The hour was late when Quatre finally returned to his room, a bit light headed from the fine wine that had been served at the celebration. He paused at his door and glanced down the corridor towards the entrance of Duo’s room and a wave of guilt swept over him for having shut his friend out of his life. He missed Duo, missed talking and laughing with him, but Trowa had felt... uncomfortable with the knowledge of what he and Duo had done together.
Since meeting Duo in the Spring, his friendship with the braided boy had grown. Their close bond was envied by more than a few riders, and the fact that he and Duo had practiced kissing together caused Trowa to feel that their budding relationship was threatened by the fledgling. The auburn haired boy had spoken plainly, telling him that the only way he could prove his feelings for him was to forsake Duo’s friendship. Desperate to reassure Trowa, he’d agreed, hoping to secure the older boy’s trust and to prove himself worthy and capable of being faithful. At the time he’d have agreed to just about anything in order salvage what he believe was his last chance to be in contention as Trowa’s future mate. Even so, he regretted his behavior towards Duo, especially after seeing the look of hurt in the braided boy’s eyes when he purposely ignored him. He’s also known feelings of jealousy when first Ze’an and then Heero quickly stepped in and took his abruptly vacated place as Duo’s best friend. But after realizing that Trowa wasn’t going to bend, he was glad that the fledgling had the comfort and friendship of the other two riders.
Without realizing his intentions, Quatre found himself turning and stepping away from his own door. With each step came a growing sense of determination. He quickly made his way towards the once familiar door, intending to speak to Duo, explaining to him the reason for his sudden desertion.
Standing in front of Duo’s door he raised his hand, paused a moment to question himself whether this was a wise decision or not, then softly knocked. He leaned forward, his ear towards the door, but didn’t hear a sound. He knocked again, a bit louder this time, then lifted the latch.
The room was dark and even the burning embers in the fireplace didn’t give off enough light to show him the boy sleeping soundly in his bed. Not wanting to disturb Duo’s slumber, Quatre backed his head out of the doorway, quietly shut the door, then returned to his own room. Tomorrow, he decided, he’d approach Duo and try explain his behavior towards him and sincerely apologize, then he’d tell Trowa that he didn’t want his friendship with the braided rider to be over. He’d already given his word not to kiss Duo again, perhaps it was time Trowa showed a little trust in him.
Quatre was in the middle of dressing the next morning when Sandrock spoke to him with a tone of urgency. //Wu Fei is anxious. He cannot hear his rider and he does not respond to his queries. He fears for him and asks if you will go to his room to make sure he is well.//
Throwing the rest of his clothes on in a hurry, Quatre told his dragon that he’d go straightaway.
He hastily left his room, hopping into his boots as he entered the hallway where he stumbled into Heero as he passed by his door. The dark haired boy caught him from falling and righted Quatre, holding onto his shoulders until his boots were securely on.
"Thanks, Heero. Are you going to Duo’s room also?"
"Yes. Relena says Wu Fei is upset and ready to tear apart the outer wall in order to get to his rider."
"Then let’s hurry."
With his boots on, Quatre straightened and joined the other rider as they jogged the short distance to Duo’s door. Heero banged his fist loudly on the wooden surface and shouted the long-haired boy’s name, loud enough for the deaf to hear, or so Quatre thought. The older boy barely paused before opening the door and entering the dark room. After calling out the fledgling’s name and getting no response, Heero looked back at the blond and said in an urgent tone, "Quickly, get a torch."
Quatre ran to the nearest bracketed torch lighting the hallway and wrestled it out of his hold. As soon as it was freed, he ran back to the door where Heero waited. The dark-haired boy took the torch from him, held it high and led the way into the room. The light banished the darkness and revealed an empty and unmade bed. Both boys breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the braided boy was not lying gravely ill in his bed as they had feared. Troubled deep-blue eyes turned to the blond. "Where is he?"
Quatre blinked. "I don’t know. Let me see if Wu Fei has heard from him." A moment later Sandrock confirmed that the black dragon still couldn’t hear his rider and that Wu Fei was becoming frantic. "Could he be so ill that he’s wandering the halls, unaware of where he is?"
