Chapter 43: "Yeong"
Hilde almost collided with someone stepping out of the tiny flight deck as she hurried towards the small seating area across from Wufei's room. She wanted to watch their approach and get a look at the mysterious little colony. Relena, hurrying behind her with the same intentions, gave a little squeak and stumbled when Hilde abruptly backed into her.
Duo's hand on Relena's shoulder steadied her as he locked gazes with the older boy who had appeared. "You must be Zhao," he said in lieu of greeting, friendly smile already in place. "We only met once or twice."
The young man barely favored him with a passing glance. He was smoothing the front of his silk kung-fu style suit in a silent show of disdain. Hilde swallowed her automatic apology and stared at him in surprise. She had never even talked to the man; what could she possibly have done to offend him?
"Maxwell," the man finally said, almost absently.
He was rather handsome, actually, Hilde had to admit grudgingly. "Rather handsome" as in way out of her league, to be more precise. And he looked like the kind of guy who knew exactly how good looking he was, and had grown arrogant as a result. He wasn't very tall, standing just a couple scant inches taller than Duo, but even the loose suit couldn't quite hide his strong body. Despite his pretty face, he looked like one who could handle himself in a fight. His hair was in a tight thin braid that was nearly as long as Duo's own.
Stop comparing him to Duo, Hilde ordered herself, irritated.
"Oh-- I don't believe we've met." Relena, ever the diplomat, stepped forward offering her hand and a smile. "I'm Relena Peacecraft. Nice to meet you."
Zhao paused in the act of straightening his sleeve's cuffs and studied her with vauge interest. "I must admit, I haven't seen a blonde in years," he said smoothly. And he reached out deftly and took her hand, bowing slightly. "Mao Zhao."
Relena looked pleased at the formal move, if a bit puzzled at his odd choice of comment.
"I've heard of you," Zhao said as he released her hand and straightened, hands clasped behind his back. "You're the youngest child of Senator Peacecraft, aren't you? I hope that you received the majority of the intelligence genes. Your brother doesn't impress me much."
Relena opened and shut her mouth like a fish.
Zhao arched a thin brow at Hilde. "And you are?"
Hilde frowned at him and kept her hands out of reach at her sides in case he attempted something as silly as what he'd done with Relena. "Hilde Shcreibaker."
"And just what are you doing here, little girl? A stowaway, perhaps?"
Duo shifted, but Hilde wasn't accustomed to allowing people to stick up for her. "First of all," she said with false sweetness, "I'm not a 'little girl'. And secondly, I'm no stowaway. Wufei's my best friend."
His upheld hand stopped her. "It's Fei, not 'Wufei'," he corrected firmly. "You had better get used to it, unless you want to publicly humiliate him by referring to him by such a childish nickname."
"Hey, give her a break," Duo cut in, voice a lazy drawl. "That's the only name she's ever known him by. She just has to get used to it."
"She shouldn't have to 'get used to it', because she shouldn't even be here," Zhao pointed out, glaring at Duo.
"Excuse me," Relena cut in, "but are you one of, um, Fei's relatives? A distant cousin, perhaps?"
Zhao's lip curled as if the very suggestion offended him. "Don't be ridiculous."
"You're a jerk," Hilde decided bluntly.
Duo coughed and looked away to hide a grin. Relena shot her friend a stern look, but Zhao merely stared at Hilde for a moment before offering a thin, humorless smile. "And you should learn your place," he stated. "Little girls should be seen and not heard."
They were saved from a diplomatic incident-- AKA Hilde's fist planted firmly in Zhao's face --when Wufei's door slid open and Mingzhu stalked out, closely followed by Shen and Junbao. She stopped on seeing Zhao.
"Ah, good, you're ready. As soon as Fei has had something to eat, make sure he's presentable. As for the rest of you..." She eyed them with barely veiled disgust. "Luckily I had the foresight to bring clothing for the Guardians. And Miss Peacecraft, as well. We were not expecting another, however."
Hilde spread her arms and gazed down at her clothes. They had gotten a bit ragged during the trip; it was the only outfit she'd had for the journey. She'd washed them as often as she could, but they had been through a lot. Her slacks were looking a little rough, and her shirt and vest were badly wrinkled and sported several oil and food stains.
Mingzu looked her up and down, frowning. "You're close to Miss Peacecraft's size, I suppose. We brought a small selection for her to choose from; you'll have to borrow one of those."
Hilde arched a brow, looking at Relena.
Duo coughed, but was polite enough not to point out the obvious.
"Um..." Relena glanced sideways at Hilde a bit uncomfortably. "Are you sure it would...fit?"
Hilde transferred her pointed gaze to Relena's larger chest. Mingzhu caught on, but gave a little sniff. "It will be better than the rags you're wearing now." She paused and stared at Hilde strangely for a moment, mouth twisting in a confused frown.
