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.

 

Dragonstone
Part 2
Kitana Bradford

 

Duo shouted with laughter and urged Shinigami on as they raced across the field at a breakneck pace, enjoying the freedom of being away from bustle of the castle. Duo felt the adrenaline pound through his body as he leaned forward in the saddle, steering Shinigami around the obstacles and over the jumps he had set up for himself.

The wind roared in Duo's ears and tossed his braid behind him as they cantered, smelling of imminent rain and dirt. Duo slowed Shinigami and glanced up at the cloudy gray sky thoughtfully.

"Think it's gonna rain? Should we go in Shini?" Shinigami threw his head as though dismissing that idea.

"Okay, but if we get stuck out here in the rain you are a dead horse." Shinigami snorted. His master wouldn't do any such thing and he knew it. Duo chuckled, squeezing the black stallion forward.

They went twice more round the field before Duo hesitantly decided that it was time to head back. Even then he let Shinigami take the long route back to the royal stables.

No one was around when they got back and Duo hopped off the black stallion, chasing him into a cross-tie to be untacked and groomed.

He carried his saddle into the tack room and hung it on the peg meant for him. His saddle stood out among all the others because of the number Duo had done on it; ripping it all apart, taking out most of the useless padding and carefully sewing it back together but without the high back and pommel when he discovered that the fancy royal saddles were downright painful to ride in while he hunted dragons.

Duo returned to the cross-ties and led Shinigami to his stall to finish the grooming process. Giving the stallion one last good rub, he tossed the brush into the waiting bucket.

"There, you ungrateful wretch." Duo said lovingly, stretching until he heard a series of loud pops.

Shinigami was unrepentant and turned to shove his nose into his master's breast to be scratched. Duo chuckled and obliged.

"When do you suppose Quatre will be back," He mumbled absently to his horse. "Uh! Listen to me. They're not even supposed to be back for another fortnight and I'm already griping." Shinigami flicked an ear at him, patiently.

"Man, it's so BORING without Quatre and Solo here. Or even Trowa and Wufei! Tro doesn't talk, but at least I know he listens." Shinigami stood quietly as Duo rested his head against Shinigami's forelock. He breathed deeply, smelling leather and Shinigami's familiar musty scent. Shinigami stood quietly, the warm puffs of air from his nostrils blowing Duo's vest against his chest.

Finally, Duo moved back, producing one last mik-bar for Shinigami who was delighted to take it.

After checking to be sure Shinigami was fed, Duo stepped out of the stall and set out across the path that would take him to the back stairway which led into the courtyard of the castle.

He pulled off his gloves as he walked, slapping them against the thigh of his black riding pants to rid them of any extra dust, then tugging his cap on his head to hide his ears. He reached the door and headed up the stone stairs; the heels of his boots clicking with each step.

As he pushed through the final door which led into the courtyard, the scene that greeted his eyes was one of barely organized chaos.

A host of guards were busy restraining a haggard looking old man who clung desperately to the extravagant robes of Quinze, one of the few courtiers left at the castle to manage affairs while Arlbeth was gone.

"Please," the man's voice rose above the raucous. "Please your lordship! I beg you! You cannot ignore our troubles! We have no way to defend ourselves!"

Quinze whirled on the poor old man, "The troubles of your village do not concern us! We have much bigger problems to contend with."

"What's going on here?" Duo called out as he gathered his wits. Quinze wasn't one of the nicer courtiers in the castle, especially when he had something on his mind, and he might just brush off the old man in that haughty way of his, without even listening to the poor guy's dilemma

Quinze looked up at the sound of Duo's voice, and a devious smirk slowly spread across his face. Abruptly he turned back to the old man and gestured impatiently to Duo.

"Here. This boy will aid you. Tell him your problems and trouble me no longer!" With that, he jerked his robes from the man's grasp, stalking arrogantly out of the courtyard.

Duo saw the man's gaze follow the egotistical courtier out of the court, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Then he turned to Duo and abruptly hope sparked in his eyes again.

"You! You're… Duo-sol, are you not?"

"Guilty, I'm afraid."

