A crane amongst chickens.
"Is this not satisfactory, Lord Chang?"
Wufei looked back at the older man in surprise. Then he realized how his silence could be misconstrued.
He turned and bowed slightly at the waist. "Apologies, honoured uncle. It is more than satisfactory. It's..." Wufei glanced around as he straightened, "...in fact a bit big?"
Wai Law Chi didn't look at the apartment, he looked at Wufei.
"This is much smaller than your home back on A0314."
Wufei stared blindly at the painted wooden screen that broke the long rectangle of the main room, and tried to remember his childhood home. "I was in boarding schools since I was eight." He reminded his uncle absently.
"Ah yes. Well we can't have you sharing a dorm now." Wai chuckled at the thought.
The richly furnished apartment wasn't being measured up to a junior dorm in Wufei's mind. Nor to the succession of equally forgettable safe-houses, or the anonymous bunk room on Peacemillion. The room in the house he'd shared with Meiran's family during their brief marriage had been a guest room and felt like it. As long as he could remember, every place he'd been he'd felt in transition, in addition; except, perhaps, in Nataku's cabin, curled up in a sleeping bag surrounded by the faint hum and beep of monitors, the lights watching over him as he said a brief prayer to his ancestors' memorial stone and closed his eyes on the war to rest.
"The university is only a few minutes away." Wai continued. "Your father and your grandfather both lived here while they attended Zhejiang." It had been traditional to send the male heir of Wufei's side of the family to a Chinese University, to allow them to connect to their past with the Earth.
Wufei picked up a jade sculpture of a horse from a side table, felt its weight and the cold stone against his palm. In his mind his father's face was pixelated and frozen in the pose from the single photograph Wufei possessed of him. Maybe his uncle would have other pictures of his father. Not likely though.
Wai was his closest living relative now, his mother's uncle. As the youngest son, Wai had married into another lesser branch of the loose set of families which formed Wufei's clan. Now that the two principal bloodlines were reduced to only one scion, there had been some reshuffling in the order of importance in the remaining lines. Wai, much to his surprise and dismay Wufei imagined, had come out as the new family elder. The sixty-year old was obviously not a politician; he was an engineer, a practical hard-headed man with an excellent reputation in civil engineering and not much diplomacy. He didn't seem terribly comfortable with being suddenly put in charge of the adolescent lord of his family. Wufei wasn't comfortable treating someone three times his age as a retainer either, especially when his only memory of the man was from eleven years ago during a family reunion where Wai had picked him up, called him Xiao Chang, and said he looked like his mother when she was a child, probably in an effort to annoy Wufei's father.
Wufei wished he could have stayed in the colonies. Aside from being called Lord Chang he'd not had any preferential treatment and he'd been able to do pretty much as he pleased. Wufei caught that thought and strangled it.
He'd accepted this duty, this path. He'd lost pretty much everything else in his life. His wife was dead. The war had abandoned him. His enemy had defaulted. Nataku was destroyed. But he still had this to do. As such, it would not occur to Wufei to not give himself entirely over to these duties. It wasn't in his nature to do things by halves.
He glanced around the apartment, trying to look approving rather than uncomfortable. It was big, particularly for one person; the large living area was over seven meters in length, from the spirit wall at the entrance to the fireplace at the other end. The walls were painted ochre, decorated with portraits, pictures and three red fans with the symbols of fortune, excellence and justice. The three narrow windows along one wall had traditional wooden screens on them, the regular latticework broken by the shape of the symbol of longevity in the centre of each. The room was furnished with traditional furniture of old cherry wood, dragons and phoenixes embroidered on the upholstery. A discreet hallway led to a fully appointed kitchen, not that he really knew what to do with that. A bedroom and a study of more modern design, with a small but well-stocked library, rounded off the rich bachelor pad that had been in his family for over a hundred years. Wufei tossed his duffel down in a gesture to prove to his uncle - and himself - that this was indeed his new home, and just in time caught the strap and jerked the canvas bag back before it connected with the coffee table. The duffel contained a Luger, some ammo and a small set of tools barely cushioned by his spare clothes, he could imagine what that would do to the delicate wood and mother of pearl inlaid table top.
"This way, Lord Chang, you can put your things away in the bedroom."
Wai led the way. He was not much taller than Wufei, stocky, tough and durable, with shrewd eyes. His face was heavily tanned, he spent a lot of his time on earth, designing and working on buildings sites. His hair was silver, cropped short, bristles standing out like small quills on the back of his skull. He showed the huge walk-in wardrobe to the soldier who had become the lord of his house. He took the duffel from Wufei with a smile and put it in the otherwise empty space, which promptly engulfed and belittled the rough, stained bag. Wufei added the laptop case, but it didn't help much.
