Genre: AU, fantasy/ fairy tale, action/adventure
Warnings : shounen ai, some (graphic) violence, a bit of sap, a bit of angst, fantasy clich?
Pairings : to be established Heero and Duo
Word count : 110.183
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing and its characters belongs to Bandai, Sunrise, Shotsu Agency. Fic written for entertainment purposes only. No money is made off of this.
Summary: Heero Yuy's life is turned upside down after a tragedy happens to his adoptive family and close friends, the Darlians. Together with the surviving daughter, Relena, he goes to travel in search of the mythical kingdom of Sanq, meeting new and mysterious friends and allies, and facing enemies along the way, in the hopes of bringing peace and freedom back into a world caught in the claws of a mighty usurper.
Author's notes: Feedback is greatly appreciated. Beta-ed by my wonderful pretty princess Ilene. Any mistake still left is mine only as I can't help tweaking and editing until the very last moment. Entry to the "Seven Deadly Sins" contest of Moments of Rapture.

Legends of the Five
by Daimeryan Rei

He wished he knew of a method to preserve this moment in time. Forever. Who didn't want to re-live a victorious, glorious moment of his life again and again?

With an all-knowing smirk tugging at his lips, he looked down at the five people in front of him, four of them kneeled, faces pressed into the mud, hands outstretched as the supplicants they were. Only the man in the middle stood upright, his face a cracked mask of defeat. The Officials of Epyon country had lasted longer than he thought -- but not long enough for their reinforcements to arrive.

"Esshouin Khushrenada," the man spoke, his voice hoarse and broken. He snorted. Esshouin, yes, that was the perfect title for him; a title belonging to a man of power, a man of great virtue and strength. His smirk grew into a wide smile, but there was no warmth in it.


"Esshouin, spare our people," the man pleaded. It was hard to talk with loose, rattling teeth and dried-up blood caked around his swollen lips. It was a miracle the man could still see; the right half of his face was bruised, his cheekbone broken, both eyes black and blue. Not that Khushrenada cared. Every fight demanded casualties -- the man would live, be it not like he had imagined himself to live out his days.

"You have won, esshouin. We will acknowledge the rule of Treize Khushrenada over Epyon country, and..."

He fell silent when Khushrenada raised his hand, swallowing thickly. A messenger with the characteristic white scarf tied around his right arm, approached him carefully from behind, but his footsteps were clearly audible in the marshy grass. It had been raining for three days now, but it was of minor annoyance to Khushrenada -- victory was his, rain or not.

"Tell me."

The messenger didn't allow himself to catch his breath. "The capital city has fallen," he said, and ignored the pitiful moan from the captured Officials. "The resistance is broken, esshan-dar."

"Esshouin," Khushrenada corrected him. The messenger didn't skip a beat, sketching a bow and repeating the title reverently. Esshan-dar was too little of a title for him now; the world would learn about Treize Khushrenada and how he had risen to power -- and all and everyone would address him with his rightful title.

The Official wanted to talk again, but Khushrenada growled a "Silence!". He stared into the distance. The smoke was visible from this side of the hill; not even the rain would put out these fires anytime soon.

"Any other news?"

"We'll be sending out messengers soon, esshouin Khushrenada. The Treize Faction has already begun executing the rebels and confiscating their weapons."

"Please, no!" the Official cried. "Spare our people, we can give you anything you want!"

"I already have everything I want," Khushrenada answered dryly. "Your country, remember? You do not have power anymore, and your stubborn citizens will suffer and pay for their rebellious actions. Get them out of my sight."

"No, please no!" the Official repeated, shaking his head, even moving his feet as if he wanted to run after Khushrenada. His cries were smothered by soldiers who threw him on the ground, laughing and mocking him. The others started to cry out as well as the soldiers hauled them back to their feet harshly, punching anyone who wasn't fast enough. Bored, Khushrenada turned around and started walking down the hill. He was done here.

Halfway the hill an improvised camp had been set up: six tents in total, a makeshift stable for the horses and a shed for cooking utilities, provisions and other things that needed to be stored. He liked order and neatness in a camp. Outside of the largest tent stood a man in conspicuous red robes, standing out like a sore thumb in the marshy lands. The silver mask covering half his face was only one of his distinguishing features; the other one was his long platinum blond hair, held together with a black ribbon. A large fire burned in front of him, untouched by the rain.

"Merquise," he greeted him. He had told the mage to stay in his tent and rest up; he wasn't sure how long it would take for the man to regain his strength after the tiresome conquering of Oz country, and he needed him. Something moved in the shadows; Khushrenada didn't even reach for the hilt of his sword; he had already spotted Une. She would always be close by, wherever he went.

"Auda country has sent message of their total surrender." Merquise didn't waste time with addressing anyone properly. He was the only one to get away with it. "With your permission, Duke Dermail will act as your representative there."

Khushrenada made a dismissive gesture with his hand and stepped closer to the fire. It was pretty cold outside.

"Dermail can do what he wants."

He couldn't care less for Auda and its neighboring Iria country; that was no real victory. The two countries were as small as pebbles, and of no real importance. However, to encourage the Duke, he could send him the Officials of Epyon as new household staff. Not only would it be appreciated by his granddaughter Dorothy Catalonia, it would also serve as a reminder: everyone could fall, and the higher the rank, the harder the fall.

"Is there any news of Libra?" he asked, changing the subject abruptly.

Merquise shook his head. "It's impossible for me to locate any of the gates, I'm afraid. The portals are closed. The last thing I heard was that their representative had left, he's gone for quite a while now."

"There must be someone else authorized to negotiate?" Khushrenada sounded impatient.

"No. Out of the question."

He arched a delicate eyebrow, but he didn't press it. Zechs Merquise had always been honest and didn't sugarcoat anything -- if he said no, it was no.

"Nataku country?"

"No survivors, as far as we can see." This time Une spoke up, her brown hair showing speckles of dark orange and cinnamon brown in the light of the fire.

"Stupid. Brave, but stupid."

Khushrenada snorted, warmed his hands a little at the fire and stepped past the both of them to enter his tent. Two servants, both high-ranked government officials in their previous lives, jumped up and hurried to hand him towels, meanwhile nervously babbling about the clean, dry clothes they had laid out for him and how the esshouin would be tired after such an exerting day on the battlefield... for now, he let them prattle on. As soon as they annoyed him, he would have them replaced.

Turning his head, he saw the map of the world, sprawled out on his writing table. Nataku, Oz and Epyon country had fallen. There was so much left to conquer, so much left to take...all to his glory, all for his victory. He wanted more, he wanted everyone to know his name, and he would shape this world to his own image and vision.

The next would be Romefeller -- the cities would burn, the lands would be plundered, and those who would oppose him... would die.


There was only one girl who could make her voice carry this far; upon hearing his name, Heero looked up from the pile of wood he'd been chopping and saw Relena Darlian jogging towards him, a basket under her arm, frantically waving. Was it that late already? Squinting, he shielded his eyes from the sun burning high in the sky. He hadn't been keeping track of time, working in the shade as he had been doing since early this morning, piling up wood along the wall of the small shed. One could never start early enough with stocking up supplies for the winter.

"Heero, you silly -- have you been doing this all morning?" She was out of breath from running up the hill, carrying the heavy basket with her right arm, her other hand keeping the thick cloth covering it in place. Her eyes widened at seeing the amount of wood, though she shouldn't have been surprised, really -- she knew how much of a hard worker he was.

"I stand corrected -- have you been doing all of this?" She pointed at the amount of wood, stacked up against the wall. He put the axe away as he closed the door of the shed. He didn't have any trouble with the tool's excessive weight; he wasn't even breaking a sweat yet.

"Is it lunch time yet?" Heero asked, avoiding her question. Relena might sound a little berating at times, but the genuine and gentle care in her voice was unmistakable. The girl simply nodded and stretched her hand out to take Heero by the elbow. He showed her a small smile; he wasn't really a touchy-feely person, but he tolerated it from her. Besides, it was harmless, just a touch from someone he regarded as a good friend. How she regarded him, however, was something he had mixed feelings about.

She led him away from the shed to the other side of the hill. Smiling and giggling like only girls her age could do, she searched out a good spot to have lunch together, the large basket still dangling from her arm. He already had smelled the fresh baked bread and now that his nose had been tempted, he noticed how hungry he really was.

Relena sat down, using the piece of cloth as table linen, spreading it out over the grass. That reminded him that he needed to either cut it later or have the sheep graze here. Relena's father, esshan Darlian, appreciated his pastures to be neat and orderly, not a mess of weeds and high grass. Not that he ever complained or mentioned it to Heero; he made sure the man had nothing to complain about. Heero wouldn't do a thing to shame the family who had taken him in selflessly and had provided him with a place to stay, food to eat and a honest job to do. Romefeller country was beautiful, but it was harsh -- orphans like him could end up at the wrong side of the law sooner than they learned to run away from the local guards.

"You wouldn't have heard me calling you, so I had to yell," she apologized. "You're always so concentrated on your work, and if you break your concentration with certain tools..." She shivered, thinking about the hefty axe Heero had been wielding. That thing would cut as easily through bone and flesh as it did through wood.

Smiling up at him again, she started taking out bread, sausages, pickles, a hunk of cheese and some fresh fruit from the basket. Everything from their own lands, of course; as for many families in Romefeller country, agriculture was the main source of income as well as primary sustenance. Heero sat down as well, all but flopping into the high grass.

From this side of the hill, part of the natural border of Darlian's lands, they had a good view on the city in the distance. The capital was buzzing with life as usual; smoke from countless chimneys obscured the bright sky; bakers, smiths and homemakers doing their daily work; people crawling like ants through the streets, and it wasn't even market day.

Heero didn't want to set a foot in the overpopulated city ever again if he didn't have to. His memories of his early years on the streets, fighting for survival, were as fresh as if he'd experienced them yesterday. No one had the time or means to care for an orphan, and the Twelve knew how many there were. If it weren't for esshan-dar Noventa and his granddaughter Sylvia trying to help the socially weak, homeless or parentless children would die without anyone caring.

People of Romefeller country weren't ruthless or uninterested per se -- it was just that in big cities like these, not everyone could provide food or a bed for an extra person, and the orphanage had to do with leftovers and whatever donations people were willing to give. It wasn't exactly surprising that most orphans left the city sooner or later to find better ways to live their lives, if they weren't evicted for stealing or robbery. In Heero's case, he was saved from a life of crime at a rather young age by Darlian, something he was very grateful for.

It was hard to believe the latest rumors of war though, looking at the city like this; dirty, crowded, so much unlike the wide, open countryside. However, rumors of the expanding power of a certain Treize Khushrenada of the neighboring country of Oz had been growing like mad lately. Khushrenada ruled over a far better organized and larger army than Noventa, or anyone else in Romefeller country. This was a nation of peace, and the esshan-dar took great pride in his beliefs; he hadn't seen war for as long as he lived.

Heero took a piece of bread from Relena, thanking her. She looked lively and pretty, flicking one of her braids over her bare shoulder, joining the rest of her long, wheat-colored hair. Her light blue dress wasn't suitable for working on the lands, and he quickly reached the conclusion that she had put on the dress especially for him. It was flattering, really, but he didn't know what to say about it, so he didn't say anything at all. Instead, he bit into the still warm bread, his stomach demanding food. Chopping wood for hours on end would deplete anyone of his energy, but Heero felt as if he'd only been a light chore, like carving matches. Relena reached for the basket again, taking out a jug of water.

"It's not cool anymore," she pouted. "I think it absorbed the heat of the bread."

As she had brought two cups, she poured herself some water and tasted it. She shook her head, sending large strands of hair flying. "It's not as bad as I thought, but if you want me to, I can get some cool water...?"

"It's okay," Heero reassured her, not wanting her to jog all the way back to the farm, to the heavy, rusty pump and back again. A little sheepishly, she poured him a cup and handed it to him. It wasn't cool indeed, but not lukewarm either -- and he was rather thirsty, so he drank it even if it had been warm.

Relena nibbled on a pickle, keeping a napkin handy in case she spilled anything. She dabbed at her chin, giggling a little. She adored their little picnics and shot Heero a look from under her bangs, admiring his physique. Her father had never made it a secret that he had adopted the boy, so she knew from a very young age that he wasn't her brother. They didn't share any physical similarities to begin with. If anything, Darlian was sad that he couldn't help more children; Noventa was a good leader, but he couldn't solve the problems about the orphans, even though he was very concerned with it.

War or not, the man refused to open his eyes and was convinced that everyone upheld the same beliefs of peace he did. Darlian, who resided in the same government as an advisor while Noventa held the deciding voice in every matter, did follow the same beliefs, but with a more rational and realistic approach to it. He didn't close his eyes to the skirmishes, diseases, crime and slavery that occurred in any large city. The rules and laws of Romefeller country were few and simple; though the majority of the people did strive for peace, there were always people on the other side of society, abusing, corrupting, malfunctioning.

"Do you like it?"

Heero munched on his piece of bread. He had already eaten the sausage and the rest of the cheese and pickles. There was only some fruit left. He nodded.

"Thank you for bringing me lunch, Relena."

"No problem," she said and continued eating the pickle. She stole another glance at Heero, and noticed how he was looking at the city. There wasn't any longing in his eyes; she knew how the city had treated him and that he didn't want to return.

From here, up on the hill, under the free blue sky, the city looked far away, a problem that could never touch them.

She hesitated, wondering if she should ask him. Ask him why he was still here, working away his life on a simple farm. Her father had quite the status in the city, as he was a member of the local government and highly esteemed for all his work. The Darlian family was well represented in political history; it was just a matter of time before a Darlian would become an esshan-dar instead of an advisor. Relena's father was close to Noventa and Relena herself went to school with his granddaughter Sylvia before she left to spend her time with him, probably continuing her education with private tutors while she was being prepared to take over Noventa's leadership in the future.

Relena had quite the interest for politics herself, and loved the discussions with her father on the matter. As a strong advocate of peace herself, she was keeping a sharp eye on the growing rumors of upcoming war. Khushrenada had made clear that he wanted to add more countries to his empire, having already Epyon, Nataku and Oz completely under his control. It was even more frustrating that Noventa didn't agree with Darlian's suggested course of action. The elderly man had listened to the proposals of peaceful negotiations, but had immediately protested at the first plans of strengthening the army and bringing it up to par.

Everyone knew that without any defenses or an army to counterbalance Khushrenada's, Romefeller would fall like a ripe apple into the man's hands, should he really start up a war. Relena didn't know what had made the other countries surrender rather quickly -- news traveled slowly, and rumors were rumors -- but it might have something to do with the aggressor having an impressive army and a mage by his side.

The girl shook her head again. Magic was uncommon nowadays, and to use it as a matter of force, as a threat, was unheard of...! Darlian had tried to press Noventa into action, preparing peace talks and negotiations when a declaration of war should arrive, or at least beef up defenses, no matter how small...

...but generations of Darlian family involvement in politics came abruptly to an end when her father was send back to his farm, and the government was disbanded. Since then, the farm had served as a meeting point for everyone from the city or the neighborhood to voice their opinions or growing concerns. If anything, almost everyone wanted to avoid a full-fledged war, and with Noventa in power, no one was sure if that was possible.

Khushrenada would trample Romefeller country if the rumors of his army and his pet mage were true. People were getting nervous; what would happen in the worst case scenario? Dead, enslaved, forced to fight? Would the whole country be subjected to rules and laws that would make life a nightmare?

"You're so silent," Heero suddenly commented, interrupting her train of thought. She had finished her pickle and had been dabbing listlessly at her chin for a few minutes.

"I was just thinking about father," she said and smiled apologetically. Her mother would be appalled at her obvious lack of manners; any girl who couldn't upkeep a good conversation wouldn't be a good wife! Blushing, she smoothed out some folds in her dress and reached for an apple.

"He certainly feels disappointed," Heero commented. Darlian wasn't used to spending all his time on the farm. Daily business went smoothly enough, thanks to Heero's hard work and esshava Darlian's, Relena's mother, being in charge of the household and the distribution of the work.

The elderly man had spend more time in political affairs and advising in decisions concerning the whole country -- as small as it was -- instead of worrying about how the crops were doing this season. He trusted Heero to keep up with everything, and he had certainly proven to be worthy of that trust.

"I still can't believe how esshan-dar Noventa just...sent him home," Relena said, looking pensive. "My father is good at the work he does, and his advice has always been valued. What if that Khushrenada man stands in front of our borders? What if he doesn't want to listen to us?"

"Relena," Heero admonished her gently, "it's far too early to worry about that, if it's going to happen at all. Khushrenada will probably leave Romefeller as it is; we don't have anything to offer but vegetables and grains. The other countries were far more valuable in resources and riches than we are -- and people will certainly stand up against him, sooner or later."

"It's just not fair." Her fingers curled around a clump of grass, tugging at it. "We haven't done anything to invoke Khushrenada's...attention. Like you said, we're just a small country, nothing to offer but vegetables and grains. I don't understand why anyone would want to invade other countries and wage war in the first place. It's so sad, and so...unnecessary."

Heero chewed on the last piece of bread, enjoying the taste of the herbs. Basil and garlic, his favorite. Tilting his head a little, he chewed and swallowed before answering.

"You don't have to be afraid of an invasion, Relena," he said. "Our country might not offer much, but what we have is valuable enough for an army. Any invader wouldn't be stupid as to overrun us or destroy the lands -- burning and pillaging Romefeller country would mean cutting oneself off of years worth of food, and any army needs to eat."

A small smile graced her face. "You're so smart."

"It's survival instinct," he said, shrugging. Heero had learned fast enough on the streets that the first rule in surviving was to acquire food, followed by shelter. Without food, you'd simply die -- and without protection from the elements, you'd die too, and fast. He wondered for a brief moment why Relena was bringing up the war; if there was already one going on, Khushrenada would never be able to keep his grip on so many countries. He had heard the rumors too, especially about the mage -- who needed an army when he had a powerful mage on his side?

The girl simply nodded and stared at her apple before taking a gentle bite out of it.

"It still isn't fair," she repeated. "I thought that my father had earned the trust and faith of esshan-dar Noventa after so many years, and that he would listen to him."

"Your father holds quite the respect, yes," Heero agreed. "But who can look into one another's head? Who knows what the esshan-dar was thinking; maybe he's afraid of a man like Khushrenada and his mage, or maybe he thinks war won't come to his doorstep."

"What if my father's peace negotiations would fail?"

"Then there would be fighting," Heero dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, "and I doubt that's what he wants. Your father will try for peace talks first, but he realizes that without an army or at least some defense, we're just ready for the picking."

"No fighting," Relena pursed her lips in disgust, "no army, no war. People need to work together, not fight each other to the death. Weapons are the most evil invention of the world, and shouldn't be used!"

Like father, like daughter. Heero didn't comment, and finished his lunch by drinking some of the water, sipping from his cup. Relena held up the same beliefs as her father, maybe a little more to the extreme than he did -- where Darlian saw the necessity of defenses, Relena wanted every weapon, every piece of armament to disappear, to cease to exist.

He wasn't really sure if it was the right belief; Heero had seen the necessity of fighting when he was still wandering the streets like so many orphans. Every man for himself, and people would simply look at the man with the most weapons and power, and chose his side. That was the way it worked, and no one had any interest in working together, not even to keep up peace -- there would always be someone in power, demanding or claiming it either way...and no one liked to share power.

Darlian, together with Noventa, had worked hard to keep peace, to keep Romefeller country out of any dangerous situation. There had been wars before, but none of them had touched this land; every now and then someone would rise to power and fall again. Romefeller was one of the very few countries where the political situation was rather consistent; something several people had worked hard to achieve and maintain.

These rumors about Khushrenada, about this man expanding, annexing every country in this world's existence -- it was wrong. He might have a mage and an army, but he was still one man; Heero was pretty confident that he would be stopped sooner or later, and until there was no outright war here, it wasn't really any of his business.

"It's getting late," he said, and shifted in the grass, getting back up on his feet again. He had a list of chores and wanted to cross a few of them off. Now that he stocked enough chopped wood for the next few weeks, it was time to cut the grass and repair the gate in the southeast corner of the lands, then get some hay from the large attic in the shed to feed the horses...

Relena nodded, gathering the cups and folding up neatly the large piece of cloth, putting it back in the basket.

"Thank you, it was a nice lunch."

Her cheeks reddened just a little, and she worked faster to get everything in the basket, standing up hastily and busying herself with dusting off some grass leaves on her dress. Relena usually helped her mother out with the daily business on and around the farm, but she certainly didn't back out on physical chores either. Heero couldn't count the number of times he'd seen her completely dirty from cleaning out the pigs' troughs or working in the stables.

She loved working on the farm as much as discussing politics with her father, though her mother sometimes rolled her eyes and was more worried about her daughter's future husband and the number of grandchildren she was going to welcome in the family. Whenever the subject of marriage came up, Heero had noticed Relena quickly glancing at him every now and then, but it was out of the question that she would marry a servant. She was destined to marry an esshan herself, someone with a little more standing than a commoner, preferably with a farm or a mansion, at least lands of his own.

"Don't work too hard," she answered, adding a little giggle to it. The Darlians didn't have as many servants or laborers as their neighbors; Heero did the work for four, maybe five men. He didn't mind; anything was better than to roam around the streets of the city with nowhere to go. Relena held up her dress when she carefully walked down the hill, occasionally throwing a look over her shoulder, still smiling when she saw him, basket dangling from her arm. He refrained from waving at her, but waited until she disappeared from his sight before turning around and jogging towards the gate.

A few days later, Heero was send to the city, much to his dismay. No matter how self-sufficient the Darlian farm was, they didn't make their own tools and so he found himself searching for the smithy, glaring at everyone around him. Things certainly had changed since the last time he had been here.

He didn't recognize the armor of a few men parading through the city; their cuirass was dark green with dark yellow markings, a strange design of lines and stars. They weren't wearing helmets, but dark green caps on the back of their heads. That they were of some kind of militia faction was quite clear; every one of them was carrying a sword.

No one of the locals looked particularly very happy, expressing worried and disapproving frowns, especially aimed at the strange soldiers, or whatever they were. It surprised him that they were tolerated in the city; Noventa usually didn't allow public display of weapons. The men kept circling the city in groups of four, as if they were scouting the area, talking loudly and obnoxiously. Heero wondered what they were doing around here.

A young orphan ran into them, dropping a bunch of apples on the street. Immediately, the tallest of the men grabbed the kid at the scruff of his neck and lifted him up.

"You brat! Running and stealing, and soiling a captain of the Treize Faction!"