Heero shook his head. "Wu Fei would have been able to sense him. The only time a dragon can’t sense his rider is if they’re dead or in an unnatural sleep."
Both boys now wore twin expressions of alarm.
"I’ll go get Sims or one of the other riders and alert them to Duo’s absence." Quatre said, turning towards the door. Calling behind him he added, "See if you and Relena can help Sandrock calm Wu Fei until we can figure out what’s happened."
Quatre ran all the way to the dining hall. Once inside the room he paused for just a moment to make sure Duo wasn’t asleep at his place at the table. His heart sank at not finding the boy where he’d hoped he’d be. Thankfully, both Sims and Osh were present and sitting at their usual table, half-eaten platters of food before them. The blond ran towards them, gaining the attention of everyone in the room.
"Quatre, what’s the matter?" Osh asked, having seen the expression on the boy’s face as he rapidly approached the table.
"It’s Duo. Wu Fei can’t contact him and he’s not in his room or bed. We don’t know what’s happened to him."
Both men immediately got to their feet, exchanging expressions of concern. "I’m sure he’s fine," Sims said to Quatre, resting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "We’ll make a thorough search of the Halls for him. He has to be here somewhere."
The three quickly left the room leaving in their wake the remaining riders who immediately began to speculate about what might have happened to the braided fledgling. Trowa stood and followed the three with Ze’an two steps behind him.
The two boys entered Duo’s room and saw the senior riders making a thorough search of the space. The door to Wu Fei’s lair was open, the cold winter slipping past the black dragon’s face as it filled the doorway as he waited for his rider to be found, his talons scraping on the stone floor of his lair, displaying his anxiety.
Sims rose from having looked under the bed and made eye contact with Osh. "I’ll get a search started. Tell Falla to contact all of the other dragons. Have them notify their riders that we have a missing rider."
By the time Sims reached the dining hall the riders within the room were gathered around Zechs, who was organizing them into groups in preparation for a search for the missing boy. The older rider thanked the tall blond and assigned each group to a particular part of the Halls. He instructed all riders that they were to report back to him in the dining hall when their search concluded or if they found the missing rider. All searchers returned less than an hour later without having found Duo. The search for the boy was then extended to the palace above and the city below.
Heero, riding Relena, flew with Wu Fei and Sandrock over the valley below, searching for any trace of the braided rider. With each passing hour, riders and dragons alike became more fearful for the fledgling by his continued absence, and speculation as to what had happened to him ran rampant.
The older riders met in the upper level of the Halls to confer in private while the younger riders continued their search. The small group of men met in Jan’s room, their faces grave.
Garron ran his fingers through his greying hair, worry etched on his face. "How can this be?" he questioned his close friends. "Wu Fei has no sense of the boy, which can only mean he is dead or unconscious."
"No one in the city below has reported finding a body," Osh reported, laying to rest any fear of Duo having sleepwalked to his death.
"I know we don’t want to consider it a possibility," Jan began, looking thoughtful and apologetic at the same time. "But it’s possible that someone might have taken him, either because of Wu Fei or that they discovered his heritage."
The expression on the other four faces showed the senior rider that they had all considered that possibility. Garron shook his head. "I tried to keep him safe by restricting his movements as much as possible to the Halls. I only told you four of the secret Howard entrusted to me, no one else."
Hane looked down on the others from his superior height as he said, "Any one who looks into the boy’s eyes could easily discern who fathered him. Perhaps it was a mistake to try and hide him. If we’d brought this matter to the king, he might have been able to shelter the boy."
Osh snorted. "Like he protected his brother? Who ever pushed Prince Elia from his balcony to his death is still unknown and might possibly be the one responsible for Duo’s disappearance."
Rayer’s voice suddenly came to Garron’s mind. //Relena and her rider have returned with the black dragon. Wu Fei is highly agitated, his eyes are wild with fright.//
//Tell all the dragons to send words of comfort to sooth our youngest dragon. We must help him until his rider can be found.//
//Is the boy alive?//
Garron could hear the worry in his dragon’s voice. //We hope so.//
A sudden long and sorrowful cry filled the air. //Wu Fei is crying out for his rider. He’s desperate for the boy’s voice and presence.// Rayer explained, sending his own feelings of anxiety to his rider. Garron had no doubt that the other dragons were feeling anxious as well.
