Dark Cloud Rising
by Dyna Dee
During the several days that followed it was noted by the other riders that both Duo and Quatre appeared solemn, were less cheerful and talkative. The youngest of the fledglings were secretly fearful of the rumors and repercussions that would no doubt fall upon them once Trowa or Heero told the others about what they'd stumbled in on. Yet as the days passed and no one remarked on it, teased nor whispered behind their hands, they realized that neither of the other boys had spoken to anyone about finding the two of them kissing.
The uncharacteristic behavior of the two brought a different kind of attention from the other riders who wondered if there had been a falling out between Duo and Quatre, yet their arrival at the dining hall together at each meal quickly dispelled that notion. After four days of this gloomy behavior, Sims took each boy aside to inquire after their health only to have both boys claim to be well. That same afternoon Jan took Duo to task for his lack of attention to his studies.
Nearly a week had passed, and while the two boys sat quietly eating their lunch, both slipping further into their disconsolate state, believing they'd lost their chance at happiness, a soft voice spoke tentatively from behind them.
"Quatre, may I speak with you for a moment?"
Duo saw his friend's head lift and his blue-green eyes widen with surprise. A glimmer of hope was shining in them as he turned his head to look up at Trowa, standing at the table's end.
"Of course, Trowa." Leaving his place, the blond boy stepped quickly to follow behind the taller teen without a glance back as he was led out of the dining hall.
Duo wanted to look down the length of the table to Heero for an explanation, but stopped himself from doing so. He hadn't spoken to the other boy since their talk outside of Trowa's room, and every time he looked at Heero his heart felt heavy and his sadness deepened.
After repeating his conversation with Heero to Quatre, he further told his friend that of learning that there would be no chance for him to be chosen as Heero's mate because of his and Wu Fei age. The blond had put his hand over his heart and, with eyes filled with sympathy and pain, he told Duo that what he was experiencing was a broken heart. That wretched feeling continued and had grown with each passing day since then. Duo scolded himself several times each day for his gloomy mood. Heero was not destined to be his mate, and he should just accept it and get on with his training. Somehow, his heart just wasn't ready to listen to reason.
Someone sat down in Quatre's vacated place and pushed the barely touched platter away. Duo glanced up to see Heero studying him with concern.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine." His answer sounded as dismal as he felt.
"I saw the hit Zechs gave you in practice yesterday. You took a long time to get up and I thought that you might have been more badly hurt than you let on."
Duo was surprised that Heero had witnessed that incident during the busy training session. He suppose that the blow he'd taken was his own fault. He hadn't been paying close enough attention to his more experienced opponent and missed blocking his aggressive attack with the sparing stick. Even though Heero appeared to care about him to ask after his welfare, Duo knew such feelings were wasted on him. Heero was probably just being kind.
"Duo, what's the matter? Everyone has noticed that you're not yourself. Did you and Quatre have a falling out after we spoke the other night?"
"No," the braided boy answered, playing with the food on his plate while wishing Heero would just go away so that he could stop hurting over what could never be. "I'm just out of sorts lately."
"Are you ill?"
"Is anyone being unkind to you?"
A few moments passed while Duo continued to stare at his nearly full platter, the food was now all mixed together and unappealing.
"I talked to Trowa after you left the other day."
That got Duo's attention. "And?"
Heero lowered his voice so that only Duo could hear his words. "It's taken him a few days to get over it, but if I'm not mistaken he's telling Quatre how he feels about him."
"And how does he feel?"
A small smile tugged at the corners of Heero's mouth. "The same as Quatre does for him." There was a pause before he added. "He wants to make it clear to Quatre that he doesn't want him practicing kissing with anyone but him."
For the first time in several days a spark of life came into Duo's eyes. "That's good, really. Great," he said, keeping his voice down, though he was a little suspicious that Ze'an, sitting across the table from him and staring at his food, was obviously straining to catch whatever he could of their conversation. He ignored Ze'an and looked up at Heero, relief showing on his face. "Quatre was certain that Trowa would never look at him again. He'll be happy."
"And that doesn't bother you, that they care deeply for each other?"
Duo shook his head. "Like I told you, Quatre's heart has always belonged to Trowa. He was just afraid to say anything in case Midia chose another dragon in the Spring."
