Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Title: Wolf Moon
Author: Karen, The Huntress email@example.com
Warning: AU, language
Pairing: 3x4, 1+2+5, future 1x2
Part: 31-39 + Epilogue
Feedback: Always appreciated
Archive: DHML http://www.kikotei.net/gw/dhml/ficarch/karen.html
Summary: Five unique men form an odd alliance to stop a war between the living and the dead.
"Beware all who enter the Temple of Deep World for the Guardians that never sleep watch the gate. Good will beget good, evil will beget evil and judgment will be absolute."
With the grave warning fixed in their minds, the Warriors of the Rose walked the last fifty yards to the Temple of Deep World.
The last ornate arch, more imposing in height and grander in scope, served as the Temple's gateway. Etched across the bowed arc were graphic battle scenes of angels and demons locked in perpetual combat with the victor's reward being mankind's salvation or damnation.
On opposite sides of the apocalyptic arch, the stone "Guardians of the Gate" kept an eternal vigil. The twin sentinels towered over the quinque. Red crystal eyes, fixed into scaly faces that resembled snakes, glared down with fiery gazes. Mouths opened wide exposing long fangs and forked tongues.
The serpent heads rested on human bodies that, judging by the huge genitalia, were indisputably male. Wings that measured six feet from tip to tip sprouted from bare shoulders.
Right arms were bent at the elbow; each right hand held a large bronze key that had lost its luster. Left arms were extended towards the ceiling's spiky stalactites and left hands held swords made of the same tarnished metal that fashioned the keys.
As Trowa and Quatre stepped across the Temple's imaginary threshold, they gave the Guardians fleeting glances. After repeated journeys, the watchers no longer held the Priest and his lover in awe.
Wufei and Heero stood back to back and stared up into faceted eyes that returned scarlet stares.
Wufei tilted his head sideways then centered his sight on the right side statue's impressive penis and testicles the size of cantaloupes."I don't know whether to be jealous or repulsed." he commented to no one in particular.
Heero shrugged. "If one was inclined to be insecure concerning his manhood," he stated both literally and figuratively, "I could understand the conflict."
A smirk tugged at Wufei's lips. "I'll make a deal with you. The next time we bathe there will be no comparisons of anyone's...ah...manhood."
Duo wasn't aware of his comrades' genital evaluations instead he mentally recalled the story of how Satan, disguised as a serpent, became the guileful tempter and set man on the path of war illustrated on the Gateway Arch.
Muted footsteps were the only sound as Heero, Duo and Wufei made their way up an aisle lined with short pillars supporting statuettes of the signs of the Zodiac. The aisle ended in a semicircle of benches hewn from slabs of the same white marble as the rose-adorned crosses that had been kissed by Heero's blood.
Blocks of granite formed two broad steps leading to an elevated platform where Trowa and Quatre stood beside an altar embellished with thousands of brilliant amethyst, topaz and garnet gemstones.
Two gold incense burners decorated with delicate filigree patterns were suspended from chains attached inside the roof's natural dome formation. A tri-leg brazier constructed from interwoven bands of hammered brass that had been blackened by fire held cold ashes.
However the three-foot tall rectangle rising from the floor had no obvious function. The mystery was multiplied when Duo realized the eight-inch thick walls formed a protective casing around what appeared to be a pit.
Duo braced his hands and leaned over until his head disappeared over the edge."There's a hole in here." he declared, the words muffled by the high stone sides."Deep and cold."
Withdrawing his head, he wrinkled his nose to empathize an unpleasant discovery."Stinks, too."
"That's because it's an ossuary." Quatre informed the snoopy Irishman.
"Ossuary." The Manipulator repeated. "A depository for the bones of the dead."
Duo glanced over his shoulder then quickly move away from the lifeless chill and stench of decay. "Why didn't ya say somethin' before I stuck my head down there?"
"Bones won't harm you." Wufei stated with just enough sarcasm to produce a reaction.
"Damn creepy." Duo retorted as a shiver slinked up his spine.
Heero shook his head, "Aren't you being a bit dramatic?"
"How'd you like a closer look? We'll see if bones don't hurt ya." Duo threatened in response to the Tracker's smug smile.
Trowa decided intervention was necessary before teasing escalated into brawling. He tapped his staff, the sound of wood against stone echoed over the sacred chamber.
"Stop! This Temple is a place of peace and you would do well to remember that."
Like children who had been properly chastised, Duo, Wufei and Heero muttered penitent apologies.
Always the peacemaker, Quatre took Trowa's hand then inclined his head passed the altar at a doorway framed by columns inlaid with alternating stripes of gold and silver.
"Come. Trowa and I have something extraordinary to show you.
A solitary statue dominated the Temple's innermost sanctuary. The form was an accurate human reproduction chiseled from marble that was not white but a fleshy shade of pink.
Unlike the serpent sentries at the Gateway Arch, the figure projected a majestic dignity that promised compassion for the weak and swift retribution for any enemy. Further affirmation of the figure's authority was evident by the Staff of the Rose clutched in its right hand and the Celtic cross hanging around its neck.
Contrary to blazing eyes and venomous fangs, a tender _expression and high cheekbones were pleasing to the eye.
Stately robes, each fold, crease and pleat engraved in meticulous details, flowed over a trim body. Toned muscles lent an athletic quality that exhibited underlying strength. An aura of sanctity surrounded the stature and once its eyes fixed your gaze, it was difficult to look away.
But two seemingly feminine characteristics raised a question of gender. Long hair, that even etched in stone was silken, ended at the figure's waist. Also each pierced earlobe was adorned with twin hoops.
Perhaps the enigmatic sculptor who liberated the image from its marble encasement had created neither male nor female but the essence of humanity, the intuitive connection of heart and mind and spirit that was not divided by sex but was unified by soul.
Heero circled the statue. He examined the stonework, evaluated each curve and angle and marveled at the noble countenance.
Duo and Wufei also scrutinized the likeness of man but from a respectful distance. They fixated on every aspect and were mesmerized by the chaste beauty until they became oblivious of their surroundings...until all that mattered was the tingling sensation coursing through their bodies and the blissful euphoria clouding their minds.
The voice was soft yet its resonance boomed over the chamber.
Heero whirled about, his fingers curled over his crossbow. Suddenly freed from his enchantment, Wufei reached for his sword. Duo's reaction was more sluggish. He blinked several times before the spell was broken and he turned to discover the voice's origin.
A man or maybe a mirage was encircled in an amber aura so dazzling it stung the sight. Heero raised a hand to shield his eyes then the hand dropped away, as he instinctively knew that the yellow luminosity was the same light that brightened the caverns.
Gradually the aura dimmed but didn't fade away completely. Now Heero, Duo and Wufei was certain that the being standing before them was indeed a human made of flesh and bones.
The man had no visual weapons but he carried a wooden rod topped with a smooth ruby stone that could be used for self defense should the need arise. He was tall with a lean muscular frame, dressed in form-filling black trousers and a black tunic embroidered with a red rose positioned so that the flower rested over his heart.
Sky blue eyes did not look at you but through you. If eyes were truly mirrors to the soul then his eyes reflected many ancient secrets.
But the man's most striking feature was long hair the color of polished silver that stopped just above his slender waist.
The physique. The hair. The hypnotic eyes.
"Zechs Merquise." Duo proclaimed barely above a whisper.
As the Temple Keeper stepped forward the glossy tresses swishing against his back sounded like a sigh.
Zechs bowed in turn to the warriors. "I'm honored to meet you."
Heero offered his hand. "I'm also honored to meet you."
Wufei lowered his eyes in deference to the former Twilight Priest then bowed. "I humbly accept your gracious greeting." he said in Chinese, somehow knowing that Zechs was fluent in many languages.
Duo hesitated not from fear but from the admiration a peasant experiences when meeting a king.
The Keeper must have sensed Duo's feelings of inferiority. With sincerity he assured the Duel Spirit. "We are all equal. There is no master here."
Zechs pulled Trowa and Quatre into an embrace. "I've missed you my friends."
Quatre nodded."We have missed you, too. It's not right that you should be alone."
"That doesn't matter now."
Duo leaned close to Heero. "It this real or a trick of the mind?"
Heero studied the Keeper, observed his mannerisms, his attitude as he talked with Trowa and Quatre. Usually the Tracker's sixth sense could "see" through the best-crafted persona but Zechs Merquise was unreadable.
There was a definite physical presence but an impenetrable barrier had been erected around Zechs' mind and trying to decode his thoughts hurt Heero's head.
"I'm not sure what is real." Heero answered truthfully. "Stay alert and carefully consider what you see, hear or feel."
Zechs ended the debate concerning any paranormal powers he might possess by redirecting the quinque's attention to an alcove behind the statue that had clearly been transformed by the hand of man.
The wall's irregular texture had been covered with plaster and the even surface painted with five magnificent frescoes that were illustrated like tarot cards. A border of white lilies symbolizing purity, red roses for courage and Celtic crosses linked by gold cords framed each depiction.
On the first fresco the Roman Numeral "I" was centered above a man with glaring cobalt eyes who was arrayed in black garb. A quiver of glowing arrows rested against his leg. As the man aimed his crossbow towards the sky and prepared to shoot an arrow shaped like a bolt of lightening demons cowered at his feet.
Zechs pointed at Heero and declared. "Heero Yuy, you are one. The Lone Hunter wise to demonic ways."
Numeral "II" identified the man standing naked among the clouds. Violet eyes looked to the heavens. Long hair, highlighted with a fusion of ginger and cinnamon, fell about his shoulders like a cape and windblown strands shielded his frontal region. A great bird of prey, wings unfurled and razor-sharp beak parted in a silence screech, perched on his outstretched right arm.
Zechs continued. "Duo Maxwell, you are two. The Duel Spirit of earth and sky."
The middle mural was marked by "III". There was no doubt concerning the man clothed in the priestly robe. Emerald eyes displayed the stern stare of righteous judgment. The man held a tri-ringed rod. The center stone emitted crimson light that flared like rays from the sun.
"Trowa Barton, you are three. The Cleric who rules the tri-ringed rod that represents Power, Purity and Peace."
"IV" denoted the man attired in a flared-sleeve caftan of pale blue. Azure eyes offered a gentle gaze. Blond hair was crowned with stars. His left hand held the silver moon; his right hand held the fiery sun. He stood before a tree, bottom branches bare, shrouded with snow. Middle branches cradled tender leaves and young buds awaiting spring's caress. The next limbs were bursting with blossoms in every color of the rainbow and the topmost boughs were ablaze with the orange, yellow and red hues of autumn.
Zechs pondered the fourth picture. "Quatre Winner, you are four. The Manipulator of the four seasons and protector of the heavenly lights."
"V" was painted inside a full moon on the final fresco. The last man's skin was golden. Shoulder-length hair was the color of midnight and slanted eyes were equally ebony. His legs and feet were encased in leather and knee-high boots; a double-edged sword was angled across his bare chest. He stood beneath the gleaming "Eye of Heaven" but instead of casting a human shadow the bluish outline was the silhouette of a baying wolf.
Zechs assigned the last number that would forever define the warrior's true nature. "Chang Wufei, you are five. The Beast with two forms united by heart and mind and soul."
Zechs Merquise regarded the five unique men who had pledged themselves for peace, even at the sacrifice of the lives. With a wave of his hand he proclaimed.
"Warriors of the Rose behold your destiny."
Sharing much-needed baths in pools of steamy water bubbling up through underground fissures, the warriors' dispositions were greatly improved. Heero and Wufei even stuck to their bargain...no comparisons of manhood.
Of course it took Duo longer to shampoo his hair, especially when Quatre added a scalp massage to the relaxing routine but there was no rush, except for their grumbling stomachs' persistence to be fed.
Clad in clean garments, the quinque followed an alluring aroma to Zechs private quarters. The Keeper's abode was Spartan in design. An unbleached cotton mattress stuffed with straw, cotton sheet, rough woolen blanket and goose down pillow made up his bed. A freestanding closet and two trunks of red cedar protected his meager possessions.
A fire pit provided the means to cook, sufficient heat to take the edge off the cavern's chill and diffused lighting as the amber glow that was prevalent in the outer chambers was conspicuously absent.
Red cedar planks had been fashioned into a table and two benches. Six earthenware bowls and cups and wooden spoons had been uniformly spaced on the tabletop. Orange flames from four candles in tarnished holders supplied additional light.
Zechs had changed into sleek trousers, a flared-sleeve shirt and soft shoes. His silken silver hair was secured in a loose ponytail.
"You look a bit more human." he teased upon his visitor's arrival.
Zechs ladled a hearty stew of potatoes, carrots and mushrooms cooked in a thick sauce seasoned with leeks into a serving bowl and motioned for everyone to sit down. Crusty wheat bread and honey were an welcome addition to the simply supper. Sweet ruby wine rounded out the satisfying meal.
While they ate the Keeper explained how he kept connected with he outside world. "Trade caravans travel through once a month. In exchange for food I can't harvest from the forest, basic supplies and the latest news and gossip, I give away healing herbs, offer prayers to whatever deity is worshiped and exorcise bothersome spirits whether real or imagined."
Zechs smiled at Wufei. "I occasionally keep company with wolves when the pack
leader grants me the privilege. Tomorrow evening when you're well rested you should seek them out during their nightly prowl."
Supper finished, the table cleared and dishes placed in a pot of water to soak, Zechs took two brown bottles and six green glass goblets from a cupboard.
"Is that what I think it is?" Trowa nodded at the bottles.
Zechs' smile was sure confirmation. "Sake, the nectar of the gods."
"Sake?" Duo inquired.
"Rice wine." Heero explained.
"Wine from rice! That's gotta be sacrilegious or at least defaming to grapes." Duo declared as the foreign liquor was decanted into his goblet.
Heero offered good advise. "Don't gulp."
Duo sniffed at the strange liquid, cut his eyes at Heero then took a cautious sip. "Tastes like piss." he announced with the wrinkling of his nose and overdone gestures accenting his disapproval.
Trowa grinned at the Irishman's sour expression and put on an arrogant air. "Perhaps sake is too sophisticated for someone whose used to common swill." he teased.
"Give me beer, cheap wine or even bitters," Duo retorted in his defense, "I ain't drinkin' that...that...rice refuse."
Quatre was inclined to agree with Duo's assessment of sake. "It does seem to be a bit crude."
Heero turned up his glass then took a moment to contemplate the tang on his tongue before swallowing. "It'll numb your senses and that's all that matters."
"Since you're seeking oblivion," Zechs acknowledged the Tracker's wish for a temporary reprieve from reality, "you may have one bottle all to yourself."
"Now we," Zechs waved an inclusive hand at his guests, "might as well sink deeper into depravity."
Zechs searched through a trunk until he found a small red velvet bag bound with a crimson cord and a crinkled leather money pouch. When the scarlet cord was united and the contents removed, it was Wufei's turn to smile.
Zechs emptied the pouch. Currency of different values spilled out on the table.
"Is it true that a fool and his money are soon parted?" Wufei wondered, running his finger over a coin stamped with the Peacecraft Royal Seal.
"We will see." Zechs replied as the shuffled the cards.
While Trowa, Quatre, Wufei and Zechs engaged in the Chinese gambling game of fan-tan, the wagers were accompanied by boisterous laughter, uninhibited drinking and unrepentant swearing.
Heero took his bottle of sake and retreated into a dim corner. He wiggled to get comfortable on the cold stone floor, drew his knees to his chest, gave his friends an apathetic glance and, not heeding his own advise, took a long swig.
"Damn!" he hissed as the liquor burned his throat and set his belly ablaze.
