The next few days passed swiftly. The weather was beautiful and the scenery of the countryside was stunning. They rode west from the palace heading for the Hane border. After leaving the village that surrounded the palace, they passed farmers tending cultivated fields and splashed through winding streams which were full of fish and surrounded by fishermen. Once through the more inhabited parts of the kingdom, the land rolled gently as they rode through the foothills of the mountains that rose majestically just past Hane's western border.
Five days after their departure, the travelers finally reached the end of Hane lands.
And Duo felt ready to start tearing out his own hair.
Heero had barely spoken a word to him since they first left the palace. Although Heero had brought along a comfortable tent in which to spend his nights, Duo had yet to share it with him. He hadn't been asked and he didn't want to assume he'd be welcome. Instead, he took his meals and spent his nights with Hilde. During the ensuing days, Duo's anxiety level had risen to an unbearable level. Finally, Duo reached the end of his patience and was determined to make Heero break his silence, even if it meant hearing that he no longer had his beautiful prince's affections.
They had stopped in a clearing just past the border to eat and rest. Trowa, Wufei, and the soldiers quickly finished eating and made use of the remainder of their time practicing. Quatre was showing Hilde the rudiments of archery and her joy at learning something useful shown upon her face. Heero, however, sat alone some distance away on the banks of a river, seemingly lost in thought.
Duo looked down at the plate of food he held in his hand. It was a pathetic excuse to talk to the taciturn prince, but Duo had no tolerance for subtlety, at this point. Taking a deep breath to bolster his courage, Duo moved to stand behind the somber looking young man.
"Heero, I brought you some food."
Heero turned to look up at Duo and Duo's breath caught at the sight of those incredible blue eyes that he hadn't seen up close in days. He reached out to hand Heero the plate. Heero mumbled his thanks and took it. His excuse gone, Duo desperately searched his mind for another reason to stay at Heero's side.
"Umm, may I sit down?"
Heero looked up from the plate. "Of course," he said softly.
Duo sat gracefully, not noticing how Heero's eyes flashed at the sight of the effortless motion. They both sat silently for a moment, watching the sunlight play on the water while Heero played absently with his food. After a several minutes, Duo found the courage to speak.
"Heero ... I-I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
Heero looked over at Duo sharply, putting his neglected plate to the side. Duo continued, unaware of Heero's puzzled expression.
"I can't stand that there is such tension between you and your father. You didn't even shake hands with him when we left. I know that it's my fault and I just wanted to say that there's no need for you to continue on this, in all likelihood, pointless journey. I should have just left like your father asked. Instead I selfishly stayed and now you probably hate me for causing the rift between you two..."
Duo's rush of words came to an abrupt halt when Heero place his index finger against the nervous boy's lips. Duo blinked in surprise, his eyes crossing slightly as he looked down at the finger. He then turned his wide eyes on the young man sitting next to him.
Heero regarded Duo with narrowed eyes. He shook his head in confusion. "What makes you think I could possibly hate you?"
Heero's finger left Duo's suddenly dry lips. Duo looked away from the prince and moistened them with his tongue. Heero's intent gaze latched onto the nervous gesture. Duo found the blades of grass at his side immensely fascinating as he traced them with a tense finger. He was hesitant to answer Heero's question, but Duo was no coward. He cleared his throat and pressed on.
"I ... we've been traveling for five days now and you haven't spoken a word to me the entire time. You haven't even looked at me." Duo's voice became firmer as indignant resentment began to fill him. "I mean, really, Heero. If you didn't want take this trip all you had to do was say so. You certainly didn't have to continue on my account. As far as I'm concerned, this is a wasted effort. I'm an orphan, nothing more. We should just turn around and go back to Hane. You can reconcile with your father and I can just go my own way..."
Duo was silenced as Heero covered his mouth with his own. Still miffed by Heero's recent uncommunicativeness, Duo initially attempted to pull away. However, the strong hand that grasped his arm and the gentle hand that was placed against his cheek halted his retreat. Duo ceased his struggles, his own hands moving without thought to Heero's broad shoulders. For days he'd longed for Heero's touch and now that he was finally experiencing it, he was in no hurry for it to end. He let out a low moan as Heero's tongue invaded his mouth. Everything but the feel of Heero's lips left Duo's mind and he surrendered to the heated embrace.
