12-20-2003

Title: Dragonheart
Author: Karen, The Huntress
Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Category: AU
Pairing: 1+2
Warning: angst
Part: 1-20/20
Completed: December 20, 2003
Feedback: Always appreciated

Part One:

Sun-streaked shadows stretched out behind the lone rider as his midnight-coated stallion picked his way along the forest's stony path. A meandering creek ran parallel to the path bubbling over smooth stones on its way to the Crescent River.

Yellow-green buds were ready to burst forth in rainbow shades and birds chirped sweetly in the overhead branches. But the exhausted traveler did not take notice of these signs of spring. His body ached and his mind had been benumbed by the results of war.

Battle cries rang in his ears muting the birdsongs. Crimson veils clouded his sight dimming the thousand pinpoints of sunlight sparkling on the water. His memories were etched with bloody ground and the Crescent River being clogged with the bodies of men and horses. Those horrid visions were replayed nightly in vivid dreams and were constant companions even when the daylight chased away the darkness.

Now the war was over and a fragile peace had been declared. Now Captain Heero Yuy was going home but would he be welcomed or shunned?

********

When war began with the Northern Kingdom, Lord Odin Yuy, a wealthy merchant and landowner, decided that his only male heir would not answer the King's call-to-arms. Bribes were paid to local officials and favors owed by the gentry were called in to keep his son, Heero, safely at home.

"There are plenty of commoners," Odin declared to his colleagues as they shared pints at the Black Dog Tavern, "let them do the fighting."

But Heero did not agree with his father's opinions concerning the lower classes. He believed that wealth did not measure a man's soul nor did it define his station in life. He also believed that with privilege came responsibility to aid the poor and duty to defend the King Peacecraft.

When Heero expressed these beliefs and refused to bend to his father's wishes a heated argument ensued. Voiced were raised, hurtful words were shouted in anger. Heero dared to question his family values, to hold to an opinion contrary to his father's and this stubborn refusal was unacceptable.

"If you walk out that door," Odin screamed shaking his finger at Heero, "you will no longer be my son."

"Then I shall have no home and no name." Heero proclaimed before storming into his room.

He quickly gathered what personal possessions that his could carry, took up his sword and dagger, mounted his horse and never looked back. As much as it broke his heart, Heero could not deny his destiny. He could not in all good conscience compromise his beliefs no matter what the cost.

That fateful day, just a month before his seventeenth birthday, Heero Yuy threw off the nobleman's mantle and put on the soldier's attitude.

********

What had begun as a peaceable spring soon turned into a sweltering summer. Long days of training bruised Heero's body and restlessness nights robbed him of much needed sleep. Then the winter winds blew cold and the snow was stained with scarlet.

Captain Yuy was wounded and spent the last weeks of the war in the makeshift field infirmary. His stubborn streak was tested yet again when a high fever accompanied his injuries.

Vaguely Heero could recall a recurring dream of huge beasts with massive wings that blotted out the sun. He had dismissed these visions as fever-struck delirium but like a whoring bedmate an essence of those strange creatures still nagged at his mind and occasionally replaced his usual night terrors.

The arrow hole in his shoulder had healed over with a rough scar and the sword slash across his chest was an ever-present reminder of how close he came to dying. Now the seasons had come full circle but the promised rebirth of spring held a hollow meaning for Heero. The endless days of death and destruction had stunned his senses until no light touched his stoic heart.

********

As his recollections came crashing down once more Heero wrapped his black cape tighter to ward of the engulfing chill. The weary soldier pulled back on the reins. "Whoa Wing." he called to his faithful steed.

Leaving his horse to forage for tender grass Heero paused on the sandy creek bank. Shiny slips of water, sliding through the rocks like needles pulling iridescent threads, fashioned a natural tapestry rich in subtle sun-drenched colors.

Occasionally a playful breeze would engage the freshly unfurled leaves causing them to dance as if the wind's music possessed them completely. If Heero had allowed the wind, the forest itself, could have so bewitched him that he would have been content to dwell forever under its sway. But thoughts of war would not let his soul rest.

Squatting down he cupped his hands drawing cool water to his mouth. A second dipping splashed on his face in an attempt to wash the travel-worn film from his eyes. Soaking his tousled hair well passed the hairline Heero raked his fingers through the dark tresses. After smoothing a few unruly strands behind his ears his hands returned to retrieve another liquid offering.

His thirst satisfied Heero eased down on a cushion of feathery moss. Somewhere above him a songbird warbled, its tune joining the wind's melody to further enchant him but as hard as Heero tried he could not dispel his despondency.

"It is a miracle that I am still sane." he told Wing not thinking it odd at all to be talking to a horse.

Once more Heero dipped his hands letting the water trickle between his fingers. Absentmindedly he rubbed his thumb over his damp palm. It had become a habit, this ceremonial hand washing. The ritualistic cleansing, however, would not wash away the bloodstained tarnish that was pictured perfectly in Heero's mind.

The wind rose up again but this time there was a chilly touch in its invisible stroking. Gray cloudbanks had begun to build in the west foretelling of rain.

"Where to lay our heads tonight?" Heero muttered as he stood up and dried his hands on his trousers. Wing snorted and shook his head as if he understood his master's question.

"Let's see what lies at the forest's edge." he stated climbing back into his saddle. With a nudge of his heels Heero prodded Wing forward. "I hope we find suitable shelter." he added as the smell of moisture increased and the wind blew harder.

Part Two:

Trees shivered harder as Heero and Wing left the forest. Ahead a clearing widened out bordered by brushy grasses and willowy saplings. The creek bent away leaving behind only a soft splashing as it hurried on its journey.

The sun was shrouded in twilight and ominous thunder rumbled in the distant. Heero encouraged Wing into a trot hoping to outrun the impending storm. A well-worn path led out of the clearing.

"This has to lead somewhere." Heero reasoned bending low to avoid a low hanging branch.

When he straightened his eyes caught a glimpse of a human outline directly ahead. A few more strides from Wing put the partially hidden figure in plain sight. The person appeared to be gathering mushrooms, placing them into a wicker basket.

Further study told Heero that a female was doing the wild harvesting. Each time the maiden bent over a long braid of reddish hair slipped over her back and each time she stood up it would sway along her hips. The fact that she was dressed in trousers did seem peculiar but Heero was unfamiliar with the local customs so he did not dwell on the odd attire.

Realizing that the maiden had to live nearby Heero decided to inquire about shelter. Even if his night's lodging was in a barn or stable it made no difference. The war had taught him to be thankful for any refuge no matter how humble.

"Excuse me Miss, can you help me?" Heero called loudly above the approaching storm. He had no wish to frighten her or cause any trouble. Simple directions to a reasonably dry haven was all that was required and then he would be on his way.

The maiden pivoted to follow the phantom voice until she found the owner sitting astride a handsome horse. Judging by the stranger's garments and the sword sheathed at his side she immediately recognized him as a soldier.

Standing boldly before the warrior and his mount the young lady did not seem afraid or even mildly curious. Setting down the basket she walked nearer. "I am not a Miss but perhaps I can help you." she...I mean he...replied.

It was not unusual for the men of Heero's time to wear their hair long. Heero's heavy mane had grown considerably during the war, so much so that he often pulled it back in a ponytail. But hair of that extreme length was rare especially among the peasants who had their hair shortly shorn to keep it from becoming tangled as they worked. No...long hair was usually reserved for the elite who had the time and funds to care for it properly.

However this man, whom Heero guessed to be about his age, had maintained his lengthy locks in excellent condition. The cinnamon tresses shone with a luster that raveled the fairest noblewomen Heero had known. Equally shiny bangs feathered over his forehead and stray strands curved over high cheekbones in a very becoming fashion.

Upon closer inspection Heero discovered that even though the hair might say "female" that the strong shoulders and narrow hips were definitely male. And the trouser's coarse fabric, while not as delicate as the imported silk that clothed the "Ladies of the Manor", was not nearly thick enough to conceal the unquestionable bulge of manhood.

Heero felt his face flush as he realized he was spending far too much time gazing at the man's lower region. Averting his eyes he hoped that the uncharacteristic blush would not be noticed.

"I beg your pardon...sir." Heero fumbled over his words wishing that the fitful wind would quickly cool his hot cheeks.

The young man with the incredible hair paused to pat Wing's velvety nose. "Do not worry about your mistake," he stated stepping up beside Heero's leg, "the error is easily made. Now how may I help you?"

Heero found himself staring again. This time it was not his surprise that the "she" was a "he" or his fascination with the braided hair but what now captured his attention was the voice. There was a magical sound as the words flowed over two perfectly parted lips. There was a sweet melody that spoke of honey and cream and a lilt that would put the songbirds to shame.

A sturdy crack of thunder snapped Heero out of his trace. The gale rose stiffly at his back and windblown droplets began to pelt the soldier and his horse. Heero leaned into the fine spray, "Could you direct me to shelter for the night?" he shouted above the howling wind that caused his cape to flare out behind him.

The beautiful stranger lifted a slender hand to shield his face, "I have room in my house." he answered locking his sight on the lone warrior.

Lightning slithered through the angry sky like a serpent. As the heavens blazed and the white light momentarily sparkled across the man's eyes Heero was yet again held in awe. Those eyes that suddenly seemed older than the man's youthful exterior were the strangest shade of violet.

An involuntary gasp caught in Heero's chest and it took all his presence of mind to remember to breathe again. Was this person not a man after all but an angel sent to guide Heero home? How could a man be so beautiful? And how could someone who Heero didn't know existed just minutes before beguile him so thoroughly?

"Now would be a good time to decide." The man declared as the wind whipped his braid around his neck.

The rain stinging Heero's face and the chilly wind sending a shiver down his spine helped him fight off his puzzled amazement. He blinked but regained only a degree of his composure. "What?" he mumbled still spellbound by the beautiful boy.

The young man picked up his basket and glanced down the path, "Do you want to come home with me or not?" he asked moping back damp bangs from his enchanting eyes.

Heero shook his head sending his heavy mane cascading over his shoulders. "Yes I would like to go home with you. Thank you sir."

"Sir is too formal," the man replied with a hint of amusement in his honeycomb voice. "My name is Duo."

"Just Duo?"

"That is enough name, isn't it?"

A slight smile tugged at Heero's mouth as he offered his hand, "Ride with me Duo." he invited.

Duo handed Heero the basket, clasped the offered hand and in one fluid motion slipped up behind the soldier. He took back the basket holding it in one hand and with the other hand loosely held onto Heero's waist.

"It is not far." he stated nodding down the path.

As the clouds burst and the thunder boomed and the lightning set the sky on fire Wing needed no additional encouragement to set off at a gallop. Like his master and the mysterious rider he had no wish to prolong their exposure to the foul elements.

********

The small thatched roof house set on a higher level than the path. It was not clear whether the difference in elevation was intentional or if over time the ground around it had worn away. But the raised placement kept the water streaming downhill and not inside, which was good, since the sky had decided to weep out all its tears at once.

A faint yellow glow shone around shutters that were shut up against the rain and the thin trail of smoke that drifted from the stone chimney told Heero that light and some measure of warmth awaited inside.

Heero swung his leg over the saddle and slid his soggy rear end over Wing's drenched side. The awkward dismount landed in the sloppy soil splattering mud over his boots. His cape stuck binding his arm as he reached up to take the mushroom laden basket.

Heero's newly found host displayed a more graceful descent seeming to float rather than plunge from Wing's back. "Go in." the young man instructed handing Heero the basket and tilting his head towards the door. "I'll put up your horse and make sure he is fed and dry."

Heero hesitated. It was not that he didn't trust the man even though he knew nothing about him and probably should have been a bit weary but as a soldier he took care of his own responsibilities.

But being in a waterlogged condition and knowing that his host, too, was soaked to the skin Heero decided that standing in the storm debating the finer points of ethical behavior was not practical.

"Thank you." he replied turning towards the simple dwelling.

Duo made a clicking sound with his tongue then tugged on the reins to guide Wing to the crude but comfortable stable.

**********

Rusty hinges squeaked in protest as Heero pushed open the door and entered a single room half the size of his bedroom at home. To his left a fireplace glowed with flaming logs and red embers. A rough-hewn table and three plain chairs set in the center. A tall cupboard and freestanding clothes closet took up most of the back wall. To the right a rectangle frame built into the floor held a straw mattress and two tightly woven blankets.

Larger baskets of vegetables sat by the fireplace. Wild onions and various dried herbs filled smaller baskets and several bottles of homemade wine were nestled in a straw lined box.

An iron kettle rested on the blackened hearth next to the wood box and fire tools. A pot of stew bubbled over the fire. What appeared to be biscuits had been wrapped in an unbleached cotton napkin and placed in a wooden bowl on the cupboard.

Delicious scents from the cooking pot triggered Heero's hunger and the fire hastily reminded him that he was chilled to the core. He set the basket on the table and with extra effort removed his cape and draped it over a chair to dry. His mud-splattered boots were placed by the hearth.

Rubbing his hands together to increase the blood flow Heero leaned nearer to the fireplace's welcome warmth. Stringy strands of hair curtained his face making him wish that he had a cord to tie back the bothersome tresses.

Outside the wind howled, the shutters rattled but the fierce weather could not invade the tiny thatched habitat. All around the war-worn soldier were tiny comforts that turned the house into a tidy home. A wine bottle filled with wildflowers set on the table and, to his surprise, Heero discovered several books lying on the bed.

"There is more to this man named Duo than appears on the surface." Heero mumbled to himself as his finger traced over one book's tattered cover. "If he can read...." The last words were cut off by a boom of thunder making Heero very thankful that he and Wing was not out in the downpour.

As Heero stood in the middle of many contradictions he began to wonder if his previous speculations about the man's place of origin, either earthly or heavenly, might require further investigation.

Yes there was definitely an unexplained essence sharing the house with the perplexing man. Every corner, every inch exuded an energy that tingled in Heero's gut-level instincts. But whether those transcendental sensations were spectral or spiritual in nature Heero could not tell.

Flickering firelight danced over the planked walls and log-beam ceiling mingling solid objects and vague silhouettes into a strange distortion of light and shadows. This merger of purplish gloom and fanciful twinkling could have easily fooled Heero's eyesight and caused his imagination to go beyond rational reasoning if he had been inclined to engage in nonsensical fantasies.

"Your dreams are enough to handle now." Heero sighed retuning to the fire to ward off a stubborn chill.

With another creak the door opened and Heero's enigmatic host hurried inside. Even soaked, with his bangs hanging in wet ribbons over his face, the young man was still stunning. "The heavens must really be sad." Duo stated wringing water from his braid.

"Let me light a lamp." he offered searching through the wood box for a long stick. The stick was lit from the fire then the flame was carefully transferred to an oil lamp on the table. More phantasmic illusions were set in motion and the tingle in Heero's insides amplified.

"Please sit down." Duo motioned to a chair before placing the mushrooms in the wicker container with the dried herbs. Returning to the table Heero's host motioned again. "Let me have your coat." he instructed.

Heero handed over his dark blue uniform coat and the man hung it over a rope fastened from corner to corner. " It rains here a lot in spring so I have to dry inside most of the time. I am sure you must be hungry," he continued stirring the stew pot. "Let me get bowls and we will eat."

As much as Heero wanted a to ease his hunger pangs he had to the honest with Duo, "I have nothing to give you in return."

Duo took two wooden bowls, cups and spoons from the cupboard and set them on the table. "Your company is all that I require." he stated gathering up the biscuits and a bottle of wine.

Duo filled the bowls with stew and sprinkled a few dried herbs on top for flavor. "Be careful its hot." he cautioned as he set a bowl at each place. "Sorry there is no meat." he added with a sigh.

Heero dipped into the steaming vegetables and blew to cool off the spoonful. "Mmmm...good." he declared savoring the delicious stew.

The compliment caused a small smile to grace Duo's lips, "It isn't fancy but its filling and there is plenty."

Heero replied pulled a biscuit in half and dipped into the thick broth. "This is far better than what I normally had at camp."

Duo swallowed and washed his bite down with a sip of wine. "You were in the war?"

Heero shook is head, "Yes but I am trying to put that behind me now." he answered quietly lowing his eyes to gaze at his bowl.

Both men remained silent for awhile taking the time to enjoy the food and each other's company. Duo could tell by Heero's reaction to his question that the soldier wished to forget the war and its horrors or at least try. Besides there were plenty of pleasant conversations that didn't involve man's senseless disputes and the life alterations that they caused.

Heero finally broke the silence, "So your only name is Duo?"

"Yes."

"But you must have a surname."

Duo pulled apart another biscuit, "I have no family left and no records," he explained, "so I am just me and that is sufficient for my needs."

"Have you always lived here?"

"No just five years."

"And before that?" Heero pressed even though Duo's history was none of his business.

"There." Duo replied pointing in the direction of the distance mountain range.

Then Duo decided that it was time to redirect the soldier's line of thought, "Where is your home?"

"On the other side of the Great Mountains."

"Do you have family there?"

"My father, an aunt and several cousins." Heero replied scooping up the last spoonful of stew.

"Would you like some more, I know you still must be hungry."

"Yes, please."

Heero's bowl refilled Duo settled back in his chair to enjoy his wine. "No brothers or sisters."

"No only me."

"I bet that your father is proud of you." Duo commented then immediately regretted his statement.. The grieved look that flickered over Heero's eyes told him that, probably, Heero and his father had not been in agreement over his decision to join the army.

"Forgive me, I shouldn't be so meddlesome."

Heero acknowledged the apology with a silent nod before the hint of sadness was replaced by drooping eyelids. Despite his best efforts he couldn't stifle a yawn.

Duo took immediate notice of Heero's weariness. "I think we need to get settled for the night." he announced, "Go on to bed and I will clean up." he insisted.

"I can't take your bed," Heero replied with equal insistence, "If you can spare a blanket I will be fine on the floor by the fireplace."

"The floor is too hard and the wind too furious." Duo declared, "There is plenty of room and I do not mind sharing. Now to bed with you before I make you sleep in the stable." he winked.

Heero unbuckled his sword and carefully laid it on the floor within easy reach. There was still too much soldier in him to ever be too far from his weapon. His boots came off next but like the sword they were also set within easy reach.

His back ached and his cold-stiff muscles complained as he eased down on the surprisingly soft straw mattress. Unfolding a blanket he spread the woolen cover over his exhausted body.

Turning on his side Heero fought to stay awake so he could watch Duo as he busied himself with his kitchen chores. The plates, cups and spoons were placed in a wooden bucket and put out in the rain to soak. The morning would be soon enough to scrub off any remaining food. The pot was set on the hearth, that, too, could wait until the next sunrise.

The wind had calmed and the pounding rain had evened out into a steady patter on the roof. One last check of his handiwork and Duo blew out the lamp. Once more the fire evoked shivering shadows. A few more logs, added to bank the blaze for the night, sparked up tiny embers and momentarily brightening the night-shrouded room.

Slipping off his own battered boots Duo slid them under the table so no one would tip over them should they find it necessary to get up during the night. Heero's fatigued-dulled mind barely registered the straw shifting as Duo slipped in next to his guest and the second blanket was employed against the tattletale dampness

"Good dreams." Duo wished with his own drowsy yawn before he realized that his bedmate had already fallen asleep. With a sigh Duo tucked his braid under the blanket then curled on his side with his back toward Heero.

**********

Shiny slivers of moonlight crept between the shutters. The rain had ceased and wisps of silver clouds drifted across the star-studded sky. Like silken threads the thin strips rippled across Heero's hair then shimmered down his cheeks lending a faint glow to his golden skin.

Determined to rouse the sleeping soldier the invading light paused over his eyes as the clouds dissolved away to let the unfiltered rays shine through. Heero eyelids tightened against the increased glare but the light would not give up its taunting. Slowly the lids parted. One blink, the another to ease into the unwelcome brightness.

Pushing heavy hair over his shoulder Heero exposed his entire face to the light. With cruses grumbled under his breath he raised a hand to shield his partly opened eyes then rubbing his flattened palms over the tacky film that blurred his vision.

Propping up on one elbow the rudely awakened soldier squinted at the uncooperative slats that had allowed the heavenly light to sneak through. He was about to change his position to face away from the annoying brilliance when he realized that he was alone.

"Perhaps nature called." Heero muttered but if Duo had indeed gone outside to "take care of business" he had been away long enough for his body's imprint in the straw to get cold.

Heero shrugged, "His house, his business." he sighed untangling the blanket and preparing to return to his interrupted slumber.

The night breeze moved about on cat's paws but its prowling was not completely silent. A faint noise was carried through the window to touch Heero's hearing. At first he assumed that it was an owl or some other nocturnal creature making the odd sounds but upon closer scrutiny he discovered that someone was singing.

"Not awake." he told himself believing that his senses were still affected by the remnants of sleep. But his ears heard the melodious tune, his mind told him that the song was real and that it was coming from outside.

While his soldier's instincts urged him to investigate, Heero's sleep-starved body only wanted to return to dreamland. The singing came again. Sweet notes drifted on each puff of air, the tune continued the entice Heero to rise from the bed's warmth and step out into the moon-drenched night.

Finally giving into the mysterious calling Heero sat up, rubbed more residue from his eyes and got shakily to his feet. Stopping by the dwindling fire he pulled on his boots and draped his cape over his shoulders to ward off the dewy chill.

Heero paused outside to let his eyes adjust. Now the singing was clearly heard but it had taken on a measured rhythm, a mantra of repeated syllabic sounds. Again his instincts prodded him to find the strange cadence's source as his soul was quickly becoming bewitched by Siren's song.

A narrow path cut across the forest border. As if to encourage his search the clouds gave up their misty veil to allow the full moon rule over the heavens. A single shaft illuminated the path and the breeze gently parted the low hanging branches.

Without any consideration for his safety, Heero set a straightway course down the well-worn trail. The forest towered on both sides and he swore that something with glowing eyes watched him from the leafy concealment. Each step through the seemingly enchanted forest brought him nearer to the object of his quest. Now he could plainly hear the voice as well as the hauntingly beautiful song.

Part Three:

Ahead the path crooked to the right. Heero didn't waver for he was now totally entranced by the angelic music. Just beyond a stand of saplings a moonlit meadow was tucked away in secret security. Heero pushed aside a handful of slender branches being careful to keep himself well hidden.

His eyes widened and his heart skipped a beat at what the parted branches revealed. A person knelt by a rocky outcrop and even though he could only see the person's back Heero knew at once that it was his absent host.

Duo's thick braid had been undone. The freed hair cascaded over his shoulders, flowing in henna-hued waves that glistened like fairy wings and the lengthy gossamer mane did not stop until it pooled on the ground.

Heero drew in an involuntary breath and held it in utter fascination. Duo was singing, no, chanting out the verse but the words were foreign to Heero's ears. Duo's entire body swayed in time with the repetitious phrases and with each sideways movement his hair slithered across his hips like a silky serpent.

Heero tilted his head trying to decipher the ancient dialect, to understand the tongue. He had never heard anything akin to the language but he knew that even in his eighteen years he had learned very little about the world beyond the Great Mountains.

Then the next mystery unfolded. Directly in front of Duo a large hole yawned from the hillside. The cave's entrance was at least six times as tall as Heero, more that fifty feet wide and so black that even the full moon's brilliance was kept at bay.

Had Heero stumbled upon some pagan rite? Were spirits or demons or the devil himself being summoned from the Nether World? His corporeal part told him to run, to get Wing and ride away before his soul was lost. His curious nature, the part that usually got him into trouble, begged for further investigation. Had he been right to question Duo's place in his world? Was the mysterious man human or spawned from another realm?

"Duo who are you and why have you beguiled me?" Heero whispered as the wind blew hot against his face.

After an internal debate, a struggle between his rational reason and his bothersome inquisitiveness, Heero's need to learn the truth won out. Again without regard to his safety or the possible dire consequences, the soldier slipped from behind the trees and boldly marched into the clearing.

As Heero walked closer the peculiar chant grew louder until it seemed to bounce inside his head. The baffling words, that defied identification, became a source of frustration that unraveled Heero's already threadbare patience. Now his steps were guided by a compelling urgency, as he was afraid that Duo might vanish before he had a chance to discover the boy's true nature.

The closer Heero moved the warmer the air blew and there was a faint odor that also could not be named. It wafted from no particular direction but he could strongly smell, even taste, the strange scent.

Several long strides closed the gap. Duo continued his chanting and swaying unaware of Heero's approach. One more step and Heero was near enough to touch Duo's hair-caped back. A deep breath fortified his courage, a slow exhalation shored up his nerve.

"Duo." he called not wanting to startle the obviously entranced man. "Duo." he repeated louder but received no response.

Heero's hand trembled as it closed over Duo's shoulder. It brushed through the reddish strands and a tingle coursed up his arm as his fingers found bare skin beneath the smooth mane.

At the slight touch Duo let out a yell that reverberated across the trees. He shot straight up and stumbled backwards colliding with the equally shocked soldier. Arms flailing against his unknown attacker Duo brought both fists to bear on Heero's chest. He gritted his teeth fighting through the curtain of hair that tangled about his slim body.

Heero threw up both arms to block the flying fists and stepped aside to avoid the kicks that had been added to Duo's punishing assault. Intercepting the wild punches Heero grabbed each wrist in a firm but gentle hold. Using his taller height to his advantage the trained soldier stepped forward, jerked down Duo's arms and pinned them to his side.

"It's all right." he declared trying to stay clear of Duo's still free feet. "Duo it's Heero."

Duo let out a throaty growl that sent chills up Heero's spine and made him once again question his origin. Realizing that Duo's protective instincts were not going to be reached any other way Heero gave him a sturdy shake, "LOOK AT ME!" he screamed.

Duo's head snapped up at the stern command. His fear-enlarged violet eyes locked with Heero's cobalt glare that was designed to demand his attention. Then as if all the fight left him at once, Duo drooped in Heero's grasp. Panting to the point of faintness and damp with sweat he tottered on rubbery legs as Heero's supported his almost dead weight.

Quickly Heero's glare lost its intensity as he realized the Duo's was naked except for his breechcloth. A simple silver cross hung from a beaded cord making another contradictory statement. Pale moonbeams glistened over his moist creamy skin and danced on his hair creating a thousand pinpoints of ruby-tinted light. Duo's chest heaved from his exertion. His eyes, even though they had lost some of their wild sight, still bored through Heero into his soul.

"I..." Heero began but his ability to form rational thoughts was overcome by the seductive sight of Duo's barely clothed body. He swallowed hard to find his voice and to gather in his wandering concentration. Finally he was able to construct a halfway intelligent sentence.

"I'm sorry." he apologized hoping that he hadn't scared Duo too badly. "I never should have intruded." he added knowing that he had trespassed on Duo's privacy.

"What are...you...doing here?" came the husky question as Duo fought to regulate his breathing.

"I woke up and you were gone and I...." Heero began to explain before a low rumble echoed from the cave.

The distant growl rapidly rose in volume. A monstrous bellow boomed off the rocky walls and a blinding flash lit up the blackened hole. The subtle odor that Heero had previously noticed was now more potent as a mixture of sulfur and smoke shot into the suddenly super-heated air.

Something massive moved just inside the hollow hillside. A hulking form slowly materialized from the deep darkness. Moonlight flickered across what appeared to be green scales. With a swiftness that betrayed its huge size a long-necked beast emerged from the cave's ebony recesses.

Heero froze in place as the unearthly creature covered the space between them in one leap. He stood in frightened amazement as webbed wings unfurled from broad shoulders and fluttered in apparent rage. Two eyes the color of blood bore down on the stunned soldier. A scaly snout puffed out spark-laced smoke that rankled in Heero's nose and sent a nauseous wave crashing in his gut.

The combination of fear and sickness quickly sapped Heero's strength and his weakened knees began to wobble. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again but no sound escaped over his ashen lips. His hands slid off Duo who was now on his own if he wanted to remain standing.

Somewhere in Heero's mind his military training seeped into his muddled senses. An adrenaline rush surged through his muscles triggering sudden activity. Clumsily he fumbled for his sword only to discover that it was still lying beside the bed. His fingers clawed at where the weapon should have been and snagged nothing but thin air.

His feet made an attempt to move but his legs wouldn't follow suit. In his panicked rush to get away Heero stumbled backwards but his unsteady gate became entangled in gnarled tree roots. With an awkward flinging of arms to keep his balance Captain Heero Yuy went sprawling on his backside and hit with a thud as his buttocks met the ground.

Helplessly Heero sat among the tangled vegetation staring up into scarlet eyes that seemed to blaze with inner fire. The winged creature leaned nearer to the terrified warrior who, even in the fiercest battle, had never known such gripping fear.

The beast's lips curled back to expose twin rows of yellowish teeth. Another hellish breath belched from the sneering mouth and a green forked tongue slithered over the razor-tipped fangs tasting the air. A long tail with a barbed end twitched raising drifts of leaves from the forest floor.

"Holy saints save me." Heero pleaded as the tongue lapped close to his face. Shutting his eyes he prayed that his death would be quick and reasonably painless and that he would not spend the next several days slowly digesting in the great beast's belly.

Heero could feel the hot currents gushing against his face, smell the stench from the creature's rancid insides. "Please let it end quickly." he begged the heavenly deities or whatever fates ruled man's destiny.

"Shinigami down." Duo's voice broke through Heero's terror-swamped mind. The air cooled and the sickening scent decreased in its severity.

Cautiously Heero cracked opened his eyes ready to squeeze them shut if the monster was still hovering above him but as his sight readjusted to the light he saw the green beast lying docilely by Duo's feet. Its scaly head was propped up on a rock and its eyes were half-closed in pure pleasure as Duo stroked its snout.

Blinking to be certain that his vision was not playing tricks Heero took a long, confused moment to decide if what he was seeing was real. "Duo?" he called meekly afraid that any loud noise might rouse the contented creature.

Duo, his skin so perfect next to the rough scales, looked like a porcelain doll. His unbound hair covered his nakedness and stray chestnut strands lay in the creases of the beast's leathery hide. It was an odd picture, the boy and the beast, one that caused Heero to recall a boyhood story about a lady that by her beauty alone could tame the most fearsome creatures.

Duo glanced around at the Heero as he sat humbly in the soggy soil. A slight smile graced his lips before he spoke. "It is all right, come here." he invited with a wave of his hand.

Shivering like a gale-battered leaf and his heart hammering in his chest Heero did not feel like a soldier at all. Even though he had no reason to doubt Duo's assurances that it was all right to move, the giant reptile made him hesitant. Duo seemed to have control but if the beast believed that his master was threatened...well...better to be safe than sorry.

Duo sensed the shaking soldier's reluctance to stir from his sanctuary but even with the dividing distance that Heero perceived as secure, Duo knew that Shinigami could swallow up Heero before he had time to think much less move.

Leaning closer to where Heero figured was Shinigami's ear Duo whispered another command. With a lazy stretch the winged beast rose to his clawed feet, nuzzled its master's hand and strolled back into the cave. But Heero could still see twin pinpoints of red staring from the gloom putting him no notice that he had better treat his master with respect.

With extraordinary grace Duo glided over the clearing. It did not appear to matter that his feet were bare or his lithe body was exposed to the unfriendly elements. "Come here." he invited as he offered his hand.

One look into Duo's violet orbs and Heero immediately stopped shaking. Duo nodded and he responded without delay taking his hand. As he centered his feet and stood on stronger legs, Heero again wondered how Duo could so easily hold sway over both beasts and humans alike.

Duo tucked Heeo's hair behind his ears then let his fingers brush lightly across his cheeks as his hands dropped away. "Are you all right?" he asked as a single moonbeam flashed over his expressive eyes.

"Yes." Heero replied discovering that his voice was also stronger. "What in the hell just happened?" came the next question as his mind was still overwhelmed by confusion.

"Let's go back to the house and I will explain everything." Duo promised as the night chill raised goose bumps on his skin.

Heero removed his cape and wrapped his around Duo's perfect porcelain body. "I believe I need a sturdy sip of wine." Heero announced as they started down the path.

Inside the cave, veiled in comforting darkness, the great nocturnal beast curled up, rested his snout on his paws and closed his fiery eyes. A faint puff of smoke was expelling with a contented sigh before Duo's dragon drifted off into dreamland.

