, Wufei sat, shaking his head in disbelief. How could they have been specters? They had been so real...

But the captain was right. For the rest of the voyage, his friends never appeared and he was left to pass his time alone, trying to remember them as he dreamed them to be and to forget the horrible events of the storm and the way they had died.

It was difficult, though. Everything on board seemed to remind him of them and every time the ship's bell rang he felt a cold shiver run through him, remembering the panic in Zechs's eyes as the anniversary of their deaths had drawn near.

Zechs - who didn't want to admit what had happened to them. Or couldn't, perhaps. No wonder he was drawn to the living - he hadn't accepted that he'd died. And Treize - who knew and accepted everything, and just as Zechs had stayed behind and waited with Treize at the end of their lives, it appeared that Treize had stayed behind after their deaths, to wait for Zechs to accept the fate that had befallen them - so they could both move on, together.

Wufei wondered if he had helped them. Had he done what Treize had wanted him to do? Had he gotten Zechs to face what had happened that dreadful night and, in doing so, had they been able to move on?

So many questions he had for them, but they were never there to answer...

Madras, India - 1940

Through the heat and haze at thecrowded dockside, Wufei Chang searched for a familiar name among the hundreds of boats in Madras Harbor. It took him a good half hour to find it, but at last his sun-tired eyes spotted the trim little steamer. The China Mist was loading passengers and freight, preparing for her voyage east to the South China Sea and Hong Kong.

The slender Chinaman, now in his early thirties, graying slightly and wearing rounded spectacles, wasn't at all sure why he was there, standing in the hot and crowded line of people waiting to get onto the various China bound steamers. China itself was in dire straights, fighting a hopeless war with the Empire of Japan, losing citizens, troops, and cities as if they were nothing more than paper toys. Wufei, having lived for the last fifteen years in Britain, was not at all keen on going back to the horror that was his homeland, but that didn't seem to matter. What did matter was that he make it onto the China Mist, and that he not miss *this* particular sailing.

So it was he found himself, a few days later, steaming across the Indian Ocean, bound for China. They had been stopped by three different British war vessels and cleared each time, and Wufei found it comforting that the British presence was so visible.

The sailing was smooth all the way to Indonesia and they were able to trail a British carrier fleet through the Strait. When the British fleet emerged from the narrows and headed northward to Singapore, Wufei felt a slight chill go through him, watching the few children on the China Mist wave goodbye to the soldiers. They were now in the South China Sea and, in the back of his mind, Wufei waited and hoped for his long lost friends to appear, but they didn't. In fifteen years a day had never passed that he didn't think of them - of Zechs's urbane humor and Treize's observations of shipboard life. He hadn't forgotten Treize's words, either: "He's *quite* taken with you. Much more so than any other person we've met, I'd say... I'm very taken with you, too..."

After a few days of waiting for them, and a sad resignation that it wasn't them who had called him onto this voyage as he'd first thought, Wufei took to staying in his cabin most of the day and emerging only at night, to walk the decks, restlessly, and stare out at the sea that had claimed the two extraordinary men.

He was intent upon that sea, covered that evening with a fine mist, and so didn't see the tall man standing against the railing until it was too late. They collided and a firm hand reached out to stop Wufei from falling. "Hullo," the figure said, "watch your step..."

Wufei let go, stepping back and peering at the figure through the mist. The man was tall, lean and held himself with an easy grace. Peering up at him, Wufei felt a wave of joy . It was Zechs... shining and golden as he had ever been, smiling down at Wufei as if they'd never parted, fifteen years ago.

He looked the same, nothing about him had changed a bit, even though Wufei could not claim the same about himself. For a long moment they stood there, smiling at each other, and then a movement caught Wufei's eye.

An equally tall, slightly leaner figure strolled up behind the blond man and draped an arm around his shoulder. As the man's face came into the light of the ship's lantern, Wufei could see Treize. He was very different - healthy, whole, with a sparkle to his eye that Wufei hadn't seen before.