"We'll have you settled in rapidly. Where is the rest of your luggage?"
Wufei sighed internally. The old man was doing as well as could be expected in the circumstances but he hadn't entirely caught on yet...
"Don't worry, honoured uncle, I'll manage the rest. Where's the university from here?"
"Three blocks down and across the main road to get to the gates. Ah, Lord Chang, I meant to ask you..." Wai took a piece of paper from a folder he carried. "As your guardian, the university has asked me to double check your schedule, make sure it's correct."
"What about it." Wufei poked his head in the kitchen wondering if someone had thought to stock it. He wouldn't mind some tea. Or even some bottled water. After living in space most of his life, tap water on Earth just didn't taste right. Not enough recycling chemicals.
"Well...the courses you selected. The specialisations, and the secondaries, added to all the tutorials...erm, this timetable is brutal, Lord Chang." Wai was holding the schedule between his fingers as if it might explode.
Wufei glanced up from the - unfortunately empty - fridge. "The political studies curriculum is fairly intense. Although I was several years ahead of my age group in school, I'm still missing a few of the prerequisites. I have to catch up on a lot." He'd been surprised Zhejiang University, notoriously stringent in its entry requirements, had even accepted him. His clan had probably pulled some strings. He accepted that; the alternative was to rot in some high school with a bunch of children. He'd show everybody that he could earn the privilege his family's name had obtained for him.
"But you do realize that typically students do not pick all the courses in the curriculum, they normally leave out two or three-"
"They're all worth studying to become a leader and arbitrator." Wufei said sharply as he closed the fridge and checked the ice-box.
"Well yes...I noticed you included an elective in Asian literature as well?"
Wufei paused in the act of opening a cupboard. "Is that a problem?"
"That is not part of the political studies curriculum." Wai sounded puzzled.
No. It was just what I wanted to do with my life back when I was fourteen, Wufei thought as he stared at some plates which would be better off in a museum's display case than a dishwasher. "I'll contact the university tomorrow and tell them to remove that course from my list of studies." He said quietly.
There was silence behind him. Wai was looking at him thoughtfully, though he dropped his gaze respectfully when Wufei turned and caught his eye.
"It is up to you, Lord Chang, but I think the chosen courses will already prove quite challenging."
"That's the idea." Wufei muttered as he left the kitchen.
Unfortunately the old man had excellent hearing for one his age. "The idea, Lord Chang?"
"I get bored easily." Wufei said in tones of finality. He hesitated outside the kitchen then unslung his sword from his belt, and put it on the sword stand above the house shrine near the spirit wall. He bowed to the memory of his ancestors, then went to check what kind of sheets to use with the antique canopied bed and if he'd have to go shopping for those as well.
Wufei picked the seat nearest the fire exit and sat down with a discreet glance around the auditorium. He'd timed his arrival two minutes before the course was due to start so he didn't have to mingle with the others, and had found the big room only half full, to his surprise. He'd been able to put at least five rows of empty seats on either side of him.
Absently he smoothed down his sleeve again. He kept doing a double take each time he caught sight of his arms clad in the rich red and black silk. But the colours of mourning would only elicit sympathy and unasked-for questions. Besides he had decided to leave the past behind him in more ways than one. He now represented his clan in their public face to the world and had to dress the part. The smooth tunic slid against his spine as he leaned back in the chair, and he missed the way the cloth would bunch slightly around the gun he no longer wore in his belt. He absently straightened the notebook, pen and books he'd set on the small desk, and felt like an impostor.
He kept a discreet eye on his surroundings. The clock above the door showed it to be 9:00 sharp. There were around fifty students in all, some were talking in low voices, most were staring straight ahead. A few were reading. The big room was very quiet.
Wufei began to frown. Granted it had been a long time a year and a half of hell since he'd been in a classroom but there was something in the air that-
He'd noted her approach but hoped she'd pass him by if he ignored her. He turned slowly but said nothing.
"Erm, you don't have to sit all alone here, there's plenty of room on the other side of the classroom."
She looked a bit puzzled, and slightly nervous even though she was probably two years his senior. She was dressed in a dark skirt and white blouse, western style, as if she were uncomfortable out of the school uniform she'd been used to before coming to university.
"I haven't seen you in class before, are you new?"
