To the braided boy’s delight, the next few days and then weeks passed without any further embarrassing incidents. Though he often longed for Howard and their shared dwelling in Ha’ber, he finally began to settle into his new life within the Halls of Dornan. Springtime moved forward, the valley below green and thriving after a good douse of water from frequent rainfalls followed by sunshine filled days. Fields were planted and soon summer embraced the land, and the days were longer and filled with the warmth of the sun.
By this time Duo was comfortable with his surroundings and the people he interacted with every day. The daily routine, something he’d had little of in his childhood, gave him a sense of security and belonging that he’d always craved. Each day presented him with an opportunity to learn something new. Morning became his favorite time of day, with training, bathing with his fellow riders and then listening to the many tales of Amulah’s past as told by the older, experienced riders.
Not everything was perfect, of course. Being the youngest and inexperienced meant that he had a lot to learn, and that was the reason for the daily tutoring sessions with Jan which took up most of his afternoons. Though he’d proven to be a quick student, the senior rider always seemed to think he needed to learn more.
And then there was Zechs. Some of the wariness he’d felt about the tall blond had eased after weeks had past since their altercation in the hallway and there came no retaliation. Little did he know that the older boy was just biding his time.
One bright, summer afternoon, as he was climbing down the stairwell on his way to his room following his lessons with Jan, Zechs made a very abrupt appearance, startling Duo in the stairwell. Before he could say anything to the taller teen, the blond snatched the younger boy up, threw him over his shoulder and effortlessly began carrying him down the stairs. Duo struggled as well as he could, considering the undignified position he’d found himself, upside down and with only the view of the taller teen’s lower back.
"What do you think you’re doing?" he yelled, trying to wiggle out of the firm hold the older boy had on his thighs and ineffectively hitting him with his fists on any area he could reach. "Put me down!"
Zechs ignored his demands and proceeded down the stone steps until he came to the hallway where the younger riders resided and to a door not far from the stairwell. Without warning, Duo was flung over the other’s shoulder and set firmly down on the floor, hard enough to cause the air to rush out his lungs. Before he could catch his breath and react, Zechs had grabbed the end of his braid, jumped over his body and disappeared into the open doorway. In a heartbeat he’d bent over and quickly shut the door behind him, trapping the long brown braid between the bottom of the door and the stone floor.
Duo tugged at his braid in vain, finding it steadfastly trapped; there was no way it was going to come loose, and he refused to entertain the idea of cutting it just to get away. Unable to move and too embarrassed to call out for help, Duo contemplated what he should do. He made an attempt to turn over but his hair pulled at the back of his scalp, causing considerable pain. There was no way around it, he was going nowhere on his own. He could do nothing but lie on the cold stone until someone happened by.
After some time had passed and the cold from the floor had seeped through his clothing and under his skin, he heard a soft voice call out his name. The familiar face of Princess Hilde came into view. "Duo, what are you doing?" she asked, looking both amused and curious.
"I’m stuck," he answered with a roll of his eyes, unable to keep from trembling due to the chill seeping into his bones.
"I can see that," she grinned. "How did you get that way?"
"It seems that Zechs thinks this is funny," he replied.
"I see," she grinned. "How long have you been there?"
"Is he in there?" Her eyes shot to the hateful door.
Duo tried to nod, but winced when the hair on the nape of his neck pulled sharply at his scalp.
After a moment of contemplation, Hilde cautiously stepped closer to the boy on the floor and knocked on the door. After several moments had passed with no response, she tried again. When Zechs refused to answer the polite knock, the girl took another step forward and in as firm a tone as she could muster she ordered Zechs to open the door.
From the disapproving frown on her face, it was clear that the princess was not used to being ignored. With an angry scowl she tried again. "This is Princess Hilde speaking, Zechs. I want you to unbolt your door and let Duo go."
