Chapter 61: "Path to the Future"
At the sound of running footsteps approaching, Trowa lifted his sword threateningly, reaching out to push Mingzhu behind him with his free arm. He gritted his teeth, leaning heavily against the wall for support and hoping that whoever was coming had no interest in fighting.
Relena didn't seem to notice from where she was kneeling on the floor, Zhao's head in her lap. She was speaking little words of encouragement in a strained voice that was barely audible over the older man's raspy breaths.
The footsteps grew closer still and then--
"Trowa!" Quatre yelped in relief.
Trowa had just enough time to lower his sword, then he had his arms full of blonde as his old friend practically bowled him over in a rushed embrace.
The taller boy sagged against the wall in relief, lifting his free arm to wrap it around his smaller friend. "Quatre," he murmured. "Where did you go?"
"I-I tried to talk some sense into Duo. He wouldn't listen to me. He would have killed me, but something distracted him... Trowa, you shouldn't be walking on that knee!"
He'd leaned back to stare down at the knee in question in horror, and Trowa took in a hissing breath of surprise through his teeth as he caught sight of the nasty bruises on the blonde's throat.
Quatre reached up automatically as if to cover them, wincing a bit. "It's nothing," he said quickly. "Duo's just... much stronger than I expected. Others weren't so lucky." He seemed to notice Zhao for the first time.
Relena looked up at him in entreaty, eyes swimming with tears. "I-I think he's..." she stopped herself, unable to finish.
Quatre crouched beside them slowly, taking in the older man's wound in a glance. He carefully kept his expression neutral. Stomach wound. A deep one. Worse, the man had been stubbornly staggering along despite it. He was bleeding out, and writhing weakly at the agony. It was a horrible way to die, and Quatre bit back an oath. Even if they'd found him sooner, it would have been touch and go. Now, his chances looked slim to none.
He met the man's gaze and saw the grim acceptance there.
"Who did this to you?" he asked quietly.
Zhao tried to speak, but coughed roughly, keening at the pain that caused.
"It must have been Phillips," Trowa put in. "We found him back that way."
"Don't make him talk!" Relena gasped, smoothing back Zhao's hair desperately, instinctively knowing all she could offer him was comfort. "Just- just let him rest."
"No..." Zhao spoke through gritted teeth, staring at Quatre intently. "Tell Fei..." he stopped, closing his eyes and struggling for breath. His feet shifted restlessly against the floor as he fought to focus through the pain. "...not his fault...."
Quatre glanced quickly at Trowa, whose face was a perfect expressionless mask. "Hua," the taller boy guessed quietly.
"Damn it, Guardian," Zhao hissed, barely audible. The frantic edge of desperate pain was creeping into his voice. "Just... do it..."
"Do it? What's he mean?" Relena asked sharply.
Quatre reached out and touched her arm, meeting her gaze. "He could be like this for another hour, suffering like this," he said quietly. "He's beyond any help, Relena. It would be cruel to let him die like th--"
"We need to get him to the infirmary!" Relena insisted stridently. "They can help him, they--"
"No, Relena," Mingzhu spoke up at last, voice subdued. "It's too late."
Zhao reached up feebly to push her hand away from his forehead impatiently. "Do it," he ground out.
Quatre hesitated, flicking a glance towards his friend.
Trowa was already twisting the bottom of his sword hilt, revealing the small hollow compartment inside. Wordlessly, he fished out the tiny hidden vial with a long finger and handed it to Quatre.
"No!" Relena reached out to snatch it away, but Zhao seized her wrist with surprising strength. He glared at her fiercely, and after a long moment her hand went limp. She began smoothing back his hair again, blinking rapidly to hold back tears.
Quatre uncorked the vial and tilted it over Zhao's open mouth, letting the drops hit his tongue.
"Thank you," Mingzhu said suddenly, voice still quiet. "For standing with my nephew."
Zhao managed a weak smile that still managed to be somewhat arrogant. Then his face twisted up, he gave two violent jerks, and was still.
Quatre sighed, corking the empty vial and rising slowly to his feet.
Relena remained where she was, sobbing quietly.
"You didn't even like him," Trowa pointed out.
"I didn't want him to DIE!" Relena said harshly. "I don't want anyone to die! I HATE war! I HATE IT!" Her voice broke.
Quatre looked down at her helplessly, sympathizing.
"...We need to go," Trowa pointed out, glancing down the hall. "We have to make sure Wufei is all right, and get you two to safety. We'll drop you at the infirmary with your father, and you can lock yourselves in there until it's safe."
