Dark Cloud Rising
by Dyna Dee
It was nearly dark by the time Heero and Trowa returned to their dragons. Both were surprised at finding the black dragon resting comfortably with the two females. A quick scan of the area confirmed their suspicions that he was unaccompanied by another dragon and that his rider was no where to be seen. The two friends shared a questioning look regarding.
"Relena, ask the black dragon where his rider is," Heero said as he stroked his dragon's snout, speaking out loud for Trowa's benefit.
After a moment his dragon replied, //His rider went into the city quite a while ago. Wu Fei is beginning to worry.//
"Did anyone accompany the newest fledgling?"
//No. He is alone. Wu Fei has just told me that neither he nor his rider were aware that they were not to visit the city unaccompanied.// Heero immediately turned to Trowa and related to him what his dragon had said.
The auburn-haired rider frowned. "We should go back and look for him." He glanced over his shoulder at the darkening city. "He could be in trouble."
"If we do, we'll be late in returning."
The taller teen knew Heero had a penchant for doing what was expected of him, it had been an essential part of his upbringing and training before coming to the Halls. That was all well and good, Trowa thought, but the situation could turn serious and adhering to the rules this time might have dire consequences. "I'd rather get in trouble for being late than for not helping a fellow rider. Duo doesn't know what he's up against in Skeer. He could be in trouble."
Heero considered his friend's words for a moment, then nodded. "Let's stay together then." They left their dragons with reassurances of a quick return and ran back to the city, its streets having turned dark and lit only now by the few torches that had recently been set out and the light filtering out of open windows and doorways. Trowa led the way toward the city center, pausing now and then to ask passersby if they'd seen the fledgling rider with the long braid. One woman, a silver coin clutched in her hand, gladly supplied the name of a woman who had led the missing boy off to her dwelling to share her hospitality. That news brought worry to one rider's face and anger to the other. After getting directions from the same woman, the two riders ran shoulder to shoulder towards the part of the city she had indicated the woman Jazel had gone.
A group of people were gathered around one dwelling's door, cheering on some activity inside. Deciding this might be the place where Duo had been led, the two riders joined the group, looking over the engaged spectators' shoulders to peer through the open doorway of a well lit room. To their surprise, the rider of the black dragon appeared no worse for wear as he sat at a table with empty platters scattered across its surface. Sitting across from the fledgling was a very large and brawny man, and both of them were in the act of draining the last bit of liquid out of the large tankard in their hands, their heads thrown back to get the last drop.
Watching Duo from a side angle, the riders outside the dwelling observed some of the amber liquid spilling out of the corner of his mouth and trickling down his chin. The boy abruptly slammed the metal cup onto the tabletop and with a loud voice, wide, impudent grin and sparkling eyes he declared, "Done!"
The larger man copied the boy's actions a scant moment later. His dark eyes widening in disbelief at the teen's ability to drink such a large amount of Skeer's ale, known for its strength and burn.
"Thaz thhhhhree on ya, oooold man," Duo said in a slurred voice, his grin, though a bit wobbly, was still intact.
The large man leaned over the table and narrowed his eyes in order to focus on the blurred young man before him. "How canna whelp like you out drink me?" he asked loudly, his words sounding sloppy.
"A whelp from H.. H.. Ha'ber can drink mud from a cup and enjoy it," Duo said boldly, his voice fluctuating during his reply, displaying his very inebriated state.
The large man suddenly threw his head back and laughed, pounding the table with his meaty fist, rattling the dishes. The people around Heero and Trowa also laughed, obviously finding the comments and actions of the two males inside the dwelling humorous. When at last the man composed himself, he focused on the boy once more. "Again!" It was a challenge, not a question.
The small rider managed to keep his grin in place while looking quite green at the same time. "Only if you'z gotta bucket clozzze by."
Again, the booming laughter came from the bearded man at the boy's reply. "Jazel, a bucket for the lad."
