Evening was drawing near as the two dragons and their riders flew over the mountain top that housed the royal palace. The green foliaged garden of the courtyard was dotted with people wearing rich colored cloaks. The scent of flowers carried a sweetness into the air, a pleasant welcome to the two riders as were the waving of hands by several of the garden strollers who had shaded their eyes with their hands to better see the two dragons flying home. Garron lead the way to the Halls of Dornan, and with a wave of his hand he parted from the boy and black dragon to land on a balcony several tiers above Wu Fei’s designated lair. The black dragon paused over the straw-strewn floor to release Duo from his talons, allowing the boy to safely drop the short distance. Though his wings were weary from two days of flight, he waited until his rider stepped back before he came to rest on the ledge of the balcony. Both rider and dragon had noticed upon their descent noticed that Sandrock was absent from his lair.
He and his rider are visiting the city Skeer and will be back by nightfall, Wu Fei reported.
You can hear Sandrock from such a distance? Duo asked, surprised.
He is not so far that I cannot hear nor speak to him, though his voice is faint. I may not be able to do either if he were any farther away.
Duo was disappointed by the absence of his new friend. He was extremely hungry and didn’t want to venture out of his room by himself for something to eat. Quatre’s presence, he was sure, would be a buffer against the teasing he was bound to get from the other riders.
Standing back, the boy watched as Wu Fei settled down on his bed of straw and shifted around until he felt comfortable. Once his dragon stopped fidgeting, he moved closer and sat down in the crook of his folded forelegs, then leaned back against the strong chest, ignoring the ache in his belly caused by his lack of food that day. He told himself that he’d been hungry before and, as uncomfortable as he felt, it wasn’t going to kill him. After closing his eyes, a deep weariness stole over his mind and body, the events of the day finally catching up to him. He burrowed further into his dragon, gave into his weariness and promptly fell asleep to the steady and soothing sound of his dragon’s beating heart.
The boy slept peacefully and undisturbed until the flapping of wings nearby woke him from his dreamless sleep. Climbing out of Wu Fei’s comforting hold and getting to his feet, he was greeted by the sight of the white dragon landing on the upraised lip of his lair. Quatre, sitting astride the base of his dragon’s neck, waved in greeting before Sandrock stepped down.
The sky was bright, with red, pink and orange lit clouds on the horizon, the last signs of the sunset. In the fading light, Duo left his sleepy dragon and easily found his way to the door leading to his room only to find his own chamber was very dark. Leaving the lair’s door open, he entered and searched the dark until he found a candle and carried it out to the corridor to light the wick by using the nearest flaming torch set on the stone corridor’s wall.
“Duo!” Quatre burst out of his door. The braided boy turned to see the blond rushing towards him. “Are you all right? Why did you run away? I was so worried about you.”
Duo led the way back into his room and began to light some of the candles with the one in his hand. “Why do you think I ran, Quatre? I was humiliated in front of the others and they laughed at me.”
The blond shut the bedroom door behind him and leaned against the wood surface. “Yes, I can imagine it was embarrassing for you, but you didn’t need to run away. All of us have done things that have embarrassed us, especially when we first arrived here and in the training room.”
“Have you ever lost your breakfast in front of a group of strangers who then mocked and laughed at you?”
The blond boy chewed on the inside of his cheek a moment, then answered with a quiet, “No.” He then rushed to assure the newest fledgling by adding, “But tomorrow will be better, I’m sure of it.”
Duo gave the boy a skeptical look as he set the candle down in its holder. “Do you happen to have anything to eat in your room? I’m really hungry.”
Quatre shook his head with a look of regret in his eyes. “We’re not allowed to have food in our rooms, it attracts rats. But it’s almost time for the evening meal.”
Duo frowned at the idea of going into the dining hall and facing all the other boys he’d embarrassed himself in front of that morning. Quatre, watching him closely, anticipated his problem. “If we go later, towards the end of the meal, some of the other riders will most likely have finished and returned to their rooms.
“That might be all right.” Duo chewed worriedly on the inside of his cheek, still feeling uncomfortable by the thought of having to face the other riders. Moving to his bed, he sat down, prepared to wait until it was late enough to venture to the dinning hall even though his stomach complained loudly about its empty state. To distract himself, the changed the subject. “Tell me about the place you went to today.”
“Skeer?” Quatre asked. “It’s a large city south of here. They have open markets and taverns and many of the riders go there to relax. I’ll take you sometime.” After a short pause, the blond asked, “Where did you and Wu Fei go?”