"No." Relena gently laid Zhao's head on the ground and staggered to her feet. "I want to check on my father, but I won't stay hidden like a mouse. I'm worried about Wufei, too, you know. And Heero, and Hilde."
"It's too dangerous--" Mingzhu started.
"I'm going with you," Relena said firmly, glaring at Trowa. "You're the one who should be in the infirmary. You can barely stand."
"She has a point," Quatre admitted, going over to tug one of his friend's arms over his shoulders and support him. "You should be lying down somewhere."
"Make me a splint," Trowa said stubbornly. "I'll be fine."
"The fighting's stopped," Relena said suddenly.
The others looked at her in question.
Relena spread her arms to indicate the empty hall, letting the silence settle for a moment. "I haven't heard any fighting in awhile, and the only people we pass are those trying to get out. If there is still fighting going on, it's not in the palace. Most of us aren't in any condition to go looking for a fight, and Trowa needs to get off that leg." She lowered her arms. "So we'll wait."
"Wait?" Quatre echoed.
"Yes. On the palace steps. Where the others can find us when they come back."
Trowa opened his mouth to argue, but Quatre cut him off. "All right," he said calmly. Mingzhu and Trowa looked at him in surprise.
Quatre turned and started walking, helping his friend along. "We'll look for the others' return," he murmured, "and make sure no one else tries to enter the palace. I'll drop you off there and find Junbao. He can bring whatever guards are left. If there is a battle still going on out there, we can't be of much help. It's up to Wufei, now."
Relena hesitated, glancing back towards Zhao. "What about...?"
"Leave him where he lies," Quatre said quietly, leading the way slowly but surely. "We can pay our respects later. If Yeong is still standing by the end of the day."
Wufei was struggling weakly not to give into the pull of unconsciousness when calloused hands gripped his bare shoulders, shaking him. A voice, muffled but sharp with alarm, said his name over and over. Slowly the words began to make sense. His Mark warmed encouragingly, helping him gather his senses.
"Wufei! Wufei, don't pass out. Are you all right? Wufei! We have to get out of here--"
Now that brought on a flicker of memories he didn't want to think about. Fire and screams and smoke and.... why was this similar to back then?
Then the cold hard truth slammed into him like a sledgehammer, jerking him to full alertness. He forced his eyes open and shoved himself up into a sitting position, arms wobbling slightly. Blinking quickly, he focused on the tense face of his lover.
"Did it work?" Wufei blurted.
Heero hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. Wufei followed his gaze to the other side of the warehouse and breathed an inaudible sigh of immense relief. Duo was on his hands and knees, shaking like a leaf and breathing as if he'd just run a mile. Every now and then he coughed harshly, spitting out blood and bile. Hilde was on her knees beside him, arms wrapped tightly around his shuddering waist, face buried in between his shoulder blades. Her voice was high and desperate, but the words were too quiet to pick out.
"It's Duo," Heero murmured. "I think. But Wufei..."
And then Wufei realized what the real problem was.
He looked quickly towards the escape shuttle. Treize had scrambled inside and was keeping low in case a certain trigger-happy Guardian decided to take a shot at him. His voice, harsh and brutal with pain, was giving the go-ahead for the destruction of the small colony. His daughter's blood still ran down the walls, and Wufei wrenched his gaze away from the mess.
"As soon as you hit the wall, I went to you and he got inside and started giving orders," Heero said grimly.
"God DAMN it," Wufei snarled, struggling to rise. "We've gotta... stop that bastard before..."
"They won't do it while he's still down here," Heero said firmly, getting up and hauling his lover effortlessly to his feet. "Even if he tells them to. They'll wait until he's safely out of harm's way. So all we have to do is keep him here."
Wufei shook his head. "They'll follow his orders, even if they don't want to," he insisted. "We need him alive to call off the attack, but he needs to shut up-- and I mean NOW."
Heero had retrieved his katana from where Wufei had dropped it at some point, and he tightened his grip on it grimly. "Wait here," he commanded, and stalked towards the shuttle. Wufei, of course, ignored the order completely and hurried to catch up.
"Stay back, I said," Heero said irritably.
"Hey, did you miss the wall of fire thing? Shut up, Yuy."
They rushed over to the shuttle; Wufei was still dizzy from hitting his head, and Heero got there first. He seized double fistfuls of Treize's shirt and hauled the man bodily away.
Treize snarled something unintelligable, raising ruyi like a club. Heero grabbed it, twisting it quickly and shoving it under the man's shirt, pressed against his back. Again he shouted that strange word he had used back on earth. Wufei jumped back in surprise as the staff suddenly shot to incredible length-- taking Treize with it. The end slammed into the ceiling, its other end wedged against the floor. Treize dangled near the top, trapped between the ceiling and ruyi, struggling and shouting venomous threats, voice still ragged with grief.