"It's true that the female dragons choose the mate of their choice," Heero said thoughtfully. "But they often take into consideration their rider's heart as well. It is well known that a dragon is only as content as his rider."
"I believe the opposite is true also," Duo replied. "If Wu Fei is happy, then I'm content. I just hope for Quatre and Trowa's sake that Midia considers her rider's heart. Quatre will be crushed if she should choose another dragon over Sandrock."
"From what Trowa and Relena have told me, Midia prefers the white dragon to any other male, though she's also fond of your black."
"Guess I don't have to worry about being in competition with Sandrock then. Like you said, Wu Fei and I won't be up for the next round of mating because we're both too young."
"Things will work out," Heero said kindly.
Duo shrugged and looked back at his plate of smashed food. His despondency was coming back quickly and, before he could catch himself, he was speaking the very thoughts that had plagued him during the last several days. "From what I've been able to tell, all the unattached females come into season this spring. Even if new females come to the Halls in the fall or next spring, there will be no mate for me or Wu Fei for a while because they will probably be too young for mating. Then again," he sighed deeply, feeling unreasonably sad, "we might never be chosen. I know there are dragons and riders who remain mateless, never finding a match. That somehow seems appropriate for Wu Fei and I. I have no family, father or even his surnane. I was shunned by my village, becoming their dark cloud. It seems to be my destiny to be alone."
The touch of Heero's hand on his chin startled the morose boy, enough so that he didn't stiffen against the turning of his head by the gentle touch. His eyes rose to meet the depths of the deep blue eyes gazing back at him as Heero leaned awkwardly over the table. In a quiet voice he asked, "Is this why you wear a cloak of sadness these days? Do you truly believe what you've just told me?"
The look of concern and compassion in Heero eyes was too much for Duo to bear. Feeling his own emotions rising to the surface, he struggled to hold them back, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of the others, especially not Heero. Standing abruptly, he looked away from the other boy. "I don't think I feel well after all," he rushed to say. "Should he ask, tell Quatre I retired for the night." Then turning, he ran from the room, not able to stay sitting next toHeero any longer. Every moment spent in the other boy's presence brought him further heartbreak in knowing what could never be between them.
He went to his room, dressed for bed, then blew out all the candles and said goodnight to his dragon. He ignored the light tap on his door that came a short while after, unable to bear Quatre's happiness in the wake of his own misery. Turning onto his side, he crushed the pillow to his face, and gave into the tears he'd held back for nearly a week. When the last tear was shed, he spent a long while after trying to reassure his dragon that he was all right.
When the sun rose in the clear, chill sky the next morning, Duo felt a bit better. He could only attribute it to having vented his grief into his pillow. Somehow the act of crying had eased the weight of despondency that he'd carried with him since the evening he had been faced with the truth that Heero was not to be his. He'd come to the conclusion that he was as smitten with Heero as Zechs apparently was, but he refused to act like a fool about his infatuation. Heero would no doubt be as disgusted with him as he was the tall blond rider if he knew that his recent bout of sadness was because his heart was breaking with longing for the handsome rider.
After greeting Wu Fei a good morning and assuring his worried dragon that he was feeling much better, Duo dressed and went to Quatre's door so they could go to breakfast together, now prepared to smile and congratulate his friend on Trowa's confession. To his surprise there was no answer. He could only imagine that he must have overslept and had not heard Quatre's knock on his door and that his friend had probably gone on ahead to the dining hall.
When he entered the hall that was filled with riders, he stopped short in the doorway. Quatre wasn't sitting in his usual seat but was located at the far end of the table, next to Trowa. His smiling face was as bright as the morning sun. Of course, Duo thought, now that the two had confessed their feeling for each other they'd naturally take their meals and spend their free time together. Though he was genuinely happy for his friend, his heart began to ache with the realization that he'd been well and truly replaced by Trowa, that he was once again on his own. He was about to leave the room, his appetite having waned, when Ze'an saw him standing there and called out his name. With a grin on his face the darker rider waved him over to his usual seat. Reluctantly, he moved forward and took his place, acutely aware of Quatre's absence.
"Morning, Duo," the dark skinned boy greeted him cheerfully. "See the latest topic of gossip?" His eyes shifted to the end fo the table where Quatre sat with Trowa.