"Yes." The school year had started three weeks ago, Wufei had missed it thanks to his self-doubts and hesitations. Fortunately the Zhejiang board of education had allowed for a late enrolment. "Isn't the class about to start?"
"Oh, Teacher Zhiang is very reliable. Always fifteen minutes late."
She didn't seem particularly discouraged by the curt answers or the strong hint in his question, she seemed to be trying to ask him something without actually being rude enough to question him.
"My name is Ju Mei. I'm from Peking." She said carefully, as if this could be misinterpreted as an insult.
"Chang Wufei. Don't they have a university in Peking?"
"Oh, ZJU is a much better institution." She said quickly, her eyes had flinched. "Erm, where did you say you came from?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"Ah!" Her smile was warmer and she gestured towards the front of the auditorium near the door. "Well you should come and sit with us, then. There are a couple of other colonists down there, let me see if I remember-"
"I am fine where I am." He said softly, voice neutral and, when she turned back to him in surprise, he held her gaze until she flushed and took a step back.
"I-I'm sorry. I-..." She stumbled back another step, bowing instinctively, then muttered "Welcome to ZJU" before returning hastily to her seat.
Several people from the front of the auditorium had been staring at her and Wufei from the moment she had approached. He saw them ask a few questions in a low voice. The girl - Ju Mei, no last name, he made a note to check her against student enrolment data later - shrugged and sat down.
Wufei's gaze went from the front of the auditorium to the back. The soldier and strategist finally assembled a coherent picture to explain his sense of unease.
Nice peace you have there, Yuy. Well, at least they're not shooting at each other. Yet.
Students were sitting in distinct groups, with several empty seats between each. The students in front near the door were all seventeen or eighteen and had the bright, brittle, excited look of young people who had left home for the first time and for whom the novelty had not yet worn off. There was a smaller group to one side, near them but still distinct. Those students were on average older and their pose was almost aggressively relaxed. They sat center front, claiming the room. At the back was another group, mostly young men, from eighteen to late twenties, all sitting in pretty much the same stiff stance, and looking straight ahead at the presentation screen.
What had everybody expected? The war had lasted in one form or another for over two decades. The alliance overtaking the nations of earth one by one, resistance movements opposing them, terrorism, retaliations, oppression, executions, counter strikes, bombardments, and finally the political and military turmoil of the last year. Now it was over and all sorts had returned to school. So if he had to take a guess...the loose-knit bunch of young people nearest the door were regular students, civilians. The small group near the front had been part of the opposition movement for which Sally Po had fought, the Chinese resistance against the Alliance's puppet, Bundt, and OZ. The group at the back were the discharged soldiers, either OZ, or part of the forces of Bundt and his junta.
The girl had assumed he'd want to sit with the civilians. In theory Wufei belonged with the one-time rebels. But he probably went just as easily with his old enemy; an ex-soldier trying to catch and weave the threads of his life back into some semblance of a familiar pattern.
Yes, he was definitely better off sitting where he was. Out of it all and on no-one's side. It was where a Gundam pilot belonged.
He shook his head slightly as he remembered his words to Wai. The groups were now separate and intent on ignoring each other but there was a hint of violence in the air like the taste of metal to the tap water in the apartment he kept thinking of as his safe-house.
He had a feeling attending university was not going to be boring at all.
By the end of the first day of observing all parties, Wufei had gone and checked. He'd been reassured to find that Zhejiang had discreet but very efficient metal detectors on every entrance to the grounds.
Wufei interrupted his katas as soon as he realized the door hadn't immediately closed again.
"There are no classes here." He said tightly.
The man moved slowly through the small sports room, as unthreateningly as possible. He was fairly tall, in his mid twenties, with the darker skin of the western provinces. His bearing was unconsciously military, and his hair was short and not particularly well kept, as if he'd still not gotten used to the absence of a helmet. His features were a bit crude, powerful, and he had a small scar across the bridge of his nose. His hands, relaxed unaggressively at his sides, were strong and had calluses - gun, not MS, Wufei judged. He was wearing jeans and a Chinese-style dark blue tunic, with a thick wristwatch - the kind that gave air-pressure and universal time - and a simple metal medallion in lieu of dog tags. A casual observer would say he looked a bit brutish, but his eyes were sharp. Officer, OZ, probably Romefeller faction, Wufei guessed with the ease of practice that came from having fought and killed a great many of the man's peers.
"You look quite young up close, how old are you?" The man asked curiously as he closed in.