"It's too late!" he called viciously as Wufei scrambled into the shuttle and snatched up the radio. "The order's been given. Say goodbye to your precious people, Wufei. You couldn't save them before, and you've failed them again."
Wufei's heart was thumping in his ears, his body cold with fear as he snapped the transmit button and practically shouted into the mic. "Abort! Abort, damn it! There are women and children down here, you cowardly dogs!" He released the button, holding his breath as all that came back was static.
Heero hovered just outside the shuttle, and their horrified eyes met.
The radio crackled, and an oddly familiar female voice came through on the line, calm and collected. "Copy that. No one will fire on the colony."
There was a moment of silence, then another voice, male, and also strangely familiar, spoke. "Who am I speaking to now?"
It was Heero who recognized the voice. "Milliardo?" There was a note of disbelief to his normally inflectionless voice.
Wufei stared at him in surprise for a moment before responding warily. "This is Chang Wufei. Is this the Baron? What are you doing on this line?"
"You called Kushrenada's ship. I just happen to be on board," Milliardo responded calmly.
"You left," Wufei argued.
"Did you really think I would go far with my family on your little backwater colony? We retreated, but we didn't go far. As soon as we saw Kushrenada make another trip between the colony and his ship, we made our move. We overtook his armada almost two weeks ago. It was no easy feat, but we had the element of surprise on our side. We've been waiting up here to see what rabbit he was going to pull out of the hat. It's a good thing we did, it seems. I would hate to see history repeat itself."
Wufei realized he was grinning foolishly. "It seems I owe you an apology," he admitted, trying to keep his voice even. "I should have trusted Relena's vote of confidence for you."
"Nonsense. I had to right the wrongs of my men somehow. I'm only glad I was able to do so." There was a long pause. "Relena and my father... are they..?"
"They're fine," Wufei said, flicking Heero a glance. Were they? Things had gotten hectic on the palace grounds... No need to bring that up just yet, however. "You've definitely pulled our asses out of the fire, Baron. I won't forget this."
"Return my headstrong sister to me, and I'll take this armada out of here, and we'll be even," Milliardo said dryly.
Wufei laughed. He couldn't seem to keep it pent up. It burst from him, a quick, relieved noise. Was it really all right? Was it really over? Treize had been outsmarted, his colony was still standing... He slumped in the shuttle's chair and closed his eyes. He depressed the transmitter again once he was sure he would not laugh like a fool over the radio. "Feel free to come colony-side, Baron Peacecraft. Your sister will be waiting for you."
"Thank you," Wufei returned quietly but fervently.
He turned off the radio and replaced the receiver slowly. He started to climb out of the shuttle, and gave a noise of startled surprise as strong arms seized him and lifted him easily from the small craft. He found his feet on the ground, face to face with his lover. Heero wasn't smiling or laughing, but his eyes spoke of the same relief and triumph Wufei was feeling.
"It's over," he said simply, perhaps knowing that Wufei needed to hear it.
Wufei grinned back wolfishly, reaching up on impulse to bury his fingers in the other boy's hair. He stepped forward, claiming a quick, messy kiss.
Everyone knew about the two of them. Things were never going to be simple again. This might be the last chance he ever got to hold his lover like this. He found that he didn't care. Let the Council rage, let his people frown in disapproval.
Yeong had survived. Yeong was free.
And Heero was with him-- even if only as a Guardian in name.
"Get some men to take out this trash," he murmured against Heero's mouth, relishing the feel of those strong hands on his bared back. "Let's get back to the palace."
Heero nodded and went over to bring ruyi back to a manageable size. Wufei took a deep breath, gathered his composure around him, and went to check on Hilde and Duo.
They made an odd little procession as they entered the ruined palace gates, throngs of cheering people surrounding them. Wufei and Heero walked in front, with Hilde just behind them, supporting a barely-conscious Duo. Treize hung in defeat in the grip of the guards.
Wufei's friends were waiting for him on the steps, and it was the most welcome sight he had seen in a long time.
The next week or so were full of activity, and the general atmosphere was an odd mix of grief and hope as bodies were buried and clean-up was started.
Relena greeted her brother joyously when he came colony-side. The handsome Baron and his loyal Lieutenant took one look around them and immediately brought willing soldiers down to help clean up the rubble and lend a hand in the many makeshift infirmaries that had been set up on the palace grounds.
It was to the Baron's medics that Wufei found himself most grateful to when, on the fourth day, their administrations at last brought his grandfather out of his deep sleep.
