It had only been a month since I took the child in and she was already coming out of her shell. No matter that the use of the term "Grandfather" still made me wince inside; it was a respectful endearment and there was no other term so apt for our situation. The auburn head bounced around the hedge of the garden, the long ponytail swished as a horse's keeping flies from its back. Even though this small patch of land had heard no other sound beyond the birds, the frogs and my own dottering babble, her youthful voice was a new song to look forward to.
"Yes, my child."
She brought me bread, tea, rice, a few herbs and seasonings that my garden could not produce.
She was a helpful child; taking the long trek into the village when my old bones betrayed me and left me to seek comfort in my chair. The girl was worth the trouble when times like these made me reluctantly rely on the aid of others. She was a convenience so I need not call everyone's attention to my weakening body. She was merely a convenience. I told myself that so often, that I think I almost started believing it.
"Put the things away. There are some peas I would like you to gather." Instead of obeying, she stood there with the items in hand, gazing at the ground before her. I stood up from my bent position over the flowerbed and was about to chastise her disobedience, but the sight of her stopped me. The cocky tilt of her head with one hand upon her hip, the pensive look in her downcast eyes, the innocent nipping at her bottom lip and the unmovable stance of her feet shot ripples of memories through my soul. I waited for her to choose her words, for she was clearly in a need to say them. I waited because I could do nothing else but be caught in the whirl of the present and the past.
"Grandfather, I ran into those boys again."
Those boys. She spoke of the gang of village ruffians that liked to believe they were living a brave, adventuresome life by terrorizing the weaker members of the community. Though weakness was always a thing to be despised, it was not to be mistreated. There was no honor in building a future upon the broken backs of the weak, and those boys had yet to learn from their mistakes. As I had when I was their age.
"Did you have trouble?"
She had been shivering in a tight little ball when I found her four weeks ago in the alley between the teahouse and the wharf. The same group of boys had beaten her with reeds and canes from the refuse at the water's edge. Her dirty clothes were torn and the flesh that showed was bruised and bloodied. They beat her because she was homeless. An orphan. The wild look that she gave me from behind her scraggly auburn bangs recreated an image of someone I once knew. Someone else who, when cornered, cast many a wild look until his enemy disappeared. I, perhaps, was the only one to discern that gaze from the eager bravado in his manner of fighting. He, too, had been an orphan.
Perhaps that was why I risked the next day's bodily complaints to carry her home with me.
"No, Grandfather, they did not hurt me. But, they spoke of hurtful things."
She looked at me with such compassion and innocence that I could almost see the pain those mere words placed upon her heart. Such a strong heart beneath that frail body. I had always thought people like her were not strong enough to handle life, but I found that to be an untruth. It took another gentle soul to teach me that lesson. She had his heart. Something I had once found so unimportant and weak, but something that had great power. It was amazing what you could learn from your weaknesses.
"Grandfather, they spoke of you."
I was surprised, and yet, I wasn't. Of course the town gossip would begin once people learned the girl was staying with that "old recluse". I thought they would spare the child their harsh tongues, but children will say what adults will not. I allowed the girl to see nothing of my feelings and nodded my head so she would continue. She reluctantly revealed the crust of disapproval and suspicion the boys had dished her. It was no less than what I had figured. I did not care what they had said of me. I was at that time of my life when my honor and fate had already been sealed. No one could take them away from me, nor smear them to hide their brightness. I had met fear before and knew its many forms, so these words meant nothing. It was only how she would handle this new attack upon her still blossoming future that made me question her. It was a test that she passed most nobly.
"And what words did you speak to them?"
"I did not. To deny a lie is to make it true."
Ah, she was beginning to sound like me. I wasn't sure if I felt proud or ashamed. Little women should not be so cunning and wise. Mistaking my silence for disapproval, her head bowed slightly and I could see the visage change as though revealing a new mask.
"I offered them the sweetmeat you asked for. They think I agreed with their words. I let them believe it so that they would accept me. And they did. Someday, I will show them how foolish they are."
I think I let a slight smile escape me for the first time in many years. She had learned to adapt to her surroundings and manage the bumps she came across. Almost as a chameleon. Almost like another master of subterfuge. I always marveled at how he could work with others, yet maintain a sense of being alone. Always masking his strength and knowledge behind his quiet ways and being the only deer to successfully hide within the wolves den. She, too, would soon live safely among the pack; and that would ease my mind when I must go.
"You did well, my child. Go now and put away the food for it is almost time to eat."
"Will you tell another story tonight?"
"If the air is cool and the moon is bright as the day gives way to the night. Yes, you have earned the right. Go, you bothersome onna, before I change my mind."
Laughing at my rhyme and my false irritation, she bounded away from me and I wondered if braiding that mane of hers would not be more fitting. I turned back to my task and frowned as I found a pair of eyes dart away from over the hedge. A scampering of feet and the clucking of female voices were heard as I bent to one knee. Another family traveling past on their way to a safer town. My home had to lie so annoyingly close to the old road. Once, it was seldom used; but with the emergence of rival gangs and the exodus of frightened families, it had become a thoroughfare. I would never use the road. I have never run. I never will.
"He's talking to himself...."
"Hush, he is old and alone. Let him be."
Their voices were carried by the wind as they trudged past laden heavily with their belongings.
"I thought that girl was staying with him."
"No, she died. Remember? Wouldn't let those boys take her money. Remember?"
Yes, I remember. I remember now as the cold words leave me kneeling before the stones that mark her grave. I placed her here in the garden so her soul would grow into the life that came from the ground and somehow always be by my side. Yes, I had been talking to myself and not to the child. I was back to my old ways before she came, confusing the wind with voices of the past. She had been a living embodiment of those voices: Duo, Quatre, Trowa, Heero; showing signs of each personality that made me forget they were dead. Now, the child was gone as well, leaving this world in a way worthy of the last gundam pilot. Refusing to give up the money for my medicine, she lost her life. A dutiful soldier, staring death in the face; I was glad it was Heero who resided inside her when the final moment came.
Perhaps one day I would join them; but for now, as it had always been, I would remain the Solitary Dragon.
Disclaimer:Gundam Wing and its characters do not belong to me. They belong to people much more talented!