The boy from the humble village of Ha’ber didn’t know what to expect of a bathing room. When he was told to bathe he’d gone to the pool of water Howard had made by blocking with sticks and stones the stream that flowed between the slopes of the mountain behind his old hut. He couldn’t think about that pool of water without feeling a haunting shiver rattling his bones. The water from the upper mountain had always been shockingly cold and his toes had sunk into the slimy green moss that squished between his toes. The trees, boulders and brush surrounding the man-made pool kept the sun from heating the pool of water, but gave the bather a feeling of seclusion and shelter from prying eyes. After his body had gotten over the shock of the frigid cold, Duo enjoyed being in the water, slapping its surface with his hands and cupping his palms to splash large streams of water over the top surface. He had an idea that bathing in the Halls of Dornan was going to be much different than washing in Howard’s pond.
Walking beside his new friends, Duo’s new sense of modesty, which came with the changes in his body, filled him with dread, knowing that he would very soon be disrobing in front of a lot of other riders. He kept his concerns to himself as they passed through a heavy wooden door and into a large stone-walled interior. He stopped short just inside the door to study the room. He first noticed that the air was moist and warm and, unlike any other room he’d been, there was a great hole carved out in the middle of the stone floor with wooden benches set around it’s edges. The hole was filled with water and already had a couple of riders were standing in it, the water line sufficiently hiding the lower half of their bodies. Movement across the room, at the far end of the pool, drew his attention to several men in server’s clothing, working with an odd sort of system that he decided was for heating the bathing pool. Water, gently flowing from a single spout in the wall into a metal trough, was being directed into one of the two large kettles set on opposite sides of the pool and over blazing fires. On the farther side of the pool, two more servers, using poles and hands wrapped with thick cloth, were cautiously tipping one kettle over, pouring the steaming hot water into the pool below.
Duo watched with fascination as the large kettle emptied out completely and steam rose like a cloud off the surface of the pool. The servers continued to work in a manner that bespoke experience as they set the kettle back in place. One of men pulled on a rope and redirected the extended trough, allowing the slow flow of water to begin refilling the hot kettle. The cold liquid made popping sounds as it hit the empty, hot metal of the kettle.
Duo turned to see Ze’an motioning him over to the benches to the left side of the pool, where he, Quatre and several other boys were beginning to pull off their sweaty clothing. He hesitated a moment before reluctantly moving towards them. Zean smiled as he approached. "Get undressed and leave your clothing on the bench so the servers can pick them up for cleaning."
"All of them?" Duo swallowed hard.
"Do you usually bathe in your clothes?" Quatre asked, pulling off his shirt and then setting it down on the nearby bench.
Without thinking, Duo’s gaze fixed on other boy’s chest, taking in the fair skin, pale pink nipples and lean physique. "I’m not used to bathing in front of others," he said, forcing his eyes back up to Quatre’s face.
"Neither was I," Ze’an said as he removed his own shirt, exposing his dark skinned chest. "But after a while you get used to the idea."
While he debated with himself about whether or not he would ever feel comfortable disrobing in front of others, his two new friends had finished undressing and, apparently unashamed of their naked state, stood before him staring with disapproval at his clothing, still on his body. Then a glance and an odd smile passed between them, making Duo feel apprehensive.
"Looks like Duo needs a little help?" Quatre said with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
"I’ll take top, you get the bottom," Ze’an chuckled. Without hesitating the two boys pounced on the newest fledgling, and despite his trying to slap their hands away from his laces and his loud protestations, he found himself being disrobed - though it did take them getting him on the cold stone floor, with Ze’an holding him down, for Quatre to get his shoes and then his pants and undergarment off.
"In the pool," Quatre said laughing as he grabbed hold of Duo’s kicking legs. Ze’an quickly complied, capturing the protesting boy under his arms. Once they had a secure grip on the naked, squirming body, the two fledglings struggled the short distance to the edge of the pool. "Jump!" the blond shouted. Moving together they jumped with their captive rider, into pool and Duo found himself immersed by the tepid water.
