3-6-2001

Disclaimers: I don't own Gundam Wing and I have no extra money in my pocket to prove for my goofing off on the computer. ::pulls out her pockets:: See? Nothing!
Warnings: AU, Yaoi, OOC-ness, Relena-bashing (Please, please, PLEASE do not read this fic if you are easily offended when someone makes fun of Relena. I swear I don't hate the girl, but she makes herself such an easy target!) ::grin:: Also, this is a crossover from one of my favorite books ever: The Hero and the Crown.
Pairings: Mainly 1+2, and obscure 3+4 ::raises an eyebrow:: No surprise there. Also Relena goes from liking Quatre to Heero in this fic. Just read it and you'll understand.
Note from Kitana: Yes, I AM still alive! Whhaaaa! ::runs from the angry mob of people who want her to finish her other stories:: Dun hurt me!!! I promise I'll finish 'em! If you kill me now you'll never know!!!!! Ack! ::Disappears beneath the stampede::

Dragonstone
Part 1
Kitana Bradford

Duo couldn't remember a time when he hadn't known the story: he had grown up knowing it. He supposed someone must have told it to him, sometime, but he couldn't remember the telling.

He was beyond having to blink back tears when he thought of those things the story explained, but when he was feeling smaller and shabbier than usual in the large vivid City high in the Damarian Hills, he found himself brooding about them; and brooding sometimes brought on a tight headachy sensation around this temples. A feeling like suppressed tears.

He brooded, looking out over the wide low sill of the stone windowframe; he looked up into the Hills because the grassy surface of the courtyard was too bright at midday to stare at for long. His mind ran down a familiar track: who might have told him the story? It wouldn't have been his father who told him, for he had rarely spoken more than a few words together to Duo when he was younger; his slow kind smiles and preoccupied air had been the most Duo knew of his father. Duo had always known his father was fond of him, which was something; but he had never allotted his only son any special time or attention. His father had had the best -- the only -- right to have told Duo the story of his birth, but he would not have done so.

Nor would it have been the hafor, the folk of the household; they were always polite to him, in their wary way, and reserved, but they spoke to him only about household details. It surprised him that they still remembered to be wary, for he had long since proven that he possessed nothing to be wary about. Royal children were usually somewhat alarming to be in daily contact with, for their Gifts often erupted in abrupt and unexpected ways. It was a little surprising, even, that the hafor still bothered to treat him with respect, for the fact that he was his father's son was supported by nothing but the fact the at his father's wife had borne him.

And he would not have run and told tales on any of the hafor who slighted him, as Relena would -- and regularly did, even though everyone treated her with the greatest deference humanly possible. Relena's Gift, it was dryly said, was to be impossible to please. But perhaps from the hafor's viewpoint it was not worth the risk to discover any points of similarity or dissimilarity between himself and Relena; and a life of service in a house that included Relena doubtless rendered anyone who withstood it automatically wary and respectful of anything that moved.

He smiled. He could see the wind stir the treetops, for the surface of the Hills seemed to ripple beneath the cloudy gray sky. The moist breeze smelled of leaves and imminent rain when it gusted through his window, sliding wispy fingers through his hair and teasing over the fuzzy protrusions on his head.

It might very well have been Relena who told him the story, come to think of it. It would be like her; Relena had always hated him -- still did; for all that she was older now, and engaged besides, to Quatre, who was the second sola of Damar.

The only higher ranks were first sola and king. But Damar had no first sola so the second sola stood to inherit the throne. Duo should have been the first sola in his own right, except the mistrust of the people about controversy surrounding his birth prevented it, so he had been quietly demoted to second sol.

But whenever he decided it must've been Relena who told him the story, he found he couldn't believe it after all. Having told it for spite and malice, yes; but the story itself had too much sad grandeur. But perhaps he felt that way because it was about his mother; perhaps he had changed it in his own mind, made a tragedy of nothing but sour gossip.