Duo observed the Tracker's morose mood then decided it wasn't proper for Heero to be a solitary drunk so he nabbed a bottle of wine and plopped down beside his comrade. "Mind if I join ya?"
"Do I have a choice?" Heero asked huskily.
"My, my, ya get surly when ya drink."
Heero leaned his head against the wall, shut his eyes and sighed."If you're going to sit here do it quietly."
Fan-tan continued. So did the good-natured arguing over points and who should claim the winnings. All too quickly the sake was consumed and the resulting brain buzz made it hard to concentrate.
Quatre was the first player to drop out. He rested his head against Trowa's shoulder, yawned and tried to focus his bleary eyes on his lover's cards. Soon after the Twilight Priest, who was acting very unpriestly, folded his hand and forfeited his last coins.
Wufei took great pleasure in his friends' defeat then threw down the gauntlet to the remaining competitor.
"You and me to the end." he growled but the attempt at intimidation failed to fluster his opponent.
Zechs accepted the challenge. "Winner takes all."
Four hands, each one ending in a draw. With no clear champion, the hour growing late and, after the long day's journey the body begging for sleep, Trowa offered a suggestion to resolve the stalemate.
"Divide the pot and be done with it."
But..." Wufei began to protest.
Trowa's raised hand cut off the Beast's objections. "Divide or I take the money."
As Zechs and Wufei glared at each other across the table, Trowa counted out the money into equal piles and kept the odd coin for himself.
Quatre leaned close to this lover and whispered. "They do know those coins were replaced years ago and aren't worth anything now?"
Trowa nodded. "It's the game that matters not the reward."
A crick in Duo's neck prodded his into a slightly improved state of alertness. He tried to move and discovered that the rearrangement was going to require extra effort.
Several factors contributed to Duo's difficulty. His head was stuffed with cobwebs, his brain was foggy and his braid was pinned underneath his butt. Furthermore the room spinning was not at all helpful.
But the greatest hindrance was Heero, the drained sake bottle clutched in his hand and his chin damp with drool, slouched against Duo's chest.
The Duel Spirit braced his hands and strained to straighten up. His elbow knocked over his empty wine bottle, which struck the floor with a hollow clink and rolled until it wedged in a rocky crevice.
The grating sound of glass jingling over stone shook Heero's sluggish brain from its stupor. He grunted, cracked open one eye and mumbled something about getting his crossbow and pinning Duo's scrawny ass to the wall.
"I swear..." Heero continued his promise of reprisal. "I'm...I'm...gonna..." he stuttered as his muddled mind refused to cooperate. "Ah...shit."
With a dull ache in full force along Duo's temples and his shoulders cramping, he cursed, grabbed a fistful of the Tracker's shirt and yanked him into a seated position. However propping Heero against the wall was all Duo accomplished before his hands were batted away.
"Need help?" Trowa offered even though his arm around Quatre's waist was scarcely shoring up his lover and Quatre was struggling to support the drowsy Priest.
"I can manage. Better get to bed before you both fall down."
Since manhandling didn't produce the desired results, Duo tried tactical coaxing. First he pried the sake bottle from Heero's stubborn grip. Next he tilted his head to study Heero's groggy eyes; then winced when his brain slipped off center. Lastly he spoke softly to prevent further threats of bodily harm.
"Its gettin' late and I got chills in my bones. Let's go to bed."
Heero pawed several times before he realized he was grabbing at thin air. He rolled onto his hip and, with Duo's help, finally centered himself on his hands and knees.
Duo pushed off the wall and crouched beside his woozy comrade whose four-point posture resembled a scruffy canine. He took Heero's arm and applied persuasive pressure to pull him to his feet.
After swaying on rubbery legs, bumping against each other and grumbling about how Zechs should level up the floor, the Lone Hunter and Duel Spirit staggered down the passage to find a place where they could drift off into a serene state of nothingness.
Zechs and Wufei were still sitting at the table. They'd said goodnight and sent Trowa and Quatre tottering off to bed.
With amusement they watched Duo and Heero figure out the baffling process of standing up and walking, even debated about intervention but decided their concern might be viewed as meddling and they had to wish to incur Heero's wrath.
The candles had melted away to frail flames and the fire pit's embers were shrouded in ashes. The Keeper and the Beast sat side by side, heads bowed in quiet conversation. They discussed odds, victory and defeat and pondered how life was a game of chance where fate dealt the hand and luck held the trump card.
Soon Zechs and Wufei would also surrender to the Sandman. Zechs could remain in his quarters and Wufei retire to a separate room or they could share a platonic bed.
But tonight they would be lovers.
Tonight their union would be driven by lust. Hungry kisses. Torrid touches, skin against skin, erections throbbing. Breathless endearments whispered in secret. Moans of ecstasy...bittersweet orgasmic release that lingered no longer than the afterglow. Fleeting sensations then holding each other and praying for dreamless slumber.
Perhaps Wufei would be granted a brief respite from the utter loneliness and insatiable rage he'd suffered every day since his mate, Meilan, had been hunted down and killed.
Perhaps Zechs would find solace for his devastated heart that had been broken by Trieze's madness. Perchance he would seek forgiveness for his failure to save his soul mate or beg for absolution for his loss of faith.
For a time the night would hide their sins but Zechs and Wufei knew the morning light would expose their transgressions but, perhaps, Gabriel and Michael would not judge them too harshly.
Glacial currents surged from a wide chasm that swallowed up the passage then howled up an overhead shaft that corkscrewed through the rock. The vertical tunnel ended in a hole, ringed with silver moonlight, that offered glimpses of the star-studded sky.
The tornadic gusts slammed into Heero and Duo's bodies, battered their faces and shivered through their clothes until it felt like bony fingers were scraping over their skin.
"Duo! Take my hand!" Heero shouted above the wind's deafening drone.
Struggling to keep his feet planted on the path, Duo intertwined his fingers. "What unnatural fury is this?"
Heero dared to lean into the powerful updraft but was forced back by the biting cold. "I don't know. We have to find another route."
He looked behind in the direction he and Duo had traveled but the darkness had melted into a fluid mass that undulated in an ebb and flow motion as if trying to suck the warriors' into a black vortex.
The passage moved. A subtle shift at first.
Duo's heighten sense of motion felt the faint vibrations and panic seized his guts. He tugged at Heero's hand. "We have to get out of here."
"Where do we go?" Heero yelled as the path bucked beneath his boots.
Without warning the entire area started to pulsate. The chasm's rim began to crumble. Sandstone pebbles, layers of slate, large chucks of rock disappeared over the trembling edges, plummeted into the deep abyss and sprayed up suffocating clouds of gritty gray powder.
Fracture lines raced through the floor. Thin spots bulged until the surface tension couldn't bear the stress then split with a scraping sound that froze Duo and Heero's heartbeats.
The fragmented path was breaking up more rapidly than Heero could escape the disintegration. He stumbled. Duo cursed and jerked his comrade backward but the breach grew wider with every violent tremor.
Heero gazed into Duo's fear-enlarged pupils then craned his neck to study the opening above them. In an unpredicted move he grabbed Duo's shoulders and fixed his sight with a resolute glare.
"You have to fly." Heero ordered, with a firm shake accenting the situation's urgency. "There." he nodded towards the moonlit hole.
"Fly?" Duo repeated, not certain he understood. Suddenly the command became clear and Duo was determined to have no part of it. "NO! I will not leave you!"
"Dammit don't argue with me. FLY!" the Tracker hissed with another forceful shake.
Duo shook his head so hard his braid whipped over his shoulder. "There's another way out; we'll find it."
"Look around us. There's no other way." Heero stated with certainty.
What Heero did next was not done in desperation, even though the cavern was literally sinking underneath him, but was driven by an unselfish act of emotional surrender.
As dust clogged his lungs and each quake was stronger than the previous one, Heero Yuy brushed a chaste kiss across Duo's grime-caked lips. "I love you, Duo Maxwell. Please take to your wings for I couldn't bear to carry your death with me through eternity. Please, Duo, do it for love." he begged.
With tears tracing tracks down Duo's dusty cheeks he whispered. "Love will be my only reason for leaving you. But I pledge on all the saints and every angel in heaven that when my time has come and Death claims me, we will be together forever." he swore the solemn vow then sealed the promise with a kiss.
Heero let go, stood back and watched as Duo transformed into a falcon. With a mighty flap of wings the Duel Spirit began to rise above the unrelenting devastation.
Just as the final remnants of stone shattered, Heero reached up and pluck a single tawny feather from the falcon's tail. Clutching his remembrance of Duo to his chest, Heero closed his eyes and, saved by the serenity of Duo's promise, he descended into the void.
Duo opened his eyes then realized it was Heero thrashing about that had disturbed his sleep.
The Tracker was snarled in the sheet, his face glistening with a sheen of sweat. His hands were grappling for something known only in his nightmarish dreamscape.
Heero muttered, cried out then went so limp it frightened Duo.
Duo sat up and leaned closer. Upon closer inspection he knew from the steady rise and fall of Heero's chest that he was breathing. He stroked a single finger across Heero's clammy forehead to brush damp bangs aside. "Wake up." he urged.
Heero sighed, one eyebrow twitched.
"Wake up." was repeated with louder volume.
With a forceful intake of air, Heero's eyes snapped opened and stared with a vague cobalt gaze.
"Heero. Can you see me?"
Gradually Heero's vision focused. His eyes centered on Duo, his bottom lip quivered then with surprising speed, he wrapped his arms around Duo's waist, buried his head in Duo's chest and clung to his comrade as if his very survival depended on the physical connection.
Duo was momentarily taken aback by his friend's sudden need to be held. But instead of analyzing what had prompted the uncharacteristic contact, he drew Heero into a comforting embrace.
"I'm here, nothing can harm you." he assured that everything would be all right.
While Duo cradled Heero and rocked back and forth he recalled a song he had learned years ago when he lived with the Gypsies.
"If you are lost in your way, deep in an awesome story, don't be in doubt and stray, cling to your lonesome folly.
Now you're too close to the pain, let all the rain go further, come back and kiss me in vain, lover is it no bother.
Hear the chorus of pain, taking you back to proper ways, it's so easy to find if you could remind me.
Now you are lost in your way, deep in an awesome story, so I will find you again and kiss you for lonesome folly."
The words of the song gave way to soft humming that encouraged Heero to relax. When Heero closed his eyes and snuggled closer, Duo eased both of them down on the rude bed with the straw-stuffed mattress, pulled up the sheet and blanket and tucked the coverings tight.
Duo hummed the last stanza once more then all was quiet and still. He might ask Heero about his dream. He might not. Maybe it was best for Heero to decide.
Gabriel and Michael are archangels who led a holy army during the battle between God and Satan.
Duo's song is entitled "A Stray Child" from the .hack//SIGN OST 1.
Wufei groaned. It was a subtle sound, barely audible through the multi-layered bedcovers.
Curled into a fetal position, he dared to open his eyes and was grateful to be in Zechs' private chamber where the morning sun's bright rays held no sway. Instead his sensitive sight was soothed by the diffused glow from the single candle flickering beside the futon.
It was common knowledge Wufei could transform into a wolf but sometime during the night a new metamorphosis had taken place. Now his brain was petrified, his ordinarily supple thigh and back muscles were stiff and his ass was sore.
In fact every inch of his nude body was abnormally sensitive. Any arrangement, no matter how cautious, produced twinges which, in turn, spawned unintelligible curses.
Wufei had only himself to blame for his disagreeable condition. It had been his decision to imbibe too much wine. While he could fault pent up genital cravings; he had willingly surrendered to Zechs' enticements. But if pressed for an honest answer he had no regrets regarding either the liquor or the sex.
"Good morning Dragon." Zechs whispered with utmost sympathy for Wufei's throbbing head.
The title had first been bestowed in the throes of passion when Zechs discovered Wufei's kisses were like breaths of fire on his lips. Later the endearment had been repeated reverently as Zechs and Wufei bathed in their orgasmic afterglow.
A plum colored robe covered Zech's nakedness yet the gauzy fabric offered hints of his toned muscles, long legs and impressive manhood. His silky hair was gathered in a ponytail but wisps of the silvery strands feathered over his forehead and caressed his high cheekbones.
With further consideration for Wufei's tender body, the Temple Keeper sat cross-leg on the straw-stuffed mattress taking care not to jostle the Chinese warrior.
Zechs' movements were noticeably sluggish and he winced when his bruised buttocks settled on the futon. Wufei grinned. After all turnabouts had been fair play and it was gratifying to see Zechs in comparative discomfort.
The Keeper ignored the Dragon's smirk and held out an earthenware cup. "Quatre made tea."
Wufei braced his elbows and slowly but surely managed to slide up until the goose-down pillow supported his back. He tugged the sheet over his chest, not from modesty but to ward off the chamber's chilly air. It took three clumsy swipes before his loose ebony hair no longer tickled his face or impeded his vision.
As iridescent candlelight danced in sky blue eyes that sheltered many secrets, Zechs handed over the tea. "Be careful, it's hot."
Wufei sniffed at the steam swirling above the cup. He pursed his lips, took a sip and wrinkled his nose. "What's this damn swill? It sure as hell isn't tea."
Zechs rested his weight on his hip and shrugged. "An herbal concoction to clear the cobwebs and relieve the aches. The Manipulator swears by its medicinal powers."
"I'll strike a bargain with you." Wufei proposed a compromise. "If I finish this "tea" and keep it down, you'll cook rice with sweet milk."
The Temple Keeper leaned nearer. "For a kiss I'll add butter." he bartered.
Duo sighed, which was all his addled mind would allow. Much like the Dragon, the Duel Spirit realized he, too, had undergone a mysterious transmutation.
His eyes refused to focus, his tongue had grown a fuzzy coat and his teeth were covered in a vinegary veneer. There was a continuous kink running the entire length of his spine and he reckoned no amount of stretching would improve his flexibility.
A snort replaced the sigh as he extracted his braid that was knotted between his shoulder blades. With great effort he rolled onto his back. Several blinks finally steadied his wonky sight but the rocky ceiling still wanted to blur into vague impressions and shadowy shapes.
Finding the adjacent futon empty, Duo's next challenge was to determine if Heero had also taken on an altered form or if the Tracker was still human and just wandering around the Keeper's cavernous abode.
A thorough investigation under the duvet confirmed Duo was clad in his breechcloth and there was no bizarre creature that resembled Heero lurking between the sheet and blanket.
Despite his body's protests, Duo sat up. The kink relaxed a bit as he pulled on his trousers and his fingers fumbled to lace up the front.
He reached for his flared-sleeve shirt. "Son of a bitch." he hissed as a crick in his neck proved to be more mulish.
Crawling amongst his haphazardly scattered possessions Duo retrieved his socks and boots. Attired in rumpled garments, with his disheveled braid trailing down his back, the scruffy Irishman set off in search of the Lone Hunter.
Trowa and Quatre sat in the dining area sharing a breakfast of oat porridge sweetened with honey and the herbal tea guaranteed to cure all manner of maladies.
The Twilight Priest and his lover paused in their conversation when Zechs, who was clearly suffering from an overindulgence of wine and his and Wufei's enthusiastic copulation, slunk into the room.
Partially dressed, shoeless, with a blanket caped over his slumping shoulders, Wufei shuffled in a few steps behind the lethargic Keeper.
A"Good morning." from Quatre was acknowledged with a grunt as Wufei eased down on the wooden bench. Bloodshot eyes aimed an acidic glare at the Manipulator and a sullen frown discouraged additional cheery greetings.