The man hurried over to where Duo stood, peering at him closely, his eyes filled with inquisitive wonder. Duo blinked in surprise.

"You don't look like a monster…." He mused absently, then realized what he had said and dropped to his knees on the floor, begging forgiveness. "I'm sorry my lord! There are rumors…. I had no way of knowing…. It is only what I have heard! Please forgive my ignorance!"

Relena's pet name for him must've gotten spread around. Most likely by the obnoxious princess herself. But for some reason, hearing it from this old peasant wasn't nearly as distressing as hearing it from Relena herself. Probably because when the old man had said it, it hadn't been intended to wound.

Duo laughed, startling the man out of his groveling. "It's okay. I've been called worse. So what is it that you need help with?"

The man smiled at Duo's friendly demeanor and explained, "A dragon has arisen near my village. It's destroying crops and killing livestock. It has also badly burned several children who wandered too far from the safety of their homes. Fortunately they have all been rescued in time to prevent their deaths." Duo watched the man curiously scrutinized the hat he wore to hide his ears, and his shirt where it had come partially untucked and sloped over his waist, concealing his tail. Duo could almost see the man's fingers twitching, as though he fought to restrain himself from reaching out and checking for himself if the rumors about the first sol were real.

"Okay. I'll go back to your village with you to deal with your dragon. Why don't you go get something to eat while I get ready and meet me back here in an hour?" The old man gave him a worshipful smile and hurried to obey Duo's instructions. When he had disappeared from view, Duo let his relief show.

"Yes! Finally! I can get away from the castle!" Duo exclaimed. He felt faintly guilty that he was celebrating because of another's misfortunes, but that quickly passed as he silently promised himself that he would help them deal with their problem.

He hurried to prepare and collect the items he'd need.

In his room he stepped into his dragon-hunting clothes; as Helen hatefully referred to them. They consisted of a snug, textured tunic, similarly fitting pants which he tucked into his heavy boots, and his flexible gloves. The entire ensemble was black (his favorite color), revealed as little skin as possible to the searing dragonflame, and was loose enough that it didn't restrict motion, but tight enough that it wouldn't get caught in the swiping claw of a dragon.

He quickly brushed and rebraided his hair, pulled on his hat, cleaned his face, then collected his weapons from over his bed.

Pausing before he stepped into the hallway, Duo cautiously cracked open the door and warily checked the corridors. No Helen. Sighing with relief, Duo opened the door the rest of the way and stepped out, carrying the scythe over his shoulder, the sword hung in its scabbard on the belt slung around his waist, and his dragon-spears in their special sheaths. If Helen saw him then she would try to stop him from going and, when it didn't work, she would worry herself sick about him until he returned.

At least this way he could save the poor woman a few hours of peace before she realized her charge was gone. Duo shouldered his spears and headed unerringly back towards the barn. Shinigami would be happy to be finally getting some action again.

Shinigami was indeed overjoyed at the prospect of adventure. As soon as the magnificent stallion had realized what Duo was about, he had pranced excitedly, making it almost impossible to put on the saddle. But he stood perfectly still when Duo moved to mount and lurched forward eagerly as soon as Duo was settled comfortably on his back.

The old man was waiting at the gate when Duo arrived, and they started off immediately. They struck out at as fast a pace as would allow without tiring their horses. Duo was not one to sit timidly with anyone and any tension remaining in the old man was quickly drained away by the chestnut-braided sol's friendly chatter.

They arrived at the village within the third hour. Shinigami was unmistakably a royal horse, even to those who had never seen one before, and Duo's long braid of hair immediately identified him as the first sol. A little boy stood up from his doorstep and shouted: "They're here for the dragon!" and then there were a dozen, two dozen folk in the street, looking at him; a few with the guarded cautiousness that almost always accompanied greetings to King Arlbeth's half-foreign son, but most with a type of adoring warmth still new to Duo.

Several spoke up at once, offering to show the way to where the dragon had made its lair. Duo wondered how he could tell them delicately that he didn't want them hanging around to watch; a cornered dragon was not going to care what non-combatant bystanders it happened to catch with an ill-aimed lash of fire.