"What do you want?"
The man looked at him for a little while, weighing him. Wufei wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow and tried to encourage him to leave with a dead-eyed stare he's learned from a certain L1 pilot. His punishing schedule of studies only left him a handful of free minutes to practice his katas or train and he didn't feel like wasting any.
"My name is Ko Liwan." The man, visibly not discouraged, introduced himself with a small bow.
"Chang Wufei." He made the three short syllables as uninviting as possible.
"I just thought I'd warn you, Chang. It's not wise to provoke them."
Ko made a gesture towards Wufei. "Your exercises. A bit too martial for times of peace. Tempers are already high enough against people with a military background."
There was the slightest question in that statement. Wufei had been under intense observation for the last two weeks, since his late enrolment. His background had not been easy for the various factions to place but on the balance of probability he'd apparently been slotted in with the Ozzies. Amusing.
"Thanks for the warning. I'd like to be alone now please."
"It's none of my business." Ko said slowly. "But the war is finished, and the sooner we stop thinking about fighting and factions the better."
"You're right." Wufei said, backing away and turning back to his katas.
"Right in what I said or the fact it's none of my business?" There was weary cynicism in Ko's voice.
"You choose." Wufei answered and returned to the practice of controlled violence.
"No one quite knows where to place you, Chang." The man continued oblivious and Wufei couldn't concentrate with a potential enemy at his back. "They're wondering whose side you were on."
"I thought we weren't supposed to be thinking about sides any more?" Wufei countered, facing the older man again.
"Hah! Well that's the theory. You said you're a colonist but you bear yourself like a soldier and you left space...whose side were you on, Chang? White Fang? One of OZ's recruits in space? Resistance? Alliance?"
"I was on nobody's side. Go away."
"Huh. That's an interesting and novel answer." Ko said with a sudden grin. "You know what everyone else says when I ask that question?"
"'The right side', of course."
Wufei couldn't help it, the snort of laughter slipped through the mask before he could quite stop it.
Ko gave him a smile that was both tired and bitterly amused, the smile of a soldier who had just wanted to lay down his weapons and get on with his life; his weapons had been taken away but he'd found himself on a new battlefield all the same. He left without a further word and Wufei finished his katas without further interruptions.
"Hi Wufei. Don't worry I won't sit down." Ju Mei's voice was slightly sardonic, but she'd apparently decided a few weeks back already to adopt the young, hopelessly anti-social boy without family or friends in Hangzhou, and wasn't to be discouraged that easily.
Wufei, who didn't particularly want to be adopted by anyone, particularly Ju Mei and her clique, glowered at the interruption.
Behind Ju Mei and her unwavering smile, Li Pai glared right back at him. She was Ju Mei's best friend, also from Peking, and visibly didn't approve of the ungrateful wretch who turned down all of her friend's efforts to socialise him and include him in some of the university's activities. On Ju Mei's other side, Gan Jiening, a colony ex-pat who never seemed bothered by anything, merely looked bored.
Ju Mei was one of the few who tried to put life into JZU's student body, using CPR if necessary. Her group had organized a few parties, some campus sports meetings, everything carefully arranged so that certain people didn't run into each other. Wufei thought Ju Mei would make an excellent social hostess, or possibly a peace-broker in a major war zone.
"So, Wufei, I was wondering-"
"No. I have to study."
"You're always studying!" Ju Mei exclaimed, exasperated. "Don't you want to live a little?"
"I'll fit it into my calendar for after my master's degree." Wufei muttered and turned to the next page while taking another bite of his sandwich. He really could return to his apartment for lunch, it wasn't that far and he'd be undisturbed. But then he'd have to get his own meal ready. He'd been living on some form or other of take-out or rations since university started two months ago. After so long as a soldier, fresh food and domesticity just seemed like a sinful luxury, a waste of time he couldn't get used to.
He glared up from his book as he felt Ju Mei's lack of prompt departure after his snub. It was hard enough to get into economics. Some of it was interesting, the rest was so tedious he'd been tempted to go with his tutors' recommendations and drop it. But his clan needed someone with a head for financial realities as well as politics. He'd stick with it, he'd hammer away at it until he conquered it.
"You know, Wufei, if you never go out, you'll never meet any nice girls." Ju Mei said with a teasing smile. Wufei wondered just how rude he'd have to be to get rid of the pest.
"I don't think Chang's interested in girls."
Wufei had tracked Lun's approach. The various factions around the sparsely populated university were not structured enough to have leaders. Otherwise Lun Kai Bo would be one of them.
