4-28-2001

Note with Kitana: Awww… heck with the warnings. I've done so many I'm practically doin' em in my sleep. ^_^;;
Also: The ranking can be somewhat confusing and is different from the book. As those of you who have read the book will notice, the position of the Sol/s is no longer just for females. I've changed a few things so that I can make the story just that much more interesting for you! For those still confused, here is the ranking from most powerful to least significant:

King
First Sola
Second Sola
First Sol
Third Sola (There is no position of Second Sol or Third Sol)
Forth Sola/s (More than one)
Courtiers
Noblemen
Commonfolk
Peasants
Those are the basics. I hope that clears it up for you all! ^_^V

 

Dragonstone
Part 3
Kitana Bradford

 

When Duo squelched quietly into his room, Helen was lying in wait for him. He winced and waited for the lecture he was sure to get. Sure enough, he had just barely set foot inside the door when Helen dutifully descended upon him.

"Must you risk your life so often? Do you have any idea how dangerous dragon hunting is?"

Those were the opening lines to "the Rant" as Duo had dubbed it. The cat-eared Sol sighed and slipped off into a daze, listening to Helen with only half an ear. His mind was occupied with memories of tousled hair and piercing cobalt eyes that smoldered with intensity.

He had gotten the fright of his life when he had rounded that corner and nearly smacked into the handsome youth. And the way his nerves were strung tight with all those courtiers around, the other boy was lucky that Duo hadn't lashed out like the cat-monster everyone supposed him to be.

Duo guessed that the other boy must've been from the South. A courtier's son or something. The other boy hadn't shown the least alarm upon sight of the first Sol. For that, Duo was glad. That meant that the rumors Relena spread about him hadn't reached the South. Yet.

He was willing to bet that it wouldn't last -- especially with Relena around -- but he was going to milk the chance to be normal while he had it.

His mind drifted back to the boy he had met in the halls. God, the guy had been so hot. Such intense eyes…. A pleasant tingle ran down his spine and Duo shivered, blushing slightly. A little giggle escaped his lips.

"… Duo? Duo!" Helen's worried voice snapped him out of his daze.

"Huh… er… what?" Helen shook her head at him.

"You weren't even listing to a word I said, were you?" Duo didn't answer, trying his best to look sheepish and blinking up at Helen with kittenish innocence. Helen held out for a second in the full force of Duo kawaiiness attack, but after a second her resolve crumbled.

"What am I going to do with you? I just can't stay mad at you." She sighed. Duo laughed and caught the older woman in an embrace.

"That's why you love me and you know it."

Helen rifled his hair. "Yes, you imp. You are just like your mother, you know that?"

Duo paused. "Really?" Helen nodded, brushing back Duo's mud-spattered bangs. Suddenly she held Duo at arm's length and looked at him.

"What's this? Mud? Into the bath with you!" Duo's ears pricked forward. He opened his mouth but Helen cut him off.

"You heard me. Off with you!" She swatted Duo's butt playfully and he jumped out of her arms with a yelp.

"Okay, okay I'm going!" He giggled, shucking off his hat, shirt, and boots, throwing them on his bed then heading for the bathroom.

Duo entered the bathing room in awkward hops, wriggling out of his pants as he walked. These he threw on a nearby chair before taking the wash room at a run.

"Bonzai!" Duo took a flying leap into the serene little pool awaiting him. It was deep and he vanished below the water with a loud war-whoop and a splash that spread water to the far corners of the bathing room.

Within seconds he broke the surface with a dismayed squawk and scrambled out of the bath, clinging to the edge of the pool, just out of reach of the water, shivering mightily.

"T-t-too c-c-c-cold!!"

Helen wandered into the bathroom with an armful of bathing utensils and towels and was greeted with the sight of her shivering charge clinging to the rim of the pool buck naked, his long hair pooling around his body into wet curls on the floor.

She set down the towels and sighed, lifting up her skirt and stepping cautiously around the large puddles of water Duo had undoubtedly caused.

Duo eyed her cautiously as she knelt down beside him, dipping a finger into the bathing pool.