The poison that Mariemaia had used on him, that had never been able to affect Wufei through the Mark's protection, had been a much more complex version of what she'd used on herself and Relena on board Howard's ship, but Milliardo's men were well-versed in antidotes. Two days after awakening, Jianguo, surprisingly stubborn for a man his age, was up and about, shuffling about the palace to oversee the work and offer encouragement. And then Yeong had one more visitor, late but very welcome.
Wufei's mother wore a permanent expression of fierce pride and love as she walked arm in arm with her adopted son through the colony for the first few days of her visit, listening intently as he told her of all that he'd been through. He had practiced what he would say to her, decided on what bits he would omit or glaze over, but in the end he told her everything, spilling his heart out to her in a way one can only confide in a mother. She barely batted an eye when the subject of his relationship with Heero was broached; murmured in pity when he spoke of Zhao; she listened with wide eyes when he spoke of Sun Wukong and Nezha. The dragon goddess had been conspicuously absent since the final fight, and Wufei was no longer certain he would ever see her again.
Hilde's mother and stepfather had been given special permission to come, as well, and as they arrived on the same shuttle as Wufei's foster mother, he and Hilde saw little of each other for several days. She was splitting her time between giving her parents a tour and sitting by Duo's bedside. The braided Guardian was recovering slowly but surely from his ordeal. He had been morose and silent for the first few days, ashamed of what he had done when released from his seal; but his friends had made it clear that they held no grudges, and he was tentatively coming out of his shell. Wufei found it oddly reassuring when the boy started teasing him about Heero again.
As for his relationship with his Primary Guardian...
He and Heero weren't exactly walking around holding hands; they acted no different than they ever had. But it was obvious the secret was out. There had been no angry mobs, no stern talks from his family or the Council, but Wufei felt as if he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things remained eerily quiet on that front, and Hilde eventually took it upon herself to investigate. The people of Yeong, however, remained tight-lipped, as if they, too, were waiting for something, some sign. Perhaps they were going to let Jianguo deal with it. But Wufei's grandfather never brought it up, either, though Mingzhu had surely mentioned it to him. His grandfather's silence only made Wufei even more jumpy.
Treize remained locked in the dungeons under constant guard; Milliardo promised to bring him to justice back on earth, but was delaying his departure so that he could continue to help get the colony back on its feet. He was also, Wufei was sure, waiting for a chance to take both his sister and his recovering father with him. If Relena had informed him of her engagement, he was in obvious denial about the fact.
Even Relena was acting oddly. She rarely spoke to Wufei or Heero, but didn't seem to be angry at either of them. She would watch them pensively without speaking, still a bit withdrawn after the horror of the battles.
Quatre and Trowa didn't insist on keeping Wufei in sight at all times anymore. Wufei couldn't decide if the two of them were giving him and Heero some small amount of privacy, or if they were seeking some of their own. He hadn't missed the looks that passed between them. As far as those two went, he was forced to agree with Hilde's muttered declaration of "It's about god damned time". The few times he did see his other two Guardians, Trowa tended to be wearing a slightly dazed expression, while Quatre was practically glowing.
Then one day Jianguo sent for Wufei, Heero, Relena, and Hilde, telling them to meet him in the room of the Jade Dragon.
The room was still in disarray, the wall, pillars and ruined door slowly being repaired, and as a result there was a lot more light in the room than usual, making lanterns unnecessary.
Wufei had been waiting for this day. It was time to formally return ruyi, and perhaps even hear his grandfather's opinion on his relationship with his Primary. Heero wore ruyi openly on his neck, Wufei fussed with his outfit nervously until Hilde impatiently barged into their room to fetch them, and the three of them followed Lord Chang's summons with a certain amount of nervousness.
Jianguo was waiting calmly for them, standing before the statue, hands tucked in his wide robes. Mingzhu and Junbao stood on either side of him, and strangely, so did Milliardo and Wufei's and Hilde's parents.
"There is much that needs to be discussed," Jianguo declared with no preamble. "But I think the first order of business lies with you, Fei."
Wufei nodded silently, and Heero gave ruyi a quick jerk, snapping it free of its thong before handing it over to his lover. The others fell back, and Wufei stepped up to the statue, suddenly unsure of himself. He'd not seen Nezha since she'd faced off against Sun Wukong, and wasn't sure she would even put in an appearance. After a moment's hesitation, he placed the rod down at the base of the statue and placed both palms together, dipping down in a low bow. He searched for the right words to say, then decided to stick with simplicity.
"Nezha, I've returned ruyi to you, as promised, and sealed away Sun Wukong again. Thank you for watching after my people." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the others mimicking him, bowing in solemn respect to the statue.