Instantly freed of the others’ hold on him, Duo lurched to the surface sputtering and coughing only to hear his two so-called friends laughing at him. He splashed handfuls of water at them. "It’s not funny," he insisted, blushing with embarrassment.
"Sure it is," Ze’an replied with a goofy grin, his brown eyes sparkling with humor.
Pushing the wet curtain of hair back from his forehead the boys’ laughter trickled to a halt.
"Duo?" Quatre gasped, his eyes widening as he gazed at the braided boy’s face as if seeing him for the first time. "Your eyes."
"What about them?" Duo asked, feeling self-conscious about any part of his body being examined.
The blond looked from the long-haired boy to Ze’an, who appeared confused by the comment also. "Ah... nothing," the blond answered, somewhat abashed. "They’re just really nice eyes, beautiful even." Quatre then quickly changed the subject. "Um... we have special soap for hair, Duo. It’s scented and more gentle than regular soap. Would you like to try some?"
Having only used the soap that the village women made, which was used for every type of cleaning imaginable, Duo was curious about soap made for hair only. "Sure," he answered, though he was still wondering about that odd look of surprise on Quatre’s face when he’d commented on his eyes moments before. He decided he’d ask him about it later, when they were alone. He followed the other two boys over to the right side of the pool, wading slowly through slightly warm water that offered him some sense of privacy, covering him from his lower ribs and downward. He glanced around the room seeing most of the other boys in the pool, staying near the sides, or undressing in preparation of bathing. Thankfully, he didn’t see the two girls.
"Where are the girl riders?" he asked, vaguely remembering Quatre saying something about them the day before.
"They have a bath of their own on the other side of the wall," Ze’an told him. "Did you know Hilde is the youngest princess of Amulah?"
"The dark haired girl?" Duo asked.
"Yes. She’s the rider of the blue dragon, Perrin, and Sylvia, the blonde, is the rider of the brown dragon, Dapple. Both of them are of age to choose a mate next spring." Duo noted a gleam in Ze’an’s eyes when he spoke of the dark haired princess.
"Why isn’t Zechs going after one of them instead of Heero?" he asked.
The dark skinned boy shrugged. "After his relationship with Treize, and by the way he acts around Heero, I think it’s clear that he prefers boys to girls. Besides," he added aside with a knowing look, "he and Hilde don’t get along, seeing that her older sister, Princess Undessa, has Treize as her mate."
They reached the side of the pool where several clay urns sat on a wooden tray. Quatre reached for the blue painted vessel, dipped his hand into the wide mouth and brought out a sloppy handful of liquid that resembled thick cream. "Turn around and release your braid, Duo. I’ll help you wash your hair," the blond offered.
Nodding, Duo did as he was instructed. He pulled the wet and heavy braid over his shoulder, removed the tie from the bottom and set it on the side of the pool. After pulling his hair free from it’s weave, he turned his back to Quatre. It only took a moment before the sensation of cool liquid was felt on his scalp. Then gentle fingers began working, distributing the soap into his long, wet tresses. Never in his life had he felt anything quite like this. A sensation of sheer pleasure spread throughout his body as Quatre washed his hair and massaged his scalp. "Feels good," he moaned, then tilted his head back to make it more accessible to the blond. His body relaxed and he smiled without thinking, completely losing himself to the new and delightful feeling.
"I need you to go under the water to clean out the soap," Quatre said after a while, his voice curiously tight. A gentle push on his head urged Duo to follow the suggestion. He bent his knees and took himself all the way under the water’s surface, feeling Quatre’s fingers continuing to work though his hair.
He came up for air and went back under twice more before the blond was satisfied that the majority of the soap was out. "Have you ever cut your hair, Duo?" Quatre asked, his fingers stroking the wet tresses.