A pretty woman with red, curly hair and low cut bodice that allowed her ample breasts to bulge out of the neckline, came to the table carrying the requested bucket.
No sooner had she set it by the boy's chair, then came the next order. "Fill the cups!"
Pausing for a moment to study the boy, the woman did as she was told, but it was noticed by all that she only half filled each tall metal cup.
"We should intervene," Trowa whispered into Heero's ear so that the people around them wouldn't hear. "He's going to be very ill if we don't."
Heero gave an amused snort. "He's going to be ill regardless. He'll learn this lesson the hard way if we let this run its course. Perhaps next time he won't be so eager to come to Skeer alone and drink himself stupid."
"I'm going to move in closer and retrieve him after this last drink." Trowa said, ignoring his friend's suggestion. Without waiting for Heero's approval, he began to edge his way through the crowd of on-lookers, still entertained by the antics of the three people inside the dwelling.
The woman Jazel held her hand above the table and the two contestants readied themselves, their eyes glassy and bodies weaving slightly in their seats. Quickly bringing the palm of her hand down to slap it loudly against the wood surface, she simultaneously cried out, "Begin!"
The cups were raised instantly to waiting lips and slowly tilted upward as the two heads angled back. Wagers were placed by those standing outside the doorway, though not one eye strayed from the contest. This time the tankards came slamming down to the tabletop at the same time, and both inebriated males swayed drastically as they turned their eyes towards the woman for the verdict.
"A draw," she declared, and while the onlookers cheer and exchanged coin, the burly man threw his head back once again to laugh drunkenly and Duo leaned over the bucket and loudly lost the contents of his stomach, which seemed all the more amusing to his opponent.
The large man placed both of his hands on the table to pull himself to his feet, then made his drunken way over to the suffering boy. As soon as the fledgling was able to find the strength to straighten, his opponent's hand came down and slapped him roughly on the shoulder and with loud, exaggerated bravado said, "Well done, lad. I didn't tttthink you had it in you. Next time you come to Skeer, know that you'll be welcomed at the home of Dirk the Blacksmith."
A wet cloth appeared in front of Duo's face and he gratefully received it and slowly drew it across his mouth and face, enjoying its coolness. Hearing Wu Fei's concern for his welfare, sounding distant in his head, he felt the need to immediately reassure his dragon... where ever he was. He made an attempt to rise to his feet but the walls and people inside the dwelling began spinning wildly around him and darkness closed in on his blurred vision. He promptly passed out, falling like the wet cloth in his hand to the straw-covered floor.
Trowa pushed his way into the room with Heero at his back and went directly to the younger rider's side. Those in the room watching the drinking spectacle took note of the two riders and respectfully backed away.
"What goes on here?" Trowa asked, sounding more polite than challenging.
Dirk turned to the newcomers, and although he was quite drunk, he still had the faculties to see them and answer. He raised his hand and went cross-eyed in trying to put his finger and thumb together "Just a little fun... with the fledgling."
Heero frowned as he watched Trowa move forward to partially lift the collapsed boy from the floor. "You should have sent him on his way when you saw he was alone. You know a fledgling is only allowed to come here when accompanied by another rider," the auburn haired boy said.
"Just havin' a bit of fun after he followed my Jazel home from the well," the blacksmith said, waving off the teen's concern with a wave of his hand.
"The well?" Trowa asked with alarm, now supporting Duo's limp upper body against his chest as he knelt behind the boy.
The large man nodded. "Said he didn't know better when he drank from the cup and didn't want to offend Jazel by refusing her hospitality."
Trowa slapped his forehead with his open palm and shook his head. "I don't think he knows anything about the customs here or at the Halls. He's only just arrived."
"I figured that," the big man replied as he swayed on his feet. "But I'm impressed by the boy. Didn't back down to my challenge and he drinks like a grown man. Got spunk, he does. I like him. What's his name again?"
"Duo," Heero replied.