Again there was no response. The petite girl put her hands on her hips and with affronted tone in her voice and a perplexed looked on her face she asked, "Well, just who does he think he is?" Then glancing briefly down at Duo she said, "I’ll be right back." She turned and disappeared into the nearby stairwell.
Duo was spared the embarrassment of having the other riders return from their afternoon out and seeing him in such a ridiculous position when Hilde returned a short while later with Garron in tow.
"It’s not funny," Duo insisted after seeing his older friend smiling at his predicament.
"I suppose from your position, it’s not," Garron replied. "But from my view, it is rather humorous."
"Can you just get Zechs to open the door?" Duo asked, irritated, then muttered, "I swear, if he’s cut my hair he’ll rue this day."
Garron moved closer to the door and knocked before speaking in a loud voice, announcing himself and ordering Zechs to open the door. There was no response.
After a long pause, the older rider looked to Hilde. "Rayer tells me that Zechs is out with Epyon. Would you mind taking your dragon and flying to Epyon’s lair? Once there you can slip into Zechs’ room and open the door."
Hilde nodded, then gave both riders a reassuring smile before she turned and ran down the hallway to her own room.
Garron crouched down next to Duo and sighed as the boy visibly shivered. "I suppose as retaliation goes, it could have been worse," he said, sympathy in his slight grin. "Zechs was told not to harm you after your skirmish in the hallway. He gave his word and, fortunately for him, he didn’t harm you, at least nothing but your pride."
"You’re saying this is all right?" Duo asked, incredulous. "My entire backside is freezing from being trapped on the floor for so long."
"But you’re not hurt, are you?"
Thought he was frustrated by the situation and that the man before him couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards, Duo could only concede that Garron was right. His pride was more hurt than anything else. "Will this be the end of it or will he ambush me again when I least expect it?"
"Consider it practical training," the older rider advised. "Always be alert to your surroundings and who might be an adversary. You might thank Zechs one day that he had a vengeful streak because it will have made you more sharp and alert."
"I doubt I’ll thank Zechs for anything," Duo groused.
The sound of the bar being lifted on the other side of the door ended their conversation. Duo’s braid was freed and Garron helped the stiff limbed boy to his feet. Feeling embarrassed, Duo avoided looking at the Hilde as he thanked her for her assistance. The princess paused a moment to make sure the fledgling rider was all right, then after getting a nod of gratitude from Garron and wave of dismissal, she stepped back into Zechs’ room and shut the door again, returning to her dragon.
Reaching up, Duo pulled his braid over his shoulder to inspect it, feeling relieved after seeing for himself that it was undamaged.
"Go warm your backside by the fire in the dining hall," Garron told him with a slight grin. "And if I were you, I’d tell your friends of this incident on their return before they hear a more exaggerated version from Zechs or one of his friends."
Still shivering, Duo nodded, appreciating Garron’s advice but dreading telling the others of yet another embarrassing predicament. Rubbing his behind to ease the cold numbness there, he walked stiffly to the dining hall alone.
The incident with Zechs was dismissed by the other riders as a clever practical joke on the newest fledgling and was soon forgotten, but not by Duo. Though the older rider didn’t resort to any further physical retaliation, he frequently ordered the braided boy to do some tedious task, knowing that a fledgling, especially being the newest rider, had to obey. Duo’s busy morning and afternoon schedule aided him in avoiding the older, disagreeable teen, and Garron had been right, he was more cautious about the stairs and rounding corners in case the tall blond had other ideas on how to humiliate him. Duo made it a practice to stay away from the older boy as much as possible.
Duo had hoped that with the daylight hours lasting longer he’d have more time to spend outdoors, but the newest fledgling’s schedule never varied. Each and every afternoon he studied for several hours with Jan learning his letters, reading scrolls and writing words and figuring numbers. Many times the normally active boy found the work tedious, but Jan refused to let his mind wander for long to other past times, bringing him back to task after finding Duo gazing out of the open door to the lair of Jay’s brown dragon or at the clouds and birds as they floated by.