“Over the mountains,” Duo replied, purposely being vague.
Quatre’s eyes widened with understanding. “You didn’t go to the Plains of Grennal, did you?”
“We didn’t know that’s where we were until Garron told me,” he answered defensively.
“You must never go there.”
“I know that now,” Duo said, startled by the blond’s shocked expression and adamant tone.
“Duo, you could have been attacked by the northern dragons.” Quatre was obviously horrified by his outing.
“I won’t do it again, all right?”
“Do you give me your word that you speak the truth?”
“What?” He was surprised by the other boy’s concern.
“Give me your word that you won’t go there again.”
The braided boy frowned. “Can I do that? Don’t riders ever go there?”
“Not fledglings like ourselves. We’re too vulnerable right now. We could be persuaded to change allegiance through bribery or coercion. It’s said that the northern riders have tortured dragons in order to get their riders to cooperate, bending them to their will.”
Now it was Duo’s turn to be shocked. That anyone would try to hurt a dragon, especially Wu Fei, was something that was too abhorrent to even think about. “I won’t go there again until the time comes that I’m asked to by the guild,” he said solemnly.
“You swear?” the blond asked.
Duo put his hand over his heart. “I give you my word.”
At last Quatre seemed content and the matter appeared settled. The two boys took turns describing their day and what they’d seen in the places they’d visited.
A bell sounded in the distance, its echo carried through the Halls of Dornan. “The evening meal is ready,” Quatre announced. “We’ll wait a bit longer before going.” Despite his apprehension about facing the others, Duo’s empty and cramping stomach told him he really needed to eat.
When at last they peered into the dining hall, Quatre’s prediction seemed to be true; a good number of places at the tables were vacant. Several riders approached the door, so Duo held it open for them, keeping his head down to avoid their gaze. Once they had passed through, both fledglings entered the room together and Duo couldn’t help but hear the whispers and sniggering which were most likely were directed at him. He and Quatre moved forward to sit in the very same place they’d occupied that morning. Platters filled with food were promptly set down in front of them once again by the efficient and silent servers. Remembering his resolve that morning, Duo caught the sleeve of the tall, burly man who was just turning away. “Thank you, for the food and for serving it to me.”
The older man stopped and turned. His server’s garb covered broad shoulders, a thick neck and ruddy skin. Thick and wavy brown hair, tied at the back of his neck, framed a rugged face and brown eyes that displayed the man’s patience as he listened the boy speak. Then a brief smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Giving the fledgling a nod of his head, the server murmured, “It is my pleasure to serve you, dragon rider.” And then he was gone, back to carrying out his duties.
Satisfied, Duo turned his attention back to his platter of food, both delighted and dismayed by the large amount of food that had been set before him. Though he felt famished, the comments he’d overheard that morning regarding his over-eating hardened his resolve to eat less and much more slowly than he had at breakfast.
From out of the corner of his eye and under the cover of the hair over his forehead, he watched Quatre, thinking to learn from the other boy about how he should eat in a proper manner. The blond ate his meal as if he had no appetite at all, picking slowly at his food and chewing on it for what seemed an impossibly long time. Though frustrated by the slow pace, Duo matched his own consumption with the blond boy, and a moment after Quatre pushed his platter away, signaling he’d had enough, Duo did also. His hunger was only slightly abated, but he was determined not to embarrass himself again.
“Hello, Quatre. Duo.” Trowa’s familiar voice came from behind them and Duo felt the blond shift to address the taller boy.
“Evening, Trowa. Did you have a pleasant day?” Duo wondered at the blond’s enthusiasm. Was he always so outgoing and cheerful?
“Yes, a very good day.” Duo didn’t turn around, but he could hear a smile in Trowa’s pleasant voice. “How are you, Duo? Are you feeling better?”
The braided boy’s spine stiffened. “I’m fine,” he mumbled, picking at a crust of bread on his platter.
“Duo.” A hand came to rest on his shoulder and the newest fledgling looked over his shoulder to see a look of compassion on the taller boy’s face. “It’s all right,” Trowa said and offered him a gentle smile.
The braided boy managed to return it until his eyes caught sight of someone else over the taller boy’s shoulder. It was Heero, the person responsible for his humiliation that morning. He glared at the dark-haired boy, who looked like he was about to say something. Before Heero had a chance to speak, Duo turned his focus back to his companion. “Thank you, Trowa,” he said quietly, rising from his seat. Without looking up he added, “I’m going to my room, Quatre. I’ll see you later.”