He shook the boy back and forth, the kid wailing apologies and flailing his arms. The other men just laughed a little, apparently in the mood for some fun. It was hot and dirty in the city, even at this early hour of the morning, and people were easily agitated. This was simply bullying, and Heero turned a little, keeping a sharp eye on the men and the kid. Treize Faction? Captain?

"Look, the kid was stealing apples." One of the soldiers picked them up from the road and showed the already rotten fruit. Heero gritted his teeth. There was market today, and the kid could just as easily have earned this fruit by helping build up the stalls. Even if he had stolen it, no one made a big deal out of rotten fruit being taken by an orphan -- and judging from his clothes and scrawny body, he was an orphan indeed.

"Stealing? Disobeying the law, mmm?" The officer, dirty blond hair plastered in sweaty bangs all over his face, showed a mean grin -- he had just found an easy, cheap way to entertain himself and his men.

The small kid protested, but couldn't do much while dangling in the air. His weight was insignificant to the well-fed, trained officer. He shook the young boy a few times more, obviously enjoying his squirming.

"What's the matter? Didn't your mother teach you some manners? Once we're in control here, we're going to send vermin and thieves like you to labor camps," he laughed in the kid's face, eliciting raw laughter from his company.

"Leave him alone," Heero spoke up. "He doesn't have a mother, and yours clearly failed when it came to teaching you manners, whoever you are."

The dark skinned man next to the officer frowned. "You don't speak to Captain Alex of the Treize Faction like that, commoner!"

"Easy, Muller," the officer answered, then looked at Heero. "At least this one here has the guts to speak up. What's your name and your occupation?"

"Both are none of your business. Let the kid go, and leave. You don't hold any authority here."

"Not yet, no," Alex said, smiling amusedly as he dropped the boy. Heero was too late to catch him and he fell to the ground, crying out loud. He was faster away than Heero could ask him if he was all right; and judging from the speed he was running with, no bones had been broken. He turned his head to face the captain, showing nothing but disdain.

The man wasn't impressed, but he suddenly said: "You look strong and you have quite the fierce character. Why don't you enlist? Our leader can use men like you, with loyalty and strong will. You'll be taught how to fight, and you'll get well paid for every battle you participate in."

"No, thank you," Heero answered dryly. "I don't intend to die very soon, and I don't like Khushrenada as an employer."

Alex barked a short laugh. "Suit yourself. Do think about it, however -- whatever you're doing now -- farm boy, apprentice, errand runner -- the Treize Faction is a good way to make money fast, see something of the world, and fight like real men do."

Heero wanted to give the man a snide remark, but the captain already turned around and made a gesture for his companions to follow him. The other man who was addressed as Muller shot him a death glare before walking away.

"Tsk," an elderly citizen spat. Heero hadn't even noticed the man coming to stand next to him. "I don't know what the good esshan-dar Noventa is thinking, but he never should have allowed those...deadbeats into the city. All they do is parade around and cause trouble!"

"Noventa has let them in?"

The man spat again. "The esshan-dar lost his reason, and him sending Darlian away to his farm was the stupidest thing he could do. These members of the Treize Faction or how they call themselves, are 'inspecting' the city. Only the Twelve know why! These men only know how to spend their gold, and they drink and harass hardworking citizens," he continued, and he looked about ready to throw up. "I'm telling you, they're going to brief everything to Khushrenada so he can involve us in a war, that's for sure!"

A woman passing by, carrying a large basket full of laundry shook her head, but she didn't disagree.

"I'm afraid he's going to take away my sons for his army, or that they're foolish enough to enlist themselves, completely driven mad with those talks of riches and victory! We can work as slaves, we can pay his taxes or whatever, but please don't let him take away my sons..."

"That mage of his, that Merquise guy, he can't magic his way out of a horse's stable," another passersby chimed in. "If he's really all that powerful, why doesn't he show it? Why does Khushrenada needs an all-powerful army when his mage can supposedly flatten everyone with just one spell?"

"They are testing young kids," another woman added to the conversation, speaking softly while she pulled up the hood of her cloak, as if she wanted to shield herself. "Anyone who just as shows the tiniest hint of magic is sent to Khushrenada's castle in Barge country. They say it's for training..."

"Training my nose," the first man spoke up again. "We're not going to hand him over our country if he shows up here! Noventa should put up a fight instead of talking!"

"A fight," the first woman with the laundry basket muttered, "how? We only have some guards in the city, and they can't even keep a mouse from nibbling on our grain supplies."

Heero didn't need much more to learn that there was growing dissatisfaction from the people, just like Relena had said, but he decided to keep his opinion to himself. After all, he was just a servant for the Darlians. Not many recognized him as such, though some people quickly ended their conversations as he went by. Darlian might not have any political power left, but people were careful, much more careful than Heero could remember. Apparently, speaking out loud one's mind was dangerous, or at least discouraged. He didn't like it. He felt like he was constantly being watched somehow, and even a few another Treize Faction members kept an eye on him. He doubted they knew who he was, but made him feel uncomfortable.

The smithy wasn't that far; it was in the far east corner of the city, where all craftsmen resided. From here already, Heero could hear the buzz of people shouting orders, loading and unloading carts, a butcher sharpening his knives while two cows waited dully outside. Men and women worked themselves busily through the crowds, running errands, trading, fetching things. He was grateful that he didn't need to be here every day; Heero had only been for one hour in the city and he already felt like he was suffocating.

Just like the other major parts in town, houses and buildings were primarily plastered white, with here and there soft yellow or very light blue colors used for a personal touch. Red, dark blue or dark gray roof tiles added to the diversity of the houses. Heero blinked a few times; were there really kids running over the sloped roofs? They looked like they were having fun while they dodged clothesline after clothesline and climbed over small iron grates of even smaller balconies and bay windows, making the buildings their own personal playground.

A few women were busy sweeping the streets, occasionally cursing when carts with large wheels passed by, stirring up clouds of dust and sand all over again. It was a real pandemonium of barking dogs, chickens, ducks and even two sheep wandering around as if they owned the city; one woman tripped over a cat and fell, arms flailing to catch her fall. He closed his ears for a loud string of very colorful expletives, waiting for two men on horses to pass before continuing his way.

Heero located the smithy, using his elbows to make a path for himself; no one paid attention to him, and he received quite the pokes back for not moving fast enough out of the way. He had been to Howard only once before; the man was known for helping out the poorer of people. Darlian wasn't exactly poor, but Howard never made a big deal when someone was a payment behind or couldn't cough up the gold immediately. A strange fellow, Heero thought, so trusting of people. The first thing he had learned was never to trust anyone in his life and to act purely on his emotions, what his instincts told him. Besides the Darlians, who had proved to be a real family and friends to him, hardly anyone was worthy of his trust.

When entering the workshop, Howard wasn't in sight, and the fires weren't burning. A hammer rested on the anvil, together with a few pliers. The windbag was put next to the fireplace, and looked unused for the day. There was a strange silence permeating the place; an unnatural silence.


No answer. Heero was dumbfounded. It didn't look like Howard had gone out for an errand, he could see from afar that no one had worked in the smithy today. Deserted, that was what it was -- had Howard fled from the city? Most smiths would rub their hands with the prospect of war; good money was to be made off of weapons. Howard was one of the very few, if not the only one, to make effective, inventive tools; not as blunt or easily broken or destroyed like the others.

Calling for the man again, Heero walked around restlessly. The whole place looked like it had been abandoned for quite a while now. Suddenly he looked up, his eyes catching sight of a completely filled weapon rack. He frowned, extending his hand and touching them, out of curiosity. The blades were quite sharp and he withdrew his finger, hissing. He had cut himself!

"Can I help you?"

The gruff voice behind him didn't sound like Howard, and Heero jumped; it didn't happen that often that people managed to sneak up on him. For a smith, Howard certainly didn't look like one. He was wiry and small, not buffed or extremely strong as his fellow craftsman. He was a stranger to his peers anyway because he often passed up good jobs to invent and work on tools. He was generally clever and nice; Heero hadn't seen the man without his smile and a laugh.

"Howard, I didn't know you made weapons," he said almost accusingly, avoiding the urge to stick his finger into his mouth.

The man tugged at his moustache, shoulders in a slump. His clothing was ridiculously colorful, especially for a smith. The combination of a bright yellow vest with a red shirt and flaming green pants was too much on the eyes of any human being. Howard looked pensive though, and not like the cheerful, good-spirited man he usually was.

"Ah, it's you, Heero," he said and nodded. He relaxed a little in his presence, but made a dismissive gesture at the swords.

"Bah. Old work. Khushrenada has inquired with every smith in town if he's interested in working on weapons. He even went as far as to offer ten gold pieces for each sword."

Heero whistled.


That was a year's worth of salary to him, even more -- he barely got paid as it was, just a small allowance. He already had board and lodging, and esshava Darlian took care of his clothing; what more could he want? He hardly spent money on anything anyway.

"Believe me boy, there's going to be war sooner than anyone thinks," Howard whispered, and looked to the left and right as if making sure that no one was eavesdropping on him.

"Why?" Heero asked. "Khushrenada hasn't declared war on us yet."

The smith shook his head in annoyance.

"There's no stopping the man's lust for power. Epyon country was one of the first to fall, and Romefeller is simply the next, so he can cross over to Maganac country."

Heero snorted. Darlian had a map of the world hanging in the living room, and though Heero couldn't read, the man had pointed out several countries and their characteristics to him.

"Maganac country is a desert, he'll get sand in his boots."

"No no," Howard objected, "Sandy and inhospitable as it might be, Maganac holds the richest mines of the world. Copper, silver, gold...even platinum. I tell you, we're the next to fall, and we're not going to resist because Noventa is deluded into thinking that everything will be all right as long as there is peace...but this is an artificial peace, a thin layer of veneer, and it'll soon crack and break. People are already calling on the streets for Darlian's return, and you know how much support he can count on."

"If that's just as much support as the people showed him before," Heero snorted. "No one protested when he was sent home."

"Don't be silly, boy," Howard spoke sharply. "There are more interests at stake here than only Darlian's. Khushrenada has a mage and an army of at least ten thousand well-trained soldiers, fitted with the best of swords and weapons the finest smiths could make, and he's constantly seeking ways to expand that army. What would you do if you were confronted with such an overwhelming power?"

"Fight," Heero answered stubbornly, and Howard laughed brusquely.

"Not everyone might be as strong and brave as you are, son," the smith said. He sounded amused, not offended. "Politics are dirty business. You better stay far, far away from it and just work on your farm and pray that no war will ever tear this land apart. Because it's a good country, we can manage, and we don't need usurpers like Khushrenada."

Howard suddenly moved forward, moving the swords out of the way as if he was looking for something. He didn't cut himself at all.

"The anvil is cold," Heero finally commented. "I came here to pick up some tools, but it looks like..."

"Mm-hmm," the man muttered. "I'm no longer in the business. If there's one thing that I despise, it's being pressured into making weapons. The Treize Faction running around town is only the beginning, and I don't want Khushrenada or his mage himself on my doorstep to tell me what to do."

He suddenly pulled out a large wooden staff with a pointy...thing fixed to the head. Heero looked at it, wondering what Howard was talking about.

"So you really think war is coming, then?"

"Khushrenada wants Maganac country," the man answered, nodding. "We'll fall easily in his hands: no army, no defense, and a spineless esshan-dar that will believe anything that's being said to him as long as it contains the word 'peace'. Khushrenada will use our country as personal stock and supplier for his army, and he'll move right on, claiming those mines, enslaving the natives and forcing them to work for him. Only, Maganac country will fight back, for as long as it takes."

"Why are Khushrenada's men already in town?"

"Why? Because the man wants it, that's why. And unless there's someone willing to stand up against him, we're going to be crushed like a nut between Oz and Maganac, that's for sure. After we served our purpose as personal supplier, we'll be burned and pillaged and there will be nothing left of our nation. Here, take this."

Heero couldn't keep a surprised look from his face when the smith trusted the staff into his hands. It was long, reaching far above his head, and carved out of fine, supple wood, along with some strange markings on the bottom. The head was simple iron, shaped like a trident with exceedingly sharp blades.

"This is a sollevar," Howard said. "It's a nice weapon, and the only one I've ever been able to make, besides from those swords over here."

Heero moved it around. It felt extremely light despite the intricate, large iron head. He swung it a few times, and it already felt familiar in his hands -- which was strange, as he had never wielded a sword or any other weapon before. His fingers touched the long staff, tracing over the markings. He assumed they were words. Keeping it between his fingers, already attached to it, he looked up curiously at Howard.

"I want you to have it," the smith suddenly said, his voice sounding strange. "I don't have any use for it, and I don't want it to fall into the wrong hands."

Heero offered the weapon back to him. "I don't have any money to pay for it." Any handcrafted weapon like this would at least be a fifty gold pieces, and his small allowance wasn't going to cover that in years.

The man shook his head. "No, you don't have to pay for it."

"I can't accept it," Heero refused. It didn't feel right to accept this. He had lived his life without taking things from others, not without doing something for it in return, and this weapon was too valuable to even be a gift. A noble knight should wield this, not a farm boy. He didn't need a weapon in the first place, and what would the Darlians say when he came home with it?

"Take it," Howard said, all but commanding -- his voice made sure that he wasn't going to take no for an answer. "This is your last chance to get it out of the city before anyone will notice it or confiscate it. There isn't much time. As soon as you're gone, I'll destroy the swords here. No one will say about Howard the smith that he contributed to the war."

"But if you give me this..." He was reluctant to accept, even though the weapon felt... comfortable in his hands, as if it had always belonged there. "If you give me this, and I'm going to fight with it one way or the other, you've contributed to the war after all."

The man chuckled, and he plucked at his moustache. "I would be contributing to another war if you wield this, Heero. A good war."

He gaped at him, starting to get convinced that the smith had lost his mind. With his fingers still around the shaft, he finally accepted it, but his voice was a little hesitant. A good war?

"Why are you giving me this, then?"

Howard had walked to the back of his workshop, searching for the tools Heero was supposed to be picking up. He looked over his shoulder every now and then, as if he was making sure that Heero still had the weapon.

"It'll become clear to you later, son. I want you to take it, and -- ah, here's a nice one."

He pulled out a large, sturdy shovel and a hoe from another rack, walked back to Heero and handed them to him.

"Darlian is a good man, and he deserves better than this. He and his daughter. This one is also free of charge."

"Why are you doing this? I have money for the tools," Heero said. Which craftsman gave his work away for free? Howard simply laughed.

"You will thank me sometime soon."

"I can thank you right now," Heero answered. He knew the smith to be a little eccentric, but this was really too much. Howard plucked at his moustache once again, a sad look crossing his face.

"I have one more thing to say to you, son, and then you should go. If..." He took a deep gasp of breath. "Find yourself a priest of Maxwell Church. He can help you. Now go...go!"

"What? I don't need a priest..." Heero was now really convinced that the man had lost it. What would he ever need a priest for? The smith started to shoo him out of his workshop.

"Go, just go!"

Heero had no choice but to leave. Right after he stepped over the threshold, the heavy wooden door closed behind him, missing his ankles by an inch. What was wrong with the man? He stared at the shovel, the hoe and the sollevar as if they were going to bite him. He would have to inspect them very, very closely before working with them.

It was already afternoon and time to go home -- he had no business left in the city and he wanted to get away. Passing a large square where usually the market was being held, he stopped by the immense fountain in the center to help himself to a small drink. It was a granite, octagonal fountain with crystal clear water; lots of people drank from it. The middle of the fountain, where the water was spraying from, was carved from an unknown type of stone, and consisted of five statues. The constant running of the water and time through the ages had worn the statues down, making it difficult to see what or who they exactly represented.

Everyone knew it was a reference to a vague legend, a monument to commemorate five special people, five 'warriors' who had made a pact in the name of their respective countries: Romefeller, Epyon, Oz, Nataku and Maganac. Those five had managed to shape their countries into one respectable union, fending off enemies, bring prosperity and wealth, and forming a very strong defensive relationship and the passageway to the mythical kingdom of Sanq.

This legend was told differently every time as there was no official source, and not many people believed in it. There were no written records of this Sanq kingdom save for some of the text carved in the statues, preaching about a true paradise of peace. Two of the five had been identified as mages, judging from the staffs they were carrying. The countries they were hailing from was simply assumed, as their names showed up first in history records.

As Heero never had been to school, he didn't know the details -- and he didn't care. The work at the farm was more important to him than just a legend that nobody even knew the right version of. He washed his hands in the fountain and was about to leave when three men casually sauntered across the square, talking to each other in hushed voices. Mages in training; they were easily recognized by their robes that fell to their ankles, enveloping them from head to toe.

They had some nerve, parading around here as if everything was all right and peachy. Despite Noventa's policy of peace and tolerance, not even he had been able to take away the reigning prejudice and fear for mages, for anyone who could wield magic. People didn't look kindly upon mages walking around without being adequately accompanied -- preferably by guards or soldiers. Yet, these three -- they were in training because they lacked their staff, every fully trained mage was obliged to carry one to identify him or herself -- acted as if they owned the city. Brawn or simply no brains?

Heero decided that it was wise to stay out of this, and hid the sollevar from view by putting the large blade of the shovel over it. He had the feeling the mages would question him about it if they saw it. Howard had acted very mysteriously about the weapon, and even more so, the man had behaved completely...strange, out of his mind. Maybe he could talk to Darlian about it.

He left the city through the main gate and though people looked a little strangely at him, he didn't encounter any trouble, nor did he see the captain of the Treize Faction again. No one said anything about his weapon as far as they were able to identify it, stuck between the shovel and the hoe, but he felt a strange gust of relief when he reached the Darlian farm lying between the hills.

Rumors of war grew rapidly stronger the next few days, the unspoken threat and fear present everywhere. Heero often found himself using his sollevar in mock-battle, practically enamored with the weapon. As long as nobody saw it, and certainly not Relena, he felt safe enough to wield it.

He had his own schedule to keep, and he made sure he finished his daily work before training with the weapon. It was amazing how light and familiar it felt despite its large iron head, and it became a irrefutable extension of his body. He felt strangely naked without the sollevar in his hands, but he couldn't go around carrying it all day. The weapon was stored in his room above the barn, and Heero regretted that there was no one who could train him properly, but he was not going to ask Darlian of all people if he knew a weapon master.

Meanwhile, Khushrenada's men, the Treize Faction, had become a part of daily life in the city and started to scour the lands and harass the farmers. More members of the Treize Faction arrived in Romefeller country, and not all of them were well-behaved. Besides rumors of war, rumors about excessive taxes and pillages grew stronger with every passing day.

The farmers felt their freedom slowly being stripped away. An order was unexpectedly issued by esshan-dar Noventa prohibiting all trade with the city. Only the Treize Faction was allowed to trade between farmers and the townsfolk, and they were allowed to set the prices and conditions as they saw fit, no matter how impossible, ridiculous or even below actual market value.

It caused a lot of annoyance and grievance as the farmers were forced to sell against extremely low prices, knowing that the Treize Faction would resell it for far higher profits, forcing the townsfolk to pay what they asked. Darlian's farm was visited more often than not by the neighboring farmers, discussing and complaining about the situation. They all reached quickly the conclusion that the future was looking bleak if Noventa kept granting the Treize Faction and Khushrenada more of these privileges. It was however a completely different thing what they were supposed to do about it.

Heero didn't meddle with the on-going discussions; Darlian had experience enough with politics and he was just simply a servant. They would probably chase him out of the room if he were present, unlike Relena who actively participated. She didn't speak to Heero about what was exactly discussed; she didn't want to bore him or ruin their conversation with heavy politics.

It was just a day like any other day when she sought him out again for another lunch. Relena had taken the opportunity to change into a beautiful blue dress, not suitable for work, but very well fitting for a nice, casual lunch. She had shortened the dress a little, the garment reaching just over her knees, and made ribbons from the remaining fabric to tie off her braids. They went to sit on their own spot, the other side of the hill, looking out over the city.

She was uncharacteristically silent when taking out the food from the basket; warm bread, home-made cheese and sausage. She had even brought hard-boiled eggs and two large pickles. He helped her put everything out, taking the heavy jug of -- cool -- water from her and putting it on the piece of cloth serving as table linen.

"Something on your mind?" It sounded brusque, but he was genuinely worried for her. She was his friend, and whatever she might think of him, he didn't want to let her down.

"I'm afraid, Heero," she said after a short moment of hesitation, "afraid that war will break out, and that people will fight...and die...and leave our country in shambles."

"You can't keep people from feeling what they feel or the events from happening as they happen," he pointed out. "With the exception of a few, most people don't like fighting or a war any better than you do...but the way Khushrenada and his men are present here, how they are treating the's not surprising that there is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. It's in man's nature to stand up against tyranny." He wasn't so sure if his words were true. After all, Noventa all but cooperated to turn his country over to the usurper Khushrenada had proven himself to be.

"War is awful, people should strive for peace, not anything else," she murmured. Her fingers crumbled a slice of cheese into tiny bits, falling on the grass. "Even when they talk to my father, they want to know how to make their own army, and their weapons, and the best way to fight. The only farmer-friendly smith has long since left the city..."


"Yes, Howard, where you got your tools," she answered, almost absent-mindedly. "My father told me he has left the town, and he's not the only one. A number of good people are leaving, because they see and fear what's coming."

"Why is your father staying, then?" Heero had felt the unease rising as of late. Darlian had been taking their prize-winning stallion Vayeate for 'rides', but Heero had seen him once traveling directly to the city. He hadn't thought anything about it, assuming that Darlian wanted to relive his earlier fame as high-esteemed member of the local government, but now he changed his mind. Relena's father would never answer with a war, and he wasn't opposed to Khushrenada's interference per se as long as the citizens were left in peace. Was the man trying to reestablish his earlier position of power?

"Father doesn't want to abandon the people," Relena nodded. Heero's face flushed; he hadn't realized he had voiced his thoughts out loud. "It's not their fault that Noventa send him home. He's trying to talk to him, as he experiences first-hand the growing unrest from the's all a hot-bed of tensions, and it's only the question of who's going to ignite it first."

Her appetite seemed to have vanished, so she put down the slice of cheese, as far as she hadn't shredded it. She was restless, he could tell; these times were bad on anyone's nerves. Heero hadn't known war in his young life; Romefeller country had never known such problems and had just been what it always had been -- the daily grind, ups and downs, nothing more.

Any problems plaguing the country was something to solve for the government or people in power Heero didn't feel attached to; it was only when he came into Darlian's service that he learned more about the people behind the power, and how politics worked in general. He didn't like it that he knew too little about these sorts of things. Despite being just a servant, Heero wasn't stupid. He never forgot what people told him, and though he wasn't ashamed of asking questions if he really didn't understand something, he preferred to avoid it. Darlian was one of the few people who had books in their possession and had started to teach him how to read, but his lessons were irregular at best.