"Hmm… It is a little chilly. Don't tell me the mighty dragonhunter can stand bravely in the face of death yet be put off by a little cold."

"It's not the same! Besides, dragons I can fight." Helen gave him an exasperated look out of the corner of her eyes. Duo shook his head vigorously. "Nuh-uh. No way. I am not getting in." Abruptly he switched tactics and gave her a chibi smile. "Can we just ask the hafor to heat it up? It wouldn't take that long…."

"Yes," Helen drawled, a small smile growing across her face. "I suppose it wouldn't be that bad… you'd only miss the dance and all those silly introductions…."

"Yeah!" Duo turned back to glare at the offending water. "That way I can just slip in to the dinner and no one will ever notice me! Standing in front of all those people is just NOT worth freezing my balls off."

Helen's lips pressed disaprovingly at his language. "Duo," she said menacingly. Duo turned to her, opening his mouth to talk his way out of a lecture. He didn't see the small glint in her eyes until it was too late. "You're a man. Deal with it."

She pushed him in.

***

Duo ran his freezing fingers one last time through his long chestnut hair, then stood back to survey his appearance. He sighed in resignation. Completely oblivious to the huge bright violet eyes that looked back at him, or the healthy glow of his tanned skin, or any of the features that made his face one that both men and women dreamed lustily of. Duo looked for the flaws in his image. And when he didn't see anything out of the ordinary, he lost interest.

There was a quick knock at the door and then Solo sauntered in without waiting for an answer.

"About ready, Duo?"

Duo raised an eyebrow at him. "Am I ever ready for this? I suppose father's sent you to be my own personal executioner."

Solo laughed. "That's a cruel word. I prefer 'escort'."

Duo snorted. "Call it what you like, it's still torture."

Solo's grin slipped a little. "Not for me!" he laughed. Duo stuck his tongue out at his amber-eyed friend then flipped him the bird. Solo laughed disarmingly before he continued, "But it's only for this one night. You should be fine if you just avoid Relena. It can't be all that bad. I'll make a deal with you. Just give the banquet a try. Maybe it'll turn out okay. If I'm wrong, I'll take you down to the Red Dragon Inn for a round of ale. My treat."

"You're on, sucker." Duo smirked, anticipating victory.

"Good. Now c'mon. Your father is waiting." Duo followed Solo out the door.

***

As they followed the high arched halls that led to the Banquet Hall, Solo let his amber gaze roam over the younger Sol. Tonight, Duo had to face up against an army of haughty nobles and courtiers who would be all too willing to derive the worst from the smallest fault and flay him alive with their vicious gossip. Solo knew it, and despite Duo's light attitude, Solo could tell from the Sol's tensed shoulders that Duo was also painfully aware of that fact.

One corner of Solo's mouth twitched up.

For what it was worth: at least Duo didn't have anything to worry about in the looks department. The fashionable bandanna covering most of his head -- currently all the rage among the nobles -- and a small amount of skillful styling hid his demi-human ears quite nicely. And even Solo had to occasionally remind himself that the ring of fur which loosely hugged Duo's slender waist was the first Sol's tail and not -- in fact -- a rather fuzzy belt. If Duo was lucky, the nobles might even mistake him for a real human and discredit the nasty 'monster' rumors they'd heard.

Solo allowed himself to take in the full effect, trying to see his friend with a stranger's eyes. The black turtleneck outfit that accented his slender body; the luminous lilac eyes framed by a delicate face; the long, graceful limbs; the silky braid that caressed his hips with each movement.

Suddenly, Solo saw his friend in a new light and the effect was startling. For the first time he realized that Duo truly was as stunningly beautiful as he was rumored to be. But there were those who would loathe him for that beauty. And it would be those people who fueled the flames of hatred and suspicion that had already been sparked in the minds of the others.

Misgivings would be worse then ever.

No, he did not envy Duo at all.

***

Duo absently let his legs carry him as he mused quietly, lost in his own thoughts and oblivious to Solo's scrutiny.

