"Enter," the king called at the sound of the knock, not looking up from the scroll he was reading.
"You wanted to see me, father?"
King Odin looked up to see his son standing in the doorway of his study.
"Yes, Heero, come in. Have a seat."
Heero sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. He wore a look of contentment that the king hadn't seen in months, and all because of that boy. King Odin repressed a sigh. Though he was loath to ruin his son's happiness, this had to be done.
"I see that young Duo is recovering well from his ordeal," the king hedged.
Heero nodded, his lips quirking up in a wry smile. "Yes. Hilde has been making certain that Duo has had plenty of rest and food. I think he weighs more now than he did when he first came here. In fact, I was thinking that Duo would be better suited to a position as my personal bodyguard rather than my valet. His combat abilities shouldn't go to waste, in my opinion."
The king gazed at his son sharply. "Hmmm. Of course if he were your bodyguard, that would mean he could spend more time with you than he already does, isn't that right."
Heero's eyes widened at the innuendo and his cheeks took on a slight flush of embarrassment.
"What about Wufei," the king asked.
Heero cleared his throat. "I believe that Wufei would be better suited to keeping an eye on Hilde, sir. After all, Dermail is still out there somewhere and it wouldn't do to leave the girl unprotected."
The king looked at his son for a moment, his eyebrow raised at the unconvincing argument. Gathering his resolve, he took a deep breath.
"Heero, I'm afraid that I can't agree to Duo becoming your bodyguard. In fact..." The king paused. Then, not unkindly, he continued. "In fact, I must insist that Duo leave Hane altogether."
Heero froze, his eyes locked onto his father's solemn face.
The king flinched slightly at the incredulity in quiet question. Pressing his lips together in determination, his own deep blue eyes returned his son's intense gaze.
"I said that Duo must leave Hane. Don't get me wrong, I've become very fond of the lad. He's shown himself to be a very brave, trustworthy young man. But you two have grown entirely too close." Heero's eyes widened in surprise. "Yes, Heero, don't think I'm ignorant of your relationship. You've hardly tried to keep it a secret. I'm afraid, however, that I neither approve nor condone it."
Heero remained rooted to the chair. His hands curled around the armrests, grasping them tightly. He took a deep breath, trying to control his building anger.
"You don't approve," he echoed. "Why the hell not?"
The king blinked at his harsh tone. "Heero, it's not what you might think. It's not because Duo's not a woman." The king sighed. "Your late uncle, my brother, whom I loved and respected, was also more fond of the company of other men. I never held it against him nor loved him any less for it.(1) No, Heero, the reason I disapprove is because you are the crown prince of Hane and Duo is a mere commoner."
Heero stood quickly from his chair. He leaned forward and pressed his hands firmly on the desk, leaving his face mere inches from his father's. For a moment, the king felt trepidation as he took in Heero's furious expression. He realized suddenly that his son had grown into a very physically powerful young man.
Heero's jaw clenched as he grated out, "That makes absolutely no difference to me."
"Perhaps not, Heero, but it does make a difference to me as well as to the rest of the kingdom. As a member of the nobility, Heero, you know very well that you can have no such dealings with the common folk. It's the way things are and I see no reason to change that."
Heero's hands balled into tight fists as they lay on the desk. He struggled to keep his voice calm. "What about Quatre and Trowa? You don't seem to have a problem with them."
The king leaned back in his chair, trying to appear at ease. "Heero, Quatre is a lord, not a member of the royal family. It is not nearly as scandalous if he wishes to consort with a commoner. Besides, Trowa comes from a very respectable family." The king pressed his lips together. "I mean honestly, Heero. Not even Duo knows whom he comes from. Who's to say who his people were? No, Heero," he continued as Heero started to interrupt, "I'm afraid I must be adamant about this."
The king felt his heart sink as Heero's eyes went deadly cold. Although he felt he was in the right, he loathed the thought that his son might never forgive him for this. He cleared his throat and tried for some small appeasement.
"I wouldn't wish to turn the boy out into the woods, as it were. As I said, I've become very fond of him. I was thinking that his superb fighting abilities, as you so rightly pointed out, might be put to better use in Sanq, or maybe Oz. I'm certain that either Millardo or Trieze would welcome him. And of course, if his cousin wishes to stay here, she is more than welcome and Duo could come to visit her whenever he wished."
Heero had straightened and backed away from the desk during the king's nervous speech. He stood at attention, as if it was only his military training that was keeping him from loosing his temper completely. When the king finished speaking, Heero executed a sharp turn and stalked towards the door without a word.
"Heero," the king said softly.
Heero paused with his hand on the door handle.