Wufei and Heero stepped out at the tail-end of the conversation. Wufei sent a frown Mingzhu's way. Wishing to avoid another confrontation, she turned and continued towards the flight deck with her two shadows, evidently dismissing whatever had been bothering her a moment ago.
The minute she was gone, Zhao's attitude shifted abruptly. He sneered openly at Wufei. "This girl isn't the only one in rags. Hurry and stuff your face Wufei. It's my unfortunate duty to attempt to make you look civilized."
Wufei stared at him. "I see some things don't change," he said bluntly.
"What? That I'm still the better man?"
"More like still the same immature child," Wufei shot back.
They stood bristling at each other until Quatre cleared his throat. "You two should grab something to eat," he suggested.
Zhao stepped into Wufei's path, eyes shifting towards Heero. "And just what were you doing in there?"
Trowa cut in. "The Primary Guardian has every right to sit in on meetings. He's supposed to be with Fei at all times."
Zhao jeered at him scornfully. "Still the little lapdog, I see. But you're mistaken. Yuy isn't the Primary anymore."
"Wrong," Wufei snapped. "I don't know what your problem is, Zhao, but I don't see any reason for the animosity. It's not like we're enemies. And none of this was exactly my choice."
"Breakfast," Heero reminded him in an undertone, a veiled urge to avoid a confrontation.
Wufei took a deep breath and smoothed out his expression.
"If you're going to eat, hurry up," Zhao said shortly, flapping a hand in dismissal. "I need to get you ready and I don't have much time. The rest of you," he glanced at each Guardian, "get with Shen. He'll make sure you're all presentable."
Wufei muttered something under his breath, but followed Heero to the back.
"Weird," Hilde muttered as Zhao strode off towards the cockpit. "One minute he's some aloof arrogant guy, the next he's a complete in-your-face jerkwad."
"Wufei seems to bring out the worst in him," Quatre noted dryly.
The next two hours were a blur for Wufei. His friends were busy finding things to wear while he dressed himself in the red silk outfit Zhao had laid out for him; he spent the rest of the time having a private little panic attack.
And then the waiting was over.
They all stood clustered together at the shuttle door as it made its descent to the hidden colony's surface, all of them tense with anticipation. Wufei rubbed a bit of his sleeve absently between his fingers. The cool silk was of little comfort, but Heero's solid presence at his side helped. The rest of the Guardians were grouped behind him, then Zhao, with Relena and Hilde bringing up the rear with the two members of the Council, Shen and Junbao. Minzhu, in the lead, was showing signs of nervousness for the first time. She kept turning occasionally to smooth a part of Wufei's outfit, or scan himself and Heero with a jaundiced eye. "Now remember, Fei--"
"Yes, I know," Wufei said, reaching up automatically to make sure his hair was pulled tightly in place with no fly-aways. "Don't worry, Aunt Mingzhu. I'm uptight enough as it is."
Hilde leaned towards Quatre slightly, keeping her voice low. "Um, I know they all think I'm some kind of stowaway, but did I do something to offend Shen personally?"
Quatre looked at her in surprise. "I don't think so. Why?"
"He hasn't looked me in the eye since we got onboard," she insisted in an undertone. "He's nice enough, but... it's just weird. I'm almost wondering if it would have been better for Wufei if I'd stayed with Howard. Maybe everyone will be upset that I tagged along."
"Hey, chin up, kiddo," Duo murmured, mouth twitching in a smile. "Who cares what they think? Wufei needs you now-- more than ever."
"...Yeah." She glanced at him sideways, biting her lip. "Duo--"
"Talk later," Quatre advised quickly. "It's curtain call."
The small craft shuddered as it landed, and Wufei felt his heart begin to pound. He felt the barest brush of Heero's hand against his own, and forced a small, tight smile, though he was careful not to look Heero's way.
"This is it," Mingzhu declared briskly, straightening her dress fussily and squaring her shoulders. "Remember-- first impressions are everything, Fei."
"In my experience, first impressions can be misleading," Wufei muttered, half to himself.
Mingzhu turned her head slightly as if to reprimand his flippancy, but then the door was sliding open with a hiss. She stepped out into the false sunlight and Wufei had no choice but to follow. He swayed forwards, then forced himself to move his feet.
"Just follow Mingzhu," Shen had advised shortly before their landing. "Don't look left or right. Just follow her straight to the main house."
Intent on doing just that, Wufei stepped onto the colony's surface, took two steps, and almost stumbled to a halt right then and there.
There were so many of them.
It was as if every single inhabitant of the colony had come out to greet their lost son. The moment he appeared, a great cheer broke the tense silence, nearly giving him a heart attack. There was a sea of faces on both sides, with only the path Mingzhu was striding down left clear.