Fortunately, the villagers who accompanied him to show him the way had no intention of getting anywhere near the scene of the battle. The bravest among them; a handsome young man a little older than Duo with gray eyes and brown hair, pointed the way, and then returned to their village to wait for the results.

Duo settled his sword about his waist and positioned a spear in the crook of his right arm, the other holding the scythe ready. He removed his hat from over his ears; he would need every advantage he could get.

Shinigami walked with his ears sharply forward. Duo's own ears pricked forward and his acute senses picked up the smell as well: fire, a musty smell, and something else. It wasn't a new scent (he was a seasoned dragon hunter and had hunted the beasts since the age of thirteen. He had begun with small game dragons, but over the course of three years, the dragons he dared to face grew progressively bigger) but it was one that never failed to shock him every time he smelled it. It was the stink of a creature that did not care if the meat it ate was alive or not, and was not tidy with the bones afterward. It was the stench of a dragon.

Shinigami gave a warning snort and paced on carefully. They came soon to a little clearing with a hummock of rock at its edge. The hummock had a hole in it, the upper edge of which was rimed with greasy smoke. A littler of past dragon meals was scattered across the once green meadow.

Duo drew Shinigami to a halt at the edge of the clearing, readying his spear, and waited for the dragon to become aware of his presence. This was always the scariest part. It could come from any direction; just because the den was smoking didn't mean it had to be inside. If Duo wasn't careful, the dragon could come from behind and he would be dead before he even got a chance to retaliate.

Abruptly the dragon hurtled out of it's den and straight at them. Shinigami stepped nimbly out of the way as it opened it's gaping maw and spewed acid at them.

It was an acid-breather! Duo cursed under his breath, clinging to Shinigami's mane to keep from falling off as the horse dodged another spray of the black liquid. As it spun around, it was about ten feet tall, big for a dragon, Duo saw an opportunity and hurled his first spear. It stuck in the dragon's neck; the soft place between neck and shoulder where the scales were thin, and it slowed the dragon down.

Duo drew another spear quickly as it roared, lashing it's tail at him; the sound hurting his ears and echoing around the forest. Then it dropped it's head and spat acid again. This time, although Shinigami managed to get them out of the worst of it, it licked over his arm.

Duo hissed and tore at his sleeve as the fabric bubbled and melted, frantic to get it off him before the acid could reach his skin. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the dragon charge, and he dove off Shinigami, drawing his last spear.

Shinigami danced free as the dragon turned on Duo, descending with razor-sharp fangs bared for the kill. Grasping the spear-butt, Duo drove the point into the juncture of its ribs, and through it's heart as it charged at him. Its teeth snapped shut mere centimeters from his nose as its momentum was halted by the long wooden handle of the spear.

Duo threw himself backwards as the dragon collapsed upon the spear, thrashing wildly in its death agonies.

Then there was an angry scream from Shinigami and Duo whirled, his fingers automatically closing on his sword. The heat of the dying dragon's fresh-spilled blood rose as steam and clouded his vision: but Duo saw dragonfire, and he saw Shinigami rear and strike with his forefeet.

<Gods help me,> Duo thought, <it has a mate.>

In that split-second of distraction, the dragon behind Duo swung around, sinking it's fangs into Duo's thigh. Duo screamed in pain, instinctively drawing his sword and chopping off it's head. The teeth loosened as the head fell to the ground, but the sound alerted the other dragon, which swung around, breathing fire. Duo felt the unfriendly heat of dragonfire wash dangerously close to him.

While dragonacid was much more deadly; dragonfire was not something to by trifled with, either. At least with acid, you had a split second to act before it began to corrode. Dragonfire burned straight through clothing almost immediately.

Duo rolled out of the way, fumbling for the scythe which he had dropped when he leapt from Shinigami.

The dragon followed, breathing gouts of flame. Duo's fingers closed about the scythe and he swung it in an upward arch, slicing open the dragon's soft underbelly. The dragon's black blood spilled over Duo and he rolled away as the dragon collapsed heavily to the ground. He had sliced off it's head before it had time to rise.