Part Four:

Fully dressed and his hair tied back in a loose ponytail, Duo added a log to the dying fire sending up a blast of red embers. The sparking and the smoke clearly recalled Heero's recent creature encounter. A quiver made an assault run up his spine as his body reacted to the frightening stimulus.

Watching the renewed blaze Heero felt as though he was staring into hell. More than a sip of wine, he decided, was required to calm his rattled nerves and restore color to his pale cheeks He chugged down a bracing gulp of the fermented liquid gladly giving into its numbing influence.

Duo sat down opposite his distressed houseguest and poured a cup for himself. He let the wine warm his throat then spoke. "I promised you an explanation."

Heero tilted back his head to get the last drop then refilled his cup. Something told him that he was going to need a lot more fortification to hear Duo's details. Another swallow created just enough buzz in his brain to let him relax. "You own me six years of my life," he stated in slightly slurred words, "because that was what was scared out of me tonight."

"Your fright is not my fault," Duo stated with a bit of annoyance, "if you had stayed in bed instead of wandering about the forest you would not have to worry about lost years."

Heero tried to muster up a menacing glare but it was becoming extremely difficult to focus his eyes and his brew-muddled mind. "I know what you are." he declared before taking another stiff drink.

A thin-lipped grin poised on Duo's mouth. "Really? Why don't you enlighten me?"

The sloshed soldier studied Duo's request for clarification. Finally an answer wormed its way through his mind's inebriated haze. "You are a wood sprite or some other damnable devil." He paused to realign his straying train of thought. "Or a warlock...yes...how else could you command such a hellish beast?"

Duo sat down his cup and leaned closer to the quickly deteriorating young man, "I am neither a devil nor a warlock, I am a Dagon Keeper."

"A Drag...." Heero stammered, as he was certain that the wine had finally pickled his brain. "Dragon Keeper." he repeated to plant the idea firmly in his mind.

Kindly Duo laid his hand on Heero's and used the gentle touch to get his attention. "My grandmother and my mother before me were Keepers of the "Guardian of the Flames". When I became thirteen the scared duty was passed on to me."

Duo waited until Heero absorbed the information then continued. "For the last five years I have studied the ancient texts, chanted the smoothing songs and tended Shinigami and he has offered me his protection in return."

"Impossible, dragons do not exist." Heero insisted then frowned when he discovered that the wine bottle was empty.

"Then what did you see tonight?"

"It was a mental mirage caused by stress and lack of sleep." Heero proclaimed, "No more than that." he added trying to convince himself that the winged reptile was borne of the trauma of war.

"What did your senses tell you?" Duo prodded the soldier to trust his judgment.

Heero stared. He was not certain what riddle the braided devil was employing to bewitch him further. "My senses?"

"Yes, your sight."

"I saw green scales and wings and crimson eyes."

"Your nose?"

"The smell of sulfur like smoke after a battle."

"Your ears?"

"An unearthly roar.

"Your taste?"

Heero shook his head, "Bitter on my tongue, the aftertaste of death."

"And finally your touch?" Duo concluded the questions.

"Hot breath, cold shivers...fear" Heero lowered his eyes to hide the welling tears. "Please no more." he whispered as he fought the stinging behind his eyes.

Duo tightened his fingers over Heero's hand. "There are things in this world that require faith."

Duo placed his thumb under Heero's sagging chin to raise his head

line with his compassionate eyes. "What do you see when you look at me?"

Heero found himself sudden sober. "I see a man who sings to dragons." A single tear tracked down his cheek.

"Then that is all you need to know, all that you need to believe." Duo stated with the surety developed after witnessing many miracles. "In the morning I will tell you the full tale of how dragons came to coexist with humans. Come now we both need sleep."

Guiding Heero back to bed Duo eased him down on the straw mattress, slipped in beside and covered them with both blankets. Letting a single finger trail across his bedmate's temple Duo used the tender touch to encourage Heero to settle down.

As Heero's eyes became heavy and his body was lulled into sleep's drowsy twilight a voice whispered inside his slumber-claimed mind. "Maybe Duo is a saint who was sent to save your soul."

**********

"RETREAT!"

The command resounded over the cannon's deafening report. Thick smoke burned in Heero's lungs and the blast blinded his sight as he scrambled over the corpse-covered battleground.

There was no orderly withdrawal but mad confusion among the outnumbered soldiers. The cannon roared again and huge chucks of dirt showered over the panicked men.

Jolted by the blast Captain Yuy tottered on the edge as the gorged ground opened up in front of him. Tumbling into the hole he clawed at the loose soil but it continued to fill in around him. Over his boots--his knees--his waist--the gritty ground rose higher. Arms were pinned beneath the earthen onslaught, his shoulders held fast.

Dust invaded his nostrils, his dry lips parted but his screams were silenced by the strangulating soil. The gaping hole sucked him under, deeper...darker. Now Heero floated in a black void, no sound, no movement.

Then they came again, the beasts with the blazing eyes, belching out fire that flared through the darkness. Massive wings whipped the smoke into spiral funnel clouds. They bellowed and snarled as they swooped over the helpless soldier.

Scorching breath burned hot over Heero's trapped body. He closed his eyes and prayed that he would either wake up or die because one way or the other he had to escape the recurring dream. "Let me go." he begged the beasts just like he had all those times before.

"You belong to us." the creatures always answered, "There is no one strong enough to stand against us." the collective voices would proclaim.

"There is one who can overcome." a phantom voice that had never spoke before declared.

Heero stained to follow the voice, to see the silhouette that reared up in the backwash of blazing light. Slowly the shape emerged until its full aspect could be clearly seen.

"Shinigami." Heero whispered in awe. "Please." he implored of the great dragon.

Duo rolled over and sat up as Heero twitched in the throes of his dark dreaming. "Please." the word was repeated with a whimper.

"Heero wake up." Duo called rubbing Heero's arm to encourage him awake.

"Duo." Heero mumbled as a frown contorted his face, sweat beaded on his forehead and his eyes moved rapidly under his eyelids.

Duo called again with more volume. "Heero wake up now."

With a startled intake of air and a body-contorting shudder the dreaming soldier was jolted awake. Wild eyes darted jerkily and his hands flew up to bat away the nightmare images plainly pictured in his mind's eye.

Duo grabbed the flinging hands both for his and Heero's safety. "Easy." He held on hoping that the wild imaginings would quickly run their course.

Eyes unfocused and muscles straining as he struggled against the perceived terrorizing demons Heero's adrenaline-induced strength was multiplied tenfold.

Raising higher on his knees, Duo managed to force Heero's hands down until they were pinned on his chest. Then barely above a whisper Duo sang one the first primordial tunes that he had learned. He knew that Heero would not understand the words but it was the meter that he hoped would break the soldier's alarm.

As Duo had so many times before, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the resonance of his voice being careful to put the proper inflection on each phrase. Gradually the tone seeped into Heero's panic-plagued senses. Bit by bit the baritone a cappella chased away the menacing creatures.

Heero shook less and his breathing slowed to a more regulated pattern. "It's all right." Duo reassured the shaking solder before repeating the pacifying song.

"Shinigami save me." Heero begged weakly as his strength gave out leaving him chilled and drained.

"Shinigami will guard over you just as he takes care of me. Relax." he encouraged Heero to trust his promised protection.

Heero locked his watery eyes on Duo's kind face and found himself captured by the Dragon Keeper's sheltering gaze. "I believe." he stated huskily as the words struggled through a raspy throat.

Duo smiled that knowing smile. "Believe what?"

"In things seen and unseen...that nothing is impossible."

Pulling Heero into a secure embrace, Duo brushed back the handful of heavy bangs that interfered with his study of the Captain's cobalt sight. Pleased that Heero's eyes were alert and that most of the quivering had stopped Duo let out a satisfied sigh. "Trust your heart Heero and you will witness many marvelous wonders."

"Like dragons?"

Duo nodded as he laid his physically and emotionally drained guest back on the bed. As he tucked the blankets in place yet another time Duo took notice of Heero's improved condition. "Heero may I ask something of you?," he requested as they settled down to hopefully dreamless sleep.

Heero made an acknowledging noise in his throat.

"Would you consider me your friend?" Duo made the heartfelt request.

Heero turned to face the braided Dragon Keeper and immediately became lost in Duo's calming violet eyes. "Yes. I would be honored."

"Then please let a friend hold you and chase away the demons." Duo declared with a yawn before he tightened his arms and he and Heero drifted off together.

Part Five:

Pink shafts of dawn filtered through the shutters. A songbird's warbling urged Heero from his peaceful sleep. By degrees he let the morning sounds carry him to a state of awareness. For awhile he was content to lay still letting the new day gradually encroach on his consciousness.

The tempting scent of cooking hastened his waking up. Opening his eyes Heero saw Duo sitting by the fireplace stirring a steaming pot. His flowing hair was braided and the tip touched the floor.

Duo tapped a wooden spoon on the pot's side and set it aside on a plate. "Good morning." he greeted as he stood and stretched.

Heero moved with obvious effort. His shoulders were kinked, his back was stiff and his rump was bruised from the pervious night's backward fall. The after effects of his wine overindulgence made his head feel was twice as heavy and three times as big as it should be.

A tacky film clung to his eyes offering a blurred view of his host. "Mornin'." he mumbled rubbing away the stubborn film with the heels of his hands.

Duo squatted by the bed. "Wing has been fed and our breakfast is ready. Why don't you go to the well and wash your face." he suggested quietly so as not to further irritate Heero's hangover.

Cautiously Heero sat up and, with stiff joints protesting, eased to his feet. Duo took notice of his friend's limited flexibility. "After we eat I will take you to a place that will lessen your soreness. Now go on before the porridge gets mushy."

When Heero returned, more awake if not totally loosened up, Duo had set two bowls of oat porridge on the table. Freshly picked berries and honey added taste to the otherwise bland breakfast. Refreshing water helped to clear Heero's foggy head and improve his energy levels.

After helping Duo clean up the dishes and tidy the house, the Dragon Keeper and his friend took the path opposite the one leading to Shinigami's cave. The two travelers were in no hurry as they traversed the trail that wound lazily through the woodland. Trees swayed and the perfume of a dozen different flowers wafted in the intermittent breeze.

The path forked to the right ending by a ring of russet rocks that jutted abruptly from the multi-colored forest floor. Heero could just make out a subtle noise and see an oddly tinted mist drifting up from the circle's center.

Duo pulled a small pouch off of his shoulder and paused to observe his friend's reaction to the secretive pool. Cautiously Heero braced his hands on the ring's rocky rim and was surprised to find that it was unusually warm. Suddenly the thought that another beast might call the mysterious place home made him draw back

"There is nothing lurking there." Duo declared as he began to remove his cloths.

Heero cast a second guarded glance but was careful not to lean too close. "How do you know what I am thinking?" He was feeling quite uncomfortable with Duo's apparent ability to read his mind.

"Your body language speaks louder than your thoughts." Duo answered with an amused tone.

Heero pivoted about intending to issue a curt comment on his friend's cocky attitude but he found himself once again muted by Duo's state of undress. In the daylight his skin was creamier and the breechcloth more transparent as it did little to preserve the young man's modesty.

The mixture of sunlight and shadows that played over Duo's almost naked body confirmed that he was indeed human. But his display of unashamed innocence, his purity of spirit told Heero that Duo had the soul of an angel. The silver cross lent further conformation to Duo's angelic status.

Duo reacted to Heero's focused study with a shy smile then lowered his eyes to stare at his feet.

"I was interested in your cross." Even though Heero's statement was not totally truthful he did not want Duo to believe his attention was rude or lustful. Quite the contrary...he appreciated the stunning man standing before him.

Duo lifted the scared symbol to eyelevel. "It belonged to my mother." he sighed, "It is all I have to remember her."

"I'm sorry."

Duo nodded then broke the awkward silence. "Maybe if you undress neither of us will feel uncomfortable."

Heero took a deep breath, put aside his inhibitions and began to disrobe. He was surprised by his uncharacteristic bashfulness. As a soldier he had bathed with other males and thought nothing of it but this was not a matter of necessity. This encounter with Duo was of a casual nature and despite his encouragement Heero found himself plagued with his own bout of shyness.

Thankfully Duo did not stare as Heero's shirt and trousers were shed to reveal a muscular chest, flat stomach and trim hips. Duo did take notice of the ragged scar on Heero's shoulder and the longer whitish line running diagonally from just below his right nipple to his navel.

"Scars of the body and the mind." Duo thought to himself as the disfigurements provided graphic testimony to Heero's physical suffering and an explanation for his night terrors.

*********

Heero and Duo, both in a state of near nudity, sat in the hot spring's blue-green water. "This is nice." Heero declared as balmy bubbles pulsed over his chest and soothed his aching shoulders.

"The water has many healthful benefits."

Heero sighed as he closed his eyes and allowed the healing water to do its job. A light breeze feathered on his face chasing away thoughts of beasts and the worries of war.

Duo opened the pouch and extracted a handful of long-stemmed plants. "I know another way to help you feel better."

Curiously Heero opened his eyes and found Duo's smiling face looking back. "What's that?"

Duo rubbed the leaves between his wet palms. The pressure produced a milky sap that quickly coated his hands with a frothy foam. "Wet you hair."

Like a dutiful soldier Heero held his breath and ducked under the warm water. When he surfaced his heavy hair was plastered to his face and shoulders.

"Turn around." came the next playful command. Heero obediently complied.

Duo scooted up to Heero's back and began working the sap into his soaked mane. Soon a slick lather was expertly worked into his hair. As Duo's nimble fingers massaged his scalp, a hint of mint lent a soothing scent to the luxurious treatment.

Heero leaned back into the wonderful sensation letting his entire body to go limp against Duo's chest. "That feels so good."

"I told you I could make you feel better."

It took much too little time for Duo to coated every dark strand to it's lengthy end. All too soon the delightful shampooing was done. "Now rinse."

With extreme reluctance Heero gave up the comforting contact and slipped under the water leaving a trail of sudsy foam in his wake. He bobbed back up from the blue-green depths and shook his head like a great shaggy dog. Duo threw up his hands batting a the whipping locks. "Behave or I will get out." he announced his intensions to withdraw from the mock assault.

The last thing Heero wanted was to be deprived of his friend's company. " May I return the favor?"

Without pause Duo sloshed around giving his pool partner full access to his braid. Heero pulled the tie free and carefully undid the water-logged tresses. Copying Duo's technique Heero crushed more leaves and began the task of washing Duo's considerable amount of hair.

After Heero's attentive care Duo's hair was as shiny as silky spider webs glistening with morning dew. Now both men leaned back against the warm rocks with clean hair and revived spirits.

"You said you would tell me how dragons and humans came to live together." Heero reminded his host of his pervious promise.

Duo wiggled to find a comfortable position for his storytelling. "A hundred years ago a family was traveling across the Great Mountains. A band of highwaymen set upon them leaving only one survivor, a young girl named Meilan. She tried to find her way off the mountain but soon hunger and exposure took their toll and she laid down to die.

But when the lost maiden awoke she was not in heaven but in a cozy nest. A female dragon named Nataku had found her and settled her among the dragon babies. At such a tender age the child had no fear and quickly learned to live happily with the dragon clan.

Nataku, being a very wise dragon, knew that Meilan needed to be with her own kind so when she turned thirteen the dragon cradled the maiden in her claws and took her to a forest outside a valley village.

Meilan was sad to leave the only family she could remember and promised that every year on Spring Equinox eve that she would wait in the same forest. Nataku made an oath that she would return and take Meilan back to her mountain lair until the Autumn Equinox signaled the end of summer."

Duo paused to brush soggy bangs from his eyes. "Year after year Nataku kept her promise. Meilan grew older and one Equinox eve she introduced her daughter to the faithful dragon. More seasons passed and Meilan's daughter had twins, a boy and a girl and they, too, accompanied their mother and grandmother on their visits with Nataku."

Leaning closer to Heero, Duo lowered his voice in an air of secrecy, "I am a direct descendent of Meilan's lineage and Shinigami is one of Nataku's sons."

Heero nodded in acceptance of Duo's family tree however he had to admit that had he not seen Shinigami with his own eyes he would have thought that Duo was mad. "I wish I had your simply faith. I have a difficult time believing anything that is beyond what I can see or hear or touch."

"If I had not known Shinigami since birth I, too, would have been skeptical."

Heero shook his head, "I could never be like you, I could never surrender my trust, not totally."

"Because of my upbringing I view life differently but I still have many doubts about myself and my place in this world." Duo confessed giving Heero another reason to believe that he was of the human realm. "But let us not dwell on troubling things like doubts or fears. We have been given a beautiful day and we should not spoil it with negative talk."

"One day," Heero proclaimed with sadness, "then I must continue my journey home."

"Then we shall not waste another moment in idle conversation." Duo stood and held out his hand, "Let me show you more wonders." he invited as Heero took the offered hand.

**********

Heero and Duo laid on their backs watching the light play hide and seek among the leaves. As the noonday sun dried their bodies and brightened their spirits, they took simply pleasure in enjoying each other's company.

They spoke of pleasant things, happier times. But a twinge of sorrow clouded Heero's improved disposition as he wondered what his reception would be when he finally arrived home.

Would his father welcomed him or reject the wayward soldier that was once his son? Heero had changed, been transformed by unspeakable violence and he knew that he would never be the same again.

Heero also knew that if the proud Lord Odin could not find it in his heart to forgive his son, that in spite of the pain, he would still have no regrets about answering the King's call-to-arms.

Heero, too, was proud but it was not vanity or haughtiness that ruled his pride. No, a sense of honorable morality..."doing the right thing"...would allow Heero to go on. .

"Let's get dress and eat." Duo suggested.

Maybe this Dragon Keeper was more angel than human and his friendship was meant to save his soul. *You will be all right.* Heero's inner voice promised.

"I would be honored." Heero replied out loud to his friend's invitation to dine.

**********

Lunch was potatoes and the mushrooms gathered the day before boiled together. Flat bread, cheese and wine rounded out the simple but satisfying meal. While they ate Duo related more tales of his life as a Dragon Keeper.

He told about last winter when the snow was too deep to travel and how Shinigami had flown him to the village once a week to buy food. Of course the dragon had hidden in the woods and Duo had to avoid questions concerning how he made the weekly journey.

"There were people who believed that I was a wizard able to turn into smoke simply by wishing." he joked at the villager's primitive superstitions.

Heero did not think the matter was something to be taken lightly. "Weren't you afraid that they might come after you?" he asked in all seriousness for his friend's safety.

"When I was fifteen several men got drunk and showed up outside my house one night demanding that I surrender to the local magistrate and face changes of being in league with the devil." Duo recalled, " When I refused their not-so-polite request they prepared to break down the door. At the first angry shouts Shinigami reared up above the trees and sent a spray of smoke and sparks over the stunned men."

"I bet that changed their minds." Heero laughed as he realized that Duo had no need to fear anything.

A wisp of sadness flickered over Duo's eyes, "Yes after that night I had no reason to worry but it also isolated me from the villagers. Whenever I went into town no one would talk to me but the outcasts and the Gypsies."

Heero nodded as he remembered how he and his father had separated on bad terms the day he left. "I know how it feels to be rejected."

"The situation has improved. I do have friends among the Gypsies, they understand how being different can cause isolation but," Duo bowed his head and let out a weary sigh, "it is still hard."

"I would like to meet your friends."

Duo's head snapped up and his violet sight narrowed as he studied the soldier sitting opposite him. "My friends...why?"

"Because they are a part of your life and they make you happy."

"But the villagers..." Duo began but was cut off by Heero's raised hand.

"The villagers are unimportant, I don't have to answer to anyone about the company I keep." Heero leaned closer letting himself bathe in the brightness of Duo's incredibly beautiful eyes. "I will saddle Wing and we will ride together and I will hear no more reasons why we shouldn't go."

Heero secured his sword to his belt, put on his cape and went outside to ready Wing for his and Duo's ride into town. Duo redid his hair, slipped on his coat and secured the door.

Duo slid up behind Heero and held on to his waist. Tapping his heels Heero put Wing into motion. "Let us see what is around the next bend."

Part Six:

The village sat in a wide expanse of land on the Peacecraft Kingdom's eastern border. While a third of the people owned small farms in the surrounding countryside the majority of inhabitants dwelled within the township limits.

A single road ran down the center lined with shops, a blacksmith and stables, a combination tavern and inn and a simply timber and stone church. Most people lived above their places of business or in wood-framed houses that were scattered around the outskirts.

In an open area some distance off the road a band of Gypsies had pulled their brightly painted wagons into a circle and established a separate community from the townspeople. While the nomads were tolerated, they were not given equal status or granted the same legal rights. Anytime that something came up missing or livestock disappeared, the Gypsies were the first suspects and the last to be cleared of the blame.

Although the shaky coexistence between the "strangers" as they were often called and the villagers had been maintained for over a year, the band of thirty or so Gypsies were constantly reminded of their station in society and expected to stay in that preappointed place.

Still every night when the campfires blazed, the fiddles sang out their haunting tunes and the bewitching raven-haired girls danced there was always a secret audience, mostly local men, that viewed the colorful festivities from the forest's seclusion.

The locals had also put Duo in the outcast category so the Gypsies had extended him a warm welcome. The elders did not believe that Duo was a wizard nor it did not matter to them if the rumors were true about the braided man keeping company with dragons.

They did not care about a person's background or the amount of money in their pockets. All the wandering band demanded of anyone was a measure of virtue if not a totally godly life. They lived as a family and whether you were blood-kin or an outsider they expected loyalty among the camp.

Heero's attention was immediately drawn to the unusual wagons covered with scenes of faraway places. The vivid colors and mysterious images again reminded him of how sheltered he had been.

There was a different world beyond the Peacecraft's sovereignty. There were sights that one could only dream of...snow-crested mountains, great seas, forests filled with trees so tall they seemed to touch the sky and all those marvelous pictures were portrayed to please the eye and stir the heart.

Duo pointed the way into the camp's inner circle. All around men and women came closer to see whom the Dragon Keeper had brought along. Children paused in their play to point at the new arrivals.

Wing halted as a man stepped up beside the stallion. Once more Heero was made aware that he was but a small part of a greater world. "Greetings Duo." the man with slanted eyes called. Heero had heard of Orientals but had never thought that he would see one in the flesh. He couldn't help but marvel at the man's golden skin and his coarse hair that was as black as a moonless night.

"Hello Wufei. This is Heero."

Wufei bowed from the waist then locked his equally black eyes on the man with the sword. "Dismount." he urged with a wave of his hand. Duo slip gracefully to the ground, Heero followed.

"Come join me by the fire."

As Wufei and his guests settled themselves on a pair of rough-hewn benches two men who Duo didn't know were also invited to sit down. The taller man named Trowa had an accent that Heero couldn't identify. The other man introduced as Quatre was, in the opposite way, as striking as Wufei.

Quatre's complexion was fair, his hair flaxen and his eyes the same blue hue as robin eggs. It didn't take astute observation to know that Quatre and Trowa shared a special relationship. Holding hands was an obvious clue but even if the physical contact had not been openly displayed their body language, the way their eyes met, would have been sure evidence that they were lovers.

But what intrigued Heero was the odd way in which Trowa and Quatre communicated. Hand gestures had replaced the spoken word.

When Trowa noticed Heero's puzzlement he explained, "Quatre can hear but he is mute so we use a language done with our hands and the expression of our eyes."

Quatre offered a shy smile to Heero and made a sign. Trowa translated. "He says welcome."

"Thank you." Heero answered as he remembered that Quatre could hear his voice and understand his words.

The conversation continued. Duo caught up on the gossip. Wufei told of camp life. There had been yet another dispute with the locals, this time over fishing in the river.

When Heero commented that no one owned the river the Oriental snorted, "The people around here believe that everything belongs to them."

Quatre's nimble hands flew into a flurry of activity. "They would control the air if they could." Trowa decoded out loud as his partner expressed his view in an amazing animated fashion. It was clear that the young man had no shortage of opinions and did not let his lack of voice get in the way of articulating them.

It didn't take long for other camp members to join the quintet. Heero was not surprised to see the children flock around Duo. They easily recognized his purity of heart and perhaps they also sensed his connection to Shinigami and, like Heero, shared the same fascination.

Duo gave into a young Oriental girl's coaxing to braid her thick black hair. His fingers moved with expert swiftness and soon she sported a shorter version of his style. With a giggle she lifted the braid proudly showing everyone the Dragon Keeper's handiwork.

Wufei placed a kiss on his daughter's forehead then settled her into his lap. "Quatre play a song for us." he urged as Jen wiggled in anticipation.

Quatre smile shyly then cut his eyes at his green-eyed lover. "Yes play for us." Trowa encouraged, "I'll get your violin."

Quatre nodded "yes".

Trowa retrieved a battered case from a wagon then carefully handed it to Quatre. With a reverence in his touch Quatre removed the violin, plucked a few strings to check the tuning then tucked the treasured instrument under his chin.

He poised the bow over the taut strings. With practiced precision the bow was drawn back then something magical happened. Notes melted into a mellifluous resonance and the resonance into a breathtaking melody.

Quatre closed his eyes as the music flowed from his heart into his fingers. In the same fluid manner that Quatre's hands "spoke" they fingered the frets and wondrous sounds flowed forth. There was a longing in the notes, a sadness that sprang from his soul and spilled over in the hauntingly beautiful song.

A silence fell over the camp, over the entire forest. The birds stopped their twittering in deference to the skillful musician. Other forest creatures paused to perk their ears and dared to come closer to the human camp as they, too, were lulled by the sweet strains wafting over the woodlands.

What Quatre could not verbally say was clearly communicated by the caress of bow on strings as he poured his heart and soul into the music. He swayed in time to the rhythm, fingers gently persuading the meter and the bow floating over the stings like the wind over the willows.

Heero closed his eyes as he became thoroughly enthralled with the bittersweet song. His chest tightened with mounting sobs, his eyes stung with unshed tears. His heart ached for his loss...for comrades slain in battle, for a father who refused to accept his son as a soldier but, most of all, Heero secretly wept for himself.

There was a hole in his heart, an insurmountable gulf that he had no hope of crossing. Heero had stubbornly hardened his heart until he no longer had the physical fortitude or the mental strength to tear down the self-built barrier.

It was all that Heero could do to control his trembling. It took all his willpower to ward off the onslaught of weeping. The war had sapped his endurance, the night terrors had ruin his resistance and Quatre's mournful melody was about to be his final undoing.

Mercifully Quatre drew the bow across one last time holding the final mournful note until all of his sorrow was played out. With a soft sigh the meek young man opened his azure eyes and ended the assault on Heero's brittle emotions.

"Beautiful." Trowa expressed everyone's praise then leaned over to give his fair lover a appreciative kiss.

Duo didn't bother to hide the watery glaze that shimmered over his violet eyes. "Every time you play you touch my heart."

Quatre replaced the violin in its case, close the lid and signed to Trowa. "Quatre says thank you."

Jen turned in Wufei's lap and whispered close to his ear. Wufei whispered back then nodded toward Quatre. Jen slipped down, scurried to Quatre and gave him a hug.

Quatre returned the heartfelt embrace before Jen stepped back. Small hands made a simple sign..."I love you."

"I love you, too." Quatre replied.

Jen's innocence, like Duo's purity of spirit, stabbed through Heero's heart dissolving what little control he had managed to maintain. He could not defile their perfection with his barbaric sins. His brutish past, his bloodstained soul was not compatible with the Gypsies' peaceful way of life.

Suddenly he couldn't breathe, his heart hammered in his chest and he felt that if he did not flee that he would surly die. The identical panic that tore through his sleep and left him grappling and screaming was bringing on an unbearable faintness.

Heero's hand involuntarily curled around his sword searching for some degree of sustainment. His knuckles whitened as his fingers closed over the battle-scarred handle.

Duo immediately noticed how pale his friend had become. Further study saw beads of sweat across Heero's brow and a visible shaking in Heero's hand on his sword.

Without calling attention to himself Duo eased from his seat and went to Heero's side. "What's wrong?"

Heero fought to force words passed the constriction in his throat but all he could do was meet Duo's concerned face with pleading in his alarmed sight. Duo put a reassuring hand on Heero's arm. "I understand."

Turing to his friends Duo kept the pressure in place. "As much as Heero and I have enjoyed the music and certainly the company we must be on our way."

Trowa seemed perplexed at Duo's intensions to leave. "Must you go so soon?"

"I promised Heero that I would show him a few more sights before evening," Duo lied, "but I am sure that this will not be the last time you will see us." he finished using a gentle tug to get Heero on his feet.

Heero put on his soldier's facade and finally found his voice. "I must leave for my home in the morning. When I am settled I promised that I will return for a longer visit." Then as an afterthought he added, "Maybe I can arrange for you to come to my house so I can repay your hospitality."

Wufei gathered Jen in his arms and stood up. "We would be honored to visit but we are not often well-received." he stated the truth.

"You will be received in my home." Heero declared. He knew what it was like to be shunned and he had vowed that no one would ever experience that rejection, not by his hand.

"Then we will look forward to seeing you again." Wufei replied with a respectful bow.

Trowa offered his hand, "God guard you journey." Quatre smiled and Heero understood his silent blessing for a safe trip.

Letting Duo guide him to Wing Heero glanced back over his shoulder and offered Jen a strained smile as she waved goodbye.

**********

Once Wing had carried his uneasy master and Duo out of the camp's range Heero halted his stallion in a grove of stout oaks. Moping his damp face he struggled for the words to give Duo a much-deserved explanation for his strange behavior.

But Duo knew exactly what had trigged Heero's panic. Another squeeze preceded his understanding statement. "I know how fear can rob your breath and threaten to stop your heart."

Heero clenched his jaw and his mouth drew into a thin pale line. "I should be stronger." he growled as his embarrassment was quickly giving way to anger. But his rage was not directed at Duo but at himself for allowing the loss of control.

Captain Heero Yuy was a soldier and soldiers could not afford to have any emotional frailty. The slightest twinge of fear, a moment's indecision could cost lives and bring disgrace to his comrades.

Again his hands turned white as he gripped the reins so hard that the leather cut into his skin. "My father will not see me this way." he hissed under his breath before he realized that Duo had heard the determined declaration.

Duo leaned around so he could study Heero's eyes. "The only person you have to answer to is yourself. Your father's approval is not necessary for your self-worth."

Placing his hand under Heero's chin Duo made him turn his head until blue and violet eyes locked. "You are a good person, an honorable soldier. You have a kind soul and that is why you are hurting."

Heero tried to pull away but Duo would not let him. "Tonight we are going to do something to prove that the war has not ravaged your decency."

Heero relaxed, Duo's hand slid away. "What can you do for me? What is left to save?"

A smile blossomed on Duo's face and Heero swore that sparks flashed over his unusual orbs. "All the pieces are there. I will help you put them back together."

"And how to you purpose to do that?"

"By giving you a proper introduction to Shinigami." With that surprising announcement Duo nudged Wing and sent him off in a trot through the forest.

Part Seven:

The sun dipped lower along the horizon casting purple shadows over the trail. Wing moved with a casual gait apparently unaffected by Duo's announcement of his master's impending introduction to Shinigami.

However Heero was not as well satisfied. Flickers of memories, visions of green scales and fire tinged smoke belching into the night, gave him cause to be concerned. Again he had to question just how much sway Duo held over the mythical reptile.

The Dragon Keeper's insistence that the beast could be controlled did little to relieve the nagging doubts that fluttered inside Heero's brain like flame-entranced moths.

As Duo kept a loose grip around Heero's waist he didn't seem to have a worry in the world. His carefree posture and his tranquil gazing up through the forest's leafy canopy should have put Heero at ease but, still, what if the massive dragon took exception to the warrior? What if the lingering scent of blood and battle that Heero could never completely wash away triggered Shinigami's protective instincts?

Heero wiggled in the saddle readjusting his tense grip on the reins before Wing sensed the stress and became skittish. The last thing he wanted was to have his high-spirited steed spooked by a flighty, furry creature and go bolting down the path or worse rear up, throw both riders and run off stranding he and Duo in the ominous woods.

"Duo," Heero began then ducked under a low hanging branch, "I don't think...."