Heero's hand pressed briefly but insistently on his lower back, and he quickly gathered his wits, kept his eyes firmly pinned to his aunt's straight back, and started walking. He kept his face carefully blank, but he felt completely exposed and lost. The cheering rang in his ears, and out of the corners of his eyes he could see the people jostling to get a look at him. He was almost disgustingly grateful for Heero's presence. Heero's face was also blank, but he seemed completely undisturbed by the crowd. Wufei was so intent on staring at Mingzhu's back to avoid looking at anyone that he was blind to his surroundings until they were actually at the gates of the main house.
The guards stationed there opened the gates quickly, and Mingzhu strode through without hesitation, but Wufei paused. Without stopping to let himself think about it, he turned around and dipped a quick but formal bow. As he spun on his heel and hurried after his aunt, the swell of the crowd's cheers nearly deafened him.
"What was that all about?" Heero murmured in Basic as the gates were pulled shut behind them.
Wufei shrugged one shoulder uncomfortably. "They all came out to see me land. It seemed kind of rude to ignore them completely." He flicked a quick sideways glance at his lover and caught the vague smile of approval hovering on the other man's lips.
Then he was too busy staring openly to pay much heed to what Heero might think of his actions.
The inner grounds had been beautifully crafted into a miniature paradise; a simple but elegant Chinese garden. The palace itself was traditional, with sweeping arcs along the roof and wooden pillars laid out along the front. A wide stone stairway that could fit fifteen men side by side on each step led up to the front, where a small group of finely-dressed people awaited. Regiments of uniformed guards stood at strict attention, lined up from the bottom of the steps all the way to the gates, leaving the paved walkway clear for the new arrivals. There were other buildings on the grounds, but Wufei had only a glimpse of them; he had to keep moving. Mingzhu was already ascending the steps, and he followed slowly. Everything was like pictures from the pages of a Chinese history book, and Wufei felt both awed and intimidated at the same time.
The sounds of the crowd were muffled by the gates, and somewhere on the grounds he could hear running water. Other than that, there was nothing. Everyone waited and watched in solemn silence.
Wufei climbed the steps and glanced quickly at the people awaiting him at the top. Aside from the few guards standing by, there was a group of men and a few women, many of them in their forties or older. Their faces were grave, and their clothing much more distinguished than the peoples' outside. The Council.
And in front of them all stood an ancient man, slender cane in hand, though he stood tall and stiff, his robes simple but richly colored. Wufei knew who he must be at once, and took in a quick, shaky breath. Beside this man stood a woman in green who was visibly fighting back a smile.
Then there were no more steps; Mingzhu offered a deep bow and moved aside, and Wufei was left standing in front of the venerated Lord of Yeong, gazing up into his stern eyes. He could feel a low humming sensation from his Mark in the presence of the venerated figure. Wufei bowed, with Heero mimicking the movement beside him, and the rustle of cloth told him his friends did likewise. He felt better knowing they were so close.
Wufei's voice sounded loud in the intense silence of the place.
Lord Chang's face crinkled as he smiled abruptly, all signs of decorum washed away by honest warmth. He laid a wizened hand on Wufei's shoulder. "Fei. At last you return to us." The woman in green broke out in a happy smile.
Wufei shifted to stand beside his grandfather as Lord Chang spread his arms wide. "This is Chang Fei, my grandson," he proclaimed in a surprisingly strong voice. "Look upon him and know your Lord."
The guards below all turned smartly to face them and raised their ornate spears in salute. Their shout boomed in the enclosed area.
"Lord Chang Fei!"
And so Wufei found himself home at last.
There was no time for small talk. First there were introductions, in which Wufei forgot the names of half the members of Council within the first five minutes of meeting them. The only name that truly stuck was that of the lady in green-- Yingtai. His old nursemaid. The one he had the memory about. She had defended Duo in an argument with Mingzhu.
Mingzhu found a moment to murmur one vital bit of information in Wufei's ear just before the grand meal that had been laid out in his honor: his grandfather's name. Chang Jianguo. Wufei repeated the name to himself endlessly to make sure he would not forget; but he didn't dare use it. Everyone called his grandfather Lord Chang, and Wufei for the most part followed their example, though using "grandfather" didn't seem to offend anyone.
Wufei had only a few moments to introduce his own companions before the meal. "This is Relena Peacecraft." He gestured to her, and she curtsied prettily. "She's the daughter of Senator Peacecraft back on earth."
The Council nodded politely, and Wufei noted suspiciously that no one looked surprised. "This is Hilde Shreibaker..." she stepped forward at his quick look. "She's been my best friend for years."