His first impression had been wrong; most people, like Ko and Ju Mei, only wanted to study and get on with their life without fuss. But there were enough troublemakers on either side to make a fuss inevitable one day. School staff were constantly on the lookout for trouble but were somewhat unsure how to handle the developing tensions. This was the first school year of the 'peace'. The previous years JZU had been frequented by the children of highly placed members of government, the military or rich business men. Now it was open to all. Except, perhaps, to peace.
Wufei wasn't surprised. In fact a small part of him was bitterly amused; this proved his theory. This university was a microcosm of what was probably happening planet wide. Total pacifism? Last war? My ass. It's coming, Yuy. It's coming and you can remove as many weapons as you can find you will not be able to stop it.
"Well Chang? You'll notice he's not denying it, Ju babe. You might as well give up!" Lun chuckled. He was a short man in his early twenties with burn scars across both his hands that spoke of a close miss from a shell or an explosion in an MS cockpit. He had the natural charisma of a small-time leader, and, in Wufei's observation, no real interest in studying history he'd enrolled for.
"There wasn't anything to deny." Wufei said disinterestedly as he flipped a page. "You stated your opinion. It's your right to have one. It's my right to ignore it. Now go away."
The three girls tensed. A few other students stood up from a nearby table and left hastily.
Lun didn't seem bothered. "I see they've already taught you semantics in your political studies classes." Wufei's fingers tensed on the page. He forced himself to relax. This creature was beneath him. "So, I'll make it a question. You into guys, Chang?"
"Regretfully not, but I have a friend who is, I'll put in a good word for you." Wufei couldn't help himself. The mental image of this little rooster approaching Yuy and getting ripped limb from limb warmed his heart a little.
The silence turned ugly for a second, then Lun laughed. "You'll make a good politician, Chang." Once more Wufei strangled the temptation to leap up and retaliate more than verbally. It shouldn't be an insult. It would be true one day. "Well, Ju Mei, good luck finding a girl the right size for our Xiao Chang."
"I already have a date for the foreseeable future." Wufei snapped, lifting Fogherty's 'Economics of Interplanetary Resources'. "Now if you'll leave the two of us alone, I'd-"
The explosion brought him and half the students to their feet. The other half screamed and dived beneath the plastic lunch tables of the canteen.
"S-sorry." In the stunned, panting silence, the cook's voice sounded ludicrously loud. He was standing over the remains of a huge ten-gallon glass alembic of soy sauce, completely shattered. It had slipped from the lifter's clamp. Empty and sealed as it hit the tiles, it had sounded like a small detonation blowing out a window. Wufei realized he'd kicked his bench clear across to the wall behind him, and thrown himself in a crouch to the side, his hand reaching for a weapon he no longer wore. Lun's hand was similarly at his belt.
There was a whimper from the floor a few feet away. Ju Mei was frozen in shock, eyes huge in a bloodless face, but the pitiful noise jerked her like a puppet. She finally moved, cooing like a dove as she leaned over Li Pai, curled up shaking on the floor. Jiening stared down at the two, pushing her glasses up her nose with a trembling hand.
"Shhh, it's okay. It-"
"Sh-shelter, we're not in a shelter, we need to get to a shelter-" it was a thin thread of panic.
"No, Li Pai, it wasn't a bomb, they just-"
"No sirens, didn't hear the sirens, we need to get to a shelter-"
"Shh. Li Pai? Come on. Jiening?"
"Hm?" The ex-colonist's eyes focused behind the thick lenses. "Oh. Right, let's get her out of here."
"City's on fire, shelter, where's the shelter, they never showed us our shelters-"
Lun snorted, face twisted in a vicious snarl. "Don't know why you're complaining. At least you Peking collaborators had shelters. We didn't, and they were actually aiming at us!" He turned and walked away quickly, head lowered, shoving a trembling student out of the way.
Wufei was suddenly grateful he and Nataku had never been near Peking. He had no idea how he'd have reacted otherwise. He'd been ready from the moment he'd set foot back on earth to face a hostile soldier with a grudge, but this...
"Was Peking hit bad?" He asked before he could stop himself.
"Yes." Ju Mei said tightly as she manoeuvred her friend to her feet.
"Who? Alliance? OZ? Rebels?" Wufei added the last with a glance at Lun's departing back.
"Just about everybody including a Gundam." Ju Mei snapped back at him, eyes blazing. Then her gaze faltered. "Sorry, Wufei, you couldn't know. You were in the colonies."