~Well done, little lord.~
Wufei looked up quickly, startled as the whispered voice wrapped around him like a breath of air.
Nezha stood atop the statue's podium, squarely between the dragon's carved claws. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, and she gazed back at him, face for once devoid of its familiar mocking smile. By the way the others reacted with varying amounts of surprise, Wufei knew they both heard and saw her.
She turned her gaze towards ruyi. ~It seems our deal is over and done at last. As promised, I have made sure you and your lover have met in another life. This is the last life either of you will have.~
Wufei forced himself to nod, refusing to let himself look over his shoulder and see how that little bit of information was being taken by the others-- Relena especially. He sensed rather than heard Heero come up to stand just behind him.
~As for our other deal...~ She flicked elegantly long fingers as if in dismissal. ~It seems we are back where we started. Centuries ago you vowed to seal Sun Wukong in return for my protection of these people. I had thought myself free of that one, but you have sealed him yet again. Had things gone my way, I would have torn the insufferable monkey into pieces.~ Hilde took in a sharp breath, but Nezha ignored her. ~But what's done is done. So long as he is sealed, he will be no threat to me. But I must withold my part of the bargain. I will continue to watch over your people, little lord; though it seems you are quite capable of doing that yourself.~
"You don't have to," Wufei said without thinking.
Nezha arched a brow at him.
"I mean..." Wufei hesitated, then bulled on, "You've been watching my people for centuries. Sun Wukong is sealed, you have ruyi... I'm sure there are places you'd rather be, and things you would rather be doing. It doesn't feel right holding you to a promise made in darker times."
~What are you trying to say, little lord?~ she demanded, sounding vaguely amused.
"I release you from your promise," Wufei said, looking up and meeting her gaze full on. "It's time for the people of Yeong to protect themselves. We're stronger than other people think. It's my job to protect them; it shouldn't be yours."
Nezha gazed at him steadily for a long time, and for a moment Wufei wondered if he'd made a mistake. Abruptly she lifted her hand, pointing at Heero but looking in Relena's direction. ~The Mark will accept no one but the boy. He is promised to Chang; his claim came long before yours, child.~ Her steady gaze shifted to Wufei's grandfather. ~It will reject all others.~ Wufei chanced a quick peek over his shoulder. Jianguo was inclining his head in response to the goddess's declaration, but it was impossible to read his expression and guess what he thought of it. ~As for this tiny little speck of metal and soil and its inhabitants...~ She was looking at Wufei again, a small sardonic smile tugging at her closed mouth. ~I accept your word that our deal is done. I am no longer confined to your people or this statue. However...~ Her gaze drifted, taking in those assembled with something like amusement in her fathomless eyes. ~I have grown oddly... fond... of you pititful little mortals. You intrigue me. I will drop by when it pleases me, I think, to see how you are doing without me. I will return once a generation, to place my Mark upon those descendants that are deserving of it.~
Wufei blinked, surprised at the generous offer. "I thought you didn't care about the 'fleeting lives' of mortals," he said before he could think better of it.
Nezha's laughter rippled like silk on the air. ~You are pathetic little creatures, this much is true. But the interesting thing about mortals is that they never fail to surprise one.~ Here, her gaze lingered first on Heero, then on Hilde. ~This emotion of 'love' that is given only to mortals intrigues me. I wish to study it more thoroughly. It makes fools of men, but it also makes them resilient and selfless. It makes them stronger than they should be.~ She lifted her hand in a beckoning motion, and ruyi lifted into the air, landing softly in her waiting palm. ~I go, now,~ she announced. She looked at Wufei and Heero with arched brow. ~Do not make light of this last life that I give to you.~
For a fleeting instant Wufei felt the urge to ask her for her true name. He decided against it at the last instant. She would always be simply 'Nezha' to him, the entity that had protected his people for eons. "Thank you for everything," he said quietly.
Nezha regarded him for an instant, almost contemplatively. ~Honor comes not in the strength to wield the sword, but in the strength it takes to defend the weak.~ Wufei took in a quick breath as she quoted the words he'd read many times on the blanket he'd been wrapped in as a child. ~You fought to defend your people, even at great personal risk. Know that I am pleased with you, Chang Fei.~ And she inclined her head at him respectfully. For a moment it seemed as if she shimmered and changed, and instead of a woman, there stood in her place a dragon the very image of its carved fellow, senuous and deadly.
Wufei and the others bowed low, and when they looked up again, she was gone, as if she had never been there in the first place. Ruyi was gone as well; only the great jade statue remained.
There was a long moment of awed silence, then Wufei gathered his courage and turned slowly to face those assembled.
