by Dyna Dee
It was hours later before the Prince's Eyes found the truant boy hunched in the dark recesses of a linen storage closet in the quest quarters.
"Duo!" Trowa's voice called out sharply in anger and anxiety as the torch light spilled into the dark room to reveal the Fourth sitting in a corner with his knees pulled up to his chest and both hands wrapped around his braid. "What are you doing here? Heero is worried sick about you. Is this how you welcome him home?" he sharply chastised the unmoving boy. A shake of the boy's head was his only answer.
"Come!" Trowa moved to Duo's hunched form, reached down with his free hand, and firmly grabbed hold of the smaller boy's upper arms and roughly pulled him to his feet. That accomplished, he walked him swiftly, silently, and without glancing at him to his room. Once inside, he let go of the seemingly sulking boy and turned back to the door. "You're to wait here until Heero is ready to speak to you." he curtly informed him.
Duo nodded and threw himself down onto his bed.
"I'm disappointed with you, Duo." Trowa said in a scolding tone. "Jealousy has no place in the Four."
The braided boy's large expressive eyes reflected his hurt, but his response was to roll over, away from the door and its frowning occupant and curl up on his side.
Heero entered the room as the evening shadows grew. He'd let his Fourth have some time to think about what he'd done before he approached him. He found the boy curled up on his bed, his back to the door.
"Duo." he called softly, but the boy didn't move to turn towards him. He moved forward to stand at the edge of the bed and placed a hand gentle on Duo's shoulder and nudged him onto his back. Hurt amethyst eyes looked accusingly up at him, taking the prince aback. He'd tried to reason why Duo had disappeared as they greeted each other and hidden himself for hours while they searched frantically for him. Trowa claimed Duo was jealous of their bonding, but Quatre said he sensed an emptiness from the missing boy.
The prince eased himself down to sit on the edge of the bed and reached for Duo's hand, but the boy quickly crossed his arms over his chest, tucking his hands under his arms to make them inaccessible.
Heero's eyes narrowed. "What's the matter, Duo?"
His Heart clearly clamped his lips firmly together to form a firm, impenetrable line.
"Did something happen while I was gone?"
Duo shook his head.
"Are you jealous of Quatre's bonding?"
Again he shook his head determinedly.
"Then tell me." Heero urged, becoming frustrated with this game his Heart was playing.
Duo turned his head away and closed his eyes.
"Fine." Heero stood, disappointed at how his anticipated homecoming had transpired. "I think you should just stay in your room until you're ready to tell me what's wrong." He moved to the door. "I'll have your meals sent to you." he added as his hand lifted the door latch and swung the door open. He paused before he disappeared through it. "This is not how I had envisioned my return home." he said, disappointment clearly in his voice. "I thought after a week away that you would have been glad to see me." He watched as Duo curled up tighter. With a sigh, he left the room, quietly shutting the door behind him.
For three full days the Prince's Fourth stayed silent in his room. He ate sparingly from the plates of food brought to him at each meal time. Heero and his other Three became more distressed as the hours passed.
"What in the seven hells is wrong with him?" Wufei snarled in exasperation as he pressed his hands to his head and paced in front of the hearth in the Prince's ante room. "Why won't he talk to us? He was fine until you got back."
Each of them had gone separately to visit Duo in his room in hopes he would confide in one of them. They were all surprised at the tenacity the boy displayed in his determination to continue his unexplained silence.
"Let me try again." Quatre sat by Heero's side and appealed to the prince.
"We've all tried." Heero replied sadly. "He'll talk when he's ready."
Wufei stopped his pacing and growled through his gritted teeth. "This is so frustrating."
"He flinched at my touch this morning." Trowa said sadly. "I think I may have hurt him when I brought him to his room."
Quatre studied the other three in the room, then turned to Heero clutching his arm. "We're all unhappy, Heero. How do we get back to where we were?"
The prince closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. How indeed could they be unified again if they didn't know what was wrong? They had all individually approached Duo, pleaded, cajoled, and had been angry with him in an attempt to get him to reveal why he was acting this way. They had each.... His eyes opened as inspiration gave him a glimmer of hope. He communicated through the bond what they needed to do.
Heero knocked on the door, more as a warning of their imminent entrance, as they had learned Duo would not call out his permission for them to enter. Opening the door, he entered the room, his Three closely behind him.
Duo sat on the floor in front of the hearth, the glow of the low fire from within revealing the plate of untouched food by his side. He didn't turn to greet them, but stared into the burning embers in an apparent mesmerized fascination.
"We're all here, Duo." Heero said calmly. "We want to know what's upset you."