//Help him in whatever way you can,// was the only advice he could give.
The winter sun was slowly setting in the cold and clear western sky. Long fingers of pink and orange light stretched out across Amulah’s sky as the sun set. Sandrock sat in his lair with his white head stretched over the barrier between his space and the black dragon’s.
Relena sat perched on the ledge of Wu Fei’s lair, watching the distressed dragon fret. Every once in a while, the black dragon would lift his head, stretch his neck out and let loose a long, mournful bellow that was immediately answered by all the other dragons.
The people in the city below had learned of the search for the fledgling and they paused from their daily work to help search for him while the palace had directed the servers to search every nook and cranny of the royal house. All their efforts were of no avail. No one had found any trace of the missing fledgling. The haunting wail of the grieving dragon brought a pall of sorrow over all who heard it. Children clung to their mother’s skirts while men and women shook their heads in sadness as the rest of the dragons vocally sympathized with the youngest dragon.
Heero, Relena and Sandrock spoke constantly to Wu Fei, trying to offer support and comfort. Quatre, Trowa, Ze’an and their dragons joined them after the search ended, lending their own words of comfort and encouragement even though their hearts feared the worst.
Then suddenly, Wu Fei paused, standing still as stone, his head up and tilted at an angle while his eyes gazed up at the darkening sky. He had the appearance of listening to something from far away. Without warning, the black dragon suddenly leapt up onto the balcony’s ledge and jumped, his wings snapping out afterwards. The four boys watching gasped in horror, believing that in his despair the black dragon was ending his misery by throwing himself over the mountain and plunging to his death rather than face a life without his rider. The welcome sound of flapping wings immediately put that fear to rest and the mighty black dragon rose into the sky and kept moving upward. Riders and dragons leaned over their balconies to follow his ascent into the darkening sky until he rose over the Palace above and disappeared over the mountain top, flying northward.
Heero jumped onto Relena’s back and quickly strapped himself down. //Follow him,// he cried out to his dragon. He ignored the anxious calls of the other boys, needing to see for himself if Wu Fei had detected his rider or not.
The blue dragon and her rider took to the sky once again, and when they reached the top of the mountain, several other dragons from the upper levels of the Halls also took flight, their riders on their backs.
After Heero’s abrupt departure, Quatre climbed over the wall that separated Wu Fei’s lair from Sandrock’s, then scampered up his dragon’s body and straddled his neck. "Let’s go!" he yelled after securing his legs in the bindings.
Sandrock placed one taloned foot on the raised edge, preparing to leap, but then paused. A moment later his foot resettled on the lair’s floor. //The elder dragons forbid us to follow.//
Shocked, Quatre asked, //What? Why?//
//Wu Fei is flying fast over the Grennal Plains, towards the place where the northern dragons abide.//
If he hadn’t been strapped down, the blond boy would have tumbled off the back of his dragon when he realized where Duo was. Fumbling with clumsy fingers to loosen the leather ties, he finally managed to free his legs and jumped from Sandrock’s back to the stone floor of his lair. Turning, he grabbed hold of his dragon’s face and gave him a quick, heartfelt embrace before he turned to find someone who could give him some answers.
//Rayer and Zeron are telling me to return to our lair,// Relena reported to her rider.
Heero’s body was numb with cold, but the blood in his veins felt as if it were simmering from his barely controlled fear and anger. //If we turn back now we’ll lose sight of Wu Fei,// he replied angrily.