His grandfather's face was still expressionless, and he folded his arms in his sleeves again, glancing first at Wufei and then at Hilde. "It seems there is much that we must discuss, Fei," he murmured. "But first I think it is important that I tell you something. It is a suspicion that has been in the back of my mind since your arrival, and I have had plenty of time to accept the truth of it. Others have noticed it, as well, and it is time you learned the truth that those few of us," he glanced at Junbao and Mingzhu, "have been aware of this whole time." And he looked straight at Hilde's mother.
Wufei had met Hilde's parents only a few times in the past, but now he gazed at her mother curiously. Something in the back of his mind was tugging, a faint wisp of a memory waiting for the right word to trigger it.
Can you keep a secret?
"Miss Shreibaker," Jianguo murmured, "I think it is time Hilde knew the identity of her real father."
Rachel Shreibaker was a small woman, an older version of her daughter in looks. She clutched her husband's hand like a lifeline and met her daughter's eyes with a mixture of trepidition and resignation, as if she had been waiting for years to tell the secret, but was afraid now of how it would be received. "I never talk about your father," she said hesitantly. "I know I never told you much about him."
"Only that he was someone you barely knew," Hilde admitted, looking wary. "I assumed that translated to 'one night stand'."
Rachel flinched slightly, gripping her husband's hand tighter. "Yes," she admitted in a whisper. "I used to be a maid, as you knew already. I met him when he and his family came to earth for official business; I was hired to tend to the rooms of the house they were staying in. He was a handsome man, and I heard the help whispering that though he was a good man, his marriage was more out of convenience than love, and he tended to take other women to his bed. I... was one of them. I didn't think much of it, but imagine my surprise when you came along." She hesitated, glancing towards Wufei and licking her lips nervously. "I'd never heard of him before, but his name... his name was Chang. Chang Jianguo. He was named after his father."
Hilde and Wufei stared at her in stunned silence.
"She takes after you," Jianguo murmured, "but her eyes are her father's. My son's eyes."
"M-my father is--" Hilde blurted, then stopped. She and Wufei stared at each other, thunderstruck.
And suddenly Wufei understood why his aunt had spoken of "scandals" when she'd suspected his relationship with Hilde was something more than friendship. Shen's allusions to his father having "loose morals", the strange looks Hilde had been receiving since her arrival... suddenly it all made a little too much sense.
"You share a father," Mingzhu spoke up quietly. "She is your half-sister, Fei."
The memory tore itself free at those words; the faint memory of a dream Wufei had had while on the run coming suddenly to the front of his mind with startling clarity. He'd dreamed of finding a girl under a tree-- a chance encounter. He'd assumed later that it had been his meeting with Meilan.
It had been Hilde he'd met that day, by chance or fate, when his family had come to earth to meet Meilan. The memory of his father, the way he'd looked, was all but faded by now, but back then his father had been alive, and Wufei had instantly noticed the resemblence. He hadn't had a name to go with the face. He hadn't even been sure of who she was. But he'd told Heero of the brief meeting, swearing him to secrecy, only to forget it again after the destruction of L5.
"I'm... you're my..." Hilde stuttered to a stop and stared at him helplessly.
Then she was rushing at him, hugging him so tightly his ribs creaked in protest. He didn't even think to complain, his arms coming up automatically to wrap around her.
It had been two months since the battle for Yeong, and it was time for goodbyes to be said.
After the startling revelation of their true relationship had been revealed, Wufei and Hilde had been glued at the hip. For once Heero didn't seem to mind. Practically siblings already in their friendship, they were both stunned and surprisingly overjoyed at their newfound link.
"I'm going to be an uncle," Wufei said abruptly, wondering why the idea had not occurred to him earlier, and feeling a bit shellshocked at the prospect.
He and Hilde were walking through the gardens, waiting for the others. Hilde had slipped her arm through Wufei's at some point, and she turned from her contemplation of the shuttle that was being loaded on the far side of the grounds, gazing up at Wufei in surprise. "That's right," she admitted, and laughed. "I hadn't thought about that." She squeezed his arm in an affectionate hug. "Uncle Wufei," she teased, hand drifting down to press lightly against the slight swell that had been making itself obvious. The visual proof of her pregnancy had had an amusing effect on Duo. He was constantly hanging at her elbow, nagging like a mother hen, trying to get her to stay off her feet, rest more, eat this, eat that, don't overexert, nag nag nag. It amused and aggravated her at the same time. "Just imagine what he'll be like when the time comes for the actual birth," she'd grumbled to Wufei at one point.