Duo stood unsteadily, poised between the two smoking bodies of the dead dragons, berating himself for his complete idiocy. Then Shinigami was there, beneath his hand, lending him support and comfort. Duo stood with his palm on Shinigami's smooth black hide for a second, then forced himself away, reminding himself that he still wasn't finished.

There were the possible dragon-eggs to attend to. Duo knew that left alone they would most likely die, but it was safer to make sure. He tied together some dry brush and set fire to it from his tinder box, and approached the dark-smelling hole in the rock. The torch guttered and tried to go out. He had an impression of a cave with irregular walls of rock and dirt, and a pebbly floor; but he couldn't bear the smell, or the knowledge that the grisly creatures he had just killed had lived here, and he tossed the torch deep into the cave then jerked back outside into the sunlight again.

Duo watched the cave burn until he was satisfied that everything inside was incinerated, then turned back towards the dragons. Picking up his sword, scythe, and remaining spears, he wiped the dragonblood from the blades on one of the few scraggling tufts of grass remaining in the forsaken meadow.

Walking back over to the corpses cooling in the dirt, Duo used the butt of a spear to roll the first dragon over.

"Oh, gross." Making a face at the stench, he used the toe of his boot to scuff around in the bloody dirt where the body had lain. Abruptly, his foot nudged something solid and he bent over and retrieved the round object. He scrubbed the object against his tunic to clean it of the blood-laden mud, then held it up to the light. The stone he held sparkled more brilliantly than a ruby as the tenuous sunlight danced over it, seeming to sparkle and emit its own dazzling glow.

Duo smiled. A dragonstone. A rather large one, too; about the size of his middle knuckle. A dragonstone was formed from the last drop of blood from the heart of a slain dragon. Dragonstones were very rare since few people had the courage to face a dragon of significant magnitude enough to yield a good sized stone. Duo had found his first one by pure luck. A little studying in the large royal library had revealed to him what it was and its significance. From then on, he had collected the beautiful stones as his trophies, preferring them to the big ugly heads as was customary for dragonslayers. Over the years his collection had grown to significant size: 13 sizable stones and about 60 tiny ones.

Duo chuckled. It was a good thing that Relena didn't know about his dragonstones. She wouldn't think anything of cheerfully strangling the first sol for his collection of the luminescent jewels.

Relena had wheedled and whined for months on end some while ago, when she had caught sight of one on the finger of a village girl named Hilde; a friend of Duo's who occasionally worked around the castle. She had pestered the poor girl, demanding to know what type of jewel it was and how she had come about the ring; never knowing that it had been given to Hilde as a present from Duo himself.

Hilde had given her some story about inheriting it from an old grandfather for Duo's sake and fled without revealing the truth about the ring.

Relena had then badgered Quatre for one, running the poor sola ragged until the blonde youth had discovered the story in confidence from Hilde and come to Duo, begging for a small one which he could give to Relena to be rid of her constant whining. Duo, feeling sorry for his friend, had given the fair-haired sola one, which he promptly made into a ring and bestowed upon his fussy fiancee.

Relena had been angry at first, because her jewel was not as large as Hilde's but had ceased pouting at a party a few days later when a rich handsome noble had complimented her on her fine ring.

Tucking the stone into his pouch, Duo walked over to the other corpse and repeated the process; likewise stowing away the second stone.

Duo picked up the heads, wrapped them in a heavy cloth, and tied them to the saddle. He would need them as proof to the village that the dragons were slain. At last he pulled on his discarded hat, and mounted Shinigami with a sigh, ignoring the constant throbbing pain of his injured leg, then swung the black stallion towards the town.

The villagers were all waiting, over a hundred of them, gathered at the edge of town; the fields beyond the village were empty and men and women in their working clothes, looking odd in their idleness, all stood watching the path Duo and Shinigami had disappeared down only an hour ago.