If Solo had been sent on his father's word, then Arlbeth must really want him to appear at the banquet. Duo knew the reason his father avoided inviting him to the royal dinners was because of how intensely he was mistrusted by the people.

Which was perfectly fine by Duo. Every time he had to go to one of the stupid things, courtiers and noblemen -- especially Relena -- could be counted upon to make his entire evening completely miserable. And then there was always the suspicious glares and waggling tongues to contend with.

The escort was a completely different matter. That particular inconvenience was necessary only because of his frequent tendency to, somehow or another, catch some mysterious fleeting case of amnesia and get lost on his way to the dinner, despite having lived in the castle his entire life. Duo grinned. The guide was Arlbeth's way of ensuring that Duo made it to the dinner in the first place.

Duo reluctantly dragged his thoughts back to the present as they reached the high ornate entrance. The hafor, who had been posted outside the luxurious banquet hall to hold the doors for the landed gentry, bowed to them, but Duo suspected it was more out of habit than of any real deference to him.

Duo swallowed as the saw the large crowd of aristocrats gathered in the magnificent antechamber. He exhaled deeply, steeling himself, then sucked in a deep breath and flashed a somber grin at Solo, wishing more than ever that the amber-eyed boy could accompany him to the banquet.

Solo grinned at him. He mouthed the words 'good luck' then grinned and winked.

Duo mouthed back 'You'd better have your money pouch ready, buddy.' Warmed by the soft sound of the other boy's chuckle, Duo stepped into the hall, holding his held high in bearing as a Sol should.

The Banquet Room was actually the ballroom which the hafor made over to incorporate a sizable buffet of various foodstuffs whenever there were to be large celebrations such as this one. That left the rest of the large room open for dancing and socializing.

Duo started down the steps leading to the Banquet Room with the natural liquid grace that accompanied his every movement. There were couples dancing, but most seemed to be clustered about in groups, talking and laughing.

A few steps from the bottom he paused momentarily to scan the guests, as much to pinpoint where Quatre had ensconced himself as it was to locate where Relena and her group had gathered, that he might avoid that section of the ballroom altogether.

He spotted Quatre quickly, and when the light-complexioned second Sola lifted his hand in a beckoning wave Duo nodded and smiled.

The smile still on his lips, he started to look away, then froze as his gaze locked with a familiar pair of startled cobalt eyes. Standing near the foot of the staircase with a group of nobles was a handsome face which the longhaired boy recognized from earlier that evening. The same face which had burned itself into Duo's memory after only a brief encounter with its owner in the back hallways customarily frequented only by the sofor and the braided first Sol.

The young noble was staring at him, the wineglass he held in his free hand arrested halfway to his lips. Duo noted with a wince, that the other arm was clutched firmly in Relena's possessive grip. The noble's bold gaze swept from the top of Duo's shining chestnut hair, over the Sol's chest, flat stomach, and slim hips; right down to the intricate designs on Duo's heavy boots, then lifted abruptly to Duo's face, and there was a minuscule gleam of approval glinting in his eyes.

Duo watched with a slight blush on his face as the other youth turned for a second to address an aristocrat who was vying with Relena for his attention. Abruptly, all of their gazes shifted up as one, and Duo found himself the focus of three curious pairs of eyes.

Duo saw Relena's cornflower blue gaze register shock that quickly became incredible malice. The aristocrat started and turned back to speak to the young noble for a second. Almost instantly, the other boy's cobalt eyes went wide.

<Must be from the South,> Duo thought when the noble recovered from his shock and did not immediately advert his gaze. Instead, it traveled over Duo's body a second time, moving even slower than before. Relena noticed this also and the look in her eyes darkened from instinctive anger to intense loathing.

Somehow Duo managed to keep his laid-back expression as he continued fluidly down the stairs, but his treacherous pulse was racing double-time, and his mind was in complete confusion. Had any other person looked at him in the way the young noble just had, Duo would have been wary, amused, or both. Instead the smirk in the other youth's eyes had made Duo feel as though they were sharing some private conversation, and Duo had returned the smile.