"Have you spoken to the Council yet?" Hilde asked as Wufei steered her in the direction of the shuttle. He'd spotted his friends coming out of a side door; it was time to say goodbye.
"I've approached them with the idea," Wufei said slowly. "It helps that they're all new, and that most of them are somewhat young. I think they like the idea of having more official power. They practically jumped at the chance, though of course they're not giving me a straight answer just yet. They have to debate it and discuss it for god knows how long. Mingzhu's pretty confident that they'll accept. She doesn't seem too happy at the thought of my position being more along the lines of a figurehead, but Grandfather hasn't put up any arguments. He just told me to do what he thinks is best." He scowled. "I wish he'd just tell me what he really thinks."
"You're about to take his place, Wufei," Hilde reminded him gently. "He wants you to get used to making decisions like this. I think he agrees with you, if he hasn't at least hinted at the fact that he thinks this is a bad idea. Perhaps he agrees with you and the Council; it's time for a more democratic rule. The Chang family will always be important and powerful, and you'll still have a voice. But I think it's a good step, leaving the everyday decisions to the Council. Besides, you still have the power Nezha gave you. They'll always look to you for protection."
Wufei nodded, trying to think of a delicate way to broach the subject he was most afraid to bring up. Hilde seemed to read his mind, releasing his arm and gripping his hand in an encouraging squeeze. A smile was playing at her mouth. "They think it's romantic."
Wufei blinked, staring at her. "What?"
"I did some more poking around." Hilde was grinning widely at him now. "Once your grandfather repeated what Nezha had said about the Mark accepting only Heero-- and the lives you and Heero kept reliving --people finally started talking about it. They think it's romantic. Swear to god. Well... not everyone, of course. You can't please everyone. Some don't seem to care one way or the other, some are against it. But you would not believe how many people-- okay, how many women --think it's the best story since Romeo and Juliet. They think it's 'so romantic' that you gave up your title and your marriage to be with your 'one true love'."
Wufei could feel his ears burning. "Tell me you're joking."
Hilde laughed, enjoying his embarrassment. "Don't you wish. You were right; when you had the guys start looking into the way your people tick back before all of this mess, when you were trying to figure out a way to get out of your marriage, they found out that your people are not as stodgy as you thought." She poked him in the chest teasingly. "They like their tradition, but they can be pretty open-minded. Oh, you should hear the young girls sigh at the thought of Relena's heartbreak, and the 'pure love' that keeps you and Heero together..." Snickering, she dodged the half-hearted swipe Wufei aimed at her head.
"You have room to talk," Wufei grumbled, struggling to banish the heat from his face. "They seem to think the same about you and Duo." He smirked when she stared at him blankly. "The simple girl who tamed Sun Wukong 'with the power of her love'. It's enough to make me sick to my stomach, the way they sigh about it."
"Oh, shut up," Hilde muttered, and it was her turn to blush.
Wufei was silent for a moment before he voiced his fears aloud, tone subdued. "I didn't think they'd accept it," he admitted.
"There might have been a bit more argument over it if your grandfather hadn't popped the secret about our father." Hilde rubbed at her belly again tenderly, smiling at him. "What do you need a wife for when you've got an heir from your bloodline right here? A child with Sun Wukong and the Chang family in its genes..." she shook her head. "They certainly aren't complaining. They seem almost honored."
"...Does it bother you?" Wufei cast her a quick sideways glance. "Duo is my responsibility; he can't be allowed to leave the colony. Because of... this..." he gestured at her belly, "you're kind of trapped here. What about the future you had planned for yourself? What about school? The military?"
Hilde shook her head slowly. "I can finish school here. As for the military... I've seen enough of battles to last me a good long while. And it's not like the dream is gone forever. Hua set a precedent once by becoming the first female Guardian." She grinned confidently. "I'll just have to show these people that women are just as capable as men. You have soldiers here. Who knows, maybe one day I'll be one of them."
They had reached the shuttle, and Wufei came to a halt, eyes automatically seeking out his lover. There was quite an assembly that had come out to see their friends off, but the Guardians had spotted their charge and were making their way over. Heero reached out and took Wufei's free hand. The gesture looked natural, but Wufei knew Heero was doing it deliberately. As long as the colony looked to be accepting their unorthodox relationship, Heero seemed determined to make it a public one. He was as unused to such public displays of affection as Wufei was, and Wufei squeezed his hand briefly in response for the effort.
Duo came to stand beside Hilde, putting an arm around her shoulders. Trowa and Quatre didn't touch, but they stood close together; Wufei noted privately that he had never seen the taller Guardian look so at ease.