"Yeah." A platter filled with food was placed in front of him and the aroma of the food brought back his waning appetite.
"It's about time," the other boy continued. "Those two have been languishing over each other forever. I don't think anyone's surprised by this latest turn of events."
Duo began to eat, using his mouthful of food as an excuse for not carrying on the conversation.
"Word has it that you've not been feeling well."
"I'm fine." Duo's answer was muffled from the mouthful of food. He chased the lump in his throat down with a large swallow of his drink. He could feel Ze'an's eyes studying him, but ignored him for another bite of food.
"So now that Quatre has a new best friend, do you want to hang around with me during your free time?"
"Sure." Duo liked Ze'an. He was a good natured boy with a ready smile and easy manner. The promise of spending time with him brought Duo some measure of relief. It meant that he wouldn't be left completely alone, as he'd feared.
The noonday sun shone brightly in the pale, near-winter sky, giving an eye-watering brilliance to the mountains and plains that were covered with a fresh dusting of snow from the brief storm that had just passed by.
Sitting together in the dining room for the midday meal, Ze'an suggested that he and Duo should spend the afternoon together in Skeer. Duo reminded him of the lessons he had with Jan in the afternoons, but promised to study as quickly as possible so that they might fly together on their dragons before the sun set that day. The other boy gave the appearance of being disappointed, but it soon diminished as he forged onto a new subject.
"I saw you sparring with Hilde today. How was she?"
Duo grinned, remembering his opponent that morning. "She's surprisingly quick and agile," he replied. "Her ability to attack and disarm is as good as any boy I've sparred against and her defense tactics are impressive as well."
"I saw her talking to you for a while before we left for the bathing room. What did she say?"
Duo shrugged, a little embarrassed to repeat the conversation. "She just wanted to compliment me on my improvement in training, then mentioned that we hadn't had a chance to get to know each other. She invited me to sit with her during the evening meal so we could become better acquainted."
Duo didn't tell the other boy of the look of excitement and anticipation that he'd seen in the princess's eyes, and that it had made him extremely uncomfortable. He couldn't help but notice that the slightly older girl was pretty, but she was the King of Amulah's youngest daughter, definitely above his reach as the dark cloud of Ha'ber.
"So, are you going to sit with her tonight?" Ze'an's eyes had a similar spark of excitement in them as Hilde had that afternoon, causing Duo to wonder about the reason for his friend's excitement. "You'd be a fool not to," the other boy continued excitedly. "Hilde is very pretty and you can't get any better than a princess."
"Um.. sure. I accepted her invitation. I'll be eating at her table tonight. You don't mind, do you?"
Ze'an's eyes widened perceptively, "Of course I don't mind, you lucky fledgling. I'd give anything to stand in your place."
Then the reason for the glint in Ze'an's eyes came to him. "You like her, don't you?"
The darker boy hesitated a moment before nodding. "She's very nice. Unfortunately, she's never given me a second glance. I'm not as handsome as you or some of the other riders."
"She may like me, Ze'an, but we can only be friends. Wu Fei and I won't be eligible as mates until the following mating cycle."
The other boy leaned over the table. "Really?"
Duo nodded. Seeing the beaming smile on his friend's face, he knew that he could never be more to Hilde than an acquaintance, or possibly a friend. Ze'an was secretly harboring feelings for the princess. He silently wished his friend happiness and hoped he didn't have his heart broken by the pretty girl. He never wanted anyone to feel the way he had during the past week. "I'll be sure to tell her how good a friend you are, that you're smart and an excellent rider."
The other boy's smile beamed with happiness. They resumed their meal and a few moments later Ze'an ventured to ask, "Have you had a chance to speak with Quatre today?"
"I did in the training room." What he didn't tell the other boy was that for the first time since they'd met, he and Quatre didn't know what to say to each other. He was hurt that Quatre was essentially ignoring him for Trowa. Though it was natural that his friend would want Trowa's company, he couldn't help but feel rejected, having been replaced as the blond's closest friend so completely. After enduring several uncomfortable and silent moments that morning, Duo had simply turned and left Quatre to stare after him. As he made his way to the bathing room, he was surprised that Quatre followed behind.
"Why didn't you answer your door last night?" the blond asked.
"Why didn't you wait for me this morning for breakfast?"