"Please, Duo." Quatre pleaded. "Please talk to us. We miss you."
"We need you." Trowa spoke up.
"We're not complete without you." Wufei added.
After a moment's pause, Duo slowly stood and turned to face them, his legs seeming a bit shaky to the others. He looked beyond the prince and directly to Trowa. "I am not jealous of Quatre." he said quietly but firmly.
"Then why?" Heero asked, forcing himself not to step forward and touch the confusing boy before him.
Pulling his braid over his shoulder and grasping it with both hands, Duo lowered his eyes and began, his voice soft. "What you just said is true for me too. " he replied. "I missed you, I need you, and I'm not complete with out you." He took in a shuddering breath as he tried to keep his composure. "But when you returned and we went to greet you,.......you stopped talking, all of you. Somehow, I knew your were communicating with each other, maybe through the bonding, I'm not sure. But as you did, I felt......alone. I've never felt that alone since I came to live here." He lowered his chin to his chest. "You've all told me how I'm a part of you, and you made me feel I was, indeed, a part of a whole.........until that moment. It felt as if I didn't belong, that I wasn't a part of you any longer. You didn't even see me leave, did you?" he asked in a small voice.
All four faces fell. Heero stepped forward, stopping just inches from his Heart. "I'm sorry, Duo. Forgive me, forgive us" he spoke earnestly. "I'm learning as I go on about bonding. I never considered that you would feel like an outsider." He reached his hands out and pulled the boy before him against his chest, nestling his head against his neck. "Let's go talk to my father and Uncle Jens on how they dealt with the Fourth being the last to bond. I'm sure they'll know how we can keep you included."
He felt Duo's head nod, then drew back, the large violet eyes looking up into his own. "I did miss you, so much." his singer whispered.
Heero's hand cupped his cheek and Duo leaned into it. "I know. Wufei and Trowa told me you slept in my bed each night." He titled the smaller boy's chin up and kissed him thoroughly, then held him tightly. When at last he let go, Heero gave his Heart a loving smile and mouthed silently, "I missed you, too." before pushing him into the welcoming and comforting arms of the other hree.
The end of summer brought another feast of the King's birthday, though not as celebrated as the year before. It did, however mark the first year since Duo's arrival. Master Rem came again and he and the smaller singer closeted themselves away to prepared a song to sing for the King as a gift.
The master singer sang several songs at the banquet before he presented Duo, who was greeted by the assemblage with thunderous applause. As he sang two ballads, all present noted the slight changes in the stunning singer over the pervious year. He stood a bit taller, his hair longer, yet still as slight in build, and he stood possessed of more confidence and grace, which only added to his natural beauty and left many of those, who did not see him on a daily basis, in awe that such beauty existed and at Prince Heero's good fortune.
Acutely aware of Duo's affect on others, Heero made certain that his Heart was accompanied by his First or Second at all times while the castle was filled with visitors, and especially as long as his cousin Treize was in attendance.
The finale was two songs in which the both singers blended their voices in harmonious delight, their voices complimenting each other perfectly. The sound was a delight to all.
During the coarse of the evening, Master Rem sought and was granted permission to speak alone with the prince the following day. They sat in the Prince's outer chamber. Heero's other Three had been sent out to accompany Duo on his daily walk so they could speak privately.
"Is he as happy as he seems?" the greying man asked the dark haired prince sitting next to him.
Heero smiled. "I believe so, though we have had some rough times." he admitted.
"Yes." the bard nodded. "Duo has spoken to me of some of them."
"Has he shown you his colt, Shinni?" Heero asked as he placed his goblet of wine aside.
It was now the older man's turn to smile in admiration. "It was very clever of you to find a way for him to overcome his fear of horses."
"Then you knew about it?" Heero asked with a raised eyebrow.
"How could I not?" the bard chuckled. "Every time a horse would pass by us in a village or on the road, the boy would run and disappear, sometimes for hours, and once for days.
Heero sighed wearily. "Yes, he does have a habit of running and hiding, doesn't he?"
The older man chuckled. "That he does. But I never dreamed I'd see the day when he would walk through a stable, much less feed a horse carrots and apples from out of his hand."
The prince nodded, pleased with the progress himself. "He visits everyday. The daily familiarity of the stable has eased some of his fears. I can only hope we will be able to actually get him to ride Shinni one day."
The bard sat back and studied the prince. "When will his bonding begin?"