A murmur arose as the front rank caught sight of them, and Shinigami raised his head and arched his neck, for he knew how it should be, coming home from battle and bearing news of victory. The people pressed forward, and as Shinigami came out of the trees they surrounded him, looking up at Duo: just one boy and his horse, surely they have not faced the dragon and come back so quickly. They were ashamed to hope for a sol's burns, but they wished so sorely for the end of the dragon.

"Lord?" One man said hesitantly. "Did you meet the dragon?"

Duo realized their silence was uncertainly and smiled. The villagers smiled back at him, wonderingly.

"Yes, I met your dragon; and its mate." He reached behind him and pulled at the cloth that held their large heads. The heads fell to the ground. One rolled and the villagers scattered before it as though it still had power to do them harm. Then they laughed a little sheepishly at themselves, crowding close to form a loose circle around Duo's grisly trophies as though to verify the dragonness of them.

When their eyes came up to Duo again, the expressions in their faces were ones of adoration and appreciation.

Abruptly, a cheer erupted from their ranks, startling Duo. As they began to hug each other and hoot joyously, Duo laughed with them. The brown-haired, gray-eyed young man who had led Duo out to the lair of the dragons let out a whoop and snatched Duo from Shinigami, whirling the braided boy over his head; shocking Duo and upsetting Shinigami, who had been expecting no such move.

Just as quickly as the noise had begun, it ceased and everyone was staring at him. Duo blinked, wondering what had happened. Duo knew the answer to that question a few seconds later when he caught sight of a familiar black hat on the soil a few feet away. His exposed feline ears twitched involuntarily as a chilly breeze gusted teased over the fine hairs.

Duo turned a fiery red and wiggled out of the arms of the stunned youth holding him, desperately snatching up his hat from the ground and hastily pulling it back over his inhuman ears.

When he looked into the multitude of stunned faces before him, Duo knew the damage had been done. He began to mumble apologies and backed towards Shinigami; meaning to leap on his horse and escape before they thought any worse of him.

A hand on his arm stopped him. When he looked over, the solemn, wizened face of the messenger greeted him. Though the messenger was now dressed in the clothes which befitted a town leader. His wrinkled green eyes met Duo's vivid violet gaze and for a second a pregnant silence settled over the entire town.

Then the man smiled.

"Forgive us for our surprise, it's just that no one has ever seen any being the likes of you ever before. Please don't be ashamed of your features. We would be honored if you would remove your hat and join our celebration this night."

Duo's eyes watered at the generosity of these mere villagers; for their acceptance of what even the royal courtiers found fault in. Duo nodded and the cheer rose again.

***

Duo chuckled contentedly.

"That was great, wasn't it, Shinigami?" Duo asked his horse. Shinigami flicked an ear back at him, trotting contentedly along the long empty road.

Duo sighed happily.

"Yes, that was the best time I have ever had in a long while."

Duo thought back over the wild village celebration festival he had participated in. And since it was the celebration over the end of the dragon -- or dragons -- Duo had been the honored guest. They had bound his wounds, given him brand new clothes that befitted a king, and accepted him completely into their midst.

He had eaten, danced, and partied until very late; when the kind headman had given Duo a fresh bed where he could rest the night before the long ride home.

Duo looked over his shoulder as though he might see the village in the far-off distance. Small villages like that one eased the pain of rejection and made the burns and injuries worth it. Most of the little towns he helped had come to love him. They called him Duo-sol Dragon-Killer and they were kind to him, not only respectful. Even he, wary as he was of all kindness, stopped believing in his secret fear that the headmen asked priests to come drive out the aura of the witchwoman's son after he left them.

Duo sighed. Too bad that killing dragons did him no good with his father's court; the soft-skinned ministers who worked in words, traveled by the litter, and couldn't hold a sword if their life depended on it still mistrusted him. Duo knew from the one time he had overheard a chance conversation that they privately felt there was something rather shameful about a sol killing dragons at all, even a halfblood sol. Their increasing fear of the North only amplified their mistrust of him, whose mother had come from the North; and his dragon-slaying, especially when the only wounds he bore from a task that often killed or crippled men and horses were simple flesh wounds, only made matters worse.

<If only the rest of the land were like those villages!> Duo thought wistfully.