They didn't speak again after that, there just didn't seem to be anything more to say.
Duo was allowed to end his studies with Jan earlier than usual that afternoon so that he could go to Skeer with Ze'an. As was his usual habit, Duo went straight to Dirk and his new mate Jezel's abode, pulling his friend along by the sleeve. They were both warmly greeted by the couple and treated to a hearty meal and Skeer ale. Duo was tempted to drown his current troubles in the strong brew, but the memory of his last bout with it kept him to one tall cup. They thanked the blacksmith and his mate for their hospitality and made their excuses early in order to get back to the Halls in time for the evening check-in time.
Though he wasn't hungry, Duo ventured into the dining hall in order to keep his promise to Hilde. Ze'an playfully elbowed him in the ribs as the two parted, with the darker boy going to his usual table and seat.
Duo walked to the table at the far right of the room and to the front of it. Hilde stood to greet him with a bright smile while Sylvia, Hilde's constant companion, smiled shyly at him while tugging at her long, blonde ponytail that was draped over her shoulder.
"How was your afternoon, Duo?" Hilde asked as the two of them took their seats. Duo couldn't help but notice that her eyes seemed to dance with a natural warmth and happiness.
"It was enjoyable after Jan let me go from my studies. Ze'an and I went to Skeer." He then told them of Skeer and of Dirk and Jezel and the events of his first day in that city and how he came to be friends with the blacksmith and mate.
The two girls laughed freely at his story, and Duo found himself enjoying their company. Then Hilde, resting her chin on an upraised hand, sighed with longing. "I wish I could go to Skeer," she said. "I'd like to meet the people who live there, see what their lives are like and understand how they think."
"Are you not allowed to go there?" Duo asked.
"As a rider, yes, but as the Princess of Amulah, no. I'm only allowed visits to unfamiliar cities and to people who are ignorant of the circumstances of my birth or standing. My father fears that I will be spirited away by the vile riders from the north, and so my movements are restricted." Both Duo and Sylvia voiced their sympathy for the girl of royal privilege, and the subject was quickly dropped as they began to speak of other things that the mismatched group might have in common. By the time they finished their meal, Duo realized that some of the gloom he'd been feeling had lifted further. Having others to talk to seemed to have a good effect on his previously sour mood.
As the other riders finished their evening meal and returned to their rooms, Duo bade the two girls a good night, then lingered behind in order to complete his evening chore. Heero, too, remained in his usual spot near the blazing fireplace. When the workers appeared with their two buckets and cleaning cloths, the two riders went to work, and for once, Heero chose to begin working closer than he normally did.
"I noticed that you and Quatre aren't speaking," Heero said quietly as he washed down the table.
"Kind of hard to talk when he's never around." Duo knew he sounded resentful, but he couldn't help feeling that way when it was the truth.
"Are you jealous?"
Duo looked up sharply to meet the curious deep blue eyes. "I'm not jealous," he stated firmly. Softening both his glare and tone he added, "I'm glad things worked out for them."
Heero paused to study the other boy. "Then you're hurt by his apparent abandonment."
Duo shrugged his shoulders in answer. He didn't know why Heero was so curious or concerned all of a sudden.
"Quatre's young and has no doubt been carried away by his emotions," Heero continued as he moved further down the table, attending again to his chore. "He'll figure out sooner or later that his friends are just as important as his attraction to Trowa."
Duo snorted. "As far as Quatre's concerned, the sun rises and sets on Trowa. He's made it pretty clear that there's no room in his world for me any longer. Guess I was just a convenience, a toss-away friend once he got what he really wanted." He inwardly cringed at how pathetic he sounded.
"You have many other friends."
The braided boy replied to that by making a sound of disagreement.
"I would be your friend, if you'd let me."
Duo's head snapped up. "You're Trowa's friend. Why would you want to be mine?"
Heero paused again, still bent over the table, and turned to look at him. "Quatre's fixation on Trowa is not one-sided."
Duo looked up at the other boy, suddenly realizing that Heero was probably experiencing the same feelings of rejection from Trowa that he was from Quatre. A smile of understanding tugged at his lips. "Any time you need some company, seek me out and maybe we can do something."
A pleased smiled touched the corners of Heero's mouth and his deep blue eyes sparkled with some unknown emotion. "As you can look to me when you need a friend."