Heero raided a critical eyebrow. The bonding was not spoken of by just anyone, and it was presumptuous for the bard to assume he was entitled to any information or conversation on the subject. Yet, the prince reminded himself, this man acted in a fatherly way towards Duo. He had brought the boy to court for Heero to meet, and the Prince had much to thank the man for. Certainly he had earned the right to inquire after the boy he cared for, so Heero deigned to answer.
"Most likely by late winter. I still need time to strengthen the bond with Quatre." he explained.
"The sooner the better." the old man replied, his brows furrowed into worry, surprising the prince once again.
"What do you mean by that?" Heero asked confused.
Leaning forward, the singer looked intently into the Prince's eyes. "The boy has become even more....alluring during this past year. His confidence and....." he hesitated to speak his mind so openly to the prince, fearing his royal disapproval.
"And....?" Heero prompted.
"And his awakening to passion has made his very desirable to many."
Heero scowled at the man and crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the man to continue.
Taking his cue, Master Rem continued. "What I mean is, the way you two look at each other exudes an aura of desire. I see it, others see it. It makes you both more physically...... attractive. You are not free, but others see Duo as not yet claimed or bonded. In other words, available."
"He is not available." Heero ground out tersely.
"We know that, but there were those at the feast who look at the situation as I have just spoken."
"Treize." the prince growled knowingly.
"He is one of several I witnessed bearing lustful glances towards the boy. My humble counsel, Prince Heero, is to keep the boy close to your side, have him watched closely, at least until your bonding."
Heero nodded, thoughtfully considering what the bard had said. "I'll heed your advise and speak to my father regarding steps to ensure his safety.
The old man rose slowly to his feet. "I'm to meet with Duo before I depart." he sighed and smiled wistfully. "I miss that boy, but I'm glad to see him happy and thriving under your care." he told the prince and they clasped hands in farewell, wishing each other well as they parted once again.
The long, hot summer days continued into the time of harvest. It was reported that the fields were liberally laden with an over abundance of vegetables, grains, and fruits. Everyone commented that the storehouses would be filled for an entire year with the surplus. Yet the old ones, whose aging bones could be relied on as a forecaster of weather, warned of a wet and cold winter. The first frigid rainfall came mid-way through the harvest. The rain beat relentlessly down upon the land for a full two weeks. On the fourth day of steady rain, a cry went out from the farmers for help in gathering the rest of the harvest before the rains ruined the crops entirely. People from the cities, towns, and even the castle offered their assistance in picking the food from the vines, trees, and fields in order to save the crops from going to waste.
Nearing the end of the two weeks, the rain softened to sporadic showers and constant drizzle. Those who had been castle bound because of the inclement weather sought diversions from the long dreary days of tedious confinement.
One grey and drizzly afternoon, Duo escaped the cold castle walls to stand before the stables. He stood at the doorway and called out for Charlie, the young stable boy. Charlie was always about and ever alert for a visit by the Prince's Heart, knowing of the older boy's fear of the stable and it's large occupants. The little red headed boy would greet Duo with a warm, friendly smile and take his hand to lead him to the large stall where Shinni and his mother were stabled. Duo always focused on the boy's tight curls and light, cheerful chatter to distract himself from the sounds and movements of the horses as they walked through the enclosed stable.
"Charlie!" he called out louder, wondering where the boy could be.
"Duo?" Dermail's voice called out from the back of the stable.
"Yes, it's me." the singer called back.
The old stable master appeared suddenly at the other end of the stable. He wore a look of relief on his face as he rushed forward and grabbed hold of the Fourth's hand. "Come, lad. I need your help." he said as he pulled the slightly resisting boy past all the horse stalls and into the last room where Shinni had been born. Duo's eyes widened as his eyes fell on Charlie, laying on a bed of hay, wrapped in a blanket. The small, ten-year old boy's rust red hair clung in wet loose tendrils to his obviously fevered brow.
"Charlie's been working out in the fields, gathering the harvest with his family during the last few days." Dermail explained. "He came back this morning, but he just didn't look right. Now he's fevered." The older man looked up into Duo's uncertain face. "I need to go get his ma, but I couldn't leave him here alone, and you're the only one that's come by in hours. Will you sit with him till I get back?"
Duo's brow furrowed in thought and worry as the old man grabbed hold of an oiled cloak used to stave off the moisture and swung it around his head and shoulders. "I don't know if I can." he said unsure of himself.
"Just give him a drink of water from the bucket regularly." Dermail instructed pointing to the wooden bucket in the nearest corner. "I left a ladle in it for him to sip from. I shouldn't be long." He absently mindedly assured the boy as he prepared to go out. He then stopped and looked at the worried boy, and walking up to him, clasped a firm hand on his shoulder. "You can do this, Master Duo. I know I can trust you with Charlie's care."