After being released from his studies, Duo was free to do as he pleased until the evening meal. Most days he caught up to Quatre, who was usually out and about with Ze’an and their dragons. Often other riders would join them including Heero and Trowa.
Once the evening meal was over, Duo stayed behind the others to wash down the tables in the dining hall, a daily chore that had been assigned to him after his misadventure in Skeer. He’d learned from Quatre that every rider in training was assigned a task that would benefit the halls, teaching the younger riders responsibility and an appreciation for the work the servers did on a daily basis. Since most of his afternoon was spent with Jan, Duo was assigned an evening task. It came as a surprise that Heero shared the same chore. Daily the two boys accomplished their work, usually at opposite ends of the room, with too much distance between them to engage in conversation. Because of that distance, they rarely spoke to each other before finishing their chore and leaving the dining hall for their respective rooms each night.
Despite his determination to keep Heero at arm’s length, Duo was acutely aware of the other boy, his eyes frequently turning towards him. Heero made one or two hesitant overtures towards being friendly, yet the dark haired boy remained relatively quiet and aloof. Other than being somewhat stubborn by nature, Duo didn’t really know why he was so set on remaining cool to Heero’s presence. Their awkward first encounters left him not knowing what to say to the older boy, so he ended up not speaking to him at all. He could only assume that Heero might feel a bit guilty about embarrassing him front of everyone on his first day in the Halls, yet Heero had never apologized. His failure to crack through Duo’s resolve eventually led the braided boy to believe that Heero really didn’t like him at all. Could it be that the older boy merely tolerated his presence for Trowa’s sake? Even though that particular reasoning made sense, it also made Duo feel strangely sad that it might be the truth.
Not completely comfortable with the tension between himself and Heero, nor watching Quatre and Trowa flirt with each other, Duo sought to widen his circle of friends. Garron and his stunningly beautiful, black-haired wife, had more or less adopted Duo into their family. Invitations for dinner were delivered by the older rider or his mate on a weekly basis. He joined them in the home they had settled into once they began their family, in the higher tiers of Rydell. Though there remained a large room set aside for the older, mated riders on the third level of the Halls, where all senior riders resided, they also maintained a dwelling elsewhere because they had been blessed with three children. Aiden, at eleven summers, was the eldest. He was a wiry and handsome, ebony-haired boy with delicate features, all of which he’d inherited from his mother. The couple’s twin daughters, Sara and Tulan, were six. Despite the appearance of innocent blue eyes and curly, sand-colored hair, they were a mischievous pair of imps that teased dragons and riders alike. During his weekly visits to the homey dwelling, the two girls constantly vied for Duo’s undivided attention, helping the orphaned boy to feel like he was truly a part of Garron’s family.
Another very warm summer day had passed and Duo was wiping down the last dining table after the evening meal. He raised his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow and looked up from his task to see Heero finishing his last table as well. He paused, wanting to say something to the other boy, but not knowing how to break the awkwardness between them. Frustrated, he bit his lip, put the cleaning cloth into the cooling water, picked up the bucket and brought it to the place where the workers would come by later and empty it for them.
Duo passed Heero on his way out, giving and receiving a polite nod of farewell. Disappointed that nothing had changed between them, Duo exited the double doors and jogged quickly to his room knowing that Wu Fei was waiting upon him for their evening ride. After that pleasant pastime, he was confident that Quatre would join him in his room, as he said he would earlier that day.
Anticipation made his footsteps quicker. He and his blond friend were well on their way to perfecting the act of kissing. After the first couple of nights of ‘practicing’, he recalled that it had become difficult to hide the fact that both of their bodies were reacting to the closeness they enjoyed while their mouths mated.
Quatre was the first to try rubbing the stiff member in his pants against Duo’s thigh while they were busily engaged in exploring each other’s mouth. The moans that escaped the blond enticed Duo to give into the instinct to thrust his hips forward, hoping to ease his own aching.