"Duo," the man repeated the name with a dopey grin. "I'll remember that."
Heero meanwhile moved to the fallen boy and picked him up from Trowa's loose hold. He carefully slung the limp body over his shoulder then straightened, giving a nod to Trowa that he was ready to leave. Trowa also stood and took a silver coin from the purse at his waist and laid it on the table. "For your trouble," he told the woman who snatched it up and slipped it between the ample cleavage of her breasts.
"Any time, young riders," she said with a wink and a flirtatious grin. Trowa nodded then turned and followed his two fellow riders out the door as the drunk blacksmith began to chastise the woman for her flirting.
//Wu Fei is very anxious for his rider,// Relena said to Heero as he took a direct path through the city towards the knoll where they'd left their dragons.
//Tell him we have his rider and that he is asleep from too much drink.//
A moment later, she spoke to him again. //He wants to come to him. Midia and I are having a difficult time keeping him here. He is... strong willed.//
//Explain to him that the streets are too narrow for him to land or walk safely on. We wouldn't want him to become stuck and have to damage someone's home. Assure him that we will be there shortly.// Hearing nothing further from her, Heero guessed Relena was taking care of the braided boy's dragon.
Trowa took the lead and Heero followed his friend, trusting him as his guide through the dark streets. Just as they cleared the dwellings on the outskirts of the city, both riders were startled by the abrupt, unexpected presence of the fledgling's dragon. In the dark , lit only by the scant slivered moon rising above the eastern horizon, Wu Fei seemed but a shadow blending with ease into the night, only the sound of his wings moving in an agitated manner alerted them to his unseen presence.
Aware that the black dragon stood directly in front of them, Heero pulled Duo down from his shoulder and presented the slender boy in his arms to his dragon. The warmth of Wu Fei's breath ruffled his hair as his snout moved over his rider's body, trying to ascertain the boy's condition.
//Assure Wu Fei that his rider is unharmed,// Heero told Relena.
//He wants you to strap his rider onto his back so he can carry him back to their lair,// the blue dragon said a moment later.
//Tell him Duo is unable to sit on his back. You and I will carry him to their lair and Wu Fei will follow along with Trowa and Midia.//
A large puff of hot air clearly showed what the boy's dragon thought of that idea. But as Heero eyed the dark shadow that was the black dragon, he saw and felt the affectionate rub of the dragon's face against the body of the boy in his arms.
//Assure Wu Fei that no harm will come to his rider, that he is safe with you and I.//
A moment passed as the two dragons conversed, then Relena's soft, pleased voice came to his mind. //He will put his trust in us.//
Heero moved towards Relena, standing just behind Wu Fei. While holding the slumbering boy, he managed, with Trowa's assistance, to climb up and onto his seat on her back and secure the straps around his legs. //You can find the halls in the darkness?// he asked his dragon.
//With my eyes closed and flying backwards,// she answered, a ripple of humor accompanying her words.
Taking several large steps, the blue dragon took to the sky, her mighty wings working harder than usual to lift the extra weight on her back. Once she'd gained enough height to fly straight, the task became much easier. Above the city the splintered moon was rising a bit higher in the evening sky, allowing Heero to see the other two dragons flanking him on either side.
Not for the first time since the younger boy had come to the Halls, Heero found himself unable to resist studying the lax face that had fascinated him from the moment of their introduction. The rider of the black dragon was uncommonly attractive. His unusually long brown hair rivaled in beauty to any he'd ever seen before, and the boy's lithe and nimble body appealed to him as well. Yet it was the heart-shaped face, the smile that dazzled and the large expressive eyes that captured his attention and drew his eyes back to Duo time after time.