Duo's eyes strayed again to Charlie who lay still. "Very well." he agreed. "But please, come back quickly."
Dermail gave a quick smile of thanks and left the Prince's Heart alone in the stable with the sick child.
The braided boy took off his slightly damp cloak and shook it out away from the resting boy. He then moved to Charlie's side, his resolve to help grew as he approached him.
"Hi, Charlie." he greeted the other softly.
The red haired boy weakly opened his blue eyes which were watery and bright with fever.
"Hi, Master Duo." he answered the greeting weakly.
"Feel pretty bad, huh?"
Charlie nodded and pulled his blanket up to his neck. "I'm cold." he said and suddenly began to shake violently.
Not seeing another blanket in the room, Duo reached for his discarded cloak and draped is over the trembling boy. "Better?" he asked with a slight smile.
The red head smiled weakly though his teeth chattered.. "A little."
The boy nodded and Duo, grateful for something to do, eagerly jumped up and went to the bucket and pulled out the ladle, spilling half of it's contents back into the bucket. Returning to the make-shift bed, he helped the boy to sit up and sip from the wooden carved ladle. Charlie painfully swallowed the half cup full.
"My throat hurts." he whispered and then coughed. It was a deep, protracted cough that seemed to come from the bottom of the young boy's lungs.
Taking the ladle back to the bucket, Duo dipped it in and drew out a cup full and took a long drink before setting it back. Taking a deep breath to ready himself to the task before him, he turned and went back to comfort the sick boy.
To help the time pass more quickly, he entertained the sick little boy by singing all the songs he knew, and then repeated some of tales of Wufei's far away homeland, so different from their own.
Charlie seemed to fall into a deep yet fitful sleep. The braided boy stood and began to pace the length of the room glancing anxiously at the stable door. It seemed a long time to him since Dermail left, and Charlie appeared to be getting worse. Bitting his lower lip, he made his way to the stall's door and opened it. His body shook of it own volition as he stared down the corridor separating the stalls lining the walls of the stable, noting that several of the horses had their heads out their doorways and several of those turned to look curiously at him. He needed help, but he couldn't bring himself to leave the sick boy, nor could he summon the courage to walk between the stalls. He felt trapped and alone.
Leaving the door open a crack to listen for anyone approaching, Duo turned back into the room. He went directly to the bucket and took another drink of the cool water, then refilled it and brought it again to Charlie and urged the unresponsive boy to drink.
More time passed and Duo sat on the ground covered with hay, holding his knees up to his chest and rocking nervously as he watched Charlie toss in his sleep and cough deeply. He knew Heero would be getting worried soon if he didn't return, but he was at a loss as to what he should do.
"Duo?" Trowa's questioning voice called out from the stable's entrance.
"Trowa!" Duo cried out in relief and ran to the doorway.
Sensing a tone of distress in the Fourth's voice, the taller boy rushed into the stable and to Duo, standing in the doorway at the far end.
"Thank The Maker you came, Trowa." Duo launched himself onto his chest, hugging him tightly. "Charlie's sick and Dermail left me to take care of him until he could return with Charlie's Ma." Duo spoke in a rush. "But he's getting worse. He got a bad cough and is fevered, and I don't know what to do, and I couldn't leave to get help."
As Duo explained, Trowa's green eyes turned to survey the room, seeing the sick boy on the bed of straw. He gently pulled Duo an arms length away so he could give him instructions. "It's all right Duo." he said calmly. "I want you to go to the House Mistress. Have her send for a healer and then for someone else to come stay with Charlie."
"Okay." was Duo's small reply.
"Then I want you to go to Heero, understand?"
Duo nodded, then looked worriedly towards the entrance.
Suddenly understanding, Trowa took the smaller boy's hand and led him to the stable's entrance and watched him run for the castle entrance. The sound of a deep, painful cough drew the Prince's Second back into the stable.
Two days later the clouds broke and the welcoming, warm sunshine spilled out from the heavens above down onto the saturated land. Duo developed a cold that morning, but assured Heero he felt well enough to visit his colt. He returned a short while later reporting that Dermail was very ill.
When he didn't show up for breakfast the next morning, no one was particularly worried as he was a perpetually hesitant riser. Wufei was sent to pull him from his bed. He entered the Fourth's room after his knock went unanswered. Duo was indeed still abed, but as his hand touched the sleeping boy's shoulder to awaken him, Wufei discovered Duo's body was burning with fever, and as the ill boy turned over, a deep racking cough shook his body.