Even after Quatre’s body stiffened and his breath hitched before he issued a long sigh, Duo continued to rock his pelvis against his friend’s body as his own passion continued to build and swell within his pants until he, too, found his release.
They had both been a bit breathless, glassy eyed and embarrassed after that experience, but it didn’t stop them from trying it again the following week. By mutual agreement, they practiced no more than once a week, and this evening was the time they decided on, a perfect end to a good day, Duo thought, as he stopped in front of Quatre’s door and knocked on it. He smiled after hearing his friend’s reply that he should enter. Maybe a little practice before flying with Wu Fei would be all right.
The longer days of summer stretched out, allowing Duo more time in the evenings to spend with his beloved dragon. After the evening meal was over and his assigned chore was finished, the two spent the remaining daylight hours soaring in the skies above the valley and mountains that made up the Dragon’s Spine. Wu Fei would demonstrate to his rider what he’d learned from the other dragons that day, and together they practiced strategic maneuvers that would help them in the event that they should have to defend themselves from an enemy dragon. Twice a week the younger riders and dragons spent their normal training time out of doors with the elder riders demonstrating fighting tactics on the backs of their own dragons.
On those rare days when Jan’s room became too unbearably warm to continue his lesson, the older rider released the braided boy early. Duo would have Wu Fei call out to Sandrock, and Quatre would return to his lair and then lead them to a clear-water lake high in the mountains to the east. While their dragons basked in the hot summer’s sun, draped across the rocks that radiated heat, Quatre began instructing him how to swim. All in all, Duo found the summer days passing quickly and most pleasantly.
Harvest time came at last with celebrations in the great valley below Rydell. Duo was happy to learn that both dragons and their riders were invited to attend the yearly event. Duo, Quatre, Trowa, Heero, Ze’an and several other of the younger riders went to Skeer where the blacksmith happily entertained them with food, ale and stories of the dragons and riders his family had known. Duo carefully sipped at his ale, remembering all too well his sickness from drinking too much on his first visit to that city and not wanting to repeat that bout of misery. And though Dirk teased and cajoled him to drink more, he politely refused, which seemed to amuse the larger man even more.
It was inevitable that with the passing of the pleasant autumn days that the clouds of the coming winter would come rolling over the northern hills, bringing rain and cooler temperatures to the mountain city and the plains below. This change in weather appeared to have very little effect on the dragons. Though Wu Fei had told his rider that he preferred heat to the cold, the fire in their bellies kept them warm even in the most frigid of temperatures.
This change in the weather, however, did have an impact on those living in the within the Halls of Dornan. The first visible change was in the clothing the riders wore. Fur lined jackets, cloaks and boots were provided to all that lived and worked in the frigidly cold stone structure. The colder temperatures also brought other changes to the routine the young riders followed daily. Instead of bathing in the large, heated pool of water together after their morning training, they washed themselves as they stood before large basins of heated water, next to the blazing fire pits. The water, normally pumped to the room and into the pool or heating vats, was much too cold to be heated sufficiently enough make the larger pool of water comfortable. The riders rapidly cleansed their bodies while standing at least partially unclothed in the cold bathing room before hurriedly bundling up in their warm clothing and cloaks for the rest of the day. Their history lesson, taught principally by Osh, was given to them while they huddled around the large hearth in the dining hall, a fire blazing within, with a hot drink cradled in each boy’s hands to help chase off the increasing chill.
Fewer boys ventured out after their midday meal and chores had been completed. Instead of taking to the sky with their dragons, many of the boys went to the training room where they kept warm by sparring with each other. Other riders strolled the halls, ventured down to the city below, or visited with each other in their rooms, huddled up to the small, individual hearths.