Zechs backed up to the fire pit hoping the heat would lessen the rawness in his rump. While the fire's warmth was helpful, the backwash shining through his robe left nothing to the imagination. Too bad Wufei was too hung over to appreciate the delightful view of the Keeper's nude silhouette.
Trowa swallowed a spoonful of porridge then made an astute observation. "You two should have slept longer."
"I don't think they slept at all." Quatre commented as he recalled the loud moans and explicit oaths, intermingle with graphic descriptions of bodily functions, that had echoed down the corridor half the night.
Zechs sat opposite Quatre and poured a cup of water. "Did we offend your decency?" he inquired with mock concern.
"Jealous?" Wufei snorted.
Quatre refused to take the bait. "What you offended was my right to sleep without being disturbed by caterwauling."
Wufei rubbed his temples in a futile attempt to banish the dull ache. "You don't hear Heero or Duo complaining."
"That's because they drank themselves into oblivion." Trowa stated. "But I bet they're not feeling any better this morning."
Heero reclined in one of the naturally heated pools where the quinque had bathed.
The only sounds were the air currents' faint drone, gurgles as the hot spring flowed in and out of crevices and his comrade's muffled voices drifting down the dim passage.
Heero's woozy head was pillowed on the smooth rim and, immersed to his chin, his bare body derived much-appreciated relief from the aftereffects of sake.
He slipped under the balmy water to soak his hair then popped to the surface. With a satisfied sigh he closed his eyes, relaxed every muscle and, for the first time in many days, let down his guard and relished his solitude.
A scraping noise caused Heero's eyebrows to pull together. The rustling of fabric put him on notice that someone was encroaching on his territory.
When a distinctive essence wafted on the air, Heero's nose twitched. ''Duo." he affirmed without opening his eyes.
The Irishman stopped in his tracks. "How did ya know it was me?"
"I know your scent."
Duo lifted his arm and stiffed at his sleeve. "I don't smell that bad. A little rank but..."
"I didn't say you reeked." Cobalt eyes peered up through wet bangs. "What you do want?"
"Just checking up."
Silence stretched thin between the Hunter and the Duel Spirit. Duo stared at his boots. Heero stared at Duo.
Finally Duo broke the tense stillness. "I was thinkin' about a bath."
Heero drew his knees to the chest. "Climb in." he invited.
"Ya don't mind?"
"If I did I would've sent you away."
Duo disrobed to his breechcloth. He sat on the rim, swung his legs over the water then tested the heat level with his toes.
"Hot." he hissed.
"Slide in slowly."
Duo took the Tracker's advice and slipped into the pool in carefully calculated degrees. For a moment his braid was buoy by the water then became saturated and disappeared below the surface.
When his butt hit bottom, he sat facing Heero. "Maybe the heat will leach this kink outa my neck."
"Turn around, I'll knead your muscles." Heero offered.
Duo caused hardly a ripple as he pivoted in place and positioned his back inches from Heero.
A shiver slithered over his skin at Heero's initial touch.
"You're taut as a bowstring." Heero declared as he concentrated on a particularly tight spot.
The Tracker's calloused hands had softened in the warm water and his firm strokes over Duo's neck and shoulders were amazingly gentle.
As talented fingers worked their magic, Duo voiced his contentment. "Mmmmmm."
Duo melted into Heero's masterful manipulations. His eyes slid shut, his entire body became limp and his mind drifted into a serene state of nothingness. The surrender was so complete Duo didn't realize he had falling backward until his shoulders bumped into Heero's chest.
The sudden contact jarred Duo from his massage-induced tranquility. His eyes popped opened and he sucked in a startled breath. But even more shocking...when he reached down to steady himself, his fingers brushed over Heero's erect manhood.
"I"m....sorry...I didn't..." Duo stammered as he scrambled to climb out of the pool.
Heero caught Duo's arm and held him in place. "Stay." An insistent squeeze added weight to the request.
Without hesitation, Duo sank into the pool. He didn't resist when Heero pulled him close nor did he object when Heero cupped his hand behind his head and delivered a kiss as sultry as the water.
"I think," Heero's voice was husky and his words hot against Duo's lips, "you are overdressed."
After the breechcloth barrier was removed and the soggy material toss over the rim, Heero wasted no time making sure Duo was equally aroused.
Mouths opened wide. Tongues tangled and tasted.
Wet bodies crushed together.
Hands roamed, fingers traced pleasure patterns and genitals begged to be fondled.
Duo peppered kisses over Heero's chest and was rewarded with a gasp for air. He slipped his thigh between Heero's legs and rubbed against the Hunter's rigid length until the he moaned.
Suddenly Heero began to shake...not shudders of ecstasy but uncontrolled trembling. He clung to Duo, held on as if his life depended on their bond.
"Don't leave Duo! Please!" Heero whimpered in desperation. "Don't fly away!"
Duo froze then leaned back until he could see Heero's face.
Vacant eyes stared back.
"Look at me." Duo pleaded as he stroked Heero's pale cheek.
A blink. Blue orbs centered on the Duel Spirit and he swore Heero was weeping.
"What's wrong." Duo petitioned for understanding.
"I had a dream last night."
"Tell me about it."
With the hot spring bubbling around them, Duo cradled Heero in a reassuring embrace. Heero rested his head on Duo's chest, took a deep breath and began his nightmarish account that might or might not foretell the future.
With the hot spring bubbling around them, Duo cradled Heero in a reassuring embrace. Heero rested his head on Duo's chest, took a deep breath and began his nightmarish account that might or might not foretell the future.
Duo listened in attentive silence. An occasional nod offered support. An encouraging squeeze on Heero's hand was employed whenever the recalling became difficult.
Only when the Tracker's courage faltered did Duo interrupt. "Dreams have no power over our destiny." he stated with sure conviction.
Heero sat up with a sigh. "My dream seemed real." he countered as he remembered jerking awake in a cold sweat with his heart hammering against his ribs.
Duo couldn't argue with the physical trauma created by dreams, especially the torment of recurring nightmares. He fixed Heero's cobalt sight with the utmost sincerity. "What you felt was real, your mind believed but that doesn't mean it's a prophecy of things to come."
"But what if...."
Duo placed a finger on Heero's lips. "If your dream was a premonition?"
Heero shook his head affirmatively.
"Premonitions aren't set in stone." Duo challenged the notion of predestination or fate or luck. His finger slid away and he leaned closer. "Do you trust me?"
No hesitation preceded Heero's answer. "As a warrior with my life and as a lover with my heart."
"Lover?" Duo whispered at the word's implication.
Not as bold as before, Heero lowered his eyes. "If you'll have me."
"I'll be damned!" Duo exclaimed in astonishment. "Since the first day I laid eyes on you, nay the very moment, I've wanted you," he confessed, "but knowing your background I gave up hope you'd have an Irish orphan with a dubious past."
"My background." Heero repeated. "Why would that matter?"
Now Duo was not as confident. "You were born with privilege. A grand house and fancy food and a stable of horses and....."
Heero's kiss stopped Duo's rambling reply.
Now wasn't the time for comparing castes or taking account of material possessions. Heero's mother had taught him that nobility was not given by birthright but earned by honorable deeds and selfless concern for every person's well being.
Despite Duo's grief from the loss of his family, his mistrust of authority and his resentment over his unjust imprisonment, he was brave in battle and loyal to his friends. Furthermore the Duel Spirit always used his metamorphic power for good, never for profit or revenge.
No, Duo Maxwell's parentage didn't define his worth nor did his past determine the man he had become.
Heero ended the kiss and pulled back just enough to gaze into violet eyes that showed so much compassion it made him weep. "Will you have me?" he choked out the humble request.
"Forever and a day." Duo pledged his body and mind, heart and soul then sealed his promise with a tender kiss.
With the hot spring bubbling around them, the Tracker and Duel Spirit clung to each other. There were no lustful groping only adoring caresses and gentle kisses. As much as they desired to consummate their commitment, they wanted their first union to be spiritual, a fusion of their souls before the joining of their bodies.
A loud grumble from Duo's stomach rudely interrupted their cuddling. Heero brushed damp bangs from lover's eyes then, spurred on by his empty stomach, declared. "As much as I'd love to stay like this all morning we should dry off, get dressed and eat breakfast."
An after breakfast soak in the hot spring had relaxed Wufei's taut muscles, soothed his sore buttocks and alleviated his headache. Also shampooed hair combed out and secured in a ponytail, clean clothes and his belly satisfied by rice and sweet milk had greatly improved the Beast's grouchy disposition.
Wufei sat at the table by the fire pit. Dishes had been cleared, cleaned and replaced with a limestone mortar and pestle and a pewter bowl and spoon.
Three unbleached cotton bags filled with various grainy substances set in no particular order. A square tin box with a hinged lid waited to be filled. He dumped the first bag into the bowl, added five spoonfuls from the second cloth container then transferred the mixture into the mortar.
Heero paused just inside the room's chiseled entrance. He folded his arms across his chest, leaned his shoulder against the rough arch and watched as Wufei used the pestle to pulverize the mystery concoction into fine particles. Two measures from the third bag were stirred in and the grinding continued.
Wufei glanced up. "Come in." he invited the Tracker to join him.
Heero pushed off the wall and took a seat opposite his comrade. "Dare I ask what you're mixing?"
Wufei poured the slate gray mixture to the tin box. "Thunder powder."
A grin flickered over Heero's lips. "Dare I ask what that is?"
"It would be easier to show you what it does."
Wufei pinched up some powder, leaned over and sprinkled it in a pile on the floor. Next he pivoted, picked a twig from the kindling box and lit it from the fire.
"Ready?" Wufei asked with a gleam in his eyes that caused Heero to wonder if a swift retreat might be a wise choice.
Against his better judgment the Tracker held his breath and nodded yes."
The flame kissed the powder.
A sizzle. A blue-white flash.
A thunderous BANG ricocheted off the walls.
Heero to jump to his feet. "What form of devilry was that!" he shouted as he stared wide-eyed where the powder had disappeared to leave a black spot behind.
"No magic just a mixture of natural elements triggered by fire." Wufei explained.
"Where did you learn about...such...things?" Heero stammered as his settled nervously back on the bench.
"The knowledge has been passed down for generations but it wasn't until my ancestors began to veil themselves as human were we able to gather the raw materials to make the powder. My father taught me just has his father taught him."
While Heero understood the process and was keenly aware of the extraordinary results he couldn't figure out the function. "What's the purpose other than producing a bright light and a loud noise?"
This time the glimmer in Wufei's ebony eyes cast a destructive aspect. "When the powder is packed tightly in a casing of clay or metal it explodes with force great enough to undermine foundations or rupture walls. It can also be lethal to any creature."
Wufei braced his elbows on the table, fixed Heero's sight and whispered. "It is the ultimate weapon of war. It lies in wait until fire torches its soul then it unleashes the fury of hell."
A spark ignited in Heero's heart, as the powder's full potential was realized. "This could better our outnumbered odds, could turn the tide against Khushrenada."
Then a sobering thought tempered Heero's eager expectations of the Dark Lord's defeat. "Does Zechs know about..." he hesitated, not wanting to voice the deadly reality.
Wufei breathed out a sigh that spoke volumes regarding the state of his conscience. "He knows but he's a warrior who has taken an oath of protection and he will not forsake his vow. Zechs will try to reason with Treize, use their bond to reach beyond his madness and salvage what shreds of humanity remain but I fear the Temple Keeper will fail."
"You and I," Heero acknowledged, "Duo and Trowa and Quatre, we all share Zechs' vow and it binds us to the same inescapable path to war."
A solitary figure sat on the first stone bench in the Temple watching wisps of sweet smoke curl from the gold incense burners. The blue vapors would coil in lazy spirals then, seized by the chilly updraft, swirl up to the vaulted ceiling and vanish.
"As fleeting as the days of man." Duo muttered softly then frowned when he couldn't remember the end of the verse.
Ignoring the stench of decay wafting from the ossuary, Duo studied the gem-embellished altar in pensive silence. In the stillness a twinge of melancholy encroached upon his contemplative thoughts.
Deep World provided sanctuary; the quinque, a circle of security and now Heero was the guardian of his heart but Duo felt forlorn. He had learned to mask his pain and had earnestly strived to appreciate blessings instead of dwelling on injustice yet he longed for his father's guidance, yearned for his mother's consoling embrace and his brother's companionship.
Years ago Duo did believe. Even after the terrible sickness claimed his family he used his mother's rosary to count his petitions...before a superstitious parish priest and a bastardly sheriff destroyed his last link with faith.
Duo interlaced his fingers in a pose of prayer, closed his misty eyes in a sham of supplication. Outwardly Duo Maxwell still believed but his soul was hollow and he doubted if the void would ever be filled.
At the sound of voices echoing down the passage, Duo dried his eyes on his sleeve, donned his optimistic mask and prepared to greet his brothers-in-arms.
The Manipulator and Priest's arrival was announced by the cadence of Trowa's staff tapping on the floor. In a few minutes Wufei and Zechs sat down opposite Quatre and Trowa.
As the Warriors of the Rose assembled for a strategy session Duo thought how paradoxical it was that a consecrated Temple should be used as war room. The irony was further illustrated when he recalled a sermon he'd heard on beating swords into plowshares.
Moments later Heero ambled in sat beside his partner and took his hand. Noticing Duo's red-rimmed eyes he whispered. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, didn't get enough sleep." Duo lied then mentally berated himself for his dishonesty.
Straight away the session took on a serious attitude. Trowa knew any discussion concerning Treize would be stressful for the Dark Lord's ex-lover but the subject couldn't be avoided.
A soldier's cold detachment replaced a priest's benevolence as Trowa apprised Zechs on the quinque's encounter with General Khushrenada and his army of Soulless Slaves. He stated the facts then presented a plan, not based on a madman's salvation but intent on vanquishing evil.
The deterioration of Treize's psyche, worsened by wine and his bitterness spawned by Zechs' rejection, had destroyed all hope of peace. It was not a matter of negotiation, there was no longer a chance for diplomacy and like Trowa's father, Triton Bloom, an emissary would surely be killed.
The situation broke Zechs' heart. He was desperate to save Treize but the Temple Keeper would not shirk his duty. His only hope was that a trace of sanity remained in Treize's unbalanced mind and there was enough love left in his heart to restore the link he and Zechs once shared.
Zechs Merquise leaned over and braced his forearms on his knees. Silky, silver hair curtained his face and hid the single tear that tracked down his cheek. A shudder shook his body before an expelled breath hissed over quivering lips.
"I dreamed last night."
He raised his head and locked his sky blue eyes on his comrades. "Two dragons stood atop a mountain shrouded in crimson mist. Smoke bellowed from the snouts and fire blazed on their lips.
One dragon wore a breastplate engraved with a lion and a stag bound together by a scarlet cord. The second dragon had a deep cross-shaped scar etched into his scaly chest. Each winged beast brandished a double-edged sword."
"Was there a fortress on the mountain?" Quatre inquired.
Zechs nodded. "A dark foreboding structure with gray stone walls, broad parapets, tall spires and iron bars guarding the windows."
Quatre continued."And birds, black as midnight with great wingspans, circling a tower, all screeching a single note over and over again?"
Zechs stared in amazement."Yes but how did you know?"
"I also dreamed last night."
"Hellgate Castle." Wufei growled.
"Septum's lair." Trowa confirmed the castle's ownership. "We should have known that son of Satan was working his influence on Khushrenada's fragile willpower."
Zechs turned to regard the five frescoes depicting the Lone Hunter, the Duel Spirit, the Manipulator, the Cleric and the Beast then announced where the final battle would be waged.