Opening his eyes and turning around to face the other boy, Duo was startled at seeing Trowa sitting on the edge of the stone pool, completely naked and watching him with interest. Proof of his embarrassment rose on his cheeks and stung his ears, knowing that not only had the auburn-haired boy watched him bathing, but Heero, sitting next to him and also in a natural state, had also. Turning slightly to avoid looking at them, he answered Quatre’s question. "Only the front part." He pulled the shorter strands over his forehead as a demonstration.
Surprisingly, it was Trowa who commented next. "Your hair is unusually attractive for a boy, Duo, though Zechs’ hair is considered beautiful as well."
"Do you think I should let my hair grow long, Trowa?" Quatre asked shyly, still playing with the brown strands of hair floating on the water’s surface.
"I like your hair the way it is, Quatre. It looks so soft, like the petals of a flower that grows in the mountains. And the color is like spring sunshine."
Duo looked over his shoulder at Trowa, surprised by his descriptive comments of the blond boy’s hair. He caught sight of Heero, just as the dark haired rider rolled his eyes at his friend’s comment, then straightened his body and slid into the tepid water. Looking back at the blond, Duo noted the happy grin and blush on the otherwise pale cheeks. Quatre had told him he wanted to be friends with Trowa, but it was obvious that something more was happening between the two young riders, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Was this what Howard had spoken to him about? An attraction of an intimate nature between two people?
"Come on, Trowa," Heero called out to his friend. "We’re almost out of time."
Trowa nodded then lowered himself into the water in the same manner that Heero had. As the long, lean body slipped off the edge, Duo caught a glimpse of Trowa’s manhood, surrounded by curly red-brown hair, before it disappeared into the soapy water, and he wondered at its stiffness. He usually only experienced that when he woke up in the morning or became excited when flying with Wu Fei. Perhaps, if he felt brave enough, he’d get Quatre alone and ask him about it, sensing that Sandrock’s rider knew more than he did about such things.
As the two older boys moved away from them, Duo’s attention returned to his blond friend, noting that Ze’an had also moved off to talk to someone else. "Do you want me to wash your hair in return?" He asked, deciding it was only right to return one good deed for another.
Surprise flashed in Quatre’s eyes for a moment, then it was quickly replaced by a pleasant smile. "That would be wonderful. Thank you." The blond disappeared under the water, then resurfaced and presented his wet head to Duo.
Scooping up a handful of soap just as he’d seen Quatre do earlier, Duo put it on the top of his friend’s head and began to massage it in. He used his fingertips, mimicking the pleasurable kneading that had been used on him. He must have been doing it right because a deep moan came from the other boy. "By the sands of Goleta that feels good," Quatre whispered in a voice that bespoke his pleasure.
After a good lathering, Duo said, "Okay, you can rinse it now," and the pale body in front of him went under the water. Once again Duo caught sight of Heero across the length of the pool. The other boy’s dark blue eyes were focused solely on him. He immediately dropped his own eyes, uncomfortable with the other boy’s scrutiny and wondering why Heero continued to stare at him like that.
Quatre’s head popped up and a spray of water accompanied the shaking of his blond tresses, hitting Duo in the face.
"Come on!" Quatre’s face beamed at him. "I’ll race you to the other side."
Duo watched as the other boy dove forward and began to move across the surface of the water, his arms moving forward and back while his legs were stretched out behind him, kicking. Duo had never seen anything like it before.
Following behind the other boy by wading through the water, Duo was surprised that his friend was moving more quickly than he was, and he felt embarrassed but fascinated when the pale cheeks of the other boy’s bottom rose out of the water every now and then. When Quatre reached the other side of the pool, he turned and gave Duo a mock frown of disapproval. "You were supposed to swim, Duo," he lightly scolded the boy still making his way to him.