As much as Duo wanted to join his friends, he still had his afternoon sessions with Jan. The older rider’s room was darker now, with the door and window leading to his dragons lair shuttered and covered with thick tapestries to keep out any chilling drafts. The two of them sat close to the blazing fire and Jay fed the flames continuously with sticks while Duo practiced his letters, numbers and reading.
Duo huddled into his cloak, hating the cold. Though his cloak was fur lined, he still wore several shirts and pants to try and keep himself warm, and even that didn’t seem to keep the chill away completely. He stared down at the parchment on the table top and paused a moment to flex his aching fingers. They were stiff from both the cold and having gripped the quill so tightly as he wrote.
Jan stood from the hearth to peer over the boy’s shoulder at his work. A faint smile appeared on his wrinkled face. "Very nicely done, Duo. Both your lettering and names of former kings are near perfect."
"I’d write better if my fingers weren’t frozen," the boy replied sullenly. It was obvious he still resented spending the long hours being tutored while his fellow riders were enjoying leisure time.
"Then come and warm them by the fire," the older rider said, patting the boy’s shoulder as he urged him to stand and move towards the small hearth.
Duo moved as directed, but his resentment didn’t cease, nor did it go unnoticed.
"What’s on your mind?" Jan asked, sitting beside the boy and studying his face.
Duo brushed back some of the long strands of hair from his eyes, a fruitless gesture for the same strands fell back into place immediately. "Why have I been singled out for these lessons?" he asked. "I’ve asked around and there aren’t any other riders being given this particular kind of instruction."
The man with the graying, shoulder-length hair contemplated his answer before replying. "Most of the fledglings who come here already have a certain amount of knowledge. They generally know how to read and write and they have a basic understanding of Amulah’s history. Your knowledge in these areas were lacking upon your arrival to the Halls, and Garron asked that I bring you up to a level that would meet or exceed what the other young riders know so that you will not be found lacking in comparison."
Duo was surprised by Jan’s response. Of course he knew he wasn’t as enlightened as the other boys, but still, his daily lessons seemed to go beyond the norm. "You spend all of your afternoons teaching me just because Garron asked it of you? Why?"
The older man gave a cryptic grin to the boy, and his answer matched it perfectly. "Let’s just say that I believe in you and your black dragon, Duo, and that you will one day stand out amongst the other riders and their dragons." Knowledge of many things will be an invaluable aid to you as your life plays out."
Duo thought the man was about to say more but he suddenly stopped and pursed his lips together, indicating he was done.
The boy sighed deeply and, despite knowing the answer, he asked, "Are we finished for the day?"
At least Jan gave him a look of sympathy before he answered. "Not quite. I’d like to hear you read out loud and then I’ll let you go and find your friends." Standing, the older man went to the shelves on the opposite wall and without searching the many rolled parchments there, he pulled out a scroll with a red ribbon tied around its center. Duo breathed a sigh of relief. The red ribbon indicated the writing, penned by a royal scribe, would contain the history of one of the Amulah’s kings. He much preferred reading those tales rather than the dry, complicated words of law. Elaborate wording and strange phrases caused him to stumble as he read from the scrolls tied with blue ribbons, but Jan made him read them as well and taught him what the different words meant as well as the laws and treaties and the significance of each.
On this day he read the story of King Penicon Haldash, the great, great grandfather of the present King, Vourdan Haldash. His reign as King of Amulah was rife with repeated and vicious attacks from the north. His close friend and head of the riders’ guild, Micah, rider of the gold dragon, Bright, led the dragons of Amulah as they defended their city from the northern rebels. The war continued for a decade, and both sides lost scores of foot soldiers and horses as well as six dragons and their riders. By the time the invaders had been pushed back to the distant mountains of Corinth and Muir, their opponent’s fatalities had tripled those suffered by Amulah’s defenders. Both sides had become weary of war and the hardships it brought. It took some time to recover and before the bitterness between the two groups rose up again, years later.
Duo put the scroll containing many sheets of writing down onto the desk. "Why does the north want to conquer Amulah so badly?" he asked Jay. "What is it that drives them to war?"