//Zeron’s rider says Wu Fei needs to find his rider or he will waste away. The older dragons call to our black dragon but he does not heed them, his need for his rider is much stronger.//
//But Duo is obviously in the northland. We have to get him back.//
There was a pause before Relena’s sympathetic and sad voice replied, //Wu Fei and his rider may be lost to us. But Rayer’s rider promises to at least attempt one rescue before relinquishing the fledgling to the northern riders so easily.// In a resigned tone she added, //Rayer commands me to return, and I must obey.//
Heero knew the older dragons and their riders were simply trying to protect them, but at the moment, turning back without Duo did not feel like an acceptable course to follow. In the end, he really had no choice for Relena was compelled to obey the elder dragons. //Do as you must,// he told her, defeated for the moment. His heart suddenly felt as if it was being tightly constricted. It hurt, and tears of frustration welled in his eyes as a terrible sense of loss overcame him. But he refused to give into those tears. Tears, he decided, would be a sign of mourning, of having suffered a great loss. He refused to give up on Duo so easily, not to a place and people who, if tales could be believed, were monstrous and depraved. No, he would hold back his sorrow and figure out a way to retrieve the braided boy and his black dragon from the northern rebels who had obviously spirited him away.
Soon after they turned around, the older dragons flanked Relena, and as a group they made their way back over the mountain known as the Dragon’s Spine. A somber and gray-face Garron veered off to land Rayer on the terrace of the high palace.
//Rayer’s rider is going to speak with the king about Wu Fei and his rider being taken from us,// Relena informed him.
//Let’s return to our own lair,// Heero said despondently.
A moment after Relena stepped down onto her lair, Heero had unstrapped himself and jumped to the stone floor. He turned to remove her harness from around her belly and was rolling the strap in his hands when Trowa, Quatre and Ze’an burst out of his bedroom.
He turned to them, seeing expressions of shock and grief on their faces mirroring his own inner turmoil. Quatre got to him first and grabbed hold of his sleeve. "Is it true what they’re saying, Heero? That Duo was spirited away by the riders from Corinth?" The boy’s blue eyes shimmered in the faint light of the near evening.
"Wu Fei was flying true north when I last saw him," Heero answered.
Ze’an’s dark eyes shifted nervously. "How can this be? We’re supposed to be safe here. Are we also in danger of being taken?"
"Why Duo?" Trowa asked, frowning. "He’s the least trained and the youngest of us all."
Heero shook his head. He had no answers as to why or how Duo had been taken away from them.
"Maybe it was because he was left alone last night," Quatre ventured, wiping tears from his eyes with the heel of his hands. "His being ill and left behind gave whoever took him a clear opportunity to get out of here unnoticed."
"Poor Duo," Ze’an said mournfully, his eyes cast downward. "I suppose we’ll never see him again."
"Don’t say that!" Heero snapped at the dark skinned boy. "We’re not going to let the northern riders keep him. We’ll find Duo and bring him back here."
Quatre’s chin quivered as he struggled to keep his composure. Guilt over how he’d treated his best friend during the last few weeks was compounded by his feelings of loss and sorrow. "How are we going to do that, Heero?" he asked. "We’re forbidden from flying over the Grennal Plains."
"I don’t know," Heero replied testily. "But judging from the look on Garron’s face, he won’t abandon Duo to a harsh life in Corinth."
"I hope you’re right." The other three turned to look at Trowa, surprised by his comment. He understood their questioning expressions. He’d more or less asked Quatre to turn away from his best friend because he’d been jealous. He told the blond that he was uncomfortable knowing that he and Duo had spent months kissing each other. He told Quatre that if he were truly serious about his interest in him, he had to choose between them.
Trowa hadn’t been blind to the pain the abrupt ending of the friendship brought to both boys. Quatre often spoke of feeling badly for hurting Duo and asked if Heero wouldn’t mind befriending him. Heero had willingly accepted the task, saying he’d always intended getting to know the black dragon’s rider better. The void left by the blond had been filled by both Heero and Ze’an.
Answering the other boy’s unspoken question, Trowa explained himself. "Just because I was jealous of Duo doesn’t mean I wish him any harm." He then turned to address the blond boy standing next to him, still struggling to keep from weeping for his lost friend. Softening his voice he said sincerely, "I’m sorry, Quatre. It wasn’t fair of me to ask you to not be friends with Duo any longer. I know my request, that you choose either myself or Duo, hurt the both of you, and I‘m deeply sorry for it."
Quatre nodded his head, accepting the apology. "But now it’s too late," he said mournfully and with a sniff. "I’ll probably never get to explain to him why I acted the way I did towards him."