"Oh," the slender Chinese man breathed, "look at you two..."

"We've missed you, Wufei," Zechs said softly. "But we knew you would be here tonight, so we came specially to see you..."

"Oh, I've missed you *too*!" the dark-haired man said, "and I've thought about you every day and hoped I would see you again... But... how did you know I'd be here?"

"Because you were meant to be," Treize replied. "Because in this place and in this time, the fates of two ships will cross and we wanted to be here - to help you."

In the distance, Wufei became aware of raised voices and then of a bell ringing. It didn't matter though. His companions were here and that was all he needed to know.

"Sometimes crossings are difficult," Zechs said, head titled to the side as Wufei remembered it, "and sometimes, you hardly know you're making them."

The ship lurched then, as if a large wave had pushed up against it, and Wufei smiled at the two of them. "Our sailing this time has been quite pleasant - up until now. No storms or even high seas - very pleasant indeed..."

"It should be pleasant," Treize said, stepping a bit closer to the Chinaman. "It should be as easy as having a conversation with dear friends." There was another lurch and this time Wufei thought he heard shouting from far, far away.

Hanging his head a bit sheepishly, Wufei smiled shyly up at them. "I have to admit, I was a little nervous about coming on this journey, mostly because of the war, but now that I've met up with you, well... there's nothing to be frightened of."

"No there isn't, Wufei," Zechs said, reaching out and taking hold of Wufei's hand. The grip was warm, and Wufei felt he never wanted to let go. "Absolutely *nothing* to be frightened of."

"Remember that, Wufei," Treize added, taking hold of his other hand. "Even when you turn around, there will be nothing to be afraid of..."

Dark brows drew together in puzzlement and Wufei slowly turned to look back towards the stern of the ship.

What he saw was a horror.

The China Mist had been torpedoed and now lay, half on its side, flames blazing from it. The misty air around it was full of charred smoke and the sounds of people shrieking, unable to get out of the vessel, their way blocked by fire or smoke or water. Wufei could see them there - some burning, some drowning, some being smothered by acrid black smoke and the mist closing in over it all.

At some point, he realized he was clutching Treize and Zechs's hands as if they were life rafts and that the two men were there and steady, as if they'd always been.

Finally, after trying several attempts at speech, he managed to stutter, "Wha - what happened? What happened??"

"Your ship was hit by an enemy torpedo, Wufei." Treize's voice was calm and soothing.

"The main force of it was in the front of the ship, where you were standing minutes ago," Zechs added. "It happened instantly - there won't be any pain..."

"I... I'm dead..." Wufei could barely take in the real meaning of the words. "I'm... really dead?" He turned to the two men in turn and each nodded gently and then they wrapped long arms around him just as he felt he would lose control and slide to the floor.

For a long, long time, he simply wept.

The feeling of cool, clean mist drifting across his face woke him up. He was in Zechs's arms and Treize was stroking his back. The seemed to be standing on the wreckage of the China Mist. The fires had gone out and the smoke had blown clear and now there was only the curling mist and the silence of the sea.

"You came back for me, didn't you?" Wufei whispered.

"Well," Treize answered, "as I said, Zechs really was *quite* taken with you..."

"Oh, don't let him fool you," Zechs teased, "he's every bit as besotted with you as I am. Keeps commenting on how nice a threesome we would make."

Wufei sat up slowly, looking from one man to the other. "You'll let me stay with you, then?" he asked, hardly daring to believe it could be so.

"Just try to lose us again," Zechs said. "We're like stray dogs - you simply won't be able to shake us."

"Really Zechs, you could have picked a more flattering analogy..." Treize complained, and the two of them bickered about it while Wufei sat back against Zechs, staring first at him and then at Treize, and not believing his luck.

And down beneath them, a dark, slender body was making its way to the floor of the South China Sea, where it would eventually come to rest, cradled between two others that had gone there before.

> owari <