"Jealously is partly to blame," the older rider explained. "Our lands are more fruitful, our commerce more progressive. You’ll not find many merchants willing to trade with the north because of past treacheries."
"What other reasons are there?" the boy questioned.
"Hate," Jan sighed while leaning back into this chair with a pipe dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth. He took a long draw from it and puffed out several rings of smoke from between his lips, which Duo watched as they floated up and slowly disappeared. "Hatred for the royal family and the dragon riders faithful to them has been passed down from generation to generation. There is no rational reasoning for their hate; it’s most likely impressed into them from their infancy, taught to children on their father’s knees and in training. The Northern descendants of the fractured guild members have passed on their jealousy and hatred to the point that it has grown so far out of proportion that it’s bred a legacy of hate."
"When was the last attack on Amulah?" Duo asked.
Jan took another draw from his well-used pipe, and puffs of smoke came out as he answered the question. "Ten years since an attack on Rydell, though nothing to the extent as it was in King Penicon’s time. It came in the form of raids on the northern borders, with reports of deception and children disappearing, but other than the theft of food and cattle, no further attack have been reported. Though we would like to believe that the northern riders have given up, we must stay alert and expect another attack from them at any given time. We can only guess that their situation is becoming desperate and that their numbers have been greatly diminished as well. Given the problem we’ve had with our dragons reproducing: having very few eggs produced, and fewer hatchlings surviving the claiming of their rider, we believe they must be having similar problems. Still, we can’t allow ourselves to be content with assumptions. I feel this time of peace that we’ve known is coming to an end, that something is going to happen soon, for our enemies have been much too quiet. Whatever is going on in the hearts and minds of the northerners, they’re keeping it a closely guarded secret. We once had eyes and ears amongst their numbers to give us warnings and advice, but over the years they too have become silent."
"Eyes and ears?" Duo questioned, his curiosity piqued.
"Infiltrators," Jan replied. "People loyal to us were hidden amongst the society of our enemies and sent to us whatever information they acquired regarding future attacks."
This was new information to Duo, though in a way he understood the concept of secrecy and trickery in order to gain information. The people of Ha’ber had always been wary of strangers or traders coming from other villages or cities who might try to learn their secrets of their quality dyes and craft at the looms with the intent to sell or use that information for their own profit. "Do we have such people amongst us here in the Halls?"
Jan frowned and pulled his pipe from his mouth. "We’ve ferreted out a few of them in the past. If they have an infiltrator here now, we’ve yet to discover them."
The idea of an enemy amongst them troubled the boy. "Wu Fei’s alright, isn’t he? He’s safe? "
"Yes, Wu Fei and all the dragons are safe," the older man said, a reassuring smile on his craggy face.
"What if they try to poison his water or food?" The boy was becoming more alarmed, thinking of all the possibilities of how his dragon could be harmed came to him.
"Dragons have a keen sense of smell and taste," Jan stated calmly, the tip of the pipe going back into his mouth in an unhurried manner. "They know when something has been tainted. Don’t worry about a possible infiltrator entering our halls, they generally are here only to gather information and we are as tight lipped about our training and defenses as they are." Then slapping his hands on his thighs, the older rider changed the subject. "Why don’t you read a little more, and then it will be time for you to go." Duo sighed and picked the parchment up again, resigned to more reading.
After leaving Jan that afternoon, Duo carried only a small remnant of worry with him from their earlier conversation. And once he found Quatre waiting in his room for him, a plan for the rest of the afternoon in mind, he forgot the matter entirely.
To break the monotony of the long and cold, near winter days, the younger fledgling riders within the Halls of Dornan spent most of their free afternoon time together, in rooms with large fires warming them and fur cloaks helping to ward off the ever-present cold. Games were played and wrestling contests were had to help use up the youthful energy pent up from being forced to stay indoors. Duo stood at the back of the room at first, content to watch the others. He had no knowledge of the games other boys engaged in, always having been left out of those types of activities in Ha’ber. Yet the more he observed the better his understanding became. Before long, he accepted Quatre’s invitation to join in, tentative at first.