Howard, an elderly aristocrat whose exotic taste in clothes -- and whose tendency to casually converse with the mistrusted first Sol -- had earned him quite a name, was waiting for Duo at the bottom of the stairs. An urbane man with a stubborn streak to match Duo's, he had caught the braided boy's attention and become somewhat of a friend to the lonely cat-eared youth.

"Duo!" He held out an arm for Duo to take. "Haven't gotten yourself into any trouble yet, have you?" Duo gave Howard his most innocent look.

"Who me? Never." Howard snorted, then continued.

"Quatre has been waiting for you for quite a while. He was worried sick when you didn't arrive during the first hour. Arlbeth is waiting too."

"I'll bet. He probably got sick of traipsing around the dance floor with every lady in the ballroom and used my absence as an excuse to hide."

Howard laughed, and so did Duo. He felt a little of the tension he hadn't even realized was there drain from his shoulders and grinned gratefully up at Howard, giving the older man a little wink.

"Well, come on. Let's not give him an excuse any longer."

"But of course!" Duo managed to stop himself from so much as glancing at the cobalt-eyed noble as they casually strolled by the group he was with, until they were nearly past him. But then someone called out to Lord Howard, and he stopped momentarily to reply. Yielding to temptation, Duo stole a split-second glance at the good-looking, broad-shouldered man in the midst of the group. His dark head was bent, and he appeared to be absorbed in listening to a laughing commentary from Relena, who was glaring daggers in Duo's direction. Duo's heart sank. Relena was probably filling him in on every vicious piece of rumor he had ever missed. There was no way that the noble would come within a mile radius of him now.

"I must say," Lord Howard told Duo a moment later as he escorted the longhaired youth forward again, "I was a bit surprised to hear you were going to be here."

"Why is that?" Duo asked, tipping his head up while adamantly vowing not to think of the handsome noble again. He was becoming quite obsessed with a man who was a complete stranger.

"Because of the great numbers of mistrustful people here. What with the courtiers from the Southlands convening here like this -- even the feared third Sola and the soon-to-be first Sola himself," he explained, nodding over Duo's shoulder. Duo turned slowly, trying to avoid looking at Relena or the noble.

"Who is the first Sola going to be? Where is he?"

"See that young man standing next to Relena?"

Duo stiffened. Consumed with a mixture of curiosity and alarm, he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Are you referring to the one who's arm Relena has attached herself to?"

"The very same." The color slowly drained out of Duo's delicate features.

<That handsome 'noble' is the new first Sola?!> Duo's mind gibbered, running in little circles. He stifled his desire to groan. <If Relena has gotten to him first, no doubt she's well on her way to turning the noble… Heero>, Duo corrected himself. Solo had said the new first Sola's name was Heero. <Relena is probably busy bending Heero's will to match her own with each calculated word. Nothing would make her happier then to have the first Sola eating out of her hand.>

Duo used the excuse to study the tall (well, at least, tall compared to him), tanned youth who'd occupied too many of his thoughts since the moment Duo had first met him. To Duo, he looked every inch the roguish, understated noble: His dark vest and trousers set off his broad shoulders and emphasized his long, muscular legs; his snowy white neckcloth was tied to perfection, and his dark hair was tousled, rebelliously resisting any attempts to contain it. Even in his relaxed pose his tall body gave off muscular power, while his tanned features were stamped with the cool arrogance of nobility. An air of danger and mystery hovered around him, grabbing Duo's attention and holding it fast; as attracted as the first Sol was to danger.

Duo's attention was diverted from Heero as the bell toiled, signaling the commencement of the initiation ceremony followed by the main course. He allowed Lord Howard to lead him by his arm to the seat on his father's left. Quatre was rewarded the seat to Arlbeth's right, signalizing his rank as Arlbeth's chosen predecessor. Though Duo knew that his father didn't mean to hurt him, it didn't diminish the pain of rejection in any way.

Duo tried to avoid looking at the cheerful blonde or his father, and found himself instead gazing across the table into Heero's cobalt gaze. Duo resisted the urge to groan and pound his head on the table. He could see this wasn't going to be his night.