After several endless moments, Heero gently pulled back. His breath, quickened by the kiss, showed no signs of returning to normal as he looked at Duo. The braided boy's beautiful eyes were closed, his lips parted, and his cheeks flushed. Heero felt a pang of self-disgust at his own careless behavior. It was his own stupidity that had caused Duo's anxiety and he was eager to remedy his mistake.
"Duo," he whispered, "please forgive me for being an idiot."
Duo's eyes opened slowly and he blinked at Heero as he came back to the present. Heero looked at him with the loving expression he'd come to crave. The tension of the past week flowed out of him. He smiled, and lifting his hand, used his fingertips to smooth the furrow of unease that had appeared upon Heero's brow.
"Why wouldn't you talk to me?" he asked softly.
Heero shivered at the feel of Duo's fingers against his face. At the gentle question, he sighed and looked down. He took one of Duo's hands in his as he considered how to frame his response.
"All of my life," he began, "I've had certain things expected of me, certain roles I've had to fulfill. I've been a king's son, an heir to the throne, and a commander of an army. The thing is, all of these roles requires a certain demeanor of control and reserve. No one wants an army general or a future king who openly shows his emotions. So I learned how to play these roles and learned to keep a tight reign on my feelings."
Heero sighed again and looked into Duo's understanding gaze. "I've been feeling like I let my father down by disobeying him, but at the same time, I've been extremely angry at him for trying to dictate the terms of my life. Believe me, you're not the cause of the distance between us. This situation with you was merely the last straw. I could put up with him telling me how a prince should act but I'll be damned if he'll tell me whom I can and cannot love. I should have shared my feelings with you, but like I said, I'm used to keeping such things to myself."
Heero tighten his grip on Duo's hand as his gaze grew more intense. "I promise that from now on I will never keep anything from you. I love you and more importantly I trust you. Can you forgive me for being so thickheaded?"
Duo lifted their joined hands and pressed his lips to Heero's fingers. He looked back up at his handsome prince and smiled. "Of course I forgive you." The smile turned into a teasing grin. "Just don't ever do it again, or I'll sic Hilde on you."
Heero laughed and leaned forward to claim Duo's lips for a kiss of reconciliation.
Duo leaned away, his smile mischievous. "Does this mean I can share your tent with you?"
Heero growled affirmatively and recaptured Duo's teasing lips.
Their peaceful moment was interrupted abruptly by Hilde's scream.
"Duo, Heero! Look out!"
They broke apart and turned to look at her. She was running towards them, a look of panic on her face. Quatre, Trowa, Wufei, and the soldiers looked at her curiously. They looked around the clearing and saw nothing.
"Duo, behind you!"
Heeding Hilde's warning, Duo turned towards the lake. Though he saw nothing, he could remember times in the past when Hilde had warned of dangers, unseen at the time, but which quickly made themselves known. Sure enough, the water began to churn and roll violently. Hilde's voice wasn't the only one that raised in alarm as a nightmarish creature rose from the depths of the once placid river.
Duo jumped to his feet and quickly retrieved his knives from his boots. Heero, who had still been looking towards Hilde, turned around at Duo's sudden movement. His eyes went wide then narrowed with determined focus as he stood and liberated his sword from its scabbard.
"Soldiers, to arms!"
The prince's command cut through the soldier's frozen shock. None of them had ever seen anything like what was coming out of the river. The monster stood at least fifteen feet tall. It's crocodile-like head boasted teeth that would put a dragon to shame. A powerful neck led to an equally mighty torso. Long, thickly muscled, scaly arms ended in claws, each as long and sharp as a sword. Legs as thick as tree trunks ended in giant webbed feet, showing that the beast was as at home in the water as on land. The monster roared as its powerful, whip-like tailed thrashed the water behind it.
The ten soldiers who were archers joined Quatre and a less skilled, but equally determined Hilde, as they fired volley after volley at the monster. However, though its hide bristled with arrows, it showed no signs of slowing down as it moved quickly towards the riverbank. Quatre, realizing that the arrow attacks were grossly ineffective, began to hurl his most powerful offensive magic at the creature. However, they too had little success, as the monster just shrugged them off.
"Duo, get back!" Heero yelled.