"Yes..." Wufei absently lied. Who the hell had been in Peking? Sandrock had hit the base nearby but that was a good thirty miles away from the city, at least, so-...well, it didn't much matter now.
He watched the girls leave, the other students settle down, eyes wide, or in tears, or laughing way too loudly. He picked up his bench and sat down to finish his lunch.
The book lay on the table, unopened. He didn't think Fogherty had a chance in hell of keeping his attention now.
The steady beat of his feet hitting the concrete put Wufei in a trance near to meditation, though he never lost sight of his surroundings. He sprinted through the small stretch of garden near the library just for the hell of it, feeling his muscles play like a finely tuned instrument, then he slowed to a quick, quiet step as he rounded the old building.
"- fucking colony bastards nearly dropped Libra on us! You want us to-"
Wufei didn't slow down, but he didn't accelerate either, pretending he hadn't heard. He didn't think it was meant for him; the small group standing out of the light sprinkle of rain in the library porch were concentrated on their discussion. The shush had been automatic. No one raised their voice on campus. No one said anything. Everyone looked over his or her shoulder. It was the quiet before the air-raid siren.
Fortunately the campus was huge, it defused the tension somewhat. It had been the biggest university in the PR of China while that country still existed as such, over a century ago. Now it was a fifth the size, reduced to one of its founding universities, and it was more important by prestige than number of students, especially these last years. During his run Wufei had seen post-grads and doctorates walking around in ones and twos, but there were very few pupils in the years between entry level and graduation, when the war had been at its most intense. The university had been closed last year, as two of the science buildings on the edge of the campus had been accidentally shelled with parts of the city due to a targeting error while OZ was attacking alliance forces nearby. No wonder ZJU had not made much of a fuss over his entry requirements, they needed the pupils.
Three hundred new students had enrolled, a pitiful number compared to even a few years back. And quite a few of them were having a hard time getting into the studying mindset.
Scuttlebutt still didn't know where to place Wufei. Military, most probably. But from the colonies, by his own admission. That left a few unfortunate choices.
A week before...
He practiced his katas at night, to avoid curious or hostile onlookers, and because it gave him a better shot at a peaceful night of sleep if he exhausted himself and let loose the day's tensions first. The changing room was empty when he finished but someone had disturbed the bench he'd left in front of his locker as a primitive security monitor. Ten merry minutes later he finished checking the locker over for every conceivable type of booby-trap, wishing, exceptionally, that he had Maxwell handy. Where was your explosives expert when you needed him? The locker was safe as far as he could tell. He looked at his clothes a bit more carefully, assuming they'd be slashed, or possibly trapped.
The only sign of disturbance was a white band strangling the sleeve of his tunic.
He wasn't sure how to react. For all he knew this was a test, from one side or the other, to determine which faction he belonged to. Paradoxically if he indicated in any way that they were right, it would definitely put him in with the Ozzies, because many of White Fang, and almost all who had a military background, had been ex-OZ from the colonies or the Treize faction.
The irony was just breathtaking.
He ripped off the band and pocketed it, thinking he could try to trace the owner. The chances were minimal but what else was he supposed to do? Go through every member of the rebel and military factions and beat them up until he found the culprit, and then beat him up again?
Wufei tried to control the small part of himself that said this was a very good plan. It was the voice of the inner warrior who wished he were back on a battlefield where alliances had been muddled but at least people were shooting at you. That always made things a lot clearer. How was he supposed to react to an attack on his clothes?
"Go sleeveless." Ko snorted the next day, lounging on the bench next to Wufei. His pose looked completely relaxed but Wufei knew the ex-OZ officer was aware of the movements and whereabouts of each of the three other people in the study room.
"Why not." Wufei muttered, taking a sip. "It's only raining every other day now."
"If you can drink that energy-protein-vitamins-ye-gods-everything-but-taste drink, then you're not afraid of a little water."
Wufei held up the can of protein-blend thoughtfully. "Actually I'd rather it didn't have any taste. Tasteless would be quite an improvement in fact."
"So you are a masochist. That explains a lot."
"No, I just-...someone- a friend of mine got me used to these things during the war. I don't know why I still drink them." It wasn't as if he needed the extra energy. But somehow he found the flat taste comforting. He set the can down.
"So what do I do about this?" He held up the white band. Ko looked at it tiredly.
"Well, you can be smart and keep your head-"
"- down and stop pract-"
"-practicing your katas and jogging on campus-"
"No. I'm not going to give in to them."