"You think too much." Duo interrupted the forthcoming protests.

"It is just that your dragon and I did not get off to a very good start."

"Shinigami is not MY dragon." Duo replied to Heero's assumption of his possessiveness of the great beast.

Heero pivoted in the saddle centering his attention on Duo. "That is even more reason for me to be concerned."

With his eyes aimed backward the skeptic soldier didn't see the next branch coming. "DAMN!" he exclaimed as the rough bark scraped his head and dislodged leaves tangled in his hair.

Duo didn't bother to hide his amusement but he did stop short of a full belly laugh. "I don't think you...will have to worry about losing... your head to Shinigami." he smirked as he struggled to quell a fit of giggles.

With a curt snort Heero twisted to face forward and put a deliberate stiffness in his shoulders. Behind his sulking friend Duo pressed a hand to his mouth to stifle his laughter as he used his free hand to extract a leaf from Heero's heavy hair.

Heero drew up at Duo's feathery touch but he knew that he could not keep up his pouting for long--not with the braided man's playful influence being practiced with such expert efficiency.

With a surrendering sigh Heero reached around, took Duo's hand and guided it back in place on his waist. "If that dragon does see fit to do me in I swear I will return from the grave and make your life a living hell." he promised his serious retribution should the unthinkable happen.

**********

Twilight arrived just as Wing, the Captain and the Keeper stopped in front of Duo's house. While Heero unsaddled Wing and gave him his supper of grain and water, Duo lit a lamp and stoked the fire. By the time Heero returned from the stable bowls of reheated soup, bread, honey and water was waiting for the hungry soldier.

When Heero questioned the lack of wine on the table Duo declared, "You do not need false fortitude to face Shinigami, you only need faith."

Heero found himself once again amazed at Duo's maturity. He marveled at the young man's wisdom.

"Heero do you trust me?"

"Yes."

"Now much?"

"Enough to leave my sword behind and let faith be my shield."

**********

Holding Heero's hand Duo lead the way through the shadow shrouded forest. He had made the trip so many times that his feet knew where each rock and root rested along the path. Even in the dusky darkness his eyes could see as they followed the map in his mind. "Watch that hole. Mind that branch." Duo would advise using words and touch to guide Heero around or over each obstacle.

Slowly the rocky clearing materialized from the ghostly gloom. Like an army of apparitional warriors gnarled trees guarded the mysterious place. As Heero's eyesight adjusted to the marginally improved light he could just make out the black hole of Shinigami's lair.

Duo felt a hesitation in Heero's stride. He gave Heero's hand a reassuring squeeze before letting his fingers slip free. "Stay here until Shinigami senses that I am safe."

Heero offered no argument as Duo walked into the dragon's realm.

Kneeling in front of a smooth outcrop Duo began to chant the ancient language designed to summon the beast from his slumber. Chills tingled along Heero's spine as Duo's melodic voice wafted on the dew-drenched air. The haunting strains, much like Quatre's music, produced a melancholy mood that moved over Heero's heart like mist on the water. Duo swayed, his braid brushed the ground.

So many emotions flowed on the mesmerizing mantra. Guilt. Sorrow. Fear. But strangely there was also consolation, a promise that everything would be all right. Gradually Heero realized that he was no longer afraid, not of Shinigami or going home. Heero had inner strength. Even in the fiercest battle there was a core of courage that had never deserted him.

Without thinking Heero moved forward. Without concern for his reception Captain Yuy display an unshakable belief that Duo was indeed the great beast's master.

Faith. A word that once seemed so hollow now rang with redeeming truth. The simple act of trusting Duo was so liberating that Heero thought that his heart would burst with joy.

Twin pinpoints of scarlet blinked open just inside the cave's entrance. The scent of sulfur surged in a smoky cloud. The ground trembled, quivering with anticipation but Heero did not waver. Two more steps. He stopped behind Duo and placed his hand on his shoulder.

"You are my shield." he announced his newly found serenity.

Duo continued to sing, to sway but now he not only sang for Shinigami but for Heero as well.

A green snout appeared, a head, then the dragon emerged and straightened to his full height. Shinigami leaned over his human friend and gently nuzzled the top of Duo's head. Duo lifted his face, coming eye to eye with the creature that could go from mild to mad in a heartbeat.

Ending his song Duo stood and petted the scaly nose hovering inches from his face. While Heero kept his position directly behind the Keeper, Duo lavished his affections on his dragon protector.

Duo took Heero's hand guiding it to Shinigami's head. "This is Heero." Duo kept his hand over Heero's showing him how to pet in the correct direction so that his fingers wouldn't sag on the shiny scales.

Shinigami tiled his head, his fiery eyes studied Heero but he did not snarl or puff out his spark-laden breath. Opposite of the dragon's angry charge when he thought that Heero was hurting Duo, Shinigami sensed no threat to his master.

A green forked tongue lapped at Heero's hand tasting the unfamiliar human. Heero shivered at the rough texture against his skin. Shinigami lowered his head and in a sign of acceptance nuzzled Heero's head in the same way that he had greeted Duo.

Duo smiled. "I knew that he would like you. Let's sit down and I will tell you a story about the dragons that live in the sea."

Crickets chirped. Somewhere among the breeze-ruffled leaves a nighthawk screeched then batted his powerful wings as he left for his nightly prowl. Shinigami had curled up at Duo's feet and rested his head on his paws. With the sound of the bird of prey taking flight he raised his head and watched in wonder as the nighthawk soared overhead.

Heero sat beside Duo. Absentmindedly he twirled the end of Duo's braid in his fingers and listened to tales of sea creatures and people that were haft human and half fish.

As Duo used his voice's various inflections and overdone hand gestures to weave the make believe Heero told himself that the fanciful narratives could not be based in reality. Or was there an air of truth to the tales?

If a day ago someone had told Heero that dragons existed he would have told them that they were crazy. But here was Shinigami, real flesh and bone and scales. A living, breathing being with a heart and possibly a soul just like Heero.

With a sigh Heero laid his head on Duo's shoulder. Duo paused in the storytelling to smooth back messy bangs that were hiding Heero's expressive eyes. Heero smiled...the first genuinely happy smile in over a year. Duo's face lit up at his friend's contented countenance.

Crickets chirped. Shinigami settled down. Duo began another tale of wondrous creatures that keep secret company with man. Heero closed this eyes, took Duo's hand and trusted the Keeper and his dragon to shore up his faith.

**********

There were only a few hours before the sun dispelled the darkness. Duo was hoarse from his storytelling, both he and Heero were chilled and sleepy and Shinigami needed to hunt before dawn. Wearily Duo bade his faithful dragon good night and sent him on his way then hand in hand he and Heero walked home.

Blankets and shared body heat quickly warmed up the drowsy pair and lulled them into slumber. Once Duo was disturbed by Heero's restlessness, no doubt the result of those damned recurring dark dreams. He slid closer and draped his arm over Heero's waist. The comforting contact worked its magic, with a relieved sigh Heero calmed down.

Cheerlessly Duo watched Heero sleep. Knowing that morning would come as it always did and that his friend would be returning to his home Duo wished sadly. "I wish I could always be your consolation."

**********

Breakfast was solemn. Duo had always been honest with his feelings and he did not try to hide the hurt that he knew his and Heero's parting would cause. Heero, too, was having trouble forcing his food passed the emotional lump in his throat. "I will miss you my friend." he declared as he surrendered to his sadness.

"I will miss you." Duo replied also giving into his lack of appetite.

Heero leaned across the table. "If I arrange it will you come for a visit?"

"I would like that."

"Then I promise that I will send for you soon."

"Can I ride with you as far as the village? I want to go to church and offer a prayer for your safe journey."

"Of course that will give us a more time together before I have to go."

**********

Heero stood outside the modest church's door. Despite Duo's urging he could not step over the threshold. The weight of his sword at his side, the bloodshed it represented was a harsh reminder that he was not worthy to enter such a consecrated place.

Perhaps one day when his hands were not tarnished and the soldier inside had been put to rest the Almighty would again welcome him into the fold but until that redeeming day Heero would have to stand on the outside looking in.

He dared to brace his hand on the doorframe and peer down a single aisle flanked by benches. At the back there was an altar bearing a simple wooden cross and two candles. To the right an iron rack held several rows of ruby colored glass containers holding smaller prayer candles.

In the limited candlelight Heero could see Duo kneeling before the altar holding his cross. His head was bowed and he reverently slid each bead through his fingers as he counted his blessings. The soft light glistened over his hair like a glowing halo reaffirming Heero's belief that Duo was indeed an angel.

Spurred by his contemplated thoughts Heero recalled a passage that a kindly priest often recited during his visits to the war camp. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares." The words repeated again confirming the warrior's disfavor.

Heero closed his eyes hoping that God would mercifully hear his silent entreatment. In spite of his misgivings he humbly asked that the angels watch over the Dragon Keeper's chaste soul.

He sighed then opened his eyes. "Amen."

**********

Duo slipped his cross around his neck, tucked the sacred symbol inside his shirt then made his way to the individual candles. The flames shining through the red glass added a fiery touch to his phantom halo. With a practiced prayer he lit one candle for all the departed souls, one for his mother and one for Heero.

"Amen." he whispered.

As Duo started up the aisle he found Heero keeping his solitary watch by the door. He paused as he became aware that Heero's eyes were shut and his head bent low in quiet meditation.

Duo did not move until Heero's head was lifted and his eyes opened. "I suppose it is time for you to go." he said as he reached the door. His heart ached at the words--the goodbye that he had been dreading all morning.

Heero placed his hand on Duo's shoulder. "I am a man of my word, I will send for you."

Duo was afraid that if he spoke the pain in his heart would be too evident instead he disregarded the passing people and pulled Heero into a tight hug.

Heero didn't hesitate as he held on trying to gleam every last ounce of comfort from Duo's embrace. His hand traced along Duo's braid with the same reverence that Duo's fingers had caressed his cross.

Heero swallowed hard to free his voice. "I will miss you."

Duo let go and stood back gazing deeply into Heero's misty eyes. Without a word of farewell he touched Heero's cheek then ran into the steady flow of villagers.

Heero stood still staring at the spot where Duo had disappeared. "We will not be apart for long." he pledged on his heart and soul.

Part Eight:

Heero halted Wing atop the last hill that bordered the Yuy property. Irregular fields stretched out ahead like a patchwork quilt. Varying shades of green mingled with wild flowers in a breathtaking panorama. Normally one would be elated to finally be returning home especially a soldier who had survived the war. There should have been immeasurable joy, a hurried race of steed and rider to get back to hearth and home and the love of family and friends.

But Heero felt none of those sentiments or sensations. There was no anticipation, no sense of delight, instead uncertainty weighted heavily on his heart. What would be his reception? Had time cooled his father's anger or had the severance fueled the flames?

"You won't find out sitting here." he muttered.

Heero squared his shoulders and bolstered his courage. Tapping his heels he put Wing in motion down the hill, through the orchard, passed the shire horses grazing lazily in the pasture. Two boys herding sheep to the barn paused to watch the stranger coming down the lane on his inky stallion.

One raised his hand to shield his eyes. "Who are you?" he called out loudly.

The taller of the pair leaned on his prodding stick and studied the mysterious rider. A wide grin spread across his face as memories sparked recognition. "Master Yuy is that you?" Turning to the other youth he excitedly answered his own question. "Saints be praised it is you." he shouted now certain that the wandering heir had come home.

"Hello Edwin." Heero replied with recognition of his own. "Who is this?" he nodded to the other boy.

"John, sir." the boy responded coping the low bow that he had seen the gentlemen do in their greetings.

"He's newly arrived sir." Edwin explained stepping up beside the Yuy heir, "Come from Darbyshire this past fall."

Heero gazed beyond the boys narrowing his eyes to just make out the roof of Yuy Manor. A twinge of sadness mixed with his uncertainty. "How is everything at the house? Is my father well?" The soldier in him wanted to gauge his welcome so he could have some strategic plan in place before facing his father.

Edwin glanced at John and Heero could read the indecision in his eyes. Digging the toe of his boot in the sandy soil Edwin would not meet Heero's cobalt gaze.

Heero straightened in the saddle and put on an air of authority. "Edwin the truth."

"Well sir...your father sir...he ain't been in the best of moods...not for a long time. Edwin raised his head giving Heero what he wanted---the truth. "He keeps mostly to himself especially when he's out ridin' in the dark."

"Thank you." Heero sighed as he realized that a favorable response might not be forthcoming. "Now see to the sheep." he urged the boys to finish their chores.

********

As Heero rode up the tree lined lane the old house loomed above him. The garden that had been his dearly departed mother's pride and joy had been neglected. Weeds replaced the beautiful blooms that once flourished among the boxwoods. The rose trellises had also fallen into disrepair and the fragrant flowers had long ago lost their multicolored splendor. Stringy vines wound around the pillars supporting the second story balcony and strangled over the railing in muddled confusion.

No servant appeared, no stable hand to take his horse. There was no one to bid a welcome. The house stared through curtained windows like a dead man's vacant eyes. Heero shivered not from the evening chill blowing about his cape but from the utterly lifelessness that surrounded the house. This place, his boyhood home, had been forsaken and maybe Heero had been forsaken as well.

Wing must have sensed his master's apprehension. The steed balked by the gate snoring nervously. "Easy boy." Heero whispered as he dismounted and tied the reins to a rusty hitching post.

The front steps creaked with each climb and the porch groaned under Heero's boots. He raised his hand to knock then remember that he did not need permission to enter his own house. His hand trembled as it closed around the knob, his breathing quickened as he slipped the latch and opened the door.

The front parlor was dim. The heavy curtains not only kept the sunshine at bay but also muffled any outside noise. There was a stale scent of dust and a dampness that the lack of sunlight could not disperse. The wide staircase was covered with an equally foul amount of powdery residue that was disturbed by a narrow path of footprints.

Heero pulled off his cape, draped it over his arm and stated out to find if any living soul still occupied the sunless abode.

Muted footsteps told Heero that he was not alone. Following the striking sounds he made his way down the hall to the kitchen. Cautiously peering around the doorframe the recently returned warrior took up a defensive posture. His hand rested on his sword. Fingers slid through the hilt grip ready to unsheathe the bladed weapon should someone challenge his presence.

Peeking further he saw a figure reentering the kitchen from the pantry. He blinked not to focus his sight but to ward off the tears. Now a lump in his throat joined the brimming tears. "Anna."

The loyal housekeeper who had taken the role of Heero's surrogate mother froze in place at the calling of her name. Slowly she turned hoping against hope that her senses had not been compromised by age or fooled by her fervent wishes that the voice did indeed belong to Heero.

The woman who had comforted a lonely ten-year-old who was suddenly without his mother's gentle care and wisdom studied the indistinct outline standing by the door. The lad was taller, broader though the shoulders and his voice had taken on the baritone of maturity.

"Heero?" She questioned then held her breath praying that the man standing before her was flesh and bone and not a product of her wishful thinking.

"Yes Anna it's me."

"Oh Heero." Anna broke down weeping as she embraced the warrior who was, in her mind, still a child.

Heero buried his face in Anna's shoulder and also wept. Years of pain burst forth in those unrestricted tears. Past memories and his experiences of war tore at Heero's heart like a thousand steely knives, as he once again became that young boy who was lost and alone.

"I thought that I would never see you again." Anna choked out her fears.

Heero eased back enough to see the kind woman's timeworn face. Her brown eyes had been dulled by worry and the glimmer was gone. She seemed frail, merely a shadow of herself. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For not taking other's feelings into consideration when I decided to leave."

Anna took in a steadying breath, "You did what you felt was right, no one can blame a man for that."

"I suppose but I am still sorry for your fret and worry." he apologized kissing Anna's cheek.

Anna wiped her eyes with her apron then stood back for a better look. "You look well enough but you are too thin. Sit down and I will fix you some supper."

Heero took Anna's arm to stay her awhile longer. "First I must see Odin."

"So it is Odin now?" Considering how they had parted Anna wasn't surprised by Heero's formality towards his father but she had hoped that the time apart would have softened Heero's bitterness.

"For now it is Odin. Where is he?"

"In the great room but perhaps I should tell him you are here."

Heero shook his head, "No I want to see how he acts without preparation."

Anna took Heero's hand, "If it does not go well are you going to leave me again?"

"No matter what happens I will not leave." Heero declared, "From what I have seen this place needs a new master."

"Be careful." Anna advised as she was well aware of Odin Yuy's unpredictable disposition.

**********

Mirroring the rest of the house the great room was spread over in the same curtained gloom. More coats of dust and that ever-present clamminess followed Heero inside as he boldly stepped through the double doors.

However an additional odor had been added to this particular room, the reek of fermented brew saturated the air. Odin slouched in a faded chair by the cold fireplace staring into the imaginary flames. His clothes were rumpled, his hair unkempt. An empty wine bottle lay on the floor; another bottle sat on a side table. A silver goblet was held loosely in wine-slackened fingers.

With the liquor working its altering influence Odin did not notice Heero's approach, neither did he acknowledge the other man's presence as his son stepped up beside the chair. "Odin Yuy."

It took several seconds for his name to creep through Odin's drink-fogged mind. Heero was about to repeat the calling when his father braced his feet and pushed into a more upright posture. Sluggishly he turned to discover the sound's source. His eyes squinted to center on the unfamiliar figure standing within arm's reach.

Odin's compromised sight wandered up the stranger's height. How much of the soldier's garb, the sword at Heero's side registered in his muddled brain was not evident in his unfocused gaze. Eyebrows pulling together and face frowning Odin Yuy struggled to decipher the brew bewilderment that numbed his mind and made his vision fuzzy. "Who are you?" The question came in slow, garbled syllables.

"Heero Yuy."

Odin's expression took on a puzzlement. "Heero?" A long uneasy pause followed then a snort shattered the silence. "So my war-whoring son as returned." he spat out the sharp slurred words.

Heero's tightened his jaw, his hand closed around his sword. It was taking all of his willpower not to draw his weapon and put an end to Odin's insults once and for all. But despite his anger, Heero was determined that he would not give into his father's goading.

As a solder he had to rise above the barbs. Heero's newly developed maturity had to resist the drunken diatribe but if his father raised his hand, if he sought the same abuse that Heero had suffered as a child then his sword would surly taste blood.

Heero narrowed his sight until his eyes were thin slits of blue. "That's right I am home."

A mixture of amusement and annoyance flickered across Sir Odin's face. So the defiant boy had come back and now he fancied himself a man. "I told you that if you left you had no home." he reminded his stubborn son.

Heero leaned closer daring to lock his sight with his father's blurry eyes. "From the neglect I see I would say that someone has to keep this place from falling apart."

"And I suppose you think that you are that someone?" Odin stated standing up to sway on wobbly legs.

Heero tightened his grasp on the sword's hilt, "When you find yourself sober then we will discuss my home and my place in it. Now I suggest that you go sleep off your overindulgence before you do something that you will regret."

The glare in Heero's eyes, the taut muscles budging under his shirt and the white knuckled grip on his sword left nothing else to say. The church might teach to honor thy father but Heero would be damned if he would give any undeserved respect to the drunken fool tottering before him.

"Sleep it off," he growled out the final warning. Without another word Heero pivoted and stalked out of the room.

Suddenly more sober Odin stood in wide-eyed shock. He could not believe that the boy who had left with the absurd notion of becoming a soldier had come back so much of a man. But man or not, no one, not even his only heir was going to take his place as master of the house.

"Oh I will sober up and when I do there will be hell to pay." Odin promised grabbing up the bottle and flinging it against the wall, "You had better watch your back Heero."

********

Heero fed and settled Wing in the stables. Twilight spread purple shadows over the kitchen as Anna served a supper of venison stew and fresh flour bread. Heero declined the wine preferring to keep his mind clear and his reactions swift. He had no intensions of copying his father's inebriated condition and the sloppiness it induced.

Anna related the last year's events. She told how Odin was first incensed by Heero's leaving then how he had slipped into a depressed state and turned to wine for his comfort.

Unfortunately the liquor's mind manipulation had incited a form of madness. "Your father goes from sullen to fits of rage without warning." Anna declared with a hint of dread in her voice. "He has chased away most of the servants and the field hands don't come to the house unless it is necessary. The manor has been allowed to deteriorate and I can't keep it up by myself." she finished with a weary sigh.

Heero took Anna's hand running his thumb over her callused palm. "Things will not remain that way." he promised.

"Heero you must be careful. You might be able to reason with your father when he is sober but when he is drinking...." her words trailed off in frustration.

"I can take care of myself. I don't want you to be concerned."

"But..."

Heero squeezed Anna's hand then let it go and stood up. "Let's have no more worry tonight. I am exhausted and my mind is too tired to think. In the morning when I am rested then we will speak of this again."

"At least let me make up your bed."

Heero gathered up his cape and his sword and planted an appreciative kiss on Anna's forehead. "Thank you but I can manage." A grin spread over his lips, "I have learned several useful things over the last year." Then he offered a sassy wink, "I might surprise a lot of people around here."

********

Anna gazed after the exiting soldier, the forlorn boy who had burgeoned into manhood. The frightened child who would sneak into her quarters next to the kitchen to seek refuge when his father's temper flared hot and his hands flew free had grown up.

When Heero scraped his knee or had been taunted by the servant's children, when life was too much to bear and he couldn't cry in front of anyone else, the lonely lad would come to Anna. Sir Odin would have had a fit if he had known of his son's closeness to a mere servant, after all, Anna should "know her place".

Anna smiled as she remembered when Heero had expressed concern over his unauthorized visits getting her into trouble. "Don't worry Heero," she had replied. "we all need a few secrets in our lives and this is a special one between you and me. And special secrets," she declared, "are never found out."

"Are you too old for secrets now?" Anna wondered with a sigh.

Part Nine:

Heero pulled clean bedding from a cedar chest and made up his bed. He didn't bother to perfectly tuck in the corners or situate the comforter so that the stripes were straight. All he wanted was a reasonably decent place to lay his head, one that was not on the cold ground or a home for bedbugs.

He was grateful for a roof over his head and shelter from the damp night air. He did miss gazing at the stars or hearing an owl hoot or the haunting howl of a wolf. Summer would soon warm the night and Heero promised himself that he would again sleep under the stars but this time in his own garden.

Stripping down to his breechcloth Heero eased his travel-weary body between the bottom sheet and the downy duvet. He blew on the lamp welcoming the soothing darkness.

Plumping up the goose down pillow Heero decided that tomorrow's first order of business would be a bath and washing his gritty hair. The second task would be a shamefully hardy breakfast--Anna was right he could put on a few pounds--then perhaps he would be fortified to deal with his father.

If Odin either would not or could not handle the household then Heero felt duty bound to see to his birthright. The desire to manage the property was not only for Heero's sake but also for the other people who relied on the Yuy family for their daily sustenance. Anna had been widowed for years and had no place else to go. Likewise most of the fieldworkers had no other skills but tending the land.

Although the servants and laborers' meager wages did little to improve their underprivileged conditions Heero knew that they lived in much better circumstances than people roaming the streets did. At least they were not forced to beg or steal or sell their bodies to eat.

Heero knew that there was more at stake than guarding his heritage. With his privileged life came responsibilities and he would not fail those who trusted him for their care. But for tonight Heero would push aside everything troubling and hoped for peaceful sleep. Perhaps he was even too tried for the nightmares to invade his slumber. With a relaxing sigh he closed his eyes.

Just before he drifted off a pleasant remembrance settled into his mind. His last thought as he slipped further into that shadowy realm called sleep was of violet eyes and braided hair and a smile that melted his heart.

"Duo." he breathed out the enchanting name as sleep made its final claim for the night.

********

Heero was up as soon as the cock crowed. By the time the sunrise had turned from pink to golden he had given Wing his breakfast, build a fire under the bathtub, filled it and was settled beneath the warming water. As the bath soothed his sore muscles and lifted his spirits he mind returned to thoughts of Duo.

Memories of bathing in the hot spring, of washing each other's hair came back with a bittersweet recalling. As he dried off and dressed in fresh clothing Heero remembered his first sight of the beautiful braided man. A secret smile bloomed on his lips as further recollections of drying by the fireplace and a simple meal shared with good company played across his mind.

Suddenly a shiver fluttered over the memories. His initial introduction to Shinigami caused his heart to hammer if only for a moment. Then as quickly as his nerves were put on edge the peacefulness of his and Duo's last night together replaced the foreboding.

Heero plainly heard the stories of sea creatures and fish people as clearly as if Duo was by his side. His fingertips felt the phantom sensation of Duo's hair and dragon scales. His eyes saw ghostly imagines mingling with the morning haze of Duo kneeling in prayer haloed in glowing candlelight. Tears stung his eyes and a raw ache stabbed at his heart. Heero missed his friend and he missed Shinigami.

But most of all Heero longed for a simpler life. He yearned for the Gypsies' freedom, the carefree existence of being unbound by daily responsibility. He wanted to know the claim of kinship...his father's unconditional acceptance. And, even though Quatre and Trowa's relationship was atypical, at least they had an endearing devotion and security of the heart.

Giving into his unbearable solitude Heero wept unashamedly. Wiping away the salty moisture tracking down his cheeks Heero swore an oath that he would send for Duo before the next full moon. Bringing the Dragon Keeper into the house would be easy enough but special quarters would have to be arranged for his dragon. A suitable cave would have to be found because Heero knew that Duo would never leave his faithful Shinigami.

Heero would not worry about his father's reaction or even seek his approval. He was no longer a frightened ten-year-old or a young man dependent on his father's praise to fix his place in life. Heero Yuy was a soldier; a Captain tested in battle. He had discovered that he was self-determined with his own brand of courage to guide him in what was right.

"A few more weeks." Heero sighed as he pulled his shoulder-length hair into a loose ponytail. Then he and Duo would never be apart again.

**********

The remainder of the morning was spent riding over the fields. Heero needed to get an idea of the state of the property. He talked with the field hands, visited the servant's quarters, although there were few people to see. It seemed that his father had indeed either chased off or dismissed most of the help. It didn't take long for Heero to realize that, had he not returned when he did, that there would not have been much to come home to.

Since his father had ridden out after breakfast, assuming he could stomach anything with his hangover, Heero had been unobstructed in his investigative explorations. Equally so sharing lunch with Anna in the kitchen was a pleasant experience. But Heero did not try to hide his upset over the deterioration of the estate or the decay of his and his father's relationship.

Anna offered what advice that she could. "Your father is hurting as much as you are."

"He has a strange way of showing it." Heero replied with a snort of disgust.

Anna placed her hand on Heero's, "He didn't take to serious drinking until you left. Now don't blame yourself," she added before Heero got the idea that it was his fault. "Your father is a proud man and his pride won't let him show his true feelings. I know that it will be hard but you have to try to find some common ground."

She squeezed Heero's hand. "I know that you are hurting, too, but do it for your father's sake.

Heero nodded. He had realized after he and Odin's tense encounter that he couldn't talk to him when Odin was drinking. Unfortunately the bottle had become a constant companion. In fact his father was probably at the tavern right then attempting to drown his damnable pride.

It was a good thing that Odin's horse knew his way back because Heero had no desire to go into town and fetch his father. There had been far too many time in the past when Heero had been sent to bring his father back, too many times that he had suffered public humiliation from both Odin's insults or his free-flying hands.

No, the sodden old man would have to find his own way home. In spite of Anna's wishes that Heero and his father reconcile there could be no discussion while his father was drunk and finding a sober time was going to be even more difficult. But Heero would make the effort for Anna.

In the morning Heero would make sure that he was up before Odin, before he had his liquid breakfast. Perhaps they could have a civil conversation if not completely see eye to eye. It would be a start then Heero would see how things went from there.

"I will try." was all that Heero could promise his kind-hearted Anna.

**********

Midday stretched into evening and evening into twilight and Odin had not returned. Heero was certain had anything bad happened that someone would have come from town. His father would come in his own good time and it was just as well because Heero was not in the mood for any confrontation that night.

Heero ate his supper alone, he needed to think. There had to be some way to reach his father, some tactical maneuver keep the bottle at bay. Again he wished that Duo was with him. He needed his friend's wisdom to show him the solution.

Duo made Heero believe in dragons and faith in himself. Raising from his half-eaten meal Heero went to the window. Gazing at the sunset glow along the horizon he wondered if Duo was watching the same sunset? Would he and Shinigami see the same stars twinkling silently in the heavens and would Duo miss the Captain that had come and gone so quickly in his life?

"Duo say a prayer for me." He whispered as his finger traced the reflection of starlight on the wavy windowpane.

********

Thin shafts of moonlight pierced the concealing covering of night. White mist crept in a stealthy hush inundating the courtyard with the frosty floating vapors. The house was shut up tight against the brittle chill as nothing in nature or man's domain wished to bare itself to the stark cold.

The besieging darkness clung to the curtains drawn across Heero's bedchamber's windows. Perhaps the thick material could dissuade the hovering chill and allow the comforting shadows to embraced the soldier tangled in his bedcovers.

Heero had finally surrendered to a sturdy sleep but now the mind-numbing slumber had run its course and a certain brand of restless dreaming had begun to tread across his mind. Rambling sights and sounds jumbled into a disunited clamor. Incoherent bits of memory flickered among the scattered traces to offer an altered perception. Reality and dread-laced recollections snarled until no clear path to waking up could be found.

This unraveling of Heero's frayed composure permitted repressed emotions, that had been held at bay by his conscious will, to come rushing headlong through the ragged tears in his mental fabric. Heero thrashed about helplessly as a frightening dreamscape encompassed his terror-struck mind.

Eerie visages flared over his inner sight. The unexpected apparitional appearing jolted his defenseless senses. A sharp pain stabbed in his chest. Flashes of brilliant white light seared into his mind's eye bringing on scorched blindness. The blinding light flashed again. This time Heero could see that the glint was off of his sword. Visions of an enemy soldier doubled over, blood spilling through his finger as they clutched the mortal wound in his chest, returned with a vengeance.

Then in slow motion the solder's bloody body crumbled into the Crescent River's churning currents. Buffeting wind slapped in a stinging spray against Heero's face as the bested foe's form was swallowed up in the crimson mist rising from the water.

Every muscle coiled in fright then Heero's entire body jerked as the spiraled tension sprung loose with a terrible joint-wrenching distention. Heero's eyes flew open with a start. His alarm-constricted lungs refused any cooperation in his panicked battle to breathe. Sweat beaded on his face, the salty moisture glistened over every inch of his almost nude body.

Even the goose down coverlet could not shut out the chill as fear's icy tentacles encircled Heero clawing their way up his spine until their flesh freezing touch shivered through his brain. Running a quivering hand over his wet face Heero tried to ease the throbbing in his head, to uncoil the knot in his gut. With a forceful sigh he tried to slow the labored breaths pounding in his lungs.

Heero closed his eyes but carefully guarded his mind against any intrusive memories. With the aide of another hard puff, Heero slowly opened his eyes successfully vanquishing the solder's persistent reappearing.

Getting shakily to his feet he pulled his wrinkled trousers over his breechcloth then dug through the clothes piled by the bed until an equally wrinkled shirt was freed from the heap. Filling a washbowl with cold water leftover from the day before Heero braved the frigid liquid as he attempted to regain at least a degree of control. Splashing his face once more he smoothed back his heavy hair tucking the damp, tangled tresses behind his ears.

Drawing back the curtains Heero wondered if the war dreams would ever leave him alone. Gazing blankly at the star-studded horizon he fought off the urge to weep because he was afraid that if he did begin to cry that he might not be able to stop.

He pulled on his boots. There would be no need to return to bed, many other nights of dark dreaming had taught him well. "No more sleep." he sighed as he granted the nightmare demons another victory.

**********

Standing by the window Heero debated whether to get his cape and take a walk in the garden. Perhaps the fresh air would clear his mind and help him refocus his thoughts.

A muted banging like a hammer against wood drew Heero's attention from his contemplation. He stood still and listened, the mysterious noise repeated. Opening his door he peered into the dim hall. The bumping was more pronounced and now he was given a clear clue...his father's room.

No sound answered Heero's insistence knock on bedroom's door. A second pounding on the thick wood produced no change in the silence. Trying the door he found it unlocked. Cold currents raced through the room. The overpowering stench of old wine, combined with several other unidentifiable odors, hit Heero's nostrils with stomach-churning force.

