Chapter 44: "Death and Rebirth"
"How you holdin' up, kiddo?"
Hilde turned, relieved to find Duo walking up on her. The woman who had been escorting herself and Relena paused to wait. "Duo. All right, I guess. It's..." she hesitated, trying to sum up her feelings. "It's exciting and intimidating all at once."
"Yeah." Duo glanced around the wide hall with an unreadable expression on his face. "It's been years since I've been back here. I was never exactly welcome here." He shrugged abruptly, flashing a smile. "Getting the grand tour?"
"Relena's tired," Hilde explained, nodding to her blond friend. "We were just being shown to our rooms. I'd like a tour, though..." she glanced towards the waiting woman.
Duo held out his arm gallantly. "C'mon, we'll find the others. They'll remember it better than me." He spoke to the escort. "I'll keep an eye on her and make sure she gets to her room safe and sound later."
The woman gave a little sniff that spoke volumes, but turned and continued on her way. Relena waved sleepily to the two and hurried to catch up.
Hilde accepted the proffered arm and walked slowly back the way she had come with Duo. "I hope Wufei's doing all right," she said quietly after a moment. "How well do you know his grandfather? Is he nice?"
"Nice?" Duo cocked his head thoughtfully. "I only met him once or twice. He seemed okay, I guess. But then, who knows how big wigs act in private? I've only seen him in formal settings. He's a pretty tight-laced guy; glares a lot. Like Wufei, actually." He chuckled. "Beats me. Tomorrow you'll have to ask Wufei what he's really like."
They continued walking in silence for a few minutes, then Hilde shot a shy look his way. "Um, Duo... I've been meaning to talk to you. About before."
"Oh?" Duo's face was calm, but Hilde thought she detected a hopeful note in his voice.
She smiled a bit sheepishly. "Look, I'm not saying I really overreacted, but at the same time, I have to be honest with myself. We haven't known each other that long, and to tell the truth, we didn't really get to know much about each other other than casual facts. Now that I know a bit about your darker side, I guess I should quit worrying about it and just make a choice already."
"A choice?" Duo began nibbling on a lock of hair, betraying his nervousness. "Such as..?"
"Whether I should trust you or not."
Duo couldn't seem to bring himself to meet her gaze. "Oh. Yeah. That makes sense." He rubbed at the back of his head self-consciously. "You're right; though I guess I should've given you some kind of head's up about certain, er, aspects of myself. I'll understand if you--" He broke off abruptly at the feel of a hand tentatively clasping his own. He looked down at Hilde, startled.
She offered a small smile, giving his fingers a light squeeze. "You're a big dork," she murmured. "But... I'll trust you."
Duo's face lit up in a silly grin. "I'm an irresistible guy," he admitted flippantly.
Hilde squeezed his fingers again, hard enough to make him wince. "Don't push your luck."
Duo grinned irrepressibly and leaned down to steal a quick kiss.
"Heero, you're making me dizzy," Quatre protested. "Couldn't you sit down and mope that way?"
"I'm not moping," Heero snapped, not bothering to stop his relentless pacing. He and the others were in their room, directly beside Wufei's own. "I'm thinking."
"Worrying, then," Quatre corrected himself, then quailed a bit at Heero's glare. "Since when does pacing help you think?" he pointed out meekly.
Trowa was curled up on a cushion by one of the windows. He turned his gaze from the survey of the gardens to watch Heero's circuit from one end of the room to the other. "Heero, he'll be fine," he said quietly. "His grandfather will explain everything to him."
"It's too much to take in all at once," Heero insisted, transferring his glare to the door as if he could cause Wufei to appear just by wishing it so. "He won't believe any of it. He'll--"
"He won't," Trowa agreed slowly. "Not at first. He won't be able to process it all. But let him sleep on it. He'll be able to sort it out a bit better while he sleeps; everything will settle into place. He'll be better tomorrow, but you have to stay in here tonight. Wufei won't be in any state to deal with us tonight. His grandfather knows what he's doing."
Heero growled an indistinct answer and continued to pace fretfully.
Quatre was seated on the edge of his small bed, buttoning up the front of his pajamas. He couldn't hold back a small, affectionate smile at his friend's obvious anxiety. "Trowa's right, Heero," he insisted gently. "Wufei's strong. He'll be all right. You just have to have faith in him. All you can do for him now is give him the space he needs. We'll see him again in the morning."
"I know," Heero muttered. "I know all that."
"Then why won't you calm down?" Quatre pressed.
Heero stopped abruptly and put his hand to the wall that separated their room from Wufei's own. His expression was closed off, but his shoulders were stiff with tension. "I'm calm," he insisted unconvincingly.