Somehow or another, Duo managed to survive the long boring inauguration celebration of Heero's rise to first Sola. Duo concentrated hard on forcing himself not to fidget, acutely aware of the way Relena shot him glares like poisoned arrows and clung curiously near Heero side, for someone else's fiancee for so few seasons.

This Duo endured throughout the ceremony and into the dinner. When she finally realized her looks weren't phasing him, Relena resorted to making witty remarks at Duo's expense. Duo chewed his food furiously, keeping his clenched fists hidden in his lap. His jaw worked steadily, mechanically, as he preoccupied his mind by gleefully planning the most dire ways in which he might take his revenge.

The last time Relena had provoked him she hadn't dared show her face outside her room for months.

<<Flashback>>

It began with a confrontation with Relena, as much of Duo's worst troubles did. Relena was the youngest of the royal cousins until Duo. She had become quite accustomed to being the baby of the family, petted and indulged, and she was a very pretty child. She learned readily how best to play up to those likeliest to spoil her. So she was not at all pleased by Duo's birth.

Not only was Duo the first Sol, which Relena would never be unless she managed to marry Quatre, but his mother died bearing him, which made Duo altogether too interesting a figure within the same household that Relena wished to continue to revolve around herself.

Duo was by nature the sort of child who got into trouble first and thought about it later if at all, and Relena, in her own way, was quite clever. It was Relena who dared him to eat a leaf of the surka; saying that Duo would be too afraid to touch the royal plant, because he was not really of royal blood: he was a throwback to his mother's witch breed and Arlbeth was his father in name only. If he touched the surka, he would die.

At fifteen Duo should have already shown signs of his royal blood's Gift; usually the Gift began to make its presence known -- most often in poltergeist fits -- at age 13. Relena had contrived to disguise her loathing for her littlest cousin for several years after her temper tantrums upon Duo's birth had not been a complete success. But lately it had occurred to an older Relena that if Duo really was a throwback, a sport, as he began to appear truly to be, Relena had excellent reason to scorn and dislike him: his very existence was a disgrace to the royal honor.

They made a pair, facing off, standing alone in the royal garden, glaring at each other. Relena had come to her full growth and beauty by that time: her wheat-colored golden hair hung down her back, and was artfully held in place by two slender braids tied at the back of her head with a silken ribbon and strung with pearls. Her cheeks were flushed becomingly by rage until they were as red as her lips, and cornflower blue eyes were open their widest.

Duo was just as tall as Relena, for Relena was small and round and compact. Long bangs framed his cherubic face, and Duo's dark lashes set off his huge amethyst eyes. His hair -- longer, even, than Relena's -- was pulled into a tight braid, the sun accentuating the golden highlights and gentle tones of his long mane.

Duo's ears were laid back flat against his head -- his omnipresent hat was missing, still crunched up in Relena's fist from when she had snatched it from his head to prove her point about his throwback heritage -- and his tail, unwound from his waist and forgotten in the heat of his rage, lashed behind him with slow agitation.

They were alone in the garden; and whatever happened Relena had no fear that Duo would ever tale-bear (which was another excellent reason for her to despise him), so when Duo spun around, pulled half a branch off the surka, and stuffed most of it into his mouth, Relena only smiled. Her lips curved most charmingly when she smiled, and it brought her cheekbones into high prominence.

Duo gagged, gasped, turned a series of peculiar colors which ended with gray, and fell heavily to the ground. Relena noted that he was still breathing, and therefore waited a few minutes while Duo twitched and shook, then went composedly to find help.

Her story was that she had gone for a walk in the garden and had found Duo there. This, so far as it went, was true; but she had been planning to find Duo alone in the garden for some time, that she might say certain things to him.

Duo had been sick for weeks. His mouthful had given him mad hallucinations of men with translucent blue skin, six-legged riding beasts; of a cave with five walls that glittered as though it were walled with rubies, and of a pale figure terribly like his own, caged in the heart of a dragon.

Slowly these spells wore off and he could again see the walls of his room around him, and Helen's face bending over him, half angry and half frightened.

Even Quatre -- busy as he was -- came to visit him.