Without pausing, Duo turned and walked briskly towards the door. Once he crossed its threshold, he broke into a run, bolting for his room and ignoring the curious stares of the boys he ran past, wanting to get as far away from Heero as possible.
He went to bed shortly after he’d shut and latched the door to his room, ignoring the slight tapping that came later, figuring it was Quatre. He hugged his pillow to his face as the ache of loneliness set in. He’d felt this way from time to time, growing up in Ha’ber and those had lessened after Howard became his guardian. He wished more than anything that he was safely back in the dwelling he’d shared with his former mentor, and that the stillness of the room he now called his own could be replaced by the older man’s comforting snores. By the time he fell asleep his pillow was damp with tears shed for the only place Duo had called home.
Quatre came for him again the next morning, greeting him with his usual smile, yet there was a hint of wariness in his eyes. Duo silently scolded himself. If he wasn’t careful he’d lose the only friend he made so far. From under the strands of hair that hung over his forehead, Duo looked aside to the blond boy as they walked to the dining hall. “Are you angry with me?” he asked timidly.
“No, but you were rather rude to Trowa and Heero last night,” Quatre answered. “I can understand you’re feeling awkward, but Trowa was trying to be nice to you.”
“I know he was,” Duo sighed, feeling badly that Trowa might have been upset by his abrupt departure from the dining hall. “It wasn’t Trowa I was upset with, but Heero.”
“He didn’t mean for you to be sick, Duo.”
“He could tell I didn’t know how to fight, not like he did. I’ve only had to fight when I got caught. Believe me, running and hiding is a lot easier than fighting off the village bullies.”
A look of sadness crossed Quatre’s face. “Were you picked on a lot, Duo?”
“Look at me.” Duo turned and motioned to his slight frame. “I’m short, skinny and I don’t have a family. The village I came from considered me their dark cloud after my mother and adoptive family died. Of course I was picked on, by bullies young and old.”
The blond looked shocked by Duo’s past, and probably by the bitterness evident in his voice. Duo was slightly surprised by it himself. “Oh, Duo.” The look of pity on his new friend’s face not only made him feel uncomfortable, but also angry.
“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me, Quatre,” Duo said sharply. “I might not have had it easy, but I was good enough for my black dragon to chose me over others who had families, homes and food on the table every night. He even choose me over those of royal blood. Nobody needs to feel pity for me, not when I’ve got a dragon for a best friend.”
“I... ah.” the blond stumbled for what to say, clearly at a loss for words, so he simply said a shaky, “I’m sorry.”
The two walked together towards the dining hall with an air of strained silence between them, forming a breach that neither boy knew how to break. Quatre was afraid of further offending the other fledgling, and Duo figured he’d made another mistake, one that could cost him the other boy’s friendship.
“Are you going to stay mad at Heero?” Quatre asked, breaking the silence between them. “He’s Trowa’s closest friend.”
“He hasn’t proven to be a friend of mine,” Duo replied, sounding a tad resentful.
Both boys stopped once more in the middle of the hallway to regard each other. Duo looked at the blond and saw the uncertainty in his bright blue eyes. “Like I told you, I’ve never had a friend before, other than Howard and Garron. But you’re nice, Quatre, and have been kind to me. I guess that makes you my friend, doesn’t it?” The blond nodded. Then a curious look entered the blue-violet eyes. He tilted his head and asked, “Why?”
“Why what?” Quatre looked puzzled for a moment. “Why have I been nice to you?”
Duo nodded. “Why do you want to be my friend?”
Quatre smiled shyly. “Everyone needs a friend, Duo. Even me.”
“Don’t you have other friends?”
“Yes, but no one close enough to confide in and to tell my secrets to.”
“What about Trowa?”
The blush that Duo had seen Quatre display before, especially when Trowa was close by or the topic of conversation, made its appearance yet again. “I like Trowa,” Quatre answered. “But he’s a old than I am and had been here in the halls longer. We’re friendly, but not close enough to confide in each other. I could use a friend to talk to, someone to spend my free time with. Would you mind very much being my friend, Duo?”
A strange warmth began to grow within Duo’s chest, and impulsively, he lunged forward and embraced the other boy. “Your friendship is a true gift that I gladly receive and give back to you,” he answered sincerely. “Thanks, Quatre.” He beamed a brilliant smile when felt the other boy’s arms come up and embrace him also. They stepped apart a moment later, both wearing bit shy smile after the exchange.
“Come on. I’m starving,” Duo said, suddenly feeling very happy. He grabbed the sleeve of Quatre’s shirt and pulled his friend towards the direction of the dining hall.