"He sure has good faith in them," Heero said, chewing on a slice of bread, referring to Relena's father putting himself on the line for the citizens. The girl nodded, her face darkening in thought.

"He believes in second chances and in the good of people, yes," she agreed. "I'm sure that he can talk to esshan-dar Noventa and convince him to take back his position, and to do something about..." Her words suddenly stuck in her throat, and Heero didn't have to ask her what was going on.

Black clouds of smoke colored the sky, carrying the heavy smell of fire and burning wood with them. Heero jumped up, dropping his piece of bread in the grass.

"Heero! The farm...the farm!" Relena screamed.

Her words came from somewhere far away, he was already running. His feet stomped on the grass, his pace too fast for anyone, even in good physique, to keep up with. Boiling hot anger overwhelmed him. The farm was on fire, the flames burning through the roof, and he could already hear the large support beams groaning. Men on horses wandered around the farm, carrying torches in their hands while they laughed and yelled in uproar.

"Bastards!" Heero yelled and jumped, grabbing one man at the leg, almost throwing him out of the saddle. The horse whinnied, lifting its legs to jump away while its rider whacked with the torch at Heero. He recognized the colors of the man's armor -- the typical dark green with dark yellow markings and the strange caps on the back of his head -- Treize Faction.

"Let go, you filthy servant," the man hissed and struck at him again with the torch, and the heat scorched strands of hair. Heero had to let go, out of fear that his face would be burned.

The man immediately drove his heels into the horse's sides, spurring it on to jump away. Heero was thrown to the ground, the large animal storming away too quickly to avoid. His shoulder was hit with the rear end of the torch, and pain erupted as he gritted his teeth -- no one would taste the satisfaction of hearing him yell in pain.

Ignoring his shoulder, Heero rolled and got up again, running towards the east side of the farm, towards the large barn. He heard Relena yelling and caught a glimpse of her -- in the same split second that he saw her, he noticed that she had brought the picnic basket with her, including the blanket. She was close to the backdoor of the farm.

"Mother! Father!"

"Get away from there!" he roared as a large support beam crumbled and came crashing down. "Relena!"

He couldn't see her anymore, thick black clouds obscuring his vision and separating them from one another. Coughing, Heero continued running. There was one thing, besides saving the Darlians, that stood out on his mind -- he wanted his sollevar. The weapon was priceless to him; he wanted to save it from the flames, and he made his way to the barn, jumping over the smoldering remnants of the doors to get in.

There wasn't an animal in sight. He didn't see any cadavers, so he assumed the animals had either escaped or were confiscated by the Treize Faction to serve their own purposes. He raced up the wooden stairs, taking three steps at once, and jumped on his bed -- more like a sleeping-bag in the hay, and he rolled over the extra blankets -- nothing.

A string of curses rolled over his lips as he got up from his bed, taking the stairs down again and left the barn quickly; the wood was already smoldering and the roof was creaking dangerously. It was pretty much clear that neither the farm nor the barns could be saved; the fire was too intense, too much, too fast. Heero had counted in his haste more than six men on horses; they had methodically lit the buildings in every corner. Nothing would survive that.

As he ran outside again, three soldiers were standing next to each other, one on his horse and the other two next to him. They didn't carry torches; they had probably left them at the corners to do their destructive work. Enraged, Heero ran towards them, just in time to see the man on the horse pulling out a sword, the man to his left too and...the man to the right carrying his sollevar.

Heero lunged for him, his hands immediately grabbing the handle of the weapon. The man cried out in surprise, clearly having underestimated Heero's strength, but he wasn't about to give up that easily. Grunting, the man pulled the weapon towards him, and Heero quickly stepped to the side taking the man with him, turning him around so the other ended up with his back facing the man to the left, who already had lifted up his sword for a dashing strike.

Noticing that it was his fellow soldier whose back was turned to him now, the man tried to swing his sword away, but it was too late to alter it, the force of his swing struck the other soldier. He screamed out in pain and let go of the sollevar immediately, grabbing his shoulder and sinking to his knees on the ground, cursing madly.

The soldier still standing immediately shifted his position and grabbed the handle of his sword with two hands, as Heero lifted up the much lighter sollevar and poked with it in the man's direction. The other's eyes went from slightly worried to frowning. His heavy broadsword was a match for Heero's weapon; but it remained to be seen if he was fast enough to avoid the fast attack speed when wielding such a heavy weapon himself.

The man on the horse carried a much lighter rapier and slashed at Heero, roaring in triumph. Warned by the noise, Heero quickly turned around on his feet to avoid the oncoming attack, using the length of his sollevar to strike at the soldier with the broadsword. The soldier had taken too long to contemplate his next move, and suffered another strike, resulting in a superficial wound across his chest. He moved away, dropping his sword, and he was immediately dismissed by Heero who had to block the attack of the man on the horse. The rapier hit the sollevar full force, sending sparks flying despite the staff of the weapon being made out of wood. He didn't hesitate a second before the rider could strike again; shifting his stance, he cut the man in his right side, the sollevar slashing through armor and flesh. With a high-pitched scream, the man fell out of the saddle as the horse bucked, the scent of blood making it wild.

The foot soldier had simply decided to attack full-force as he thought Heero to be too occupied with the rider to suspect his next attack, and swung his broadsword once again. Heero moved away from the prancing horse, evading its strong legs, turning around in time to face the attacking soldier, lifting up his sollevar in a last-ditch effort to avoid the sword cleaving his head. To his surprise, the sword was stopped by the sollevar, which by all means should have been split in two.

Heero grunted; despite his weapon not breaking, the force of the other's blow was almost driving him into the ground. He tried to overthrow the soldier, and gritted his teeth in his effort, breath coming in painful gasps. The man strengthened his footing, and the two other soldiers were slowly getting up from the ground; one clutching his shoulder and the former rider clutching his side, a grimace on his face. They were injured, but not incapacitated enough to be totally harmless.

With a deep grunt, Heero finally pushed the foot soldier away, the man staggering backwards with a surprised look on his face. He immediately swung his sollevar around, this time slashing open the approaching soldier's intestines, and he went down again screaming, hands in front of his stomach, blood dripping through his fingers. The horseless rider briefly looked at his fallen comrade abhorrently, but quickly focused his attention on Heero again, rapier in hand.

He twirled his sollevar around and noticed the soldier's focused eyes. They were darting towards the weapon, not to Heero himself. The sollevar. Why had Howard exactly given it to him, and what exactly had the smith given him? How had it been able to withstand the blow of a broadsword without splitting? How could there be sparks when the steel of the rapier hit the wooden shaft? Why was the rider looking at the weapon with more fear in his eyes than at Heero? There was no time to contemplate now, and he had to dodge the man's attack.

The hilt of the rapier hit the trident-shaped head of the sollevar, and this time even bigger sparks flew. Heero shifted his stance, moving around, cursing himself mentally -- he didn't possess fluency or skill enough to wield the weapon proficiently in battle. He stabbed and struck with it like the first-class peasant he was; he knew that the sollevar in the hands of a weapon master would be invincible. It was flexible, it was strong, and it was razor sharp. He also knew that most of his hits were just pure luck. He was going to get in over his head if this fight took to long.

The rider was far more skilled with the rapier, and obviously thought he was standing a chance, judging from his confidence returning. He even approached Heero, trying to drive him into a corner -- or in this case, into the burning barn. The man didn't need all his experience in battle to notice Heero's clumsy moves compared to his own. He tried to lunge at Heero again, and this time he managed to cut him. Heero hissed in pain, warm blood welling up across his chest.

His defense was down, and the soldier with the broadsword was approaching him from the back, trapping him between his comrade and the burning barn. Two trained military men against a simple servant; he could see their confidence grow with each passing second. They had noticed that he handled the weapon like a beginner and considered him killing the first soldier a fluke, a sick bit of beginner's luck.

Heero quickly figured out they were going to drive him into the burning flames. He swung the sollevar in front of him, fighting for a bit of space. Though he succeeded in driving them a few steps back, apprehensive looks on their faces, it didn't help him much. He was running out of time. He had to dispose of these two; the sounds of the farm burning and crashing down grated his ears...and he feared that the Darlians were still inside.

"You'll pay for killing Walker," the rider hissed at him.

"You'll pay for burning down the farm," Heero hissed right back at him, his knuckles turning white from his grip on his sollevar.

"Don't mess around with the Treize Faction, boy," the other soldier snorted. "You're lucky enough to still be alive. Consider it an honor to be killed by us!"

With that, the rider lunged at him again and Heero brought up his sollevar to block the blow, but from the corner of his eye he noticed the soldier with the broadsword also lunging at him. This was it. No way he was able to block two attacks at once. The man was going to pierce right through his neck, the force of his impact hard enough to sever his head was all a matter of seconds, but Heero refused to close his eyes for what was coming; he just stared at the soldier, sword engulfed in flames, as it reflected the burning farm behind him.

A matter of seconds, and in the same short time span everything changed. Before the soldier could finish his attack, broadsword swinging, he cried out, more in surprise than from pain. He was thrown to the ground, the sword missing Heero's neck by just a few millimeters.


Never before had he been so happy to see Relena's horse. The gray stallion whinnied loudly, moving its legs to trample on the soldier. His screams of agony were smothered pretty quickly, and Heero dismissed the man as soon as he saw the horse. Sweaty, bloodied and face blackened by the smoke, he turned to take on the last soldier with the rapier -- but the man stared at both Heero and Vayeate, suddenly dropping his weapon and running for his life. If it weren't for a bloodcurdling scream coming from the farm, Heero would have gone into pursuit.


He immediately ran back to the farm, sollevar tight in his hand, faintly realizing Vayeate was following him, his hoofs stomping on the ground. The barn was lost, being built from less sturdier wood and materials than the farm. The door was blocked by the support beam that had cracked earlier and was completely burnt through. The heavy smoke and sky rising dark clouds impaired his vision.

"Relena! Where are you!"

"Heero, in here!"

Her voice was weak and immediately followed by violent coughing. She was inside the farm, as he had feared, probably with her parents; how was he ever able to rescue three people? The window to the far left wasn't completely damaged by the fire and impulsively, Heero took off his torn shirt and used it to cover his nose and mouth.

"Relena! I can't see you!"

"The living room..."

He was so familiar with the farm that he could find his way blindfolded, but his eyes stung from the smoke and his lungs were burning, struggling for fresh air. Heero took careful steps forward, annoyed that he couldn't move quickly. The fire obstructed his passage here and there, flames roaring, and he needed to turn around a few times.


An awful creaking noise made him halt and look up, but he couldn't see a thing. After a minute or so, Heero went on, hissing every now and then, ignoring his protesting lungs and tearing eyes. Everything radiated the intense heat, the wood was smoldering, and the other support beams and even the walls could give way any moment now.

Coughing, he finally found Relena in the living room, on her knees and crying, her face blackened and tear-streaked. The fire greedily moved upwards here, through the open hole in the roof; here was where the first support beam had fallen. Heero heaved a grievous sigh when he saw who the beam had fallen upon. He could only pray to the Twelve that esshava Darlian's death had been instantaneous and merciful. Darlian himself, however, was still alive, his face twisted in pain.

"Father! Mother..." Relena cried, her blue dress torn and scorched. One of her braids was undone, ribbon missing, the strands plastered to her cheeks.

"Relena," Heero repeated her name again and took her gently by the upper arm. Darlian would die any moment now; there was nothing they could do for him.

"Heero, you have to save my father! Help me remove the beam...mother!"

"Please stand up," Heero said, shaking his head. Even if they managed to lift the beam together, Darlian would die very soon -- it was already a miracle he survived this long. The girl made an awkward move to get up, clinging to Heero, but her father grabbed the frayed hem of her dress, and she immediately fell down on her knees again.

"Relena, listen to me," he said, voice croaking and barely audible. He coughed, and his face showed the pain of how much effort it took him to speak.

"Relena,'re not our daughter. We...we adopted you as a young wife...she couldn't...Relena, you're a Peacecraft...remember that, please..."

"Father, no..."

"Sanq... Go to Sanq, they will save you there."

"Father, don't be silly," Relena said between hiccups and cries. Her hand rested on his, her other hand on his face as to protect it from touching the ground. She had seen the beam, she knew it had crushed his body, but her troubled mind didn't want to accept reality or his words. Heero knelt down, trying to get Relena up again with both his hands.

"Heero," the man immediately addressed him.

"Esshan Darlian," he answered, not abandoning his habits even in this moment of time.

"Promise me that you will protect her," the man said. "At whatever cost, at whatever price. Protect her and make sure she reaches Sanq, Heero."

"I...I promise," Heero said and the man simply nodded at him, relief visible. A serene grace came over his face, his eyes displaying acceptance and the knowledge that at least his daughter was going to be safe.

"Father! Father!"

The creaking of the roof increased, indicating that it would give way soon. Heero knew that there was nothing he could do for Darlian and his wife, no matter how hard his heart cried. He would save their daughter and protected her as he promised. With all his strength he started to drag her out of the burning farm, crying and screaming for her parents.

He had lost his shirt along the way, and his eyes were stinging as if they wanted to burst out of his head. The coughing was killing him, lungs protesting, he needed fresh air, breath... gasping, he finally made his way out, falling forward and taking Relena with him in his fall, rolling over the grass, away from the flames and the intense heat. She was yelling, crying and fighting in an attempt to make him let go of her -- her eyes were fixed on the farm as she cried.

"Don't look!" He brusquely pulled her down again, knocking the wind out of her. Relena gave an indignant yelp and gasped for air, coughing and crying at the same time.

"Father, father...! Mother...mother!"

The tears on Heero's cheeks weren't from the stinging smoke alone. He coughed violently, his voice hoarse and croaked when he tried to tell her again not to look...but Relena did look after all. She looked at the farm, and how the smoke wreathed along the sky, black clouds in a darkening sky. Tears rolled over her cheeks, but her mouth didn't move and not another cry came over her lips. Heero didn't like her silence; it was deafening, painful and uncomfortable.

Her watery eyes kept staring at the destructive fire, wiping out her youth, her past, her life. He remained standing next to her, wondering if he should wrap his arm around her. Relena had always done the consoling if need be, and now he needed to say the words that would bring her comfort...but he couldn't find any. That alone made him even sadder, and he swallowed thickly. How could he protect her, live up to his promise, if he didn't even know how to deal with...with this?

The horse had sneaked up very quietly on the both of them, bumping its nose against Relena's back. She turned around, shocked, but a small smile broke through on her face when she saw the animal.

"Vayeate! Oh Vayeate..." The girl embraced the horse's neck as much as she could and cried into its mane. The stallion snorted, but allowed the tight grip she had on him.

Heero peered at the fire from the distance, watching how the once proud and strong farm was reduced to rubble. A large part of the roof caved in, taking a few walls and the chimney with it. Relena didn't see this, as she was crying against the large horse, and he was grateful for it. The thought of the bodies in the farm...the Darlians hadn't deserved this.

"Relena...we need to go."

"Where are we going to?" Her voice was soft, laced with small sobs.

"We don't know if Khushrenada's men are still roaming around," Heero said. This wasn't the right time to tell her he had killed two of them, something the Treize Faction wouldn't be happy about. More than probably, they would put a price on his head for killing the soldiers.

"They're gone, Heero," she said, almost admonishing him. "There's nothing to find here but...smoldering ruins." It came out harshly...far too harsh for a girl like her.

"We'll go to Sanq," he answered, remembering what Darlian had said. His eyes widened when Relena suddenly started to laugh, throwing her head back, laughing hysterically.

"Sanq? You know what Sanq is, don't you?"

"Sort of," he replied. The fountain in the middle of the city came to his mind. The statues with the worn down carvings...the warriors in a wasteland, protecting a kingdom surrounded by myths. Legend upon legend.

Relena's face saddened as she brusquely wiped her tears away.

"It's a kingdom out of fairy tales. It doesn't even exist," she muttered and that was all she said. She swayed on her feet and would have keeled over if he hadn't quickly caught her.

As soon as Heero put her on the back of the horse, she started crying again, silently. He held the sollevar in his right hand, the weapon light and comfortable, not hindering him as he mounted the horse. He grabbed the reins, but suddenly Relena shot upright, eyes large.

"Heero, wait!"

"What's wrong?"

She was off the horse faster than he could blink; she took a few steps towards the ruins and picked something up, returning to Vayeate and allowing Heero to help her up again. He frowned lightly, noticing what she had taken with her; the picnic basket. Keeping Relena in front of him, sollevar in his right hand, he held the reins and spurred Vayeate into a fast gallop.

"Heero...I'm tired."

Romefeller country wasn't exceedingly large, but it wasn't possible to reach the borders within a day either. They had traveled all night, Vayeate's firm gallop slowing down into a trot. Relena had dozed off, resting against Heero, waking up at intervals and staring around her, gasping lightly. He had no difficulties staying awake. The destruction of the farm would be a nightmare to haunt him for quite a while. Relena had stopped crying altogether after a while. Her face was a mess of black soot and tears streaks, her hair messy and unbraided.

Vayeate was calmly stepping forward, as if it simply knew where to go to. They hadn't taken anything with them but the picnic basket Relena had picked up at the last moment. Heero had thrown the blanket around them. The fabric was a little prickly and still held some crumbs from their earlier lunch. He was only wearing his pants and leather boots; the rest of his possessions, except for the weapon obviously, had gone down with the rest of the farm.

Relena owned nothing more than the dress she was wearing and hadn't thought of taking any gold with was doubtful anything could have been saved from the ruins anyway. They needed food, shelter, and new clothing. The girl hung limply against him, about to fall off if he didn't stop the horse.

"Huu, Vayaete," he said and dismounted, carefully helping Relena off. She sank through her knees like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled and shivered. She pulled the blanket closer and looked up at Heero, suddenly grimacing.

"You're half naked," she said accusingly, before she realized she was holding the blanket. Immediately, she took it off and gave it to him.

"No Relena, I'll be fine," he said.

"No, you won't. Take it."


"I'm not the one without clothing," she said, smiling at him. "Please, take it. The nights can be cold."

He took the blanket from her, mostly to please her. Relena was very strong willed and she wouldn't rest until he had accepted the blanket from her. It was of no use discussing it until the cows came home; he could probably put the blanket right back around her shoulders when she was asleep. That posed a whole other problem; where to go to, where to stay for the night, what to eat?

Relena was still carrying the simple picnic basket, it dangled from her arm as if she wanted to protect it with her life. She shivered again, but tried not to show it.

"I know this road," she said hesitantly. "The large road goes to another village, not as large as the capital, but they surely have an inn...a place to sleep."

"We don't have any gold with us," Heero reminded her. She nodded sadly.

"I'm trying to remember if we have any relatives living around here..."

Her voice trailed off. If she was thinking like Heero about Darlian's words, then she wasn't really sure if she had any relatives. He could see the question marks in her eyes, but she didn't voice it out loud. Adopted? Just like him? He had been adopted purely to work on the farm, not as a son into the family. He wasn't offended or hurt by that. He had already been given a chance of a lifetime, just to be away from a life on the streets, and he was forever grateful.

He wrapped his arms around the girl.

"Those bastards will pay, Relena."

"No violence," she said, but she sounded defeated. Relena would never take a weapon up herself, not even when faced with an enemy. Heero didn't comment on that; he was starting to get tired after all, and it was only because of fatigue that Relena didn't say anything about him carrying a weapon.

"We need a place to stay," he suggested. Spending the rest of the night alongside the road didn't sound like a good idea. The sun would come up in a few hours, but he didn't fancy Relena sleeping under a hedge, not when he couldn't stay awake himself. Fatigue had hit him as soon as he had dismounted Vayeate; the tall horse was currently chewing on some grass, calm as always.

Relena lifted up the basket and dug through it, as if she was expecting to find the solution in it. If his memory served him right, there was nothing but a few bites of bread, cheese and a half-empty jug of water in it...that was, if Relena had put it all in there in her haste. Not much they could live on. Heero didn't realize he was already busy adapting himself to the change in their situation, the change in their lives. It was a natural born instinct, sharpened by his previous life on the streets. He knew how to survive, but he wasn't so sure about Relena.

How would she adjust to a harsher life? No securities, no home, no parents to fall back on? She had been a little spoiled on the farm -- true, she hadn't shunned physical labor, but it mostly had consisted of taking care of Vayeate; curry-combing the horse or cleaning out his stable. The rest of her work was on paper, if she wasn't too busy with her education or discussing politics with her father. She had been taugt how to dress nice, how to hold up herself in conversation, and her hands weren't as calloused as his...but why should they be?

Relena was to be married, and in this country it was already a miracle that her father involved her so much in his own life. Usually, the parents were actively searching for a fitting husband, the bride-to-be's opinion ignored.

Life was going to be hard for her, now that they didn't know what to do, or where to go to... he was startled out of his thoughts when Relena suddenly said: "Hey, what's this?"

"What's the matter?"

She looked at him, holding up a small leather bag, jingling it.

"I just found this on the bottom of the basket," she said, her voice sounding incredulous.

"What's in it?" He asked, even though it sounded like coins -- quite some coins.

"It wasn't in the basket this morning. I didn't put it in here," she babbled, a little nervously, as she tugged on the strings that held the bag together. Heero looked at her quizzically, and she extended her arms to allow him to peek inside.

"A small fortune," Relena said and she smiled, albeit sadly.

He saw the silver, and a few gold pieces no less -- she was right; it was a small fortune, enough to buy them provisions and lodging for a long time to come if they were careful. He shook his head, not understanding.

"How can that be? How did it get there?"

"Mother...she helped me pack the basket this morning. As if she knew...anticipated..." Relena's voice hitched. She started crying again, soundlessly just like before; large tears rolled over her cheeks.

Heero didn't know what to say. There were a million questions jumbling in his mind, and with every step he took, there were a million more. Esshava Darlian had put the money in there? Had they been rich enough to even own gold? He wasn't sure why Relena was convinced that her mother had been the one to put the money in the basket, but he was very grateful for her foresight.

"Let's get away from the road, Relena," he gently said and nudged her, just a very light touch on the elbow. She nodded, not caring that her face was still dirty and tear-streaked. She took Vayeate's reins and guided him along.

They walked along the road in the hope to find an inn; with the discovered money, things were looking better. People were more willing to do something for gold than out of compassion; at least, that was Heero's take on it. Relena still was convinced of the kindness of people, but he wasn't going to fight about it. Tired as they both were, and also the horse showing signs of fatigue, it was imperative that they found a place to stay first and foremost.