"You idiot!" Quatre yelled at him. Duo was taken aback -- Quatre rarely ever yelled. "You bonehead, you mudbrain, you fool! How could you do such a thing?" He tried to remind Duo of the stories of the surka; did Duo remember that the stuff was dangerous even to those of the royal house? True, it did not kill them; true, a leaf of it bestowed super-human strength and the far-seeing eyes of a bird of prey to one of royal blood, or, if the Gift were strong enough, true visions; although this last was very rare. But when the effect wore off, in several hours or several days, the aftereffects were at best mortal exhaustion and blurred sight.

Had he forgotten the tale of Heero Yuy,[1] who kept himself on the battlefield for a fortnight, never resting, by virtue of the surka, pausing only to chew its leaves at need? He had won the battle, but died even as he proclaimed his victory. He looked, when they buried him, like an old, old man, though he was only a year past forty.

"You must've eaten half the tree, from the size of the scar of the branch you pulled off. Enough for two or three Heeros. Are you really trying to kill yourself?" Here his voice almost broke, and Quatre had to get up and stomp around the room, and kick over a handy chair, which he then picked up again so that Helen wouldn't notice and ban him from the sickroom.

He sat on the edge of Duo's bed and brooded.

"It must've been Relena. It is always Relena. What did she do this time?"

"Of course it's Relena. I've been looking for an excuse to get out of her coming-of-age ceremony. This was the best thing that occurred to me." Duo said cheekily, keeping his eyes focused on the pale blur where he knew Quatre's face should be.

Quatre laughed -- grudgingly, but it was a laugh. "I almost forgive you." He looked at Duo sternly. He knew what had probably really occurred. He knew Duo and Relena too well. And for that reason, he knew Duo would never say anything; and since neither he nor Duo could do anything about it, it was best to let the subject alone. Quatre sighed.

Though the worst of the spells had worn off quickly, and Duo was able to get out of bed, he still got dizzy spells and stomachaches, and those lasted for a long time. He knew this was not how it was supposed to be for a king's son, just as Relena had said; and a depression he would not admit further slowed his recovery.

So, while Duo had been busy turning corners that weren't there, falling down stairs, and milling about in his bed, he had had lots of time in which to plan his revenge.

When the time came that Duo felt well enough to join the court for supper without making a fool of himself, Duo gleefully grabbed it and took the liberty of drugging Relena's dinner wine while he was at it. That night Duo had crept into Relena's room and cut off her long eyelashes.

Everyone had known at once who had done it, and Duo, who held lying in general contempt, hadn't bothered to deny it. He had said before the gathered court -- for Relena, as usual, had insisted on a public prosecution -- that Relena should've been grateful he hadn't shaved her head for her; she'd been snoring like a pig and wouldn't have wakened if he had tossed her out the bedroom window. Whereupon Relena had gone off in a fit of strong hysterics and had to be carried from the hall (she'd been wearing a half-veil that covered her face to her lips, so that no one might see her ravaged features), and Duo had been banished to his rooms for a fortnight.

<<End Flashback>>

An involuntary chuckle worked its way up Duo's throat and had escaped before he had thought to muffle it. Duo felt his father's gaze land upon him and turned to smile up at the king. Arlbeth sighed, and went back to dining, well used to Duo's curious behavior.

Duo turned back to his own food when Arlbeth looked away and realized for the first time that the mouthful of meat he had put into his mouth earlier was nearly mashed to a pulp, forgotten in the heat of his anger. Duo swallowed and picked up his wineglass to wash it down.

The sudden noise of ruffling petticoats from across the table drew the attention of everyone within earshot. Relena's high voice and the echoing ringing of her gentle taps upon her upheld champagne glass attracted the rest.

Duo blinked in surprise, his head cocked slightly, wondering what his nemesis was up to now. Relena shot him a glance out of the corner of her eye, and her mouth curled delicately up in a smirk that had Duo immediately on the offensive. Duo realized, with a sinking feeling, that whatever she was planning did not bode well for him.

When Relena was satisfied that she had everyone's rapt attention, she smiled and gave one of her bright little laughs.