Noin was directing the loading of the shuttle. Milliardo and Senator Peacecraft spoke briefly with Jianguo and Hui, the wise Council leader, finishing up their discussions on the groundwork they'd set up for the ties between Yeong and earth. Relena broke apart from them and drifted over to Wufei's group. There was a moment of awkward silence, then Hilde abruptly stepped forward and hugged the girl tightly.
"I'll miss you, girl," she said quietly, leaning back to smile encouragingly at her. "You're quite an incredible woman when you're not being so stuffy."
Relena laughed at that, sounding a little sheepish. Finally she gathered up the courage to look Wufei in the eye. He steeled himself, waiting for... he wasn't sure what. The two of them had spoken little since the battle for Yeong, and he still had no idea what she thought of his relationship with Heero or her cancelled marriage plans.
"I'm sorry things turned out this way," he said uncomfortably-- which wasn't completely true. He was relieved to be rid of his obligation to her, but regretted hurting her in the process.
Surprisingly, she smiled. It was a sad smile, but there was no anger in her eyes. "Wufei, I'm not even going to try to stand between this." She glanced from him to Heero. "If anything could make me believe in destiny, it's you two. Besides, I've had a lot of time to observe the two of you and think about it, and it's helped me realize something." She shook her head slightly as if in self-deprecation. "A crush is one thing. What you two have is something else altogether. Just like what Hilde and Duo share." She glanced briefly towards Trowa and Quatre, but what they had was still too new and fragile even to them, and she didn't voice her suspicions about them aloud. "I want what you have. But I can't force it. I'll find it one day. I'm sure of it." She curtseyed, and Wufei bowed in relexive response. "I wish you and your people happiness and prosperity, Chang Fei," she said quietly but with warmth. "Thank you for the kindness you have all shown me."
"Goodbye, Relena," Wufei said.
Relena offered them all a quick smile, and returned to her father and brother. Hilde excused herself and went to wish her parents farewell. They had a standing invitation to visit whenever they wished, but had to return to their home. Wufei's mother came over from the crowd and laid an affectionate kiss on her son's brow, then on Heero's, to his brief surprise.
"You're staying, right?" Wufei asked, half afraid that she had decided at the last minute to return to earth.
She laughed quietly, touching his cheek fondly. "Of course. I'm not leaving your side again, Wufei. I'll be here whenever you need me."
They watched in silence as Treize, silent and bleak-faced, was led onto the shuttle in chains. The rest of the loading was done, and Noin began shouting orders. Milliardo's men hurried onboard, followed by their passengers, and Hilde rejoined the small group.
Everyone stepped back as the shuttle's thrusters kicked on and the craft slowly made its way towards the fake sky above and the exit cleverly concealed in its painted clouds.
Duo stretched his arms over his head, sending a quick grin Heero's way. "Looks like everything turned out all right after all," he observed. "I gotta admit, there were times where I was a bit worried."
"A bit?" Trowa repeated with an arched brow. Quatre laughed.
Duo rolled his eyes good-naturedly, putting his arm affectionately around Hilde and tugging her up snugly against his side. "Okay, a lot worried. But hey! Look, we're all still alive and kicking, and wouldn't you know it, there's happy endings all around. Who woulda thunk, huh, Heero?"
Heero snorted quietly in response, his hand finding Wufei's again. The move was more natural this time, and Wufei's Mark glowed softly in response to the touch.
"It's not the end, yet," Wufei pointed out, gaze wandering towards his grandfather and the others as they started trickling back inside. "There's still a lot that needs to be done. And I'm sure things will get hard before they get easy."
"Hey, don't be such a worrywart," Duo chided. "You know how the saying goes, sappy to the max: 'Love is all you need'." And he began warbling deliberately off-key to Hilde, who blushed and shoved him away.
Wufei turned his eyes skyward, but couldn't quite keep back the small grin tugging at his lips. They turned and made their way towards the palace, Duo still singing, Hilde begging him to stop, Quatre laughing at the other boy's antics while Trowa smiled gently at the sound of his friend's mirth.
Wufei shifted his grip on Heero's hand so that his fingers were interlaced with the other boy's, a bold move that earned a few glances from some of the court. But no one stared openly, and no one said anything. For the first time since his arrival on Yeong, Wufei felt a tendril of hope uncurling in his chest.
"Happy endings, huh...?" he murmured. He glanced sideways, meeting Heero's eyes.
It was a beginning, not an end. This was the last life he would have, but at least he would be sharing it with someone. Back straight, head held high, the young lord of Yeong strode into his palace, his lover at his side, his friends all around him.
He had taken his mother's advice and made his own destiny.
And he found it to be one he could definitely learn to live with.
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