Hearing his cousin's shout, Duo rolled forward past Heero's attack, ending up at the prince's back. He executed several backwards somersaults, putting some much needed distance between Heero and himself. He looked briefly towards Hilde but his attention was caught by the long, narrow, black object hurtling towards him. With nary a thought, he raised a hand and the Scepter fell neatly into it as though it had been seeking him out.
Duo barely heard Dermail's enraged roar as the Scepter's power filled him fully for the first time.
Duo blinked, looking around at... nothing.
'Where am I,' he thought, confused.
But rather than feeling fear, Duo took in his featureless surroundings filled with a sense of utter peace. He was floating in a white void, gentle mist enveloping him on all sides. The mist seemed to penetrate his very soul, conveying to him emotions very much like love.
Duo turned his head back and forth, amethyst eyes searching the emptiness for the source of the voice... that beautiful voice...
Duo started as he realized that the mysterious speaker was directly behind him. He classified the voice as female and then froze as the identity of the speaker suddenly became astoundingly apparent.
"Duo, my son. Won't you turn around and greet me?"
The braided boy stood motionless for a long moment, terrified that if he turned, the owner of the sweet voice would disappear. Then he took a deep breath, gathered his courage, and slowly faced his...
"Mother," he whispered.
The beautiful woman with incredibly long, flowing, chestnut locks smiled at him.
"My son, my beautiful boy. What a man you've become... and how sorry am I that missed it all."
Duo felt a tide of emotion surge within him, stealing his ability to speak as he looked at the beautiful woman whose smile was so much like his own. He was able to maintain his composure with princely dignity until the woman placed a delicate hand on his cheek. His self-control disintegrated at her touch and Duo, the immensely powerful crown prince of Shi, broke down and cried like a small child.
The woman smiled with tear-filled eyes and pulled him towards her.
"Oh, Duo, my little baby boy. How I've missed you."
Duo was unable to respond with words but closed his arms around her, tightening his hold until they ached from the strain. Burying his head in the curve of her neck, he continued to weep his sorrow and his joy.
Queen Tatiana smiled gently as she stroked her son's shining hair.
"Duo, I can't tell you how proud I am of you - how proud we both are."
At that, Duo lifted his head and regarded her through his tears.
"We?" he say tremulously.
"Yes, my son. We."
Duo raised his head from his mother's shoulder and looked behind him at the man who'd spoken.
King Damien's amethyst eyes twinkled as he smiled at his son's wide-eyed gaze. The smile broadened as the braided boy unconsciously straightened his postured and surreptitiously wiped away his tears. The king cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes.
"Let's have a look at you."
Duo swallowed nervously as his father looked him up and down.
"Hmmm," Damien murmured. "That hair is a bit long..."
"Oh, Damien, stop your teasing," Tatiana warned gently.
Damien shot her a mischievous glance then looked back at the boy standing before him. Before Duo could comment, he found himself hauled into a powerful embrace. A smile bloomed on Duo's face as he returned his father's hug.
"We are indeed proud of you, my son," Damien declared after a long moment. He backed away just enough to wrap one arm around his wife while keeping his son close with the other.
"Despite all of the obstacles that were against you," Tatiana boasted, "you've managed to find your rightful place in the world."
"Now, it is up to you, Duo, to bring Shi back to its former glory," Damien stated.
Duo nodded, accepting his father's command as a solemn vow. Then his brow furrowed in puzzlement.
"But... how is this even possible?"
Tatiana smiled. "You hold the Scepter, do you not?"
Duo looked down at his left hand, not realizing until that moment that he did indeed hold the talisman.
"The Scepter holds the spirits of every member of the Shi royal family who has ever lived since its creation," Damien explained. "If you come visit us again, you'll have a chance to meet all of your ancestors."
"And when you return, bring darling Hilde with you," Tatiana added. "Her parents long to see her."
"But, why didn't Hilde come here before when she was holding the Scepter?" Duo asked.
"Only the king can access the full power of the Scepter, Duo," Damien replied. "Entering this place is something only you can do, but you can bring her with you if you so choose."
Duo nodded in understanding. "I definitely will."
Damien took a breath, his smile fading into a gentle sadness. "And now, as much as I want you stay, I'm afraid you must leave us."
Duo blinked. "B-but..." He took a breath to calm the sudden panic that raced through him. "I want to stay here with you," he whispered, afraid that if he left now, he would never see them again despite their assurances.
Tatiana smiled tenderly at her son. "No, Duo. You must go. Isn't there something you must do?"
For a moment, Duo considered denying the truth but his father's words forestalled him.
"You must defeat Dermail and free our people, Duo. Also, you must help your friend."
"Heero," Duo gasped. For a moment, he'd forgotten that Heero was still Dermail's prisoner.
"Yes, Heero," Tatiana concurred. She smiled again. "That's a very nice young man you've found to love. We approve and give you our blessing." She laughed as Duo's cheeks flushed with a slight blush.
"Hmmm, a very brave young man, indeed. But there is only one problem, you know."
Duo looked at his father in confusion. "Problem?"
"Yes. I have a feeling that it might be rather difficult for you to have an heir if you stay with Heero."
Duo opened his mouth soundlessly but his mother rescued him.
"Oh, don't worry, Damien. Hilde's son will do quite nicely as an heir. For both Shi and Hane I would think."
Duo blinked, stunned confusion flitting across his face.
Tatiana grinned. "Shh, don't tell the fierce, young Chang about it. It will be our little secret."
Duo blinked again. "Young Chang... You mean Hilde and Wufei...!"
Damien chuckled. "Well it certainly won't be you having the child, now will it?"
Duo joined his parents in laughter for a moment before the mood turned more somber. Damien released his hold on his son and moved to stand directly in front of the Shi prince.
"Fight Dermail, son, and fight well. His evil must be eradicated from this world once and for all."
Duo nodded. He looked into his father's eyes.
"I swear I will destroy him."
Damien nodded before pulling his son to him for a final embrace. Tatiana waited patiently for her husband to release her son before taking the boy once more into her arms.
"Come back to us soon. We have so much catching up to do," she whispered.
Duo nodded again and buried his face in her sweet-smelling hair. After a moment, he sighed and straightened.
"I'll see you soon," he promised.
Returning his parents loving smiles, Duo tightened his grip on the Scepter and willed himself back into the world.