"Tomorrow we journey to Hellgate and nothing on earth or in heaven or in hell will stop us."
Ghostly fog enveloped Hellgate Castle. Dusky gloom, not produced by the moon's vaporous veiling but borne of a morose spirit, embraced the massive fortress, crept about the tower spires, spilled over the walls and slunk above the moat.
The sullen shroud cloaked the lichen-encrusted gargoyles guarding the ledges and prowled along the parapets then paused to pry at windows and claw at wavy panes shut tight against the relentless chill.
Amber candlelight shone from within the ancient keep but the dim illumination had little affect on the icy mist except to lend it a sickly hue.
Treize Khushrenada, his mind fretful and his soul restless, sat at a large table made of oak and marred by years of abuse.
Much misery had proceeded Treize's arrival at Hellgate. A quarrel between King Peacecraft and King Edwin, ruler of Belvar, concerning claims to ancestral property had evolved from a border squabble into the threat of war.
When Edwin accused the mapmakers of cheating him out of his proper acreage, Peacecraft purposed that a new survey be done, after all it seemed a small concession to avoid hostilities.
But Edwin wasn't content with mere readjustments in the boundary lines. He was adamant that he'd obtained by divine decree sovereign rights to all land from the Arcade River to the north face of the Sister Mountains.
Peacecraft supposed and his advisors agreed that Edwin's desire to occupy that region stemmed from its wealth of timber and fertile soil. Edwin's unwise forest management had resulted in severe erosion and overuse of cropland had turned his kingdom's lush fields into barren ground.
After months of random assaults on carriageways and village attacks designed to escalate the dispute, Peacecraft invited Edwin and his son Prince Julius to meet with the Council of Aragon. Hopefully a face to face exchange would cool tempers and encourage rational discussions.
But the conference did nothing to allay Edwin's fervent demands for his lawful inheritance. The meeting rapidly deteriorated into a shouting match between Julius and Septum then ended abruptly with Edwin swearing "to make the hills run red with Aragonian blood."
Despite numerous conciliatory efforts to defuse the volatile situation, after each offer of concession was rejected and Peacecraft could do no more without total capitulation, the King's worse fears were realized...Edwin, King of Belvar declared war and ended five decades of peace.
The definition of war is relative to the people involved. While the impending conflict might have seemed minor to Aragon's neighboring principalities, it was a serious matter to Peacecraft.
And while the battles would not engage thousands of men or be fought with ruinous armaments, the fighting was just as perilous and carried the same grave consequences as full-scale combat.
Since General Septum was the only military man on the Council, he was charged with amassing an army and planning the strategy for Edwin's defeat. In turn Treize Khushrenada, a nobleman and regimental Captain, was enlisted to aid Septum in the preparations for war.
"Isn't it glorious?" Treize declared as he and his lover shared their orgasmic afterglow.
Zechs stretched then pulled the duvet over his genitals not from modesty but to ward off the chill of cool air flowing over his damp skin. "Are you talking about sex?" he asked for clarification.
Treize offered a rare smile. "Sex is marvelous but I'm talking about war."
"There's nothing glorious about war." Zechs countered with a firm shake of his head that sent silver hair gliding over his shoulder.
"Septum promised me a promotion to General." Treize boasted, "He says I'm worthy of the rank."
"Septum will use any means to achieve his goals." Zechs stated. He sat up with a heavy sigh and leaned back against the headboard."He's a ruthless man who doesn't care how many bodies he steps over. He'd challenge the King if he could convince enough officers to follow him in his quest for power."
Now it was Treize's turn to shake his head. "Septum is an honorable soldier dedicated to his King and country." he came to the General's defense, "but I can't expect a pacifist to understand."
Although the remark stung Zechs he took Treize's hand and fixed his lover's sight. "Come away with me to Twilight." he begged. "Please, for both our sakes, leave the folly of war behind."
Treize jerked back his hand but Zechs couldn't tell if the stern look on his face was shock or anger or a mixture of both.
"You would have me deny my destiny?" Treize hissed in what he believed was righteous indignation."Would you go to Twilight without me? Are your duties as a Priest more important than my duties as a warrior?"
With a quiver in his voice accenting his anguish Zechs declared. "You are traveling down a path I can not follow."
"Then you've made your choice. But in spite of your lack of support I WILL become a General and take my place as a leader in the kingdom's magnificent victory. One day you will be proud of me."
The next morning Zechs returned to Twilight. Treize followed Septum and waited for the promotion that never came.
Six months of disdainful proclamations, belligerent posturing and indecisive skirmishes escalated the hatred between Aragon and Belvar. Neither side had the advantage in men nor in weaponry and the conflict dragged on through autumn into winter.
Then at the end of February a climactic event occurred on the Elon River Plateau that brought the hostilities to a head and pushed peace beyond reclaiming.
Snow swirled in the bitter wind howling up from the river. The arctic gale battered Edwin's blue and gold battle standards and frayed the hems. Assembled in a staggered-line formation, archers were interspersed among foot soldiers armed with lances. Riders mounted on war horses carried swords and shields.
Across the plateau, Peacecraft's red and white flags, embroidered with the lion and stag insignia, snapped in the same perpetual currents that also buffeted his warriors awaiting the command to charge.
Astride a dapple-gray stallion, Septum squinted through the wind-whipped flakes and studied the enemy. Treize Khushrenada dressed in a dark blue uniform and fir trimmed cape stood beside his mentor and angled a steel sword across his chest.
"Peacecraft is a fool." Septum proclaimed above the whistling wind.
"Troop placements are too compact, too easy for Edwin to flank. No, all wrong." Septum decided. "Move your squad to the left and flare out the line."
Treize considered the tactical rearrangement. "But sir we have our orders." he dared to question the directive.
Septum shifted in the saddle. "Tell me Captain, what to you strive for?"
"Would that victory be better achieved as a Captain or as a General?"
At the risk of being disrespectful, Treize challenged Septum to follow through on his promise. "Are you keeping your word to promote me?"
"If your loyalties lie where they should."
Treize remembered his last night with Zechs. *I will become a General.* echoed in his mind. *One day you will be proud of me.*
Spurred by what Treize believed was Zechs' rejection and vexed by the inconsolable grief that had eaten away at his reason, the Captain made his choice.
"My loyalty is with you, sir."
"Good. This day you will become the Lord of Darkness and fight by my side. We will show no mercy to Edwin, his bastardly whelp or any man who stands with them."
Treize shuddered as the memories of that fateful day in February came rushing back. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, turned up the wine bottle, drained the last bitter dregs then stared blankly into the fire.
Within the flames he could see the battle's macabre aftermath. Broken lances, shattered swords, arrows protruding from frozen bodies, every horrid detail was displayed with such clarity he suddenly found it difficult to breathe.
Hoof beats pounded in his ears. A battle cry. The clang of blade against blade became a deafening din. A death throe wail then the bone splintering thud as the Prince of Belvar hit the ground.
Once again the Dark Lord stood in scarlet snow and gazed down at Julius' contorted corpse lying by his blood spattered boots.
The Prince's vacant eyes searched the heavens, entreating the angels for forgiveness. Or perhaps his glassy fixed pupils were meant to mirror the Dark Lord's unpardonable sins.
The red and white standard bowed on its staff. The scarlet cord no longer held its sway. The lion and the stag quivered then surrendered and with a terrible tear were rent in two.
"Zechs!" Treize shrieked out. "I need you." he implored but the wind moaning outside Hellgate swallowed his petition as soon as it left his lips.
Zechs trembles in his sleep.
He's riding at a full gallop. His horse wheezes in the arctic air but he can't slow his urgent pace.
Snowflakes pepper his ebony garments. Wintry wind burns his cheeks, blurs his vision, steals his breath and flares his cape like great wings.
Ahead a russet plateau rises in stark contrast to the white mantle frosting the ground. Zechs prods his mount, encourages it to carry him just a bit further.
He can hear conflicting orders screamed in confusion and can sense the desperation of a chaotic retreat.
Garbled pleas for mercy resound in his ears and the coppery odor of blood is so pungent in his nostrils he can taste it.
Zechs crests the plateau and the gruesome panorama is revealed. He pulls back on the reins. The gallop slows to a trot then the horse stops with a snort and a whinny.
So stunned by the butchery, Zechs can't move. The snow is crimson. Men and horses, dying or dead, litter the battlefield as far as the eye can see.
A figure dressed in dark blue stands among the carnage...blood-tarnished sword gripped in his hand...a mangled body sprawled at the feet.
Now Zechs is walking, purposeful strides. He knows the figure, feels the empathetic link and with each step his heart pounds harder until the pain is unbearable.
In the surreal dreamscape Zechs' breath shatters into glistening shards. "Treize." The single word is instantly encased in ruby crystals.
At the sound of his name, the triumphant General flinches but doesn't turn around.
Zechs stops close enough to touch his estranged lover but his hands remain clenched at his sides.
"For you." Treize replies barely above a whisper.
The ensuing silence is louder than any rebuke Zechs could deliver. Treize would rather the Twilight Priest shout out his loathing, strike out with his fists or slash with a sword but he knows the pacifist abhors violence.
Zechs surveys the devastation. "You wrought this vile destruction for yourself."
Treize pivots to face his lover. His eyes are as cold as the glacial gusts and their glare threatens to freeze Zechs' heartbeats.
"Your failure to believe in me caused this." he growls.
Zechs whimpers in his sleep.
Every night the identical dream exhumes the truth buried beneath layers of remorse and shame and reopens guilt-festered wounds.
"Treize." he calls. A tear tracks down his cheek. "Forgive me."
Wufei rolls onto his side, drapes his arm over his bedmate's waist and pulls him closer. "There's nothing to forgive." he whispers.
As the Temple Keeper huddles into the reassuring enfoldment, Wufei again exorcizes the nightmare demons sent by the Dark Lord to steal Zechs' sanity.
"No more dreams."
Heero redirected his sight from the cavern's dusky ceiling to gaze into Duo's drowsy eyes. "It's difficult." he admitted. "Damn Deep World and this altered schedule of time."
"Tis odd not having day and night defined by the sun and the moon." Duo agreed. "Zechs seems to know when a new day begins but how is a mystery to me."
The Tracker continued to find fault with the subterranean environment. "I'm tired of the chill and the dampness. I miss basking in the sun, bird songs, dewy breezes blowing on my face and rainbows."
"I miss the stars and...." A sigh laced with melancholy cut off Duo's words.
Heero took Duo's hand and gave it a supportive squeeze. "And what?"
"Come here." Heero invited.
When Duo was settled with his head resting on his partner's bare shoulder, Heero stated. "Tomorrow we leave for Hellgate. When the quinque steps out into the morning light you will fly as high and as long as you want to."
"But we can't afford to waste time."
"The remaining of us earthbound beings will walk and you can join us when you're ready."
Heero ran his index finger down Duo's cheek, hooked it under his jaw and raised his chin until their faces were inches apart. "My earnest wish is for your happiness and my vow is to protect of your body, mind and soul."
"Would you prove the sincerity of your oath?"
"Without hesitation." Heero pledged. "What would you have me do?"
The first kiss was a gentle brushing of lips, an exploration, sharing breath, savoring taste. Tongues caressed and teased.
The second kiss was lustful, directed by bodily appetite. Fueled by pent up sexual cravings, passion boiled to the surface and animal instincts took over.
Hands fondled. Fingers traced hot tracks over sweaty skin. Arms encircled and legs entangled. Duo's hair came undone.
Penises strained against breechcloths and demanded immediate liberation from their cloth confinements. Without deliberation the offensive fabrics were ripped away and rigid shafts were displayed without shame.
Duo gasped when his and Heero's erections rubbed together. "Take me" he begged.
Although Heero's brain was clouded by sensual sensations and his body barraged by carnal desire, he paused to ponder the request. "Are you certain? I don't want any regrets once our urges no longer rule our actions."
Duo sucked in a breath. So sturdy was its shaking Heero believed he'd said something wrong. "I'm not rejecting you. I only want to guard your emotional well being."
"Then what's wrong?"
"I'm scared." Duo confessed with a quiver in his voice that matched his trembling.
Again Heero attempted to alleviate his partner's distress. "I would never do anything to harm you, physically, mentally or spiritually."
Duo's misty eyes widened. "I'm not afraid of you. I trust you with my life. I'm anxious about Hellgate. What if we fail? What if your dream was a forewarning of things to come?"
"I thought you didn't believe in prophecies?" Heero asked as he recalled Duo proclaiming that "Premonitions aren't set in stone."
"I don't...I mean..." Panic joined Duo's anxiety. "If something happened...if I lost you ...I wouldn't want to...live."
Heero cradled Duo's slim frame that now seemed much more frail. "We didn't find each other to be parted. I promised you protection and nothing in heaven or in hell will keep me from you side."
Duo clung as if his next breath depended on the contact."The past cannot be changed and we have no guarantee for the future but we do have tonight. Please, Heero, become one with me and claim me as your own."
Heero offered no further debate. He eased Duo back on the futon and without another word captured Duo's lips, swallowed his angst and replaced his fear with hope.
Downy kisses feathered over Duo's chest. Heero's tongue swirled around each nipple then left a wet trail as it descended over rippling stomach muscles. A brief intermission as his tongue dipped into Duo's navel then the journey of discovery began anew.
Meanwhile Heero's hands were not idle. They petted lightly, raising goose bumps in their wake. They examined every inch of silky skin, made a tactile map of every curve and contour.
When his lover was adequately aroused, Heero's left hand tunneled around Duo's length and began a series of metered strokes, each ending with a swipe of his thumb over the weeping tip.
Heero's right hand flattened on the inside of Duo's thigh and produced exquisite friction that shuddered through Duo's genitals then coaxed a low groan when a single finger circled his anal opening.
"I don't have anything make our joining easier." Heero reported, but he wasn't sure in Duo's pleasure-induced daze his Irish lover understood.
Some part of the statement much have been comprehended. "There's aloe cream in that box." Duo nodded toward a tin container nestled among the disarray of his personal belongings.
Heero didn't bother to hide his smirk. "Came prepared?" he teased.
Duo managed to regain enough of his over stimulated senses to explain. "The hot springs were drying my skin so Zechs mixed up softening cream for me."
"I'll remember to thank Zechs for his kindness." Heero stated as he retrieved the box.
It didn't take long for the skilled Tracker to rekindle the embers and ignite a fire inside Duo.
One slick finger probed passed the ring of anal muscles. Heero asked Duo if he was all right before proceeding. When Duo was comfortable, a second finger was introduced and lastly a third finger stretched him enough to avoid tearing.
Even though Duo pushed most insistently against each additional insertion, Heero asked for final conformation. "Are you sure?"
Duo wrapped his lean legs around his lover's waist. "I want this more that anything I've ever wanted before."
Heero used plenty of cream, positioned his penis then pushed ever so slowly. Duo gritted his teeth and tensed up.
Heero stopped. "Relax." he instructed. "Tell me if it hurts. I'll pull out and I promise I won't be upset."
Duo drew in a breath, exhaled and willed himself to relax. "Go on."
Inch by inch Heero slid inside. When he was fully seated he pulled back just a little then moved forward again. With the same careful pace he established a leisurely rhythm designed to show Duo how much he loved him.
There was no need to hurry. Time seemed frozen in Deep World and, if Zechs was correct and it was indeed night, they had hours before first light.
Together they were buoyed by sultry currents and soared among the sweltering updrafts. The stars lit their way and the moon smiled on them.
Duo centered his sight and was awestruck by the indescribable bliss etched on Heero's face. In turn Heero became entranced by Duo's beautiful violet eyes that mirrored respect, acceptance and unwavering trust.