He stood in the doorframe shocked at the disarray. There was not one inch that had escaped what appeared to be a whirlwind of filth. The room's contents were scattered, thrown about in a haphazard confusion. Broken pottery and bottles littered the floor. Clothing and bedding were draped or snagged over what furnishings were still intact. Each protrusion on the walls including the dark lamps was also "decorated" in the same shattered disorder.

As upset as Heero was with the obvious evidence that Odin had had a drunken fit and taken his liquor-induced rage out on his quarters and possessions, the fact that his father was no where in sight put Heero into a panic. The thought that his father had finally given into his despair and jumped from the second story's lofty heights threatened to stop Heero's heart.

As the wind flapped the curtains like fitful dragon wings, Heero ran to the opened window. Dreading what he might find, Heero forced himself to lean between the flapping shudders.

The window was set in the wall at least fifty feet above a patch of ground that was thickly outcropped with large stones and slate ridges. A fall from such heights would surely be fatal and the damage the weather-chiseled rocks could inflict would leave a body so mangled that it would be impossible to salvage it intact.

The sight of his father's twisted frame, bloodied and broken and mingled among the jagged terrain was something that Heero knew he could not bare but he had to look...he had no choice.

Wind battered his face, stole his breath. Heero braced his hands on the sill and directed his sight to the rocky ground below. In the pre-dawn haze Heero could see nothing but indistinct outlines. Like a gauzy shroud white mist refused to give Heero a clear picture.

"Father." Heero whispered through his dry throat. "FATHER!" he screamed but only the howling wind and the curtain's sharp snap answered his panicked plea.

A low moan was barely audible above the mournful wail whistling through the room. Heero grabbed the shivering shutters and with some exertion closed and bolted them then in the resulting silence listened for some sign that his hearing was not playing tricks on him.

Heero's peripheral vision picked up movement to his right. Hurriedly rounding the bed he half-tripped over all matter of debris. Clumsily he caught hold of a bedpost to avoid falling as his boots became entangled in the mess underfoot.

Odin lay in the cramped confines between the bed and the wall. In order to fit within the restrictive margins he had curled into a fetal posture, knees bent to his chest and his head tucked under his arm. Draped over his naked body the bed's night curtain's flimsy material provided no protection from the chill that penetrated the room.

Heero anxiously knelt down and lifted the shredded curtain. The sight that met his eyes caused him to suck in an alarmed gulp of air. Odin's face was gray, his lips were blue. From the odd contour of his father's body Heero couldn't tell if the frail form was breathing.

His hand trembled with hesitation as he touched Odin's clammy chest. A sigh of relief followed as he discovered a heartbeat. "Father." Heero called taking Odin's shoulder and giving it a firm shake. "Father wake up." He shook harder.

Lethargic motion was accompanied by a hiss of incoherent murmuring as Odin sluggishly reacted to his son's prodding. Heero braced a knee on the floor and secured his hold on the languorous man in hopes of extracting him from his wedged position. Of course it would have been too much for Heero to expect his sloshed father to cooperate.

Heero strained until he finally rotated the stubbornly curled figure then, backtracking, he dragged Odin passed the bed into a less unencumbered area. A least two empty bottles clinked together then parted as one rolled under the bed while its partner became caught in the tangled curtain and was hauled out with Odin.

"Dammit you are like ice." Heero observed as he detangled the curtain from its ensnaring embrace.

Heero knelt by Odin easing his stiff body into a straighter line. The longer alignment revealed a partly full bottle tucked in the crook of Odin's arm like a mother shielding a child. With exasperated effort Heero tried to pry the bottle free. It shifted in the loosened grip spilling some of its contents over Odin's already chill flesh. More curse-accented mumbling filtered from Odin's lips along with a goodly amount of foul smelling drool.

Heero breathed out a heartsick sigh at the pitiful person lying before him. "Oh father what have you done to yourself?" he whispered as he fought back the tears of regret.

"It didn't have to be this way." he stated as he moped back stringing hair from Odin's dull sight. Looking down into that glassy, faraway, stare Heero knew he would received no response to any calling or shaking or pleading.

With absolute certainty Heero knew that there would be no forthcoming conversation, no confession or cleansing of the soul. He also knew that no forgiveness from either man or a higher deity would make things right between him and his father.

Lord Odin was now beyond physical pain and mental torment. The abuse of drink and his unrelenting anger had eroded his sanity. Odin was now content to dwell in his personally constructed prison, content to stay sheltered in wine's abyss where his simplest perceptions floated somewhere between reality and phantom nightmares. Yes, it seemed that Sir Odin Yuy was quite satisfied with his self-imposed punishment.

Struggling under his father's dead weight Heero lifted his limp body. As Odin's head lopped to one side Heero staggered around and laid the rag doll form on rumpled bed. Odin neither responded nor did his glazed eyes follow as Heero tugged up what remained of the sheet and coverlet to cover Lord Odin's shameless nudity.

Helpless and hopeless Heero sat on the bed watching his father slobber and listening to the deranged mutterings of a brew-produced lunatic. Heero had no more strength to wash his father or dress him in a fresh nightshirt. He had no reserves to battle the overwhelming guilt that kept demanding there must have something that he could have done to save his father.

"You damn fool." Heero hissed under his breath. The chastisement was aimed at his father and himself. Completely drained from lack of sleep and the stress of watching his father sink further into oblivion Heero curled up on the end of the bed and gave into his despondency.

Somewhere in the courtyard a rooster crowed. Pink shafts of dawn streaked through the shutters on two figures who were, each in their own way, lost and alone.

Part Ten:

The cockcrow found Heero tending to his responsibilities. First he saw to it that his father was bathed, dressed in a clean nightshirt and settled into different bedchamber. He hoped that relocation to a tidier, fresher room would quiet Odin's restless spirit.

Heero rounded up several burly field hands and put then in charge of watching his father. Heero had often been on the receiving end of Odin's temper so he knew that strong men were required should the unbridled anger boil up again. It was only a matter of time before Odin would call for his wine and when he was denied then all hell would surly break loose.

Heero then sent a servant to town for the doctor whose medical recommendation for Odin was bed rest and daily doses of a syrupy liquid designed to keep Heero's father drowsy and well behaved. The kindly physician begged Heero's pardon for not being able to do more to improve Odin's condition.

"My father put himself in this position," Heero replied, "and he is the only one who can pull himself free."

The doctor promised that he would make weekly visits but could not give any sure diagnosis as to when, or if, Odin Yuy would fully recover. Heero paid the doctor his usual fee plus an added incentive to return on a regular schedule.

Giving into Anna's persistent prodding to eat, Heero had a late breakfast of oatmeal and eggs. He did break his rule about wine before noon. Allowing for the harrowing night and the busy morning he needed the brew's reinforcement.

After checking in on his father and finding him sleeping in the peaceful embrace of the doctor's drug, Heero and Wing went in search of a suitable hiding place for Shinigami.

Everything that had happened since his return had given Heero ample encouragement to send for Duo. He missed his friend, longed for the pleasure of his company as he had never wanted anything before. Quiet conversation, leisurely meals and perhaps an occasional shared bath were the substances of his sanity.

Riding into the surrounding hills Heero sought out a cave large enough to comfortably accommodate the massive reptile. The dragon dwelling also had to be close enough for Duo's nightly singing to his scaly comrade. Finally the third cave hidden among the gently sloping landscape seemed more than adequate for Shinigami's needs.

"Everything is in place." Heero told Wing as they stood in front of the murky entrance.

Wing snorted and shook his head as if he understood his master completely. "You miss Duo, too, don't you boy?" Again the midnight stallion shook his shaggy mane and let out a soft whinny in agreement.

On the way back Heero formed the plans to send for Duo. He wanted so badly to fetch the Dragon Keeper personally but the demands at home were too great. The spring planting would soon be underway and he feared without his supervision it would not get done on time. Also his father's physical and mental health was still too fragile for Heero to leave him totally in the other's care.

By the time Heero and Wing crested the last hill before home he had set his plans firmly in his mind. By week's end Duo and Shinigami would be welcomed into his home and be considered part of the family.

"The room next to mine will do nicely." Heero told Wing then a sly smile graced his lips as he realized that the two bedchambers were the only rooms on that end of the hall. "Privacy." he grinned, "yes that will do the trick."

The morning had been overcast and now the gray blanket of moisture decided to shed its tears. A steady rain had begun to fall as Heero brushed Wing down and made sure that he had adequate food and water. The black stallion was happily munching on a mouthful of hay as Heero secured the stall and headed for the house.

Cascades of droplets pattered on the roof. Intermittently the wind blew up and splattered rain on the kitchen windows. As he stared into his soup Heero's thoughts were faraway. Memories of thunder and lightning and the violet glow in Duo's eyes tugged at his thoughts and caused a lonesome ache in his heart.

Heero shifted his sight to the fireplace watching the flames dance in the hearth. The subtle scent of smoke-the crimson blaze-recalled the cracking fire that had dried him and Duo after their ride in the rain. The radiant heat stirred recollections of snuggling close to Duo in bed as the wind howled and the rain rapped on the windows of his humble hut.

A log hissed then popped releasing a blast of tiny embers. "Shinigami's breath." Heero whispered turning to watch the rain's tiny teardrops slid down the wavy windowpane.

Steady drizzle set in. All afternoon the wind blew in mournful wails. The gloomy sky shrouded the sun and stole its warmth. Heero roamed about his boyhood home, crept along the stairs as he had in the past when he wished to avoid his father. He paused in the great room's door but couldn't make himself go in. There were too many painful memories within the dim room with its dark wooden panels and heavy furniture.

Heero could see his father sitting at the end of the long table. Sullen and brooding Sir Yuy would eat his supper without a word. Only when Odin required something from a servant would he speak and then his shout could be heard in every corner of the house.

Heero always sat at the table's opposite end...so small in the large chair. He would cringe with each curse-laden shout and pray that a dish or knife would not be hurled either at him or a servant who moved too slowly.

Even as the boy grew into youth and the youth into a man Heero felt small in his father's presence. He could not recall a time when his father had been happy. Heero's mother had managed to temper Odin's sore personality with her charm and soothing voice but Heero never knew if Odin appreciated the woman who had left her homeland to become the wife of a Lord.

Cold currents slithering around Heero as he gazed on the ghostly images that haunted the great room. The gloom had not changed nor had the years altered Heero's dread of that hated space.

Upon his arrival Heero had braved his fears, had met his father in his territory and stood up to Odin's attempts to bully him into being that timid boy again. With a sigh Heero turned from the door leaving behind all the memories.

"Once Duo is here," Heero hoped, "he will exorcise the ghosts." Together they would breath new life into the fearsome space. It might not be fair to expect Duo to be his salvation but right then Heero could not afford to be fair.

"I will make it up to you." he swore on his honor as a soldier.

**********

The clouds kept their dark sway over the sky bringing on an early evening. Supper was pleasant with Anna at the kitchen table but Heero couldn't shake a nagging feeling that something was not right. His instincts had been sharpened by his soldierly duties, he had come to rely on their council and now they were edgy inside his head.

The uneasiness did not seem to stem from the house or Heero's concern for his father. Disquiet rumblings in his mind offered no sure direction.

"Damn." he muttered under his breath.

"What?" Anna asked looking up from her plate.

"I was thinking out loud."

"Troubling thoughts?"

"Uncomfortable."

Anna shook her head. "You haven't had a moment's peace since your return. Your body and mind need to rest."

"Perhaps it is as simply as lack of proper rest." he agreed. "I will not tarry long tonight before bed."

**********

Heero stood outside of his father's bedchamber and gathered his courage. As he eased the door opened Robert glanced up from his vigil at Odin's bedside. Silently Robert touched Heero's shoulder as he passed then closed the door for privacy.

Odin lay on his side facing the wall, eyes closed, hands clutching the sheet. His color had improved but dark circles still shadowed his eyes. Heero sat down. Resting his hands in his laps he studied his father's sleeping form. Oddly Odin didn't seem nearly as intimidating in his sober state. His body didn't seem as large or his hands as threatening.

Heero's was surprised by the slight tremble in his hand as he smoothed down the coverlet but he was even more surprised that he did not jerk it back when Odin stirred awake.

"Leia." Odin called hoarsely.

Heero's heart skipped a beat at the calling of his mother's name. The quivering increased and he suddenly found that it was difficult to breathe. His father mumbled something else then his sluggish eyelids slowly parted.

Odin started to speak but Heero was so afraid that his father would repeat his calling that he interrupted his words. "Its me father."

Odin turned his head in the voice's direction. "Heero?" he questioned.

Heero leaned nearer so his father could better see his face. "I wanted to check on you before I went to bed."

Odin remained quiet for a moment then his eyebrows drew together in a puzzled frown. "You are still here?" The question was not asked with bitterness but with a degree of confusion.

"Yes I am here and I'm not going to leave." Heero offered his reassurance. "Do you need anything?"

Odin eyelids drooped as if he wanted to drift off again. Heero hated the effect the medicine had on his father, hated the way it kept him artificially calm. A part of Heero wished that his father would fly into one of his drunken tirades, screaming out his demands and sending the household staff scurrying for cover.

But Heero knew all too well the devastating damage the overindulgence of wine and the trauma of rage had on his father. Odin's fragile condition of both body and mind had almost brought him to ruin and Heero could not allowed that ruin to come to term.

If his father had to be medically modified for his sanity then that was how it had to be. It would take time and patience but Heero believed that miracles were possible, Duo had taught him that. And once the Dragon Keeper was living in the house Heero had no doubts that magic would be worked in everyone's lives.

Heero took Odin's hand and squeezed hoping that the contact would rouse his father from his drug-induced lethargy. Odin's hand twitched then his unfocused eyes fixed their gaze on his son.

"Tell your mother not to tarry too long." he instructed before slipping his hand free and curling tighter under the covers.

Heero closed his eyes fighting the stinging in their blue centers. A steadying breath was employed before he opened his eyes. "I will." was all he could manger to whisper before the emotional floodgates burst under the strain.

In the encroaching nighttime solitude Heero wept. He cradled his head in his hands and gave himself permission to grieve, to release the pain of the earthly severance from his mother and the estrangement of his father. His silence cries went up to heaven, to the comrades lost in battle and the enemy that he had slain.

Wiping his bloodshot eyes on his sleeve Heero bent over and kissed his father's pale cheek. "Things will not remain this way between us." he promised for Odin's sake and his own.

********

Lying in his own shadowy seclusion Heero stared out of the double doors leading to the balcony. The expanse of heaven was studded with sparkling astral patterns. The moon played hide and seek among the drifting rain clouds as they lifted their watery veils over the mountain.

Sleep tugged at the corners of his mind but Heero refused to grant it entrance. The reflection of wispy clouds painted an odd picture on the door's square panes. In the mirrored images of moonlight and shadows a peculiar countenance floated over the wavy glass.

Heero narrowed his cobalt sight, squinting to discern the foreign face. A sigh escaped over his lips as his mother's kind eyes beheld her son. But this time Heero did not cry or bemoan his loss. This time he embraced the visage that had not materialized to cause pain but to give comfort.

*You are not alone.* a voice spoke inside his mind. His mother's consoling words came yet again as they had so long ago. *Heero you will be alright.*

"Yes mother I know." he answered the disembodied promise.

Heero braced his elbows on the bed and sat up. The clouds flowed on baring more of the moon's silver glow. He tilted his head in a perplexed attitude. The kindly face began to change. Soft curves of cheekbones transformed, distorted into rigid lines. Brilliant sparks like a thousand fiery embers replaced expressive eyes.

Now another face stared back at Heero. Shiny scales shimmered in the moonlight. Scarlet pinpoints glistened through the rain-streaked glass. A massive head bobbed with an insistent nod.

Heero straightened and leaned forward. "Shinigami?"

His brain told him that the dragon was merely a hoax, the result of stress and fatigue but his instincts overruled the mental trickery. Dressed only in his breechcloth Heero moved quickly to throw open the doors. Leftover droplets clinging to the panes sent an icy spray over his bare feet and legs. An equally chilled wind brushed in face and ruffled through his tousled hair.

Frozen in amazement Heero gazed up into a familiar face. Was it indeed Shinigami or had Heero, like his father, finally surrendered to madness? Without realizing what he was doing Heero reached out to touch the mystic mirage, to find out if the dragon was real or a product of lunacy.

His hand hesitated just short of its goal. What if his searching fingers passed through, what if nothing was real anymore? What if?

The scaly reptile lowered his head and gently nuzzled Heero's hair in the same acceptance that he displayed when Duo made their proper introduction so many nights ago.

"What in the hell?" Then the rest of the sentence stuck in his throat.

If Shinigami was there, where was Duo? A knot seized in his stomach, his entire body began to tremble. "Duo?" he choked out his friend's name as a wave of desperation made him weak in the knees.

Shinigami waggled his head then took a single step backward. Lying in a heap at the great beast's feet Duo looked like a half-drowned scarecrow. His cloths were torn and soaked through with rainwater, his hair had frayed from his braid into a disheveled mess.

Dropping to the balcony floor Heero ignored the rough stones tearing at his knees. Forcing back the rising panic he moved his hand to mop back frazzled bangs and reveal Duo's ashen features. Running his hand under Duo's tattered shirtsleeve Heero found his arm cold. Resting his other hand on his forehead it found to be on fire.

Carefully sliding his arm under Duo's shoulders Heero raised his friend until his head flopped on Heero's chest. "Mercifully saints what happened?" he implored Shinigami to supply the answer. All the mournful dragon could do was bow his head as crystal tears beaded on his scales and splattered on the floor beside Heero.

"Duo. Please." Heero begged for some response, anything to tell him that Duo had not slipped beyond reclaiming.

A low moan mixed with the battering breeze. "Heero." The name was barely above a whisper.

Heero stroked Duo's cheek, "I'm here." Binding up his embrace he leaned closer to Duo's ear. "Duo can you hear me?"

Duo's eyes parted until thin slits of violet showed through. "Help me." the Dragon Keeper beseeched before succumbing to unconsciousness.

Part Eleven:

Heero left the balcony doors open so Shinigami could see into the bedroom. Laying Duo on the bed Heero quickly stripped off his wet clothing including his breechcloth and covered his chilled body. He went to a chest, got an extra blanket and added it to the coverings.

In the flickering lamplight Duo's skin was chalky and his lips bluish gray. His eyes were slightly parted but his sight was unresponsive. His breathing was shallow and a wheezing sound accompanied each intake of air.

Duo gave no sign that he followed anything as Heero undid his braid then used a towel from the washstand to dry the stringy tresses. Heero sighed as he recalled how beautiful Duo's hair was the first time he had seen him on the road and again when it had been freshly washed in the hot spring and dried in the sun.

Throughout Heero's tender tending Shinigami sat quietly outside the doors. He made no attempt to come in but took advantage of his height to keep his green eyes trained on his master.

Occasionally something akin to a whimper would rise from his throat but the worried dragon had no doubts concerning Heero's care. He knew that the soldier would do everything in his power to see to Duo's recovery.

Heero extracted one arm from under the covers. Gently he rubbed the goose bump flesh hoping that the friction would increase the blood flow and warm the clammy skin. After a few minutes he replaced the one arm and started on the second. All the while he called to Duo, pleaded with his friend to hear him and offer some acknowledgement.

Finally the massaging and the continual talking broke through the wintry condition numbing Duo's body and mind. Eyelids fluttered before his eyes opened but he still had trouble focusing on the dim figure hovering above him.

Heero brush back stubborn bangs that insisted on clouding Duo's sight. "Duo look at me!" he ordered hoping that the stern tone would command his attention.

Duo sucked in a raspy breath then shifted his violet orbs to find Heero's fretted face. "Heero?"

"I'm here." Heero assured taking Duo's hand and giving in a squeeze. "Everything will be all right." he promised with all the determination he had.

"Shinigami. Is he...."

Heero leaned aside to make a clear path for Duo to see out of the doors. "He's here."

Duo fixed his wandering sight on his winged protector. "Thank you." he whispered weakly.

Shinigami tilted his head. His scarlet eyes beheld his master with a sorrowful gaze. A single green-tinted tear slipped over shiny scales before the dragon redirected his gaze to Heero silently begging permission to go to his master.

"Come on." Heero encouraged with a wave of his hand.

The massive reptile lowered his head and carefully fit his broad shoulders through the double entrance. The dragon that could roast someone with one fiery breath, the beast that could dismember a body with a single swipe of his razor talons humbly crouched beside Heero.

Snaking out his long neck Shinigami touched his snout to Duo's hand. Heero let go and guided the hand until Duo's fingers caressed the meek dragon. A forked tongue lapped at the fingers as they made a feeble attempt to pat Shinigami's soft nose.

"I will be fine." Duo declared as he, too, had no qualms concerning Heero's treatment. Shinigami nuzzled his hand then withdrew to the far wall.

As Heero shut the balcony doors he praised the loyal dragon. "You are a faithful guardian. Sleep now you have earned the rest."

Lifting the bedcovers Heero slipped in beside his friend. "You once offered to keep the demons away, now it is my turn." Wrapping his arms about Duo's shivering body Heero twisted his head to see the great dragon. "I know that you are worried about your master."

Shinigimi nodded then settled down with his chin on his paws but his scarlet eyes remained locked on the bed.

Heero blew out the lamp. "You and I will keep watch together." he whispered then pulled Duo's as close as physically possible.

**********

Duo continued to shiver. Heero cuddled and tucked the blankets tighter. He turned Duo to face him and buried Duo's face in his chest to warm his breathing.

The Keeper shuddered and shook, mumbling in a confusion of words that were difficult to decipher. Heero tied to pick apart the indistinct sentences but most of the gibberish was beyond his understanding. One word, perhaps a name, was repeated over and over again. Heero listened closely but even the single utterance defied his recognition.

It did not take wisdom to know that something terrible had happened and that "something" had turned Duo's world upside down. The combination of exposure to the foul elements and some mind-wrenching shock had put Duo's life in jeopardy.

Heero cursed under his breath, as he felt helpless to stem the debilitating tide. "Dammit Duo please don't do this to me." he whispered as another sturdy tremble threatened to yank his dear friend from his grasp.

Heero was so absorbed with his fight to warm Duo's body and rescue his mind he did not notice that Shinigami had moved from his place by the wall. It was not until the anxious reptile bumped the bed that Heero looked up to see the dragon's crimson orbs staring back.

Fixing the soldier's gaze Shinigami sent a mental message. Slowly Heero realized that the beast was Duo's only hope of recovery. Making sure that the blanket was still wrapped snuggly Heero laid Duo on the floor then held his breath as Duo's protector slid his claws underneath and pressed him to his scaly chest.

As tenderly as an eagle warms its young Shinigami sucked in a gulp of air, heated it in his gullet and gently blew the hot breath over Duo. The process was repeated until the shivering stopped, his skin was rosy and his lips were a healthy shade of pink.

Like a babe at the breast Duo snuggled close to Shinigami drinking in every ounce of heat that the great beast could produce. Then to Heero's further amazement the dragon began to purr. The low vibration started in Shinigami's throat and rose in a definite display of contentment.

In the first rays of dawn Heero sat on the floor beside the dragon that had proven beyond any doubts that he was indeed Duo's salvation. As Duo slept peacefully in the beast's arms Heero leaned against Shinigami's strong shoulder secure in the knowledge that everything would be all right.

As sun ascended over the mountain, as red as Shinigami's eyes, Heero again tucked Duo into bed. Lying next to his friend Heero sleepily stroked Shinigami's head remembering Duo's instruction to always go in the same direction to spare his hand from being scraped on the scales.

The sun rose higher. Heero held Duo as they both surrendered to slumber's persistence prodding. Shinigami's curled up beside the bed as he, too, gave into sleep's drowsy urging.

That fateful morning the soldier and the dragon made a pact, a solemn pledge of protection for their precious Dragon Keeper and nothing short of death would break that promise.

**********

A knock at the bedchamber door stirred Heero awake. The soft rapping also caused Shinigami to sit up and snort at the noise. "Heero are you all right." Anna's voice wondered through the thick wooden door.

Gradually Heero realized that it was mid-morning and understood the reason for Anna's concern. Heero was always up at dawn. When he did not make an appearance at breakfast then Anna naturally would have become apprehensive.

"Yes I'm fine." he called, "Just a minute."

Now Heero found himself in a peculiar situation. First it would be very hard for Anna to ignore the dragon sitting next to the bed and there was no where in the room large enough to hide the massive beast. And while Duo sharing his bed might come as a shock to Anna, Heero knew that once everything was explained that she would understand.

"Heero?"

"I'm coming." Careful not to wake Duo, Heero slipped out of bed and pulled on his trousers.

Shinigami set back on his haunches. With an inquisitive tile of his head he watched the human scrabble about like a chicken chasing a worm. The tip of his tail twitched as he began to pick up the nervous energy flowing through the room.

Heero was at a loss as to where to put the winged creature. The closet wouldn't do. The balcony could be a temporary solution but in the daylight it would not be long before someone would spot the usual animal and a full fledge panic was the last thing Heero wanted to handle.

"Stop racing about and think." Heero muttered as he opened the balcony doors. He stood quietly taking a moment to breathe in the fresh morning air. "Relax." he sighed as he called up the same centering concentration that he always used before a battle.

In his calmer state Heero's wise inner council spoke loud and clear. *The cave.*

Of course Shinigami already had a place to go, a home picked out especially for him but how to direct the dragon...now that was the trick. Heero pivoted to face Shinigami. "I have somewhere for you to hide," he began walking back to the bed, "but how do I tell you where to go?"

The dragon blinked blankly, his tail continued to twitch. Heero racked his brain for some way to communicate the message. His inner voice spoke again. *Last night Shinigami told you how he could help Duo.* it reminded, *Talk with your mind.*

Heero locked his eyes with Shinigami's crimson orbs and put a picture in his mind. He mentally envisioned the road leading into the hills then in his mind's eye he made a map showing the path to the cave. No words passed between the dragon and the human but the message was clearly conveyed.

Shinigami nodded his head indicating that he understood the directions. With another affectionate nuzzle Duo's dragon bid his master farewell then stepped out on the balcony.

"Return tonight." Heero instructed, "I will take good care of Duo." he promised petting Shinigami's nose.

Another nod. The great reptile unfurled his webbed wingspan. With a powerful whoosh the scaly beast lifted gracefully into the air. Three more flaps and Duo's guardian soared above the treetops. Heero gazed skyward until Shinigami became a small dot on the horizon. "Safe journey." he whispered.

**********

"Here is another secret we can keep together." Anna declared as she stood by the bed watching the boy with the extraordinarily long hair sleep.

Heero told Anna everything about how he and Duo met and what had happened the night before with the exception of Shinigami.

"There are so many unanswered questions." he stated with a clear case of frustration.

"We will see to your friend's health then he can tell you the whole story." Anna replied with the same wise guidance that she had given throughout Heero's life.

"I will make chicken broth; you have to take care of yourself, too."

"Thank you, Anna, you are a treasure."

Anna paused in the hall and gave Heero a warm smile, "You can thank me by having no more surprises." she said before closing the door.

Heero sat down on the bed. Duo sighed and shifted in his sleep. "No more surprises." he repeated, "Oh Anna what will you do when you find out about Shinigami?"

**********

Golden streaks of sunlight flowed over Duo as he was propped up in bed by several pillows. Heero had insisted that there would be no discussion until Duo had proper nourishment. As much as Heero wanted to hear how Duo came to be in such dire circumstances he knew that his friend would be too weak for any lengthy explaining until his stomach was full and his mind alert.

Heero attentively sat on a chair spooning out Anna's chicken broth that was guaranteed to put color back into Duo's cheeks. Every other spoonful Heero pinched off a piece of bread and laid it in the broth until most of the moisture was absorbed then all Duo had to do was mash the broth soaked bread in his mouth and swallow. A goodly amount of fresh water followed. The process continued until the broth and bread were gone.

Setting the empty bowl and cup back on a tray Heero wondered, "Are you up to telling me what happened?"

Duo let out a shaky sigh and Heero was afraid that another attack of trembling was about to be unleashed. Easing down on the bed Heero put his arm around Duo's shoulders and pulled him close. "You know that I will not allow any harm to come to you."

Duo shook his head. "Yes." he whispered as his fingers fidgeted with the sheet's hem and he stared at his hands to avoid looking into Heero's eyes.

Heero placed his thumb under Duo's chin lifting his head until his misty sight was aligned with Heero's face. "I can't help you if you don't tell me what happened. Take your time we have all day and all night if that it what it takes."

"They took my...house."

Heero eyes widened at the unexpected statement. "Who?"

"The army."

Now Heero was more than startled. A sense of dread had begun to seep into his mind and stir his soldier's instincts. "Start at the beginning," he urged shoring up his embrace about Duo's shivering shoulders.

Duo began to tell his tale. "After the peace treaty with the Northern Kingdom was signed King Peacecraft's son, Milliardo, made no secret that he was not satisfied with the terms.

Milliardo had always fancied himself as a glorious warrior so when a mutual agreement, not total surrender, was reached he was outraged. When his father refused to reconsider and forbade Milliardo to take any further action the pompous Prince denounced his Kingdom and the Peacecraft name.

Milliardo Peacecraft and several disgruntled Generals who were still loyal to their Commander left the castle. Milliardo changed his name to Zechs Meriquise and began to assemble an army of his own. No, not an army but a group of ruffians and mercenaries." Duo declared then curled up tighter in Heero's arms.

"Meriquise and his treacherous band began a campaign to claim territory he believed belonged to him and to forcibly conscript citizens to serve in his army. The Gypsies through their outside contacts learned that Merquise's forces had been seen traveling in the direction of the village.

At the mention of the Gypsies Heero tensed. "Are they...." the question trailed off. He remembered Jen's sweet smile as she waved goodbye the day that he and Duo visited the camp.

Duo nodded, "They are all right. Wufei and two elders went to see the mayor, to warn him and the villagers of Merquise's impending threat. Of course the authorities would not listen, they even accused Wufei of trying to trick them for his personal gain.

That afternoon the Gypsies packed up their wagons and went to hide in the mountains. They stopped on their way and Wufei begged me to join them but I didn't want to leave Shinigami. I foolishly believed that my house was far enough removed from the village not to be noticed by Merquise.

The next day the bastard, seated on his horse like an arrogant fool, lead his merciless hoard down the main lane. They quickly overcame the villagers and declared that the town was now included in Merquise's sovereign dominion.

That night I was singing to Shinigami when I heard horses galloping along the road leading to my house. I crept down the path, hid in the forest and watched in horror as six or more men broke down the door and helped themselves to whatever they desired.

Duo paused wiping his teary eyes with the back of his hand. "I spend the rest of the night in the cave with Shinigami. At daybreak I decided to find you. I knew that Shinigami could track your scent even if it was weeks old."

"Even in the rain you found me." Heero stated in amazement at Shinigami's keen senses.

Duo nodded, "I knew that I was safe with Shinigami but I had to see you for my heart's sake."

Now tears welled in Heero's eyes, "I was ready to send for you. Duo I am sorry. If I hadn't let home matters occupy so much of my time you would not have had to endure all these terrible things."

"There is nothing to be sorry about; you had no way of knowing what was going to happen." Duo took Heero's hand and kissed its palm. "I am grateful to be here with you and right now that is all that is important."

Heero tucked silken stands of spun cinnamon behind Duo's ears then leaned so close that Duo's breath cooled his tears. "What can I do to make everything right again?"

Duo locked his centered sight with Heero's shimmering cobalt eyes. Heero sucked in a breath as the violet darkened like storm clouds until only ebony shone in Duo's eyes.

"You can teach me how to fight." Duo growled with uncharacteristic malice.

Heero tensed at Duo's abruptly altered demeanor. An involuntary shiver snaked up his spine at the pure rage that blazed like wildfire inside Duo's enlarged pupils.

He found himself held fast in that scorching gaze unable to look away but a pang of remorse broke through Duo's fury and Heero found his voice. "I can't...can't ruin your innocence. Please, Duo, don't ask me to do that." he begged.