The room wasn’t nearly as full as it had been the day before, still, those who were sitting at the tables turned one by one to look at the late-comers. Duo stiffened, unsure of how to react, then Quatre slipped his hand into the crook of his arm and leaned in to whisper, “Smile and keep your eyes on me.” The blond then stepped forward, leading Duo to what the braided boy was coming to considered their place at the table.
Once seated and the platter of food had been set before them, Quatre began to distract Duo by telling him of his home and family. The other boy listened with disbelief at the tale of a nomadic people who lived in tents and traveled frequently, trading goods in places both near and far. Quatre was the youngest child and his father’s only son. He had more older sisters than Duo could count on his hands and feet.
“Morning!” The boy he’d met the day before, Ze’an, greeted them as came forward and sat next to Duo, straddling the bench in order to look directly at the braided boy. “Ready to face the training room again, Duo?”
Picking at the remains of his meal, remembering all too well the pain and embarrassment of the day before, Duo looked up at the dark hair and skinned boy to see no meanness in his expression. Instead, he found a look of concern that had equaled Quatre’s expression earlier. Maybe he was so used to other boys finding fault and belittling him that it was hard to believe anyone would really care about him, especially people he barely knew. He decided to try harder to not think the worst of others before they had a chance to prove themselves, one way or another.
“I guess,” he answered Ze’an. “I just hope Sims won’t make me the center of attention again.”
“He won’t,” the other boy said with confidence. “He always brings the newest rider to the forefront, as you were yesterday, to show them how hard they’ll need to work to become as good as their opponent. Though he’s not much older than us, Heero’s undeniably one of the best, and we all look to him as the fighter we want to become.”
Duo contemplated this information while playing with his food. Yesterday he’d shown the others just how pathetic of a fighter he really was. Sims’ tactic of showing him his faults hadn’t given him the desired incentive to work harder to obtain the same level of skill that Heero had. Instead, it made him feel resentful towards the person Sims had chosen to teach him that lesson.
“So where’d you go yesterday when you took off?” Ze’an asked casually.
“Over the mountain,” he replied, keeping his voice down.
“You mean this mountain?” The brown eyes of the other boy widened. “To the Grennal Plains?”
Duo shrugged, then nodded. He couldn’t help but notice the stillness around him and pushed his platter away. “I didn’t know, all right? Are you finished, Quatre?” Even though the blond’s platter had hardly been touched, Quatre indicated he was done by standing from his seat. Ze’an rose with them and the three walked from the room together. As they left, Duo felt a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, telling him that there were eyes on his back, following his exit.
He was about to say something when he was brought up short by Quatre’s hand on his arm, stopping him in his tracks. Duo followed the direction of the blond’s gaze to see two boys in a confrontation not a stone’s throw down the hall, neither of which seemed to notice them. Heero had his back against the stone wall and it looked like he was being forcibly detained by the taller blond he’d met only momentarily the day before.
“Zechs,” Quatre hissed under his breath. From the expression on their faces, it appeared the two were having an intense conversation. Heero was frowning and they heard a distinct and firm No come from him as he shook his head, his dark hair moving back and forth across his forehead. The boy from Ha’ber gasped with shock after the towering blond suddenly bent and forcibly kissed the other boy on the lips. At the sound of flesh hitting flesh, Duo’s eyes widened at the same time Quatre made a sound of surprise, and Zechs reel back and away from Heero after the shorter boy’s fist connected solidly with his jaw.
Quatre and Ze’an leapt forward and Duo followed, running toward the two as Zechs threw himself at the dark haired rider.
“Zechs!” Quatre shouted as fists were thrown and hands grasped for leverage. Ze’an and Quatre worked together to grab the taller blond and pull him away from Heero. Neither boy appeared hurt, though the look in Heero’s eyes spoke of his desire to cause some harm to the tall blond.
“Concede to the inevitable, Heero,” the smugly smiling older teen said, ignoring the two boys holding his arms. His pale blue eyes were focused solely on the boy in front of him as he added with confidence, “You’re going to be mine.”
Heero wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at the restrained blond with disgust. “Neither you nor I know yet who Relena will pick as her mate. Unlike you, I’m willing to wait and see,” Heero replied, then in a low and deadly calm voice he added, “You have no claim on me, so leave me alone.”
“Epyon is superior to all other dragons. Of course she’ll choose him.”
“I beg your pardon,” Ze’an said, rightly offended by the remark. “Just because your silver is a bit older than our dragons doesn’t mean he’s in any way superior. Heero’s blue has her choice of any male dragon, including my brown, Quatre’s white or Duo’s black.”