Heero pushed in as far as he could then held himself motionless on quivering arms. "I love you."
Duo tightened his legs around Heero's waist to aid in their immobile placement. "I love you."
Neither warrior wanted the ecstasy to end but finally Duo surrendered. With a wiggle of his hips he urged Heero to move.
Heero grasped Duo's erection and pumped in time with his thrusting.
A tingle prickled through Heero's manhood. He growled huskily. "Come for me."
Duo's length twitched. He shuddered.
Both lovers cried out in unison.
Heero collapsed over Duo. Their strength spent, all they could do was hold each other until the pulsing inside Duo subsided. When Heero was pliable enough to ease out he settled into the warmth of Duo's comforting embrace.
Duo whispered to his soul mate. "Thank you for making me yours." then showed his appreciation with a tender kiss.
The Lone Hunter and the Duel Spirit had pledged their service to the King. As Warriors of the Rose they'd sworn allegiance to the quinque and had offered Trowa, Quatre, Wufei and Zechs unconditional friendship.
With the declaration of their love they'd forged a spiritual bond and now their physical union sealed that covenant.
An ancient proverb says "Souls bound by love can never be severed."
Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell intended to spend a lifetime proving the proverb to be true.
Sunrise was red.
Zechs stood outside his cavernous sanctuary and gazed north. The forest limited his sight beyond the tree line but he had no difficulty visualizing Hellgate.
A year ago Zechs had accompanied Treize to the primeval fortress, before King Edwin set the wheels of war in motion, before Treize chose darkness over light and Prince Julius died by his sword. Before the severance, the heartbreak, before...Zechs shivered.
Hellgate had been recalled in Zechs' daydreams when countless weeks of solitude caused his thoughts to wander and had been revisited when dark dreaming invaded his sleep. Since the Warriors' arrival the exhumed nightmares had become a nightly occurrence.
"No time for memories." Zechs declared to any creature lurking within earshot.
A square of cotton fabric swiped down Wufei's katana then he held the polished blade up for inspection. Satisfied with a job well done he slipped the sword into its black lacquered sheathe.
Wufei added the cleaning cloth to the neatly folded garments in his travel bag, tied back his hair, put on his plum-colored coat and headed up the corridor to join Zechs.
"Good morning." Trowa greeted as he and Quatre matched the Beast's strides along the rocky passage.
Wufei acknowledged his comrades with a nod. "It's a good day for hunting the Devil."
"It is indeed." Quatre agreed.
Heero secured his dirk around his upper thigh then shouldered the crossbow and quiver, draped his cloak over his forearm gathered up his and Duo's bags and went in search of his partner.
The Tracker's instincts gave him a good idea where Duo would be on their last morning in Deep World. His hunch proved correct when he entered the Temple and paused under the Celestial Archway with the full moon centered on its apex and a procession of stars fanning out on either side.
Although Heero hadn't ascribed to any religious routine since becoming a Demon Hunter, he respected Duo's devoutness and never interrupted his prayers.
Duo appeared childlike as he knelt before the jewel-embellished altar. His head was bowed; his braid brushed the floor. His fingers moved with practiced ease counting off each bead as he recited the Rosary.
There was a peaceful aura surrounding Duo, evident in both his deferential posture and his reverently whispered words and Heero discovered he was envious of his lover's contentment.
Suddenly Heero was aware of the Cross of the Rose hanging around his neck, tucked into the protective folds of his shirt. He set down the bags, laid his cloak, crossbow and quiver on the floor and hooked his finger under the silver chain. The cross snagged on his collar; a gentle tug pulled it free.
Heero's thumb rubbed over the rose forged in raised relief on the junction where the longer and shorter pieces intersected. The metal was warm from his body heat but had lost some of its luster due to constant contact with his skin.
A smile curled up Heero's lips as he remember how his chain and Duo's chain had become entangled the first time they made love. He had suggested they could avoid strangulation if the crosses were removed but Duo refused, stating he never wanted to be without the holy symbol.
Even with his eyes closed, Duo knew Heero was near. He felt his partner's presence, sensed the change in energy flowing over the vaulted chamber.
Heero's scent wafted on the air. Musky. Heady.
"Why does the devil seek to tempt me?" Duo mumbled under his breath.
Heero was closer, confirmed by the rustle of his clothing and his quiet breathing. "I'm sorry to disturb you." he apologized for his lack of willpower.
Duo opened his eyes and offered his lover a tender gaze. "Tis all right." he sighed.
"Is it time to leave?"
"We have a few minutes more. Finish your prayers." Heero urged.
"Stay with me."
Without pause Heero knelt beside his lover and put on a humble attitude. He closed his eyes, clutched his cross and repeated an entreatment his mother had taught him.
In the side alcove the five frescos portraying the Warriors of the Rose watched over the Demon Hunter and the Duel Spirit. Bathed in an amber glow, the statue of the Temple Keeper also beheld Heero and Duo's prayerful petitions and added its plea for wisdom, strength and courage.
Picking a path through the forest slowed the Warriors' pace but they preferred the anonymity. They were not so naive to believe that the main road wasn't being patrolled.
There was still the risk of stalking by a Shadow Spy but being in the open or skirting among the trees made little difference where the vaporous agent was concerned.
Morning took its leave without incident. The journeryers settled beside a gurgling stream to share a midday meal of crusty rye bread, goat cheese, a bottle of red wine and raspberries Quatre had picked along the way.
The food was simple fare but to the warriors' grumbling stomachs it was a feast. Chunks of bread then cheese were passed around and the berries counted out with three to spare. Since there was no fair way to divide the remaining berries, Quatre suggested that a squirrel sitting on a nearby branch would enjoy the surplus.
The Manipulator made a clicking noise in his throat. The gray rodent tilted his head, waggled his tail then eased down the tree trunk and perched on Quatre's shoulder.
As beady black eyes glared at the odd assortment of humans, the squirrel accepted the trio of fruity treats, tucked the berries in his cheeks then scurried back into a tree's leafy shelter for a leisurely lunch.
Craning his neck and squinting to see the squirrel partly obscured by a limb's shady camouflage, Duo commented."Not even a proper thank you for our generosity."
"It's a squirrel." Wufei mumbled through a mouthful of bread. He borrowed the bottle from Heero, took a swig to wash down a few stubborn crumbs then added. "You ought to be glad the critter didn't try to nest in your hair."
Sunlight that had painted vague patterns on feathery ferns, May Apples, pink Lady's-Slippers and delicate violets that mirrored the color of Duo's eyes retreated with the waning day.
Late afternoon shadows tarried longer behind the six soldiers. The woods became enveloped in a blue-purple hue that made it harder to navigate through the undergrowth and exposed tree roots.
"We'll need to stop soon." Trowa stated as he pushed a pine bough aside with his shoulder.
Wufei, whose canine eyesight was better suited to the encroaching darkness, ducked under the frilly branch as it whipped back in place, however, Zechs was not blessed with such keen vision and took the full brunt of the bough across his chest.
Now the Warriors were certainly "men of the world" who had heard, and often uttered, every manner of cursing but once Zechs recovered his senses he unleashed a tirade of swearing that shocked even his comrades' hard-edged senses. In fact it was very likely that many of the irate words and furious phrases were made up on the spot.
Next in line, Duo took several steps backward. The retreat was not to flee the harsh words that were obviously not aimed at him but to avoid Zechs' staff as it was waved about in a precarious manner.
Quatre, Wufei and Heero also steered clear of the former Twilight Priest. While Quatre seemed more concerned about thinking of a way to defuse the explosive outburst, Heero and Wufei struggled to hide smirks that would have added fuel to the fire.
Finally the last string of profanities were hissed with venomous proficiency that would rival any viper. The staff halted its thrashing about. Red-faced and winded, Zechs leaned against a tree until he regained his composure then begged his comrades' pardon.
"Forgive my lost of control. I have no excuse for...."
Wufei's raised hand cut off the apology. "We all are on edge." he spoke for everyone.
"Yeah," Duo chimed in, "Scream all you want, it ain't gonna bother us."
Along the western skyline dense clouds towered in high banks. The wind shivered through the forest and there was a distinct smell of moisture in the fitful air.
"A storm is brewing." Trowa noted as the leaves shuddered overhead.
"There's a cave a half mile from here." Zechs recalled. "We'll shelter there for the night."
The "cave" was actually a deep fissure cut into a vertical face of white and gray limestone. Cascading ivy vines and clumps of wild rosebushes choked the mouth.
Wufei peered through the tangle of vines and vegetation decked out in a profusion of thorny barbs. "How is this hole in the wall supposed to serve our needs?"
"Oh ye of little faith." Zechs admonished the skeptical Beast then addressed the Twilight Priest. "Trowa, if you please."
Trowa extended the Staff of the Rose and touched the bushes. Stems and stalks curled back, thorns retreated in a voluntary yielding to the Staff's bidding.
Zechs waved a hand at the unhindered entrance. "After you." he bade the Beast to enter.
Inside the cave the first thirty feet provided sufficient height to stand upright, after that one had to stoop but the width was more than adequate to accommodate the weary travelers.
Weapons, bags and bedrolls were stowed. Heero's cloak was folded and laid over his crossbow and quiver then tasks to be accomplished before the storm's arrival were assigned.
Foremost on the "to do list" was gathering dried grass, pine needles and twigs to kindle a fire and larger limbs to bank the blaze for the night. Zechs, Trowa and Quatre dispersed into the forest for the firewood gleaning.
Next Wufei dropped his veil and in his true state went hunting for meat for supper. Finally the duty of refilling the water skins fell on Heero and Duo.
The Tracker and Duet Spirit strolled down a narrow trail that meandered beside a stone-strewn rivulet. Judging by the bare ground, the tramping of deer hooves, the "human" footprints of raccoons and the diverse bird tracks, the stream was a popular watering hole but Heero and Duo required a deeper pool.
Further along marshy areas made it necessary to stray from the path. Increasingly the waterlogged ground became soupy and secreted swampy odors.
As sludgy liquid oozed and created a sucking sound with each step Heero announced, "We need to backtrack. Follow me."
Duo pivoted in place and fell in line behind his lover.
The looming storm clouds and advancing night made it difficult to find proper footings, which in turn, impeded Heero and Duo's progress.
Stone to stone. Root to root. Slowly but surely they headed upstream.
"Mind the branch." Heero cautioned before glancing over his shoulder to make sure Duo had heard him.
Inches from Duo's right foot, a root awash in green algae quivered. Heero credited the lack of light, the play of shadows, for the illusion of motion.
Duo took another step. In less than a heartbeat a slimy tentacle coiled around his right ankle.
"What the hell?"
Hearing the bewilderment in Duo's voice, Heero turned to face his partner. For a moment Duo's confused expression puzzled the Tracker then their eyes met and Heero's instincts screamed inside his head.
Heero sprang into action but he was a split second too late. With a sharp yank Duo was unbalanced. With a shout of surprise he hit the ground. With fingernails scraping the soggy soil, Duo was dragged through the brown crust of a stagnant pool.
Duo thrashed about, batting and kicking and cursing. Heero jumped in, reached out his hand...fingertips brushed then Duo disappeared.
Bubbles and wavering currents were the only clues to the spot where Duo had vanished. Heero parted the water, searched in vain for an arm or a leg or a fistful of fabric, anything to grab onto and haul Duo from his watery entombment.
Trowa added his armload of firewood to the pile inside the cave. Beside him Quatre tottered sideways and his Twilight lover's quick reflexes were all that kept his head from bumping against the cave's craggy wall.
A closer study found Quatre's face pale and his eyes glassy, unfocused. Trowa had seen that reaction before and it always meant something was terribly wrong.
"Quatre, talk to me." Trowa urged.
"Duo."was spoken barely above a whisper. "Help him."
"Where he is?"
Trowa cut his eyes at Zechs then took Quatre by the shoulders and delivered a shake sufficient to get his attention. "Take us there."
The black water surged. Duo's head popped above the surface. Panic was evident in his wide eyes, foul water gurgled in his throat. Gasping for breath, braid snaked around his neck, he flung his arms and clawed at thin air for nonexistence handholds.
Weighted down by soggy clothing, Heero lunged in slow motion. Once more hands touched but, this time, he managed to hold on.
Fingers entwined in a vice-like grip, muscles burning and joints straining, Heero tugged with all his might. In maddening degrees Duo's shoulders then his torso rose from the water. His left leg bobbed free but his right leg was held fast.
The scaly appendage responsible for Duo's submersion was tenacious in its desire to drown the Irishman. To Heero's horror, a second tentacle snaked around Duo's waist and set about to negate any rescue efforts.
Strangling on a mouthful of muddy water, Duo wheezed then stopped struggling.
"Dammit." Heero hissed as he fought for footing on the pool's slippery bottom.
Trowa, Quatre and Zechs' arrival went unnoticed until the Priest waded in.
"Help him!" Heero begged. "Hurry."
Trowa positioned the Staff's triple rings directly under Duo then chanted in a language unknown to Heero. The crimson center stone glowed, the water started to spin but instead of creating a whirlpool the opposite affect was accomplished.
A waterspout cradled Duo's limp body, levitated his floppy rag doll form but the aquatic creature refused to let go.
"Stop!" Zechs yelled from the bank. "You're going to pull him in two."
"I won't let that happen." Quatre pledged.
With that emphatic declaration the Manipulator straightened both arms and pressed his index fingers together. "I call on the sun. Lend me your power."
The brilliant light that shot from Quatre's fingertips forced Heero to advert his eyes. The fiery stream sliced through the tentacle clasped around Duo's waist then the tentacle fixed on Duo's leg was just as expertly severed.
Suddenly free, Duo began to sink. Heero shored him and, with Trowa's help, dragged him from the foul water.
Heero collapsed on his knees. "Duo can you hear me? Please hear me."
Heero propped Duo against his chest. A sturdy shiver lanced through Duo's body. His skin was icy, his lips blue, his breathing shallow.
Quatre squatted beside Duo and laid his hand on his forehead. This time the radiance was a subdued glimmer rather than a blinding flash.
Duo stirred, his eyelids parted to reveal narrow slits of violet. "Heero?"
"I'm here. I won't....." the remaining words lost their strength.
Zechs placed his hand on Heero's shoulder and squeezed. "I'll carry Duo. You're exhausted and if you're not careful the chill will claim you, too."
Flickers of light and the dancing of shadows confirmed Wufei had returned and there was welcomed warmth inside the cave.
While Zechs told Wufei what had happened, Trowa and Quatre helped Heero strip Duo and swathe him in Heero's cloak then a blanket was added for good measure. Next Heero divested himself of his wet garments and wrapped a blanket about his heat-starved body.
Trousers and shirts, socks and breechcloths were draped over rocks near the fire. Likewise two pairs of boot would spend the night drying out.
Heero set his back against the wall, pillowed Duo's head in his lap, unbraided his hair and did his best to fluff the damp strands with his fingers.
The fire crackled. The sweet scent of smoke and the comforting aroma of roasting rabbits filled the cave.
As his lover slept, Heero tucked the cloak and blanket and stroked Duo's cheeks that were slowly returning to their rosy color. He leaned close, whispered private endearments and promises of protection and a petition for Duo's recovery.
When the meat was cooked and leftover bread and cheese divided, quiet conversation mingled with the steady dripping of rain as thousands of droplets trickled over a ledge guarding the cave.
Heero set aside a portion for Duo and ate his supper in silence but he found it difficult to swallow, to force food pass the lump in his throat. His heart was heavy and his mind was fearful. Tears stung his eyes and he gave them free rein.