Duo shifted uncomfortably in the saddle in an attempt to relieve a little of the sharp ache in his bandaged thigh. His body cried out in protest at the movement, all his injuries and numerous bruises making themselves known with all the intensity day-old injuries are capable of.

"C'mon, Shini. Pick up the pace." Duo said, urging Shinigami faster as he gazed up at the dark heavy clouds which seemed ready to burst. "I don't want to get stuck in the rain."

Slowly, the scenery around him became more and more familiar, and Duo was relieved when he realized that they were in the final stretch before they reached the castle. "Oh good. Almost home. I don't know about you, Shinigami, but I just want to get into the castle, take a nice long bath, seal myself up in my room and sleep for days."

Just as they rounded the last corner, the sky gave a tremendous crack and loosed upon the two a torrent of chilly rain.

"Confound it!" Duo seethed as the fat droplets of water pummeled his skin, plastering his bangs to his face, running down his outfit, and turning the dirt underfoot to mud which Shinigami kicked up in large sprays with each step; covering the two.

By the time Duo rode up to the gate at a canter, he was covered from the tips of his pointy ears to his toes in mud. He pulled Shinigami to a sliding stop and hopped off the horse to pound on the heavy wooden doors that blocked their path.

"Yo! Open up! Heelllloooo! For Gods' sakes it cold out here! Open the doors!"

A head peered out one of the tower windows and a familiar voice called,

"Who goes there?"

Duo squinted up at the person.

"Solo!? I didn't know you were back already. C'mon man, open up! It's freezing out here!"

"Halt and identify yourself!"

"Goddangit, Solo! You know darn well who I am! Put down that sword I know you're clutching and open the damn doors!"

There was a hearty laugh from above and the head disappeared from the window. A second later, the gates creaked open to allow Duo through.

Solo was waiting for the braided boy in the courtyard as Duo rode Shinigami inside.

"Hiya Solo. What are you doing back so early? I thought you were scheduled to be gone for another week or so." Duo said, hopping off Shinigami's back and walking beside the taller boy as they headed for the barns. They reached the shelter and Duo gratefully pattered inside the warm, musty interior of the stables, shaking the dripping water from his body with a quick shiver.

"Yeah, we were, but the summit council didn't go so well." Solo said gravely.

Duo shot him a surprised look and paused in the act of wringing the excess water out of his braid.

"Oh? What went wrong? I hope this doesn’t mean we're going to war."

"No, no. Nothing that serious yet." Solo assured him. "But there is now no way we are going to avoid some type of confrontation with the west. Dermail was totally insensible about the terms of the treaty. He refused to dismantle or even reduce his army. After a whole day of debating, he outright refused to sign the treaty."

"That's not good. Didn't you guys bring almost all of father's entire army?"

"Yes, and he wasn't even intimidated."

"Shoot. Did you find anything out about the rumor that he can control demons and dragons?"

"No. No time. Besides, it takes a lot of power to do something like that. No one believes it is true."

Duo didn't say anything, but mutely untacked Shinigami, his eyes thoughtful.

"There is one good piece of news. Somehow or another the South was drawn into the council. They agreed to ally with us."

Duo blinked at Solo. "The South? But they're such an isolated nation. They never interfere with any of our disputes. What is it that they asked in return for the favor?"

Solo looked grimly at Duo. "That the heir of their forth sola be placed in the position of first sola."

Duo's eyes widened. "And father agreed?"

Solo nodded slowly. "What choice did he have? Anyway, they came back with us. The entire castle is bustling with courtiers from the south as well as our own."

"They're all here?"

"For the most part. They're here to set up the forth sola's son, Heero I think his name is, as the first sola as soon as possible."

Duo's heart sank and his ears drooped under his hat. Oh great. More courtiers to make his life miserable. Solo seemed to sense the misery emanating from the slight boy and placed a consoling hand on Duo's shoulder.

"Hey, don't look so glum. You won't even have to see them if you just avoid the meeting rooms and major halls."

"Yeah, but I can't get out of dinner with them, can I?"

"True, true. But that's only for an hour every night. Surely it can't be that bad."