"It’ll be fun, Duo," the blond said enthusiastically. "I know we’re smaller than the others, but you’ve got to be stronger than me." Duo sat on the stone floor, his knees up. Quatre sat opposite him and pressed the soles of his boots up against Duo’s. The blond then produced a pole, smooth and polished, and each boy grabbed it with both hands. "When I say go, try to pull me up. Whichever one of us is pulled to his feet first is the loser. Got it?"
"Okay." Duo firmly gripped the pole that Quatre held between them.
After both boys were ready, Quatre yelled "Now" to begin the contest. The struggle was fairly equal, and Duo couldn’t help but laugh when first he, and then Quatre, were pulled up slightly from their places, bottoms leaving the floor. Quatre, having played the game before, knew a few tricks and used that knowledge to his advantage, eventually succeeding in pulling the long-haired boy to his feet. Together they laughed, and tried it a few more times before moving onto another game.
Duo found that he usually lost these games of strength over will; his age and smaller size contributing to his defeat. But his good nature, even after losing, had won over his new friends and quickly earned him the respect of the other young riders.
The good mood of that day was dampened when Zechs and his friends entered the room and moved to watch several of the younger boys throwing dice at the wall. Feeling intimidated, some of the riders inched away from the newcomers while Quatre and Trowa ignored them and threw the dice yet again. Standing next to Heero, Duo observed the dark-haired boy stiffen and suddenly turned away from the game. Looking over his shoulder, Duo observed Zechs, giving Heero an appraising look.
"Hello, Heero." Zechs lowered his voice in an attempt to sound seductive.
"What do you want?" Heero asked, irritated at the interruption and wary of the other’s lascivious grin.
"Are you bored of playing children’s games yet?"
"No, I’m quite content."
"I’ve recently received from my family a new, finely crafted bow made from an Ash tree that grew on the mountains of Dragon’s Head. Isn’t that near your home of Wishburn? It’s made by a well-known craftsman and I’d like to show it to you. Will you come to my room with me to see it?" The older and taller boy leaned into Heero and whispered, "Come on, Heero. You know you want to."
Duo turned around, irritated at the taller boy’s presence, his invitation and innuendoes. "Leave him alone, Zechs. Can’t you tell he’s not interested in you?"
Cold blue eyes glared at the younger boy. "Stay out of this, Duo, or I’ll make you a stain on the floor."
The braided boy sighed as if he were bored of the conversation and the person looming over him. "Listen, you’ve got to quit thinking with your lower regions. You’ve got eyes to see that Heero is repulsed by your advances. You have ears to hear the disdain in his voice. Do us all a favor and go stitch the front of your britches up and leave us alone."
The braided boy didn’t notice until he’d finished speaking that the room around him had gone deathly still. He chanced a quick glance around to see that every eye and ear were trained on him and the taller teenager.
He flinched instinctively at a sudden movement, but he was too slow to get out of the way when a hand shot out, grabbed the front of his tunic and lifted him from off the floor, bringing him face to face with a very red-faced and angry Zechs.
"How dare you talk to me in such a manner," the tall blond growled angrily. "My being older than you requires your respect. You will apologize or I’ll gladly flatten that ridiculous little nose of yours."
Duo swallowed nervously, but somehow he couldn’t find it in himself to apologize to the arrogant, self-righteous teen threatening him. And what was wrong with his nose?
"Put him down." It was Heero’s sharp-edged voice that came out of the silence surrounding them.
That leering grin came back to the blond’s face. "I will if you’ll agree to come back to my room with me."