Luck was with them as finally, after two more hours of a painstakingly slow walking pace, an inn showed up along the way, with vacancies -- they even had room for Vayeate in their stables. Heero made sure, by subtlety showing the sollevar, that the innkeeper wouldn't keep them for stupid peasants who had no idea about prices in the world. Two silver coins was way too much for a night, even with Vayeate in the stable; but Relena tugged at his elbow and asked him to let it go.

The two of them didn't make a very good impression: Relena in a scorched dress, hair matted and in tangled strands reaching past her shoulders, a picnic basket dangling from her arm, and Heero with a blanket around him, only wearing pants and boots, both their faces covered in soot, and in Relena's case, the trails of her tears more than visible. The female innkeeper pursed her lips and gave especially Relena a strange look when she saw the torn and burnt clothing, but didn't knock the least amount off of the price.

Not in a mood to haggle, Heero took Relena upstairs to their room; for the price they paid, they were allowed to use a tub in the general bath room. Relena was all but happy to take a bath, now that the opportunity presented itself. She gave Heero the leather bag with the coins to guard, and quickly disappeared into the room to start her bath. Yawning, Heero took the sollevar with him; for some reason he didn't want to be separated from it. Too many people recognized the weapon for the danger that it was, and that annoyed and surprised him at the same time. If only he knew what was so special about it...

His fatigue was reduced to just a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. He had been up all night, and it was amazing that an inn was even open at this early hour -- probably for people who came to have breakfast here. Taking the steep stairs down again, Heero entered the large dining room, sniffing up the scent of porridge. It smelled like a heavenly dish to him since the lunch of yesterday has been the last food he'd had. Relena and he were entitled to one meal per room; he was sure they had paid way too much for everything, but as long as there were some silver coins in the pouch left... Heero wanted to go outside, or maybe take a look at Vayeate in the stable to check up on the horse. It would be a while before Relena would come out of her bath and go straight to sleep.

As he was on his way out, he noticed an elderly man in the corner of the room. He had his back turned to the rest of the customers and sat hunched at his table, dressed in all dark colors, nursing a jug of whatever brew there served here. Heero wasn't really sure, but the gray hair...some of the man's traits were familiar...he approached the man and cleared his throat.

"Esshan-dar Noventa," Heero took a lucky shot. The man ducked away, not wanting to be recognized, and he looked around him frantically, hands reaching to pull up the collar of his worn sweater.

"Who wants to know?" He asked rather brusquely, but his face softened immediately. This was the peace-loving man Heero knew; Noventa barely raised his voice, and he had been like a grandfather to every one of his people. Maybe too much of a grandfather instead of a good leader, because he hadn't been able to stop Khushrenada's influence and rising power.

"Heero," he introduced himself, not expecting the man to recognize him. "I in service of the Darlians."

"Darlian," the man muttered, making a gesture to the chair opposite of him. Heero sat down, putting the sollevar between his chair and the wall. The man looked older, much older than Heero imagined, but he hadn't met this man before to ever notice. His gray hair was receding, and the friendly, grandfatherly face was marred by a very deep frown, etched with sorrow and worries.

"How did you end up here, esshan-dar?"

The man flinched again.

"Please don't refer to me like that," he whispered. "I was stripped of power and title, and the Twelve know that I didn't do anything to stop it."

"What happened?" This was news to him -- just as finding the man in power of his country in an average inn in the early morning.

"A masked fool and a madman," Noventa said, taking a large sip of the jug. He grimaced before swallowing, and he looked ready to throw up. His clothes were ragged and torn, and Heero would bet on it that the man was drinking on his last coin. He waited for him to continue.

"They visited me yesterday afternoon," he said, and now his tone of voice matched the bitterness on his face. "The Twelve help me, They know I already did more than enough to squander my own country... I allowed Khushrenada to station his men here, hoping we could come to some kind of understanding: his troops maintaining law and order, buying from our farmers to keep the economy and markets going, and in exchange he wouldn't declare war on our ground."

Heero nodded, silently listening. With disgust on his face, Noventa pushed the jug away from him.

"They visited me," he repeated, "and handed me a statement. They told me to sign it, but when I read it..." He took a deep breath, "...when I read it, it stated that I would surrender the whole nation to Khushrenada and entrust him all the power of ruling it. If I wouldn't sign, a declaration of war would follow..."

"You were left no choice," Heero said. "You were with your back against the wall." Noventa grimaced again.

"I should have listened to Darlian," he sighed, "but Khushrenada's plans at first were reasonable. He was leaving us out of his war and instead, we would provide his army with food and supplies, all for reasonable prices..."

"That would still involve Romefeller country in the war," Heero said, aghast.

"Yes, but there would be no fighting," Noventa immediately objected. "None of our men, fathers and sons, would be drafted for Khushrenada's army, and no harm would be done to any of the citizens! That was worth the price of selling..." he sobered again, "...selling my integrity as a leader. As long as no one would die, I would do anything to accomplish that!"

"What happened?" Heero demanded. Something must have happened for the man to end up here -- did he even know the Darlians were dead?

"My granddaughter," Noventa, his voice strangled.


"She defied Khushrenada, calling him a liar, a usurper, an extortionist. She knew about his men's crimes in the city, under the guise of maintaining peace. She knew how they harassed hard-working, law abiding citizens, how they hunted and pestered orphans for fun, and told him that we never would agree to his conditions!"

Noventa buried his head in his hands.

"Sylvia...Sylvia had such a temper, just like her mother...but not like her father, my son... she possessed the courage of a hundred men, and a good heart, believing in justice and fairness..."

It didn't elude Heero that Noventa spoke about her in the past tense. He could only imagine what had happened to her.

"A masked fool with magic powers and a madman with an army of thousands," the esshan-dar whispered. Heero guessed that the mage was masked, he didn't know why. He didn't know anything about the man, only that people were afraid of him -- but most people were weary of mages and magic in general.

"I had hoped to keep my country out of trouble, but instead I only made it worse," Noventa continued. "I told myself, I keep telling myself that I wasn't as cowardly as I'm perceived to be...but by granting some of Khushrenada's 'wishes', I gave Romefeller country away before even the first threat was uttered. I should have listened to Darlian and strengthened up an army when the first rumors of war were reaching the capital."

"You did what you believed in," Heero answered. "You tried to protect your people, even if it wasn't the right way."

"How's everything in the city?" Noventa abruptly changed the subject. Heero blinked, but complied with the man's question. He told him about Darlian and the death of the family, about the Treize Faction being responsible for the burning down of the farm. Noventa paled with every word Heero said.

"May the Twelve have mercy on their souls," he said, folding his hands as if in prayer. "I failed my best friend and most esteemed advisor... I left my people..." He shook his head again, as if a stubborn insect was buzzing around his head. "I did it all wrong... he tried to warn me. I didn't want to believe people were capable of..."

"They were very much capable," Heero replied, anger clearly audible. The images of the ruined farm, of both the Darlians dying, of Relena crying out in despair were etched in his body, mind and soul. Khushrenada was going to pay for this. Slowly and bloodily.

"The Treize Faction outnumbered us, and would've killed me and Relena as well if --"

"I can't believe it," Relena's voice suddenly chimed. "Esshan-dar Noventa!"

The elderly man shivered again. "Please, don't... I don't deserve that title anymore."

"Nonsense, esshan-dar," Relena insisted and even sketched a bow. Heero hadn't expected her back so soon after her bath, assuming that she would go to sleep. She looked very tired, face pale, but her eyes darted sharply through the room, nothing escaping her gaze. He also noticed that her dress was shorter; she apparently had cut off the scorched hem. It still reached below the knee, and the fabric appeared cleaner than before. Her hair was braided as usual and for a moment she just looked like a girl simply traveling, on her way without any worries.

Noventa gestured towards the other chair just like he had done with Heero, and shoved the empty jug more to the side. A waitress appeared and started serving them breakfast without much interest or chit-chat, despite not being overly busy. Heero caught Noventa's longing look at the large bowl of porridge. He probably hadn't eaten in quite a while either.

"Would you please bring him breakfast as well?" Relena said, obviously sharing Heero's thoughts.

"You only paid for two," the waitress answered sourly. Relena glared at her as if offended, and repeated: "Would you please bring him some breakfast? We'll take care of the costs later."

"Thank you," the elderly man said as soon as the waitress stomped away, face red in embarrassment. He was ashamed, a mighty man who had fallen from grace hard, overpowered or not. They used the next moments of silence to simply eat; to Heero's surprise, the porridge was quite nourishing and tasty. The waitress appeared at their table again to serve Noventa, as well putting a small basket with rolls and a jug of fresh, cold water on the table.

Relena tried to strike up conversation, but Noventa became more withdrawn, eating his porridge as if starving. She said that she hadn't known that Noventa had left the city, and he murmured something about Khushrenada telling him to leave in return. His speech became slow and almost slurred, and for a moment Heero asked himself if the man was drunk. He slumped more and more in his chair, and finally Relena asked him: "Esshan-dar, are you all right?"

"Please stop calling me that," he said, but his voice lacked any scolding. He remained silent for a minute, then he continued, voice nothing but a whisper: "They took my granddaughter."

Relena almost choked on her sip of water. Of course she knew Sylvia Noventa, she was of the same age and they had gone to school together for a few years until the girl had gotten private tutoring. Relena had asked her father if she could get private tutoring as well, not understanding why her friend had left school. He had explained to her that Sylvia, due to the position of her grandfather, had special privileges. The title and position of esshan-dar was passed down in their family, ruling the city until the people would either object or demand for election.

When that happened, anyone could declare him or herself a candidate and run for the position, but the last time the people chose an esshan-dar, the Noventa family, had been generations and generations ago. Sylvia was to be prepared for ruling Romefeller country one day; the obligation resting on her shoulders since her parents had both died at a young age.

"Who did?" She said, but she knew the answer before Heero spoke.

"Khushrenada," he gritted, and Noventa nodded.

"They just took her, dragged her out of my office, when I...when we both refused to sign the statement. If I didn't sign immediately, she would die. I...I didn't face an army, I faced the decision between the life of my granddaughter and the well-being of my country."

"That's even a tougher decision," Relena said. She even touched the man's hand, almost petting it. "We understand that Sylvia's life was far more important than..."

"No," the man said, and his fingers curled, his nails driving into the soft wood of the table top.

"I shouldn't have squandered the nation to begin with. I should have stood up against Khushrenada. For too long, I thought everything would be all right if I fulfilled his demands in a reasonable manner... but I should have seen that the need of the many outweigh the need of the few..."

"No," was Relena's stern answer, "that's not true, esshan-dar. Every life is precious, and after they had... killed Sylvia, they would've found someone or something else to force you. You couldn't have won, never."

The man was trembling, and shaking his head spasmodically.

"Please save my granddaughter," he pleaded. "Please save her! Without Sylvia, my life is worthless! If I had her back, if she could be with me again, I could draw from her strength and courage, and together we could face Khushrenada."

"She's just a..." Heero started.

"...wonderful and invaluable person," Relena smoothly completed his sentence. She ignored his look and smiled at the former ruler.

"Essan-dar Noventa, we'll find Sylvia and return her safely home."

"Thank you, esshava," he said. For the first time this evening, Heero saw the man smiling.

"No, not esshava. Esshan-diva," Noventa continued, his face lighting up, the worried frown gone.

Relena blushed. "That's way too much honor."

"You deserve it. I can only give you my gratitude, esshan-diva Darlian. May the Twelve protect and guide you."

She stared at her spoon in the bowl; there was still some porridge left, but she was already full, having nibbled on one of the rolls as well. Her cheeks were flushed, but Heero couldn't figure out why. Was it because of a silly title that didn't make any sense? She had all but flat out promised Noventa they would rescue his granddaughter, and they didn't have a clue where she was.

"His name is Nichol," the man suddenly continued. "He was the one to...take her away. One of Khushrenada's lackeys, but I don't know his rank...he wore the same uniform as the Treize Faction, but he has more golden stars on his right shoulder than a regular soldier. Dark, brown hair...curly... and sideburns...and the most nasty look in his eyes you'll ever see."

"Nichol," Heero repeated. Only a name wouldn't bring them very far. He had no idea how to deal with this, but Relena looked confident.

"I have faith that you'll bring her back to me, safe and sound," Noventa said, his eyes shimmering with new-found hope. "I'll be waiting here for Sylvia to take her home."

After the waitress had cleared their table and breakfast was over, both Heero and Relena excused themselves and went outside. Relena shivered; it was chilly outside, especially compared to the warmth inside the inn where a small open fire had been burning.

"What was all that about, that he called you esshan-diva?" was the first thing Heero asked.

There weren't many titles in ordinary speech, with esshan and esshava to indicate a man or a woman of certain standing, but not really powerful. That started with esshan-dar, as in Noventa's case. He had never heard of esshan-diva before, and it sounded silly to him.

Relena looked pensive. "He wanted to give me some kind of title in his gratitude, but esshan-darava would be way too much honor, as it would indicate me as his equal. As I'm not ruling any country, not that I know of," she tried for a dry joke, "he named me esshan-diva. I like it. It's more than addressing a woman of simple standing, but far less than addressing someone in high power."

"Poor man," Heero said, already dismissing the issue with the title.

"What? For inventing a new title?"

"No, that his granddaughter is kidnapped. Khushrenada doesn't know any limits in his path of war," he almost growled. "It's going to end very badly for him."

"We don't have to deal with Khushrenada, not yet," Relena said. "Let's try to get some sleep, all right? We're both tired, and we can ask to be awoken in the afternoon, that would give us at least five to six hours of sleep. After that, we'll decide what we're going to do... like buying you a new shirt, for example."

Heero couldn't help but grin at her, slightly amused. No one had said anything about his bare torso, assuming he was a poor laborer. He had never owned more than two shirts in his life, and he usually took it off when working -- with this soft, warm climate, shirts often were more a hindrance than a convenience, especially with physical labor.

"All right," he agreed. "Let's go inside."

"You need a bath, too," she said, voice strikingly soft, but when he looked at her, she lowered her eyes and lifted up her foot to step over the high threshold, back into the inn. Noventa was still inside, but he appeared in a far better mood than when Heero had first met him. He was staring almost dreamily outside, awaiting his granddaughter's return. That was something he had to discuss with Relena too, Heero thought. Her spontaneous promise could well prove to be a burden, not to mention improbable to hold.

Their room held two beds, and Relena had chosen the one by the window, the picnic basket placed on the pillow. He used the small wash-basin on the dresser to minimally wash his hands, face and neck; the cut from his earlier fight was already healing, as superficial as it was. Without any comment, he took the other bed and rolled into it, plucking at the blankets. He wasn't feeling very tired after all; it seemed his body had simply pushed the need for sleep away. The thick velour curtains blocked out the light of the rising sun, and it was a little strange to be in bed at this time of hour. Any normal day, he would have been up for hours already, feeding and taking care of the animals, the lands.... Silence reigned for a while.


"Yes, Relena?"

Her voice sounded like a young child, afraid of the dark.

"You're going to stay with me, aren't you? I mean...I can't imagine..."

"I'm staying with you," he said steadfast, as if she had been crazy to ever doubt that. There was another silence, then came a whispered, but genuinely relieved, "Thank you".

He assumed she'd fallen asleep pretty soon after, hearing her breathing even out. He wondered why his own body wasn't resting, but his eyes were wide awake, staring into nothing. He knew he had good health and good stamina, but neither his body nor his mind felt tired after all the events involving the fight with the Treize Faction, the fire and their escape from their hometown. Not that he felt attached to it. He had made a promise to Darlian, and he was going to keep it, no matter what it took.

A noise awoke him; feet shuffling outside the door. Heero reached next to his bed, hand grabbing the sollevar. He had slept a few odd hours after all; adrenaline rushed back into him, his body perfectly awake. If there was someone going to attack them... the door opened and the woman who came in said out loud: "It's afternoon already!"

Heero almost dropped his weapon from the sheer noise the woman made, and identified her immediately as the sour waitress who had served him breakfast. He couldn't believe Relena had asked her of all people to wake them.

"Thank you," he barked. It was a good thing it was almost near-dark in the room; she wouldn't have appreciated having a weapon pointed at her, he presumed. Relena stirred in the bed, heaving a deep sigh.

"Is it that late already?"

"I suppose so," Heero said. "Why don't you rest a little longer, I'm going to take my bath."

"Hm-mm," she made a non-committal noise, voice muffled by her pillow and he could hear her shift around, sheets and blankets shifting with her. He jumped out of his own bed and went to take his bath; it felt good to clean himself from head to toe and get every bit of soot off of his body. He wished he could scrub away the memory of the burning building and the Darlians dying as easily, and stared at the bar of soap in his hands. Khushrenada would pay... and he would beg for mercy before the sollevar would rip open his intestines and make him bleed like a stuck pig.

When he returned into the room, he found both beds perfectly made, the curtains open, the late afternoon light coloring the sparse light wooden furniture a soft yellow and orange. The picnic basket was gone, but his sollevar was still standing in the corner; he hadn't taken it with him into the bathroom. He only had to dress himself with his pants and boots, a light shiver running through him as he was still shirtless.

Heero went downstairs, immediately locating Relena haggling over the price of the extra breakfast for Noventa. The man himself was nowhere to be seen, and Heero was curious as to where he went. Back into hiding in another place? Relena would probably know where he would have gone to, and he walked up to the girl, engaged in a heated discussion with the innkeeper. Casually swinging the sollevar around, the innkeeper became a little less adamant in his demands for another full silver coin for the extra bowl of porridge.

"I'm very sorry, but these are the prices we have to ask," the man said defensively, but not apologetic. "We have to pay taxes and levies as well, esshava, so I have to ask for another half a silver coin, then."

"We paid you more than enough for our room and own breakfast, even if it was including the bath," Relena protested again. "It's not that I don't want to pay for the extra meal, but half a silver coin is really too much!"

"We can always call for the Treize Faction and let them know that someone wants to rip off a law-abiding citizen, who pays rent and taxes," the innkeeper snarled, voice turning chilly. "They know what to do with scammers."

Heero took a step forward, the trident-shaped weapon swinging dangerously close to the man's face, but Relena stopped him. The last thing they needed was an all-out brawl in an inn.

"Very well," she said and took out the coins, sighing. She couldn't see the bottom of the small leather bag yet, but that didn't mean they could throw the money around. The innkeeper eyed the bag greedily and from the look on his face, he was mentally calculating if there was something else he could charge the both of them for.

"We're leaving," Heero said curtly.

"About the horse," the innkeeper started. "He ate more than estimated, so..."

"Nonsense!" Heero barked and his voice was so loud and curt that the man almost sprung up, his hands pressed against his chest as if he suffered a heart-attack. The metal tip of the sollevar was almost stuck up his nose and his teeth chattered in fear. Heero shot him another death glare, then withdrew the sollevar and turned around to leave, escorting Relena out of the inn before the situation would completely explode. The nerve!

Vayeate was all right, and whinnied expectantly, already brought out of the stables. Relena took his reins and patted him on the neck, greeting her friend. Heero imitated her and patted the horse also on his neck. He would serve them well in the time to come; Vayeate would have to guide them on their path, for many many miles. He was a good companion, not to mention Heero owed him his life. If it hadn't been for the trampling force of Vayeate's legs, he had never been able to deal with the three soldiers of the Treize faction all at once. Relena smoothed out a few wrinkles in her blue dress, the picnic basket dangling from her arm.

"Let's go," Heero said and started guiding the horse. Relena hadn't mentioned a thing about Sylvia Noventa, and he had no idea where to start looking for her, with the little information they had. They probably wouldn't find her in the forests around here that formed the natural border. The country of Auda and Iria wasn't that far away, depending on how long it took for them to trek through the thick woods.

They settled into a rhythm of alternately riding the horse, with Relena taking the first turn to sit on the horse's back. She forced Heero every now and then to take his turn, not believing that he didn't grow tired of all the walking he did. Their pace wasn't that fast, and Heero was slightly worried about how long it would take for them to cross the border, as these thick woods were hard to travel through. He was already grateful that the obvious road was easy to follow, but he doubted there would be inns popping up every now and then.

Relena had used some of their money to acquire herself some provisions: a small sewing-box with which she had mended her blue dress, new undergarments, a new shirt and pants for Heero, as well as another dress for herself -- a simple light brown one. She had also bought some food that could be conserved for quite a while, filling up half the picnic basket. The silver was enough to sustain them for a while, but she didn't know for how long. Food and lodging would be pricey, for them as well as for the horse.

Romefeller country was, especially at the border, abundant with fruit gardens. The picnic basket was soon filled to the brim with fruit, and they were ready for their journey through the forest. Following the road, they were on their way to Auda country first; Heero tried to envision the map he had seen in the living room, but he couldn't recall the exact outlines of the different countries of the world. They had decided to go to Auda country just to get away from their homeland for a while; Heero didn't mind and left it to Relena to decide which way they should go.

They made it through the forests easier and faster than he had thought; it only took them two days, and he stayed awake the one night they need to spend at the side of the road. Vayeate was able to find enough to eat, and Relena was in charge of rationing the food. It took him some time to convince her to take the blanket, and she insisted she was fine and wanted him to get some rest as well, so he pretended to be asleep until she fell asleep herself.

Out of the forest, they traveled into Auda country. It was a lot more barren, the road to its capital city poorly paved despite it being wide and well-traveled. Farms and houses were few and far between, the people eyeing the travelers suspiciously. Hardly any children or animals were running around, and there weren't any fruit gardens here. Nobody greeted them or looked even up from their work. Heero didn't pay much attention to the people either, but didn't bring his guard down.

It was Relena's turn to ride Vayeate and she was almost dozing on his back, softly swinging back and forth. Heero had gotten used to the long marches, but knew it was physically very heavy for Relena, though not one complaint ever came over her lips. He practiced with the sollevar whenever they were resting; he wasn't sure if he did everything right, but he got a better handle of the weapon. Relena's lips were always pursed in a disapproving scowl when she saw him practicing, but she didn't comment on it. She was more amazed about his stamina, that he was still able to practice so intensely after a long day march.

Fortunately they hadn't run out of money yet, but Relena feared they would need to dip into the leather bag again. This country couldn't provide for their needs; the fields were sown with several crops they didn't recognize, and though Vayeate ate from it without any troubles, both of them didn't have a clue how to prepare it, and didn't have anything to cook with. The fruit and half of their food stash was already gone, thanks to Heero's major appetite. He tried to eat not too much, especially not compared to Relena who apparently only needed one apple to live. He realized very well she was sparing the food out of her mouth for his sake, which made him feel guilty -- but his apparently endless stamina needed lots of food to sustain it.