The two young men brandished their weapons defensively as they made their way away from the riverbank and back towards the main group. They moved cautiously so as not to attract the monster's attention, but luck was not with them. As though it were seeking them, the monster fixed its baleful eyes on them and let out a bloodcurdling roar. Moving faster than any would have though possible, the monster rushed forward and grabbed Heero up in its massive hands. Heero dropped his sword and yelled in agony as the monster began to slowly crush him.
Duo's terrified shout was but one among many. Quatre ceased his assault, as did the archers, unwilling to risk accidentally hitting Heero. The soldiers along with Trowa and Wufei immediately rushed forward to attack the creature en masse. Their headlong rush was halted abruptly when the monster turned sharply, bringing its tail to bear. The colossal appendage bowled them over with a single swipe.
Duo, being the closest to the monster, flattened himself to the ground as the tail swung over his head and managed to avoid being hit. Once the tail had passed him, he leapt to his feet. Duo's heart thundered in his chest as he watched his lover being slowly squeezed to death. A feeling of utter powerlessness pressed down on him and a helpless cry tore from his throat.
Duo looked at his knives, knowing that they would be useless again the monster's thick hide. He spun towards the soldiers, but they all lay unconscious, knocked senseless by the monster's tail. He saw Quatre and Hilde who were the only ones left standing. Hilde's slender frame was racked with violent sobs as she looked wide-eyed the imperiled prince. Quatre's usually kind face was red, his jaw clenched in helpless fury. He found Duo's desperate gaze and shook his head, indicating his inability to save Heero.
Duo turned back towards the river, his heart breaking as Heero cried out again. The cry was weak and Duo knew that Heero could not hold out much longer. Tears of agony streamed down his cheeks as he watched the love of his life dying.
"Please," he whispered, "someone help me..."
Suddenly Duo felt a sharp tingling sensation on the back of his right shoulder, in the vicinity of his tattoo. He grit his teeth as the feeling grew in intensity until it was almost burning. When the sensation faded a moment later, Duo felt a clarity the likes of which he'd never before experienced. His anxiety and fear disappeared as if they had never been. Filled with an inexplicable calmness, Duo walked over and picked up Heero's fallen sword.
Quatre and Hilde watched in amazement as, without a word, Duo raced into the water and leapt fifteen feet straight into the air, landing nimbly on the creature's head. The monster roared with rage and shook its massive head, trying to dislodge the long-haired man.
Duo easily kept his balance as he held the sword in a two-handed grip, the blade, which had taken on a faint glow, pointing downwards. With no hesitation and with unimaginable strength, Duo plunged the shining sword deep into the monster's cranium.
The beast bellowed in pain and fury as thick, black blood pored from the hideous wound. It flung the barely conscious prince to the ground as it put its hands to its head, trying to remove the sword from its skull. Duo leapt agilely to the ground and ran to Heero. Behind him, the monster's death throes slowed and it keeled over.
Quatre and Hilde ran to join the couple on the riverbank. They faltered in horrified confusion, however, as the monster vanished into thin air.
Duo, still filled with the strange composure that had overtaken him, held Heero silently as Quatre and Hilde finally reached them.
"D-Duo," Quatre stuttered, "what hap..."
"Not now, Quatre," Duo said, his voice tranquil. "Take care of Heero."
"Of c-course," Quatre replied, shakily. Placing his hands to Heero's head, he chanted his most powerful healing spell. Immediately, Heero's eyes fluttered open and he tried to sit up but strong hands arrested his attempt.
"Easy now, you're still weak."
Hilde stared at her cousin. Never had she heard him sound so serene and in control.
Heero looked up at the sound of Duo's voice. His lips quirked in a weak smile.
"Did we get it?" he whispered.
"Yes," Duo answered, "we got it."
Then, as quickly as it had come, Duo preternatural calm disappeared. He blinked as if coming out of a trance. Eyes wide with confusion he looked at Quatre and Hilde, saw the now recovering soldiers, and finally turned his gaze down towards Heero. His lips worked silently for a moment, then he wrapped his arms around the prince, his shoulders shaking with the violence of his sobs.