"You'd be surprised." Duo said, rolling his eyes. "Especially if Relena's there."

Duo was taken aback when Solo burst into laughter. "You won't have to worry on that account."

"What do you mean?" Duo was mystified.

"Relena is completely starstruck by the future first-sola, Heero. She spends every waking moment by his side, and would spend every sleeping moment too, if she had her way. She flirts shamelessly with him, as though she had no fiancee even now. There's no way she could pry her attention away from him long enough, even if it is to humiliate you."

Duo chuckled at the South heir's -- soon to be first sola's -- predicament. "God, I hope he has a lot of patience. There's no way I could resist strangling her for a day, much less as long as he's going to have to. Poor guy."

Solo laughed. "One last thing, Duo," Solo added as Duo gave Shinigami a final loving pat and they headed out of the stables. "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your father wishes for you to join them tonight in the great hall for supper."

Duo groaned. "I must've done something really horrible in a past life to be punished like this."

"Whatever you say. Just make sure to be there, okay?"

"Fine, fine." Duo grumbled.

"Oh, and Duo?"

"What?"

"I'd take a bath. You look pretty scraggly."

"Jerk."

***

Heero let his eyes slide over the hall once again. The high elegant arches, decorative paintings, expensive silk rugs, divine tapestries, and fine vases set about the room didn't impress him. It was only slightly better adorned then his father's household. Granted, the royal castle was much bigger, but the people here were so relaxed by the wealth that surrounded them that they allowed themselves to become idle to the point of uselessness.

No wonder they needed help to defeat the west. They were so full of superficial pleasantries that he was surprised they had held out this long.

Heero did approve, however, of the king and the second sola, noble men who did not allow the redundancy to affect them. Heero's attention was brought abruptly back to the present by the soft coo of the girl hanging on his arm. The girl -- Relena was her name -- hadn't left him alone since the summit meeting. She was singularly the most irritating person he had ever met. Her whole body was laden with jewels of all types, she wore make-up in cakes, and he was about to suffocate on the synthetic scent of flowers that hovered around her.

He ignored her as she constantly chattered nonsense in his ear, clinging tightly to his arm; instead concentrating on the blonde-haired second sola as he efficiently guided Heero around the castle.

They stopped in front of a large pair of doors, and Quatre reached over, pushing them open to reveal an expansive suit.

"This is where you will stay. We have offered you the best we own in the hopes you will find it suitable here."

Heero nodded curtly.

"Oh, Heero," Relena said excitedly. "Your room is only a few hallways away from mine. Isn't that wonderful?"

"Hn." Heero grunted.

"Don't be shy. You are welcome at any time to visit me." She purred in a suggestive tone.

Heero gave her a withering glare. It didn't seem to affect her in the least as she smiled coyly up at him, trying relentlessly to snuggle against his chest. Quatre's voice interrupted her attempts.

"Relena, why don't you leave Heero alone so that he can relax and prepare for supper. You'll see him again then."

Relena looked pouty for a second, then paused and smiled brilliantly. "I know! You can escort me to dinner. Meet me in the great hall, Heero. I'll go and prepare myself for it now." With that, she released her hold on Heero's arm and made her way imperiously down the halls.

When she was out of sight Quatre sighed. "Sorry about that. She's like that all the time. Hopefully she'll loose interest in a few days, because there's nothing else we can do."

Heero nodded appreciatively.

"I'll leave you so that you can settle down now. If you need anything, all you need to do is pull the cord by the bed and a hafor should be up momentarily to attend to you. You remember where the dining hall is?"

"Aa." Heero said, his speech lapsing into his native southern language.

Fortunately Quatre understood, and nodded to the cobalt-eyed heir before disappearing out the bedroom doors, shutting them behind him.

Heero cast a cursory glance around the room. It was overly comfortable with its silk bed sheets and satin seat cushions. His bed was in the far left corner and a small table stood beside it. At the foot of the bed was a smooth wooden chest, presumably for Heero's valuables. A large fancy wardrobe positioned on the back wall provided space for Heero's clothes. A doorway off to the right led to the bathroom, Heero could see the white marble bathing room from where he stood.