With a good and well-fed looking horse, a girl in simple, yet clean and neat clothing and a boy walking next to them, Heero was painfully aware that they were prey for bandits. He didn't have any illusion that his sollevar would scare them off, not if they were working in groups. Keeping themselves to the well-used road was the only thing he could think of to minimize the risk; diverging from this path would probably get them into trouble. Still, Heero kept a watchful eye out whenever he saw bushes or heard strange noises, and hoped that casually swinging the sollevar around would keep people from getting the wrong ideas. After all, people had shown fear of his weapon before.

It all went wrong on the third day they traveled through Auda country, just half a day away from reaching the capital city. The road was surrounded by thick bushes with large, smooth leaves; impenetrable, and ideal to hide behind. The border town had been buzzing with rumors of bandits and Heero grabbed Vayeate's reins, eyes darting back and forth.

"Is there something wrong?" Relena was quick to ask. He had assumed she was half asleep or sunken in thoughts, but she was apparently paying better attention than he thought.

"You better get off the horse," Heero said and that was all he got the chance to say. The next moment, Vayeate bucked wildly, lifting up his heavy legs and whinnying. Not in fear, but to attack -- but because Relena wasn't riding with a saddle, she slid off of his back, crying out in surprise and fear, and she fell to the ground.


Heero wanted to help her, and in the same movement he turned around to reach for her, an arrow shot just past his ear, missing him by a millimeter. The feathers of the arrow brushed his ear, and he could feel the metal tip cutting his cheek. Relena lay motionless on the ground, her face turned away from him -- but before he could do anything, Vayeate moved in front of her, protecting her.

He gritted his teeth, but immediately whirled around, swinging the sollevar and deflecting a row of arrows. Men emerged from the bushes, dressed in sloppy, filthy clothing; unshaven and not bathed for more than just a few days. The bows were handmade and improvised, not terribly accurate; it had been simply a coincidence that the arrow had been so well aimed. Some of the men were wearing swords, and certainly every one of them carried a knife or a dagger. Showing him nasty, mean-spirited grins -- which only displayed their rotten teeth and the gap in between them -- the mob was confident Heero would claim defeat just because of their sheer numbers.

"Give up," the leader spoke. He had dirty blond hair, uncombed and matted like a bunch of hay, strands hanging in front of his eyes. How he could see like that was a mystery to Heero -- the man hadn't seen a bath or a barber in ages. The mob's weapons might not be accurate or sharp, but they were plenty. He shifted his position, pointing the sollevar at them.

"Now, now, don't be over-confident," the leader spoke again amusedly. "Put that thing away before you cut yourself, and give all your money to us."

"We don't have any," Heero answered curtly. The basket had rolled away from Relena when she dropped it during her fall. He could only hope the leather bag hadn't fallen out of it, or that any of the men had heard the jingling coins.

Grinning toothlessly at Heero, one of the bandits detached himself from the group and moved towards Relena. Not soon after, a second bandit left the group to walk into the direction where the basket had rolled to.

Both Heero and Vayeate stepped to the side, blocking the men's passage. The horse snorted dangerously, as always impressive in strength and height. The man halted, and just grinned like a loon. The leader snorted too, but far less impressively; he unsheathed his sword. Heero didn't have a smith's eye, but it looked sharp enough to him. The situation was growing worse with every passing second -- not even he could take on a mob like this. The rest of the group followed their leader's example, and three of them lifted up their bows. Heero counted his adversaries quickly -- ten to one, without the two already detached from the group. Unfair as if he'd ever seen it. Putting his faith into the sollevar, he decided that offense was the best defense and lunged for the leader.

The scruffy man was quite surprised that Heero went for the attack instead of running away in fear and had barely enough time to block him with his sword, uttering an undignified grunt.

"You little bastard!"

Heero didn't bother answering, cursing or speaking. The other men started to attack him, and he needed all his strength and concentration to keep them at bay, at least preventing them from hitting or cutting him. The sollevar twirled and swung around, striking and hitting, and soon enough high-pitched screams were heard, and blood dripped thickly from the trident-shaped head. Apparently the wounds were not lethal enough, because the bandits kept coming, and Heero took hits to his chest and sides. His movements started to slow down, and his swings became less and less fierce. They were too many -- he had sustained too many wounds, he was losing too much blood, he was feeling light-headed. Far away, somewhere in the background, he could hear someone screaming about "Put down this crazy beast" and Vayeate whinnying and snorting.

He had to fight, had to go on...! It was only because of his willpower that he was still standing; he moved the sollevar as if he was wading through mud, and he felt hands tugging at the weapon. The hilt of a sword hit his temple and he immediately dropped the sollevar, black spots swirling in front of his eyes. For a brief moment, he didn't know where he was, everything spun around him. The only thing keeping him awake was Relena screaming his name. Relena! Heero tried to turn around, but his knees gave out on him and he fell to the ground.

The men laughed in uproar. The leader, his shirt cut open and the ragged edges colored dark red, breathed a little heavily, but showed a triumphant grin. With one kick of his foot, the sollevar was out of Heero's reach.

"Nice weapon, that'll fetch me some gold," he taunted him. "You're not so tough now, are you?"

"Losers," Heero bristled, "ten to one..." He was kicked in the ribs.

"Shut your mouth! Your horse looks good too; it'll taste great in the stew tonight!"

Relena cried a loud "No!" and Heero groaned -- Vayeate was a champion's stallion, not food! If only he could reach his weapon...his body stiffened when he heard the rest of the bandits making inappropriate remarks involving Relena and what they were going to do with the girl.

Their horrible laughter hurt his ears and Heero had a pretty good picture of what the men were planning, even without telling it out loud. Grunting, he tried to muster up his strength to get up from the ground. A boot was placed between his shoulder blades and he was pushed down again, face grinding into the sand.

"Don't worry boy," it was the leader, "we're going to have some fun with you too."

"Stop it," Heero tried to say, but his voice had abandoned him. Sand was choking his throat, and his eyes were stinging. His jaw was swollen, the cuts all over his body hurt pretty badly. His vision was blurring, and his body refused to obey him. Relena screamed, and he could hear the raw laughter of the men.

"Stop it!" He couldn't bring himself to beg. He would do it, for Relena's sake, he would beg to leave her alone, but the words didn't cross his lips -- only a deep grunt when the leader drove his boot deeper between his shoulder blades.

"Shut up, boy. You're lucky if your head ends up on a spike," he announced, grinning in anticipation. "But before that happens, we're going to have some mighty fun with you and see how loud you can scream!"

Heero swallowed thickly. He had promised Darlian to protect his daughter. He had promised to protect Relena, to keep her safe and to guide her to Sanq, wherever it was...and he had failed already. If only Relena would be safe...he couldn't care less about his own life.

"Please...stop it..." I'll do anything.

It was barely audible, drowned out by the sound of clothes ripping and Relena screaming, again and again. He closed his eyes briefly, then forced himself to muster up all his strength and to get up. One last-ditch effort, he had to try! Heero put his hands flat on the ground and started getting up, his body twitching with the effort.

"Don't bother," the leader said disdainfully, but he couldn't suppress the surprise in his voice. He hadn't expected Heero to be able to even lift up another finger. "You're not going to --" those were his last words, as blood gurgled from his mouth.

The pressure of his boot on Heero's back disappeared as the man crashed to the ground with a bewildered look on his face. His heart and lung were pierced -- exactly through the center. A marksman aim, but Heero had no time to wonder about it. He kicked at the man slumped over his leg, pushing the dead weight away from him. Getting back on his feet, albeit a bit wobbly, he was up just in time to see the other bandits fall down one by one, arrows protruding from their chests and backs.

The ones left clever enough to notice that something was terribly wrong didn't make it far as they tried to run away. Similar arrows hit them and they fell to the ground without another scream, and it had only taken a few seconds.

Heero grabbed his sollevar and looked around him, frantically searching in the direction the arrows had come from. He thought he saw someone fleeing -- no, not exactly fleeing, just turning away and leaving the scene casually. He quickly looked back at Relena who was huddling into herself, crying, her legs pulled up to her chest. He couldn't leave her alone like this. Vayeate stood behind her, large nose sniffing at her and bumping gently against her neck. His knees felt like they could give out on him any second now; he couldn't go into pursuit even if he wanted to.

For good measure, he yelled out loud to their savior. Whoever had fired these arrows, he or she had saved their lives.

"Hey! Come back! Whoever you are, come back!"

No answer, and Heero couldn't see the archer anymore. He did walk into the bushes, in the last hope of seeing where the archer was going to -- but he found nothing but the small hideout of the bandits. They had lumped together their earlier loot as well as some provisions to set up camp: blankets, food, a genuine horse saddle, extra ammunition. He picked up some of the arrows, which were badly carved from wood, with a mismatching steel tip tied to it, nothing like the arrows that had killed them.

He grabbed everything, including a bolt of cloth, some pans and a small chest. Those vermin had set up a permanent camp here to ambush innocent people. He grunted. His strength was already returning and he shouldn't have had any trouble at all carrying this, but it felt like his limbs were made out of pure lead, weighing him down.

Returning to Relena, he was taken aback to see her standing up, rummaging through the basket to find her other dress. The blue one was ripped as far as up to her thighs; she shot him a look that was a mixture of shock, anger and disbelief, but she didn't stop looking. Her face was set in stone, her lips drawn into a tight, small line. Her eyes were red, but she wasn't crying.


"I'm all right!" She barked at him, immediately turning her face away. She had found the dress and took it out of the basket, clutching it to her chest as a last lifeline.

"Are you injured?" He asked, and promptly got a drop of blood in his eye. It came from the sollevar, its tip covered with the thick liquid, dripping down the shaft. Heero swung it a few times to cast off the spatters, not in her direction, of course.

"My back," she mumbled. She had made quite a fall. "I didn't expect Vayeate to react like this."

The horse snorted as if he knew they were talking about him. Heero had never wondered what Darlian exactly had in mind with Vayeate; the horse was far taller and stronger than any horse he had ever seen. As far as he could remember, Vayeate had never been used to plough the lands, only for riding. Heero had always assumed that the horse was for personal use, and especially for Relena. She shot him a watery smile.

"I never thought he would throw me off."

"He reacted to the situation," he answered. He wasn't telling her that the horse had every intention of trampling anyone who approached him or the girl.

"We need a saddle," he continued, and showed her the one he was holding.

"Where did you get that?" she asked, blinking, and looked at him as if she saw him for the first time. "Oh, for the mercy of the Twelve, Heero, you're bleeding! What are you doing standing up?"

"I'm all right," he repeated her words. "We need to get out of here and find a better place to stay."

She pursed her lips. "You're injured and you're bleeding. We're not going anywhere until I have taken care of your wounds, Heero."

"Relena," he said, almost warningly. This wasn't the time to be stubborn; who knew how many more of these bandits were hanging around, and they would probably be all too happy to avenge their fellow men. The road was littered with dead bodies, the arrows still protruding from their backs or chests. He didn't want to stay here for another minute; they were both showing the signs of the intense fight. Relena caught him staring at her torn dress, and her cheeks flared.

"Where can we go to? There's not an inn in sight, and I doubt they would give us a room..."

Being covered in soot was something entirely different than being covered in cuts and blood and wearing torn clothes. Heero heaved a small sigh. He was already recovering from the injuries, and hunger pains were gnawing at his stomach. How could he be thinking of food now?

"There should be a bridge not a mile from here," he thought out loud. "That was a sign for a bridge we saw not long ago, wasn't it?"

The girl nodded, her lips quivering, and she was fighting with all her willpower to not start crying.

"Can you make it? We can sit down by the bridge and use the water from the river to...freshen us up."

She shook her head. "Your wounds need to be taken care of now, Heero. Another mile is far too straining for you."

"I can make it. Vayeate will have to carry all of this..."

"Where did you get all of this?" she asked him again, keeping an eye on him when he walked over to the horse and put the saddle on his back. Vayeate didn't protest, but stamped his hoof a few times.

"I got this from...the bandits' camp was in the bushes," he explained. "I didn't even take half of all the things they had gathered. It's of no value to them anymore, and we can make good use of it."

She looked at him, rather incredulously.

"I don't want anything of those!" She had wanted to say something stronger, but her composure got the better of her. He wondered why she wasn't crying, why she was fighting so hard to fight back the tears. By all means, she should be crying out loud -- what had happened had been awful. He didn't think any of the bandits could have gotten that far to actually...his mind didn't want to go there...but still, it had been horrible.

"Relena, we need the provisions, you know it," he said as if he were explaining something to a small child. "It would be a waste to leave all of this behind. We certainly need the blankets as the nights are colder here, and some things are just very handy, and we don't have the silver to buy everything."

She lowered her eyes when he mentioned the silver, and the thought crossed his mind that they could have lost the leather bag after Relena's fall and in the heat of the fight.

"Yes, you're right," she answered, a little sullen. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"Let's just get out of here," he repeated, ignoring her apology.

Heero used the rope that he had found in the clutter to keep everything together, tying it in one neat, large bundle on Vayeate's back. Relena used the time he was busy to quickly change into her other dress, stuffing the blue one back in the basket.

"Ready?" he asked before turning around again.

"Ready," she said, her face sporting a neutral expression though she was very tense. Her fingers trembled as she touched the familiar basket hanging on her arm again, her grip on it so tight that her knuckles had turned white. She avoided looking at the corpses, but it was already too late -- some light in her eyes had died as well. This wasn't life outside the farm as she had ever envisioned it. This wasn't life in general as she had imagined it to be -- not with violence, death, blood, people trying to backstab each other, betray each other...almost dazed, she started to walk towards the bridge, even though there was room enough for her to get on the horse.

Relena was strangely quiet as they continued their way. She looked tired and ready to cry, but refused to let the tears fall, her face still showing that unnatural neutral expression. Heero let her be; he didn't know what else to say anyway. His words might provide some consolation, but those were just words...he couldn't improve the situation as it was. No roof over their heads, no family as far as they knew of to take shelter with, no certainty, no security.

Step by step, Heero put one foot in front of the other, walking and walking. It was strange to feel this fit and strong again so soon after his defeat. It bothered him that he had lost the fight, he should have been able to take out ten of those rowdy bastards with bad swords and even worse bows. If only he knew how to wield his weapon this moment, only the infuriating gnawing hunger was his biggest problem. Suddenly, the horse halted.

"What?" Relena asked, deadly tired. "Vayeate..?"

"Shhh," Heero said, a little chiding. Her voice had been loud. She flinched, and stepped closer to Vayeate as if she wanted to melt into his shadow, to render herself invisible. Heero sniffed -- he hadn't heard any noises, but had caught the unmistakable scent of open fire...and the smell of something cooking. Meat. Where there was an open fire, there would have to be people. There was a curve in the road just ahead, before the bridge, with trees and bushes obscuring the overview.

"More bandits?" Relena whispered, her hands grabbing the horse's mane.

"I'm going to take a look," Heero said, urging her to be silent. Vayeate stepped away from the road, hiding behind a large tree. Taking the sollevar with him, the trident-shaped head caked with dried blood, Heero went into the direction of the fire. If there were bandits, he would be prepared. This time, not only his blood would spill.

He took the curve in the road and narrowed his eyes. It was hard to miss the open fire, flames enveloping the wood calmly. Not a wild, roaring fire like he had seen when the farm burned down... A spit turned around above the flames, roasting a few water birds, judging from their shape. It had been a while since they had a good meal, and he felt the hunger pains intensifying. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted by the food. Was there someone with the fire or not? It was hard to see in the falling evening, but he couldn't imagine the fire to be abandoned.

sollevar firmly in his hand, Heero approached the fire cautiously. He really didn't like to lower himself to stealing, but the prospect of food was so promising, that he was prepared to put aside his conscience. He was about to step up to the turning spit, when suddenly a voice spoke.

"A good evening to you too, esshan," a heavily accented voice rang out, the last word rolling off his tongue a little brusquely. "Would you care to share dinner with me?"

Heero found his balance again, shaken to his very core. No wonder he hadn't noticed anyone -- a mass of black, covered by the falling evening and the shadows of a gigantic tree, moved as the voice had spoken. It was hard to discern, but there was really someone sitting there; judging from the voice, it had to be a young man. Heero couldn't see his face as he was hooded and cloaked, the thick black fabric showing rich golden embroidery on the hem. The fire didn't cast much light, but Heero thought he could make out an intricate pattern of something resembling flames on the fabric. The hood of the cloak bore similar embroidery, and suddenly it was thrown off, revealing the speaker.

A massive braid slipped over the young man's shoulder, chestnut hair sprinkled with copper and gold strands. Heero stood nailed to the ground as a pair of dark violet eyes fixed themselves on him, drilling into his very soul, capturing his very essence. These eyes, intense, showed a myriad of colors -- dark blue, purplish violet, midnight blue, hints of black...and he wondered why he could see this so clearly while the rest was so hard to distinguish.

"Who are you, my good man?"

The stranger's voice was friendly, with a deep timbre, and his smile was disarmingly friendly. In his hands rested a staff, its length similar to Heero's sollevar, sporting a winged tip and a large sphere on top, embedded in four spikes. The carvings on the bottom of the staff were almost similar to the ones on his sollevar and bore the same intricate, elaborated pattern as on the cloak: flames, wrapping itself around the staff as if setting it on fire ...remarkable craftsmanship. This young man, this traveler or whatever he was, would be a walking target for any bandit, yet he seemed completely unaware of any danger. More so, he looked very relaxed, smile turning amused, as if there was nothing that could ever touch him.

"My name is Heero," he grunted. "Heero Yuy." Why was he even answering him?

"So nice to meet you, Heero Yuy. My name is Duo from Maxwell Church."

That rang a bell. Heero couldn't help but looking puzzled. Maxwell Church?

"I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with your church."

"Almost no one is," Duo chuckled, voice low, but without any humor to it. Heero chose to ignore that remark, but he lowered his sollevar. This man wasn't a bandit and posed no threat to him.

"You shouldn't be traveling alone," he replied brusquely. For a brief moment, he considered asking this Duo from Maxwell Church if he was an archer, or if he'd seen an archer passing by.

"I'm not alone," Duo said and shrugged. His hands were still on the staff, and as the flames of the fire suddenly burned brighter, it revealed exactly how he was holding it. Heero had to adjust his opinion immediately. It would have been a terrible, terrible mistake to think that this Duo would pose no threat to him. The staff, the cloak...ten against one that he was a mage. A mage, just like Khushrenada's masked fool. He gritted his teeth.

"Besides, I don't think you're the one to tell me how I should be traveling."

"What do you mean?" Heero stiffened. His grip on the sollevar was tight again. There wasn't a thing he could do against magic, but he wasn't afraid.

"Look at yourself," Duo said. His voice had taken on a less musical tone, but still had the same depth to it. "You're injured, your clothes are torn, and despite your strength, your body is about to keel over. You would have died, you would have fought yourself to the death... and that would have been such a waste."

"What are you talking about?" Heero cocked his head, not caring that he sounded impatient. It was hard to believe that he was listening to this man instead of going back to Relena who would probably be worried sick by now.

"The bandits." Duo made a dismissive gesture. "Join me at the fire and have something to eat, you need it. Then I'll find someone who can heal you. The river is close by for a good rinse. You look like the Twelve have personally run over you, all at the same time."

When he invoked the Gods, his voice sounded openly mocking -- that had to be some church of his, that would talk about the Twelve so disdainfully.

"I'll be on my way," Heero answered. The offer of food was tempting, and as soon as Duo had mentioned it he felt his body achingly protesting against every next move; he was indeed about to keel over if he didn't sit down.

"Who's the lady you're traveling with?" Duo asked out of the blue.

"Lady?" Heero was sure Relena couldn't be seen from here. How could he...?

Duo chuckled. "I heard you from afar," he explained. "You shouldn't be traveling alone either. With all due respect to the Princess, but one guard alone can't protect her from the bandits roaming Auda country, and it's only getting worse."

"Princess?" Heero was annoyed at how casually Duo was talking. The other shrugged again and shifted his position a little. His hands went over the staff, fingers gently curling around it.

Find yourself a priest from Maxwell Church. Heero recalled clearly the words from the smith. Howard had told him this just before handing him the sollevar. How could the man have known all of this? There was some rustling in the bushes on his left and Heero jumped up, the sollevar immediately swinging into the direction of the noise. A person emerged from the bushes, clad in green and brown leather, completely blending with the surrounding nature. His brown hair was combed in a typical fashion, covering the right half of his face. He was tall, and the expression on his face was just as neutral as Relena's had been.

"Trowa, meet Heero," Duo said cheerfully. "Heero, meet Trowa. Trowa, do we have enough to eat for our guests?"

"I can always hunt some more," the other replied stoically, and it was only now that Heero noticed the leather strap around the man's chest, holding up a large quiver on his back.

"You helped us out when we were attacked!"

Trowa didn't deny or confirm it, but merely shrugged it off, as if it had been no effort at all. A light annoyance made Heero frown, but he was about to thank the archer when he noticed something behind Trowa, someone moving... but as neither Trowa nor Duo paid any attention to it, he refrained from calling their attention to it.

"Please do," Duo continued airily. "We have two more guests at dinner."

The archer addressed Heero all of the sudden, not acknowledging Duo's words.

"That's quite the weapon you have."

"A genuine sollevar, if I am not mistaken," a male, yet light voice sounded, and the figure that had just moved behind Trowa stepped into the light of the fire. His robes were dark colored too, but not black like Duo's. His pale skin and springy blond hair contrasted sharply with the dark robe, and the staff in his hand was a dead give away. Two mages? "A legendary weapon from times long forgotten, and I know of only one person capable of making it."

"Howard," Heero said curtly. "Do you know him?"

The other smiled. "Not personally," he answered and he walked past Heero, stepping aside until he reached Duo, seeking out his steps carefully as if he was afraid to tread with his feet on the grass. He put the staff against a tree, not cradling it like Duo; it was far less crafted than Duo's, but its simplicity was beautiful. The tip of the staff ended in a pattern of woven leaves, as if protecting a flower about ready to bloom.

"And may I ask who you are?"

The mage looked up, a little disturbed, before smiling brightly at him.

"But of course, where are my manners? My name is Quatre Raberba Winner, my friend."

Heero scowled, as much from the added 'my friend' as from the hearing three names in a row -- apparently this mage was from nobility as well. No simple clergyman sported more than two names. What kind of people were they? Two mages and an archer, traveling together? Coincidence or not? He drew the conclusion that Trowa must be their bodyguard, though he had no doubt that the other two were perfectly capable of defending themselves. Any mage could die from a well-aimed arrow or a blow from a sword, but the damage they could do before they were killed was impressive.