The two finished their assigned task with a more comfortable air having settled around them than they'd previously known. They separated soon after with Duo going to back to his room to spend time with Wu Fei.
The cold days that followed foretold the coming of winter, and with each passing day Duo spent more of his free time with Heero and Ze'an. He would often look up to find Quatre gazing at him from across the room, but as soon as their eyes met the blond would quickly look away, usually up into Trowa's face. Duo missed his friend and the closeness they once shared, telling each other their heart's desire. Yet the emptiness Quatre had left in his life was somewhat mollified as friendship with Hilde and Sylvia grew, and for the first time in his life, Duo counted two girls as his friends.
Heero had come to his room several times during the long, dark evenings. The two of them would sit before the small hearth and its warming fire and talk of each other's past, of their lives before coming to live in the Halls of Dornan.
Duo listened with rapt attention to Heero's description of his home in the southeastern city of Wishburn, set on the mountains referred to as the Dragon's Head. He spoke of his parents with genuine affection, and though he never spoke of his father's work, Duo had the impression that he was an influential and wealthy man, one who was respected by others as well as his son.
Heero also mentioned that the home in which he was raised had been given to his ancestors for their service to Amulah's king generations ago, though he say exactly what that service was. His love for his homeland was evident in his vivid descriptions and his longing for the jagged, mountain tops that were lush in the Spring with verdant green grasses and yellow wild flowers. In the winter, those same mountains were covered with a blanket of white snow. To Duo, Wishburn sounded almost as beautiful as his home in the Gerza Valley. Heero continued, speaking of his people, their customs, and then of his yearning for home.
Duo was reluctant to speak of his past. But after considerable coaxing from his new friend, he told Heero of his tragic early years: the loss of a mother he could hardly remember, and then the two villagers who'd taken him in as their own. He ducked his head with shame as he told of being named a dark cloud and of his life in general in Ha'ber, experiencing the good and bad from people of a more humble existence than that of Heero's home. To his surprise and much to his relief, the other rider didn't show any signs of pity as he told him of his past. Instead, Heero listened carefully and asked questions now and then to better understand this former life in Ha'ber.
After he finished telling Heero of his past, the older boy look him in the eye and simply stated that he was not, nor had he ever been, a dark cloud and that the Halls of Dornan was better suited than his former village in teaching him to become a good man. Duo readily agreed.
With Heero's words warming his heart, the braided boy quickly reciprocated his gesture of friendship, and more often than not sought the other boy out during his free time. Ze'an, Hilde and Sylvia felt comfortable enough with their friendship to join them, not needing an invitation. As his friendships grew, Duo didn't miss Quatre's presence quite so much and once more forgot what it was like to be all alone and lonely.
There was much talk and growing excitement within the ranks of the younger riders as the Winter's Solstice Celebration drew near. Heero explained to Duo that this was one of the two times during the year that all the riders, young and old, were invited to the palace above. It was also an opportunity for the new fledglings to be presented to the King and his royal court. Many of the riders took their saved allowance and had special clothing made by tailors in the city below or in Skeer; and Heero was no exception.
Duo accompanied his friend to Rydell's shops, meticulously carved into the mountain's white stone surface centuries before. Both boys had full coin purses strapped onto their belts which remained hidden beneath their fur-lined cloaks.
"Will you be purchasing new clothing?" Heero asked Duo as the two of them walked down the steep, serpentine streets of Rydell.
"No," Duo answered, casually throwing his braid over his shoulder and pulling up his hood to protect his ears and face from the frigid cold wind. "I have the clothing that Garron gave to me when I left Ha'ber. They were a bit large in fit for me when I came to the halls. Despite my new growth, they should still fit."
"The riding leathers?" Heero questioned as he led the other boy into a clothier's shop. After Duo nodded, he added, "I'm not certain that riding leathers are appropriate for being introduced to the royal family."
Duo shrugged off his friend's concern. "They can just attribute my lack of manners to my lowly beginnings. I'm fairly certain that everyone in the castle must have heard about the poor, misfortunate rider of the black dragon."
Heero gave him an odd look, then turned his attention to bolts of cloth on tables. "You shouldn't speak of yourself in such a demeaning manner," he said as he touched the soft cloth of several samples before him while Duo looked over his shoulder.