Hellgate was a day away but Heero's apprehension didn't stem from infiltrating the castle or engaging Septum, Treize and their soulless army.
Images of Duo vanishing beneath the black water, the helplessness, the terror; the possibility of a future without his friend, lover and soul mate was too painful to bear.
As the sky wept and Heero wept the Demon Hunter, who had resolved never to share his heart, made a choice then prayed that when Duo woke up he would find the decision acceptable.
Heero estimated it was well passed midnight. The rain had stopped. Slivers of moonlight, glistening on wet leaves, adorned the forest with thousands of iridescent diamonds.
Outside the cave crickets chirped in singsong harmony. Across the swamp bullfrogs croaked out a baritone burrup. An owl's haunting whoooo shivered on the night air then a beating of wings announced the nocturnal hunter's flight.
Inside the haven from the inhospitable wilderness, the fire fueled by unseasoned wood sizzled and sputtered and puffed smoke but a substantial bed of embers made the clammy climate bearable.
Trowa had curled up around Quatre so his blanketed back shielded his lover from a draft created by the same wind that had chased away the rain. In a similar arrangement Zechs lay beside Wufei but reaped the additional benefits of snuggling against the Beast in his true canine form of bushy fur and higher body temperature.
Partially dressed in dry cloths, a blanket draped around his shoulders, Heero sat against the wall.
Half an hour ago Duo had jerked awake from his restive slumber gasping for air. Calm words and gentle caresses had been employed to ease the Duel Spirit from his panic-stricken state.
Now Duo, naked as when he slipped from the womb but cocooned in both cloak and blanket, nibbled on crumbly bread and goat cheese that had dried around the edges.
"We never got the water." Duo stated as he tore stale curst off his bread.
Heero offered a water skin that had, by some supernatural device, been filled. "I caught rain dripping off the ledge."
"If only it was wine." Duo mumbled then added a further complaint. "Look at my hair, it'll take hours to comb out these rat's nests."
"I can untangle your hair in less time than hours." Heero announced as he searched through his bag for a comb. "Sit up."
Ridding Duo's hair of the "rodent residences" wouldn't be easy but Heero never shirked from a challenge. He also hoped the combing would lull his partner into dreamless sleep, which Duo desperately needed.
Heero combed. One section at a time, from top to tip, he worked out the tangles. Duo relaxed, perhaps not enough to sleep but at least he wasn't fidgeting.
As enjoyable as the grooming was to Heero and his lover, the Tracker couldn't shake a deluge of dreadful feelings lurking just below the surface. The unsettling sensations nagged until the comb paused part the way down a handful of cinnamon-tinted tresses.
Duo noticed the halt. "Heero?" Receiving no answer, Duo leaned back and gazed up at his partner who appeared to be entranced by something no one else could see.
"Heero." was called again, this time with a bit more volume.
Heero blinked as if waking from a dream but didn't immediately respond. The comb twisted in his hand that was trembling.
"Heero, look at me." Duo pleaded. "Please."
The comb dropped to the cave's grainy floor. A single tear tracked down Heero's cheek.
"When I thought..." Heero said so low Duo could barely hear.
Duo straightened then shifted to study Heero's pale countenance. "Tell me."
"When I almost lost you in the swamp, if I had..."
A deluge of tears rent the floodgates.
"Duo I can't lose you." was choked out with such despondency it broke Duo's heart.
Duo cupped his hands around Heero's tear-damp face. "You won't lose me. Destiny brought us together and nothing will ever part us."
"Stay with me." Heero begged unashamedly.
Duo pulled his lover into a reassuring embrace. "I'm ain't goin' nowhere."
Heero placed his thumb under Duo's chin, raised his head until their faces were inched apart then acted on the decision he'd made earlier while watching Duo sleep.
"Duo Maxwell will you be my life partner?"
Now it was Duo's turn to weep. "Yes, Heero Yuy I will dwell with you always." he pledged his heart and his soul.
"Forever?" Heero whispered.
"Forever and a day." Duo declared then sealed his vow with a kiss.
Dawn displaced night in measured degrees. Sunrise's rosy stain gradually gave way to golden rays streaking through cotton clouds.
Wufei was the first warrior to wake. He eased out of Zechs' embrace and in typical canine fashion, planted his paws, elevated his hips and stretched the kinks from his spine. He skirted around Trowa and Quatre being careful not to hit them with his bushy tail then patted passed Duo and Heero nestled together under Heero's cloak and two blankets.
Outside the Beast used his perceptive hearing and keen eyesight to survey the forest. Satisfied that no threat was forthcoming he sniffed until he found a suitable site to cock his leg then set off to hunt up breakfast for himself and his comrades.
Zechs soon realized he'd been deserted by his bedmate. Dead ashes combined with the lack of warmth from Wufei's furry coat was a rude way to face the morning chill.
The clicking of flint rock roused Trowa. He inched his arm over Quatre's waist, sat up then frowned when his neck registered a twinge of protest. After kissing Quatre's cheek, which produced a content smile, and tucking a blanket over his lover's bare shoulders, Trowa pulled on his shirt and joined Zechs beside the cold fire ring.
"Good morning." Trowa greeted his mentor.
As Zechs tried in vain to strike enough sparks to ignite pine needles and a confusion of roughly broken twigs piled atop the remaining firewood, he mumbled "Mornin'" then issued a string of curses that Trowa was certain violated several diocesan directives.
Pushing bangs from his drowsy eyes, the Twilight Priest studied his mentor's repeated attempts to kindle the fire. "Need help?"
"Give me a minute."
Click. Click. Click.
More grumbling, the foul oaths increased in severity.
A nudge to Zechs' ribs underscored Trowa's disinclination to argue. "Move aside." he ordered.
Zechs glared. Trowa scowled. The staring session lasted until a sturdy gust of wind swirled through the cave and overrode each man's pigheadedness.
"Go on." Zechs finally conceded.
Trowa rubbed his hands in a circular motion until the friction formed a ball of fire. Trowa raised his left hand, balanced the flaming orb on his flattened right palm then, with practiced precision, let the ball roll off onto the wood.
Heero lay still, eyes closed and let his senses transmit clues to his surroundings. He was warm, spooned against Duo. His ears picked out bits and pieces of conversation and the pop and crackle of fire. He sniffed in smoke mingled with the forest's woodsy scent then his nose wrinkled at the stench of swamp that clung to his and Duo's skin and hair.
"We have to bathe." Heero decided at the same time his eyes opened to confirm his senses' accuracy.
Duo stirred but didn't open his eyes. "Hmmmm."
The throaty vibration might have been a question or an agreement or simply a noise hummed in his sleep. Whatever the source, Heero leaned close. "Shhhhhh. he whispered.
Quatre joined Trowa and Zechs by the fire. Just outside the cave, Wufei in his human form sat cross-legged under a pine tree plucking feathers from four quail he'd caught for breakfast. The portions would be small, but any meat was better than nothing.
Reckoning that the fire would counteract the absence of a layer of coverings,
Heero skimmed off his cloak, wrapped it around his shoulders and sat down beside Zechs.
"Did you two sleep?" Trowa inquired.
"Duo woke early this morning." Heero glanced back at lover. "Bad dream." he added with a shrug.
Quatre nodded. "We do deal with things spawn from nightmares."
"We do indeed." Heero agreed then centered his attention on Zechs. "I have a favor to ask."
"Will you and Trowa perform a Joining Ceremony for Duo and me?"
A smile blossomed on Trowa face. Without hesitation he answered for himself and his Sensei. "We would be honored."
Quatre was more animated in his response. Heero was suddenly set upon and all but crushed by a joyous embrace. "HURRAH!"
As if on cue, Wufei strolled in. He cut his eyes at Heero who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the unexpected hug. "May I assume good news?" he asked, handing the quail to Zechs.
Quatre disengaged his constrictive enfoldment but not quite enough for Heero to breathe. "Duo and Heero are going to be joined." he informed with euphoric delight.
"Wufei offered his best wishes with his usual matter-of-fact enthusiasm. Congratulations. "
"Thank you." Heero wheezed.
"Quatre." Trowa addressed the overly excited Manipulator in a tone designed to get his attention.
"Let Heero go."
Duo didn't take the same path to morning motivation as Heero. Instead of easing into a wakeful state, his eyes popped opened and he sat up so quickly he became lightheaded.
"What's goin' on?"
Before Quatre could launch another barrage of embracing, Heero hurried to his lover's side. "Zechs and Trowa have agreed to join us."
Duo rubbed his tacky eyes and took a moment to digest the information. "Now?"
"Whenever you want."
Duo threw his arms around his soon-to-be husband and, this time, Heero didn't object to the squeezing. "Yes now, definitely now."
Quatre stood up. Trowa cleared his throat to ward off further hugging assaults.
Aware of the subtle warning, Quatre stated. "I was going to suggest that Heero and Duo share a bath in the pond while we prepared breakfast. After we eat, you and Zechs can officiate and Wufei and I will stand in witness of our dear friends' joining."
Blanched mist floated above the bulrush-encircled pond. Hovering in a cloudless sky, the sun warmed the water and somewhere in the tree line a mocking bird melodised its diverse repertoire.
Twin piles of clean clothing set between two pairs of boots. With the lack of shyness between lovers, Heero and Duo shed their blankets and stripped away their breech clothes but carried the swamp-soiled undergarments into the water for a good scrub and rinse.
Although Duo faltered on his first step, he took Heero's offered hand and trusted his partner to keep him safe. As the water rose to their knees, their hips and washed over their genitals, Heero felt a slight tension in Duo's fingers clasped in his hand.
"It's all right." Heero reassured then added the comfort of a kiss.
Several more steps and the water sloshed around their waist. "Let's sit here." Heero indicated with a tilt of his head.
"I hope you didn't mind me asking Zechs and Trowa while you were asleep." he confessed to perhaps speaking out of turn.
A grin flickered at the corners of Duo's mouth. "If I'd waked up first, I'd done the asking."
Heero leaned close and lock his eyes with Duo's violet sight. "Are you certain about this? I want you to be certain."
Duo moped back wet shoulder-length hair from Heero's cheeks and tucked the lengthy strands behind his lover's ears. "I'm surer of our joining than anything else in my life. We are not guaranteed a day or an hour or even our next breath, we might not survive the attack on Hellgate but whatever time we have, I want to spend it as your friend, lover and soul mate. Yes, Heero Yuy, I am very certain."
Proud oaks and graceful willows formed the walls of nature's cathedral. Wild roses bearing blossoms of pink and white and fringed geraniums in delicate shades ranging from lavender to mauve were grander than any floral motif conceived by man.
The flowers' perfume was sweeter than incense and the birdsongs put the most renowned composers to shame.
The Temple Keeper and the Twilight Priest, clad in the simple robes that denoted their vow of humility, stood before the beautiful backdrop.
Quatre and Wufei had taken their places on opposite sides of a path leading into the wildflower-bejewele d meadow.
Dressed entirely in black, Heero's attire seemed too somber for such a festive occasion but would have been suitable garb for a Demon Hunter who dealt in violence and death and someone who had locked away his heart for fear it would yet again be broken.
Now the ebony hues no longer symbolized an imprisoned heart. Duo's devotion had shattered the fetters of fear and the light of his love had liberated Heero from emotional darkness. Now Heero was about to pledge his heart, surrender his soul and dedicate a lifetime to showing Duo how much he loved him.
Duo secured the end of the braid then studied his reflection in the pond's mirror smooth water. Despite his elation a twinge of sadness was evident in his eyes.
"Mother." he whispered as he fought against tears that threatened to spill over his eyelashes."I wish you and Father and Solo were here to share this remarkable day." He sniffled, wiped away a tear."I wish you could meet Heero."
With a powerful exhalation he straightened and fixed a look of determination on his face. "I swear by the saints and all that's holy, by my love for Heero, Hellgate will fall and the Lord of Darkness will be exiled to the hellish realms that spawned him."
Side by side, Heero and Duo walked down the path. Wufei matched Duo's pace. Quatre kept his proper cadence with Heero.
When the quartet reached Zechs and Trowa, Wufei and Quatre stopped a few strides back. Heero and Duo bowed in turn to Wufei and Quatre then to the Clerics.
Zechs began the Rite of Joining.
"We have gathered here to united Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell as life partners. Heero and Duo have exchanged a private promise and now wish to make a public commitment. Who stands as witnesses to Heero and Duo's intensions to be joined?"
Wufei and Quatre answered in unison. "We stand as witnesses."
Trowa continued the rite. "Heero and Duo face each other and join hands." he instructed.
"Heero, do you promise to love, comfort, support and protect Duo?"
"Do you vow to become one with Duo in flesh and mind and soul and pledge your fidelity for as long as you live?"
"Duo, do you promise to love, comfort, support and protect Heero?"
"Do you vow to become one with Heero in flesh and mind and soul and pledge your fidelity for as long as you live?"
Trowa took a red cord from his pocket, wrapped it around Heero and Duo's hands and tied a double knot."Scarlet is for passion. The cord is for strength. The circle is never ending. Heero and Duo have come as two but will depart as one."
Zechs concluded by placing his hands on Heero and Duo's heads. "I give my blessing to this union and hereby declare that Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell are partners joined for life by their love."
At Zechs' declaration, Heero and Duo stared into each other's eyes, lost in the flood of emotions.
Quatre leaned forward and prompted. "You can kiss now."
Heero raised their bound hands, placed a chaste kiss on Duo's lips then whispered. "I love you my husband."
"I love you my husband." Duo responded in kind. "Forever and a day."
Seconds ago the sun melted into the horizon. In the brief interlude between the vultures returning to roost and hordes of vampire bats taking flight for their nocturnal feast, General Khushrenada lingered atop Hellgate Castle's uppermost parapets.
The Dark Lord of Aragon shielded his eyes against a spike of crimson piercing the twilight-kissed clouds then targeted his ice blue sight on an isolated hill protruding from the treeless, boulder-strewn perimeter guarding the ancient keep.
Inquisitively he tilted his head and sniffed the sporadic gusts that carried a damp, dusky scent and.something else.
"Zechs," he whispered but his ex-lover's name was quickly consumed by the buffeting currents.
Six prone bodies, arranged shoulder to shoulder, lined the hilltop's spiny ridge.
From the Warriors of the Rose lofty vantage point, Hellgate Castle seemed to float in a birch bark fog oozing from the barren expanse littered with limestone outcrops, tuffs of feather grass and skeletal stalks of wild oats.
In contemplative silence, Zechs, Wufei, Trowa, Quatre, Heero and Duo studied the castle's granite walls, bi-level parapets and main wooden gate fortified with a latticework of iron bars.
A wisp of wind feathered Zechs' pale bangs. "A frontal assault is unadvisable. " he stated the obvious.
Duo shifted his hip to slide off a rock digging into his thigh. "No matter, we're better at sneakin' in."
"It would be wise to wait until night." Quatre added his opinion.
"True," Heero agreed, "the darkness would conceal our approach but it will also hinder our ability to maneuver around the outcrops."
Throughout the impromptu strategy session Wufei mentally reviewed how the particular date correlated with the celestial calendar. "Fate has again intervened." he announced matter-of-factly.
"How so?" Zechs inquired.
The Beast tucked ebony hair behind his ears and offered a sly smile to his occasional lover. "The Wolf Moon is full tonight."
Septum looked up from a map drafted on aged parchment flattened on a time-worn table. "What do you want?"
Odin hobbled ten feet across the room, braced his hands on the table and transferred his weight to his good leg. "Damn stairs!"