The rustling of leaves told him that Trowa had left, and Duo leaned forward to adjust the spit. Quatre leaned forward too, sprinkling some seasoning over the meat. He held more in his hands -- leaves, roots, and a bundle of twigs, all neatly tied together.

"Will the Princess be joining us too?" he casually asked, shocking Heero out of his thoughts.

"Relena isn't a Princess," he said, his tone a little too harsh. "She is esshan-diva Darlian."

"Esshan-diva Darlian it is," Quatre answered smoothly. "Will the esshan-diva be joining us, then?"

"I...I'll have to go get her," Heero said. Relena was with Vayeate, hiding out of fear of more bandits along this road -- and Heero wasn't so sure if he could trust this company. Nobody had displayed any hostility, but that didn't make them friends instantly. After casting another quick glance at them -- they were not paying attention to him, as if they'd forgotten about him already -- Heero turned around and tracked back to Relena.

As evening was falling, the temperature began to drop significantly and he shivered. He had been standing comfortably close to the warm fire, and walking back reminded him how cold it was. The cuts on his chest stung, and his muscles protested against every movement. It was hard to find Relena again -- Vayeate had blended against the overhanging tree, his height overshadowing the girl, hiding her from view.

She didn't want to come with him at first, clearly torn between not trusting these people Heero met and not wanting to doubt his judgment. Finally, it was Vayeate who took the decision out of her hands; the horse started walking into the direction of the open fire, and Relena, who still held his reins, allowed herself to be dragged by him.

Throwing Heero a watery smile, fatigue darkening her face, she walked along, too drained of her energy to stop the horse. It took them a good ten minutes to get back and Heero made sure Vayeate had a good place for the night, setting up the horse next to another large tree with juicy grass around it. Relena muttered something inaudible, holding the basket in front of her body, knuckles white from her strong grip. She squinted her eyes a little from the smoke coming from the open fire, but even he could see how she was looking at the food. She shifted a little, waiting for Heero to finish taking care of Vayeate.

He led her to the open fire, which looked larger than before; there were two more birds added to the spit. The scents were mouth-watering, and he thought back to the amount of fruit he had eaten recently -- it hadn't really sustained him, and Heero felt like he hadn't eaten in a week. Relena latched onto his arm, tired but not broken, and her gaze darted curiously over the people around the fire.

"Heero...will you introduce us?" she softly whispered.

"Relena, these are Duo from Maxwell Church and Quatre Raberba Winner," Heero told her. "Duo, Quatre, this is Relena Darlian." He didn't know the official title to address a mage, and as long as they didn't correct him he would simply refer to them by their first name. He looked at her worriedly; she was so tired that she barely responded. The attack had been harder on her than he thought.

"A pleasure to meet you," she said and tried to sketch a bow. Duo and Quatre both nodded, chorusing: "The pleasure is ours, esshan-diva."

Again the bushes rustled, announcing Trowa's return. Someone was behind him, just like Quatre had been before.

"This is Trowa," Heero pointed out and Relena greeted him as well. As he didn't know who the one behind Trowa was, he remained silent. The stranger stepped past Trowa into the light of the fire, immediately fixing an unsettling gaze on him. He had slanted eyes and his skin looked bronze, a very different skin color than Heero was used to. His dark, black hair was tied into a painfully tight ponytail, leaving no wisps or strands of hair loose to soften his harsh features. For a brief moment, Heero thought he was wearing robes as well, but discovered quickly enough that it was some kind of armor made out of a foreign material resembling scales, sporting red and golden colors.

"Ah, there you are Wufei," Duo said, scooting over. The staff shifted with him. "This is Heero Yuy and esshan-diva Relena Darlian."

Trowa turned to Relena and bowed to her, offering much more respect than her title deserved. Heero frowned, not understanding. The other one remained standing, as stiff as a board.

"Aren't you going to bow to the Princess, Wufei?" Duo asked.

"I do not bow to someone whose authority has yet to be recognized," he answered and walked away from the both of them, going over to the other side of the fire.

"Typical Wufei," Quatre commented good-naturedly. He leaned forward and dug his hands into a pile of ashes, right next to the flames. Both Heero's and Relena's eyes went as wide as saucers. Undisturbed by the heat, Quatre pulled out a crock pot and wiped away some of the ashes from the lid. He took off the lid and put it aside.

"I do hope you like string beans," he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to hold a crock pot that had been simmering in hot ashes for hours in his hands without burning them. "There was not much else we could get."

"I think the potatoes are done as well," Duo said and Quatre similarly dug up another pot. Wufei, who had briefly disappeared, returned with plates and utensils.

"We do not have enough utensils for two more eaters. You will have to share."

"That's fine by me." Heero glared at him and almost yanked the plate out of Wufei's hands.

Quatre poured the water from the pots into a large jar and went around to provide everyone with vegetables and potatoes, while Trowa cut the meat with a long, razor sharp knife and passed it on, putting a hefty portion on everyone's plate. Relena wasn't very interested in eating, and Heero had to force her to at least nibble on some of the vegetables. Duo suddenly had a large loaf of bread in his hands and divided it into equal portions, passing it around to anyone interested.

As Relena had enough after a few vegetables and a small slice of potato, Heero ate the rest with gusto. The gnawing feeling in his stomach disappeared as his appetite was satisfied; after Relena reassured him that she really was full, he cleaned the rest of the plate without any problem. Even with her piece of bread and after everything he already ate, he still felt hungry, which was rather embarrassing. His cheeks were already colored from the heat of the fire, so he hoped everyone would mistake it for that instead of embarrassment. He eyed the leftover meat, the spit still rotating over the fire slowly.

"There's some more if you want," Trowa said, guessing Heero's thoughts as he caught him glancing at the spit. He protested immediately, claiming that he had enough, but Duo smiled and nodded at him. Everyone was apparently full even though Wufei had another slice of meat, leaving it to Heero to devour the rest.

Conversation was rather limited, and more often than not Duo and Quatre would say something to each other in hushed voices. Trowa was silent, cleaning off some of the dishes with the hot water Quatre had cast off earlier. Wufei stared intently at the fire as if he wanted to kill it with his glare.

"Heero," Relena tugged at his arm. "Do you have a blanket for me?"

They weren't going to an inn, not in this state. Neither of them knew where the next inn was, and Relena was in no condition to travel right now. The earlier events had shaken her roughly and deeply, and she needed rest, comfort and protection, not another exhausting trip. The others of this small group appeared to prepare to spend the night outside as well. There were no signs of rain, and Heero had discovered he ease with these people around him. Duo looked at him every so often, and every time Heero caught him, he smiled at him. There was a strange feeling of comfort going out from these four -- they were friends, and he could sense they would protect each other. It wasn't maybe the best of situations, but they could have ended up with a lot worse.

Heero gave Relena one of the blankets and he saw the small frown on her face when she accepted it -- she didn't like the origins of their possessions, but her need outweighed her disgust. He took a few blankets for himself, trying to fabricate a make-shift bed. The grass was short, covered with large leaves that softened the soil. After making sure there weren't any rocks or branches where he wanted to lie down, he rolled out the blankets. He wasn't feeling really tired, but he knew his body needed the rest.

He turned over in his improvised bed, searching for a comfortable position to sleep in. Tugging at the blankets around him, covering him from head to toe, he realized he hadn't even offered the others if they needed anything. He shrugged, figuring that tomorrow morning their paths would part anyway. After he had thanked them properly for sharing the meal, or maybe offering them to pay for it if Relena still had the leather pouch, he wouldn't owe them one thing.

"Are you comfortable, esshan-diva?" That was Duo's voice. Rolling back, Heero saw Duo's outline in the dying fire; a silhouette pulling the blanket over Relena's feet to tuck her completely in. He could slap himself mentally that he had forgotten to check up on her. It was just a little thing, but he should be the one taking care of her. She had been through enough already, and he had made a promise.

Duo went on to check up on everyone, wandering around. He pulled Trowa's knife away so he wouldn't cut himself in his sleep and adjusted Quatre's blanket. He also stopped by Wufei, who had sought out a place away from the group, absorbed by the dark. He spoke softly to him, rose to his feet and then left.

He came to a halt at Heero. By coincidence, his feet were bare as well, the blanket a little too short to cover it. Duo already leant into him, stretching out his hand to adjust it.

"I don't need a nanny."

"As you wish." Duo's hand brushed past his calf, fingers dropping the blanket. It was the briefest of touches, as he already straightened himself and walked away without another sound. Though his voice had been calm and polite, Heero picked up a tone of disappointment and regretted his harsh words. It didn't help much that his whole body was shivering, and that was not from his exposed leg. Rolling onto his other side, Heero refrained from touching the small spot Duo's fingers had touched. His body shivered, but that spot was burning and chilling him at the same time. It confused him, and his sleep was restless.

Despite everything, Heero slept through the night and when he woke up, the sun was already climbing far up into the sky. It was later than he usually got up and to make matters worse, he was confused for a few minutes, not remembering where he was and why he was lying in the grass. His mind was somehow fogged, and he had to blink, his eyesight focusing on someone sitting next to the extinguished fire. It was the blond mage, and he was the only one -- there was no sign of Duo, Trowa or Wufei. In broad daylight, Heero got a much better picture of Quatre, who was busy with a pestle and mortar, crushing a handful of leaves, his movements concentrated.

His robes hadn't been black like Duo's as Heero had assumed, but a deep, purplish midnight blue, like Duo's eyes. He pursed his lips, not allowing himself the time to think why he had compared the fabric to the mage's eyes. Quatre's robes were fit for a king, sporting white embroidery on the sleeves and the hems; wavy, flowery, nonsensical patterns. Despite sitting in the middle of a forest, everything white was unstained, unmarred, and in pristine condition. The only difference with Duo's robes had a different way of being tied around the waist and it fell a little looser around the shoulders, showing that he was wearing a spotless white shirt underneath. His staff, also of similar height as the sollevar and bearing less markings, was standing upright against the tree. Quatre's blond hair was impeccable, and his blue eyes were friendly and staring right back at him. Heero immediately looked away, caught in the act.

"Good morning," Quatre said.

"Why didn't anyone wake me up?" he barked in return.

"Duo thought it was for the better if you rested," Quatre answered. "Your body and mind are very strong, Heero Yuy, but sometimes you have to take a step back and rest. It was necessary for you to heal."

Heal... Quatre's words made him look at his own chest, and to his utter disbelief the cuts were gone -- the bruises, the was all gone. Heero wrestled himself out of the blankets without taking an eye off of Quatre, suspiciously looking around. Where were the others? The only sounds were those of birds and Quatre grinding the leaves together with the mortar and pestle. He added a few berries and appeared to be softly humming. It was almost idyllic, too good to be true.

"How can this be?"

Quatre looked up briefly, shooting him an apologetic look. "I am sorry, I usually ask permission before I apply any Healing. You were in bad condition, though. Like I said, your body and mind are very strong, and you were holding yourself together with pure willpower."

If it weren't extremely impolite, Heero would have growled at him. What nonsense! He wasn't even feeling tired! He patted with his hands over his body, but everything felt fit and healthy. Nothing reminded him of the fight of yesterday.

Trowa announced himself by jumping over one of the bushes, a burlap sack in his hands. The bow on his back shifted with every movement, and the arrows in his quiver rattled. Ignoring Heero, he walked over to Quatre and emptied the contents of the bag in front of him. It was fruit, too ripe fruit.

"How did it go?" Quatre asked.

Trowa shook his head. "Stock is running out extremely fast. There's still plenty of wheat and grain though, but you can't expect people to survive on nothing but bread. The best horses have been commandeered."

The capital city was half a day away from here. Had Trowa run to the city and back again to bring this news? Heero tried to squelch his suspicion. Where was Relena?

"There's a small river downside this hill," Trowa suddenly said. "If you want to freshen up, that's the place to go."

Heero nodded, and turned around to leave. He didn't have a bar of soap, but a dive in a river would have to do for now. It was at least more refreshing than walking around in the same pants every day. The hill was nothing but a high slope and he could already see the river from here. Zigzagging around the bushes, some noises reached him -- there was already someone else bathing here. Heero used a particular large bush to keep himself out of view as he tried to determine who was already down there -- if it was Relena, he would have to go look for another spot to take a dive.

It was Duo.

The sun lit up the same copper and gold tints just like the fire had done for him at night. Some strands were even honey blond, completely weaving the mass of hair into one palette of colors, covering his back, reaching even past his backside, the water parting the thick strands... From this distance, he could see a large part of his upper body, his skin rather pale for someone traveling around in the outdoors. Heero had to swallow thickly until it dawned to him what he was doing. Duo probably wouldn't appreciate being spied upon, and Heero tore himself away from the scenery, hoping that Duo hadn't seen him. He ran as fast as he could alongside the river, praying that the water would be cold. Icy cold.

He returned much later, not having paid attention to the time. Quatre had gathered everyone around the extinguished fire, pouring cool, refreshing water for everyone. The fruit was portioned and tastefully arranged on several plates. Heero noticed how Quatre had set one plate apart. Where was Duo? Was he still bathing?

Relena's hair was wet as well, and she was combing it with a pearly comb he had never seen before, slowly braiding it on one side. He wondered briefly where she had been bathing, and why she hadn't called for him to guard her. The river was large, not carrying a strong current and shallow enough to not drown, but still. She had a plate in front of her, barely touched, and she still carried that worried look on her face. Heero took some of the offered fruit, Quatre passing around some left-over bread. It was remarkably fresh and he was moving over to Relena to sit next to her.

She finally noticed him, her face immediately brightening, and she gasped out loud when she was about to greet him for the morning. She jumped up, amazement clear in her eyes.

"Heero! Your cuts! The bruises...You're completely healed!"

"I needed the rest," he answered dryly, and allowed her to touch him -- it wasn't uncomfortable, and she was merely poking him, in awe about the disappeared injuries.

"Good morning everyone," Duo all but chirped as he entered the circle. Every head moved into his direction. He accepted happily the similar chipper greeting in return from Quatre and ignored the other grunting about 'too perky for a good morning'. His eyes sought out Heero, and narrowed significantly when he spotted Relena touching him. For the first time in his life, Heero colored red from...from what, really? This was more than embarrassment, this was something else entirely. Not only did he want Duo to be the one touching him, he also wanted Duo to look this smoldering all the time. There was something behind his sudden harsh look that was...exciting.

"You need other clothes," Relena said and moved away from him. He released the breath he had been holding and looked in Duo's direction; for a few brief moments he reveled in the burning fury in those lively violet eyes, a fury he couldn't identify, couldn't understand.

The trance was broken when Duo turned on his heels and stalked over to Quatre, who already held up his plate. In the morning sunlight, Heero got a better impression of his robes; the flames were embroidered with such intensity that they seemed to be alive, wrapping themselves around the black fabric, setting him on fire and changing with every movement he made. The golden, orange and dark red threads shone in the sun, liquid fire covering him as he settled down, accepting the plate and thanking Quatre for the breakfast.

Relena returned with the pants and shirt for Heero that she had bought after their stay in the inn close to the border of Romefeller country. He excused himself for a minute to get changed, which left him a little time to think in private.

Heero had already figured out that both Duo and Quatre were something more than just travelers, as well as Trowa and Wufei. Apart from the fact that they screamed 'mage' to him wearing those typical robes, all of their clothes were too neat, too wealthy looking, and with the exception of Trowa, too impractical for traveling for longer periods of time. The archer wore leather armor, supple and cut in the right way to give him maximum freedom of movement, but the used leather was of the best quality Heero had ever seen. Wufei's armor was exotic and foreign, but it looked heavy; he couldn't imagine someone walking for miles and miles wearing that.

He stuck his arms through the shirt and pulled it over his head. He wasn't afraid of mages, but like many people, was wary of them. The four main streams of magic -- Fire, Death, Ice and Healing -- were not equally represented in this world, and each and every mage differed in strength. Darlian had taught him at least some of the basics to understand magic in general; Heero knew that Death magic was as good as extinct, and that it was forbidden to seek any knowledge about it. Ice and Healing magic were commonly called 'nature magic' as a whole, because of both these powers drawing on nature. Heero didn't understand the reasoning behind that, but as a lot about magic was shrouded in mystery, he knew it wasn't of much use to dwell upon it. Out of the all the magic streams, Healing was of course preferred; skilled Healing mages were rumored to be able to cure anything shy of death itself.

Not many were as open about their...talents as Duo or Quatre. By certain rules that had been agreed upon among mages, they identified themselves with robes and staff, so people knew who they were -- a clear identification would hopefully avoid painful or embarrassing situations. No one was killed for being a mage, but often feared, though Heero couldn't remember why this fear existed and where it originated from. It was even stranger that both Duo and Quatre all but flaunted their status; the robes they were wearing were more than just identifying them as mages, they were calling for attention. Maybe there wasn't as much fear for mages and magic in general where they came from?

He finished dressing and returned to the group, ending his train of thought about mages. It wasn't his business anyway; after breakfast, they would split up and go their own way. Stepping into the circle, Relena nodded at him approvingly and he picked up his plate again, continuing to eat the rest of his fruit. She had even put another slice of bread next to his food, and he gratefully ate it.

Duo was eating a peculiar orange fruit and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin before he addressed Relena.

"Esshan-diva, where will your travels bring you?" he asked. His voice was soothing to listen to, Heero thought. He couldn't place the accent, but Duo's voice was able to reach several timbres in one sentence, changing from word to word as they reached his ears.

"We're...traveling to visit family," Relena said. Her hesitation was more than obvious, and she quickly hid her face behind a large piece of fruit. Duo nodded, accepting the answer and tore a little piece off of his bread.

"In Auda country?"

"We also need to help a friend," Relena said, reminding Heero of their promise to Noventa. "To look after his granddaughter."

Duo nodded again. "We're traveling too. Maybe we can all go the same way and accompany you," he suggested. Heero looked at him.

"Are you heading in the same direction, then?" For some reason, he was under the assumption that Duo and company were heading the other way.

"We were actually planning to go to Romefeller country, but we have heard the rumors of war."

"Romefeller country has already fallen," Heero said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. With Noventa out of the way, Khushrenada would have no problem appointing his men in the right position to relieve Romefeller country of their natural resources, supplying for his growing army and providing even more manpower for his expansion thirst.

"It's going to be used as a crossover to Maganac country," Relena supplied. She stared at her fruit as if she wasn't sure to whether bite it or not, missing the lightly disturbed look on Quatre's face. "My father...our people are afraid of Khushrenada and his mage."

Duo didn't flinch. He didn't even blink. Heero was convinced that Relena knew how to recognize a mage, and was surprised to hear her use the word so casually. Relena might not realize in whose company she was, or she simply believed that mages weren't as dangerous or fearsome other people held them for.

"You're not going to Sanq Kingdom?" Duo asked, drastically changing the subject. Both Heero and Relena looked at him quizzically. He had asked the question in an almost child-like manner, innocent and curious. His eyes belied his friendly, calm voice; there was a dark determination behind those eyes that unnerved Heero.

"We're not going to Sanq Kingdom," Relena confirmed and sat upright as she put the rest of her breakfast away. Her movements were controlled and graceful, but Heero noticed the strain.

"If you're going to Sanq, Princess, we could travel together. That would be for the best, really."

"What do you know about the Kingdom of Sanq, then?" Heero snapped. He hadn't forgotten Darlian's words, and neither would have Relena. Hearing Duo talk about it as if one could just pack up his stuff and visit it, was annoying.

Duo carefully dabbed at his lips and his cheeks with his napkin, wiping away some fruit juice that somehow had managed to land there.

"The Kingdom of Sanq is a paradise," he said, and his voice was low and serious. "Where people can live together and in peace, without fear, without war, without pain. Equality, peace, freedom, brothers and sisters, no judgment, no condemnation."

"A utopia," Relena said and the hint of disbelief was clearly evident. "There's no such country or kingdom, and if there was, Khushrenada would run over it."

Duo looked at her, his face surprisingly expressionless. "The Kingdom of Sanq is supposed to be restored to its previous grandeur when the legitimate heir to the Peacecraft Throne returns and assumes said throne."


"Ever heard of the name?" Duo asked, and he sounded far too innocent.

"Enough," Heero interrupted brusquely. "Relena, we need to go."

A hint of confusion flashed over her face before she nodded. She didn't object and stood up from the ground. Nervously, she brushed a few leaves from her dress and smoothed out some wrinkles before picking up the basket and digging around in it, looking for the leather bag.

"I would like to compensate you for your expenses," she said. "I have a few silver coins..."

Duo lifted his hand. Quatre was just looking at her, a friendly smile on his face -- he didn't seem perturbed in the least. Trowa was still eating, and Wufei just glared indecipherably.

"We all have our reasons to look for the Kingdom of Sanq," Duo said. "Think about it when you're in the next city."

"The silver coins," Relena insisted. His hand was still up in the air.

"I won't accept any money from you, Princess."

She frowned, still wondering why he addressed her like that, and remained standing with the basket in her hands, shooting Heero a glance.

"Let's go, Relena," he said, turning around. They had left Vayeate close to the camp, reins hobbled to a tree. The large horse had room enough to move, and was in the company of another horse; the animal was light-colored, almost reddish, and not as tall as Vayeate. It was bearing a simple saddle and reins, all made from dark leather and lacking any finery. It had to be their pack-horse, Heero figured. It would be difficult to ride the horse with four people at the same time; maybe they took turns just like he and Relena did. Vayeate bristled when Heero hoisted the saddle, blankets and provisions on his back; he even bit at Heero when he took the reins in his hand.

"Hush, Vayeate," he said, patting at the horse's neck. "Let's go. C'mon."

He had to tug twice at the reins before Vayeate finally started to move; if he didn't know any better, it looked like he didn't want to leave the other horse behind.

Relena sketched a deep bow to the four people in the grass.

"I thank you for your troubles," she said. "It was a pleasure to meet you all, esshan-dars."

"Be well, esshan-diva," Duo said, but his voice was carefully neutral. Quatre waved at her. "Until we meet again, Princess."



"Who do you think they really were?"

"Two mages, that's for sure," Heero answered. Relena sat in the saddle, looking puzzled, the basket in front of her. Vayeate stepped in a very slow pace; if it were possible, the horse was outright pouting.

"A Fire mage and an Ice Mage," she said. "Funny, I thought that they were as opposite to each other as their powers. I never dreamed of seeing a full-trained mage, and now I see two together."

"Together?" Heero suddenly cocked his head.

"Yes, as in 'traveling together'?" Relena said, raising an eyebrow. He didn't answer to that.