But that Relena would deliberately spend enough time in his company to tell him the story was out of character; Relena preferred whenever possible to look vaguely over the head of the least of her cousins, with an expression on her face indicating that there was a dead fly on the windowsill, and why hadn't a hafor swept it away? When Relena was startled into speaking to him at all, it was usually from a motive of immediate vengeance. The tale of Arlbeth Maxwell's second wife would be too roundabout for her purposes. Still, that it had been one of the cousins was the best guess. Not Quatre, of course. One of the others.

He leaned out the window and looked down. It was hard to recognize people from the tops of their heads, several stories up. Except Quatre; Duo always knew Quatre, even if all he had to go on was an elbow extending an inch or two beyond a doorframe. As if summoned by the thought, Quatre's head of glimmering blonde hair appeared from a side door and started out across the courtyard.

Quatre's head spoke to another dark head near the gate. Duo grinned when he recognized the unique bangs of the Captain of the Guard, Trowa, clearly visible even from above. He felt sorry for Quatre; having to wed Relena, he really did. Because Duo was one of the few people who knew of the fair-haired sola's love for the quiet Captain of the Guard. The two often stole quiet moments to themselves when they had no other duties to attend to.

Though this time it appeared to be strictly business as someone on a horse -- Duo heard the soft click of hoofs-- emerged from around a corner. The rider wore the liver of a messenger, and the cut of his saddle said he come from the west. Both heads turned toward him and tipped up, so that Duo could see the pale blur of their faces as they spoke to him. Duo couldn't distinguish the voices but he didn't have to hear what they said to know what was going on; but the knowledge gave him no pleasure, for it was either the shame or the disappointment that kept him mewed up in his rooms, alone, now.

He had hardly seen his father or Quatre for a week now, as they wrestled with messengers and messages, trying to slow down whatever it was that was going to happen anyway, and trying to decide what to do when it really did happen.

The western barons -- the fourth solas -- were making trouble. The rumor was that someone from the North, either human or human enough to look it, had carried a bit of demon-mischief across the Border and let it loose at the dukes' council in the spring. Dermail was the duke of the council for no better reason than his father had been duke; but his father had been a better and wiser man. Dermail was not known for intelligence, and he was known for a short and violent temper: the perfect target for demon-mischief.

Dermail's father would have recognized it for what it was. But Dermail had not recognized anything; it had simply seemed like a wonderful idea to secede from Damar and the rule of Damar's King Arlbeth and Quatre-sola, and raise an army to take over and set himself up as King Dermail. There had been a further rumor, much fainter, that Dermail had suddenly developed an ability to awaken evil creatures to do his bidding; and this rumor was a much more worrying one, for, if true, the demon-mischief was very strong indeed and there was real danger ahead.

Arlbeth had chosen to pay no attention to the second rumor; or rather to pay only enough attention to it to discount it, that none of his folk might think he shunned it from fear. But he did declare that the trouble was enough that he must attend to it personally; and with him would go Quatre, a substantial portion of the army, and an almost as substantial portion of the court, with all its velvets and jewels brought along for a fine grand show of courtesy, to pretend to disguise the army at its back. But both sides would know that the army was an army, and the show only a show. What Arlbeth planned to do was both difficult and dangerous, for he wished to prevent a civil war, not provoke one. He would choose those to go with him with the greatest care and caution.

A king's son might go; a king's son who had, perhaps, proven himself in some small ways; who had learned to keep his mouth shut, and to smile on cue. But Duo had known that Arlbeth would not dare give his permission to his son, even had he wanted to, and Duo didn't even know he had wanted to. But he could not dare take the witchwoman's son to confront the workings of demon-mischief; his people would never let him, and he too sorely needed his people's good will.

"But you're taking Relena?" Duo had asked Quatre disbelievingly, when he cornered the other boy one day, behind the barns, where he could let his disbelief show.

Quatre grimaced. "I know Relena isn't a very worthwhile person, but she's actually pretty effective at this sort of thing -- because she's such a good liar, you know, and because she can say the most appalling things in the most gracious manner."