Heero acknowledged his attraction to the fledgling, but he couldn't allow himself to want what he most likely couldn't have. He was the rider of a female dragon and his destiny was to have a male rider as his life companion. It would be foolish for him to become involved with any dragon rider until Relena took a mate. He didn't want to share Zechs's fate. The older blond rider's heart had been broken when his lover's dragon was chosen and mated with Princess Undessa's brown. He shook his head at the other rider's foolishness. Zechs had fallen in love with a rider whose dragon was also male, knowing the chances were great that one of their dragons would be picked by a female for a mate. As far as he was concerned, Zechs had set himself up for heartbreak once his relationship with Treize changed from being friends to lovers. The whole unfortunate affair served to remind him not to make the same mistake. Because so few dragon eggs had been laid, and fewer dragonlings had successfully hatched over the last decade, it was imperative for the dragons' continued survival that the few females remaining have their pick of the male dragons. Though Zechs had now turned his attention and unwanted advances to him, he'd already made the decision not to get involved with any rider. Relena would pick her mate amongst the eligible dragons, and whoever that dragon's rider was would be his mate.
With a wistful sigh he gazed at the handsome face of the boy in his arms. He couldn't help but wish that his dragon could choose the black dragon as her mate. Like the blacksmith, he liked Duo's spunk. Though he was young, sensitive, even impulsive, there was an underlying strength that kept Duo's head up, even though his first few days at the Halls had been anything but easy. That inner strength was just one more attribute the newest fledgling had that commanded his attention. Yes, Heero could see great potential in the younger boy. Even through the newest fledgling seemed to hold a grudge towards him, he secretly admired how Duo had attacked Zechs in defense of his dragon, and then again how he'd handled the situation in Skeer. He'd won the admiration of a common man in a place where the riders were often disdained because of their privileges. The fledgling had made a favorable impression and friends in his one venture into the city by himself, a very rare feat. No doubt word would spread quickly of the boy and his drinking contest with the blacksmith, a prominent citizen in Skeer. It was most likely that Duo would be warmly greeted the next time he visited that city - that is if he was ever allowed to leave the Halls after this incident. The stars above only knew how much trouble they were all going to be in for not checking in on time.
Still gazing at the boy's fair face by moonlight, a faint smile tugged at his lips. He had an idea this wasn't going to be the last time he got into trouble because of the fledgling rider, and somehow that thought didn't bother him as much as it should have.
Duo awoke the next morning to a dark room and a very foul stomach. He lay still a few moments, trying to remember where he was. //Wu Fei?//
//You're awake,// the dragon answered.
//Barely. Where are we?//
//Back at the lair. Relena and Midia's riders brought us back last night and put you to bed.//
//What are their rider's names?// he asked, covering his forehead with his arm.
There was a pause and Duo realized his dragon was asking the other dragons for that information. //Heero is Relena's rider and Trowa is Midia's.//
Already not feeling well, the boy suddenly felt a whole lot worse after hearing that bit of information. He wondered miserably if he was going to continue to show his less admirable traits to the darker-haired boy and his friend. No doubt he wasn't helping Quatre in making a friend of Trowa. Who would be impressed with the blond's wisdom in choosing to be friends with a boy who constantly blundered from one mess into another? It suddenly came to him that maybe all the mishaps he's experienced since his arrival to the halls had proved that he was a dark cloud after all, that trouble followed him where ever he went. He quickly pushed the unwanted thought behind his misery. He desperately didn't want the name he'd been taunted with in Ha'ber to be true.
Swallowing down a wave of nausea, he turned his mind to the night before and recalled the mountainous man he thought was named Dirk. The man had more or less carried him into the dim-lit dwelling to a table, and there he was set down none to gently on a stool while the redheaded woman lit several candles set in lanterns to brighten the room. He'd watched her set the table with three platters and metal cups while Dirk sat across from him, his dark gaze never leaving off studying his face. Once he decided the man - his arms, chest, neck and legs thick and muscled - wasn't going to pummel him, he'd tried to engage him in light conversation while the redhead, Jazel, finished preparing the meal, already cooking in a pot over the fireplace.