Quatre and Hilde looked at each other in utter bewilderment. Although Duo's demeanor while fighting the monster had been confusing to say the least, his sudden reversion to his usual emotional self was even more perplexing. Heero, who had not been lucid enough to witness Duo's transformation, merely held the weeping boy to him, rubbing his back soothingly. Hilde and Quatre, seeing that Heero was fully recovered, backed away to give them privacy and to see to the others.
"I though I'd lost you," Duo whimpered.
"You'd never be rid of me that easily," Heero said with a gentle smile. "But what happened?" Heero remembered being snatched up by the monster but everything subsequent to that moment was decidedly hazy.
Duo shook his head against Heero's shoulder. "I don't know. Last thing I remember, I was watching that thing crush you to death..."
Duo trailed off. He pulled back and looked at Heero, his amethyst eyes full of tears.
"I've never been so scared in my life," he whispered.
A single tear escaped and made it's way down Duo's cheek. Heero caught it with his thumb before pulling the sobbing boy back against his chest and holding him as he continued to shudder with fear at what had almost occurred. Heero turned his head as he saw Quatre and Hilde, now joined by a recovered Trowa and Wufei, quickly approaching.
Quatre's mind overflowed with questions and they spilled from his tongue as he reached the kneeling pair.
"Duo, what happened? How in the name of the ancients did you slay that creature?"
Heero looked towards Quatre in surprise before leaning back to look into Duo's distressed face.
"Duo, you killed the monster?"
Duo looked up at Heero in confusion. "What are you talking about?" He turned his puzzled gaze upon Quatre. "Of course I didn't killed that thing."
Quatre shook his head. "I beg to differ, Duo, but Hilde and I both saw it. You took Heero's fallen sword, leapt who knows how many feet straight up into the air, landed on the monster's head, and used the sword to killed it."
Duo's expression declared his belief that Quatre had lost his mind. He turned to Hilde with a quirky smile to share the joke. His smile rapidly faded as he took in her awed expression.
"Hilde, don't tell me that you agree with Quatre's little fantasy?"
"I most certainly do, Duo. I saw it with my own eyes. It's just as Quatre said. Somehow, you killed that creature. I don't know how you did it, but you did."
Feeling as though he was no longer sitting on solid ground, Duo turned his confused gaze upon Heero. The prince regarded him with narrowed-eyed speculation.
"Duo, do you remember anything other than what you told me?"
Duo started to shake his head but paused as something tugged at him memory.
"Well, I remember my shoulder hurting. In fact, it felt like someone had taken a hot poker to it."
"Your shoulder?" Quatre asked.
"Actually, my tattoo."
Quatre and Heero shared a brief glance. They both knew that they shared the same suspicion and also know that Duo would be reluctant to hear their theory. Silently, they agreed to discuss the implications at a later time.
"Come on," Heero said, pulling Duo to his feet. "Let's get moving. I'd like to put as much distance between us and this place as quickly as possible."
There were no arguments and the group wasted no time in packing up and leaving the area.
The mages gathered around the scrying pool were amongst the most powerful magic users in existence. However, they cringed in fear as they regarded the dark figure fuming before them.
"Can someone please explain to me what just happened? Why did you cause the beast to go after that worthless prince? It's the boy I'm after. You know, the beautiful one with the ridiculous braid." The voice oozed with infuriated sarcasm.
One brave mage managed to find his voice. "Our apologies, my lord. We felt that it would be easier to do away with the boy if the object of his affection were to be destroyed in front of his eyes."
The dark figure glanced at the mage. "Hmmm, a worthy objective. But I'm afraid that it failed miserably!" The mages jumped at the sudden shout. "Not only did you not kill the boy, but your bumbling has allowed him to access the Scepter's power."
"B-but, my liege," another mage stuttered, "how could he? He doesn't even have the Scepter with him."
A disgusted sigh filled the room. "You idiots. If you had studied the legends like you were told, you would know of the foretelling of the most powerful Shi king ever. This king would be able to access the power of the Scepter even at a great distance. Clearly, this boy is he and if he ever manages to actually get his hands on it, he will be unstoppable!"
The dark figured stepped forward into the feeble light of a torch that burned against the wall of the chamber, revealing the angry set of Duke Dermail's homely features.
"Now, *gentlemen*, that boy must be stopped. I will tolerate no more excuses!"
He whirled around and exited the room, leaving the mages to plot and plan.