Quatre adjusted his necktie nervously as the car made its way to Rose Hill; he'd vowed never to set foot in the haunted place, but... Duo needed him, and he couldn't turn his back on his friend. Duo and Heero rode with Mrs. Marquise in the car up ahead; the rest of the procession trailed behind them, moving along at a crawling pace.
Heero was stoic and unshakable, as might have been expected, but Duo had been somber and pale, that vibrant spark of life that drew people to him all but extinguished. It had hurt Quatre's heart just to look at him, and he hadn't been able to offer Duo anything more than his silent sympathy. Duo and his father had been very close.
Even now, it was almost impossible to believe that the man was dead. He wasn't terribly old at all, and so the stroke as he'd worked in his masonry shop had surprised everyone. Before the ambulance had arrived, he'd been dead. They'd said it wouldn't have mattered even if he'd been *in* the hospital when it struck, but it was still a terrible thing to have happen.
With a sigh, Quatre closed his eyes as they passed the girl with red roses and took a left at the stop sign, heading towards the river. It wasn't so much that Trowa's driving made him nervous; the 'streets' of Rose Hill were so tiny, and they curved so close to dangerous drop-offs! Quatre really wasn't up to that sort of thing; heights made him queasy. Being here, in the cemetery, made him even queasier. He felt the vague, restless discomfort that usually nagged at him whenever he came here; either the spirits were restless, or something about his presence stirred them to make themselves known. He knew that there wasn't *really* a little girl cheerfully waving flowers at them from the middle of the avenue, even as the car passed right through her. He also knew that the black cloud hovering on the other side of the ravine, where that pyramid-shaped tombstone lay, wasn't real either... or, at least, it wasn't real in the sense that anyone else saw it. It was certainly real enough for him.
They finally came to a halt, and Quatre climbed out of the car gratefully, slowly walking over to where Duo stood leaning against Heero, near where his mother stood quietly sobbing. Quatre laid a sympathetic hand on his friend's shoulder, wordlessly communicating all the support he could give, and Duo gave him a wan impression of a smile in return.
"You've finally gone where I can't follow," Noin whispered into her handkerchief, and Quatre was the only one who overheard.
"Mom..." Duo said softly as the funeral director moved forward. "Here."
On one side, Duo took her elbow, and on the other, Heero had hold of her. Carefully, they walked ahead of the other mourners to the small plot that faced the ravine, far down below, and the green awning that stretched over the mound of dirt that would soon cover over the ebony coffin with its silver handles and exquisite detail. It seemed gruesome, somehow, the care and expense involved when someone died, and the men from Snow's Funeral Parlor downtown all looked so solemn and understanding.
Death in the South was as much ritual as anywhere else in the world, and perhaps moreso. It was a serious undertaking, and no one dared to speak ill of the dead, ever. That, in many ways, was a part of the charm of the place -- how exquisitely nice Southerners could all be, and how they all lived right next to Death without it bothering them.
Quatre shivered again, taking a seat in the line of covered chairs at the back of the awning. The preacher had arrived with the men from the funeral parlor, and he stood up front, waiting for the others to settle into chairs, to crowd around the back of the tent and settle down for the last of the service, the first half having already been given at Ebenezer Methodist Church only half an hour before.
"Dearly beloved," the preacher intoned, "the time has come to lay to rest our departed brother. A man who was tragically cut down in the prime of his life. A pillar of our community, a man of surpassing humor, compassion and grace. Zechs Marquise..."
As the preacher droned on, Quatre sighed, waving one of the funeral parlor fans to cool himself off slightly. Even with the recent rains, it had been awfully hot, and he was sweating from nervousness all the same. He'd heard Duo's tale of the ravine, and being so close to it...
Well. It made him anxious.
"A man who, even in the hardest of times, was ever an inspiration..." the preacher was saying.
The derogatory mutter had come from directly behind him, and Quatre stiffened in indignation, furious that *anyone* would dare to be so disrespectful -- and in earshot of the grieving family, no less!
"He was much more inclined to stomp around when things didn't go well," said a second, slightly higher voice. Both voices were distinctly male; the first was a smooth baritone, the second a low tenor. "And he kicked things when he was angry."
"And turned very red in the face," said the baritone, laughingly.
"... his unfailing goodwill..." the preacher droned on. Quatre reddened furiously. How could they *do* this? And why wasn't anyone else *stopping* them?
"I guess it looked like 'unfailing good will,' if you couldn't tell what he was really thinking," the tenor sneered, sounding terribly amused.
"Usually some sort of curse word," came the chuckled agreement.
The longer Quatre sat there listening to them, the angrier he became. How *dare* they? How dare *anyone* poke fun at the dead, particularly in front of that person's family, *PARTICULARLY* in the cemetery!?!?! Ohh, he was going to give them a piece of his mind once the preacher was done, really, he was!!
"Oh, do wake up already!" the tenor said impatiently. "Don't you think we've waited long enough?"
"Patience," said his friend. "I'm sure he's doing his best. And he had to wait, too, just as long as we did."
Quatre glanced over to Noin, who was sobbing into her handkerchief quietly, and Duo, dry-eyed but clearly devastated. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw... something... moving past him. //Good,// he thought. //Someone's finally going to tell those two to shut up.//
"You shouldn't make fun," a third voice added a little sullenly, the sound of it vaguely familiar to Quatre's ears. "Stomping and cursing makes it better!"
"I'd like to know how," the tenor snickered.
"Well... at the very least, it serves as amusement for others," the third voice said wryly. "I'm so glad to see you. It's been... it's been so long..."
"Too long," said the baritone.
"We missed you," said the tenor.
The hair on Quatre's neck stood up. He turned, and saw... almost... vague shapes. He didn't know the other two, but he'd recognize Zechs anywhere.
Quatre's eyes were wide and round with shock. It was Zechs! It *was*! There was no mistaking that hair, or the dazzling smile he wore as he embraced the other two.
"Are you ready to go?" the shortest of them asked, clinging to Zechs's hand and gazing up at him adoringly.
"Almost..." Quatre watched, stunned, as Zechs squeezed the hands of his two companions and then moved back toward the funeral party, standing near Duo and Noin. He reached out to them, as if to touch them, and the plain longing on his face made Quatre's heart go out to him.
"My one regret..." Zechs said softly, his voice achingly sorrowful. "I never wanted to cause you pain."
"Oh," Quatre whispered, tears rising sharply, spilling over, shocked gaze directly on the... the *being* as he turned and looked back at Quatre; looked at him and *smiled*.
"You'll tell them, won't you?" Zechs asked, and Quatre nodded wordlessly. "Tell them... that I love them, and I wish I had more time to give them. Tell them that I'm happy, and I want them to be happy, too."
"Can we go now?" came the question from behind him, almost plaintive. "It will be better if we go now. SHE's still here, and we're upsetting her."
"Yes, we can go now," Zechs said, and crossed the small distance to them, sliding one arm around the tall man's lean waist and reaching out to caress the Chinese boy's cheek.
"Tell Tiger... I'm proud of him," Zechs said, and the three of them faded slowly, until Quatre found himself staring at the waving leaves of the trees on the other side.