"You should have a shirt made out of that blue material, Heero. It matches your eyes perfectly."
"It does?" Heero looked surprised at the information.
After a moment, a small grin tugged at Heero's lips. "I'll buy this fabric only if you'll let me buy some for you. We'll both have new shirts made for the celebration."
"I have coin," Duo said, touching the pouch at his waist. "I can purchase cloth, if you think I should."
Heero placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let me buy it. A gift from one friend to another."
Unable to say no to Heero while he wore such a hopeful look on his face, Duo agreed with a nod of his head, then watched the other rider turn and walk towards the shop's owner. He wondered how long it would be before Heero realized that he was so much farther down the ranks of society from almost everyone in the halls. He'd learned that most of the riders were from influential families, many of whom had parents who were riders or had titles or important positions in their city or village. Though he didn't know of any title, Heero's father was apparently well known in his part of Amulah. Hilde was, of course, was a princess of Amulah, and Quatre also came from a family of wealth and influence in the southern deserts. Ze'an made it a point to not talk about his family, but by the way he spoke and conducted himself, Duo could tell that he'd had extensive training and education. Of course he didn't know everyone as well as he knew his friends, but he didn't doubt for a minute that they were all well connected. Not for the first time, he wondered what Wu Fei had seen in him, an unwanted orphan. He certainly couldn't see any of the other boys in the Halls having lived their previous lives as peasants.
Having concluded that he was the lowliest of all the riders, he decided he could either feel inferior about it or use it to his advantage. It was true that he seemed to get away with a lot more than the other riders in training, simply because of his supposed ignorance. Often, after making a mistake or caught doing something wrong, Duo heard murmurs, just under the other riders' breaths, that the boy from the village of Ha'ber just didn't know any better. That may have been true at one time, just after his arrival at the Halls, but not any longer. He was a quick learner, Jan even said so. Duo had changed and grown, in wisdom as well as height. He was no longer the innocent, ignorant boy he'd been upon his arrival from the small western hamlet.
After Heero purchased his selections, they took the cloth to a tailor who measured the darker-haired rider's body with a piece of rope that had markings on it. Duo watched as Heero and the tailor spoke for several moments about the shape the garment should take, then settled on a price. Once that task was completed, Heero motioned him forward and asked the man to make a similar garment for his friend. Duo's heart was touched by the spoken sentiment, that Heero considered him his friend.
Finished with that task, the two boys set off again to enjoy a couple of hours of freedom. The day began to warm and so they decided to wander through the slanted streets of Rydell with their riderless dragons frolicking high in the cloud-dappled sky above them.
The night before the Solstice Celebration at the palace, Garron braved the chilly hallways that were dotted with excited youths and made his way to Duo's room. He arrived just as the boy was preparing for bed. While the older man set several pieces of wood into the small hearth, stoking it for the night, the fledgling dressed into his nightshirt, then jumped into bed and pulled his thick pile of blankets over him in order to keep warm. Garron waited until he was settled, then sat on the edge of the mattress and with a serious expression on his face he began to tell the curious rider the reason for his unexpected visit.
"I want you to make an excuse not attend the celebration tomorrow night," Garron said. "A sudden illness might be best."
Duo frowned at the request. "Why?"
"I can't explain it fully, Duo. But I ask this of you with only the best of intentions and your welfare in mind."
"But everyone else is going," the boy protested, unhappy and confused by the request. "The food, music and entertainment are supposed to be wonderful. My friends will expect me to be there."
"I know, and I'm genuinely sorry," Garron replied, looking both regretful and sympathetic. "I'll send some food down to you so that you won't miss out on everything, but it would be for the best if you stayed in your room."
The boy folded his arms over his chest, unhappy that he was being asked to miss an opportunity to see the palace above the halls and to meet the royal family. "I'll make it up to you, Duo." Garron added. "I assure you that I do have my reasons, but foremost of them all is that Howard entrusted me with your safety, and I am asking this of you with that purpose in mind."
"I still don't understand what threat there is to me. Who cares that much about the peasant dragon rider?"
"You would be surprised," was Garron's cryptic reply, evading answering Duo's questions.
"Very well. I'll do as you ask," the boy pouted, resigned and very unhappy at having to miss out on what the other riders claimed to be the most important celebration of the year.