"Swim? Is that what you were doing?" Duo asked, pointedly ignoring the fact that they were once again near Heero and Trowa. He wondered if that hadn’t been Quatre’s plan from the beginning.
"You don’t know how to swim?"
Duo shook his head as he came to stand in front of his friend, his long hair floating on the water surrounding him. "I had no idea one could move on top of the water like a waterbug."
"Would you like me to teach you?"
"Now?" Duo’s feelings of insecurity came back, knowing the other boys were all around them, splashing in the water and washing themselves.
"No. When we have some free time," Quatre answered. "We have to get out soon for our history lesson."
Not a moment after saying that, Sims came into the bathing room, his eyes leveling on the boys still in the water. Putting his hands around his mouth, he shouted above the noise, his voice echoing in the bathing chamber. "Alright, everyone out and get dressed."
His words had an immediate impact on the bathers and a mad scramble to the edge of the pool began. Duo and Quatre followed as well, and as they stepped out of the water, they were handed large, soft pieces of fabric to dry themselves with by the waiting servers. After wringing out as much water from his hair as possible, Duo followed Quatre to the bench where Ze’an was waiting. While drying the moisture off their bodies, they were again approached by the servers who presented them each with folded, clean brown clothing, a yellow sash resting on top.
Dressing quickly, Duo rushed to finger comb his hair before putting it in a tight braid. He held the end of the dripping tail of hair as he walked to the other side of the pool to retrieve his hair tie from where he’d left it earlier.
Because he’d dressed a bit more slowly, mostly due to his hair, he and Quatre were amongst the last to leave the room. After passing through the door, they encountered Trowa and Heero, who were standing off to the side chatting with a couple of other boys. Duo had hoped they’d be able to pass by them without speaking, but he should have known better, recalling all too well Quatre’s desire to become better friends with Trowa. Of course the friendly blond stopped and engaged the two in conversation. Duo hung back, smiling shyly at anyone who gazed his way, with the exception of Heero. It would be a long, long time, he decided, before he would forgive the dark-haired boy with the piercing blue eyes for his humiliation during his first day in training.
As a group they turned and made their way down the corridor, with Quatre walking at Trowa’s side. Duo watched the blond rider as he chatted with his taller companion. Every so often he would glance up at Trowa with an expression on his face that was just short of pure adoration. Duo recalled having seen that look before while a child in his village. One evening before Wu Fei came into his life, he happened to be eating his supper with Ladon Ruk’s family. The lead dyer of the village’s spun wool came back from a six day journey to acquire more dye from another village. To this day he could still clearly recall the expression on the man’s face as he opened the door to his home and saw his wife standing next to the table with a large platter of food in her hands. He’d could only describe the man’s expression as having been a mixture of joy, longing and desire, almost exactly like Quatre’s expression as he spoke to Trowa. It was becoming more and more clear to him that his new friend wanted something more than being just a friend to the taller rider walking next to him.
So concentrated was he on his thoughts of Quatre, that Duo hadn’t realized that Heero had taken a place by his side until he heard the other boy purposely clear his throat. Unsure of how he should act towards Heero, Duo chose to ignore him. He didn’t want to upset Quatre or appear openly rude to the older boy, even though he was still upset with him about his first day’s fiasco, but for the life of him he couldn’t think of a thing to say. What was it about Heero that made him feel awkward and tongue tied? He began to think the other boy didn’t want to make peace either, for Heero walked silently beside him, his fingers worrying the hem of his tunic. Duo felt no small amount of relief when they finally reached the dining hall.
The majority of the young riders quickly made their way to the cleared tables and took their seats. Osh, rider of a female green dragon, Falla, had briefly introduced himself to Duo before motioning with his hand to the boys lingering by the door to take their places. Duo was grateful that Heero and Trowa sat behind them, out of his sight, and hopefully out of his thoughts as well.