It surprised Duo that Relena would even want to go; anything resembling hardship did not appeal to her in the least, and she didn't consider anything in the barbaric west possibly worth her time and beauty.

Duo was sure that she wouldn't even have considered going along if it hadn't been for the incident less than a week ago.

Duo had finally found the time and courage to ask permission to go four days ago after dinner; and he had come up here to his room afterward and not come out again.

<<Flashback>>
"Father." His voice had gone high on him, as it did when he was unnerved or afraid. The women, and the lesser court members, had already left the long hall; Arlbeth, Quatre, a few of his cousins (Duo recognized Zechs, Solo and Wufei among them), and Relena (if only to sit by Quatre's side) were preparing for another weary evening of discussion on Dermail's folly.

They paused and all of them turned and looked at him, and he wished there were not so many of them. He swallowed. Duo had decided against asking his father late, in his own rooms, where he could be sure to find him alone, because Duo was afraid that he would only be kind to his son and not take him seriously. If he was to be shamed -- and Duo knew, or he told himself he knew, that he would be refused -- at least let his father see how much it meant to him, that he could ask and be refused with others looking on.

"You ride west -- soon? To treaty with Dermail?" He could feel Quatre's eyes on him but he kept his gaze fixed on his father.

A little of the smile crept into his eyes after all. "Yes, if we go, we go with an army to witness the treaty."

Quatre said: "We have some hope of catching the mischief and bottling it up, and sending it back to where it came from. Even now we have that hope. It won't stop the trouble, but it will stop it getting worse. If Dermail isn't pricked and pinched by it, he may subside into the subtle, charming Dermail we all know and revere." Quatre's mouth was twisted in a wry smile.

Duo looked at him and his own mouth twitched at the corners. It was like Quatre to answer him as if he were a real part of the court, even a member of the official deliberations, instead of an interruption and a disturbance. Quatre might even let him go with them; he wasn't old enough yet to care so much for his people's good opinion as Arlbeth did; and furthermore, Quatre was quite stubborn when he wanted to be. But it was not Quatre's decision. Duo turned back to his father.

"When you go -- may I come with you?" His voice was little more than a squeak, and he wished he were near a wall or a door he could lean on, instead of in the great empty middle of the dining-hall, with his knees trying to fold up under him like feeble twigs.

The silence was suddenly tight, and the men he faced went rigid: or Arlbeth did, and those behind him, for he kept his face away from Quatre. He thought he could not bear it if one of his loyal friends forsook him too; and he had never tried to discover the extent of Quatre's stubbornness. Then the silence was broken by Relena's high-pitched laughter.

"Well, and what did you expect from letting him go as he would these last years? It's all very well to have him occupied and out from under foot, but you should have thought the price you paid to be rid of him might prove to be a little high. Might you not thought of the reckoning to come? He needed slaps, not encouragement, years ago -- he needs a few slaps now, I think. Perhaps it is not too late."

"Enough." Quatre's voice was a growl.

Duo's legs were trembling now so badly that had to move his feet, shuffle in his place, to keep the joints locked to hold him up. He felt the blood mounting to his face at Relena's words. He kept his face concealed beneath his bangs, afraid that if he looked at Relena he might attack her and condemn himself for sure. But despite Relena's best efforts Duo would not leave without an answer. "Father?"

"Father," mimicked Relena. "It's true a king's son might be of some use in facing what the North has sent us; a king's son who had true royal, human blood in his veins. Not a half-breed monster like you." She nodded to the furry ears perched on top of Duo's head and the cat-like tail that wound around his waist.

Arlbeth said directly to the girl, "Relena, you betray your place as the second sola's fiancee by speaking thus."

Quatre said in a strangled voice, "She will apologize or I will give her a lesson on monsters that she will not like at all--" Trowa's reassuring hand on the second sola's arm calmed the smaller boy.

"Quatre," Relena began in the sickly sweet, pouty voice she reserved for the second sola, "Don't be a--"

One of Duo's other cousins stepped forward, his voice cutting across hers. "Relena, there is justice in the second sola's demand." [1]

There was a long pause during which Duo would have been grateful just to escape, but it was too late.