"Stop that!" Heero snapped, grabbing hold of Quatre’s upper arm and giving the boy a firm shake. "You act as though Duo’s dead. He’s not. The northerners might have taken him, but I won’t be satisfied until we take him back."
Quatre stared up at Heero’s fierce expression, sharp with determination. His heart told him that Heero truly believed what he was saying, that they would get Duo back. Brushing the tears from his face and eyes, he adopted a more resolved expression. "You’re right. I won’t cry for Duo any longer," he stated, sniffing back the lingering tears. "We will get him back, even if we have to make our way north in carts drawn by wildebeasts and dressed in the guise of women. They won’t keep him from us."
Heero released his painful grip on the blond’s upper arm to pat Quatre on the shoulder. "Even if it’s just the two of us, we’ll bring him home to the Halls."
"Three of us," Ze’an interjected, stepping up to put his hand on Quatre’s other shoulder.
"Four," Trowa added, his hands clasping onto Heero and Ze’an’s shoulders.
Quatre attempted a weak smile. "I’m sure there are others who will help us," he said. The gloom that had been displayed on his face was slowly receding, replaced with an expression of hope.
Ze’an’s smile was a bit more assured. "Then let’s go to the dining hall where everyone else is gathered and come up with a plan to rescue our fledgling."
Together the four boys took a step back from each other and turned to follow Heero as he left his room.
Upon entering the hallway, they were met by a grim-faced Zechs who directed them to follow him. He silently led the somber group to the dining hall where the tall blond gave a nod of his head to Sims before they joined the other riders by taking a seat at the tables. The older rider stood in front of the group gathered to hear what was to be done.
Sims waited until the last of the riders in training were seated. His eyes, meeting those of every occupant in the room, were sparked with pent-up anger. His whole manner was grave. "Today Amulah had suffered a severe blow," he began, his voice sharp and angry. "One of our own has been taken from the Halls of Dornan and carried away to the north. Someone has infiltrated our home and done the unthinkable. We cannot allow this to happen again."
Once again his eyes searched those of his listeners. "We are not safe until the traitor has been discovered. Even as Garron speaks to the king, Jan and Hane are questioning last night’s guests and castle servers. We have come to the conclusion that the only way Duo could have been taken from here without his dragon being alerted to the danger was if he were drugged or physically harmed to render him unconscious. He was then probably carried from his room to the other side of the mountain where a dragon and rider from the north must have landed and taken him from us."
A murmur of concern rippled through the room, causing the older rider to pause a moment in his speech. When the room quieted, he began again. "As a precaution, we must take measures to watch out for each other. Eat your meals together, stay in groups for safety. All visits to Skeer and Rydell are hereby forbidden, at least until we find the traitor."
His eyes moved to the youngest riders. "Since it was our youngest fledgling that was taken, we can only guess that our younger riders may be at risk. Therefore, I strongly suggest that each of you pair up with another rider to share a room, go to your meals and lessons together and generally watch each other’s back. Duo was left alone and susceptible last night, though we had no reason to believe he was in any danger. We will do all within our power to keep the rest of you safe, your dragons secure and pledge to you that nothing like this will ever happen again."
The general questions of who could have done this and why were asked of Sims, but his answers were only speculation and given with the intention of calming the upset young riders.
"But why Duo?" Princess Hilde asked, her face pinched with worry following the day’s events.
Sims suddenly appeared uncomfortable and he again exchanged a questioning look with Osh, the only other rider in the room who knew of the missing boy’s past.
"Many of you know that since their departure to the north, the dragons of Corinth and Muir have had limited mating selections for their dragons. Decades ago we had word that their dragonlings were dying in the egg or shortly after bonding with their rider. If they did survive, they were sickly and most didn’t live out the year. It was a warning to us that the bloodlines of the dragons were becoming too thin. New blood was needed to strengthen the dragonlings and secure the dragons’ place in our world. When these very same weaknesses came to our dragons, we sent an emissary overseas in search of a dragon egg to be exchanged for one of our own. We hoped with this exchange to infuse new life into the bloodline of Amulah’s dragons, to avoid any further frailties and infirmities in our dragonlings that we believe now plague the dragons to the north. Wu Fei was our hope for the future."