"- and stop being a walking poster-boy for Veteran's Rehab Day, or else you can do what I do."
Ko put his hands behind his head and grinned at the ceiling. "Lay back and watch with morbid fascination while every single faction on campus puts Chang Wufei on their hit list and then beat each other up for the privilege of making your life miserable."
Wufei snorted. "I'd like to see them try!"
"Strangely enough, so would I..." Ko's eyes became dreamy. Wufei had watched Ko operate these last few weeks as the one-time officer tried to keep 'his side' calm and under control. The man was a natural mediator. But like Wufei he kept the soldier's instincts that occasionally made them both long to be able to cut through the crap. With a bloody big thermal beam.
"So is that why you hang around me?" Wufei asked before he fully thought the question through.
"Is that what I'm doing?" Ko tilted his head to look at Wufei from the corner of his eyes. Wufei shrugged. Ko didn't avoid him like others did, and would sit down to talk to Wufei when the ex-Ozzie's cynicism got the better of him, but it wasn't all that frequent.
Ko looked back at the ceiling again. "I must be the kind of guy who likes to watch acrobats walk the tightrope without a net. What are you doing Saturday night?"
Wufei almost choked on the drink he'd absently picked up again. "Studying." He said tensely, trying to look at Ko without seeming to. He stiffened as the other man stood up in one smooth movement and leaned towards him.
"Good." Ko said, grabbing Wufei's drink without looking at him. "That off-campus party they're organising, I happen to know Meng invited some friends from his former unit, so I'd rather not see you there. Their whole squadron took some heavy losses attacking Libra-"
"I'm not White Fang."
"Well it would be stupid to get yourself beaten up over someone else's mistake then."
"Hey, that's my drink you're taking with you." Wufei snapped as Ko headed towards the door.
"How can you swallow this shit?" Ko said, after taking a swig. He made a show of looking at the label. "And it's got caffeine in it. Kid your age shouldn't drink this, Chang, it'll stunt your growth."
"Screw you, Ko."
"Yeah yeah, see you around Chang." Ko left with a grin and a wave, still sipping Wufei's drink.
Wufei stared at the white band in his hand and then threw it in the bin and went back to his studies.
But the memory of that small move against him stuck in his memory the following week. The mention of the word Libra had him on edge now. He cut his run short, heading out the gates back to the apartment.
No other test of his partisanship had been forthcoming since the incident with the band. He suspected Ko had had words with someone. He wanted to forget about the whole thing, try to live a normal student life. But his warrior reflexes wouldn't let him, they were constantly on alert, surrounded as he was by potential hostiles. Sometimes, he wondered if his mind wasn't letting his senses run away with him, just to give him that extra edge, that little feeling of danger whose absence made life dull to the ex-Gundam pilot.
He saw a familiar figure at the foot of the apartment building as he slowed to a walk. The stocky man was looking at one of the stone lions adorning the frontispiece above the doorway, and scratching his chin. Wufei glanced at his watch in surprise as he drew near.
"I'm early." Wai said, in lieu of greeting, as he caught the tail end of Wufei's movements.
"I'll shower and we can go." Wufei had established shortly after their first meeting that his uncle preferred curt to obsequious. So did he.
"Pity..." Wai's eyes were back on the stone lion guarding the doorway. Wufei followed his gaze. The snarl was partially eaten away, the stone tinged green on the crack.
"Bullets? Shell?" Wufei asked, eyeing the damage he'd never really noticed before.
"Neglect..." Wai answered quietly. "Apparently the caretakers got sidetracked by the war. We shouldn't let trivialities distract us from cherishing our past," Wai murmured, "any more than we should allow the worship of the past to distract us from the present..."
Wufei hid a smile as he unlocked the door. Though prone to fits of something like poetry, Wai was mostly hard-headed and practical. He'd be grumbling about the follies of youth as he laid spackle over fresh bullet holes in an old building, probably while the fire-fight was still ongoing around him.
Wufei enjoyed his uncle's visits. The old man showed up every other week or so, between his new duties as elder and his work on earth and in the colonies, to take his nephew out to lunch or to see the beauties of Hangzhou. As his guardian, he was supposed to be checking up on Wufei's health and well-being, but his uncle didn't fuss over him. They'd eat out, play chess or checkers in one of Hangzhou's parks, walk the streets and survey old buildings and new war damage. Wai was surprisingly easy to get along with, by Wufei's standards; that meant that the old man was argumentative, stubborn, not very chatty, and didn't mind the occasional long silence from his nephew. Sometimes Wufei found himself talking about the war, his doubts, the crushing burden of fighting alone against not one but two armies intent on destroying each other and everything Wufei had left to protect. The old man listened to his words and to his silences, and never insulted him with sympathy.