"They had no right meddling with our business, whether we're going to Sanq or not."

"Oh Heero, just because father said..." Her voice drifted off.

"We'll find that kingdom, even if it's the last thing we do."

Heero drew his lips in a stubborn, tight line, and they both remained silent. Relena was probably thinking back to what her father had said: that she was a Peacecraft and needed to go to the Kingdom of Sanq, where they would 'help' her. A kingdom that was barely described and documented, a paradisiacal place that was supposed to live again once the rightful heir assumed the throne. Had Duo and Quatre referred to her as 'Princess' because of...Heero had never heard of that title before; it sounded foreign, and he didn't want to admit that the thought of Relena being an important heir bothered him. He wished Relena everything well and the best in the world, but how could he protect her if she really turned out to be this 'Princess'?

Vayeate snorted again. That horse had a serious attitude problem, and Heero tried to spur him on to quicken his pace just a little. Relena didn't pay attention, slowly swaying back and forth in the saddle. She bore the same stubborn look as Heero, but he wasn't going to start a discussion with her. They had other things on their minds, and the first thing was to find and rescue Sylvia Noventa from wherever she was. If Relena could think of any relatives, they could hopefully stay there for a while instead of trekking through the countries. From there, they could search for the Kingdom of Sanq. Especially Relena needed a home, a stable base; it would be for the better if they could bring back at least some certainties in their life.

They reached the capital of Auda country when the sun was far above the horizon. A large entrance gate welcomed them, the banners on the battlements showing Khushrenada's coat-of-arms: a stylized lions head. Lions were extinct, and it was a riddle why the man had chosen the image of a dead animal to represent himself. Vayeate's hoofs resounded on the brick-pavement, the small streets perfectly clean...and void of any life. The few people outside hurried in several directions, eyes cast down as to avoid any interaction. A young child started to wail and was silenced quickly, the mother hurrying inside a house, slamming the door close behind her and the child.

Relena dismounted, stretching stiff limbs. The center of the city closely resembled the capital of Romefeller country, sporting a large square with a granite fountain, almost an exact replica, including the statues of the five warriors. She went to sit on the edge of the fountain, feet dangling, and took the small sewing kit and her blue dress out of the basket. Heero stuck his hands in the remarkably cool water, freshening himself up a little. From a corner of his eyes, he took a peek at the statues, to see if they had survived the ravages of time better here.

The descriptions were completely worn off, no surprise there, but the faces of the warriors had been slightly better conserved and showed five males, two in robes, one in some kind of armor, and the one on the right had a bow on his back. Heero did a double-take; with a little bit of fantasy, he could recognize Duo's face in one of the statues -- one of the two who wore robes, of course. He shook his head violently, causing Relena to look at him. Duo's face wasn't that special, and it was certainly not similar to this statue, he told himself and turned demonstratively around, his back to the statues.

Relena opened her mouth to say something, but decided against it and instead tossed him an apple. Heero caught it and munched on it as she continued to work on the dress, mending the tears that the bandits had ripped into it. She was very softly humming to herself; it was the very first cheerful sound he heard her make ever since they left the farm behind. He didn't recognize the tune and maybe she was making it up as she went. Two men and a woman carrying some crates eyed them, gazes hollow and fearful, and quickly hastened their pace.

Munching on his apple and looking around, Heero thought at first that it was his sollevar that scared the people; the weapon was standing upright, the sharp tip shining in the sun. There was still some caked blood on it; he hadn't exactly had the chance yet to clean it thoroughly, and sticking it into the fountain here to rinse it off didn't seem like a spectacular idea to him.

Another woman, all of her hair tucked under a shawl, threw Relena's freefalling, long hair a jealous look before hurrying away again. No eye contact, no words...these people had been plundered and ransacked, and the fear of something incredibly awful had been put into them. Khushrenada and his mage...what had they done to this nation?

The ripping sound of fabric being torn apart shook him out of his thoughts. Relena frowned as she sowed the new hem into the dress; it was certainly reaching above her knee after she was done. The frown disappeared quickly however and she took up her humming again. At first sight, nothing looked wrong about her; just a girl taking care of a quick sewing job...but he knew how much tragedy she had suffered in such a short time. He also knew that she had clammed up, not wanting to talk about it, which had been very strange for her, as she talked about almost anything that came to her mind.

She was carrying sadness with her, and it disturbed him that he wasn't able to get her to open up, like the way she managed to break through his defenses and was able to read him like an open book. He wasn't able to offer her the same comfort and consolation, and she deserved someone good to her. Like a husband...but he knew he couldn't be more to her than her guard, her savior, anything...but her husband. Maybe she had considered him as such for the future, even though they never had spoken about it heart to heart. He still wanted to be her friend, not out of obligation but because he truly cared for her.

Relena softly patted him on the arm and nodded in the direction of a few Treize Faction members. They were wandering around the square, obviously bored, and talking out loud just as obnoxious as in Romefeller. One of them had a white sash of a messenger tied around his arm. Messengers were the only way to get news around in this world; they accepted to deliver your message in any country for a hefty price. Nonetheless, their delivery was always guaranteed, despite their obvious dangerous job. Almost anything could happen during their travels, and they stood out because of their general sign of recognition: the white sash or scarf around the arm. The messengers were a source of information; they picked up bits and pieces of news everywhere they went. This man could know where this Nichol guy was, their only lead in finding out where Sylvia Noventa was being held.

"Relena, can you stay here?"

She stared at him dumbfounded.

"Why? What are you going to do? Heero..."

With the Treize Faction in sight, it was for the better to hide his sollevar, and Heero maneuvered the weapon in between Vayeate and the fountain, so it was out of view thanks to the horse's ridiculous height. Not answering Relena, he left her side and stalked after the men at a respectable distance. He had killed soldiers of the Treize Faction, and it was very feasible that his description had been shown around to apprehend him. The men were bragging about battles Heero was sure of they hadn't participated in, to change the subject to the consistency of meat and if it tasted better with sweet potatoes or string beans. When they halted in front of a large two story house, they still hadn't finished their discussion, heatedly defending their own individual choices. Heero gritted his teeth. Lots of people didn't have anything to eat due to them plundering the lands, and now they were making these ludicrous dinner plans!

Only the messenger with the white sash entered the house after saying his goodbye to his friends, and the heavy oak door closed behind him with a thunderous sound. Heero was never going to be able to enter the house via the front door, so he hurried into the adjacent alley, in the hopes to find a side door, an open window, anything. Luck was with him; a maiden was beating a rug out, leaving a window wide open after she was done. Trying to conceal himself in the relative darkness of the alley, Heero sneaked up under the window, climbing on top of a rickety barrel.

"Where is she?"

Was this the voice of the messenger?

"She is safe," a low voice answered. "The esshouin can dispose of her whenever he wants."

"I think esshan-darava Une will do the honors," the first voice answered. He sounded impatient. "Well, Seditch?"

The following sounds were hard to identify: rustling of fabric, jingling of...coins, Heero thought, they're exchanging money.

"Yes, you're right. How's the esshouin doing?"

"Better than you if you don't hurry up."

"Don't worry Nichol, you --"

"Why haven't you closed the window?" the impatient voice barked. "You know what I told you about closing windows!"

"You sure are ..." With a loud bang, the two shutters of the window were closed, cutting off the man's sentence. Heero almost fell off the barrel and pressed himself against the wall. Only after a few minutes, he carefully climbed down, careful not to make any noise. At least he had confirmed that this Nichol guy was in this house, and he would think of a way to make this man talk! For now, he had no choice but to return to the fountain, where he found...

... Duo and the others standing around Relena.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, though his voice lacked the gruffness he intended to speak with. Duo smiled at him, warm attention dancing in his eyes.

"We are free to move around wherever we want," he said, accent drifting into Heero's ears.

"As long as Khushrenada doesn't get the idea to start collecting tolls for the roads and forbids people from traveling around," Trowa dryly delivered.

"Don't give him any ideas," Duo said, though not chiding. Heero eyed him.

It was the middle of the day -- the sun was fairly high in the sky, giving off more than an average warm temperature. The mage was all dressed in black, the flames appearing to consume him alive, and even Quatre in his dark blue robes with the pristine white embroidery must be uncomfortable, or sweating at the least, and yet...Heero didn't spot even the smallest sign of discomfort in either of the two.

Duo's braid dangled over his shoulder, catching the sunlight. Heero realized he was staring at him and feeling a little strange, he turned his head, missing a small smile on Duo's face. The pack-horse that traveled with the group stood calmly next to Vayeate, two large packs on its back. Heero snagged the sollevar away once he saw Wufei looking at it.

"You're awfully conspicuous," he said, referring to their robes and staffs.

"Sometimes that's in our advantage," Duo answered, not perturbed at all. "Are you planning to travel any further today? There's only barren wasteland behind the capital city, and you won't find another inn for quite a few days of riding."

"Did you especially come back to tell me this?"

"I've seen more of this world," Duo replied "You two have traveled a lot the past few days if you're from Romefeller country, and now here -- why don't you take a little rest? That is, if you're not on the run for something...more dangerous than life itself."

"It's not my decision to make," he growled in return. Duo's smile didn't falter and he crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking perfectly at ease. Quatre was dipping his hands into the water of the fountain and brought them up; he stared at the water he had just scooped intensely. Trowa was not far away from him, running some of the water over his wrists. Wufei had distanced himself from the group and seemed to scout the area, his golden and red armor flashed every now and then.

Relena's voice was hesitant. "We have been traveling non-stop, Heero," she finally said. One hand lay on the basket. She was obviously thinking of the remaining silver coins.

"We could use some rest, Heero. Some time to...think. Vayeate needs some grooming too, and his hooves checked," she continued.

"Are you sure?" he asked. He trusted her decision, but staying here wasn't appealing to him at all. Auda country was draining him; the downtrodden people, the heavy burden everyone seemed to carry around here...but if this was Relena's decision, he wouldn't do anything but agree.

"It's settled, then," Duo burst out, voice excited. "I know a perfect inn for us all, and I'm sure that they'll have rooms. It doesn't look like much trade is going on and maybe we can help the people around here."

He didn't ask the others for their opinion, which surprised Heero, but he didn't pay much attention to it. Relena showed him a sheepish smile, and collected her sewing kit, thanking Quatre when he handed her a small needle that she overlooked. The blue dress went with the kit into the basket and she hopped from the edge of the fountain, taking Vayeate's reins, who had all but been cuddling with the pack-horse.

"Your horse is beautiful." Relena admired the physique of the reddish animal. "What's her name?"

"Mercurius," Trowa answered and combed with his fingers through the thick mane. "She's very strong and perseverant."

He and Relena engaged in a conversation about their respective horses -- it was pretty clear that it was Trowa's horse, the way he talked about it -- and Quatre walked a few steps behind them and Wufei was nowhere to be seen, which left Duo to fall into step with Heero. The mage didn't utter a word, but a large grin graced his lips. Heero was too stubborn to start talking to him, so he just stole glances at him from under his unruly bangs. He didn't mind that they were going to end up in the same inn. A voice in the back of his mind told him in the same musical voice as Duo's that he wouldn't mind it at all.

The Summer Swan was a ridiculous name for an inn, but the rates were rather cheap and the rooms clean, which was a big advantage. Relena was already grateful that the people didn't ask ridiculous prices, but when she mentioned it, the innkeeper flinched and told her that "Esshouin Khushrenada sets the prices, esshava. We wouldn't dare deviate from his word, oh no, not at all." He threw Relena a funny look before he inscribed their names into a ledger, the quill scratching the thin paper.

"Esshan-diva," Quatre said, but not to correct the innkeeper -- he held out a piece of cloth to Relena, the same midnight blue color as his robes.

She shook her head, not understanding.

"It's common that the women here cover their hair," he explained. "If you please...?"

"Oh, but naturally," Relena quickly said and grabbed the cloth from Quatre's hands, throwing it over her head to cover her hair. The innkeeper looked strangely relieved, and asked her to sign for payment and shoved the paper and quill at her. When all the formalities were done, he showed her to her room, ignoring Heero who he assumed to be a simple servant; thus Heero brought up their belongings and threw them in his own -- significantly smaller -- room.

The girl continued to talk with the innkeeper, curiously inquiring about the habits and traditions of Auda country. It didn't interest Heero, so he wandered outside, back to the streets. It was still lifeless outside, but at least there was fresh air. Besides, he had someone he needed to pay a visit to. Nichol. It would be for the better to leave Relena out of this; she would only get worried about what he was going to do. He wouldn't shun violence to gain knowledge about Sylvia Noventa's whereabouts; the sooner they found her, the better. Another crime on Khushrenada's list, and Heero would make him pay for everything he had done.

He went twice in the wrong direction before he finally found the house again. Everything looked the same here, especially with all the damp, dark colors. Romefeller city had been plastered white, with colorful roof tops and drying laundry hanging over balconies; this was one continuous black and gray nightmare. Heero decided that his best chance was the window on the alley side. It had been closed, but it had wooden shutters and he could possibly pry them open and climb in. Staring into the alley as he weighed his option, a voice suddenly spoke behind him, the tone familiarly lilting.

"It's not a large town, but still, I'm surprised to see you here."

Heero didn't have to turn around, but he did anyway.

"You're following me."

"I'm looking after you," Duo said.


"I know you don't need a nanny," Duo said. Heero's cheeks flushed. He'd been rather brusque when he'd said that, but Duo didn't seem to repeat it because he was upset about it -- he looked rather amused. "I wouldn't expect our warrior to need a nanny anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"Heero," Duo's voice was flat, almost toneless, "have you ever felt tired? Have you been able to work all day long, doing intense physical labor, without as much as a minute of rest, and still not feeling tired?"

Heero frowned. Chopping wood. Cutting grass. Stacking hay. Plough the lands, and only until Relena told him it was lunchtime he would take a break.

"Why are you asking me this?"

"Please answer my question." Duo took a step towards Heero, who took a step backwards, into the alley. The hem of the mage's robes dragged behind him, floating just a little above the ground.

"I get tired just as anyone else," Heero protested at first, but he never lied before and wasn't going to start now. "No...I don't think I get really tired, as in exhausted."

Working at Darlian's farm had always filled his days from morning to evening. That he did the job of at least three laborers wasn't something that came to his mind -- he was used to working hard, out of respect for Darlian and because he enjoyed the work. He never thought once of sitting down and resting. Only when Relena sought him out to have lunch with him, and still only then because he was too polite to deny her; otherwise he would just continue working until it was too dark too see.

"Your weapon," Duo abruptly changed the subject, "how did you obtain it?"

"Do you know someone named Howard?" He countered with a question of his own.

"Could be," Duo answered dryly. "I know many people."

"He gave it to me, and told me to seek someone from Maxwell Church."

"Did he?"

Heero wasn't mistaken -- that was a smile on Duo's face. He was wondering why the other was smiling, and why his smile was so close -- their faces almost were touching each other. How had they ended up in the alley, only a few millimeters separating them?

"Yes, he did," he answered lamely.

"Good boy," Duo murmured, his breath warm on Heero's chin. He was actually a little smaller than Heero, but he could only think of his smile -- he wanted to see more of his smile, more of his lips...and there was this sudden urge to taste those lips. He wanted to know what they tasted like. They were awfully close in the alley and no one could see them anyway...

Duo's black robes blended with the shadows and the flaming golden embroidery seemed to adjust to the surroundings, the colors darkening. Suddenly, Heero's hands reached forward and he grabbed Duo at his sides, fingers clutching at the thick fabric as he pulled him close, immediately pressing his lips on his.

Duo said something, or tried to say something, but their lips were smashed together in a crude kiss; tasting and probing, lips on lips, nothing more. Something was pounding against his shoulder -- Duo's hand, but Heero didn't feel it. It was as annoying as a bug buzzing around him, and he simply ignored it. The pounding didn't last long and Duo tilted his head just a little, lips parting slightly, and chestnut brown locks mingled with Heero's tousled dark ones, their faces closer than ever. He had never kissed someone before, let alone someone of the same gender, besides from a few modest pecks on Relena's cheeks, to congratulate her on her birthday.

His hands were tugging at Duo's robes, fingers clutching at the fabric as to never let him go. Heero's lips bruised his, unaware of his own force -- he was simply pressing and pressing, not even parting his own lips to deepen it. He broke the kiss up just as abruptly as he had started it, surprise about his own actions and Duo's response washing over him. The mage stepped away from him, almost stumbling over his own feet. The look on his face -- was that fear?

Confused, Heero wanted to say something, but Duo turned away from him and ran, leaving him behind in the alley as the tuft of his braid disappeared out of sight, the mage turning around the corner. Dumbfounded, Heero stayed behind in the alley, questions piling up in his mind. He had kissed someone rather ferociously, and it wasn't just 'someone'-- it was a boy, and a mage to boot. Why had he done this, and why wasn't he feeling uncomfortable about it? He had never thought...but Duo was someone that he couldn't help but to want him. There was something about him that made Heero feel...complete, comfortable, as he never felt before. Confused, he closed his eyes for a moment.

He didn't feel like returning to the Summer Swan just yet, but subconsciously his feet were moving in that direction. Duo's reaction -- and his physical response -- puzzled him, and the look of real fear on his face had shaken him. How could someone be afraid of him? Did Duo know about the men he had killed? That he was willing to kill again to protect Relena? Those bandits didn't deserve to live, preying on innocent people...and hadn't Trowa been the one to put an arrow through them? Duo had to know about that...he slowed his pace, as the hairs on the back of his neck started to prickle. Was someone following him?

Standing still, he look around, only to find the large center square he was standing on abandoned. Annoyed, he caught sight of the five statues of the fountain, bathing in the last sunlight of the day. They almost looked lively and colorful now, instead of simply carved statues -- but Heero growled something incomprehensible and stalked away. It was getting cold, and nothing in Auda country could keep him outside. His mood had taken a plunge, and he wanted to punch someone; maybe that was why the last remaining people outside fled from him when he approached.

The innkeeper had anticipated that his few guests appreciated warmth, so the two large fireplaces were blazing. Heero shivered a little from the transition from the outside cold to the inside warmth, and blinked a few times to get his eyes adjusted to his new surroundings.

Three guests were sitting in the corner, enjoying an early dinner. Roast beef and potatoes, if his nose didn't deceive him. The two women looked rather wealthy, their light woolen coats strangely contrasting with the dark red and yellow silk dresses they wore. At second sight, the man sitting opposite of them, eating far less gracefully, was probably a bodyguard instead of a traveling companion. Heero ignored them; Duo and the rest of his group were sitting in the west corner, Relena amidst them with the piece of fabric neatly draped around her head, not a single strand escaping from its confinement.

Duo sat a little apart from the rest, listening intently to a boy who was gesticulating wildly. Dressed in a shirt, a short jacket and pants and rather slender built, it was difficult to see if it was a boy or a girl, but Heero assumed it was a boy...until the person in question turned just a little, pointing outside the window and he could see a certain tell-tale curve in the chest area.

She had short-cropped hair just as black as her clothing, and wore no jewelry or anything stressing her feminine side at all. She was awfully intimate around Duo, to his dismay; she even put her hand on his arm, and he didn't seem to mind at all -- worse, his grin got even wider, and the next second he laughed out loud, even though she tugged at his braid. Heero gritted his teeth. He wasn't jealous, not at all, no, not in the least...but now he knew why Duo looked so afraid after the kiss they shared. Funny, he hadn't taken Duo to be of the cowardly kind. If he wanted to be with this girl, inappropriately dressed as she was, why didn't he simply say so?

"I see you want to kill Maxwell already," a voice next to him commented dryly. "That is all right -- everybody has felt the urge to kill him at one point."

He hadn't even noticed Wufei coming in; he hadn't even noticed Wufei hadn't been at the table in the first place. The man could move without making a sound and unseen, which was a frankly amazing with his rather conspicuous armor.

Heero couldn't decipher from his tone of voice if the other was serious, sarcastic or just hinting at something else. He didn't want to kill Duo at all, but apparently Wufei assumed that his murderous look was aimed at the mage, and not at the girl next to him.

"It pains me to say, but I suggest you wait," Wufei continued. His slanted dark eyes never looked at Heero, or at Duo. He seemed to be able to keep an eye on literally everything in the room. "You also get a lot in return if you stay by his side."

"Like what?"

"You will find out," he answered him and bumped past his shoulder when he stepped forward to join the rest. This time Heero had no difficulties discerning his voice; he sounded very confident.

Heero went to sit down with the others, albeit grudgingly. It took a few minutes before Duo joined them as well, but he didn't choose a seat close to Heero. Instead, he moved around away from him to make room for the strange girl.

"Hilde told me where your friend is," Duo said. Heero looked at her, practically wiggling into Duo's lap, and scowled. She send him a saucy wink and smiled impishly.

Relena folded her hands together in front of her. She was wearing the blue dress she had been mending; she had once again taken off a bit of the hem to repair it, and now it was reaching just above her knee. The light brown dress she had bought in Romefeller country just before they crossed the border was far too thin for this climate; it was not surprising that she was the closest one sitting to the fire. She looked pretty, but her face was marred by a worried frown that she tried to hide.

Not for the first time, Heero made the resolution to talk to Relena -- to really talk, and ask if she was all right; no more hiding behind words, just the plain and open truth. He knew her -- she was bottling things up inside and she didn't want to talk about it, not even when put under pressure. It didn't happen very often; Relena was someone who preferred to share her emotions and talk about them freely, but there were things she put far, far away. He had to remind himself that she witnessed first-hand both her parents dying, suffered a brutal attack from bandits, and she still had the strange words of her father to deal with.

"Heero, are you listening?"

She was addressing him, and only because it wasn't in his nature to blush easily, he was saved from a burning red face in public. Here he was, worrying and thinking about her well-being while she had been talking!

"Yes, of course," he replied stoically. He quickly turned to Duo, and shot Hilde a glare -- she was still sitting on Duo's lap, amusing herself by trying to find out in how many ways she could bend and twist his braid.

"Like I said, we can help you save this girl," Duo said. "If her being reunited with her grandfather will mean that Noventa will return to Romefeller country and organize a resistance against Khushrenada's reign, then her rescue is imperative. If there are many thorns in Khushrenada's side, he can't concentrate on annexing other countries, and Maganac country in particular."

"Esshan-dar Noventa will do that, I can and will give you his and my word for that," Relena said determinedly. "It was because of Khushrenada keeping his granddaughter hostage that he surrendered. It's already eating him alive; as soon as Sylvia is with him again, he'll have strength enough to return."