"Son, I ... I'm sorry."
Heero opened the door and left the room without turning around. The king stared at the closed door, wondering if he'd just lost his son forever.
Wufei happened to be passing the king's study when Heero suddenly emerged. Wufei stepped aside quickly as Heero nearly ran into him, clearly not seeing him. The young lord noticed his friend's stormy countenance and decided not to inquire as to what had caused Heero's less than pleasant mood. Instead he shook his head and continued on towards the reading room.
Wufei entered to find Quatre and Trowa playing a game of chess. Hilde was sewing something but when she saw Wufei enter the room she quickly hid it. Wufei raised an eyebrow at her slightly guilty expression but refrained from questioning her. Instead he sat in the chair near her and held out a piece of dark blue silk. Hilde took it with a smile.
"You found it! Thank you so much."
She leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on his cheek just as the door opened again and Duo entered the room. Duo had not missed the kiss and scowled at Wufei, putting on his best 'don't mess with my little cousin' face. Wufei blanched slightly and leaned back in his chair. Hilde, however, saw the devilment in Duo's eyes and stuck her tongue out at him. Laughing, he winked at her and stepped over to Quatre and Trowa.
"Good afternoon," he said cheerfully.
Trowa nodded at him while Quatre beamed. "Hello, Duo. I must say, you're looking very well."
Duo returned the bright smile. "I feel very well, thank you. However, I didn't come to exchange pleasantries. I actually have a favor to ask."
"Of course," Quatre replied. "What can I do for you?"
Quatre raised his eyebrows as Duo suddenly pulled his tunic over his head and turned slightly.
"Have you ever seen this mark before? Heero said that he recognized it and thought you might as well."
"Our tattoo?" Hilde looked over at him. "You think it actually means something?"
"Heero thinks so," Duo replied.
Quatre had stood and moved closer to the braided boy so he could get a better look. He looked up curiously at Hilde's remark. "Our tattoo? You mean you both have the same mark?"
Duo nodded. "For as long as we both can remember. I think I asked our aunts about it once but they just looked sad and never answered."
Quatre pursed his lips. "Hmmm ... actually, I think I have seen this before, in a book." He straightened and looked Duo in the eye. "Let me do a bit of research and see what I can find."
Duo smiled. "Thank you. I'd appreciate it." Duo looked around as Quatre took up a quill and some parchment to make a quick sketch of the design. "Where is Heero?"
"I saw him a little while ago," Wufei replied. "He was coming from his father's study and he looked as if he were upset about something. I thought it wise not to inquire at the time," he said in response to Duo's questioning look.
Duo frowned and pulled his tunic back on as Quatre had finished copying the tattoo. "I'll go look for him," he murmured. He left the room without further comment.
Hilde looked at Wufei and then at Quatre. "Do you think something is wrong?"
Wufei shrugged. Quatre looked pensive. "I don't know. If something is wrong, I'm certain that Heero will tell us."
Trowa let out a wry grunt. "More likely is that Duo will get it out of him and he'll tell us."
Quatre smiled and nodded in agreement. Deciding not to worry about it, he turned his attention to solving the mystery of the tattoo.
Duo shook his head as he finally found Heero sitting on the battlement, looking out onto the surrounding countryside.
'I should have looked here first,' Duo thought. After searching for Heero for nearly half an hour, he'd finally remembered Heero telling him that the high battlement was his favorite place to go when he was troubled about something. Heero was obviously lost in thought so Duo approached him slowly, not wanting to startle him.
Heero looked up as Duo stopped in front of him. The look of frustrated anguish on his handsome face made Duo's breath catch in his throat.
"Heero, what's wrong?"
Heero didn't reply to the concerned query. Instead he reached out and took Duo's hand in his. He pulled the long-haired boy down to sit next to him. He looked down at their joined hands. Worry rushed through Duo and he repeated his question.
"Heero, what is it? Tell me."
Heero looked up into the apprehensive amethyst eyes looking at him with loving concern. He cleared his throat against the tightness that had formed there.
"My fa ... the king says that he disapproves of us because I'm a prince and you're a commoner." Duo gasped as Heero continued. "He said that you have to leave Hane, but he can go to hell for all I care. You're not going anywhere."
Heero gazed at Duo's distressed face but frowned as he saw grim acceptance rather than the surprised he'd expected to find. Duo looked as though he was only receiving confirmation of unwanted but anticipated news.
Duo shook his head, interrupting Heero with a sigh. "Your father is right, Heero. I don't deserve to be with you."
Heero looked at him, eyes wide with disbelief. "How can you say that?"