Relena said at last, "I apologize, Duo-sol. For speaking the truth," she added venomously, and turned on her heal and strode across the hall. At the door she paused and turned to shout back at them: "Go slay a dragon! Duo-sol, Dragon-Killer!"

The silence resettled itself about them, but Duo could no longer even raise his eyes to his father's face.

"Duo--" His father began.

The gentleness of his voice told Duo all he needed to know, and he turned away and walked toward the other end of the hall, opposite the door Relena had taken. He was conscious of the length of the way he had to take because Relena had taken the shorter way, and he hated her all the more for it; he was conscious of the all the eyes on him, and conscious of the fact that his legs still trembled, and that the line he walked was not a straight one.

His father did not call him back. Neither did Quatre. As he reached the doorway at last, Relena's words still rang in his ears: "A king's son who had true royal, human blood in his veins, not a half-breed monster like you Duo-sol, Dragon-Killer." it was as though her words ere hunting dogs who tracked him and nipped at his heels.
<<End Flashback>>

***



Duo's head ached. The scene was still so vividly ingrained in his mind that the door of the bedroom was half open before he heard it.

He spun round; but it was only Helen, bearing a tray.

"You can't not eat." Helen said, nodding to the dray.

"I hadn't thought about it," Duo replied, realizing this was true.

"You shouldn't sulk," Helen said then, "And forget about eating." She looked sharply at her young charge, a worried mark appearing between her eyebrows.

"I am not sulking." Duo said, but couldn't suppress a grin.

Helen sighed. "Hiding. Brooding. Whatever you like. It's not good for you."

"Or for you." Duo suggested.

A smile touched the corners of the worry. "Or for me."

"I'll try to sulk less if you try to worry less."

Helen set the tray down on a table and began lifting the napkins off the plates. "Shinigami missed you today."

"He told you so, of course." Helen's fear of anything larger than the smallest pony, and therefore the fact that she gave a very wide berth to the stables and pastures beyond them, was very well known to Duo. "I'll go down after dark." He turned back to the window.

The court below was almost buzzing with activity. There were messengers running errands, uniformed soldiers, members of the supply hafor that were racing by on foot to equip the king's army. The preparations for the equipping the king's company on it's march west was proceeding at a pace presently headlong and increasing toward panicky. The king was leaving even as he watched. He couldn't see it, but he could tell due to the number of people in the courtyard. Under normal circumstances Duo saw no one from his bedroom window than the occasional idling courtier.

One of Duo's delicate ears flicked backward when something rattled on the tray abruptly and there was a sigh. "Duo--"

"Whatever you're going to say I've thought of already." Duo said without turning around.

Silence. Duo finally looked round at Helen, standing with her head and shoulders bowed, staring at the tray. The plates were heavy earthenware, handsome and elegant, but easily replaced if Duo managed to break one, as he often did; and he had not the small Gift to mend them. He stared at the plates. Quatre had mended Duo's breakage's when they had both still been very young, but Duo was too proud to ask now for he was well past the age when he should have been able to fit the little bits together, glower at them with the curious royal Gifted look, and have them grow whole again. Though it happened less and less as the years went by, it did not help his peace of mind that he seemed to be able to brake things simply by being in the same room with them; as if fate, having denied him something that should have been his birthright, wanted him never to forget it. Duo was not a particularly clumsy young man, but he was by now so convinced of his lack of coordination the he still broke things occasionally out of sheer dread.

Helen had silently exchanged the finer royal plates for these earthenware ones several years ago, after Relena had found out that the red-and-gold ones that should only be used by members of the first circle of the royal house -- which included Duo -- were slowly disappearing. She had had one of her notorious temper tantrums over this and contrived to discover that the disappearances were merely the result of Duo being clumsy. "You revolting monster," She said to the mutinous Duo, -- inexpressible malice lurking behind her words -- "Even if you are incapable of mending the settings yourself, you might save the pieces and let one of us do it for you."