The older rider was a short, slightly rotund man with a thin black mustache and a pointy beard on his chin. He stood at the front of the room between the two occupied tables and began to instruct the young riders in the history of Amulah. To Duo’s delight, he recognized the story Osh was reciting from memory. It was one of the many tales Howard had told him during their evenings spent together in their shared dwelling. He’d always loved Howard’s stories and this form of instruction was his favorite and much more enjoyable than calculating numbers, reading or learning his letters. He had a good memory for tales as well as the names of the people, places and events that happened a long time ago.
Duo prepared himself to listen attentively to the tale of Amulah’s past, of its dragons and their riders. Today’s story was of Claymore and Dryden, brothers who were both riders of dragons, who sadly became bitter enemies and the cause for Amulah’s wars. It was a story that had always puzzled and intrigued Duo. The two men had been born within moments of each other from the same womb, and apparently looked like mirror images. They grew up together as close as brother could be. Everyone was astonished by their good fortune when both were chosen to be the riders of a blue and silver dragon. For years the two riders worked and fought side by side in brotherly companionship, both earning the respect and friendship of their fellow riders. Then quite suddenly everything changed when the twins became rivals for the honored position of leader of the rider’s guild. Competition between two siblings, which had always been a part of their nature, quickly turned their desire to serve the guild into a fierce and often heated rivalry. Lots were cast among guild members, with each rider being given one vote. Of the sixty dragon riders serving Amulah during that time, the final tally showed the guild was evenly divided between the two contenders.
Arguments began, and even fist fighting between friends occurred as the riders argued with each other over which of the brothers should lead them. In an attempt to calm the brewing tempest, the king cast the deciding vote, choosing Claymore, rider of the blue dragon over his brother Dryden, rider of the silver. King Kelson was young and new to the throne, and being inexperienced he unwisely joked to his court that he’d chosen Claymore and his dragon for no reason other than blue was his favorite color.
Once the king’s comments had been repeated to those in the Halls of Dornan, Dryden became enraged and immediately sought out his brother and quarreled with him. Insults were exchanged and then fists. A knife appeared in Dryden’s hand and in his anger he stabbed his brother. As Claymore lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood, those loyal to him turned on Dryden and his stunned allies. Fearful for their lives, Dryden and his followers fled the kingdom on their dragons, flying to the North where in their desperation, they attacked and conquered a village of people who lived on the flat mountain named Cordith. There the exiled riders and their dragons, cut off from the dragons in Amulah, ruled with fist and fear in order to maintain their stronghold.
Living in the North had reportedly not been easy for those used to the comforts of the Halls of Dornan. The estranged riders and their dragons soon became envious of their brothers to the south and hardened their hearts against them. Many attacks had been waged on Amulah for over the hundred and fifty years since then, fought mainly on the borders and plains of Grennal, lying just over the mountains of Rydell. The passing of time didn’t mollify the envy the riders of the north felt for the southern lands, for the descendants of Dryden, his followers and their dragons were relentless in their coveting of their former homelands. They’d joined forces with the people of the north, reputedly wild and uncivilized, who rode on the backs of strange, blood thirsty beasts against the dragons and soldiers from Amulah. Their goal had remained steadfast: to conquer Amulah and reclaim its more fertile lands and the respect they once held.
Osh emphasized to his attentive audience that jealousy had divided the brothers, and envy had been the canker that drove the northerners to war from one generation to the next. It had been a sore that festered and grew as it was passed down from rider to fledgling.
When the lesson came to an end, Duo was almost disappointed. He had been enthralled by the story and Osh’s counsel that it was imperative for all riders to know the past and learn from its mistakes in order to avoid similar ones in the future.
After being dismissed, the boys were allowed a short time to spend with their dragons before the lunch bell was sounded. Duo walked with Quatre back to his room, where they parted ways. The braided boy went directly to his dragon and, after a welcoming embrace of the scaly face, he enthusiastically retold the entire story he’d just heard to Wu Fei, sharing his knowledge and excitement with his closest friend.