"In honor of this great occasion… I would like to present you with a ballad I've just recently heard, which I do believe will be of some interest. During the travel where it was my greatest pleasure to make the acquaintance of the Southernfolk," she nodded to the third Sola, Heero, and the rest of the southern courtiers -- playing up to them in order to gain their support. "I happened to hear a minstrel singing a new ballad while were passing through the smaller, dingier marketplaces in the City. She was a rather small and dingy minstrel as well, one who had just been traveling through some of the small dingier villages of the hills of late, which is where the ballad came from. I took pity upon her and humored the poor girl."

Duo gritted his teeth, resentful of the way Relena denounced the poor minstrel with nothing so much as a wave of her hand. And the way Relena dragged on -- milking her audience was nauseating! (The look in Relena's eyes had made him almost positive that, somehow or another, the subject she had just brought up was related to him, and she was working up to some humiliating grand finale that would ensure his destitution.) Even so, Duo wished she would just get on with it, condemning as it was beginning to sound.

"… and so, it is my pleasure to sing this song for your amusement." With that, her lips flicked upward in a devious smile that vanished as quickly as it had come when she opened her mouth and began to sing.

The ballad told of Duo-Sol, Dragon-Slayer who's beauty was unmatched, his wide purple eyes casting spells over all who saw them. And thus upon his midnight steed he slew the dragons without hurt to himself, because the dragons could not resist his gaze and came willingly onto his blade.

Relena had a sweet singing voice, and the ballad was not so very badly composed, and the tune was a lively rendition of an old and venerable song that many generations had enjoyed. But Relena mocked Duo with it by the most delicate inflections, and the gentlest ironies. Duo's knuckles whitened around his wine goblet as he listened.

When Relena finished, she gave another of her bright little laughs. "How charming," she said. "To think -- we are living with a legend." Laughs echoed around the table. Duo felt his cheeks begin to burn.

Relena smiled at Duo before turning back to her audience. "Do you suppose that anyone will make up songs about the rest of us while we are still alive to enjoy them?" More laughs. "But let us hope that at least any songs made in our honor do not expose us so terribly," Relena said silkily, "as this one explains why our Duo kills his dragons so easily."

Duo knew he must sit still, but he could not. There would be nothing that Relena would love more than for him to prove her right by giving in to the temptation to attempt to strangle her with his bare hands in front of the Southernfolk and the new first Sola.

Duo rose quickly and hurried out of the hall, acutely aware of every pair of eyes in the room burning holes between his shoulder blades. As he made his was way quickly away from the Banquet Room, he heard the laughter again, drifting down the corridors after him, Relena's high-pitched titter above it all.

***

But had Duo not left the Banquet when he did he might have realized there were five who did not join in the demeaning laughter.

Quatre and Arlbeth watched Duo leave with identical expressions of helpless sorrow written across their faces. Wufei's eyes burned with righteous anger for the first Sol. Lord Howard watched his small friend go with unmasked pity on his crinkled face.

And a set of solemn cobalt eyes also watched Duo take his leave, the customarily blank gaze sparked with intensity.

***

Relena turned back to the object of her new affections with a small satisfied smirk tugging at her fair features.

"Heero, don't you think--" But she was only to face empty air. She looked about wildly and spotted her quarry halfway across the dining hall, having abandoned his seat -- and her -- moving efficiently for the same door that her monstrosity of a cousin had just fled through.

Her petite little nose crinkled, even as she blushed with embarrassment. She glowered at the empty doorway. Duo. It was all Duo's fault that Heero had left her side. Duo would pay.

Relena graciously excused herself and slipped away, following Heero's path with purposeful steps.

 

Note from Kitana: Ta daaa! Oi! Haven't fallen asleep yet have you? Hoo boy. ^_^;; ::grin:: ~_^V I promise Duo and Heero will meet for real in the next part!
Side note: A very special thanks to wonderful my beta-reader, DD, without whom I would have never discovered my, sudden,, love, for, commas,! (As opposed to my fixation on semicolons!!!! ~_^V)