Quatre looked sharply from Heero to the wall, his mouth pulling down in a suspicious frown.
Trowa caught the look and joined his friend on the bed. "What is it?" he murmured, keeping his voice low to avoid Heero overhearing.
Quatre's hand wandered towards his heart, eyes still on the opposite wall. "I don't think it's just Heero's own worriness that's got him worked up like this," he admitted quietly.
"What do you mean?"
"I can feel Wufei's confusion," Quatre murmured, gaze unfocused. "His nervousness about all of this. His stress at what's expected of him."
Trowa looked from him to the wall, eyebrows lifting in disbelief. "Are you suggesting--"
"I'm not suggesting anything," Quatre said hastily, looking away from the wall uneasily. "It's just... odd, that's all."
"..Yes," Trowa muttered in agreement, watching Heero thoughtfully. "Odd..."
"Your foster mother informed us years ago of your apparent amnesia. But from what I hear, you are beginning to remember some things on your own."
Wufei glanced up at his grandfather over his tiny tea cup. "Yes. Mostly in dreams," he admitted. "But it wasn't until Heero and the others showed up that it started happening in earnest."
"Hmm." Jianguo nodded sagely, watching Wufei with intelligent dark eyes nearly hidden in wrinkles. "There seems to also be some confusion over who your Primary Guardian is."
Wufei hesitated, staring into his tea. "Heero is my Primary," he said after a moment, voice quiet but firm. "He always has been."
"And yet there seem to be unprecedented circumstances that cause both Barton and Mingzhu to feel that his position is compromised."
Wufei frowned. "And these 'circumstances' are..?"
His grandfather arched a brow at him, taking a sip of hot tea. "You tell me."
Wufei blinked. "I was told you authorized Heero's removal from his position," he said. "I'm a little curious what your reasons were." He ducked his head, recognizing his own disrespect. His grandfather was a venerated figure, and Wufei had no right to question him so bluntly. He grasped for the words to make it right, but Jianguo spoke before he could form his thoughts into a coherent sentence.
"All I was told was that your friendship with Yuy was strong enough to blind both of you and thus compromise your safety. Barton seemed quite sure that you would put yourself at risk just to ensure Yuy's own safety, and that is unacceptable. He is supposed to protect you; not the other way around."
Wufei winced, feelings mixed. He felt a rush of relief that Trowa had not gone into specifics about the relationship between himself and Heero, but also guiltily aware of the fact that Trowa had spoken the truth. "He was right," he said after a moment. "I wouldn't hesitate to step in if Yuy was in danger." He met his grandfather's steady gaze, eyes narrowing in conviction. "But I wouldn't stand back and watch any of the others throw their lives away for mine either. It was your idea to have me meet my Guardians by first befriending them. Well, it worked. And I'm not about to let my friends die just to make sure I live for a cause I don't even fully understand."
Jianguo's lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile, but it disappeared a moment later. "It is gratifying to see you have grown to be an honorable man," he acknowledged. "But I think it is time you understand why your life is so important to this Clan." He reached for his cane, rising carefully to his feet. "Come. I must show you something."
Nervously optimistic-- at least his grandfather seemed to have better character than his aunt --but wary about the truth, Wufei stood and followed the aged leader out of the room. The guards stationed outside fell in step behind them, but stayed at a respectful distance so as not to intrude on the conversation.
The halls were empty, so Jianguo allowed himself the aid of his cane. Wufei shortened his steps so that he kept abreast.
"What do you know about your Mark?"
Wufei shook his head once. "Next to nothing," he admitted. He had given a short account of his travels, but had been hoping for clarification on this subject. "I always thought it was just a tattoo until Hee- Yuy used it to channel energy. I know it can be used to either help or hurt me, like when Kushrenada used it against me." He thought hard. "And it's... reacted, I guess is the right word. A couple of times. It alerted me when Yuy was in trouble, and I felt.. something when I broke up an argument between the Guardians."
Jianguo looked at him sharply out of the corner of his eye. "Your Mark reacted to another's danger?" he repeated. "How?"
"It hurt. It was like a sharp pain." He shrugged. "I didn't, and still don't, understand the Mark, so I guess I forgot about it. I assumed it was just another strange attribute."
Wufei offered a puzzled look. "Is something wrong?"
His grandfather dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Very soon you won't have to worry about having your Mark used against you," he said reassuringly. "That can only be done while it's maturing. It was nothing but a tattoo in your youth, but with you approaching coming-of-age, your Mark was vulnerable. When the time is right, your Mark's defenses will be much stronger. Hurting you in that way will be next to impossible."