Wufei didn't mention his present difficulties though. They were nothing compared to what he'd already faced and defeated, and he would deal with them himself when the time came.
Wufei woke with a gasp. He lay in the unfamiliar darkness - three months now but still unfamiliar - and waited for his heartbeat to return to normal, as well as other parts of his anatomy. He scowled at the canopy above his head and wished he was the kind of dishonourable bastard who could just pick up a girl for sex and dump her the next day.
His studies were too intense, his schedule too tight...and that was just an excuse. Fundamentally he was completely uninterested in having any kind of relationship with anyone at present. If ever. He didn't even want any friends. They'd only be a distraction.
Despite the age difference and his cold attitude - a teasing Ko claimed that it actually made him a natural babe-magnet - there were still some girls who appeared eager to try to appeal to him. He'd found it all too easy to ignore them. He'd been approached by a couple of guys as well. Despite Lun's jab, he wasn't interested either. Deep down he'd felt relieved at that, and then embarrassed at even having considered …Not a chance. The…thing with Yuy had been a necessity of war, nothing more. The war was over now, he didn't feel the need for any sexual relief at this point.
If only his body had agreed.
Wufei glanced at the clock. Five AM. He'd been asleep four hours. Enough. He'd go take a shower - a cold shower - and go for an early morning run.
Most of his dreams were of battle-winds and bloodshed. But occasionally they took him back to a bed in Italy or a bunk aboard Peacemillion. They were confused jumbles of images and feelings, a glimpse of wall-paper, the sound of a tube of lube hitting the floor, the feel of a comforter beneath his throbbing body, blue eyes hazy with lust, power and scars writhing beneath his fingertips, violent pleasure, ragged breath in his ears, the tension of two bodies fighting and mating with the same passion. Wufei shuddered and quickly stepped into the shower.
Maybe he should try to find a temporary...Wufei rolled his eyes at the word 'arrangement' but that was what it was. A woman who'd accept that he didn't love her, couldn't love her, who would agree to not distract him, and would understand that he would not be able to marry her. Or he could look for ivory in a dog's mouth, which would be easier. Best just keep it bottled up. In a little over four years he'd be twenty one and his clan would select someone for him to marry. The idea made him uncomfortable, but by then he'd have saved up enough frustration to be able to produce the required heir and then...Wufei shut the thought off. His life belonged to his clan now. He had long ago accepted that he didn't have the capacity for happiness, merely satisfaction. He couldn't even blame the war for that, it dated much further back. He'd always lived for his studies or his duties; for the pursuit of excellence, not joy. He'd lead his clan and excel in the role they'd chosen for him, as leader, arbitrator, husband and father. It would be the source of his pride and contentment.
Wufei strangled the little sneering voice inside him that said that it would be a pale sort of contentment. The voice, nasal twang reminiscent of dark streets and raw survival, fought back and asked him if he really could be 'a guy who never puts his life where his mouth his, hey, buddy?' A politician who would draw and blur the lines rather than the blade that cut through them.
To distract himself, he picked up the paper as the tea brewed. Relena was front-page news on an almost daily basis. The riots in various places were on the third page, in smaller print. Actually, they never led to much, to Wufei's surprise, but he was certain this state of affairs would not continue. The peace looked promising in black and white type-print, and in the salons and embassies where no one dropped the soy sauce and made hundreds of young men and women dive under the table. In the real world however, war was surely just a matter of time, in fact it was a miracle it hadn't already happened...
Wufei didn't look at the vice-foreign minister. His eyes went, as usual, to the shadows behind her. With all the journalists present, even he had slipped up once or twice; a shadow in the background, turning away, caught in the middle of his own vanishing act. Wufei didn't know if he watched over Relena all the time. It seemed a waste of his potential. Relena was in Berlin that day and the only bodyguard behind her was a thickset woman he'd seen in other pictures. He dropped the paper with a shrug and hoped they'd found something more exciting for Yuy to do than baby-sit her ex-Highness. If Wufei was going slightly stir-crazy, Heero would be fit to be tied.
Wufei left for his run. He'd take his usual route by the lake, a good long workout to start the day and get his mind back to the present where it belonged.
On to part twelve. Back to part ten.