Duo tried to pull away but Heero's grasp was unbreakable. He knew he wouldn't be able to look into those beautiful blue eyes and keep his resolve so he lowered his head, looking at the stone floor.
"Heero, I don't have any idea where I came from. I don't know who my parents were. For all I know they could have been criminals. The aunts always got so upset whenever Hilde and I asked about our parents that I'm sure something horrible must have happened. Maybe our mothers were prostitutes and abandoned us or maybe our fathers were bandits. I just don't know!" Duo looked up abruptly, eyes filled with distress. "What I do know, Heero, is that you are a prince and I ... I'm nothing."
Duo finished on a whisper and lowered his eyes. Heero put his fingers under his chin and slowly lifted his head until his eyes were forced to meet Heero's sober gaze.
"Duo, you are *not* nothing. You are *everything* to me."
Duo blinked against the sudden threat of tears, his foolish heart beating faster at the heated words.
Heero's voice deepened with intensity. "When I thought I'd lost you, that you were ... that you were gone forever, it almost killed me. I will *not* lose you again," he rasped.
Duo fell into Heero's dark gaze and felt his determination being swept away by the force of Heero's will. He closed his eyes and leaned forward until his head lay on Heero's strong shoulder. His braid fell over his shoulder to rest on Heero's chest as if it too were unwilling to be parted from the handsome prince.
"I don't ever want to leave you," he whispered.
Heero wrapped his arms around the boy who was the center of his world. He lay his head on top of the mass of silken chestnut.
"Then you never will." Heero breathed in Duo's scent and closed his eyes. "Don't worry," he said softly. "We'll find a way."
Quatre found them there several hours later, still holding each other. He paused at the intensity of the emotions he sensed coming from the pair but felt that his news could not wait. He cleared his throat and the young men looked up at him.
"I'm sorry to interrupt but I found something about Duo's tattoo. Something very interesting." He continued at their curious looks. "Heero, we had indeed seen the symbol before. It was while we were studying myths and legends with our old tutor."
Quatre moved closer and offered the book he was holding for their inspection. He pointed to the right hand page. "The symbol is mentioned in reference to the legendary kingdom of Shi." Heero looked up in surprise. "Yes," Quatre continued, "I see you do remember."
Duo looked at Heero as the prince spoke in a puzzled tone. "But I thought Shi was just that, a legend. It's not supposed to exist. Why would Duo and Hilde bear the mark of an imaginary kingdom?"
"That I can't say, Heero. But what's even more interesting is that the particular design of their tattoos is actually suppose to be the mark of the Shi royal family."
Heero's eyes widened in shock but Duo laughed. "Oh, come on, Quatre. What are you telling me? That I'm somehow connected to some mythological royalty of some mythological kingdom?" He looked over at Heero to share the joke but his smile faded as he took in the utter seriousness of Heero's expression.
"All legends are based on truth, isn't that right Quatre?" Quatre nodded at Heero, suspecting where he was going with this. "I think perhaps we should investigate this further."
Duo looked at him as if he'd gone insane. "What are you saying, Heero, that we should go looking for this imaginary kingdom?" Heero's steady gaze did not falter. Duo shook his head in puzzlement. "Why?"
"Why not?" Heero made no further reply as he got to his feet. "Quatre, tell the others that I'll be going on a long journey and that I hope they will join me."
Quatre hesitated. "Heero, what about the king? He'll never approve." Quatre shivered slightly as Heero's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Don't worry. He won't stop me." Heero headed towards the stairs that led back into the palace, leaving Duo and Quatre to stare after him.
"Is he really serious about this?"
"Apparently," Quatre replied. "Come on. Let's go tell the others. If I know Heero, we'll be all set to leave first thing in the morning."
Duo sighed with resignation and followed Quatre back into the palace.
"You want to go *where*?" The king stared at his son in shock.
Heero glared back at him. "You heard me. I am going to find Shi. I think there might be some clues as to Duo and Hilde's past there."
The king stared to voice his refusal when Heero's low growl interrupted him.
"You owe me this."
The king looked into his son's eyes. Suddenly he knew without doubt that if he refused he would lose his son forever. Fear filled him at the thought and he found himself nodding.
"Alright, Heero. You may go. Take whatever you need."
Heero nodded in acknowledgement and turned to leave. He turned back at the sound of his father's voice.
"Heero ... be careful."
Heero nodded again and managed a small, reassuring smile. He left the study and the king sighed. All he could do was pray that Heero found whatever it was that he was searching for and returned safely.
"Good luck, my son."
(1) This is in line with my belief that it's truly genetic.
A/N: In case you were wondering, Duo and Hilde's tattoo is the Kanji symbol "shi", which, of course, means"death".