A young, redheaded rider named Clavel stood. "So the northern riders took Duo to lure Wu Fei to Cordith for mating?" he asked.
"We can’t be sure, but yes, I now believe that is the primary reason," Sims answered.
Ze’an stood next, looking angry. "Are we going to let them get away with this?"
"The king is being informed of last night’s events and we will counsel with him to determine if going to war over our newest fledgling is justifiable."
Heero shot out of his seat, anger sparking in his eyes. "Justifiable? We were told when we came here that this was our haven, that we would be safe residing here until our training was complete. Are you saying that we are dispensable? That we and our dragons are only of worth if we don’t happen to be captured by the enemy?"
Sims glared at the angry boy. "What I’m saying, Heero, is that war is costly, and not only in coin but in the lives of dragons, riders and the men called to bear arms for king and country. Have no doubt that the north will put up a fight to keep what they have taken. Their very lives depend on Wu Fei mating with one of their own."
"So if Wu Fei is mated to a dragon in Cordith, Duo will be as well, correct?" Heero asked, challenging the older rider with his cold stare. "They both have a year to go until they are eligible for mating. Surely we can come up with a plan to rescue them before that time."
The older rider frowned darkly on the boy. "Do you honestly believe that the unscrupulous riders of the north care for our customs? I have no doubt that they will use, and if he refuses to cooperate, abuse Duo as well as his dragon in order to make them do as they wish, whether they’re ready and willing or not."
"You cannot allow that to happen!" Heero growled out through gritted teeth, fists clenched tightly and he was visibly shaking from outrage while the eyes of the other riders in the room closely watched the heated, verbal argument between the older and younger rider.
Sims breathed in a deep breath and visibly calmed as he exhaled. He then addressed the distraught boy in a more gentle manner, his tone of voice regretful. "At the moment there is nothing we can do. The winter winds of the north are upon us. To fly northward now would risk our lives as well as that of our dragons."
Heero straightened his back. "Then I’ll go and get him myself." The room went still.
"You will not!" Sims stated firmly. "If you and your dragon go to Cordith alone or with a few of your friends with the intent of rescuing him, you risk a similar fate as Duo, or perhaps even worse, losing your life as well as your dragon’s in the attempt."
Quatre rose to his feet and stood next to Heero. "Then what are we to do? Abandon Duo to his abductors?"
"It’s not what I would choose to do," Sims answered, forcing himself to remain calm. "Before a rescue is attempted we must search out and contain the person responsible for Duo’s abduction. We cannot attempt a rescue only to have it jeopardized by the north finding out about it before we even leave here. Any rescue plan we devise will have to be well thought out and perfectly executed in order to free Duo and his dragon."
Quatre turned to Heero, sensing the upset boy’s inner turmoil. Bringing his hand to his aching chest, he tried to cope with the onslaught of emotions coming from the older boy. He could literally feel Heero’s heart breaking. He knew Relena’s rider had been curious and somewhat fascinated by Duo, but he’d had no idea Heero harbored such strong feelings for the fledgling. It warmed his heart to realize how much the normally stoic boy cared. Realizing the depth of Heero’s feelings made the loss of Duo all the more painful. "We’ll get him back, Heero," he said with as much conviction as he could muster.
Heero turned his head to look at the blond. Though his facial expression was inscrutable, his eyes reflected his internal pain. Quatre leaned in closer, and in a low voice said softly, "We have to believe he’ll hold on until we can get there, Heero. Considering Duo’s past, I truly believe that he will."
Heero sighed just before the tenseness in his body eased somewhat. He gave the blond boy a nod before resuming his seat. Quatre also sat and the tension in the room seemed to lessen as the assemblage became much more orderly and calm.
With the attention returning to him, Sims addressed the group once again. "For those of you who missed their afternoon meal, a late meal will be prepared for you. Remember, above all, to stay in groups for your safety."
Sims then sat down at the table he usually frequented, signaling the discussion was over. At least half the riders got up and left the room while the others sat and talked amongst themselves in hushed voices as they waited for the promised meal to be served.