"Then that would defeat the whole purpose of Duo’s gallantry. I’m telling you to put him down and to heed his words, for he speaks the truth. I’ve told you repeatedly that I’m not interested in you, Zechs, and unless you want to fight with me in front of the others you had better unhand him."
Pale blue eyes shifted from his captive to Heero, who obviously meant every word he spoke. Zechs’ lips compressed, his eyes narrowed and Duo realized the older rider’s anger was mounting. With a sudden flash of disgust on the blond’s face, Duo was suddenly and quite forcefully tossed straight at Heero, who awkwardly caught him and stumbled backwards, the both of them tumbling to the floor. As Duo lay sprawled, face up over Heero’s body, Zechs stood over them, almost spitting with anger. "You would choose this little boy over a man, Heero? Well as far as I’m concerned you can have him, though you’ll undoubtedly regret your choice." With that said, Zechs straightened his shoulders and turned up his chin just before he spun around and stormed out of the room, trying to save face after losing his temper and displaying his less-than-pleasant character to the other riders.
Quatre stepped forward and reached a hand out to Duo then pulled the braided boy to his feet. "Are you alright?" he asked his friend.
"Yeah, I’m fine," Duo answered. He then turned to offer his hand to Heero. "How about you, Heero? Are you alright?"
Pausing for only a moment to look at the proffered hand, Heero clasped it with his own and allowed the other boy to assist him to his feet. "I’m fine," he replied once he had regained his feet again. He then began brushing off the seat of his pants and added, "Thank you."
"Let’s forget about Zechs and his unpleasantness and have some fun," Ze’an interjected, clapping his hand on Duo’s shoulder and smiling encouragingly at the other riders, bridging the awkwardness of the situation.
As the crowd of riders around them began to wander away, the excitement over for the moment, Heero moved closer to Duo’s side and in a low voice asked, "Why did you do that?"
"What? Pick a fight with someone who could do great damage to my body?" Duo chuckled, trying hard not to show how unsettled the incident had left him.
"Yes. Why did you stand in my defense?"
"Because I hate bullies," Duo stated, quickly sobering and unable to look the other boy in the eye. "I’ve faced them most of my life, and I can’t stand by and watch someone bigger pick on other people."
Heero looked at Duo with open curiosity. He’d garnered only bits and pieces of information about Duo’s past during their group outings, mostly from casual comments while visiting swimming holes or roaming Rydell or Skeer together.
Duo’s cheeks warmed slightly. "Besides, you stood up for me too," he added. "Why’d you do that?"
"Because I didn’t want him to hurt you for my sake."
Duo wasn’t sure how to respond or what to think about Heero’s answer, so in order to cover his confusion, he grinned. "Guess we showed him we’re not going to suffer his bullying any longer."
Heero nodded, a grin tugging at his lips. "Would you like to challenge me at the pull up?"
Duo laughed and shook his head, sensing that the incident with Zechs had somehow bridged some of the distance he’d determinedly put between himself and Heero. "I don’t think so. I’ve felt your strength and have little doubt you could pull me up without any effort."
"What if I were to use only one hand?"
"You would insult me."
"I could go up against both you and Quatre?"
A wide grin spread across Duo’s face. "Now that might just be a contest. Wait here and I’ll go get him."
Duo and Heero took a small step away from past judgments. Though there remained a distance between them, caused by Duo’s memory of his embarrassment and Heero’s natural aloofness, they became more comfortable and less apprehensive in each other’s company, though a true friendship they had yet to form.
The early days of summer stretched out before them with Quatre’s enamored feelings for Trowa becoming more obvious to those who cared to notice. From Duo’s standpoint, the tall, auburn-haired teen appeared more than agreeable with the blond’s flirting and frequent touching. Trowa smiled a bit more and his green eyes sparkled with affection whenever Quatre addressed him. Everyone seemed happy and content with the way life was progressing and so was he. They were all ignorant of the fact that all too soon their happy lives would be forever changed when a time of darkness and uncertainty would settle over the Halls of Dornan.