Duo let a single slender finger track down Heero's damp cheek. "My innocence has already been ruined." he replied in a hollow tone that told of his loss. "Now I have to reclaim my dignity."

Part Twelve:

The mist-muted hollow clang of steel on steel rang along the forest's shadowy border. Although the sun had cleared the mountain its pale shades of dawn still painted rosy stripes across the skyline and tinted the dewy haze floating just above the ground. This moisture-laden fog wandered silently among the woods swirling over exposed roots and twisted limbs. Its meandrous traveling drifted through the tree line spilling out the opposite side into a wide grassy clearing.

In the open patch's center, Heero and Duo engaged in an early morning practice session. Even in the chilled dampness sweat beaded on Duo's brow as he put everything that he had into besting his teacher. But no matter which way Duo pivoted or how swiftly he countered Heero's blows most of his efforts came up short. With each thrust, each parry to ward off Heero's lunging advances Duo found himself losing ground.

In the pretended but quite serious swordplay Duo's continual retreat was beginning to take its toll on his self-control. Despite using both hands to wield the heavy bladed weapon, Heero's charges and counteractive riposte frustrated every one of Duo's rapid returns.

"Good. Good." Heero encouraged as Duo's evasive actions partly deflected his teacher's blade. "Now move in." he ordered not giving Duo any extra time to study his defensive choices.

"You can't think about your next parry." Heero instructed pressing the braided student to react without thinking. "Each move must become a natural instinctive reaction."

Duo leaped forward firmly planting his lead foot then raised his sword over his head effectively checking Heero's downward slice. But before the young man could congratulate himself, in his cocky estimation, on his skillfully executed block Heero turned his sword over bringing its broad surface flatly down on Duo's upper hand.

With a gasp of surprise and pain Duo let loose his double grip shaking his smarting knuckles. A hardened glare sparked in his eyes as Duo's progressively quick temper reached a flashpoint. Gritting his teeth, sight narrowed in a retaliatory scowl, Duo charged headlong flinging his blade above his head for a chopping blow. The single-handed attack was off center and totally out of control.

Duo's tutor took full advantage of his vexed friend's exasperation and lack of impulsive constraint. Stepping boldly into his inexperienced pupil's distracted and misdirected assault, the length of Heero's sword came up under Duo's blade's elevated position.

Displaying his masterful domination, Heero tangled his weapon's tapered, sharply honed tip letting it skim lightly across Duo's wrist leaving a long shallow scratch. The cut was deep enough to hurt but not cause a gaping wound. His stunned student yelled out a sting of obscenities jerking back his arm to expose his body to Heero's relentlessly scathing attack.

Duo did not yet have, couldn't have, the stamina that Heero had developed after almost two years of training. It was all Duo could do to clumsily throw up his sword at the last moment to divert his teacher's powerful slashing.

Heero then sprang forward delivering a series of sweeping strokes. Although seemingly violent in his aggressive volleys Heero was in complete control. His provoking goad of pain and humiliation was aimed at teaching Duo that one can not think or react correctly when one is angry.

Heero held his nonstop siege in check knowing that his fighting skills were far more advanced than student's however he wanted to give the impression of danger for Duo's sake. Heero pushed his pupil to his limits making Duo do what he thought he couldn't. His deliberate driving of his friend during their mock battles was set on one goal...to make Duo believe in himself and learn to trust his ability to fight alone.

Duo had to learn to ignore the pain, to develop his instincts, to move outside of himself and concentrate with single-minded focus on what he had to do to survive. Heero had to make Duo understand that when he finally fought an actual foe that the punishment for losing would not be more repetitious drills or sparring games but a real fight with the concluding consequences his life or his death.

Duo could do nothing but clasp his sword tightly and swing wildly as Heero's flurry of strikes drove the somewhat frightened student backwards. His forced withdrawal ended at the forest's edge where a thick timber-stand blockade rose up at his back. In their regressive retreat Duo's boots tangled in the tall grass and tree roots. With one last desperate, frantic swing Duo pitched over. His back struck a branch just before his trim buttocks made hard contact with the stony soil.

Chest heaving and salty perspiration stinging his eyes, Duo stared up into Heero's piercing cobalt sight peering back at him through long, damp, tousled hair. The quivering tip of Heero's battle sword hovered closely at his fallen friend's throat. Now all the beaten man could manage was to swallow hard and surrender to his thorough trouncing. Swearing under his breathe, not so much at Heero but at his own failure and the resulting thrashing, Duo looked down at the swollen bruised welts on his hands.

With a slight tremble from winded exhaustion he ran his dirty thumb over the reddish line etched on his wrist wiping away tacky droplets of blood that had seeped from the cut. A whitish scar would later form as it healed, lending itself as a constant reminder should Duo ever be tempted to forget that day's teaching.

Admitting defeat, not necessarily with gracious acceptance, Duo knew, that hour, that he had learned a valuable lesson. "You beat me fairly." he conceded pushing back wet bangs as labored breaths wheezed in his cheat and a sore ache ran across his shoulders.

Resting his sword against his leg Heero studied his slowly maturing but increasingly apt student. "I did not beat you." he answered locking his sight on Duo. "You beat yourself and twice at that."

Duo eyes narrowed as he mentally questioned his double defeat. Heero saw his student's confusion and continued the lesson. "Yes, twice. Once when you got cocky and lost your concentration and again when you lost your temper."

Duo shook his head in a modest fashion. "I know." he replied lowly as he berated himself for his lack of control.

Heero knelt beside his humbled student. "If your opponent used the same tactics as I did and you made either mistake again," he stated as he leaned nearer, "then yourself, not your enemy, would have beaten you once more."

Heero placed a hand on Duo's shoulder. A deadly serious expression gave grave importance to his next statement. "Remember your next rival in battle will most likely not be as forgiving in his victory as I have been," he warned making certain that Duo fully understood the gravity of what could be his final, fatal defeat.

**********

As Duo shared lunch with Anna and Heero he fidgeted in his chair. His bottom was sensitive, his shoulder muscles ached. Stiff fingers curled with difficulty around his knife and fork.

The third time a bite of meat slipped off his fork the uncooperative utensil hit plate with a clatter. "Damn!" he exclaimed before remembering that Anna was at the table. "Sorry ." he apologized with a weary sigh.

Heero leaned across the table to study Duo's inflexible posture. "Are you hurting bad?" He was dealing with his own guilt as he feared that he had pushed Duo too hard, too fast.

Duo shifted in his seat trying in vain to find a comfortable position. "Its not bad, I've gotten stiff sitting here."

"Finish your food and I'll help you take a hot bath." Heero offered to ease both Duo's soreness and his guilty conscience.

"Thank you madam for a wonderful meal." Duo praised Anna's cooking then placed a saucy kiss on her hand.

Anna blushed slightly, "Now off with you," she playfully shooed at the soldier and his friend, "and don't make a mess in the bath."

Anna stood in the kitchen door watching Heero and Duo stroll leisurely down the hall. Rubbing over the spot where Duo's kiss had warmed her skin she smiled. "That young man is good for you Heero."

Turning her attention to her chores Anna paused in her cleaning. "I hope nothing happens to break your heart my child because I don't think it can survive being shattered again."

**********

Heero mixed pieces of kindling with the several slim logs in the firebox under the tin bathtub. A handful of straw was added to serve as a wick then lit with sparks from the flint stones that Heero carried in a pouch on his belt.

Since Duo had arrived with only the clothes on his back Heero had shared his meager garments with his guest. A fresh pair of trousers, a loose sleeved shirt and clean breechcloth were neatly arranged on a bench near the tub. Behind a curtain hanging on a rope tied from corner to corner Duo gladly divested himself of his practice-soiled clothing.

"Put this around you so you won't catch a chill." Heero said draping a towel over the curtain.

The sound of splashing as Heero added another bucket of water tempted Duo to hurry in his disrobing. "Ouch. Damn." he muttered each time a muscle caught or fabric scraped over his many cuts and bruises.

Heero cringed at the mumbled cruses. Again a good case of guilt threatened to undermine his determination to be an effective teacher. He had to remind himself that he was pushing Duo for his own good. He knew how much Duo wanted to take back his home, to restore his self-respect.

That fateful night when Shinigami laid Duo's icy body on the balcony, when Heero feared for his friend's health and had suffered with Duo in his pain and loss Heero pledged his aid and support. Now he had a duty to make certain that Duo was ready for the hardest thing that he would ever have to do.

By nature Duo was not aggressive. His heart was pure, his soul gentle. Duo was not a warrior...yet Heero had to made him a soldier. Heero really did not want the responsibility, he did not want to be the one to teach Duo how to fight. He had seen too many horrible things, had taken lives and the blood staining his hands had never completely faded from his calloused palms.

Duo said that his innocence had already been ruined now would Heero also ruin the gentle man's untainted soul and perhaps harm his heart beyond healing? He wished that his dear friend would be content to stay with him but Heero knew what it was like to be misplaced from home and lose his identity. All Heero could do was train Duo to be the best soldier that he could be and pray that the war would not kill the warrior.

Swishing his hands in the warming water Heero again rubbing over his palm in another futile effort to wash away the memories of battle. The curtain drawing aside brought Heero back from his soul-searching contemplations.

Duo wrapped in the towel and hair floating about his shoulders cleared the curtain. He placed his dirty cloths on the floor and walked to the tug then tilted his head as he saw a brief flicker of sadness fluttered across Heero's blue eyes. "What's wrong?"

Heero forced a smile to chase away the melancholy. "Nothing. I'm tired."

A different look floated over Duo's violet gaze. There was a sly cast in those beautiful orbs that told Heero his friend had mischief on his mind. Duo glanced at the inviting water then back at the suspicious soldier. "Want to share?" he wondered with a subtle tone that Heero could not resist.

Heero swallowed twice before he found his voice. "Yes."

With the same childlike glee that had first captured Heero's curiosity Duo shed the towel and stepped into the tub. A serene smile clearly showed that the heat was soothing the soreness and lifting his spirits.

Heero didn't bother to undress behind the curtain. Suddenly he was unashamed of his natural condition. There was a relaxed atmosphere that put him immediately at ease. Duo scooted over to make room as Heero slipped into the tub. "Let me soap your back." he offered working up a good lather on a washcloth.

Heero turned around and sighed in total contentment as the scented soap caressed his skin with thousands for frothy bubble. "I wish we had some of those leaves you used to wash our hair but I suppose this will have to do." he said pouring out a handful of liquified soap mixed with traces of sweet herbs.

Duo gently scrubbed in small circles. "After that bastard Prince is gone we will take a long bath in the hot spring." Duo replied in a matter-of-fact way that worried Heero.

"Don't think that routing Merquise is going to be easy." he warned hoping that Duo remembered his lecture about being too cocky.

Duo rinsed out the cloth and dribbled water down Heero's back to wash away the suds. "I know but together we will not fail."

Then an idea hit Heero like a bolt of lightning. He turned around so quickly that water sloshed over the tub's rim. "I know a way to solve this problem. Merquise and his hooligans can be simply dispatched by Shinigami."

Duo froze. A serious expression chased away his smile. "No I will not involve Shinigami." he declared with an angry tone that took Heero by surprise.

Heero started to speak but Duo blurted out. "A Dragon Keeper can not use his dragon for personal gain or to win his battles."

"But..." Again Heero was silenced.

"This is my fight, Heero, mine alone. If I rid myself of Merquise or if I die trying that is how it has to be." Duo's eyes softened and his tone lost some of its bite. "I will learn everything you can teach me, I will practice until my hands bleed and I can not longer stand but I WILL NOT use Shinigami."

Duo sucked in a deep breath to slow his hammering heart. "Please respect my wishes in this matter. Please."

Heero gazed in amazement at his friend. He had known the first time he saw Duo that he had an underlying strength. He had felt it in the house that stormy night, had heard it in Duo's song as he chanted to Shinigami.

Yes, Heero had know all along that Duo was indeed a warrior, that beneath that kind exterior was a soul forged from the same stone that caused the mountains to stand before the wind and rain.

"I will not ask you to do differently." Heero promised taking Duo's hand. "You are special to me but you must be true to yourself. But we can not defeat Merquise alone."

"I know."

"Do you think the Gypsies would be willing to help?"

"Yes they have be displaced, too. I have seen them defend each other many times and I have no doubts they would join us."

Heero nodded as it seemed that they might have a chance after all. "Then it is settled. In the morning we will ride to the mountains and find the Gypsy camp. You have been too long away from your friends."

Duo stirred the water as he moved closer to his soldier and his teacher. "You and I, Wufei and the others...together we can do anything." he whispered, "Now lets not talk about such unpleasant subjects, at least not today."

Heero resigned to Duo's wishes. They finished the bath, soaping and rinsing and enjoying each other's company. Tomorrow the lessons would continue. Sword practice, sparring and building a relationship of trust that only kindred souls could share.

********

That night Duo and Heero rode up to the cave. Duo sang to Shinigami and the great dragon purred. Later as moonlight painted luminous patterns on the walls they snuggled in bed.

Heero watched Duo sleep, studied the way the light played on his creamy skin and twinkled like fireflies over his hair. He had been aware for some time that Duo held a certain attraction unlike any other he had experienced.

Heero had had his flings with girls, stolen kisses in the garden but no one had touched his heart quite like Duo did. Was it wrong to feel that way? They were both male and wasn't that forbidden?

With a heavy sigh Heero twirled the end of Duo's braid and wondered what he should do. "Time." he told himself. "Time always gives the answers."

Holding the rope of chestnut in his hand Heero drifted off to sleep. Somewhere in the garden an owl hooted out his sad song. The crickets chirped in tune with the breeze. And in a cave on the mountainside a dragon dreamed of soaring among the clouds with his precious Keeper riding on his back.

Part Thirteen:

A hawk's shrill cry echoed over the mountain pass. Clammy mist veiled the rocky path as Heero rode Wing in the lead. Duo followed on a bay mare he had selected from the stable. The trail wound upward, not steeply but steadily. On the left gray slate rose straight up and on the right scrub brush and thin sapling guarded the edge.

Duo kept the mare to the left not wanting to take the chance that a misstep might send both horse and rider sliding over the side. In some places boulders bigger than Shinigami lay scattered about like a spoiled child's discarded marbles.

"That would be a nasty fall." Duo muttered to himself pressing in with his knee to encourage his horse to stay away from the crumbling edge.

Heero turned in the saddle using a shake of the head to slip his hair back over his shoulder. "Are sure certain this is the way?" he wondered, as it seemed that they were traveling to nowhere.

Duo clicked his tongue to speed the mare's gate until she was closer to Wing. "This trail finishes on a wide plateau. It is the only place large enough for the Gypsies to make camp."

He squirmed, as it felt like his rump wanted to go to sleep. It had been a long time since he had ridden any distance and his body was not use to the different position. "It shouldn't be much further." he hoped for the bottom's sake.

Heero nudged Wing on also hoping that Duo was right and that they would be reunited with Wufei and the others soon.

The hawk called again but this time its sleek shape could be seen soaring in lazy circles just above the mountain's summit. True to Duo's word the path began to widen then several clues showed that the Gypsies had indeed come that way.

Twin wagon wheel impressions had cut deep ruts into the stony soil. There was even an occasion pile of horse droppings that was unmistakable evidence of the nomadic band's passing.

Taking advantage of the extra room, Duo pulled along side Heero. "Two more bends and we will be there." he stated.

Heero wondered how Duo was so certain of the campsite but he had learned that Duo could be full of surprises. One bend to the right and Heero could hear faint strains of music. The next curve to the left. The smell of cooking wafted on the breeze and smoke curled from campfires adding a woody scent to the air.

Fifty yards more and patches of bright colors could be seen through the sparse trees. Duo prodding the mare to quickly her pace, Heero was right he had been too long away from his friends.

As Duo and Heero rounded another large boulder they were met by two swarthy men armed with swords and bows. One held up his hand to signal for the horsemen to stop. "What business have you here?" he growled leaving no room for misinterpretation concerning the question.

Duo held up his hands showing that they held no weapons. "We have come to see Chang Wufei. Tell him Duo is here."

The gruff man nodded to his fellow guard. "Find Wufei." he instructed. "Dismount and wait." he ordered resting his broad sword on his equally broad shoulder.

Heero held Wing's reins as the midnight stallion nibbled on a patch of straw grass. Duo's mount was content to stand sleepy-eyed under a tree. No words passed between the strangers and the guard.

The man never took his eyes off the pair as he studied the sword hanging from Heero's belt. "Are you a soldier?" he finally asked tilting his head at the bladed weapon.

"I was." Heero replied letting his sight linger on the souvenir of war.

The man commented with a grunt but made no further attempt at conversation. Soon the second guard joined the trio. "This way." he motioned towards the circle of wagons.

Threading through the maze of wagons, campfires and various other obstacles Heero, Duo and their guide made their way into the camp's center. Short of the middle the man took Wing and the mare leading them to a temporary corral that housed the hitch horses.

Duo's eyes lit up and a smile blossomed on his lips as he caught sight of Wufei. The Oriental broke into a run to meet his friend. "Duo are you all right?" he called anxiously before pulling the braided man into a tight hug.

"I will tell you everything when you let me breathe." Duo wheezed as Wufei strong arms threatened to crush his ribs.

Wufei let go and stood back to fix his friend's gaze. "You look well," he smiled, "but why did you disappear?"

Then Wufei noticed Heero and answered his own question. "Ah yes, the soldier." he declared extending his hand to Heero.

Heero took the offered hand and gave it a firm shake. "It is good to see you again."

"Let's sit and you can tell me the whole tale." Wufei motioned to several chairs arranged by a brightly blazing fire ring.

"Are Quatre and Trowa here?"

"I have sent for them. Quatre has been worried."

"I owe everyone an explanation and an apology" Duo stated with a sigh.

"An apology. Why?"

Duo shrugged, "I should have sent word to you."

"You are here now and that is all that matters."

"Duoooo." Jen squealed as she ran as fast as her legs could carry her.

"Hey there little one." Duo cheerfully greeted before scooping up the excited girl and giving her a kiss.

"I told you he would come." Jen informed her father in a no-nonsense tone of positiveness.

"Did you dream?" Duo asked the wide-eyed child as she wiggled in his lap.

"Yes." she grinned at Wufei who nodded in agreement.

Duo situated Jen in a comfortable posture against his chest. "Jen has the gift of foretelling dreams." he told Heero as if it was a perfectly normal thing for a child to do.

Heero shook his head and reminded himself of everything he had seen, heard and experienced since he had met Duo. After having a dragon sleep in his bedroom he would have not been surprised if Jen transformed into a deer and loped away.

"I hope your dreams are always pleasant." he wished for Jen's sake.

The girl stilled on Duo's lap and, with eyes that suddenly looked older than her tender years, gazed straight into Heero's soul. "They are not all good," she stated as her slanted eyes narrowed further. "but bad dreams are the work of the devil and I am not afraid of him."

**********

Duo related the entire story of the arrival of Merquise and his "army". His voice trembled as he told how the men sacked his house then tears sparkled in his violet eyes when he got to the part about Shinigami carrying him to Heero's home.

Heero put a supporting arm about his friend's shaking shoulders and finished the retelling. He, too, got emotional when he told of Duo's request to learn to fight. "I had hoped that Merquise would soon move on but he has entrenched himself in the village and has regular patrols riding through the surrounding forest."

Duo stroked Jen's ebony hair that was as shiny as butterfly wings. "Would you be willing to join our cause?" he asked her father.

Without hesitation Wufei replied. "Of course. There will be no peace until that poor excuse for a Prince is sent back to his father with his tail tucked between his legs."

Heero didn't want to dampen the optimistic mood but he had to be prudent in his estimation of their victory. "Even with your help we can not stand against Merquise one to one. We will need to employ stealthy tactics if we have any hope of winning."

Wufei leaned his elbows on his knees and took a moment to consider Heero's statement. "I agree one on one is not feasible but the Gypsies have not survived this long by not knowing how to be cunning. We will make a plan, a scheme to divide and conquer." he straightened with a satisfied sigh, "Yes you will be surprised at the magic we can do to accomplish our goal."

"And speaking of magic." Wufei continued with a wave of his hand towards two figures snaking around several trunks.

Hand in hand Quatre and Trowa made their way to the impromptu war council meeting. Quatre's pleased smile spoke volumes about his state of happiness concerning Duo's return.

Duo rose, handed Jen to her father and pulled the blond into a warm embrace. "I have missed you." Then he turned his attention to Trowa offering the same affectionate hug. "You, too, my friend."

Quatre's slender fingers signed that he had also missed Duo and no one needed to translate his joy. His hands moved again and Trowa decoded the message. "Jen said that you were coming and she is never wrong."

Duo nodded as he was having trouble forcing words passed the lump in his throat. Then he turned to Heero. "You see together we CAN to anything."

**********

An odd line traversed the road to the valley. Wheels creaked and wagons groaned over the irregular ground. Horses put their shoulders to the hitches in a slow but smooth pull. Heero and Duo rode slightly ahead of the Gypsy caravan as they traveled to the sanctuary of Yuy Manor.

Upon their arrival Heero would get the Gypsies settled in a field near the house then have a servant accompany some of the men to town to restock their supplies. When evening shadows stretched over the hills Heero and Duo would have an official meeting with the Wufei and other elders to begin putting together a plan to rid the area of Merquise.

**********

Heero had questioned why King Peacecraft would allow his son to cause such havoc. Wufei expressed his opinion that the King no longer had control over his pompous heir. Milliardo, Zechs or whatever the hell he called himself had never bowed to his father's rule and he had a well-deserved reputation for trouble.

Milliardo was spoiled by his mother's coddling and angered by his father's demanding attitude. King Peacecraft never allowed his son to display any emotions that might be interpreted as a sign of weakness or indecision. His mother's overindulgence did little to change Milliardo's feelings of frustration or ease the pain of a father's love withheld by pride and duty.

So it was not surprising when Milliardo disagreed with the treaty terms and his father forbade him to take any action that the heir to the Peacecraft throne rebelled.

Unfortunately the King realized too late that he had lost what small measure of control that he had over this son, especially after a handful of Generals joined Milliardo's insubordination.

Now King Peacecraft's dilemma had become everyone's problem. But if Heero and his newly formed alliance had their way the Peacecraft Kingdom's heir would soon discover that he could not always have his way.

**********

The afternoon sun warmed the air as the last of the wagons pulled into the field. The Gypsies busied themselves with setting up their new home site. Heero penned a letter to the local merchants asking for their cooperation in the restocking efforts. Also the estate's blacksmith's help was enlisted should any horses need attention.

Duo decided to stay and help with the various tasks of setting up a permanent camp. Heero wanted to check on his father so he started to the house. A slight tug on his shirt checked his stride. Looking around he found that Quatre and Trowa were responsible for his halting.

"May Quatre ask you something?" came the odd request from Trowa.

"Of course."

Quatre's hands formed first a statement then his question, Trowa translated. "There is someone sick in your house." he signed, "Will you permit me to help him?"

Heero stared in astonishment at the mute man's unexpected insight. He had told no one about his father or his condition. He had even kept the facts from Duo not because he didn't trust him with the private information but because he did not want to add to his gentle friend's worry.

Now a total stranger not only knew Heero's secret but also was making an offer to help. How Quatre could aid Odin was the next mystery but again Heero reminded himself of all the peculiar things that had happened since meeting the Gypsies.

Quatre sensed Heero's confusion. "I have the gift of healing." his hands explained.

Trowa nodded his encouragement. "Let him try."

Heero deliberated but only for a moment. The doctor had done nothing to cure Odin; his only solution was to keep his father in a drug-induced haze. It wouldn't hurt for Quatre to see Odin...after all Duo had taught Heero to believe in miracles.

"This way." Heero motioned toward the house.

**********

Heero eased the bedroom door opened and peaked inside. Odin was curled up in his usual fetal position facing away from the door. Heero stepped inside and Quatre followed. Trowa stayed in the hall. "You will understand each other." he declared in answer to Heero's inquiring look.

Without a word Quatre rounded the foot of the bed. He paused a moment to study the sleeping figure that was as still as death. Reaching down he pushed aside Odin's hair and stop to study again. Laying his hands on Odin's forehead Quatre closed his eyes to center his concentration.

Leaning close to Heero's father Quatre whispered lowly. Heero wasn't sure if he could not understand the words because they were spoken so lightly or because he didn't recognize the language.

In much the same way that Duo chanted to Shinigami, Quatre began a series of repeated phrases. The soft sound of his voice fluttered about the room like thistle down carried on a breeze. His eyes squeezed tighter and he rocked in time to the mystic mantra.

Heero froze in place, held spellbound by the scene before him. He was vaguely aware of the tingling on his skin or how the hair on his body seemed to vibrate with each enchanted note. Just as Quatre had played out his emotions through his music, his vocal violin conveyed a haunting refrain that soothed the soul.

Heero held his breath as a glowing aura flowed from Quatre's hands to encircle Odin's head. The golden light continued to course down his father's shoulders, his torso, spreading over the coverlet in ripples until it encased the entire bed.

Sweat glistened on Quatre's face as he put all his power into exorcising the addictive devil that used wine and depression to keep Odin shackled in his personal prison.

Odin stirred then arms and legs trembled as black vapors began to seep from his body. The stench of stale liquor and years of abuse to body, mind and spirit permeated the room with a stomach-churning odor.

Despite his own quivering Quatre kept to his reclaiming. Suddenly there was a blast of air as if every window had shattered at once. The howling currents increased to a deafening volume forcing Heero to clamp his hands over his ears.

For a few frightening moments black and gold, dark and light battled for Odin's soul. Quatre yelled out, commanding the sickness to give up its evil embrace. Before Heero realized what he was doing he found himself standing behind Quatre literally holding up his quaking frame.

Odin was caught in a convulsive seizure as the last of the black vapors evaporated away and the golden light made the final reclamation. Then everything stopped. An eerie silence replaced the howling. Calm replaced the chaos. Quatre were limp in Heero's arms as exhaustion overwhelmed him completely.

Heero eased down on the floor cradling the drained healer against his chest. Carefully he moped back sweat-drenched bangs to find Quatre's eyes staring blankly. "Quatre?" he called in shock and concern. "Please answer me." he pleaded as memories of him begging Duo to hear him came flooding back.

The door opened and Trowa was immediately by his lover's side. "Quatre will be all right." the taller man reassured Heero. "The healing always drains him. I'll take back to our wagon so he can sleep."

With no effort at all Trowa scooped up his partner's slim body. "Please come by later tonight, Quatre will be fretful until he has word of your father's recovery."

Heero raised up on wobbly legs. His hand trembled as he touched his Odin's pale, damp face. "Father can you hear me?"

Odin's eyelids moved struggling to overcome the weakness pressing them shut. His chest rose as air inflated his lungs to ease his winded exhalations. Slowly his eyes opened then darted until they locked with Heero's anxious sight.

"Heero?"

"I'm here father."

Odin lifted a quivering hand to touch his son. Heero laced his fingers in a sure grip and leaned closer so Odin could see his face.

"Where have you been?" his father wondered with a tone of confusion in his raspy voice.

"I went away to war, remember?"

Silence seemed to go on forever before Odin spoke again. "Is it over? Have you come home?"

Tears tracked down Heero cheeks as he finally allowed his resentment to melt away. "Yes father I am home."

Odin's clearer eyes beheld his son in an affectionate gaze. "Welcome back my son."

As the afternoon shadows painted purple around the room Heero sat on the bed and held his father's hand. He watched Odin drift off into a peaceful sleep free from the drug's influence.

Heero knew that his father's recuperation would be slow and that he might never be completely well but now he did have hope. For the first time there were realistic expectations that he and father could reconcile their differences, that they could reestablish a relationship as father and son.

Duo was right about faith and believing his yourself. With time and patience Heero had no doubts that he and his father could put the past behind them and look forward to a happier future.

"That future will include Duo." Heero promised himself. He knew now that his life would not be whole without the braided man who sings to dragons.

Part Fourteen:

Three weeks later:

Lord Odin continued in his steady recovery. His strength was not entirely up to par but he was able to sit downstairs and take short walks in the garden. Contrary to Odin's pervious sullen habit of dining alone he contently shared his meals in the kitchen with Heero, Anna and Duo.

Odin took an immediate liking to the braided man who obviously made Heero happy. And to Heero's surprise his father was also accepting of the Gypsy encampment occupying the field within sight of the house.

Much had changed during the many dark months that had clouded Odin's mind with wine and his spirit with depression. Heero had retuned from the war in reasonably good condition. Even so Odin's fatherly connection could sense that his son's personality had been altered by his horrible battle experiences.

Odin once asked Duo to accompany him on his daily garden trek and had been frank concerning his fears for his son's mental well being. Duo admitted that dark dreaming did often plague Heero's sleep but he assured Odin that he would do whatever was necessary to help Heero vanquish his war demons.

The Lord of Yuy Manor expressed his relief and gratitude to the young man that had become a special person in his son's life and he, too, made a fervent oath of assistance. "Together we will see to Heero's happiness." Odin declared as he and Duo shook hands to seal their saving alliance.

**********

Sir Yuy carried a lot of guilt for Heero's miserable childhood made unbearable by the refusal of his affections. Odin had suffered greatly after his wife's death and that selfish suffering had all but ruined his chances of being close to his son.

Heero, as the heir of a wealthy landowner, spent most of his younger years in the care of a nanny and various bodyguards. While these employees had pledged to protect Heero they kept him at arm's length partly out of respect for Lord Yuy but mostly from viewing their assignments as just doing their job.

Under the constant watchfulness of his apathetic guardians and the infrequent visits from the few noble children with whom he was allow to play Heero grew up often alone and always lonely.

In spite of his mother's temperate attempts of persuasion on Heero's behalf, his father still held fast to his stern demands of perfection. Unfortunately Leia Yuy's influential intersession did little to change her son's pitiful plight. It was only after Leia's death that Odin realized the distance that he had put between himself and his son. And as hard as he tried to build a bridge the gap of Heero's grief and despair widened until the breach was too far to cross.

So in his own desolate state of anguished separation Odin took to drinking first for his comfort then his survival. With the inescapable pain his dependence grew until he became a slave to the wine and a prisoner of his overwhelming guilt.

Then that fateful day came when the last fragile thread binding father and son snapped under the strain. Heero's announcement that he was going to become a soldier was the final renting of any hope for reconciliation.

"You are no longer my son." The words came back night after night to haunt Odin's dreams and serve as a constant reminder of his severance from Heero that no amount of wine could wash away.

Now Odin had been granted a second chance and he was going to do everything in his power to rebuild the shattered trust and repair the tattered love between him and his precious son.

**********

The Gypsies had also settle into the welcome sanctuary of Lord Yuy's estate. The outcasts had found the townspeople more accepting of their presence. There were occasional incidences mostly concerning some people's intolerance of strangers but nothing that could not be worked out with a measure of diplomacy. For the most part, though, the Gypsies kept to themselves and were content to do so.

Quatre made regular visits to see Odin. Oddly Odin and the healer needed no translator for their conversations. There was a clear mental bond forged when Quatre dispatched the liquor demons and restored Odin's sense of himself.

They would oftentimes be found sitting together in the garden simply listening to the birds sing, sharing the sunshine's renewing warmth and the pleasure of their company without a word passing between them. Often Quatre would bring his violin and then the sweet strains of music would waft on the breeze and cause the birds to cease their singing.

Sometimes Jen would come with Quatre. All she had to do was smile to brighten Odin's spirits. Like a wood sprite making mischief among the hedgerows, Jen worked her magic with the same dances that had been passed down from her grandmother then to her mother who had gone to heaven the day she was born.

Shinigami had not been left out during the transition period. Duo still made his nightly visits and often Heero accompanied the Keeper. Duo had decided that right now was not the time to introduce the winged reptile to anyone else. There was enough going on without the disruption of a dragon soaring over the valley or landing in the Gypsy camp.

But the dragon was content to sleep away the daylight in his snug cave and have his secret meetings with Duo at night. Shinigami had always been an introverted creature so the privacy suited him fine.