A short time later, while enjoying the simple yet savory stew make of pork and vegetables, Duo glanced up at Dirk only to find the man was still gazing at him, his face looking serious. The conversation, which had mainly been about the man's work as a blacksmith, turned to instruction.
"Let me tell you a thing or two that a young fledgling like yourself should know," the dark hair and bearded man said as he ripped a large piece of bread from the second loaf that had just been set on the table. "We have always served riders here in Skeer. Some come here with a purse full of coins and their heads in the clouds, believing that we are beneath them and that whatever they desire should be theirs. Others we have learned are decent men and women who serve Amulah and treat us decently enough. The tradition at the well is as old as Skeer. If a rider is offered a drink from the well by a woman, accepting the drink he more or less accepts her offer to lie with her. In the past, and even with some women folk today, it's considered a privilege to not only give herself to a dragon rider, but equally so if she were to conceive a child by him, her future is secured by the code of the rider's guild, insuring the child's mother will receive enough coin for the caring of the rider's offspring."
Then with a steely-eyed look to both the boy and Jazel, sitting adjacent to her betrothed, Dirk stated, "But I have no desire to share the woman who will shortly become my wife with anyone. It is my child she will bear, not that of a boy with no hair on his body."
Duo blushed, realizing how his simple acceptance of a drink at the well could have had long term consequences, and not only to himself. Though he'd been ignorant of the tradition, he knew he never would have slept with Jazel. Howard's words still echoed in his mind about sharing his body with someone he cared deeply for or, hopefully, loved.
"I never imagined this child would accept my offer," Jazel said in her own defense while gazing at her future husband. "I was only teasing when I offered him a drink, but then he accepted, with all the women watching and listening to every word we spoke. I couldn't lose face now, could I?"
"You were born a tease, Jazel," Dirk scowled at the redhead. "The dragons know you've been taunting me with your beauty since we were children, but I draw the line here and now. If you truly desire to be my wife, you will not entice and lure another dragon rider or anyone other than myself, for that matter, into your bed. Do I make myself clear?"
Though he had spoken quietly, there had been a strength of purpose behind Dirk's words, telling the woman he was deadly serious. To Duo's relief, the woman's face softened and she reached across the distance that separated them and gently placed her hand on the man's dark-bearded cheek. "I never intended to sleep with the boy, Dirk. You know it's you, has always been you that I've wanted in my bed, and soon you will be, as my husband."
Dirk put his much larger hand over the pale, smaller one and the room went still. Duo felt like an unwanted intruder as the two people gazed into each other's eyes, their faces softening as they came to an understanding. Then Dirk's hand dropped and he resumed eating, as did Jazel. Duo followed their example. After several moments there came a knock at the door. Jazel opened it and let several people in. They didn't speak, but took up places around the room and stared at the newest rider, the one reported to fly the black dragon they'd all heard about. After the third knock, the room held a small crowd, and Jazel left the front door open to let the curious stand in the doorway to see and listen to what was going on in Dirk's dwelling. No one appeared concerned about intruding on the blacksmith and his guests, so Duo tried to put them out of his mind and concentrated on finishing his meal.
When Dirk spoke again, his voice was loud enough for everyone to hear as he asked the young rider about his home. Duo felt it only polite to answer, so he began to tell the man, Jazel and their nameless neighbors of Ha'ber, the people living there and their customs.
As the meal came to an end, Dirk pushed his platter away and looked at the boy across the table from him. "Any man of worth has to be able to drink a full cup of Skeer ale without pause," the larger man declared with a challenging smile and a sparkle of mischief in his dark brown eyes. "Think you can finish a tanker of Skeer's finest ale before I do?"