"Next to impossible?" Wufei repeated uneasily.
"Your Mark has been reacting to just about anybody's touch, as it did with Kushrenada's 'Suits' as you call them. It reacted more strongly to people who actually knew what they were doing. But when its powers have matured, it will react as you do. If you don't want it touched, it will not allow itself to be trifled with. The only way it will be able to be used against you would be if you were to trust the wrong person. If you allow someone to open that channel, as Yuy did for you before, you will be unable to prevent them from attacking you through it."
Wufei frowned uneasily. "You talk about this tattoo as if it's alive," he pointed out.
Jianguo shook his head, smiling a bit. "No. It's just ink. The 'life' I refer to is the power that tattoo seals."
"I don't understand," Wufei admitted.
"You will." He pointed with his cane down an adjacent hall. "This way." The flickering light from the lanterns hanging from the ceiling cast odd muted shadows along the floor and walls as they headed down the narrow hallway. There were no doors along either wall.
"For you to understand the gravity of the situation and the importance of your duty, you must first understand exactly who you are to your people," Jianguo stated, eyes straight ahead. "Tell me what you have figured out for yourself from what you have seen or been told."
"That I am apparently from a family of Clan leaders, for one," Wufei said slowly. "That my home was destroyed, and most of my family along with it, and I appear to be the only successor. I know tradition is important to this colony, especially if the customs and decor are anything to go off of, and that means the thought of having someone else take your place never occurred to anyone. Otherwise my personal safety... and background of relationships ...would not be such a big deal. Everyone seems to assume I'll become the next leader simply because of my bloodline, which obviously means that bloodline is expected to continue." He swallowed hard. "Which means marriage and offspring."
"This frightens you." It was not quite a question.
Wufei couldn't meet his grandfather's knowing gaze. "I don't know if 'frightens' is the right word," he hedged, unwilling to appear a coward. "But it's a lot to take in all at once. I've been just like any other teenager my whole life. I go to school, I study, I shop, I do chores, I disappear in a crowd like anyone else. Normal. Now suddenly everyone's implying that I'm supposed to lead this colony?? I'm no ruler. I'm just... me. No one here even knows me. They don't know if I'm qualified to rule. I'm not even seventeen yet. I don't know all the ins and outs of politics; I can't command people or offer judgment; I don't even know who I should trust here."
"It's a lot to take in," Jianguo allowed. "And no one expects you to digest it all at once. You have, until today, been 'just you', as you put it. But Chang Wufei is dead." He placed a wrinkled hand on Wufei's shoulder. "Now you are Chang Fei. These are your people. And when the time is right, you will lead them."
Wufei suddenly felt six years old again: lost, frightened, and helpless. "What if I can't?" he asked quietly, voice a bit more desperate than he would have liked.
Jianguo lifted his chin regally. "You are a Chang. You are my grandson. Your father was a great ruler. And so shall you be. It's in your blood, Fei. This is something you were born to do." An amused smile creased his face, ruining the somber mood. "Besides, from what I hear from your aunt and Guardians, you seem to have a natural imperial air to you anyway. And your mother's stubborn streak as well."
Wufei was tempted to ask for details on his parents, but held back the questions with difficulty. There would be time enough for that later. He still felt uneasy and unsure of himself, but his grandfather's firm reassurances made him feel a bit calmer, at least.
"But to understand your future, you must first acknowledge your past." They had stopped at the one doorway in the hallway, a huge ornate red one with two stern looking guards blocking the entrance. At a nod from Jianguo, one of them stepped forward quickly and hauled the heavy door open.
Wufei hesitated on the threshold. The room within was dark as night. There were no windows to allow the false moonlight from outside to illuminate it, and the lantern light from the hallway did not penetrate the inky black. His Mark was beginning to hum as it had when he'd first laid eyes on his grandfather. Instinct checked him at the door.
Jianguo seemed unsurprised at his hesitance to enter. He held out a hand, and one of the guards who had been following held forth a small lantern with shuttered windows that blocked the candlelight from within. Jianguo accepted it and twisted the knob on top to open the shutters. A bit of the light shone weakly in the room, allowing Wufei to see a few feet of bare floor.
"You will understand better what you can see for yourself," he declared quietly. "Come." He stepped inside. Wufei, after a moment's hesitation, was forced to follow to keep up with the light. The heavy door banged shut behind him, almost causing him to jump out of his skin.