The room, for all it's fineries, felt like a prison to Heero. Only the large window framed by silk draperies on the back wall offered any freedom. Heero strode over to the window, seating himself on the wide ledge.

The window overlooked the courtyard (as many of the bedrooms on the same level did) and Heero watched courtiers from both the South and the East bustle hurriedly through the covered corridors around it, avoiding the rain as though it were acid.

What was it that his father saw in this country? Heero leaned out the window, stretching his cramped muscles. After a few more seconds of gazing listlessly over the dreary gray courtyard, Heero rose and headed for the door.

If he was going to be first sola here, he might as well investigate the royal castle. There was no one outside the door when he exited his room and Heero headed down the long corridor in the opposite direction from which he had come earlier.

He wandered soundlessly and efficiently through the high antechambers, mentally memorizing the castle's layout for further use later. Most of the hafor he passed recognized him and immediately stood aside. Those who didn't observed his icy glare and skittered quickly out of his way.

When he had explored enough to satisfy him temporarily, Heero decided to return to his quarters. To avoid the bustle of servants and courtiers, he followed the deserted back passages.

Nothing in the royal castle exceeded his expectations, Heero mused as he walked, but a quiet rumor that he had heard among the southern courtiers at the summit meeting before it had been quickly squelched intrigued him.

They alleged that King Arlbeth's only son and rightful heir was the son of some type of witchwoman from the North. The first sol was rumored by a few to be exceptionally beautiful, despite his demon heritage.

Heero wondered absently if the King's son truly was beautiful or if he simply intimidated the people enough that he was quietly loathed by the commonfolk. He suspected the latter. Either way, it would explain a great deal.

Heero turned a sharp corner and nearly ran into another person coming from the opposite direction.

The boy looked roughly about his age and was covered from head to toe in mud, which was beginning to dry on his face and clothes. He smelled of horses and wore a soot-covered cape jauntily over his shoulders. But what caught Heero's attention were the boy's eyes. A stunning shade of violet the likes of which Heero had never seen before, even in his father's vast treasury of jewels.

Heero blinked and glanced quickly over the boy again.

A sofor, he decided.

Heero glared at the slender servant, expecting him to stumble nervously out of the way as all the others had done. The boy blinked several times then stood his ground stubbornly; his unwavering gaze latching on to Heero's resolutely, violet fires flaring in his eyes, making them even more enticing.

Heero didn't know what to make of the situation. Normally such insolence would have irritated him, but for some reason he couldn't be angry with this servant. He raised an eyebrow at the boy.

A small smile spread jauntily over the boy's face and he stepped delicately to one side with an unconscious grace that fascinated Heero all the more. He gave a slight bow, not the low stoop of a servant, but the mere incline of his head, and stood aside for Heero to pass; the slight smile never leaving his elfin features.

Heero watched the boy out of the corner of his eye as stepped past the muddy servant and once more their eyes met.

For a second it seemed to Heero as though he were falling into the violet orbs. Then he shook himself. The moment was over and Heero forced himself to continue down the hallway without looking back. At the end of the hall, Heero paused to glance behind him. The boy was gone, the only sign of his presence a line of muddy footprints leading down the corridor beyond.

He hadn't even heard the boy move. Most strange indeed.

 

Notes from Kitana: Okay, those of you who complained that my parts aren't long enough; does this satisfy you? Gomen, but I just naturally cut them short. Oi, it's either that or spend longer (than I already do) typing em up. It's all really a no-win situation which boils down to one thing: I am a dork, but I do have a life… I think. ^_^
Tell me whatcha think, as usual, and I will love you forever.
Extra: Oh, yeah! One last thing! I was going over my fics and cringed when I realized how many mistakes I made in them and how many of you are seeing those stupid errors. So if any of you people out there are in the mood for a little beta-reading and think you have enough patience to deal with me, than drop me an e-mail. You don't have to beta-read them all, just choose your favorite fic and I will be grateful for always!!!! Sankyuuuu!!!! V^_^V