That had made Duo furious. 'Monster' had been her pet name for him ever since she had known the meaning of the word. Duo hated it.

"I'd hang myself first," spat Duo, "And then I'd come back to haunt you till you were haggard with fear and lost all your looks and people pointed at you in the streets--"

At this point Relena had slapped him, which was a tactical error on her part. In the first place, Duo had needed only such an excuse to jump on her and roll her over the floor, bruise her eye, and rip most of the lace off her extremely ornate afternoon dress -- somehow both the court members and the hafor witness to this scene were a little slow in dragging Duo off her -- and in the second place, both the slap and its result quite ruined Relena's attempted role of great lady dealing with contemptible urchin. It was generally considered -- Relena was no favorite -- that Duo had won that round.

Duo sighed. Life had been easier when his ultimate goal had been murdering Relena with his bare hands. He lifted his eyes to Helen, who was still standing motionless behind the tray. "Helen, I'm sorry I'm such a pain in the butt. I can't seem to help it. It's in my blood, like being clumsy is -- like everything else isn't." He walked over and gave the older woman a hug, and Helen looked up and smiled.

"I hate to see you fighting everything so." Duo's eyes rose involuntarily to the old plain sword, his trusty scythe, and the and spears hanging over his large bed as Helen continued, "You know Relena is horrid because she is horrid herself--"

"Yes," Duo said slowly. "And because I'm the only son of the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, and I'm such a desperately easy butt. Helen," he continued before the other had a chance to break in, "Tell me the story again. Please?"

"Story?" Helen's voice was carefully neutral.

"Yes. That my mother enspelled my father to get an heir that would rule Damar, and that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a a monster," Duo's voice cracked. "Instead of a human son."

Helen shook her head impatiently. "You are not a monster."

Duo ignored that. "But she did die."

"Women die in childbed."

"Not witches, often."

"She was not a witch."

"Helen, what was my mother like?"

Helen looked thoughtful. She too looked towards Duo's sword and dragon spears, but Duo was pretty sure she did not see them, for Helen did not approve of her first sol's avocation. "She was much like you but smaller -- frail almost. Too frail to bear a child. And yet it was rather though something was eating her from the inside; there was a fire behind that pale skin, always burning. I think she knew she had only a little time left and she was fighting for enough time to bear her baby."

Helen's eyes refocused on the room, and she hastily looked away from the dragon spears.

"Do you think she enspelled my father?"

Helen looked at him, frowning. "Why do you ask so silly a question?"

"I like to hear you tell stories."

Helen laughed involuntarily. "Well. No, I don't think she enspelled your father -- not in the way Relena and her lot mean, anyway. She fell in love with him, and he with her; that's a spell if you like."

They had had this conversation before; many time since Duo was old enough to talk and ask questions. But over the years Helen sometimes let fall one more phrase, one more adjective, as Duo asked the same questions, and so Duo kept on asking. That there was a mystery he had no doubt. His father wouldn't discuss his mother with him at all, beyond telling Duo that he still missed her, which Duo did find reassuring as far as that went. But whether the truth behind the mystery was known to everyone but him and was too terrible to speak of, particularly to the mystery's son, or whether it was a mystery that no one knew and therefore everyone blamed him for endlessly reminding them of, he had never been able to make up his mind. On the whole he inclined to the latter; if there was such a thing quite that awful, then Relena wouldn't be able to resist ceasing to ignore him long enough to explain it.

Helen had turned back to the tray and poured a cup of hot malak, [2] and handed it to Duo, who sprawled on his stomach across his bed.

"I brought mik-bars [3] too, for Shinigami, so you need not go to the kitchen if you don't wish to."

Duo laughed. "You know me too well. After sulking, I sneak off to the stables after dark -- preferably after bedtime -- and talk to my horse."

Helen smiled and sat down beside him on his bed, idly stroking Duo's silky chestnut tail which he had unwound from his waist and was now draped over his body to swish slowly on the mattress by his side.