His grandfather must have shuttered the windows of the lantern instantly, because it was so dark he couldn't see his own hand in front of his face. His heart was pounding in his ears, and the silent humming sensation of his Mark was stronger than ever.
"Grandfather?" His voice sounded louder than usual. The room must be larger than he'd thought. He took a tentative step forward, then another, reaching out blindly with his hands to prevent painful collision with anything. Slowly he inched across the floor, encountering nothing. The further he got, the more his Mark hummed, until it was as if his very bones were thrumming. It was the most disconcerting thing, and Wufei froze in his tracks, unwilling to take another step. He took in a deep, shaky breath, struggling to see something, anything. The humming in his body was so strong he could almost hear it in his head. His grandfather had yet to make his presence known; he must be waiting for Wufei to find him or display his own courage. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to take two more steps forward. It took him a few more before he realized his Mark was steadily getting warmer.
This was getting a little too fucking weird for comfort. Wufei opened his mouth to demand an explanation, but just then Jianguo opened the lantern's shutters, and suddenly there was light right in his eyes, blinding him for a moment.
Gasping in surprise, Wufei threw up a hand to block some of the light, squinting. He couldn't make out his grandfather past the abrupt light, but he could hear his voice. The acoustics of the room made his grandfather's voice almost unrecognizable as it boomed out, strong and solemn.
"Look. Understand. This is what it means to bear the Mark."
Wufei slowly lowered his hand as his eyes adjusted, making the lantern light less painful. He looked around quickly in surprise at the shadows that leapt to life on the walls. There were shapes cut into the shutters, causing the shadows to take on strange contortions. They began circling him slowly as his grandfather spun the lantern by the swiveling handle. Dragons, flames, men, and mountains danced around the walls, almost hypnotically.
Wufei turned his head at the command, following the circling pattern of the shadows until his eyes fell upon the room's single tenant.
It was a towering jade statue, twenty feet high, dominating the center of the room on a pedestal of marble. A statue of a Chinese dragon, twisted in on itself, claws gripping the edges of the marble as it offered a gaping mouth full of carved teeth in a frozen roar.
Wufei stared up at it in a mix of awe and surprise, and the longer he looked, the warmer his Mark seemed to grow until the heat had spread throughout his lower back. Without needing to be told, he slowly crossed the last few feet separating himself from the gleaming effigy.
Feeling as if he was dreaming, he reached out and laid his hand against a cold jade claw longer than his arm.
The instant his skin made contact with the statue, something exploded in his mind like a flash bomb. Images seared his brain, unknown voices echoed from the walls, and his Mark grew almost unbearably hot. Wufei struggled desperately for breath at the merciless onslaught, body rigid. He felt as if he should fall down, but his arm was unresponsive, hand still firmly pressed to the jade.
He forgot who he was, where he was, or when he was. His entire universe was comprised of sights and sounds and scents he couldn't possibly have experienced. It felt like it lasted hours.
Then suddenly it was over.
His sweating palm slipped free of the statue and he collapsed to his knees, palms slapping against the bamboo floor. His ragged breathing was harsh and loud in the big room. His limbs were shaking and he felt weak-limbed and disoriented. It took several minutes for him to gather himself together enough to realize where he was.
Muffled footsteps announced his grandfather's approach, and he lifted his head enough to see.
Jianguo gave the knob on the lantern another twist, and the shutters opened fully, destroying the shadow dancers and allowing more light into the room. He gazed down at Wufei solemnly, leaning heavily on his cane. He suddenly looked like nothing more intimidating than a tired old man in robes that hung loose on his bony frame.
He gazed up at the statue for a moment before returning his knowing eyes to his panting grandson. "Now you remember. Now you understand."
Wufei lowered his head and tightened his hands into fists against the floor. Grief and rage were swelling inside of him, choking his breath and making it hard to see straight. But with it came a staggering disbelief. "I remember. I wish I didn't," he admitted, voice hoarse. He took a deep breath. "But I don't...believe--"
His grandfather's voice was like a whip, cutting him off. "You must."
Wufei scrambled to his feet, staring at him a bit wildly. "How can you expect me to believe that?" he demanded.
Jianguo looked undisturbed. "I don't expect you to understand it completely so soon. Sleep on it. Let what you have been shown make itself clear to you. You will not be able to understand it all tonight. It must be permitted to sort itself out, first. Then you will know."
Wufei held his trembling hands up and stared at them as if he had never seen them before, mind one big chaotic mess of shock, incredulity, and confusing images. He heard a whisper, barely audible. It took him a moment to realize the voice was his own. "I'm Wufei."
"Wufei is dead." Jianguo's expression never changed. "Only your destiny remains."
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