There was little to be said between the four young riders who sat numbly at the table, the place across from Quatre, where Duo always sat, remained ominously vacant. Platters of food were placed before them by somber servers, but despite the aromatic smell of the meal, the boys found their appetites had temporarily disappeared.
While absently toying with his food, a large hand settled on Heero’s shoulder. He looked up to see the familiar tall blond rider standing behind him. Surprisingly, Zechs wore a sincere look of sympathy as he said, "I’m sorry, Heero. I know that you and Duo were becoming friends." The pale blue eyes then took in the other three. "And to you also I extend my sympathy for the loss of your friend."
"He’s not lost, just taken," Trowa quickly corrected him after seeing a flare of anger in Heero’s eyes.
"Of course," Zechs said gravely. "If you need someone to room with, Heero, I would be happy if you would consider sharing my room and bed."
The dark haired boy stiffened. "No. But thank you for the offer," he replied stiffly. "I’ll be rooming with..." He looked at the other three boys and observed two of them casting glances at each other, the other boy gave him a nod of acceptance. "Ze’an," Heero finished.
"Very well," the blond said politely and stepped back. "Just be careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you."
After his footsteps announced his retreat, Heero turned to give the older boy’s back a venomous glare.
"Was that Zechs’ attempt at being subtle?" Trowa asked sarcastically.
Ze’an stifled a snort. "Subtle is not one of his endearing traits."
"He still has a coin purse full of hope," Quatre said, following the taller boy’s back as he exited the dining hall.
"Relena will not be requesting Epyon to be her mate if I have anything to say about it," Heero growled. He turned back to focus on his plate of food, aware that the other three were staring at him with varying expressions of surprise on their faces. Never before had Heero hinted at a preference for Relena’s future mate. His stating that Zechs would not be a contender was an unusual and bold statement for the usually quiet and private young rider.
Ze’an exchanged glances with the other two, then wisely changed the subject. "Do you wish to move into my room, Heero, or should I move into yours?"
"Perhaps I spoke to rashly," Heero said with a glance to Trowa. "Considering how you and Quatre feel about each other, I should probably room with you. The elder rider’s will be concerned about your relationship progressing too quickly before the Spring."
With a regretful expression on his face, Trowa looked away from Quatre and nodded. "You’re right, Heero. The elder riders would probably separate us any way."
Ze’an was there to break up the awkward moment. "So, you’re with me, right, Quatre? Your room or mine?"
"My room, if you don’t mind," the blond answered quietly.
Ze’an gave Heero a nod of approval.
"Why don’t the both of you move into my room," Trowa suggested. "That way you’ll be right next door to Heero and I, allowing the four of us to watch out for each other."
"All right," the blond boy replied while pushing his plate away before moving to stand. "I’ll go gather a few of my things."
Before he could leave the table, a firm clasp on his wrist stopped him. "I’ll go with you and help you gather your things." Though the day had been trying and his heart was aching for his lost friend, Quatre managed a small smile of gratitude at Trowa, who, in turn, made an attempt to return the gesture. After brief words of farewell, the two turned and left the room, leaving Heero and Ze’an sitting mute at the table.
Ze’an finished his meal, noting that Heero seemed to draw further into himself with each passing moment. The troubled boy’s eyes were focused on his half-eaten meal, his knife making the remaining half unappetizing to look at. Standing, Ze’an paused to see if Heero would follow, but the distracted rider seemed oblivious to his movements. "Heero, let’s go," he said, startling the other boy.
Unfocused blue eyes looked up at him, and Heero blinked as if he were just waking up. "Are you all right?" Ze’an asked.
Heero gave a slight shake of his head. He wasn’t ‘all right’, not in any sense. Slowly rising to his feet he said, "Relena can’t hear Wu Fei any longer. He’s too far away."
As the two boys walked out of the dining hall and headed towards Ze’an’s
room, Heero’s footsteps faltered when Relena’s sorrowful cry shook
him to the core of his being. The mournful cries of all the dragons of Amulah
rose together once more. The forlorn sound filled the chill winter air, expressing
the grief felt by Amulah’s dragons and their riders for the loss of
the black dragon and his fledgling rider.