"The stairs or your lack of fortitude is of no concern to me." Septum declared with an air of indifference.
"You'd better be concerned about Khushrenada. " Odin hissed through clenched teeth.
Septum took a sip from a goblet of ruby wine. "The self-proclaimed savior of Aragon will soon outlive his usefulness. His final task is to lure the Warriors of the Rose to Hellgate. When that is done the pompous braggart will become a casualty of his misguided quest for glory."
Now the warrior's quandary was not getting to the castle but how to ascend ten foot walls of smooth rock that offered few footholds or how to avoid the dozen or so sentries circulating around the parapets. Then there was the army of Soulless Slave milling about the courtyard and, lastly, the watchers who made up the Dark Lord's personal bodyguards.
Several plans of attack were discussed and considered. Duo's suggestion that he taunt the sentries by lobbing stones and shouting disparaging remarks about the diminished dimensions of their cocks was rejected by a vote of five to one.
Finally it was decided that secretive infiltration was the better plan. This time Duo's ability to transform into a falcon made him the logical choice for clearing the wall and finding the means to unlatch one the less secure side entrances.
The full moon shone like a great silver coin polished to a dazzling luster. Etched on the "Guardian of the Night" was the ghostly profile of a wolf, head tilted back and mouth opened in a perpetual howl.
Shafts of moonlight slicing through billowy clouds illuminated spots here and there across the desolate plane the warriors had to traverse. The Temple Keeper took the lead. Heero came next, crouching behind what cover he could find until Zechs signaled all clear. Duo trailed Heero in the same halt and start mode of moving forward and so on down the line with each additional insurgent following suit.
Doing their best to blend into the shadows thrown up against Hellgate's eastern wall, the sextet of gatecrashers slunk in a stealthy fashion then drew together just short of their objective.
Duo squatted beside Heero. He craned his neck to study the wall's imposing height. "I'll take to the sky, land on the watchtower, get my bearings then open the gate."
"We'll be waiting." Zechs confirmed "Even if it's awhile before you reach the gate take no chances. Understood?"
"Patience is my virtue" Duo stated.
Wufei snorted at the Duel Spirit's declaration. "I thought you never told a lie"
Duo leaned closer to his Asian comrade. "Tis not a lie," he offered a wily grin, "just a matter of the degree of my forbearance. "
Heero took Duo's hand and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. "Be careful."
Duo replied with a brushing kiss across his husband's lips. "Being careful is my very best virtue and that's no lie."
In the blink of an eye a falcon stood in Duo's place. The radiant Wolf Moon shimmered on sleek, tawny feathers and glistened over shiny black orbs that were once Duo's violet eyes.
The Bird of Prey used an abbreviated flap to carefully alight on the Hunter's extended arm so his razor-sharp talons didn't claw through the cotton sleeve. As Heero stroked the falcon's head, smoothing down crown feathers ruffled by the wind, he felt quite keenly an instinctive connection between himself and the Duel Spirit who possessed the soul of both man and bird.
"May angels guide your flight." Heero whispered so only his lover could hear.
The falcon emitted a soft chirp from his curved beak then stretched his great wings to their full span. He caught an updraft, circled once over the remaining warriors' heads then soared to a dizzying altitude. A shrill cry was returned by the wind seconds before the Duel Spirit was lost from sight.
Zechs put the warrior's fate in Duo's hands. "Now we wait."
Odin, his left leg stretched out by the fireplace in hopes of easing the stiffness, gave a sideways glance as Treize plopped down in an adjacent faded velvet chair.
"What has you in such a pensive mood?" Odin wondered "Other than this morbid fortress, the horrible food and the constant cold seeping from the walls?"
"They're close." Treize responded with a hint of melancholy.
"Aye, your traitorous paramour and his band of bastards." Odin stated then winced when moving his leg registered a pang of pain.
Treize centered menacing eyes on his Captain. "Watch what you say if you wish to keep your tongue."
At the risk of inviting bodily harm, Odin locked his best brooding glare on his Commander. "If you truly desire to claim you rightful place in Aragon then you can show no mercy, not even to the Temple Keeper."
In less than a heartbeat a hand clamped around Odin's throat. "Never speak of Zechs again." the Dark Lord growled.
As powerful fingers crushed Odin's windpipe until his vision dimmed around the edges, he managed a pitiful plea for what could be his last breath. "Please." was whimpered as black dots swimming before his eyes merged to blind his sight.
With a forceful exhalation, Treize broke the choke hold. "Any further comments?" he hissed.
Odin rubbed the red ring of fingerprints encircling his throat. "No sire." he sputtered then mumbled under his breath. "Not until I dance on your grave."
From his post atop the eastern watchtower, Duo employed his superior eyesight to study the courtyard that was partially obscured by swirling funnels of fog. He could see plenty of movement and his equally enhanced hearing picked up varied voices dampened by the blanched mist.
There were human conversations; soldiers complaining about their assigned duties or the absence of whores. There was also the garbled incoherency of forsaken men and women who, through vile sorcery, been stripped of their souls.
A few mindless slaves wandered aimlessly but most were crowded into makeshift circular corrals constructed of poles set in the ground, secured with sturdy ropes.
Directly below the Duel Spirit's tall perch, two men hidden behind a stack of firewood engaged in a rough release of sexual frustrations. Their grunts and groans and panting had no problem reaching Duo's sensitive ears.
For an instant Duo longed to be pinned by the weight of Heero's body, to be peppered with kisses, stroked by calloused fingers until his skin burned and to feel the bittersweet pain of their union as his lover thrust hard and deep.
Even in his altered form Duo could remember breathy declarations of his love for Heero accented by grunts and groans and the screaming of his husband's name as they plunged together into a mutual, mind-blowing climax.
The moment of desire was hastily pushed aside. Duo couldn't afford to dwell on pleasures of the flesh. Instead he centered his thoughts on what he had to do and what terrible things would happen if he allowed a lapse of concentration to compromise his attention or his remembrances of lust and love to cloud his judgment.
The moon sought sanctuary in a cloud's downy embrace. Morose gloom enveloped the courtyard. Two sated men collapsed into a sweaty tangle of arms and legs oblivious to the falcon's scrutiny.
Duo let the wind buoy his wings to carry him aloft into the murky night sky. A streamline form slipped soundlessly through the air and came to rest less than a foot from the eastern gate.
A sentry patrolling along the closest parapet paused and peered between square stones framing the breastworks. Duo folded his wings, merged with the shadows and froze in place.
"See something?" the sentry's counterpart wondered.
"Nay, just the moon playin' tricks."
His patience wearing thin, Heero sat on the ground, back against the wall, boots planted in the rocky soil and his sword balanced across his bent knees. To his right Quatre and Trowa held hands and shared private a tête-à-tête. Zechs, displaying a tranquil facade, sat next to the whispering lovers, Staff of the Rose angled across his chest.
Merely inches from the still-secure gate, Wufei checked the fuses of six clay spheres filled with Thunder Powder, returned the explosive canisters to a burlap bag and passed it down the line to Quatre.
"You trust me with your toys?" the Manipulator teased.
As always Wufei had evaluated the situation and had come to the most logical conclusion. "You have no need of flint to spark a fire and light the fuses." he confirmed Quatre's unique empathy with the natural elements. "Also," he continued, "I will take up this gauntlet in my pure form and a wolf only requires cunning and a taste for blood."
A click refocused the warriors' attention. On the wall's opposite side the shrill scraping of metal on metal sent chills up Heero's spine. Rusted hinges protested with similar harsh tones then the gate, bottom corner digging into the ground, opened in jerky degrees.
Finally the crack widened enough for Duo to stick his human head through the gap. Violet eyes twinkled. "What ya waitin' for a formal invitation?"
Single file the Temple Keeper, the Manipulator, the Cleric and the Demon Hunter snaked inside.
A blue aura fluttered on the wall. Wufei on four paws, his shaggy black
coat glimmering in the moonlight, padded through the gate. The tip of his
bushy tail brushed the gatepost then the portal closed to seal the Freedom
Fighters of Aragon within the Dark Lord's lair.
Wufei, in his true form, nuzzled Zechs' hand.
The Temple Keeper stroked the Beast's head. "Be careful." he urged his comrade to be prudent in his search for Septum.
Wufei nodded then padded off into the shadows where his black coat blended perfectly with the night.
Quatre and Trowa squatted side by side, the bag holding the Thunder Powder globes sat by the Manipulator' s boots.
"We'll place the globes where they'll do the most harm then wait for your signal." Trowa stated matter-of-factly.
"How will ya know when to set the things off?" Duo wondered.
Quatre offered a smile that oozed maliciousness. "I'll know."
"Good hunting." Heero wished his fellow warriors just before he, Duo and Zechs slunk off to invade the Dark Lord's inner sanctum.
Likewise, Quatre and Trowa copied Wufei's route and were just as quickly were swallowed up by the shadows.
It wasn't difficult for the Cleric and the Manipulator to followed Wufei's trail. Four guards, bloody faces contorted in death masks of terror and their throats torn out, pointed the way.
Quatre voiced his disapproval, not at the Beast's carnage but at his failure to hide the bodies. "We might as well have sent an engraved invitation to announce our arrival."
Trowa shrugged. "I thought you found Wufei's resolve to complete his assigned tasks admirable?"
"I do," Quatre admitted, "but he could be.ah." he searched for the correct word, "neater"." he stated as he dragged the last limp corpse inside a storage hut.
The gory evidence tucked away, Trowa and Quatre paused to wedge the first globe in Hellgate's foundation where the mortar had decayed and several stones broken loose.
The second clay ball was secured between two support columns beneath the north parapet. Each globe in turn was, with due consideration, placed where its explosive potential would best be utilized.
It was a game. Duck out of sight as sentries passed by ignorant of their impending doom.
Sidestepping the Soulless Slaves was effortless. Repeated snaps of Quatre's fingers sent sparks wafting on the breeze and in their childlike fascination the Slaves were easily distracted from their aimless wandering.
"Poor devils." Quatre hissed, appalled by the rape of Slave's minds and souls.
Heero eased up to peer over a wagon weighed down with firewood. A sideboard creaked, he frowned. "We'll have to go around." he informed his husband and the Temple Keeper.
Duo took his turn observing several guards milling about the castle's main entrance. He crouched with a snort. "This is takin' forever. I say we plow through and don't stop til we're face to face with the devil himself."
"Patience has its rewards." Zechs countered the Duet Spirit's eagerness for battle.
Duo appeared ready to argue the finer points of forbearance when Heero touched his arm. "This way." he inclined his head toward a narrow alleyway leading to a smaller rear courtyard.
Zechs' sky blue eyes followed the Hunter's line of sight. "When one door closes another opens." he quoted the wise adage.
"And he who hesitates gets the scraps." Duo metered out some wisdom of his own.
Wufei curled back his lips in a vicious snarl, canine fangs frothy and angry eyes gleaming in the moonlight. His challenger was not human or not quite human but an animal of similar lineage.
The elkhound returned the sneer. His dark brown eyes fixed on the four-legged intruder with pure malice. "No further." he warned telepathically.
"I have no desire to fight with you." Wufei replied by the same extrasensory means. "Shall we share our hatred of evil men who prevent you from running free." he asked upon seeing the spiked collar encircling the hound's neck.
"What do you know of freedom?" the hound retorted, sensing the contradictive instincts of wild and tame within the Beast's spirit. "You live in limbo between the worlds of nature and man."
"I still have the self-determination to chart my course while you do tricks on command or suffered the sting of the rod."
"And your humans, how are they different?"
"I am respected in both forms as a warrior and a friend." Wufei asserted with certainty.
The hound tilted his shaggy head. "What proof do you have of your humans' high regard?"
Wufei allowed a faint image of his unveiled form to shine through for the canine's sake. "My comrades would lay down their lives for me, can you say as much of your masters?"
Sword held at the ready, Heero took the point forging a zigzag route between water barrels and grain bins.
Duo, his braid swinging from side to side, and Zechs, bearing the Staff of the Rose, trailed close behind. One by one the stealthy gatecrashers jumped over a drainage trench that reeked of raw sewage then maneuvered through a maze of equally pungent horse dung plopped in haphazard patterns on the grassless, stone-strewn courtyard.
Finally the scenic tour of the castle's barren grounds concluded twenty yards from the trio's objective.
"Dammit, more guards." Duo declared with a huff.
"I'd be suspicious if there weren't any sentries." Heero answered, taking a mental count of the last assemblage of soldiers to either outsmart or overcome.
Zechs was doing some figuring of his own. "See that window, just up there." he indicated with the ringed top of the staff. The moon glinted off the center stone and for an instant it blazed crimson.
Duo played devil's advocate. "Yeah its halfway up the front.how's that goin' help?"
A grin tugged at Zechs' lips. "Look," he pointed, "a rope and pulley mounted on the wall."
"We'd have to bypass four men to get there." Heero stated.
"I could fly." Duo added an option.
Heero shook his head. "We're already outnumbered, no, that won't do."
"But if we.."
Zechs was growing weary with the endless debate. "Come on." he ordered gruffly as he started off before either of his comrades could protest.
Heero and Duo exchanged glances then scurried off after the Temple Keeper.
The trespassing trio gathered in the shadows. Hastily a plan of action was put together. With no further discussion, Heero clutched his sword, Zechs angled his staff and Duo, armed with keen wits and his husband's dagger, moved out to cover the last few yards to the inner wall.
Alas the warriors' swift dash was short-lived.
Six soldiers rounded the corner. Six sets of eyes locked on three men who definitely should not be there. And to make matters worse, the quartet of sentries watching the door had taken notice and joined their buddies shifting the odds from maybe or perhaps to one hellva a quandary.
Any element of surprise, any hope of an undetected entrance into Hellgate Castle deserted Zechs, Heero and Duo faster than a mistress fleeting a jealous wife.
Zechs skidded to a halt. Duo bumped Zechs. Heero bumped Duo in a domino effect that would have been comical in less hazardous circumstances.
At first no one moved; both sides taken aback in astonishment.
This was not the first time Heero stared trouble in the face. There was a recent incident at the Swan and Fox Tavern in Brook Glen when he'd been accused of cheating at darts. Then his temper had overruled his better judgment and he threatened to pummel two burly men with arms the size of tree trunks, but that was another time, another place.
Likewise, Duo had had his share of scuffles or fending off street thugs or narrow escapes from sheriffs when he was caught with his hand in someone else's pocket.
And Zechs hadn't always been an example of exemplar behavior. In fact before the silver-haired rebel's redeeming days at Twilight and his duties in Deep World, he had kept company with scallywags and sailed the seas with pirates aboard the good ship, Sea Witch.
However, one lesson the Warriors of the Rose had learned from their varied life experiences was the best defense was often a convincing bluff.
Act like you're crazy enough to take on anything and people will reckon you are daft. If you can create enough doubt, an uncertainty about your next actions, you can usually wangle out of any situation with your bones intact, at least most of them anyway.
Heero set a determined expression on his face, straightened to maximize his height and fixed the foes' quizzical sight.
"I was wondering when we'd encounter some paltry challenge." He rested the sword on his shoulder. "I was just telling my comrades it has been too long since my blade tasted blood."
Slightly behind Heero, Zechs sensed bewilderment beginning to seep into the sentries' simple minds. It didn't take a genus to figure the men had been hired for their brawn not their brains and without someone to give them orders they'd be hard pressed to act on their own.
"Keep talking." Zechs advised lowly. "Focus on their confusion."
"Now if you'd be so kind as to direct us to the Dark Lord of Aragon," Heero continued the mind games, "we might consider sparing your lives."