Hilde managed a brief, somewhat awkward curtsy. She seemed uncomfortable; she was wearing a strange outfit, surrounded by people who spoke a language she did not, and was earning puzzled and curious glances. Wufei's Grandfather peered at her sharply, but said nothing.
Wufei knew she needed some comfort, some form of encouragement, but was unsure how to calm her. After a moment, he pushed embarrassment aside and leaned towards her slightly, keeping his voice low and switching to Basic. "You look great," he muttered in her ear.
"Beautiful, even," Duo agreed with a fleeting smile. She did. Wufei, who had never seen Hilde wear so much as a skirt, was quite surprised. Someone-- Relena, presumably --had managed to tuck and curl that short hair into a tight little bun, and the elegant Chinese dress made her look more feminine that she ever had before. For the first time in their long friendship, Wufei saw her as a surprisingly pretty girl, instead of the tomboy friend he had known so long.
Hilde smiled at them both in thanks, and when Duo's hand sought hers in tentative reassurance, she clasped it after only a moment's hesitation.
Relena was beautiful as well, though Wufei personally thought her blond hair took something away from the traditional clothes, where Hilde's dark tresses seemed more suited. Zhao evidently did not agree; he sent appreciative looks towards the Senator's daughter every chance he got. It made Wufei uneasy, and he made sure she stayed close by as they all trooped into the hall where the feast was to be held.
The tables were low to the ground, with silk square cushions set out to sit upon. Wufei's grandfather sat at the head of the widest table, and Wufei found himself ushered to sit on the old man's right. Heero sat on Wufei's other side, while Hui, the head of the Council, sat at Jianguo's left. The remaining seats of honor were left for Relena, Mingzhu, and a few distinguished members of the Council. Hilde sat with the rest of the Guardians and guests, many of them members of Wufei's Clan.
The next several hours were the longest of Wufei's life.
Nerves upset his stomach, so that he could barely choke down half his food. Members of the Council peppered him with questions about his view on politics, both Terran and Colonist. There was some discussion of the war, a few polite questions about his adoptive mother, and several urges to meet with the Council at a later date to discuss important matters. Wufei answered everything as best he could, and when he was at a loss, Mingzhu or Shen spoke for him. Heero remained silent throughout the meal, and no one spoke to him or the other Guardians. But under the low table Heero's hand occasionally found Wufei's knee, a silent encouragement.
"Your father will be here tomorrow, of course," one of the Council members said to Relena while Wufei translated.
"Oh." Relena blinked in surprise, glancing from Wufei to the older man. "Um, would it be rude of me to ask why? I'm not even sure why he insisted I come here."
The Council member shot a look at Mingzhu and caught her sharp frown. "All in good time," he assured Relena with a polite gap-toothed smile.
At long last Jianguo rose to his feet, and everyone else stood respectfully. "And now my grandson and I must retire," he announced. "We have much to discuss."
Wufei nodded numbly and started to follow, but faltered when Heero didn't move from his seat.
"Go," Heero murmured in Basic, lips barely moving. "You'll be safe with your grandfather and his guards. I'm not allowed to listen in on what you're going to talk about."
Wufei took a deep breath and strode from the room on his grandfather's heels. A pair of guards met them just outside and fell in step behind them, following them all the way to the Lord Chang's chambers.
"We will not be interrupted here," Jianguo assured his grandson. The guards stationed themselves outside the door, and Wufei slowly stepped inside the lavish quarters.
Jianguo let out a sigh of relief as if glad to be away from the crowd. For the first time he allowed himself to lean on his cane, now that the prying eyes of the court were no longer on him. He shuffled towards a small table and the tea set waiting atop it. "Sit," he urged. "I'm sure you have many questions."
Wufei slowly seated himself across from his grandfather, glancing around for inspiration before finally meeting the old man's keen gaze.
"What would you like to know?" Jianguo asked. "I'm not sure how much you know already."
Wufei folded his hands in his lap and took a deep breath. "Not much," he admitted. "Heero and the others told me a few vague things. And sometimes I remember vague instances. Mingzhu didn't say much; she said that you would fill in the blanks."
"Well then." His grandfather reached for the tiny porcelain kettle. "I suppose there's only one place to start, then. At the beginning."
Author's Notes: Nothing exciting really happens in this chapter, so writer's block came to sit on me for awhile ><;; Sorry for the delay~
Ah, as for Wufei's grandfather's name... @__@; What a headache. I'm not Chinese, so... trying to think of a name that fits him in some way was, erm, difficult. I finally settled on Jianguo (even if I don't know if it fits with Chang... but hey, I can't change his last name; not for this story). I think the name was only somewhat popular in the 60's, but in some ways it really fit this character. For any Chinese readers... don't laugh at me! XD;;
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