Duo's eyes slid half shut and he nearly purred his satisfaction. Helen was one of the few people who were enchanted by the delicate feline features on the otherwise generally human boy. As his personal maid, Helen felt no reserve about occasionally stealing gentle touches of the incredibly soft fur. She was also almost the only person to whom Duo allowed that privilege, because his tail and ears -- especially his tail -- were extremely sensitive. All anyone intending him harm had to do was give it a firm squeeze and it would send him into convulsions of pain for minutes on end. And besides, they were kind of personal.

Most of the time he didn't have to worry about those types of details, though. He kept his lack of human ears hidden by his hair and his real cat-ears concealed under his ever-present hat. His tail he wrapped around his waist until it looked no more than a fuzzy belt. In this way he kept his animal attributes hidden from most everyone who beheld him and didn't know what they were looking for.

Abruptly he opened his eyes.

"Helen, tell me about my mother. Am I so like her as folk say?" Duo pleaded, reaching for a leg of turpi. [4] The hand fondling his tail froze, then continued after a second at an abated pace.

"She came walking into the City one day. She apparently owned nothing but the long pale gown she wore; but she was kind, and good with animals. She too had the same ears and tail you have but they were smaller and easier to conceal. People liked her."

"Until the king married her." Duo said, moving his tail out of reach, for he wanted to concentrate on the story, and he couldn't do that with her numbing his brain with contentment.

"Some liked her even then. You are much like what your mother might have been had she been well and strong and without hurt. She was a great beauty even sickly as she was, and she caught the eye. You do too."

Duo gave her a wide grin, despite a mouthful of bread and said, "You're just biased."

"Think what you like, I'm telling you the truth."

Duo gave a an absent-minded grin around a mouthful of food and shrugged as though dismissing the subject as nonsense. Helen sighed at him.

***



Duo ate several of the mik-bars himself before dusk fell and he could slip privately out of the castle, by the back staircase that no one used, and into the largest of the royal barns where the horses of the first circle were kept. He liked to pretend that the ever observant men and women of the house, the sofor, didn't notice him every time he crept down at some odd hour to visit Shinigami. Anyone else of the royal blood could be sure of not being seen; had they wished to be unseen, but Duo could only tiptoe through the shadows when there were any. Yet, he knew he was merely recognized and allowed to pass.

Shinigami had been wondering where he had been for the last two days, and Duo had to bribe him with the last three mik-bars before his horse forgave him; and then he snuffed Duo all over, partly to make sure Duo wasn't hiding anything else he might eat, partly to be sure the slender boy had, in fact, returned to him. He rubbed a cheek mournfully along Duo's sleeve, begging to be scratched.

Duo chuckled, seizing the grooming supplies and set to work pampering the magnificent black stallion.

"Don't try to make me think you've been neglected, you beggar. You're fed and watered and let out to roll in the mud whether I'm here or not."

Shinigami ignored him, stretching out his neck and making terrible faces in enjoyment as Duo fussed over him.

Duo relaxed as he worked, so that the memory of the scene in the hall faded and it no longer hurt quite so much that the king and his company had gone without him.

***



Duo couldn't decide whether the weeks that followed were heaven or hell. While there was no Relena or courtiers around to make his life miserable, there was also no Quatre, Solo, Wufei, or anyone else who felt comfortable enough near him to stay long enough for a conversation. He found himself spending most of his time with Shinigami, spoiling the horse with mik-bars and counting the days until Quatre's return. It was during one of those times that the first petitioner came.



[1] Take a wild guess who this is. ::grin:: And thus Wu-chan enters my story. Now for Heero! ::evil chuckles from background::
[2] Think: Chicken noodle soup without the noodles. Just that yellow broth stuff. Yum.
[3] Whenever I think of mik-bars, those mini one-inch milky way bars come to mind. ~_^V
[4] Like steak on a chicken leg bone. Some kind of bird I dunno. ::grin::

Note from Kitana:
Well, that was my warm-up. The actions starts next chapter when Duo gets to be dragged into the action and Heero makes his entrance. Myahahaha!!! Okay, now to update my other stories.
Status: TBC