Duo slowly grinned back. Outside of the Gerza Valley, it was little known that the people of Ha'ber daily drank their own brew, which was strong enough to render a grown man incapable of walking straight after only two cups. The babies, fussing from whatever aliments that made them cry like they were in pain, were given small doses to ease their discomfort. It was served at meals, special occasions and used in cooking sauces, though it wasn't given to children to drink until they time they began the physical changes that marked their advance toward's adulthood. Over time, each village member built up a tolerance for the strong brew. It had been well over a year since he'd shared his first drink with Howard and Garron, and he'd had the brew with every supper since then until the time of his departure from Ha'ber. Accepting the large man's challenge, Duo felt confident that at least he wouldn't topple over after one drink. His one concern was that he'd never swallowed a drink as rapidly as Dirk proposed.
As the tall metal cups were placed before them by Jazel, shaking her head at the folly of the contest, she raised her hand as a signal, then slapped it down on the table, signaling the two males to begin their foolishness.
At first, the golden liquid burned his throat and all the way down to his stomach, but Duo wasn't about to stop. For some reason he felt he had something to prove, though what that something was he didn't know. Surprisingly, he won the first round, and blinked with astonishment as his tankard came to land on the table only a scant moment before Dirk's did the same. The brawny man looked equally surprised but pleased, and after a few moments he ordered Jazel to re-filled the cups and challenged the boy again. A buzz of quiet murmuring, coming from the spectators from the periphery of the room, began and spread to the open doorway, but Duo easily tuned the whispering voices out in order to focus on the liquid pouring from a large urn into his cup.
The second drink was a bit more difficult to swallow, but swallow he did. Again his tankard came slamming down on the tabletop almost at the same time as the blacksmith's. Jazel declared him the winner over her intended. Duo didn't know which was bigger at that announcement, his goofy grin or Dirk's eyes bulging with disbelief.
His memory blurred at that point and he decided the strong drink must be the reason why. He thought he remembered another challenge, drinking, and then a bucket at the side of the table that he had used in an urgent and distasteful manner. He wondered for a moment if the other riders had seen that spectacle, but quickly concluded that it really didn't matter. What did matter was who had found and returned him to the Halls. He felt mortified that he'd been too drunk to recall who exactly came to his rescue, undressed and put him to bed.
//Sandrock's rider is inquiring if you are awake and how you are feeling?//
//Tell him that I'm awake and not feeling very well, not well at all,// Duo replied miserably.
After a few moments, Wu Fei voice came again. //He says you've missed breakfast and the morning's training. The young riders are just finishing bathing. Sandrock's rider says if you are up to it that you should try to make an appearance for Osh's lesson, or at the latest, by the mid-day meal. Rider Sims is not happy with your absence and Rider Jan has been inquiring about your absence.//
//Tell him I'll try. That I'm getting up now.// Rolling to the side of the bed, the boy eased himself out of the blankets with one hand holding his throbbing head and one hovering over his mouth. He stumbled to the chamber pot and made it just in time. Coughing up stomach fluids had to be his least favorite activity, he decided. When at last his stomach calmed, he covered the pot and walked without strength to the basin where he poured water from the pitcher into the bowl. He rinsed out his mouth and washed his face, feeling minutely better.
Dressing slowly, moving as little as possible, he left the off the task of brushing and braiding his long hair, dreading the thought of any pull on his acing head. He carefully pulled back the loose strands and secured them with the rest of his frazzled braid with a leather strip at the nape of his neck. He then sat on his bed, readying himself for the walk through the long corridors to the dining hall.
Moving slowly, careful not to make any jarring moves that would set his already throbbing head spinning, he walked listlessly down the empty corridor towards his destination, eyes half closed. He sighed with relief upon finally reaching the familiar double doors. Stepping into the room, he realized that he'd taken longer to leave his room than he'd thought. It was obvious the other boys had finished their history lesson and were most likely enjoying the company of their dragons. Several servers were bustling silently about the room in preparation for the mid-day meal. He moved slowly to the table that he and Quatre frequented and eased himself gently down on the bench. Folding his arms on the tabletop, he cradled his aching head upon them and promptly fell back to sleep.