**********

Although the pace of life had slowed and everyone lived in better security, the matter of Merquise had not been forgotten. Even with the addition of the Gypsies the ragtag squad still lacked the necessary numbers to defeat the Prince outright. Careful planning had to be put into place. When Heero and his "troops" moved on the occupying horde the strike would have to be stealthy in nature. Secret infiltration was the key to winning; nothing else would be successful.

Heero and Duo had several meetings with the Elder Council. These men not only wisely discerned the situation but also offered prudent sensibility tempered with a goodly amount of shrewd craftiness.

Heero did make one unexpected discovery during the strategy sessions...Trowa was a General's son. Trowa had literally grown up with a sword in his hand. His "family" had been war-hardened soldiers and his "home" the troop quarters or field camps. His was knowledgeable in the art of war, tough, resourceful and skilled in all manner of tactics and self-defense.

Soon a bargain was struck between Trowa and Heero. Trowa would be in charge of preparing the Gypsies for the upcoming conflict. Heero would continue training Duo and with the elder's guidance develop a force capable of defeating Merquise.

**********

A flicker of light flashed over the wide lawn beside the house then just as quickly the reflective glint vanished. As Heero and Duo engaged in their mid-morning training session the familiar clang of steel on steel resounded over the tree line.

Now stronger and wiser in the ways of combat Duo was almost an even match for his tutor. Almost.

The learning had come in gradual and often frustrated steps. Fundamentals were practiced until Duo's dreams were filled with parries, thrusts and dodges. After many weeks of sore muscles, bruises and constantly being so tired that he was in bed before moonrise Duo was finally making marked progress.

Each day he displayed pleasing improvement. With Heero's guidance, his inexhaustible patience and steadfastness to his task, Duo had evolved from a green trainee into a self-assured student.

Heero's hard work and dedication had not gone unnoticed by his father who offered encouraging words whenever he sensed that his son might doubt his sincerely interest. Trowa, too, heaped praises on the teacher's forthright commitment.

For the first time Heero truly believed that he had not only earned Odin's trust but also had freely received his father's love. In keeping with his newly found confidence Heero knew that he had been validated as a man capable of making independent decisions and taking his rightful place as the heir of Yuy Manor.

********

The sword session had run on over two hours. Frequently Heero found himself on the defensive, more often in a state of retreat. He no longer needed to abbreviate his charges or soften his blows. Duo now met each challenge with the strength of conviction and a noble fighting spirit.

However, from time to time, Heero would employ a few tricks kept in reserve. These surprise maneuvers were designed to dissuade Duo from becoming overly cocky, to keep his sometimes brash boldness in check.

"Boldness," Heero reminded Duo, "is good only if you know when and how to use it."

After one such unpredictable move outwitted Duo and forced him to overextend his reach, Heero landed a centered, solid strike on his student's shoulder. But to Heero's amazement Duo ignored the stinging tag, dropped his shoulder and rolled under his teacher's cross-slash. The completed roll put Duo on his feet at Heero's side where he leapt forward with a sweeping charge.

This time it was Heero who barely deflected the thrust. Both blades tangled. Muscles bulged. Sweat streaked their faces and glistened on trim bodies as both men refused to unlock the check-position.

"Have you been practicing on your own?" Heero hissed as Duo's sword's hilt quivered against his mentor's grip.

Duo offered a thin-lipped smile and pushed harder. "Do you yield?"

Heero narrowed his eyes into a cobalt glare, "Don't think you can take me that easily." he spat out the warning.

Gradually with more effort than he had expected to use Heero lifted his straining arms enough to slide his wrist to the left, just enough to free his blade from its tangled confusion.

With a throaty growl Duo jumped back gliding into a ready stance. There was a determined gleam in Duo's violet eyes that Heero had not noticed before. The daring boldness that Heero had tried to suppress now shone brightly in his braided student's steely stare.

Heero's apt pupil shifted his weight and by his body language clearly conveyed that he was ready for an answering charge should his teacher choose to accept the dare. As Duo leveled his blade there was a controlled readiness in his muscle's tautness and an assured tilt of his head that put Heero on notice that he would neither back down nor give up.

Duo had come a long way and, yes, he made Heero proud but something more compelling now held Heero's attention. That strange tugging at his heart that he had successfully ignored returned so suddenly that it stole his breath away.

As the sunlight sparkled over Duo's fiery hair, as he chest heaved and his skin glowed from exertion Heero found himself totally captured by the young man's charms. Visions of Duo's nude body as he and Heero shared baths sent a very clear message to his brain and certain parts of his lower anatomy. Once more the feelings that Heero thought he had hid away presented a growing problem.

"Enough for now." Heero announced lowering his sword to hide the noticeable enlargement in his frontal region.

As a sly smile graced his handsome face Duo inquired in a teasing tone. "Tired?"

Flopping down on the ground in a towering oak's shade Heero leaned back against the broad trunk and pulled his knees to his chest in an attempt to rein in his uncomfortable excitement. "I think you have been practicing when I wasn't looking." he stated with a winded puff.

"To be truthful I don't know how much longer I could have kept up." Duo admitted before joining his mentor in the welcome coolness and taking a long drink from a water jar.

Side by side teacher and student took full advantage of the break to relax both body and mind. The intermission was also useful for a session review.

"You did well," Heero praised, "but..." he paused as he accepted the water from Duo.

"I know." Duo picked up Heero's line of thought, "I still have much to learn." He paused, gazing overhead as the sun glimmered and danced on the gently swaying leaves. "Will I ever learn it all?" he wondered with a sigh.

Heero took a soft cleaning cloth and with straight strokes wiped down his blade from hilt to tip. Again he found that his scrutiny was much too obvious.

Shaking his head to refocus his mind and add emphasis to his next statement Heero replied. "I have not learned it all and never will. Each day is a learning experience and there are not enough minutes in a lifetime to know all the secrets."

Duo sat quietly next to his teacher. He closed his eyes letting the intermittent breeze cool his rosy cheeks. He tried to clear his mind but mental pictures of moves and countermoves still flashed inside his head. His arms tensed as fleeting images of dodging Heero's attacks sprang to life.

Duo couldn't help the reaction. After numerous sessions of painful mistakes, reacting without thinking had finally become second nature. "That is how it is suppose to be." he told himself as his entire body involuntarily jumped in response to his mind's mock battle.

"How long before we move against Merquise?" Duo wondered taking another drink of water.

Heero paused in his cleaning caught off guard by the out-of-the-blue question. "What spawned that thought?"

"I was thinking about my training then the question of when I will get to use it demanded an answer."

Heero pushed damp hair from his eyes, "I would not be so eager to start a fight if I were you."

Duo's eye widened, "You know how far that bastard will go to have his way. I can not believe that you would allow him to continue without retaliation.

"None of Merquise's atrocities will go unpunished but we must be certain of our actions before we issue the challenge. Now let me ask you a question."

Duo nodded and gave Heero his full attention.

Heero leaned forward narrowing his sight. "Are you ready? You know that as of this moment we are not able to mount an convincing charge. I ask again...are you ready?"

Duo straightened against the tree's rough bark taking up his sword. "With you as my Commander and Trowa's wisdom as my guide, yes, I believe that I am. Make no mistake I would not presume to think myself to be Merquise's equal in combat, not alone," he raised up on his knees and fixed Heero's gaze, "but I will not be alone will I?"

"No you will not be alone, you know you have my pledge of protection even unto death," Heero swore, "but do you truly understand the seriousness of what you purpose? Do you know the enemy so well that there is no doubt of his defeat?"

Duo shook his head slipping stringy bangs over his expressive eyes. "I do not mean to sound haughty but you know full well there are no guarantees in this life. We can only act on knowledge and faith."

"You have learned your lessons in fighting and battle tactics very well. You have made me proud." Heero proclaimed, "But now you must listen carefully."

Again Duo faced Heero and focused his full concentration on his teacher.

"Merquise may appear to be an impotent fool but do not let his simple surface become an illusion. Remember that still water run deep. The Prince will be ruthless in combat and he will not care how many men he must sacrifice to win." Heero declared with certainty, "He is merciless and never takes prisoner so if we are overcome and surrender we will be slaughtered to the last man.

You must put your thirst for revenge aside because the life of each soldier could be subject to the decisions that you make. You and I know that soldiers do die that is the circumstances of war but if you put victory before your comrades than you are no better than Merquise and your soul will be as condemned as his is."

Heero reached over and clutched Duo sword tightly then angled the blade across Duo's chest centering the tip over his heart. "Do you understand?" he pressed his pupil to comprehend the gravity of what would happen when the battle began.

Now Duo was somber as he thoughtfully considered his teacher's words. His lips parted then a pause halted his voice. Finally with a shaky sigh he shook his head. "I understand." he whispered as the realization that he might not be ready hit him like a bolt from heaven.

Duo's goal from the coaching and repeated drills was to hone every sensory instinct until he didn't have to think to fight. He hoped that he had learned the lessons well and that Heero could be proud of his achievements. He would not, however, fool himself with lofty notions that he was Heero's and any skilled warrior's equal.

He knew that it would be some time before he came close to Heero's experience level or mastering his mentor's combat proficiency. He still had much wisdom to gain and to mature in mind, body and spirit. No, his education was far from over.

"Revenge will not rule my reasons." Duo promised sincerely.

Satisfied that his dear friend did indeed understand the seriousness of the impending battle Heero relaxed. "Rest now." he urged letting the sword slip to the ground. "There is always tomorrow."

Part Fifteen:

It had been Heero's intension to give Duo the bedchamber next to his room but after the upsetting circumstances surrounding Duo's arrival Heero did not want to be apart from his friend's company. If they had been at Duo's home they would be sharing the bed so why not at Yuy Manor?

The setting sun sunk in measured degrees between the mountain peaks. Large and fiery like Shinigami's eyes its solar rays flared over the horizon juncture tinting the skyline blood red.

Duo stood on the bedroom balcony leaning his forearms on the wisteria-draped railing. He had undone his braid and tied his loose hair back in a ponytail. A sporadic breeze feathered the silky mane and fanned out the ends like graceful wings.

Just below his solitary viewing point a stone gargoyle squatted hunchbacked on the ledge. The waning sun's redden glow touched the stone sentry's weathered profile lending a menacing gleam to its bulging eyes.

But unlike the gargoyle's stony stare that perpetually kept its watchful gaze in centered concentration Duo's sight were fixed on nothing in particular. His eye's faraway cast hinted that his mind had drifted somewhere beyond his field of vision, outside his surface consciousness and perceptive thoughts.

The sunset's thinning shafts melted into a deep pink. Its brightness painted a ruddy hue over the Keeper's fair features and its spiking fire danced in his eyes.

*********

Heero had been in town until early evening purchasing seed for the spring planting. He also set up several accounts for the Gypsies who had agreed to trade their craftsman skills for food and other basic necessaries.

The haggling over prices had taken longer than he expected and by the time he got home Odin and Duo had finished the evening meal. Anna wanted to reheat the leftover vegetable and wild onion stew but Heero insisted that missing supper was his fault and that Anna should not be expected to make a special effort for him. Instead he made up a plate of cheese, fruit and bread along with a new bottle of wine then went in search of Duo.

*********

Heero paused off to the side not wanting to intrude on Duo's preciously private moments.

"Heero." Duo acknowledged his friend's presence without looking around.

"It's getting late and I was wondering where you were." Heero replied softly. "I thought that you might like something more to eat. I was told that you didn't have much appetite at supper." he added as the last of the dusky colors faded from the sky.

Duo let out a lengthy sigh then refocused his sight and thoughts back in their proper places. "I have no secrets here." he sighed again.

"Anna was concerned for your health."

Duo pivoted to face his friend. "I appreciate her concern and I will thank her in the morning." Once more a pensive gaze veiled his violet eyes, "Isn't it beautiful?" he nodded as the sunset's remnant traces faded away leaving only purple streaks behind the mountain.

Heero joined Duo. "Yes it is. Each day is a wondrous gift."

Duo leaned his shoulder on a support column. "Do you believe in fate?"

Heero shrugged his shoulders, "I'm not sure. Although I have given study to the concept I am not certain that powers outside of ourselves control our lives. I do believe that we each have a hand in shaping our own destiny by our ideals and choices." he declared as he recalled his choice of becoming a soldier and how that choice had altered his way of viewing the world. "Why do you ask?"

"For as long as I can remember whenever I've needed direction someone has provided an answer. Some people like the Gypsies have been with me a long time and others like you and Anna have more recently come into my life. Each time in their own unique way each person has been my saving grace."

A slight smile curved up Duo's mouth. "Even Shinigami, by some intervention divine or otherwise, found a place with me. It is all very perplexing."

Heero put a hand on Duo's shoulder, "It would seem that something beyond ourselves has had a hand in our fate," he agreed, "but whether the source of our guidance comes from heaven, well, I am not that wise."

"I suppose some parts of our lives are always to remain an act of faith." Duo stated reaching up to lay his hand on Heero's hand.

Silently Heero watched as the velvety aura of evening vanquish the daylight from the sky. "I suppose." he replied in thoughtful consideration.

As the sunless horizon slowly turned to twilight, tiny specks of starlight shone dimly through the opaque curtain of night. "Why don't you come in and share my supper with me?" Heero urged.

"I will shortly just grant me one last quiet moment to myself."

"All right but don't tarry too long the air is cooling quickly and I do not want you to catch a chill." Heero withdrew leaving his contemplative friend alone with his thoughts.

"The stars are so far away yet their light touches our sky." Duo whispered out loud as he beheld the flickering pinpoints. "Perhaps their gleaming halo beacons were set in the heavens to show that, no matter how remote the fulfillment of man's desires for peace might seem, with faithfulness and firm conviction there can be an end to hatred."

Duo's body felt fretted by his powerlessness to stop the upcoming conflict neither could the growing night chill numb his weary soul nor deaden the dull ache in his heart.

Turning from the railing he left the gargoyle sentinel and the star's distant twinkling to keep their silent watch alone. "Perhaps one day there will be peace."

**********

Heero tamped down the coals and banked the fireplace for the night. He spread out a blanket, set the plate and wine on the floor then realized that he had forgotten to bring any glasses. "No matter." he thought, "If I was gong to catch something from Duo I would have before now."

The balcony doors closed with a click. Heero could tell by Duo's slight shiver that despite his urging his friend had stayed too long in the damp night air. He pulled the duvet from the bed and wrapped it around Duo's shoulders. "Sit with me by the fire." he invited using gentle pressure on the small of Duo's back to guide him to the floor.

Red-orange fingers of flames clawed up over the logs before the blaze broke apart and dissolved into wisps of smoke. The fire provided the only illumination creating ever-changing patterns of light and shadows on the walls and ceiling. Crisp crackling added to the soothing atmosphere.

Duo tugged the coverlet snuggly around his body to ward off both the natural clamminess and the wintry encasement surrounding his heart. Heero pulled out the cork with a soft pop then handed the wine bottle to Duo. "This will help warm you up."

Duo took a sturdy swig and wiped off his mouth with the back of his hand. "This is good."

Heero picked out a piece of cheese and waggled the yellow morsel near Duo's lips. "This is also good."

Duo and Heero settled into a routine of food and drink, sharing the bottle and eating with their fingers like uncivilized barbarians. When the wine loosened their inhibitions the increasingly intoxicated friends began to feed each other first a slice of apple then bread and cheese.

Another turn at the bottle and it wasn't long before both the teacher and his student were relaxed...no, more than relaxed...sloshed. For some unknown reason Duo broke into a fit of giggles and Heero didn't need much encouragement to join in the silly behavior.

Soon the combination of the fire and the wine's warming sensations put Duo in an uncomfortable condition. Clumsily he tugged at his sticky shirt struggling to slip the damp material over his equally damp chest. Finally after a bout of swearing that would put a sailor to shame he was freed from the binding garment.

With a soft sigh Duo laid back on the blanket, laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes to stop the ceiling from spinning. At that moment he was perfectly content to drift off into a state of nothingness.

Firelight fluttered over Duo's fair face and traced shadowy designs across his smooth torso. His creamy skin glistened with sweat and blushed with a wine-induced glow.

Heero remained quiet for a long time studying the body laid out for his inspection. There was a subtle familiarity in his friend's repose. Even though he and Duo had bathed together many times there had always been the distractions of conversation and hair washing. Now there was only silence except for the occasional crackling of the fire.

Soon Heero realized that Duo had completely captured his attention. Suddenly sober he found himself caught up in a certain fascination as he watched the steady rise and fall of Duo's chest which had grown more muscular from his daily workouts and practice sessions.

He noted how Duo's loose ponytail flowed over his shoulders, how his bangs tangled in his long eyelashes and how stray cinnamon-colored stands clung to his moist cheeks. He beheld the silver cross that was now tinted crimson by the reflection from the fireplace.

********

Heero had been so worried during those endless weeks after he returned home. Not knowing of Duo's happiness and security almost broke his heart. Every hour he resisted the urge to ride blindly back to Duo but all he could do was fight the helpless frustration until the ache in his heart and the pangs of separation were too shape to bear.

In spite of his unworthiness Heero offered frequent prayers, fervently swearing an oath on his soul, begging that Duo be kept safe until he could fetch him. He also pledged that if he and Duo were reunited that Duo would never again be without his protective position at his side.

When Shinigami delivered Duo in such a weakened condition, the fear of losing him had stirred strange emotions. "It is the stain of worry." Heero told himself, "When Duo is well," he further argued against the disquiet feelings, "then everything will be all right."

********

But those odd feelings had not faded with Duo's recovery, they lingered in Heero's heart's most private places. A certain brand of passion pressed him to tell Duo what was truly in his heart but what would Duo's reaction be?

Heero had never felt this way about anyone before. A link had formed, an uneasy sexual urging. But how could that be? They were both male!

As Heero found himself more troubled and confused the conflicting sentiments were quickly becoming too hard to handle On two separate occasions Heero started to speak to Duo about his uncharacteristic feelings and each time his nerve abandoned its promise to follow through.

Once finding Duo practicing alone in the central courtyard Heero had hid from sight toying with the idea of seduction. He stood shyly in the shadows committing to memory each of Duo's movements, enjoying the way he muscles rippled under his shirt and how the sun bounced across his hair like a thousand glittering diamonds.

The next time, watching from his window as Duo walked in the moonlit garden, Heero gave serious consideration to being so bold as to invite Duo to be his lover. That idea was not such a farfetched notion, Heero knew of more than one relationship between soldiers during the war so were his feelings really so unnatural?

Duo was beautiful there was no doubt about that and the attraction was stronger than anything that Heero had ever experienced before but was this allure lust or love?

"If I do bare my feelings," Heero wondered, "will Duo be amused or upset or angry? Will he dismiss my loving request as just infatuation? Does he see me as a friend and not as a man with wants and needs?

A renewed ache gnawed at Heero's heart as he struggled with his contradictory emotions. "Could I risk Duo's rejection? Would it ruin our friendship? Am I merely fooling myself by believing that I could be in love or are these passions just expressions of the relief of having Duo here with me?"

Too many questions and not knowing the correct answers or a true path was slowing eating away at what confidence Heero had gained to that point.

Duo was his only faithful friend, someone whom he had come to depend on. Was he now mistaking his dependency for more than it was? "Am I so afraid of being alone that I can not live without Duo?"

Duo stretched his hands above his head elongating his toned body. A small yawn spoke volumes as to how at ease he was at that moment. In the security of Yuy Manor and in the company of his treasured friend Duo had no worries.

Duo's stirring brought Heero back from his soul-searching analysis. Suddenly all he wanted to do was run, to put as much distance between himself and the object of his, perhaps misplaced, desire. However as hard as he tried he could do nothing but gaze upon Duo as he was held spellbound by the Keeper's powerful presence.

*Now.* Heero's internal council commanded inside his head, *Talk to Duo now.* his heart ordered with an urgency that almost took his breath away.

"What would he say?" How to approach the subject? How could Heero put into words emotions that he did not fully understand himself? Suddenly he wished for some of that bash boldness that he had previously lectured Duo about.

A shaky sigh blew over Heero's lips. The faint sound caused Duo to open his eyes. "Did you say something?" he asked pushing up on his elbows.

Heero let his sight run over Duo's naked chest fighting the overwhelming impulse to blurt out what he believed to be his accurate feelings. "NOW!" his heart demanded.

Without warning Duo's sight locked with Heero's focused stare and he was held fast by the captious attraction of those haunting orbs. Then mercifully several silky tresses slipped over Duo's eyes helping to allay their transfixing influence just as it began to bore into Heero's soul.

Heero swallowed hard pushing the confusion and uncertainly away. Forcing the overflowing affection and his fear of rejection back into the guarded recesses of his heart he found enough courage to speak. "Nothing. I said nothing." he lied struggling to keep his voice even.

He had to put his thoughts on another track, rein in his building sexual energy. He needed to use the last of the wine to lull his mind into a sedated state until he was too numb to feel anything. With one drink he finished the last dregs hoping that his fraying nerves would not hasten his crumbling facade or that his trembling body would reveal the lie that everything was all right.

Pushing the painful confusion aside he stood up and staggered on unsteady legs. "I think we need to sleep." he announced as he gathered up the duvet and headed for the bed.

How was he going to sleep with Duo so near? "The same way you stilled your nerves before battle." he muttered under his breath. "Lock away your mind." he continued the stern reprimand of his betraying body.

*Can you?* His inner voice challenged his determination.

"I have to." he answered slipping between the cool sheets.

Duo braced his hand on a chair and cautiously stood up. He, too, moved with a wobbly gait as he rounded the foot of the bed. Fumbling with the laces on his trousers he finally succeeded in stripping down to his breechcloth.

Heero tensed as Duo climbed into bed, curled up on his side and face him like he always did. The dogged desire to be more than friends reared its head once more and this time Heero knew that he could not keep silent any longer.

"Duo." he whispered as if he was afraid that someone else might hear him.

Duo shifted his head on the pillow and centered his captivating sight. "Yes."

In the limited light emitted from the fireplace Heero raised up enough to see Duo's face. "I have something I...need to... tell you." he stammered as his nerve once again threaten to declare desertion.

A puzzlement flickered across Duo's face. He had never seen Heero so ill-at-ease. "All right what is wrong? And don't tell me nothing." he said letting Heero know by his tone that the truth was the only acceptable reply.

Part Sixteen:

Duo propped up his pillow, settled back and smoothed the bedcovers over his bare chest. Folding his arms he waited for Heero to tell him what was on his mind.

Heero fumbled with the downy duvet gluing his eyes on his fingers so he could not see Duo's perplexed expression. His throat was dry and he wished that there was one more drink in the empty wine bottle. Unfortunately the last dregs had not dulled his mind or slowed his growing libido.

A log in the fireplace popped with a release of heated air. His nerves were so on edge that in spite of himself Heero flinched. Of course all these odd behaviors did not go unnoticed on Duo's part.

The covers swished as Duo leaned closer. "What has you so anxious?"

It took all of Heero's willpower to keep from going into a hasty retreat. *What in the hell is wrong with me?* he demanded from his inner council.

No answer was forthcoming. It seemed that his internal voice had suddenly become as mute as Quatre. Now a case of full-blown anxiety had a good hold. His heart hammered, breaths stabbed in his lungs and his palms were sweaty despite him continually rubbing them on the covers.

Duo fixed his imploring gaze on Heero; his patience was wearing thin. "Is it something that I have done?" he wondered with a slight quiver in his voice. He could think of nothing that would have displeased his friend, the evening had been fun and they both had enjoyed themselves.

With Duo's unexpected question that clearly carried confusion in its tone, Heero looked up from his finger fumbling and dared to center his sight on his concerned friend. "You haven't done anything." he whispered lowly pushing the words passed the stubborn dryness. "It isn't you but me." he continued then paused as he realized that he was not making any sense at all.

Duo reached over and lightly laid his hand on Heero's hand. He was immediately aware of the trembling and dampness. "Are you ill?"

Heero nodded "no" then sucked in a calming breath. He was not being fair to Duo and he could no longer keep him in a state of worry. "I don't know where to begin." he finally admitted as much to himself as to Duo.

A small smile curled up at the corners of Duo's lips and he squeezed Heero hand. "The beginning is a good place to start anything. Don't fret, explanations have a way of sorting themselves out if you relax and let them flow. Remember what you taught me about flow?"

Heero recalled, when Duo first began his training, how he tensed up every time he parried a blow. "You can't defend against an enemy that way. The energy flow is more important than the power." Heero demonstrated by gliding his sword in fluid, sweeping strokes, "You have to move like water."

Now Heero's words had to move like water. They didn't need to worry about the rocks in his stream of thought but lace through the barriers of uncertainty and effortlessly slip around the obstructions of fear.

Heero locked his sight and took the chance that even if Duo did not agree with his sentiments that he would at least understand that his feelings were genuine. "Duo...I...I... Damn why is this so hard!" he swore at his inability to open the floodgates of his heart.

Duo fingers touched Heero quivering lips. "Love, tell me what truth is on your heart."

Heero's eyes widened as his ears questioned if they had heard Duo correctly. Then he felt a connection but not from the term of affection but from the current flowing from Duo's hand to his hand and Duo's heart to his heart.

"Love? How did you know, when did you..." Heero couldn't finish, the warmth from Duo's touch was tingling on his skin and his mind was clouded by heat.

Duo ran a slender finger along Heero's face tracking the single tear that streaked his cheek. "I don't know when I realized that you meant more to me than just a dear friend. I think the first night that I held you, when you were ensnared in your dark dreaming, it was then that my feelings began to change."

Duo lowered his eyes and now there was also a shiver in his body. "Many nights I stayed awake and watched you sleep and countless times during our training session I resisted the urge to grab your sword, make you stop and kiss you."

Now more tears joined the lone droplet on Heero's face. "I have felt so much of the same emotions but I was afraid. Oh God, I was so afraid that you would think that I was mad and that I might lose your friendship."

Duo let his hand linger until it was wet with the tear's salty moisture. "We have both been foolish." he leaned nearer until he could feel Heero's quickening breaths feather against his lips. "But the time for hesitation is over."

The kiss was gentle, just a brief brushing of lips on lips but it held so much meaning. There was not one drop of lust or unbridled passion but just enough fondness to let Heero know that, not only did Duo understand but was of like mind and heart.

Heero melted into the kiss as all doubts flooded away in an outpour of relief and redemption. Perhaps his soul was not beyond salvation; maybe his sins were forgivable after all.

Does this make us lovers?" he whispered as the kiss ended.

Heero leaned back and found that Duo, too, was crying. "If you will have me." Duo replied so lowly that he could barely hear him.

The well-spring of weeping was a cleansing flood that washed away Duo's insecurity and gave him permission to believe that someone could indeed care for an orphaned Dragon Keeper whom the world had long ago abandoned.

Heero took both of Duo's hands in his to ease their shaking. "What do we do now?" He and Duo felt the same way but what was the next step in their newly discovered connection?

"We take one step at a time and let our hearts show us the way." Duo wisely replied then pulled Heero down until they lay side by side. "For tonight just hold me." he requested as he snuggled against Heero's chest.

Heero pulled Duo nearer. "You will never be without my protection." he avowed.

"We will be each other's shield and shelter." Duo whispered lowly before giving into sleep's insistence tugging at his eyelids.

Heero lay awake a long time gazing at the peacefully slumbering Keeper. The moon-glow shone silvery across Duo's face highlighting his cheekbones and accentuating his slight parted lips.

Shifting his arm around Duo's waist Heero slid down until he was face to face with his newly pledged lover. He placed a gentle kiss on those inviting lips. "Always." The single word affirmed his commitment and confirmed his hope that his heart was indeed safe.

********

Heero and Duo sat side by side at the breakfast table. Before they came down to the kitchen they had lingered in bed to share a few minutes of private pillow talk and several more experimental kisses.

They both were in agreement to ease into their relationship but their bodies were not being very cooperative. Hands wanted to wander and their genitalia seemed to have a mind of its own.

Even now Duo's hand had roamed under the table and was perched on Heero's knee. Heero hoped that the five-digit assault would honor the predetermined boundaries and not fondle further up his leg. As it was he was having enough trouble focusing on the conversation with his father and anymore distractions might push his concentrative willpower passed its limits.

Duo took delight in Heero's reaction and was especially pleased when the lightest increase in pressure sent a quiver through his mentor's leg. "Heero can teach me how to fight," Duo thought to himself as he teasingly squeezed and was rewarded with another shiver, "but it will be my pleasure to teach him about love."

Somehow Heero finished his breakfast without any outward signs of distress. As he and Duo helped Anna clear the table he leaned close to the perpetrator of his earlier torment and warned. "You will regret your teasing once we are alone."

As Duo anticipated the promised retribution a mischievous grin flickered across his fair face. "What are you going to do spank me?" he asked huskily.

The picture that Duo's breathy inquiry painted in Heero's head triggered a completely involuntary twitching in his frontal region and momentarily turned his mind to mush. He stared taken totally off guard by the unexpected physical and mental debilitation.

When the stunned silence stretched longer than a pause Duo let the grin bloom into a fully satisfied smile. "Touche." he announced before bouncing out the door into the back garden.

As soon as Heero's mind cleared enough to give his feet orders to move he headed into the garden to find his tormentor.

Duo had taken up his sword and was sparring with an imaginary adversary. Once more Heero was brought to an abrupt halt. He stood fixed in place by the graceful beauty displayed before him.

The Keeper's movements were no longer choppy or his footwork faulty. He now progressed from one position to the next with a flawless flow that was a pure joy to watch. Duo had worked hard and sacrificed much to achieve such perfection and had emerged from his clumsy cocoon to be transformed into a strong and confident butterfly.

Heero still felt a measure of remorse over his contribution to Duo's loss of innocence but now that guiltiness had been reborn as a disquiet aching in his soul. Heero understood his comrade's reasons and respected his right to reclaim his home. He had promised his protection as a friend but now that he and Duo were becoming lovers there was an unbearable burden on his heart.

Until then if the unthinkable happened in battle Heero would have mourned Duo as a friend and brother-in-arms but could he lose Duo's love and endure the separation? Could his soul survive the severance?

Heero was swiftly pressed to change Duo's mind, to dissuade his determination to face Merquise. Now panic began to replace the pride.

"Duo I need to talk to you." Heero declared with a hint of hesitation in his voice. Duo was not going to like what he was about to hear.

Duo rested his sword on his shoulder and mopped back bangs from his eyes. He was about to mention Heero's purposed corporeal punishment and the deliciously appealing results but the seriousness in Heero's demeanor put him on notice that something was wrong.

"Heero?"

"Let's sit down." Heero responded motioning to a stone bench.

Duo sheathed the sword and sat down with an uneasy feeling in the pit of stomach. Had he pushed for too much too soon? Had Heero decided that the stigma attached to a male with male relationship was going to be too difficult to handle. Was this the end before they had a beginning?

"Duo I care for you but..."

"But you want to be just friends." Duo finished the sentence not wanting to prolong the pain.

Heero stared for a moment then reached for Duo's hand. "No I still want to be with you but I don't want you to challenge Merquise."

Before their hands touched Duo pulled back "What? Not fight...why?" he stammered as his mind tried to comprehend Heero's sudden detour from their plans. "No I've worked too damned hard. You can not ask me to deny my destiny." he angrily declared at the unfairness of Heero's request.

"But everything is different now."

"Different! Nothing is different!"

Heero reached for Duo's hand again and this time caught hold before he could retreat further. "I don't know what I would do if I lost you. I have just discovered that I love you and now you want to put that love in jeopardy."

Duo drew in a deep breath attempting to keep his temper in check, "If I asked you not to fight would you ignore Merquise and let him have free reign?"

"But I have to defend the King's territory."

"And I have to defend my home."

Heero grasped at any way to change Duo's mind. "But the Gypsies can help me do that without you being involved."

Duo locked his sight on the person who had recently become the center of his life but as much as he cared for Heero he could not allow anyone else to fight his battles.

"Please Heero don't make me choose between you and what simple heritage I have." he leaned closer and softened his tone. "It is not about my house, that is just a building and I would gladly leave it to live with you. But I will not allow anyone to steal my dignity. Can you understand? Please understand."

Heero knew before he began that he could not win the argument. He cared too much for Duo to ask him to deny his humanity but that same caring put his heart at risk and that carried with it a frightening possibility...life without his precious partner.