The mid-day meal was lighter than breakfast had consisted mainly of bread, cheese, sliced turnips and a mug of a slightly bitter brew to wash it down. Duo pocketed one of the turnips for Wu Fei, knowing he liked them almost as much as carrots. Duo again followed Quatre’s lead in eating, but noted that other boys ate with an enthusiasm he’d not seen earlier.
He looked up from his empty plate to his friend as the blond addressed him. "There is a lake high in the mountains to the east of here where many of us go in the afternoons now that it’s warmer. Would you like to join us?"
Duo could only guess at who else would be going, but he had nothing better to do, so he decided that despite Heero probably being there, he’d join his friend for an afternoon adventure. "All right," he answered with a grin.
The blond boy’s happy expression showed he was pleased with his answer. However, just as they moved to leave the table, an older rider put his hand on the braided boy’s shoulder, holding him in place. Duo looked up and immediately noted the older man’s pocked face and narrow eyes, holding within them a look of wisdom, and set between them was a sharp, pointed nose.
"I’m Jan, rider of Zeron the brown," the rider introduced himself. "Garron informs me that you’re to be my pupil. If you’ll follow me to my quarters, we’ll begin your lessons."
Duo looked questioningly to Quatre, but the other boy merely shrugged, not able to tell him what was going on. Giving the blond a look of apology for having to change his afternoon plans, Duo obediently rose from his seat and followed the older rider out of the hall. As he walked behind the man, only slightly taller than himself and similar in size and form to Garron, Duo studied him, noting the slight stoop of his shoulders and the long gray hair that rippled slightly as it fell loose several inches below his shoulders. The older riders did not wear the brown clothing the younger trainees did, but clothing made of rich-looking cloth, thickly padded for wear inside the perpetually cool walls of the Halls of Dornan. Jan’s clothing consisted of black pants that disappeared into equally black boots, a deep green cape, thrown over his shoulders, that was simply embroidered on the bottom and neck with red and gold threads. Beneath the cape he glimpsed a vest of brown leather covering a soft-white shirt with a slightly ruffled neck. It was fancy clothing compared to what he’d been used to in Ha’ber, and Duo wondered if he’d be able to wear such fine clothing one day.
Jan led him down the familiar hallway to the far end where there was a staircase carved into the wall. Duo looked up the dark stairwell with a small amount of apprehension and was relieved to see there were windows set in the curved wall, allowing daylight in and making the passage visible. They began the upward climb with Jan in the lead and soon they passed by an opening to a hallway just above the level where he was housed. They continued climbing to the next level, where they finally exited the stairway. With Jan still leading, they walked down the torch lit hall, which was identical to the corridor housing the younger riders. Jan stopped at last in front of a door, opened it, then stepped aside with a hand motion, signaling Duo to proceed into the room.
The boy from the small western village gaped at the room, more richly adorned than any he’d ever seen. The rider’s living space was at least three times the size of his room two floors below. But what caught his appreciative eye was the stone walls, or rather, the tapestries that covered them, some of which he thought might have been crafted in Ha’ber. On the floor were more plush and thick rugs, their colors vibrant and the scenes depicted on them were of green hillsides and dragons in flight. His eyes strayed to the bed and its size dumbfounded him. Surely it was a bed fit for a king, he thought. Its height and width were more than he ever imagined a bed could be. With his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open, Jan took his elbow and led him to an ornately carved desk with a stool set next to a much larger, pillow padded chair. It was on that cushioned chair that the rider sat down, motioning Duo to take the stool.
"Garron has asked me to continue where your mentor left off in teaching you your letters and numbers," the rider said, easing himself into the larger chair. Bringing his hands up, the rider steepled his fingers, and in a thoughtful pose he studied the newest fledgling. With a sigh of resignation, silently cursing Howard and Garron both for mentioning his deficit, Duo prepared himself for what he knew would be a most tedious afternoon.