A derisive snort came from the indignant blond and he glanced over, and to Duo in particular. “As if that would ever happen.”
Those words, spoken with such disdain, riled Duo’s seldom called upon anger. “What’s that suppose to mean?” he demanded, stepping forward to glare up at the taller rider, his hands fisted on his hips.
The tall blond turned scornful eyes to the newest rider. “What female dragon would want a black dragon and his weak rider? He’s as foreign to Amulah as gold rain. Your dragon not only chose a nobody from the peasant population as his rider, but he doomed you to a life of being unmated. No dragon in Amulah will choose a freak of nature that your dragon is.”
Something snapped inside of Duo at those insulting words. Wu Fei was his dragon, and he was beautiful, bold and majestic. And as long as there was breath in him no one would ever call him a freak and get away with it. For a moment it didn’t matter whether or not he was unskilled or that Zechs was older, much larger and had been well trained, the rider of the black dragon was furious and he launched his slight body at the tall blond with the intent to do as much damage to the arrogant teen as he could, and to wipe the snide smile off his face.
Surprisingly, by the time he was pulled off of Zechs by his fellow fledglings, the offending blond had suffered deep scratches on his face and neck and was bent over from the pain in his groin caused by Duo’s wild kicking as he was forcibly pulled away.
Zechs took a moment to compose himself, then looked up with tears of pain and hate burning in his eyes. ‘You little dung heap, you’ll pay for that,” he spat out. Then just as he moved to retaliate against the braided boy being restrained by his friends, a commanding voice filled the area around them.
“What is going on here?” Sims demanded as he rapidly approached the five. The rider set himself in the middle of the young riders, noting the tension in the air. He looked to Zechs and studied his damaged face and the pained posture. “Who did this?” he asked, turning to the three youngest riders.
Duo shook off the other boys’ hands and stepped forward. “I did,” he said without remorse. “He insulted my dragon and no one speaks badly of Wu Fei and gets away with it.”
Sims studied the boy for a moment, and after seeing no harm had come to the boy, he turned his attention back to the tall blond. “Go to the healer then report back to me.” Zechs frowned, nodded and then turned. The entire group watched, feeling various degrees of relief as he slowly limped away.
The older rider turned back to the braided boy. “Now that’s the kind of fight I was looking for yesterday. Bring that strength of will to the training room, Duo, and you’ll do very well. Now, I want the lot of you to go the training room.” Having given them a direction, Sims turned and led the way.
Duo wasn’t sure at the moment who was more surprised by what had just happened. The three wearing yellow sashes turned to watch the rider walk away, all a bit stunned that they hadn’t gotten in trouble.
Ze’an leaned forward and whispered, “Zechs is an arrogant bastard.” He then looked to Heero who had stepped closer to join them. “Are you all right, Heero?”
The shaggy, dark-haired boy nodded, retaining an unhappy expression, obviously disturbed about his confrontation with Zechs. He slowly looked away from Sims’ retreating back to the other three with a slight tinge of embarrassment rising on his cheeks. “Thank you,” he mumbled, his eyes shifting momentarily to Duo.
Duo’s mind was in a turmoil, thinking that he now had two enemies: one chosen and the other earned. Ignoring Heero words of gratitude, he lifted his chin up and started after the older rider and didn’t stop moving even after Quatre called out his name.
The four entered the training room one by one, and Sims quickly took charge, dividing the young riders into teams. Duo was relieved to find himself paired with Ze’an. He’d been a bit worried that once again Heero would be chosen as his partner by Sims. With that fear put to rest, he refocused his thoughts, ignored any random comments about the day before, and began his training with the long staff of wood in his untrained hands.
By the time Sims called an end to their training that morning, Duo was both tired, sweaty and sore from some of the hits he’d taken. All in all, he was pleased with what he’d learned and how he’d performed. Sims himself had stood by and watched his progress, giving instruction and showing him different techniques for using his staff as he and Ze’an practiced how to defend and attack each other.
“That was a good beginning,” the older rider declared with a pleased grin, then patted the newest rider on the shoulder before moving on to the next pair of sparring boys.
Duo looked from Sims retreating back to Ze’an who was grinning at him. “That’s a high compliment coming from Sims,” the dark skinned boy said. Then slinging a warm and damp arm around Duo’s neck he said, “Come on. Let’s go to the bathing room.”
Duo’s eyes widened. He’d forgotten all about the bathing room.