Heero tried one last persuasion. "There is no need for us to live in the past when we can share the present together."

"But the present only lasts until midnight then it, too, become the past." Duo wisely stated, "We can win this my love. Please have faith in me as I do in you."

"All right." Heero conceded with a sigh. "But we will not make a move until I decide that everyone is ready."

"Don't wait too long to decide." Duo set his own rules then gave Heero a quick kiss to seal the deal.

"We will meet again with Wufei and the Elders tonight before we visit Shinigami."

"Tonight." Duo agreed, "Now let's get in a practice session before the morning is gone."

*********

It soon became apparent that neither teacher nor student had their minds on practice. After several near misses from lack of attentiveness to the task Heero called an end to the session.

"We should stop before someone gets hurt." he stated the second time Duo barely blocked a cross-slash.

"I'm sorry." Duo apologized.

"Don't be I am no better focused." Heero admitted, "Let's take a walk, the break will do us good."

The swords were stored away in the house and Heero told Anna the general area where they would be in case someone needed to find him or Duo.

The day had dawn clear but now a mixture of sun and clouds had tempered the usual rising of the mid-day temperature. Summer was but a few weeks away and the fields had put on a mantle of vivid vegetation. Likewise the trees were robed in varying shades of green ranging from the emerald foliage adorning their limbs to fluffy moss shoes covering their roots. A breathtaking array of flowers swayed in the breeze. Pink and white and violet the color of Duo's eyes mingled with yellow buttercups and feathery ferns.

A bubbling stream soon joined the wandering pair. It kept its pace zigzagging around rocks then cascading over shale shelves with giddy abandonment in its unending journey to the Crescent River and the sea beyond. Birds twittered and flew from branch to branch lending their happy songs to perfect day. Somewhere above the mountain a hawk caught an updraft and circled lazily among the clouds.

It was easy for Heero and Duo to temporarily put aside their troubles, to stop dwelling on their training and the soulless bastard that made that training necessary. For that peaceful moment the soldier and the Keeper were the only two people in the world.

Where the forest thinned a meadow spread out in a wildflower abundant circle. Filtered sunshine glistened through the fluttering leaves inviting the strolling twosome to stay for awhile.

Duo and Heero sat against the same tree trunk in quiet contemplation. A lot had happened in a short time and each one in their own way had to sort out their feelings. Surrounded by nature's purity everything leading up to that moment seemed surreal. It was almost as if a spell had been cast, like the silent pair was sleeping and would soon wake up to find that Merquise and his misery was only a dream.

Duo laced his fingers with Heero's fingers and rested his head on Heero's shoulder. His bangs tickled under Heero's chin as he shifted to gaze up into twin pools of cobalt blue. "How did I live before I came to love you?"

Heero gave consideration to the heartfelt question. "Love makes the difference between living and existing and I didn't know the difference before I met you."

"Then today we both begin living." Duo proclaimed.

**********

As Heero lay on his back, Duo used his chest for a pillow. Twirling the end of Duo's braid he savored the warmth of his lover's body pressed against his. There was a wondrous sensation as their heartbeats blended into a perfectly metered pulsation.

Duo was experiencing the same serene sensations but he was not as content to remain still. With catlike grace he slowly slipped his knee up between Heero's legs until it was in a position to prod his pillow's crotch.

Heero tensed at the initial contact. Duo moved his knee in a circular motion building the friction. "Does that feel good?" he wondered even though he already knew the answer.

Heero closed his eyes and nodded "yes". He was so absorbed in his partner's pleasuring that he was not aware that Duo was unlacing his trousers. It wasn't until supple fingers brushed over his breechcloth that his eyes popped opened and he drew in a startled breath.

"Duo!" he hissed in reaction to the light caresses being bestowed on his groin.

Duo moved his knee to allow for a clearer path to the desired organ. His fingers slithered under the cotton cloth and were rewarded with a buck from Heero's hips. "Should I continue?" came the next enticing inquiry from the braided Keeper.

Heero raised up enough to gaze down at his exposed frontal region. He had occasional awoken from an erotic dream to find his manhood standing at attention but this was the first time that the rigidity had been helped along by such stimulating tactile contact. His sight was fixed in fascination as the breechcloth was pushed aside to reveal his rapidly elongating penis.

"Heero do you want me to go on?" Duo asked again as he realized that Heero's thoughts were focused elsewhere.

Heero blinked then lifted his eyes until they locked with twin pools of violet. "I want to but...." An involuntary quiver coursed up both legs cutting off the last of his sentence.

Duo stilled his hand. "I won't do anything that makes you uncomfortable."

"I...we..." Heero tried to speak again but couldn't seem to process the words.

"I won't be angry if you want me to stop." Duo promised, "I only want what makes you happy." he smiled to reassure Heero of his honest intensions.

"Kiss me." Heero managed to whisper between shivers.

Duo braced his hands on the ground and slid up Heero's chest then delivered a gentle kiss on his partner's parted lips. Heero tentatively touched Duo's back. His fingers tangled in Duo's braid where it had begun to come undone. He felt warm and cool at the same time, a tingle prickled on his suddenly sensitive skin.

The few kisses that Heero and Duo shared up to that moment had been playful in nature but this tender conveyance of a deeper sentiment held a greater promise of commitment.

Was Heero ready to take the next step toward the communal bonding that went with that promised love? Duo was willing to wait, to go as slow as he wanted to go.

Confusion--body willing--mind uncertain.

"Can we take it slow?"

Duo leaned back and smiled. "Tell me what you want."

"I like the touching."

"Here?" Duo slid a finger across Heero's cheek then let it travel down his throat.

"Yes."

"Here?" More fingers joined the lone digit and Duo's hand flattened on Heero's stomach.

Heero nodded affirmatively.

"Lower?"

"Hurry."

It didn't take long for Heero's neglected member to once again rise to the occasion. Duo tunneled his hand around the stiff shaft savoring its pulsing within his firm grip. Lightly he rubbed his thumb over the milky precum moistened tip.

A steady flow of air hissed over Heero's lips as he collapsed onto his back. "Damn! Duo!"

Duo set to the task of relieving Heero's "tension" in the most pleasurable manner possible. Alternating strokes--fast and slow--hard and soft. Over and over with measured precision Duo concentrated on bringing his unsure lover to the thundering climax that he deserved.

Keeping up the balanced pace Duo raised up so he could see Heero's face. His eyes were half-closed as waves of delight surged over his trembling body. "Heero look at me." Duo demanded as he sensed that Heero was quickly approaching the point of no return.

Like an obedient soldier Heero set his sight in line with eyes that were both angelic and devilish at the same time. Heat gathered in his loins and sparked between his legs before the firestorm burst forth in an explosive ejaculation. Heero shuddered, arms and legs jerked in orgasmic convulsions that threaten to plunge him into unconsciousness.

Duo eased his hold to allow the softening member's pumping to subside. Still shaking from his forceful release Heero panted in ragged breaths. All he could do was let the final waves flow out into an exhausted but blissful afterglow.

Duo rolled over onto his hip then leaned over his sated lover. "Are you all right?" He moped back damp bangs to better see Heero's desire-glazed eyes.

Heero sucked in a moderating breath, "What in the hell did you do?" he wheezed as he cautiously touched his sticky shaft.

Duo couldn't help but grin at Heero's oddly phrased praise. "Just solved a stressful problem?" he teased.

"Well," Heero declared flopping back from sheer weakness, "you are a very talented problem solver."

Duo led Heero to the rambling brook and helped him wash away the remnants of his excellent manipulations and, to quote one of Duo's amusing adages, "Put the horse back in the stable."

The lovers laid on the grassy bank under the spring-frocked willow branches and permitted the sun's warmth to soothe their souls. Entwined in each other's arm they whispered endearingly and fell asleep to the bird's beautiful lullaby.

That night the Gypsy camp would become a war room and plans for Merquise's downfall would be finalized but for the remainder that peaceful afternoon the solitary pair would be content to let their love keep the world at bay.

Part Seventeen:

Sunset rays expanded across the dusk-kissed horizon in brilliant bands of deep crimson marbling into twilight purple. Two ruby-aura silhouettes of horses and riders slowly ascended the winding trail to the dragon cave. Wing picked his path with nimble footing. Duo's favorite bay mare that he named Chestnut because of her reddish-brown coat copied the well-placed hoof marks imprinted in the stony soil.

The Keeper and his partner's nightly visit to the endearing reptile had become both a duty and a necessary respite from their daily routine. Although Odin was well on his way to a complete recovery he still was not able to supervise the household and oversee the field workers.

Anna was a great help in the manor but Heero had taken charge of the spring planting. The Gypsies had proven to be an invaluable asset for not only did they lend their labor but also their skill with the plow horses.

Heero quickly recognized that there was no animal that the Gypsies could not tame. Whether it was the men's mastery of the sturdy Percherons or the women's easy management of the Welch cart ponies, the gentle nomads had an uncanny intuitive understanding of all living creatures.

Duo swore that when he first began to visit their encampment near his house that he saw a Gypsy girl, no older than ten or eleven, actually woo a hawk until the bird of prey was content to follow her wherever she went. He told of numerous occasions when children and deer played in the meadow and laid down to rest together.

Heero had no trouble believing in the interaction between the Gypsies and the woodland creatures, after all he found himself keeping constant company with a dragon.

The mounted pair continued to climb upward until they diminished to dots and blended with the evening shadows. The first stars had begun to twinkle and the moon was a sliver of silver above the mountain when Wing whinnied out their arrival at Shinigami's lair.

Duo dismounted and handed Heero the mare's reins. Heero guided Wing and Chestnut to a stream of water bubbling up from underground and left them to graze the fresh spring grass.

By the time Heero joined Duo in front of the cave's inky entrance, the Keeper had already knelt on the ground. Heero stood off to the side so as not to distract the wakening dragon. He had learned from previous experience that Shinigami was not in the best of moods when he first rose from his daylight slumber.

Shinigami would stretch his snaky neck and his scaly legs then draw out his back tautly until a soft pop sounded along his spine. Then the cranky reptile would take his time to adjust his eyes to the darkness before lowering his spike-crested head and slinking from the cave.

"Good evening." Duo called as a pair of fiery eyes blinked from the entrance.

The dragon sat down next to his Keeper resting back on his haunches. Even from the several feet that separated Heero from the dragon he could feel Shinigami's hot breath puffing against his face. There was no need for a fire, not when one had reptile-radiated heat.

Duo began the melodious chants. Once the soothing notes fashioned the ancient songs Shinigami became so enchanted that he purred. Heero cuddled beside his partner and also allowed himself to be enchanted.

"The nightingale sings of a faraway shore where the mountains meet the sea." Duo sang, "Over the waves my love sings back her tender love for me."

"Or should that be his love?" Duo whispered closed to Heero's ear.

Sixty minutes passed then half again as much time. Duo used up all his songs. Shinigami nuzzled Duo's hand letting him know that he needed to hunt for his supper. Duo petted the offered snout, "Stay within the forest," he reminded, "and watch the road when you cross the southern ravine."

Shinigami nodded and drew back his lips into a dragon-style smile. Long fangs that kept company with twin rows of razor edged teeth glistening in the limited moonlight. A forked tongue tasted the air then lapped at Duo's hand. Then in acceptance of the human whom Duo had also chosen to "keep" Shinigami lowered his head to permit Heero to stroke over his spiny crest.

Straightening to his full height Shinigami unfurled his webbed wings. With a powerful whoosh the massive creature lifted from the land. Three more flaps and his slender shape soared above the treetops. Duo watched until the airborne outline became indistinct then disappeared into the ebony shroud of night.

"Its time to meet with Wufei and the Elders." Duo declared as he mounted Chestnut.

Heero had been dreading the meeting. He knew that it was perhaps the last strategy session before Duo would insist on putting the plans into action. Heero understood his partner's reasons for his challenge to Merquise's arrogant lordliness, he even agreed that the pompous Prince should be punished for his unconscionable acts but still he could not give his blessing.

Duo could defend himself, there was no doubt about that, but he lacked the experience of actual combat. He had never faced a foe who would not hesitate to maim or kill to keep his position of power in tact. But what put fear in Heero's mind and caused his heart to break was that once Duo had been baptized by the blood of his enemies he could never regain the innocence lost.

As the horses picked their way down the moonlit trial Heero gave serious consideration to convincing Wufei to physically force Duo to stay in camp. But he soon dismissed the idea as he realized that Shinigami would not allow Duo to be held against his will. It was going to be hard enough to convince the protective dragon to let Duo fight on his own, no, Heero had better not tempt the fates.

The horses moved on through the orchard, up the hill passed the grain barn and the sheep pens shut up tight against nocturnal raiders. Several Mastiffs that guarded the sheep perked up their ears in heightened alertness as the mounted riders approached.

"Its all right." Heero assured the four-legged sentries. "Stay." he ordered not wanting any of the dogs to abandon their post to follow the horses.

The smell of smoke and the delicious aroma of cooking wafted over the hill just before the Gypsy camp came into view. Beyond the circled wagons the windows of Yuy Manor shone with pale yellow light.

Unlike the first time Heero saw his house it was not cold and uninviting. There was no reservation concerning his reception. He was home and welcomed within its walls. Odin, free from the burden of addiction and depression, was beginning a new life and he and Heero were rebuilding both trust and love.

Now Duo had been accepted into the family. Just as Heero and his father were forging a new relationship, Heero and Duo were exploring their newly found feelings and developing a bond of their own. Again a twinge of fear curled inside his heart and once more Heero pushed it away.

*Together we can do anything.* Duo had proclaimed.

"Together." Heero pledged on his honor as a soldier and his promise as a lover.

********

Sharing a supper of venison, vegetables and sweet honey bread Heero and Duo discussed and debated possible plans with Wufei and the Elders. Everyone agreed that a direct charge would be a foolish venture, the number of Merquise's troops was too great.

"If the numbers were reduced," Wufei spoke from his previous knowledge of solders-of-fortune, "then we wouldn't be fighting an army. The Prince's men are only brave when they think they have the advantage."

"How do you purpose to dwindle them down to a manageable amount?" Heero wondered as he washed down a bite of bread with a gulp of homemade ale. The fermenting of grain was another of the Gypsy's talents that Heero had come to appreciate.

"That reduction, my friend, can be easily done. We," Wufei used a wide sweep of his hand to include the entire camp, "will put on a show for the Prince and his cowardly mercenaries and while they are distracted we will cull them out a few at a time."

A silver-haired Elder took over. "We are a peaceful people and we do not use violence if we can find another way so whenever possible we capture not kill. There will be an area set aside in the forest where the men will be taken and kept under guard. When the fight is over they will be turned over to King Peacecraft for his judgment."

Duo nodded in agreement, "What will happen to Merquise when I put him in his place."

"His father will decide his punishment." the wise man replied stroking his equally silvery beard, "I am sure that the Prince would rather face his father than risk the Gypsy's brand of reprimand."

Heero leaned forward bracing his arms on his knees. "Careful coordination is the key if we have any hope of victory."

The Elder smiled, "You have not forgotten your training. Now let us settle on a plan that will assure Merquise's defeat."

An hour later everything was in place. Wufei would make sure that the Gypsies knew their part in the deception. The Elders would arrange for a temporary holding area in the forest. The most experienced hunters would be under Heero's leadership and make up the defensive force.

The third evening from that hour would find the Gypsies engaging in a game of fox and geese with victory the prize. But for that night plans would be put aside. Everyone's minds needed to be occupied with brighter thoughts and their hearts made merry with song and dance and more of the excellent ale.

Wufei glanced over at his wagon. He could just make out Jen peeking around the side. With a wide smile he motioned for his raven-haired child to join the inner circle. "Come here little one." he called.

Jen wasted no time in coming to her father. She politely acknowledged the assembled Elders then made a straightway path to Duo. Climbing into his lap she wrapped her arms around Duo's neck and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek.

"Have you had good dreams?" Duo wondered as Jen wiggled to get comfortable.

She nodded "yes" enthusiastically then fixed her dark gaze on Wufei, "Can we dance now?"

"Yes little one, go find Quatre and we will dance."

Soon all manner of musicians had gathered around the center fire ring. Quatre had his violin, others their fiddles. A drum metered out the beat. Trowa revealed another side of himself as he added his flute to the joyous music.

All about the fire the Gypsies danced. Tambourines jingled and women twirled in multi-colored skirts that floated out in circles. The ale was shared and shared again.

Duo bowed deeply to Jen. "Madam may I have this dance?"

Jen curtsied with the same graceful elegances that her mother, God rest her soul, had often used to entice Wufei into a private dance of love.

Wufei had never wholly recovered from his wife's death in childbirth. Without a doubt he did know that his precious daughter had received her mother's essence of life and with that transfer of her soul Jen had been given her mother's gift of dreams.

A wistful sadness flickered across Wufei's black eyes as he watched Duo scooped up Jen and twirled her around. "Jen you are so much like your mother." he whispered forlornly.

After three lively songs Trowa decided to take a break. As much as he enjoyed playing his flute he took more pleasure in watching his lover become one with his music as a joyous smile beamed on Quatre's face and magic shone in his azure eyes.

Trowa leaned back against a tree and clapped in time to the tune. Duo and Jen danced a jig, spinning and leaping in the air as if they both had wings. Like Trowa, Heero gleaned great satisfaction from watching his partner lithe steps.

Duo's power and suppleness mirrored his dexterity with the sword. Heero supposed that there was not much difference between swordplay and dancing. They both required fluid movements, balance and excellent body coordination and Duo had certainly mastered each of those essential skills.

********

Heero made his way around the cheerful crowd and joined Trowa under the tree. Ever since the night that Quatre healed Odin a perplexing question had nagged at his thoughts and he hoped that Trowa would be able to supply an answer.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" Trowa shouted above a rousing song that was being sung by three men whose tongues had been loosened by the free-flowing ale.

"Yes very much." Heero replied with the same volume. "I have something that I need to ask you."

"Let's go further into the field so we can hear each other." Trowa suggested.

When they had walked out far enough so that the noise from camp was at a more tolerable level Trowa and Heero sat down on a rocky outcrop. "Ask your question." Trowa said as he gave his new ally his full attention.

"You will probably think I am crazy," Heero began with the odd disclaimer concerning the soundness of his state of mind, "but the night Quatre healed my father I could have sworn that he spoke."

"You are not crazy." Trowa assured, "Quatre can speak but only when he is healing. When an Elder Healer wanted to train a new apprentice Quatre answered the call without hesitation. He already had the ability to sense people's pain so why not learn how to make that pain go away? But with the gift came sacrifices. If Quatre was to practice the art of healing he could only use his voice for the cure."

"You mean that Quatre made the decision to become mute?" Heero declared with amazement at the young man's unselfishness.

"He felt that it was a small price to pay to help others." Trowa stated with pride. "We have no problem understanding each other using the signs, in fact his muteness has actually made our emphatic connection stronger."

Heero gazed back at the camp, "Quatre is an extraordinary person, no wonder you love him so much."

Trowa beamed with the unmistakable glow of love. "I would give up everything for him because he gave up so much for me."

Seeing the puzzlement in Heero's eyes Trowa explained. "I was the first person that Quatre healed, he gave up his voice for me. When I was still a stranger to him he pulled me back from the brink of death.

Tears misted in Trowa's green sight as he remembered that time almost a year ago. "I had been traveling with the Gypsies a few weeks when I was struck down with a high fever. Despite all their efforts to save me I showed no improvement. Finally all they could do was keep a vigil and pray that I would not suffer too long.

Quarte came to me without reservation. He offered his voice and touch freely. For three days and nights he sat by my side chanting the healing words and using his mental connection to keep me from slipping away. Finally when the fever broke I was ravaged by convulsive chills. Quatre laid with me and through his touch chased the cold away.

As I regained my strength he continued to visit me daily. We quickly became friends and he began to teach me how to sign words. I am not sure when our hearts became as connected as our minds but one night I asked him to stay with me, to share my bed and my life."

Heero nodded and Trowa could clearly see a faraway look in his eyes. "Duo and I have just become close but we have not coupled like you and Quatre."

Trowa place his hand on Heero's shoulder. "If you and Duo have already linked your hearts then you have made your commitment. The physical aspects will follow naturally just like one season follows another. Now let's return to our lovers before they come looking for us."

********

The celebration of comradeship lasted until well past midnight. Musicians played until they were exhausted, everyone sang until their voices gave out. Gradually the dancers formed small groups, a few paired off and sought out private places. Jen curled up on a blanket by the fire. Wufei tucked another woven cover snuggly around her body and softly sang a lullaby until she drifted off to dreamland.

Heero and Duo cuddled at the forest's edge where the fire's influence barely disturbed the shadows. They whispered, held hands and engaged in some good-natured groping.

Trowa was right...they had connected with their hearts. There were many new sensations to be explored, many secrets to share but that night they were satisfied to just be together.

Finally the various camp members drowsily dispersed to their wagons. Wufei carefully lifted Jen whose angelic smile told him that her dreams were pleasant. Heero and Duo bade the Oriental good night and headed back to house and their room that had become their refuge from the prying eyes of the world.

Part Eighteen:

The hours leading to Merquise's downfall passed quickly. Days were spent in practice to finely hone Duo's skills; evenings were filled with finalizing the upcoming confrontation.

As night blanketed the bedroom, Duo and Heero continued the exploration of their budding romance. Tentative touches became bolder in their experimentation. Uncertainty was replaced with trust that nothing would be done without mutual consent.

Mental clarity was often clouded by too many physical sensations all vying for attention at once. The friction of skin against skin, the heat of a single finger trailing along an arm or leg or spine, a whisper of breath on an ear lobe or neck stoked a fire that only kisses could extinguish.

But throughout the bodily bombardment of their senses Heero and Duo kept their control. They did not want their first coupling to be in the throes of passion, blindly rutting like oversexed beasts but to be guided by love in its purest form.

As much as they craved the carnal bonding they desired firstly to become spiritual soul mates. They required the duel connection of mind and soul then, when that link was secure, they would freely give their bodies to one another.

********

The day of destiny dawned as clear as the course that the soldier and the Keeper had set to regain all that was rightfully theirs. To an outsider the Gypsy encampment's activity might have appeared to be disorderly but everyone knew what task had to be completely. The "organized confusion" was carried out in a deliberate manner designed to accomplish a single goal...the ruination of Prince Peacecraft and his ungodly army.

The plan had deliberately been kept simple. A wagon loaded with the women would roll into town accompanied by a dozen men on horseback. When a suitable site for their "show" was found a side panel would be lowered to form a stage. Meanwhile at least six more men would be waiting in the forest to receive the captured solders.

The Gypsies had innumerable methods of distraction. They were masters at the art of misdirection. Music would be employed to take the men's minds off of their duties. The dancers, especially the females, would use their bodies to entice and hint that there might be other "favors" available for the right price. Of course this tempting behavior would last just long enough to lure the horny soldiers into an isolated area where they could be silently snatched away.

Acrobats, jugglers and even a fire-eater would all work their diversionary magic until the army was whittled down to a manageable size. Then when the odds were reduced Duo would issue his challenge to Zechs Merquise.

**********

Since the majority of the men and women would be away from camp the field hands had been enlisted to stay with the children and the elderly whose health did not permit their participation. Odin, Anna and members of the household staff had promised that those who stayed behind would be cared for and fed.

The Gypsies dressed themselves in their brightest costumes. Heero and Duo also put on the colorful garb to blend in with the troop of musicians and dancers.

Heero was dashing in his scarlet vest trimmed in golden threads. Duo, too, was quite handsome in a violet shirt that matched his eyes. To lend another layer to Duo's masquerade he had Heero entwine silver ribbons throughout his braid.

Wufei tied back his heavy black hair then tucked a long knife into the crimson sash tied around his middle. Another knife with hidden away in the top of his right knee-high boot. Likewise Quatre and Trowa concealed their choice of defense in their rich-textured clothing, including Trowa's favorite set of six-pointed throwing stars,

Every man and women carried some form of personal protection and all were skilled in the various weapons uses. Heero secured his and Duo's swords to the wagon's axle. He was sure that Merquise's men would not allow any entrance into town without checking the wheeled transportation but he also knew that they were basically too lazy to do a thorough search.

*********

Heero had sworn an oath that he would not interfere in Duo's personal fight. As much as he hated the idea of his gentle lover facing Merquise he had to honor Duo's right to reclaim his home.

The night before Duo had gone alone to see Shinigami. Duo had told him what he intended to do and had also extracted a promise of noninterference from the great dragon.

The Keeper had agreed to Shinigami's telepathic request that he be allowed to view everything from a nearby ridge. Duo was not so sure of himself that he would refuse any backup that he could get. If the worse did happen and he fell in battle Duo knew that he would be avenged by both the mystic reptile and his precious partner and that knowledge gave him the courage to carry on.

**********

"Halt!" one of three men ordered as a vividly painted wagon came into view.

Wufei pulled back on the reins easing the horses to a stop. "Whoa." The mounted riders divided in half and formed a flanking guard on either side of the wagon.

Heero loosely held Wing's reins in one hand while his other hand rested on a dagger strapped to his hip. Duo set astride Chestnut wearing his most sincere smile for the sentry trio.

As the tall guard with a swarthy complexion stepped up beside the wheel the Oriental put on a casual attitude, "Good day to you my friend." Wufei greeted the clearly confused man.

A curt snort sounded as the soldier studied the assortment of colorfully costumed men. "State your business." he demanded roughly. His hand cautiously moved to the sword hanging from his belt.

"We are a band of entertainers traveling through your land." Wufei stated in a relaxed tone that matched his posture.

The soldier's mouth turned down in a sour frown. "We've got no need to be entertained." he growled, "Now be gone before I arrest you all and seize your property."

Wufei shrugged in a noncommittal fashion. "Very well, we want no trouble." he declared clicking his tongue to put the horses back into motion.

The guard began to step aside then froze in place. His eyes widened as a raven-haired beauty poked her head out of the wagon and leaned over the front seat. Her gauzy blouse strained across her ample chest and the flimsy material struggled to keep her creamy breasts from toppling out of their lax confinement.

The young lady smiled and fixed her beguiling gaze on the stunned guard. To her left she could see that her display of sexuality had also captured the interest of the remaining guards who had left their post for a closer inspection of her considerable charms.

"Hello." the lady cooed using a subtle tilt of her body to further bewitch the already distracted sentries. She was rewarded by gaped mouths and the fact that one soldier was trying to discreetly readjust his pants that had become too tight across the front.

"Who might you be?" the swarthy guard asked hoarsely through a throat that had suddenly gone dry.

"Cassandra." she replied in a breathy whisper.

The man stepped closer never lessening his lustful stare. "And what do you do Cassandra?" he wondered with a lecherous smile.

"I dance." the Gypsy women answered with another suggestive wiggle.

"Is that all you do?"

"I have many talents."

Certain that the hook had been set Wufei prepared to reel in his first catch of the day. "As I said we are entertainers. Cassandra is one of several dancers that a man of your tastes would enjoy but, alas," he sighed using a nod of his head to keep the man's attention squarely on Cassandra, "we have been sent on our way."

The guard who was having problems with his uncooperative anatomy wasted no time in stating his view. "Ah come on Captain, we ain't had no fun in a long time."

"I don't think the Commander would like us lettin' strangers in."

The man with the frontal swelling looked like a child that had just been denied sweets. "It won't hurt to ask." he insisted with an adolescently silly grin plastered on his face. Wufei almost expected the man to pout and whine until he got his way.

Cassandra cocked her head at a flirtatious angle and licked her full lips as an added incentive for the Captain to risk Merquise's wrath and make the request that the "entertainment" be allowed to stay.

"All right." the totally infatuated Captain gave in. "You," he called to Wufei, "come with me. If the Commander don't like this I am not takin' the blame."

"I hope to see you soon." Cassandra cooed then blew a kiss to seal the seduction.

**********

The town had taken on the guise of an armed camp. Although the local citizens moved around freely Wufei could tell by the townspeople's wary manner that they were anything but free. Sidelong glances were carefully directed in Wufei's direction as he humbly followed a few steps behind the Captain.

All about the streets Merquise's mercenaries strolled by twos and threes looking more like sightseers than an occupation force. The scraggy "army" was made up of varied nationalities. English and Irish appeared to be the dominating ethnicity but several other dialects that Wufei could not identify were overheard in the men's causal conversations.

There was nothing that matched among the odd assortment of soldiers, no uniforms or standard issue weapons. It seemed that Commander Merquise was the only constant holding the ragtag troopers together.

*Bring down the leader,* Wufei thought to himself as he studied the incongruous collection of soldiers, *and the men will scatter like sheep before wolves.*

The Magistrate's Office had been commandeered for the Commander's headquarters. Another mismatched pair of sentries stood watch on either side of the office door. As the Captain and the Oriental approached both men snapped to attention and raised their swords in a showy salute. The senior officer barely acknowledged the overdone gesture as he paused to knock.

"Enter." a voice barked through the wooden door.

Commander Merquise stood beside a large desk displaying the executive bearing that befitted his rank. His dark blue uniform jacket adorned with double rows of brass buttons and navy blue trousers was neatly pressed. A stiff-collared shirt trimmed in red wrapped around his throat.

The Prince could not have been more than twenty years old but Wufei had to admit he was a formidable figure. His shoulders were broad, his legs were lean and his physique was muscular but not bulky. But Merquise's most striking feature was the cascade of pale blond hair that reached to his waist. Equally pale bangs feathered over his forehead and draped in wispy strands along his high cheekbones.

The heir to the Peacecraft Kingdom who defied his father to become leader of a band of ruffians locked his ice blue eyes fixing their steely stare on the visibly uneasy Captain. "Report." The single word was again barked out in an impatient tone making Wufei wonder if Merquise was suffering from a good case of boredom.

Despite the officer's best efforts not to react to the piercing orbs and stern tone Wufei sensed a tensing of nerves along the man's spine. The Captain swallowed hard to ease the dryness in his throat. "There is someone I...I thought you needed to see." he stammered shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

Merquise took a moment to consider the Captain's reply then centered his chilly gaze on the Asian man standing respectfully behind the officer. "Who are you?" The question was asked in the same crisp pitch that spoke volumes about the Commander's high opinion of himself.

Wufei deliberately kept his eyes lowered and his shoulders slightly stooped in a posture of humility. With an air of mock genuflection Wufei bowed deeply from the waist then straightened but still maintained his deferential attitude.

"I am honored to be in the presence of such an important man. My name is Chang Wufei, your Lordship, I am the leader of a band of Gypsies traveling through your country." the Asian man replied with an identical air of false meekness.

"And why should that be of interest to me?" Merquise declared setting his hip on the desk's edge.

"We, my troop of entertainers, were told that your soldiers have been encamped here for several months without any diversion from their daily duties. May I humbly offer our services of amusement to your deserving men...free of charge of course."

The Commander thoughtfully contemplated the Oriental's proposal. He had heard grumbling among the men. They had no means to release their pent up energy so they had become increasingly restless, more ready to quarrel.

Merquise had given strict orders that the women of the town were not to be bothered. This restriction had not come from any ethical obligation but from the fact that, although the soldiers were well armed, they couldn't take on the entire town if the residents were pushed too far. This lack of sexual contact plus the monotonous routine had multiplied tensions and put tempers on a short fuse.

The Commander planted his black boots on the floor and stood tall at his six-foot height. "I suppose for the sake of morale a few hours of merriment could be permitted." he conceded to his men's recent complaining, "Captain find a suitable location for these Gypsies to set up whatever it is that they do."

Commander Merquise stepped forward until he was only inches from the obeisance Oriental. "Do not make me regret my kindness." he growled close enough for Wufei to feel each word brush against his face.

Wufei bowed again, "I assure your Lordship that your rank and station will be upheld in every way." he proclaimed respectfully then backed up a few paces before turning to leave.

The Captain saluted then joined Wufei by the door. "Captain," Merquise called after his exiting officer.

The man cringed but promptly responded, "Yes sir."

"If there is any trouble you will answer to me."

"Yes sir."

It wasn't until the swarthy man and Wufei were well away from the building that the Captain dared to breathe. "There had better not be any trouble." he hissed through clenched teeth.