A swarthy fellow with oily hair and dirt smudged on his face tiled his head at an inquiring angle. "You ain't got no business here." he stated with an air of supposed authority before cutting his eyes at a lanky man missing three front teeth. "Ain't that right, Johnny?"
Johnny offered a lopsided grin. "Yeah no business." he parroted.
A third soldier with thick scars crisscrossing both cheeks seemed a bit more perceptive. "There's more of us so don't get no notions of startin' anything."
The remaining soldiers who made up the group of ten nodded in agreement.
Heero projected a causal attitude but relaxed muscles didn't imply he wasn't ready to fight. "I'll admit you have us outnumbered but don't underestimate our quickness or skill. Now let us pass and we'll have no reason to argue."
Johnny leered at Duo then leaned closer to the swarthy fellow and whispered in his ear. "We'll strike a deal." Johnny's colleague proposed. "Leave the pretty boy here and there won't be no trouble."
"You son of a bitch!" Duo growled.
Zechs clamped a hand on Duo's shoulder just as he started forward. "Not now."
"Piss and fire." was Johnny's licentious reply to Duo's abbreviated charge.
For a moment it appeared the incensed Irishman would ignore Zechs' order. Fuming, eyes ablaze with violet flames, Duo sucked in a deep breath then allowed the expelled air to ease his anger to a manageable level but he didn't reduced the fire in his glare.
Heero raised his free hand. "Now gentlemen," he used the term loosely, "permit me to propose another deal. Pick your champion and I'll take him on, man to man. If he wins you get the braided boy but if I'm victorious, well, we won't interfere while you dig his grave."
A murmur among the enemy faction gave Heero cause to expect a competitor. The swarthy fellow and scar face joined the discussion as Johnny ogled his pretty prize.
Meanwhile, Duo and Heero were having their own tête-à-tête. "Just what do ya think you're doin'?" Duo questioned if his husband had lost his senses.
The Demon Hunter glanced back at Johnny who was licking his lips in anticipation. "You know I can best any of these dim-witted bastards. Do you trust me?"
"Tis not a matter of trust." Duo declared. "Winning won't save us 'cause they won't keep their part of the bargain."
"Then they'll pay a high price for crossing us." Zechs promised.
Trowa stretched and watched the moon dip closer to the distant mountain peaks. "Only a few hours until dawn."
Quatre leaned against his lover's shoulder and followed Trowa's gaze. "What's taking so long? You don't suppose.."
Trowa stood up, offer his hand and pulled Quatre to his feet. "Positive thoughts will go a long way, my love, but they must be tempered with action. Let's see if we can hurry our friends along."
Dressed in wrinkled trousers and a sweat-stained shirt, Treize Khushrenada lay atop the rumpled bedcovers with his forearm over his eyes. It has been quite awhile since the cold permeating the dank chamber was so keenly felt. There was no wine in his belly to dull the chill or fog his mind or keep his psychosis at bay.
Odin crept in and stood at the footboard. "Sire?" He waited for a response. When none was forthcoming he repeated with more volume. "Sire." then asked, "Are you awake?"
"What do you want?" was mumbled through a dingy sleeve.
"I have a report from Captain Matthews."
"Why the hell should I care?"
"I think." Odin hesitated, "the Twilight rebels are here. A man with silver hair, a man with a braid and a third man who may be a Demon Hunter are in the inner courtyard."
The arm slid away to reveal ice blue eyes that had lost their sparkle. "Zechs." was said so softly Odin wasn't sure if Treize had spoken the name or merely sighed.
"I'll have them brought here." Odin announced as he turned to leave.
"But sire, I thought."
Treize swung his legs off the bed and sat up. "Don't presume to think. Dammit where's my boots?" he hissed as he searched for the missing footwear. At last one was extracted from the under the bed, its partner was found nearby.
"Get Septum," the Dark Lord ordered as he fumbled with the laces on his trousers, "then come to the courtyard."
Now a dozen or so Slaves peered around the sentries. Even in their mindless state they sensed the apprehension that inundated the courtyard like a raging flood.
"Quit messin' around." Johnny insisted that a challenger be chosen.
Zechs stepped up behind Heero. "What happens if your plan doesn't work?"
Heero shrugged. "It will work because fighting is the only thing these men understand."
Suddenly the bantering stopped. The cluster of soldiers parted like the sea in a Bible story Duo's mother had taught him in childhood.
Treize Khushrenada strolled along the cleared path, his cloak rippling about his shoulders and his surprisingly lucid eyes centered solely on Zechs.
"Ah, I see you've finally come to your senses," he addressed his former paramour. "but why bring these ruffians along?"
Zechs moved around Heero, the Staff of the Rose tapped the ground with each step. "I had hoped we could talk in private."
Treize took a moment to examine Zechs, to study how the moonlight danced on his hair. Zechs' face also seemed to glow and his eyes, those twin pools of liquid sky, were as bewitching as the last time a lover's look had passed between them.
The Dark Lord unclasped his cloak and let it flutter to the ground. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword hanging by his side.
"Zechs, you believe yourself to be virtuous so you spew out hypocritical judgment. You fancy yourself a priest so you claim you can not dwell in my darkness but I know your true nature. You whispered sweet words, pledged your fidelity then betrayed my heart and raped my mind.
You hide behind the priesthood but there's as much blood on your hands, as much loathing in your heart. You don't fool me, never have. All your facades were stripped away each time we made love. Each layer was exposed and your soul laid bare for my scrutiny. I remember how aroused you were after a battle, how you begged for release and screamed my name with every climax.
So, come on lover, let's have one more campaign of foreplay. What do you say.let's taste passion and steel and blood once more."
The ex-soldier who, no matter how hard he scrubbed his hands, couldn't eradicate the bloody stains, the Temple Keeper who, no matter how many times he prayed, couldn't exorcise the demons of guilt or stifle the agonizing shrieks of dying men, took one final step.
"I am neither pure enough to cleanse your tainted soul nor strong enough to mend your broken heart. I am on better, no worse. I cry and bleed and detest myself for what I've done to you. I will dare to beg your forgiveness but I will not fight you, not because I'm a coward but because this strife has to end for everyone's sake."
As if to hide its face, the celestial "Eye of Heaven" slunk behind the clouds. The wind also retreated into a dead stillness as if it held its breath in terror of what was about to happen.
Heero tightened his grip on his sword, ready to come to Zechs defense. Duo, too, took up a protective position, prepared to fight at his husband's and his comrade's side.
A prolonged silence, as deafening as a hundred cannon reports, flowed between the Dark Lord and the Priest of Twilight. Neither man twitched nor did they lessen the tension arcing between them like a thousand slivers of lightning.
Finally Zechs put his faith to the ultimate test. He handed Duo the Staff of the Rose and stood defenseless before the only man he would ever yield to. He spread his arms wide and offered empty hands in complete and unconditional capitulation.
"Do what you have to." Zechs said before closing his eyes and resigning to fate's whims.
Duo clutched the Staff so tight his knuckles were white and every breath hitched in his chest. Heero lowered his blade. Zechs had chosen his path, had surrendered to a higher power and while the Lone Hunter had sworn an oath of protection, he could not go against his friend's possibility fatal decision.
From the narrow passage linking the front and rear courtyards, General Septum and Odin observed the edgy interaction between the Zechs and Treize.
Odin strained to hear the exchange, strained to see as clouds swallowed up the moonlight. "Treize said to join him." he repeated the orders.
"This is close enough." Septum decided as he loaded a barbed arrow into his crossbow. Three additional arrows were lined up across a window sill, ready to be rapidly loaded and fired.
Odin divided his attention between Septum and the scene unfolding before him. "Killing the Priest will plunge Treize into irreversible madness then we'll have full control over the self-proclaimed Lord of Aragon."
Septum pressed the crossbow to his shoulder, flexed his arms and sighted down the shaft. "Kill both of them and no one stands in our way."
"But that wasn't the plan." Odin replied, stunned by the dire consequences should the power-hungry General follow through with his lethal intentions. "We were only supposed to use Treize as bait to lurk the warriors to Hellgate then lock them away so they couldn't interfere with our crusade for victory and," he added to his persuasion, "we can't discount the Hunter's and Duel Spirit's vengeance."
A snigger trembled over Septum's lips. "You're as foolish as those traitorous vipers." he stated as his finger tightened on the trigger. "I'll bury an arrow in their hearts before they can flinch." then added, "Perhaps you should watch your back."
Despite the shape pangs of regret stabbing into Odin's gut, his fear of Septum's reprisal held him frozen in place. He could live with his conscience's constant nagging. He would eventfully forget his part in driving Khushrenada into absolute insanity. He could.he squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears so he wouldn't hear the zip when the arrow was set on its deadly course.
Treize drew his sword in a double-handed grip then raised it over his left shoulder. The broad blade reflected a brief glint of moonlight, the finely honed tip quivered as it was primed to send his unrepentant lover to heaven or hell or wherever the fates deemed a proper reward.
When Zechs lay lifeless on the blood-soaked ground, his sightless eyes beseeching the angels or the devils to bear him away, Treize would fall on his sword then he and his lover would be bound forever where no earthly being could rent them apart.
"This is my defining moment." Septum whispered, "Nothing will stand in my way."
A blur of motion, the crossbow was wrenched from Septum's hands. There was no time to respond, no time to think, no time to scream.
Gurgling noises like a whiskey cask being tapped caused Odin to open his eyes. "Merciful.saints. " he gasped in horror.
All that was visible of Septum were flailing arms and legs. The only sounds Odin could hear were snarling and a garbled sucking of air.
Septum's writhing body was straddled by four muscular legs which supported an elongated body covered with black hair.
In a heartbeat the convulsions stopped. One moment more legs went limp. Arms stuck the ground with a thud then the vile General's head settled at an odd angle
Odin's shock was multiplied as he realized Septum's windpipe had been severed and thin strings of skin were all that saved him from decapitation.
As scarlet rivulets seeped from Septum's gaping throat to pool around his shoulders, the dreadful beast lifted his head. Enlarged pupils mirrored a trace of moonlight that shimmered across the ebony orbs like quick silver. His slender muzzle was drenched in blood and whiskers leached a rain of ruby droplets.
Odin staggered backwards, away from the macabre sight of the grotesquely contorted body. A growl at his back slithered up his spine. A cautious half-turn brought him face to face with an elkhound in a spiked collar, its lips curled back in a vicious grin.
"Please, by all that's holy, please spare me."
"You will suffer for your sins but justice will not be metered out by us." a voice declared.
When Odin looked around the wolf was gone and a man with slanted eyes and heavy black hair curtaining high cheekbones stood in its place.
Odin dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands. "There is no atonement for my transgressions. " he proclaimed through muffled sobs, "but I do know the secret to restore the Slaves' minds and souls."
Treize's sword quivered. "Do it." echoed inside his head. He gritted his teeth, narrowed his eyes and focused his aim at the center of Zechs' chest.
Zechs was remarkably calm. His breathing even, his posture relaxed as if he was ready to drift into a dreamless sleep.
"DO IT NOW!"
A whoosh of air feathered Zech's bangs just before the sword hit the stony ground with a hollow clang.
The Priest's sight centered on Treize tucked into a fetal curl at his feet. Tears of compassion tracking down his face, Zechs knelt beside his soul mate and cradled him in his arms.
"It's all right." he reassured as he rocked back and forth like a father comforting his child. "I promise together in Deep World we'll vanquish the madness."
"Well, it seems there's no reason to fire off the Thunder Powder." Trowa stated with a hint of disappointment.
Quatre, his face damp with tears of joy, nodded. "There'll be another time, my love."
A new day dawned and with it came a renewal of light and a rebirth of hope.
"It's finally over?" Duo stated as he and Heero cuddled under an oak tree and watched the moon bid farewell to the night.
Heero gazed eastward. "A wise man once said: "The past is finished and the future is beyond our control therefore the present is all we have and each moment should be cherished. Will you share each day with me?"
There was no hesitation in Duo's reply. "Whatever your path I will follow.
I will lie down with you and rise with you. I'll be your friend and lover
and we will grow together." he pledged to his husband then sealed the heartfelt
promise with a kiss.
A month had elapsed since the fateful confrontation at Hellgate Castle
Odin kept his word. He used his knowledge of Septum's curse to liberate the Soulless Slaves and restore their bodies, minds and souls. Odin then determined to dedicate his life to refurbishing the ancient keep as a refuge where all wanders of the world could find safety and solace.
Zechs and Wufei ferried Treize to Deep World.
Within the subterranean Temple's sanctuary and aided by Zechs absolute love, Treize began his slow but steady transformation from the merciless Dark Lord whose body was ruled by wine, mind shackled by madness and spirit festered by hate, to the kind, gentle man who Zechs could once again trust with his life and soul.
Upon the mystic trio's arrival in Deep World, Wufei pledged his devoted protection to both Zechs and Treize for he reasoned.
"What better way to show my respect and prove my love for Zechs than to also love Treize."
In a fortnight, Trowa and Quatre returned to Twilight.
Wufei's faithful clan had guarded Twilight with ceaseless vigilance and come to regard the mountainous haven as home. Likewise, the Cleric and the Fair Manipulator could not imagine being apart from the noble lupines so they proposed they join together as a pack.
Now each day the wolves in their human forms commune with the Twilight lovers and every night when darkness shrouds the land, the Monarchs of the Wild set off to hunt and, without worry, leave their cubs in Uncle Trowa's and Uncle Quatre's adoring care.
With Duo riding by his husband's side, the exhausted warriors completed the long journey eastward to Heero's homeland.
Heero swallowed hard to force down the emotional lump clogging his throat. Poised before him on a wildflower carpeted hillside, the modest wooden house with a bamboo roof hadn't changed since he'd left almost two years ago.
"Are you all right?" Duo asked as he guided his horse closer so he could take Heero's hand.
Not trusting his voice, Heero nodded affirmatively.
A woman wearing a plum kimono tended the twin pink wisteria vines covering an archway bowing over the lane. Heero dismounted, leaned against his horse until his legs stopped trembling then took a tentative step.
He called softly so as not to frighten the delicate frame lady with silky raven hair flowing in a shimmering cascade that brushed her plain white obi.
The lady turned slowly. No recognition registered in her dark soulful eyes.
Heero's heart sank. "Her mind's still clouded. She doesn't know me." was choked out as his last shred of hope was devoured by despair.
Dark eyes widened. A single tear glistened on a pale cheek.
"Heero?" his mother inquired as she questioned if the vision before her was real.
"Yes, mother, it's me."
Duo wept unashamedly at the sight of mother and son running into a joyous embrace.
Once Heero's tears were spent and the sobs lessened so he could speak he held out his hand to Duo.
"Mother, this is my husband, Duo Maxwell-Yuy. "
Duo lowered his eyes and bowed in deference to Madam Keiko Yuy.
"Let me look at you." Keiko summoned the young man with the braid to come closer. "Do you love my son?"
"Yes, with all my heart." Duo answered sincerely.
Keiko pondered Duo's declaration then studied the way Heero's face glowed as he gazed adoringly at his husband.
"Heero is a good judge of character." Keiko smiled. "I taught him to follow his heart. If Heero loves you then I will also love you and accept you as my second son."
Keiko holding Heero's hand and Heero holding Duo's hand, the nearly complete family walked under the vine-graced archway and up the lane to home.
"Won't your father be surprised." Keiko declared with a jubilant twinkle in her eyes.
The Yuy family, plus a very euphoric Irishman, was whole again and from
that day on would never be parted.
Wolf Moon--Karen Hickman--March 2007
Thank you for reading!!!