Wufei lifted his head being careful not to make direct eye contact. "No trouble sir." he replied. *No trouble until we capture your sorrow ass.* he finished the sentence in his mind.

********

Heero leaned his back against the wagon's side, arms folded across his chest. Duo, who could not stay still, kept fidgety company beside the surprising calm soldier. Occasionally Heero would glance at the guards that had been left in charge then look past the watchful pair for some sight of Wufei.

"It's been a long time," Duo whispered as he fumbled with his braid. He cut his eyes in the town's direction. "Do you think Merquise took the bait?" A scene of heavily armed men surrounding the wagon kept replaying in his head.

"Yes." Heero replied with the same damnable deportment that he had displayed since Wufei left with the Captain.

Duo leaned nearer not bothering to hide his annoyance. "How can you be so sure?" he asked as another scene of everyone being dragged away to be executed followed in quick succession.

If Heero sensed Duo's snappiness it wasn't evident in either his relaxed posture or his unflustered composure. "Because Wufei can charm any snake."

"But..."

Heero pushed off of the wagon and situated his body to hide Duo's uneasiness from the guards. "You have to settle down or you're going to make our watchers suspicious." he whispered taking Duo's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

Duo leaned into Heero's shoulder. "I just want all of this to be over."

"I will be soon, love, we have a workable plan and the determination to carry it out. Merquise will pay for his sins and you will be the avenging angel."

As if on cue Wufei and the Captain walked into view. The senior officer shared his orders with the pair of underlings; Wufei made his way to his comrades. The pleased smile beaming on his face was all the confirmation Duo and Heero needed.

Laying his hand on Heero's shoulder Wufei verbally confirmed what his smile already showed. "The Commander is eagerly waiting to be entertained."

Duo took a deep breath and readied himself for the final confrontation. "Let's give these bastards a show they won't forget."

Part Nineteen:

It took least than an hour to set up the deception. Quatre and his fellow musicians gathered on the makeshift stage. An older lady put up a small tent and hung a sign over the entrance: ~Madam Rose--Tarot Reader~.

Acrobats and jugglers stretched and limbered up. Female performers whispered coyly among themselves and gave suggestive glances to the soldiers as they began to straggle in a few at a time. A keg of "special" ale that had brewed with sleeping herbs was prominently displayed to encourage the men to imbibe in the laced liquor.

Heero untied his and Duo's swords from the axle and hid them under a pleated skirt he was helping to secure around the stage. Beside the bladed weapon he placed a bundle wrapped in paper and a pair of knee-high black boots.

Duo paced beside the wagon reviewing every move and countermove in his mind. As he shored up his nerve for his challenge to Merquise he had no delusions that the fight would be easy.

Heero watched his lover's fitful pacing with mixed emotions. He had taught Duo everything he needed to know and his partner had excelled in his lessons but Heero couldn't help but wonder if Duo had it in his soul to match Merquise's level of ruthlessness.

Heero readily admitted to himself that he was selfish where Duo was concerned. All he wanted was to hold his precious partner, to forever keep him safe but he also knew that same protective love had to let Duo fight. If Duo could not regain his self-respect then no amount of caring on Heero's part could comfort Duo's soul.

**********

More men wandered in until most of the "army" was assembled for the show. Finally Commander Merquise swaggered in acting like the entire Gypsy troop was there for his pleasure. He pause to survey the scene then sat down in a chair that Wufei provided for him.

"Welcome sir." Wufei greeted the arrogant bastard with another bow of mock meekness.

Merquise fixed his ice blue sight on a pair of female dancers. "Pretty." he declared.

Wufei black eyes followed the Commander's lecherous stare. "Yes sir."

The Peacecraft heir motioned for Wufei to lean nearer then lowered his voice so their conversation would not be overheard. "I fancy those two beauties." he nodded at the young women, "I would like an introduction."

It took all of Wufei willpower to keep a false smile on his face and his hands from Merquise's throat. "They would be honored to meet your Lordship. I will personally see to it after the show."

**********

Lively music directed everyone's attention to the stage. Quatre's fingers skimmed over the frets and the bow slipped across the strings like lightning. Two more fiddlers filled in the necessary notes for a triple melody and a drummer pounded out the meter inviting everyone to dance.

Women in multicolored skirts and blouses with silken ribbons in their shiny black hair twirled and flared out the skirt's hems to expose their shapely legs. Tambourines tapped on hips that swayed in time with the rousing tune. Men in loose sleeved shirts and stripy trousers spun in place.

One man curved his hands over his head tapping out a graceful fandango. Then he wrapped his arms around a female dancer and they engaged in a seductive dance as if they were making love to the music.

Each entertainer did their best to capture the soldiers' attention. To the left acrobats somersaulted in midair with such speed that their bodies became a blur of motion. Likewise jugglers tossed wooden Indian clubs to each other at an amazing pace. The fire-eater held some of the assembled crowd in stunned silence as mouthfuls of flames were swallowed and extinguished with his lips.

It didn't take any time before Merquise's men were swamped with every form of sensory overload. Music blared in their ears; bedazzling distortion confused their eyes. The altered ale also worked its magic slowly sending many men into a drowsy haze.

A man with an English accent sat down opposite the fortune-teller. The mysterious women handed him the tarot cards, "Shuffle the deck then cut it with your left hand." she instructed.

When the shuffling and cutting was complete she took the cards and laid three facedown in a row. Turning over "The Moon" she announced, "You are on the brink of an important change." The second, "The Aeon". "Yes," she nodded, "you are taking a definite step."

The man started to speak but she raised her hand signaling for silence. "The final card, "The Seven of Swords", you will make a journey by land."

"A journey? I ain't plannin' on goin' no where." the Brit declared, "Just where is it do ya think I'm goin'?"

"With me." a voice proclaimed from over the surprised man's shoulder. Roughly the startled soldier was grabbed by the arm, hauled around and knocked silly by a beefy fist.

As the very cooperative man was carried through a slit in the tent's back the wily women with the cards leaned closer to the entrance. "Next." she summoned as she placed "The Fool" lengthwise across the ill-fated cards.

The culling continued. Cassandra finished a dance then made her way to three men standing off by themselves. Employing the same sultry techniques formally used to beguile the Captain she let her ample charms bait the trap. "You gentlemen shouldn't be alone." she purred leaning over just enough for a sneak preview of her buxom bosom.

The tallest of the trio eyed the fetching girl with lustful anticipation. "You want to keep us company?"

Cassandra curled the cord laced through her blouse around her finger. "Of course."

"I'm not sure you can handle all of us."

"You won't find out standing here." she nodded towards the forest. "Let's go somewhere private."

Like dogs trained to trail a decoy the men obediently fell into line behind the Gypsy girl's wiggling hips. Once they passed the tree line and the forest became dense enough to conceal their intended sport, Cassandra stopped. "Here will do nicely. Which one is first?"

The threesome stood dumbfounded as if they were questioning their luck. Finally the man who had done the initial bargaining stepped forward. "I won't wear her out too much." he promised as he leaned over for a kiss.

A glint of light flashed over his eyes, a prick of pain brought him to an abrupt halt. The pointed tip of a dirk pressed into the soft flesh under his chin. A single drop of blood oozed from the pinpoint penetration.

"What the hell?" he managed to mumble as the painful pressure was increased to keep him in place.

Before the remaining pair could figure out what had happened they found themselves surround by four Gypsies armed with equally deadly blades.

"I don't think I have time to party now." Cassandra stated with not a hint of disappointment in her honeycomb voice.

The trio quickly realized that they were outnumbered and wisely decided to surrender without a fight. Letting the dirk's finely honed blade glide down her suitor's throat Cassandra put him on notice that the game was over.

**********

A total of twenty-two men had been spirited away into the forest. At least a dozen more had succumb to the ale's sleepy influence and was oblivious to their responsibility. With the numbers reduced the Gypsies found that they had the advantage. At Wufei's signal the performers swarmed in like a horde of hornets rapidly surrounding the overwhelmed soldiers.

Having surprise on their side the coup was accomplished with a minimum of difficulty. Even Commander Merquise was caught completely off-guard as he was set upon and relieved of this sword.

Pale hair wildly framing his flushed face and icy eyes narrowed in an angry scowl, the Peacecraft Prince was obviously outraged at his dethroning. Merquise centered his acidic sight on the Oriental who dared to opposed him. "I will have your head on a pike." he growled out his decree of Wufei's price for the insurrection.

The false humility vanished from Wufei's ebony eyes. He squared his shoulders and with every ounce of Gypsy pride he fixed the Commander's glaring sight. "Your ungodly reign is concluded." he announced loudly enough for everyone to hear. "And your army will not come to your defense."

"You are a cocky bastard who has made a grave mistake. No one has authority over me." Merquise stated through clenched teeth, "You and your outcasts will pay with your lives."

Wufei let a thin-lipped smile curve up his mouth's corners. "You are the one who will pay for your atrocities." he promised retribution for the Prince's evil deeds.

"And how do you mean to fix my punishment?"

"The King's tribunal will set the penalty for your treason," Wufei confirmed, "but not before you face Gypsy justice."

Merquise's expression was difficult to read as he studied the obstinate Oriental. "Gypsy justice, what an absurd notion. End this charade now and I may grant you certain mercies concerning the ease of your death."

"There will be no more orders. This hour your fate will be set." Wufei declared.

Now seeming less sure of himself a peculiar mixture of expressions played over the Commander's face. He stood alone, his authority cracking around him like imperfect glass exposed to heat.

But Merquise was a Prince, royalty was still his station and he would be damned if a band of outlaws would show him such disrespect. "How do you purpose to carry out your justice? Who among your sorry ranks has the courage to face me?"

"I do!" a lone figure boldly avowed as it approached the deposed Prince.

Duo held his sword diagonally across his chest. He had shed his Gypsy attire; the ribbons were gone from his hair. Heero's uniform replaced the brightly colored clothes and the change of garments had altered Duo's entire demeanor.

Likewise the seriousness of a soldier's attitude had replaced his usual lightheartedness and a steely glare of determination left no room for doubt. Duo's transformation caused a murmur to rise among the crowd. Even the remnants of Merquise's men not detained in the forest felt a flutter in their stomachs and dread in their hearts.

"What is this? Your champion is but a boy." the Commander observed with an amused sense of superiority.

Duo stood tall and centered his sight on Merquise, "A person's proficiency cannot be judge by their age."

Outwardly Merquise studied his challenger with an air of amusement but a nagging in his gut warned him not to misjudge the youthful challenger's sincerity. *The boy might not be as skilled," the Prince's inner council stated, "but strength of purpose can overcome inexperience.*

Spurred by curiosity Merquise chose to ignore his council's warning. "Who are you?" he wondered letting his sight wander over the boy who he decided was just a foolish commoner.

"Duo."

"Just Duo?"

"That is all you need to know."

Despite the Commander's resolve not to give the boy's brashness any credence Merquise found himself intrigued. The youth was handsome and although the long braid lent a girlish quality, the tightness of his trousers proved that he was definitely male.

The Peacecraft Prince tilted his head in an inquiring manner, "So tell me, Duo, what righteous cause has you willing to risk your life?"

Duo fixed his violet eyes on his opponent and with authority in his voice replied, "I am here to reclaim my home and my honor."

"I see and when will your honor be restored?"

"When you yield under my sword." Duo announced with an unwavering degree of confidence.

A sneer tugged at Merquise's lips then he threw back his head and let a belly-deep laugh rise through his throat. The sound sent strange reverberations bouncing over the area until the roar finally faded into lingering sniggers.

Duo was not certain if the laugher was borne of apathy or nervousness or a slip in the Prince's sanity but whatever the cause he would not allow the reason to change his mind. "Zechs Merquise I issue a challenge...are you man enough to accept?"

A stone-cold mask of scorn molded over Merquise's face. Piercing eyes bore down on Duo with pure hatred. Without averting his sharp gaze the Commander demanded of Wufei. "Return my sword and I will show you exactly what I am made of."

Wufei glanced back at Heero who had kept his place beside the stage then handed over Merquise's sword. With a flourish of sweeping strokes the Commander showed off the dexterous prowess that had earned him the name Lightning Baron.

The demonstration of Merquise's supposedly superior abilities was not as much an egotistical display as a statement of his intensions. "You will not live to see tomorrow." he announced as he slid into a defensive position. "En garde!"

Duo set his jaw, narrowed his eyes and hardened his muscles until their tension was wound like a coiled spring. "Concentrate." he told himself, "Remember your lessons, make Heero proud."

Duo steadied his grip then leveled the blade at his princely opponent. "En garde."

"This is going to be easy." the Commander announced the ease of his victory.

Heero flinched as the first strike of steel on steel clanged shrilly. Merquise used the advantage of his height and longer reach to deliver a powerful downward blow.

Duo fluently parried with the strong side of his sword then wasted no time answering with a cross-slash riposte. Sparks flew as Merquise and his challenger's tempered steel stuck crosswise. Again the sharp conversation of blade on blade resounded with deadly distinctness.

The strength and precision of Duo's counteraction caught the Commander momentarily off-guard. His sword almost left his grasp with only a last second tightening of his grip preventing the dislodgement.

The patronizing Prince's eyes widened at the young man's expertness. His grinning mouth turned into a frown as the thought of being bested by the young upstart hit him hard in the gut. With a throaty growl Merquise lunged forward.

A glint of light flickering across Duo's eyes was his only warning. Swiftly his head turned just in time to see a silver streak aim for his skull. Instinctively, without thought or pause, Duo reacted as Heero had taught him. His sword came up and around in a single fluid sweep. Once more the clang of metal ricocheted through the air.

This time instead of blocking the blow Merquise's blade skimmed over the parry. A forceful breath caught in Duo's throat as a gash opened up across his wrist. The material of Heero's jacket sleeve laid back exposing a bloody line etched deeply in the skin.

Duo retreated a few steps to put some distance between himself and his foe. He needed just a moment to recoup from the burning pain and to regroup his thoughts.

He knew that he could not allow his attention to be divided further. It would not be good for either his lover or his friends if he feel victim to his enemy's wrath. Painting from pain, sweat stinging his eyes, Duo sucked in a gulp of air to clear his head and center his concentration.

"Dammit boy, pay attention!" Merquise shouted with contemptuous scorn in his order. "You'll make it too easy to take you down if you don't offer a better defense."

From his observation post by the wagon Heero could see the shudder in Duo's body, sense his pain as the blade sliced both fabric and flesh. It was all he could do to keep his promise, to resist the urge to charge in and chop the pompous Prince into tiny pieces. Holding onto the wagon wheel was all that kept Heero in place as his white-knuckled grip cramped around the stoke until the rough wood tore into his hands.

"Duo don't give into Merquise's taunting." Heero mentally willed his lover to hear, "Turn it back on the bastard, make him play your game."

"I'm always up for a good fight." Duo grinned in answer to the Commander's goading, "Do you know where I can find one?"

Heero leaned heavily against the wheel and prayed that Duo would hear his empathic council. "Keep your wits about you and remember what you were taught." he sent out his thoughts hoping by some telepathic means to transfer his guidance to his lover.

Some part of Heero's mental message must have gotten through. Duo's smirk vanished and was replaced with a resolute glare centered squarely on his opponent. "This is it." he hissed under his breath.

Duo's boldness and the hatred in his stormy eyes caused the Commander to wonder what force of will the lad had inside. Slowly doubt of how easily the boy could be taken slipped into the Commander's mind.

Duo let out a gut deep yell strong enough to produce panic in his foe. "Let us finish this now!" he screamed charging headlong at his adversary.

Merquise's reply came in his own speedy advancement. Both combatants met in the middle. Both swords flashed under the red-orange sun. One blade arced upwards. One came around to meet it.

Over and over the blades clashed. Merquise never let up his scathing assault. With such fury as to strike fear in the boy who dared challenge him the Lightning Baron moved in for the kill.

But Duo was not about to give up. Turning the pain outside of his mind, away from his consciousness, he became one with his blade. His focus on his lessons and his lover came together in a mergence of mind and body and soul.

"Now!" Heero's voice shouted inside Duo's mind.

Blades tangled. A strangled cry rose on the wind. A painful wail bellowed over the forest. Heero held his breath.

Duo and Merquise stood still, both swords raised in victory. Slowly Zechs Merquise pitched over sideways. His body hit the ground with a bone-jarring crack. Wide eyes were fixed in disbelief; pale lips were parted in muted surrender.

Duo stood stoically, sweat clouding his vision of his bested rival. He lifted his sword studying the scarlet tinge coating the blade. Then Duo directed his sight to the crimson seeping from Merquise chest that matched the blood clotting on his wrist.

Ironically the cut from Merquise's sword was only inches above the older scar left by Heero's past lesson. Now the second scar would also be a reminder of another lesson learned and make sure, like the first whitish disfigurement, that the lesson would not be forgotten.

From the flat of his back the conquered Prince moaned and gazed at Duo through pain-dazed eyes. Duo lifted his bloodstained sword solemnly touching the tip to his head in a warrior's salute to the fallen Commander. Duo gleaned no glory from his victory...respect for a Prince and pity for a disgraced son were his only emotions.

Wufei knelt beside the Peacecraft heir. He was joined by the town physician who, after a brief examination, declared that Merquise would live to face the justice owed to him.

Labored breaths stabbed through Duo's chest as the realization of his first bloodletting coursed over bringing on a strong shiver. The well being, the retained innocent that Heero had wished for his friend, in that single act, had been forever lost.

In that fateful moment Duo became a warrior equal to his teacher and lover, ready to take his place at Heero's side in all aspects of their lives. He was now prepared to give totally of both his body and soul without reservation.

Heero was quickly by Duo's side. He gentle removed the sword from Duo's trembling hand then pulled his victorious lover into a tight hug. Duo laid his head on Heero's shoulder and wept silent tears for his loss of innocence.

"You did well my love." Heero whispered so only Duo could hear. "You have made me proud."

Duo whispered back, "Thank you for letting me do this by myself."

Heero eased back until he looked directly into Duo's eyes. "Duo I love you." he proclaimed loudly enough for everyone to hear.

Duo wiped away his tears with the back of his hand, "I love you." he sniffled before leaning into the passionate kiss offered by his soul mate.

*********

Above the town, atop the closest hill, three members of Merquise's army who had returned from hunting watched the duel and the Commander's defeat and now observed the tender scene.

Normally the trio of mercenaries wouldn't have cared what happened to the Prince turned traitor. They would have been thankful that they hadn't been captured and would have moved on to find someone else to hire their money-motivated talents. But Merquise owed them a goodly sum and they thought it only fair to collect.

However the only way to get their money was for their employer to be free. A plan was hastily put into place...kill the braided man then use the confusion to grab Merquise. Who knew maybe the Prince would be doubly grateful and increase their payment.

One soldier of fortune took up his bow, loaded an arrow, braced his knee on the ground and sighted down the shaft. Drawing in a steadying breath he aimed the pointed tip squarely at the base of Duo's skull. From the short distance the shot would definitely be deadly.

Muscles constricted, the bowstring quivered under the tension as it prepared to let loose the deadly shot. If luck was on the shooter's side the arrow would pass through the target's throat and take out his friend as well. "Two with one shot." the archer mumbled under his breath.

A gut-deep growl sounded from an outcrop to the trio's left closely followed by a current of unusually hot air. A shadow elongated and rippled over the craggy rocks before a broad silhouette blotted out the late afternoon sun.

The men froze as the massive and quite solid form reared up against the cloudless sky. They found themselves unable to move and suddenly mute as they stared up into red eyes that glowed within a scaly head.

Shinigami bent his snaky neck to align his head above the immobilized men. An exhalation of sparks showered down leaving streams of smoke in their wake. By posture and poise the dragon left no doubt of his intensions to defend his Keeper.

Eyes enlarged with fear and hearts hammering the archer's comrades could not make their legs cooperate to flee from the angry reptile. Unfortunately the man with the bow was either too cocky or stupid to heed the very clear warning.

Pivoting on his knee he aimed up at Shinigami and let the arrow fly. The steel-tipped arrow struck midway along the dragon's neck but was not forceful enough to penetrate the thick scales. Like a bug bite the shot was more annoying than lethal. With a snort of irritation Shinigami caught hold of the slightly embedded shaft with one front claw and easily extracted the bothersome arrow.

Normally the even-tempered reptile would have given the foolish men another chance, exhibited some threatening behavior to discourage any further attacks and sent them scurrying out of harm's way. But at that moment, after watching Duo's duel with Merquise and being frightened for his Keeper's safety, Shinigami had no more patience to spare.

A superheated gulp of air was all the warning the luckless men received before the great dragon spewed forth a suffusive stream of fire so hot that all three bodies were instantly evaporated leaving behind only ashes and brittle bones.

The scent of sulfur and seared flesh wafted across the ridge. Shinigami sniffed the air then shook his head in disgust as the foul stench rankled in his nose. Then without looking back at the charred pile of bones the dragon started down the hillside.

*********

Duo sat on the stage dangling his legs over the edge. Heero stood on the ground carefully bandaging his partner's wrist. Twice Duo had apologized for the rip in Heero's uniform jacket and twice Heero had quelled the expressed regrets with a kiss.

"Don't fret over the jacket. I am not going to need the uniform again." Heero stated as he tied off the strip of cloth covering Duo's wrist.

"But aren't you pledged to the King?" Duo wondered inspecting the expert bandaging.

Heero jumped up on the stage and sat beside his soul mate. "My pledge is to you." He wrapped his arm around Duo's shoulders and pulled him closer, "Along with my father we will make a home together."

Wufei sat down on Duo's opposite side. "The dregs of Merquise's army have been taken into custody and delivered to the magistrate. It will be a few days before the Prince can travel but when he is able the Elders and I will personally escort him to King Peacecraft."

Duo sighed, "Isn't it ironic that the peace treaty between the Kingdoms brought one father and son together and drove another father and son apart."

"It was Merquise that built the barriers with his arrogant acts of defiance." Wufei replied, "Perhaps he has learned his lesson, if not, then that is his loss."

Wufei glanced over at Quatre and Trowa who were snuggling on the wagon seat then stood up and stretched, "It is getting late. Let us go home and share a victory meal at camp. Yes," he added as he gracefully leaped from the stage, "the time for sorrow has ended and a brighter future awaits us all."

The Gypsies reloaded the wagon. Madam Rose's tent was neatly packed away as well as the instruments and the empty ale keg.

Heero eased off the stage, helped his partner down and handed over Duo's sword. As a couple of men pushed up the stage and secured it in the wagon's side the ex-soldier and the Dragon Keeper walked back to where Wing and Chestnut waited with the other horses.

Holding onto Duo's waist, Heero steadied his lover who was physically drained and mentally exhausted from his fight with Prince Peacecraft. "Our bed will feel good tonight." Duo declared as they reached the midnight stallion and the bay mare.

Heero united their mounts and prepared to help Duo into the saddle when a rustling among the trees caused him to reach for his sword. The stirring was probably an animal but he wasn't going to take any chances.

Duo tilted his head towards the mysterious noise then a joyful smile bloomed across his lips. "Shinigami," he called softly, "it's all right, come here."

A green muzzle appeared then a pair of expressive eyes blinked through the branches. A scaly head, almost the same color as the leaves, emerged from the foliage. Shinigami pulled back his lips in a delighted "dragon grin".

The happy dragon exposed just enough of himself to clearly see his Keeper while keeping the rest of his massive frame hidden in the tree line. Oddly none of the horses took exception to the dragon's presence as if they knew he meant them no harm.

Shinigami bowed his head and whimpered lowly in his throat. Duo reached up and petted the reptile's smooth nose. "I'm all right." he whispered his reassurance to his winged protector.

Shinigami sniffed at a spot of blood that had seeped through the bandage on Duo's wrist. Again the Keeper offered comfort to his worry friend. "It's nothing serious, the cut will heal in a few days."

The wagon carried the Gypsies to Yuy Manor. The mounted riders traveled along side. Overhead Shinigami kept his airborne watch. Heero and Duo lagged behind a bit to engage in hand holding and private conversation.

Sunset bands of red and orange radiated across the mountain. Wisps of twilight tinted clouds swept silently across the sky. As purple evening shadows stretched out behind the horses and a night hawk circled overhead, Heero and Duo rode home, hand in hand and heart in heart. They were friends, lovers and soul mates and would be forever and a day.

Epilogue (Part 20):

Incarcerated by the magistrate in the regional prison the remnants of Merquise's army awaited trial for their many crimes. Made more modest by his defeat, the Peacecraft Prince was escorted by Wufei, two Elders and a detachment of the local guard to face his punishment.

While Odin believed that Milliardo should be held accountable for his traitorous deeds, he also knew the pain of a father's separation from his son. Writing from the heart on the Prince's behalf Lord Yuy penned a letter to the King requesting leniency. The(1)lese-majesty was serious but Odin felt that the Kingdom's good would be better served if the Milliardo was ordered into subserviency to the people rather than being lock away.

Duo also included a letter mirroring Odin's appeal for mercy. Although Duo had been displaced from his home and had suffered grievously he was not anxious for revenge. He had reclaimed his pride by winning the challenge and saw no further need to meter out justice.

In an ironic way the Prince had been the compelling agent that brought Duo and Heero together. True Duo had lost a house but he had gained a home and for that he would be eternally grateful. Odin had become his adoptive father and Anna his surrogate mother. Heero was his friend, lover and soul mate and would be until Duo drew his last breath.

**********

Odin was well enough to ride so he accompanied Duo and Heero on one of their nightly visits to the dragon's lair. He was initially a bit rattled by the great reptile but soon grew quite comfortable in Shinigami's presence.

With Wufei permission Jen was introduced to mystic beast. Of course she had no fear of Shinigami and immediately took to the gentle giant.

Many a moonlit evening was spent watching Jen and Shinigami play. Once Heero and Duo laughed so hard that they couldn't catch their breaths. Jen made a "crown" of yellow and white daisies and tried to balance it on Shinigami's head but the ring was too small so it hung lopsidedly from one emerald ear.

The dragon could see the flowers dangling in his peripheral vision but each time he turned in head the blossoms moved away. Before long Shinigami was walking in circles trying to catch the curious vegetation that stayed just outside of his reach. Finally the dragon got so unsteady that he wobbled like a drunk before setting back on his hunches with a ground-jarring hump.

Jen added to the hilarious scene as she copied Shinigami circular trip until she, too, could no longer stand up. "I feel strange." she announced as she clumsily sat down beside the dizzy dragon.

"You went around too much." Duo declared between fits of giggling, "Stay still for a while."

Jen gazed at the Keeper with unfocused eyes and offered Duo a sweet smile. "I would be still if you would stop moving."

Next to Duo Heero broke into another bout of uncontrolled laugher. Together the chuckling pair laid back and bayed at the moon.

Wufei had a similar reaction when the story was retold. Jen crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at her father, "Don't make fun." she pouted.

Wufei pulled his daughter into a loving embrace, "I am not making fun, I am happy that you had a good time."

From that time on Jen was a regular visitor with the dragon who made himself drunk.

**********

Heero and Duo had settled into a relaxed routine. Each day they would ride together to supervised the field hands. In the evening Duo would help with the bookwork, he had even offered several suggestions that had improved the labor management efficiency.

The Gypsies were a great help with the animals and many were skilled craftsmen in the forging of iron or the weaving of cloth. Each person did his or her part to help out at the Manor, they not only earned their keep but Lord Yuy's respect as well.

Heero and Duo often had meals and pleasant conversations with Odin and Anna but the lovers were the most content when they shared private dinners in their bedroom. Eating on a blanket in front of the fireplace had become a special part of their burgeoning relationship.

It was a quiet time, a respite from their busy schedules. They savored wine-flavored kisses, engaged in tender touches. With Duo's gentle guidance Heero had become surer of himself, bolder in his initiation of their love sessions.

For the first time Heero Yuy trusted someone without reservation or pause. He freely gave his heart, surrendered his soul to his life partner and knew without a doubt that he would never be forsaken.

Dinner finished, cozy from the wine and the warmth of two entwined bodies, Heero closed his eyes and let himself become lost in the pure sexual essence that was Duo's alone. Duo rested his head on Heero's shoulder satisfied and at peace.

As he twirled the end of Duo's braid Heero whispered, "I must have done something right in this world to have you by my side."

Duo raised up enough to watch the firelight twinkle in Heero's bewitching eyes. "You are a good person with a kind heart, yes, you have done a lot that is right."

Heero nodded silently and Duo could see a wisp of sadness shimmer across his fire-flicked sight. "What's wrong?"

With a soft sight Heero answered his lover's concerned inquiry. "Sometimes I still see the blood of battle on my hands."

Duo took Heero's hands, turned them over and placed a firm kiss in each palm's center. "My lips have vanquished the stains and my love will hold them at bay forever."

Heero ran a finger along Duo's cheek, "Thank you." The sadness was replaced with a brighter gleam. "Duo you have made it safe for my heart to care, please show my body how to love you."

Heero's passionate appeal caused a brief hesitation to move over Duo's face. "Do you trust me not to hurt you?"

"I trust you with my life, please love me."

The soul mates walked hand in hand across the room. Duo motioned for Heero to sit on the bed then went to a trunk that Heero had given him to store his few worldly possessions. Duo extracted a blue glass bottle sealed up with a cork and sat down beside his partner.

"What's that?" Heero wondered eyeing the bottle.

"Something to make the loving easier."

Duo leaned near until his violet eyes came into line with Heero's cobalt orbs. "If I do anything that makes you uncomfortable tell me. If at any time you want to stop I promise I won't get upset. I only want what makes you happy."

Heero nodded that he understood. "I am not sure what to do."

Duo leaned closer, brushed his lips across Heero's cheek then his chin then delivered a full kiss to his lover's slightly parted lips. "Relax I will guide you."

Heero scooted to the middle of the bed and laid his head on a pillow. Duo set about in deliberate degrees to get Heero in the mood. Lips and hands were employed to kindle passionate heat over his entire body.

Heero caught on quickly and soon reciprocated the tantalizing touches. Clothing was peeled away to exposed super sensitive skin. Gasps and moans were the only sounds that disturbed the midnight quiet. Heero removed the tie from Duo's braid freeing his hair just like Duo was freeing Heero's heart.

Keeping up the barrage of sensual sensations Duo stoked the inside of Heero's thigh with one hand while he used the other hand to wiggle the cork from the bottle. The scent of rosemary filled the air. Duo paused to poured a small amount of the fragrant oil in his hand.

As Duo tunneled his oil-slick hand around Heero's hardened shaft Heero bucked up his hips and let a hiss of air escaped over his lips. "Feels...so...good." he panted out the pleasure of Duo's firm strokes.

"Let me show you something that feels even better." Duo whispered huskily as he used two of his oily fingers to stretch his own anal muscles.

When Duo was properly prepared he straddled Heero's hips and began to slowly impale himself on his writhing lover's erect manhood. Heero eyes widened. A sound akin to a whimper told Duo that his partner wanted him to continue.

Fully seated, Duo began to rock forward then back until he settled into a rhythm designed to guide his lover to the climactic conclusion that would show Heero how much he loved him.

Heero's breath caught in his throat as a wave of heat traveled up both legs and gathered in his groin. He shuddered as the strong orgasmic release sent shooting stars through his body and his brain. "DUO!" he cried not caring who might hear his declaration of desire.

Heero's manhood ejected its milky seed claiming Duo and sealing their bond. Sweat beading on his face and his breaths coming in winded panting Heero rode the wave until the pulsing was replaced with a wonderful afterglow.

Duo leaned over his lover brushing back stringy hair from his damp cheeks. "Heero Yuy I love you."

"I love you." Heero replied breathlessly before pulling Duo down to lay on his chest.

They stayed joined until Duo was sure that Heero's manhood had softened enough to slip out without causing Heero any pain. Duo eased up and tugged a blanket over he and his soul mate. Lying together in the bedroom's solitude Heero and Duo cuddled and whispered endearingly until they drifted off into sated sleep.

With their promise of protection and their pledge of love the heir of Yuy Manor and the Keeper would face the world without fear. Now they shared a dragon heart and no one could stand against them.

(1)Lese-majesty--Any of various offences committed against a sovereign power, treason.

- End -

Dragonheart--Karen Hickman--December 2003

Thank you for reading!!!