"But how is Noventa going to prevent Khushrenada from simply kidnapping Sylvia again? There's a huge battalion of the Treize Faction stationed in Romefeller country," Heero objected. The pain in her eyes when she looked at him was real, but he wasn't going to give into her just because she made that promise -- he was rational, and rescuing someone wasn't as easy as a walk around town.

"Heero, we can't leave Sylvia in the hands of that man!"

"It's not that I don't want to save her," Heero said. "But it would defy all purposes if we save her, send her back to her grandfather and two days later, Khushrenada simply has him at his mercy again by kidnapping the girl anew. With his mage, it's especially easy to accomplish."

"He is right," Wufei admitted, and he was clearly unhappy to agree. "We have to make sure the Noventas will return in power instead of offering them a shaky basis. Are we really sure this esshan-dar will keep himself to his word, only if his granddaughter is around?"

"We've started out on less," Duo said and his eyes had a dark glint to them that told the other not to push it. Heero frowned. It looked like the mage had more than one face -- one flirty, funny and one taking things less seriously, and another one strong and determined, and even one tough as nails and absolutely not to mess with. It was confusing, and he didn't know if he liked it.

"Let's talk about the girl and where she is, and then discuss our options?" Quatre suggested.

A jug of water stood in front of him, two ice cubes keeping the liquid cool. It didn't surprise Heero that Duo's hand was close to a piping hot drink on the table. Nobody asked if he wanted something to drink, and the waitresses didn't seem all to bother to actually do their work.

It was Hilde who cleared her throat.

"I was running errands when I overheard Seditch," she said. "He needed me to get some provisions, and when I returned he was busy talking to some ill-mannered, impatient oaf." Her voice was quite feminine; high-pitched and light, as if dancing on the wind. "I didn't catch his name, but he was flinging all kinds of names around, showing off how important he really was. I was able to catch the name 'Une' over and over again," she continued. "I couldn't get more, Seditch told me to get lost..."

"Une..." Quatre frowned, trying to figure out why the name rang a bell.

Heero studied the girl. She had named the same name he had overheard during that conversation he couldn't make anything of. Seditch, Nichol and Une. He engraved the names into his mind.

"Hilde is the town's errand boy...errr, girl," Duo explained and smiled, mistaking Heero's look for suspicion. It meant that Hilde, also without an education, did all kinds of errands for everyone, and was paid with food or a place to stay for one night. Looking at her, he didn't think she would be very happy being dressed up in silk and lace or forced to talk about her future husband and how wonderful the drapes matched with the curtain.

"I could track it down to Catalonia Castle, however," she said, wearing an impish smile. "I heard the cook say that Nichol had traveled from there before arriving at Seditch's. I know of the Castle -- it's widely known for its dungeons as complex as a mathematical problem."

"Again with the dungeons," Duo muttered, blowing softly on his drink. "Why doesn't anyone lock up his hostages in a nice castle with a backyard full of flowers and a breath-taking view of some mountains?"

Trowa snickered. "You just don't want your clothes dirty, if that's possible."

Duo shot him a foul look.

"Catalonia Castle?"

"Dorothy Catalonia is the granddaughter of Duke Dermail," Quatre pointed out, but it didn't tell either Heero or Relena much.

"Duke Dermail is the one who presented Auda and Iria country on a silver platter to Khushrenada," Hilde added, her voice filled with barely veiled anger. The two countries were both relatively small, and fell by tradition under the reign of one ruler, in this case Duke Dermail.

"Catalonia is also a relative of Khushrenada." Duo heaved a sigh. "Dermail lived in the house now used by Seditch until he was...upgraded to a castle, which is now known as Catalonia Castle."

"And the previous inhabitants of the castle?" Heero wanted to know.

"I'm sure Khushrenada has introduced them to some very special leave of absence," Duo said, grimacing. He shook his head, heavy braid slipping over his shoulder. Before Heero could even think of it, Hilde tucked it back with a familiarity that showed she had done this numerous time before. He shot her a murderous look, but either she didn't notice or chose to ignore it.

"A castle with dungeons," he said, more brusquely than he intended. "How are we ever going to get there?"

"We just wait," Duo said.


"We just wait," he repeated. Relena looked just as confused as Heero.

"The rumor mill will have done its work by now," Quatre said, calmly as ever. "The rumor of two mages and a Nataku warrior in town, for purposes unknown. Any nobleman or ruler will want to invite them to at least test the waters. Politics is just like a pond; everyone throws out his fishing line."

Hearing Quatre casually confirm what Wufei was made Heero look at the other in a whole new perspective. The typical armor was a dead giveaway that he was a warrior, but Heero never could have imagined he was from Nataku -- that country was legendary for its army and extremely tough standards in training. It was still a mystery how one of the most tough and well-trained armies had been defeated by Khushrenada; had that been the mage at work again, or had it been something else?

"Why would they invite you?" Relena asked politely but slightly disbelievingly.

"To ask us what we're doing here in the first place, then if we would like to join their cause," Duo responded as a matter-of-factly. "What's the only thing that's better than one mage? Three mages."

"So we just wait until Khushrenada invites us into his lion's den?"

"Dermail," Duo replied, almost absent-mindedly. "Duke Dermail will invite us, probably for dinner and drinks, and we'll have a talk. A most polite and civilized talk, of course. A nice chit-chat...but we have to do this carefully, because if we screw this up, we could cause a rift in the mages' society."

"Dorothy Catalonia knows the most about the five legendary warriors," Trowa suddenly spoke up.

"Mages' society? What about Khushrenada's mage?" Relena asked out of the blue.

"Pshaw," Duo said, making a dismissive gesture. He took a sip of his drink.

"You know about the four streams of magic, right? Fire, Death, Ice and Healing. Not everyone capable of magic knows immediately what to do with it or how to use it. Usually, one is proficient in one stream; it's very rare to have a mage excel at two streams, or even being able to handle two streams. It's all very complicated. People who are capable of magic come together in Libra, where we study and gather all our knowledge. We share what we learn, we teach each other."

"I've never heard of this Libra before," Heero said.

"Libra isn't accessible to non-magic people," Quatre clarified. "We do all the work there ourselves, using our magic. You can't use Fire to repair your clothes, and being able to Heal doesn't automatically mean you have a dinner prepared for you out of nowhere. Everything that can be done by hand though, is done by hand. It builds character."

"What does that make Khushrenada's mage?"

"Zechs Merquise," Duo said. "His name is Zechs Merquise and he isn't a mage."

"Excuse me?" Heero almost stumbled over his words. He had heard so much about this mage and how dangerous he was, and Duo was simply denying his existence?

"Dorshin'esshun," Duo whispered as he stared into his mug. A silence fell, and Heero looked from the one to another; he hated not understanding what was going on, and he hadn't any knowledge of the mages' language and their culture. What was Duo saying? Even Relena looked confused, but she was intrigued; he could see her filing the information away for further use, learning from every bit of knowledge that was handed to her.

"We have our own people roaming the countries to seek out those who are able to learn magic," Quatre took over. "You know how people nowadays think about magic, and there have been cases of mages-to-be being assaulted or chased away from their hometowns simply out of fear. To prevent similar situations, we scout for talented or extraordinarily gifted people. Once we've found someone, we always ask them to come with us. They can refuse, of course, but they instinctively feel it's for the better because we can give them proper training and guidance. Merquise was one of the very few who searched out Libra...which is always a bad thing."

"How come?" Heero asked.

"Because people who embrace their magic and search out knowledge to train as fast as possible have other means for their magic than people who keep their talents hidden," Relena thought out loud.

"Excellent, Princess," Duo said and smiled brightly. "That was exactly Merquise's point -- he wanted to know how strong he could become, as fast as possible, and how much he could study, also as fast as possible."


"He's a particularly strong Fire mage," Quatre said. "I have taught the man some simple novice classes -- concentration, meditation, and the like. He was very brash and wanted to learn, almost obsessively. I certainly encourage zeal and diligence, but I felt that something was wrong with him. He was too focused on becoming as strong as possible in the least amount of time."

"Khushrenada could be pressuring him," Relena suggested.

"Could be, Princess," Duo agreed. "To make a long story short, he wasn't really popular or loved, but he was the top of every class. There wasn't a single day wherein he didn't greatly improve. We didn't know whether to be happy about it or to cry, and we tried to reign him in, or at least slow him down."

"You see, almost every mage develops in time a signature spell, a strong power that concentrates his -- or her -- magic for a certain amount of time to be unleashed in one blow or strike, depending on the magic used. We call that a trademark, or dortang. In Merquise's case, his dortang was Detonation -- an exceedingly large, focused amount of Fire magic that targets an area and blows it up, including everyone and everything caught in the radius."

"That's horrible," Relena said. Her eyes went wider, looking from Duo to Quatre and back again as if realizing only now what they were capable of. Without a doubt, she was wondering what their trademarks were; Heero found himself wondering too.

"Merquise ended up being a dorshin'esshun anyway," Duo said and he snorted.

Again there was silence, and just as Heero was about to ask what he meant, Quatre told him: "A dorshin'esshun is a mage without complete training. Merquise knows the basics, but he didn't stay long enough in Libra to finish his studies. A lot of magic isn't focused on power or strength, as he wanted it to be. Magic isn't about destruction -- it's about concentration, meditation, and silence most of the time."

"Raw power is one thing, knowing how to use it another," Duo continued, emptying his cup. "Everyone capable of magic can do something, but it's how you use it and what you do with it. We basically teach how to use magic for oneself and for the good of people, but we can't always control what they're going to do with what we teach them. The only thing we can do is to keep tabs on the most powerful, and rely on messages from throughout the world what our students are doing."

"There are that many mages?" Relena asked, tone of voice surprised.

"More than you think, Princess, but yes. Because of everybody's fear of magic in general, no numbers are made public. We don't keep records and we address our students with the names they want to be addressed with. We don't want them to be persecuted for something they're able to do. Wonderful things can be done with magic -- there shouldn't be a need to keep this all shrouded in mystery."

"You don't seem to be afraid of being recognized or persecuted," Heero said, pointing at his flaming robes and outstanding staff. Duo suddenly bared his teeth in a maniacal grin.

"That's because people know me."

Hilde laughed softly, and Heero was sure she laughed at him. Quatre suddenly struck up a conversation with Trowa, and Wufei was still watching everyone around him like a hawk. He had suddenly the urge to stand up and walk away from them all, if it weren't for his promise to protect Relena. She looked perfectly at ease amidst these people with their powers and magic and strange behavior, and it was only that damn promise that kept him here, otherwise he would have run for his life. This was all going to be trouble, he was sure of it.

Two hours later, Quatre's insight proved to be right. An invitation was brought to them by a messenger, dressed in a uniform with white pants and a dark green cloak, wearing golden stars and stripes all over as if he were someone of high military rank. He arrived with three large carriages, pulled by the best and strongest horses Auda and Iria country had to offer.

Duo made a show of not accepting the invitation at once, and according to Trowa, it was all part of the game to not look too eager. With a lot of praise, bowing to each other, showers of compliments and whatnot, Duo finally announced with a booming voice that he accepted. The messenger seemed relieved and urged the esshan-dars to hurry, forgive the impoliteness, as they would be in time for dinner, then? A few servants had been brought along to help everyone pack, as they were going to spend the night at Catalonia Castle, courtesy of Duke Dermail, of course.

Heero didn't like that 'of course', but went to retrieve his sollevar as Relena changed quickly into the light brown dress -- Duo giving her a matching, yet much warmer overcoat and a large shawl to cover her hair. She thanked him for the clothing, but refused to leave Vayeate behind, who was in the stables of the Summer Swan, together with Mercurius. To avoid any more delay, the messenger ordered the servants to get both horses out of the stables and have them trotting next to the other horses pulling the carriages.

Catalonia Castle was not that far away by carriage, but they needed to go up a mountain and before everyone was ready, nightfall had set in. The messenger was complaining about the delay, but after one glare of Heero he quickly shut up, fidgeting.

"Please, esshan-dars, get in," he kept telling them, "esshava, please, the first carriage is for you only."

Relena stood on the footboard of the second carriage, an angry look crossing her face as she was about to get in the same one as Heero. Duo, who arrived as the latest on the scene, had to explain her that Auda country kept men and women separated on certain occasions, and this was one of their occasions. She protested, saying out loud that it was absurd to keep men and women separated while traveling, and it took Duo quite some time to convince her to get into the first carriage -- alone.

The messenger was greatly upset by then and hastily gave the command to go, as it was getting later and later. The first carriage left, and Heero stared outside the window to see where it was going. Wufei sat next to him, wearing something different than his armor for a change: rather loose-fitting white pants tied with a black sash around the waist, and a dark blue shirt with a golden animal of some sort embroidered on it. Heero didn't recognize it and he didn't care; he too thought it was absurd to travel in separate carriages, but there was nothing he could do about it. If something should happen to Relena, though...

Finally, the carriage started moving at a respectable distance from Relena's. It made him nervous, and for some reason, Wufei's presence made him nervous too. The Nataku warrior was silent and obviously not up for a conversation, though Heero wanted to ask him again what he had meant with his words in the Summer Swan. Kill Duo...never.

"There is Catalonia Castle," Wufei suddenly pointed out after an agonizingly silent ride.

Ugly, was Heero's first thought when he saw the hugely large and thick walls looming over the hills, the towers contrasting ominously with the dark, falling night. The roof tiles were a dark blue and the windows were covered with heavy, dark wooden shutters. It looked more like a graveyard than a castle to him, and when the carriages rode over the drawbridge, it sounded like someone was grinding bones. He shivered, and his fingers around his sollevar tightened their grip. Wufei hadn't said a thing about him taking the weapon inside the carriage, but shifted nervously -- not from the weapon, but from the thick, suffocating atmosphere descending over them.

Dorothy Catalonia was waiting at the gate, an ecstatic look on her face. No one could say that she didn't have a taste for dramatics: the girl was dressed in black robes, a rather simple dress reaching her ankles, with several fragile lace layers draped over her arms, a sea of black flowers shifting around her when she moved her hand to wave majestically at the arriving guests. She wore long black gloves and golden rings flashed in the torchlight the inner court was lit with. Unlike the women in the capital city, her hair wasn't covered at all; only a simple black band around her head held the long blond strands out of her face. Some black roses were attached to the band, and she welcomed them with exaggerated gestures, announcing: "The warriors have arrived, finally!"

As Relena was the first one to arrive, she stepped out of the carriage before the others and Dorothy approached her, even going as far as to kiss her very lightly on both cheeks as if welcoming a long lost best friend. Heero frowned at the girl's intimate greeting; even Relena was taken quite aback by the bold gesture. Dorothy herself turned to meet them and bowed deeply, holding up her dress as she sank a little through the knees.

"Welcome, warriors. Welcome, dorshini, to Catalonia Castle. May the Twelve bless you on your journeys and shine upon you with their blessings in good fortune and health."

It was the first time that Heero saw Duo scowl; the title that had been used to address him and Quatre was probably not the proper one even though nothing but a smile was visible on Quatre's face. Heero took Duo for a Fire mage based upon the robes he wore, even though he was now dressed in a simple dark red one, without any embroidery.

The way Duo was scowling was enough for Heero to assume that mages were to be referred to based upon their powers, and that a 'dorshin' was too plain to address him. Neither he nor Quatre corrected the girl; the blond mage bowed to her in return, not as deep as her, and thanked her for her warm welcome and expressed their collective happiness about the hospitality and friendliness that was showered upon them.

Heero had to refrain from scowling just like Duo; what hospitality and friendliness exactly? This castle looked morbid, dark and empty, and Dorothy Catalonia herself was an enigma come to life; what were her intentions? He couldn't believe that she invited them 'just' for dinner, with the way she was talking about warriors. She looked very ecstatic to receive them, but he knew that look in her eyes. Calculating.

"Hn," he muttered under his breath, resulting in Relena looking a little strangely at him.

"Dorothy, I see you have welcomed our guests," a low voice boomed over the inner court and an elderly man stalked towards them. He was accompanied by a few servants ready to take on their luggage and coats, if any, and a few burly men who were obviously bodyguards. They all wore short swords on a belt, almost casually touching them; but their eyes immediately fixed themselves on Heero's sollevar and the staffs of the respective mages.

"Duke Dermail," Duo said and nodded, a movement so small and fast that it was easily missed. It was hardly out of respect, but merely an acknowledgement of the man's presence.

The man plucked at his moustache, his perfectly groomed hair matching his impeccable clothing; the same type of white pants his servants wore, combined with a dark green jacket with a red sash over it, and laden with golden stars and stripes; unmistakably Khushrenada's hand.

"Welcome, welcome," he repeated his granddaughter's words. "Come, let us not stay outside, it is getting cold fast. I'm very grateful that you accepted my must be very busy..."

Heero wondered why Dermail picked out Duo as his main conversation partner, but the Fire mage smoothly hung up a story about him 'being busy' using so many words that no one could make heads or tails out of it, but Dermail nodded enthusiastically as if taking every word for granted while he led the way, taking the group inside the castle, passing a large door studded with iron bonds. One would need an extraordinary battering ram to tackle that particular door. Heero wanted to ask Quatre, Trowa or even Wufei if they knew more about Dermail, but Dorothy walked next to him, her eyes glued to his sollevar.

"You have a wonderful weapon," she said, eyes wide in adoration. She gave him the creeps. "Have you killed many men with it?"

"I don't kill unless it's really necessary," he answered and flinched. He had just admitted to killing, but nobody turned around or was shocked to hear it; Relena was fortunately involved in the ongoing conversation so she didn't hear him.

"So you have killed," Dorothy said breathlessly. "Tell me -- how did it feel? How does it feel to bring justice?"

"It feels sick," he snapped at her, but the girl wasn't deterred by his answer. If he wasn't mistaken, she even reached to touch the sollevar...and then he bumped into Trowa. Everybody had come to a standstill in front of a double door which was opened by servants, revealing a large dining room. Dermail invited them all cordially inside, and the servants flooded the room as soon as they took place at the table, set with the most beautiful silk and lace linens Heero had ever seen.

Relena touched the embroidered napkins -- who would embroider napkins of all things? -- and her fingers traced the intricate patterns woven into the lace. She felt out of place with her simple light brown dress, and stole a quick glance at Dorothy's dress with the black lace layers. Dermail's granddaughter sat next to the man at the head of the table, which was large and wide enough to seat a whole army. Every utensil, every plate was made of silver -- a fortune, a gigantic fortune used to eat with. Heero was appalled at the blatant display of all the luxury and felt just as out of place as Relena.

The servants grated on his nerves with their constant bowing, and when one wanted to draw up his chair to the table, he all but snarled at the young man to leave him alone.

"Go back to your work," Dermail said when the servant looked a bit upset. "Have the chefs serve dinner; we have been waiting long enough as it is."

The man bowed again, his face still twisted in horror and after one more look at Heero he quickly left the room, while the other servants arranged the utensils and even some flower decorations in the middle of the table, ignoring the scene.

"I hope you all have worked up an appetite," Dermail spoke, wringing his hands. "You have traveled from afar to Auda country, right?"

"We've been to several places," Duo answered neutrally, leaning a little to the side when a servant placed a silver plate next to him on the table, taking away the lid to reveal a roast meat, perfectly prepared. Other servants put more and more plates on the table, gracefully taking away the covers before retreating into the corners of the room, patiently awaiting new orders.

There was enough to feed a whole army; the best and the freshest ingredients were used for the roasts, a grilled light pink fish and the numerous dishes with vegetables, potatoes and sweet rice. Herbs and spices gave off the most heavenly scents, and Heero didn't know where to start. Dermail looked like a cat that had just been served a bowl of cream; his complacent smile was something that Heero would gladly like to wipe off of his face.

"The world nowadays is at the edge of a new beginning," Dermail said while he helped himself to a large portion of the white meat closest to him. "Orders are changing, new ranks are forming. It's not like it used to be."

"There was nothing wrong with the world to begin with," Relena immediately gave back. Her plate was empty. "No one asked for armies to invade their country, their homeland, and turn their lives upside down."

"Esshava Darlian, there's no need for all of this," Dermail said, talking to her as if addressing a small child. "You wear the b'ker, a shawl around your head to cover your hair. I refuse to let my granddaughter participate in such an outdated tradition that's degrading to women."

"My personality isn't being degraded just by wearing something out of respect for the prevailing traditions," the girl answered. "Traditions and customs are unique; it's the character of the lands."

Dermail snorted. "What's so wrong with one man trying to unite the world, to bring everything under one rule instead of little bits here and there, governments doing what they see fit, rules and regulations that differ from country to country? Do you like chaos that much?"

"There was no chaos in this world until Khushrenada appeared on the scene," Duo joined the conversation. Some of the light pink fish was on his plate, together with some vegetables.

"Your accent..." Dermail looked pensive for a moment as he stirred the food on his plate. "Epyon, right?"

Heero kept a close eye on Duo. Epyon country had been one of the first to be run over by Khushrenada and his army, after the man had 'dismissed' the government of his homeland, Oz country.

"Epyon was ruled by Officials," Duo said. "All wise and reasonable men. No one had complaints about the way they handled things."

One of the servants, an elderly man, stumbled and dropped his tray with empty cups on the floor. The other servants rushed to his side to help him up and take care of the mess before anyone could pay much attention to it.

"It's not about competence," Dermail dismissed the servant and continued the conversation, chewing on a bit of meat. "It's about chaos. With Khushrenada in place, the world will be brought to one, neat order that will benefit us all."

"How, exactly?" was Relena's question.

She had finally helped herself to a little bit of rice, but she barely ate -- even Heero refrained from eating his usual amount. It didn't feel right, especially when the citizens had nothing to eat. This table was a scream of decadence, demonstrating exactly what tyrants would do: take care of themselves first, and condemn the people to poverty. Maybe that was why the others followed Relena's example; it wasn't the food itself, because of what Heero tasted, it was very delicious -- but there was a weird, bitter aftertaste knowing that Dermail had gone to great lengths for this dinner, while starving his own citizens.

"The countries are reduced to one state, one nation, but instead of a fair and just ruler we have a tyrant, a usurper who won't stop until he has every country under control, not to unite them, but to submit them to his will and power."

Dorothy put down her fork and took some time to elaborately dab at her mouth with a napkin.

"Esshouin Khushrenada doesn't deserve this hostility," she said. "Every country has a choice to fight or to surrender." Her eyes shone brightly. "Fight for their honor, for their freedom in a glorious war that will determine people's lives! The outcome will either be submission or domination -- but they have a choice..."

"Nonsense," Duo cut her short, rudely. "What kind of choice is that? Khushrenada doesn't want to listen to reason. He only wants the countries so he can add them to his empire and have them ruled by soulless, will-less, heartless puppets on a string!"

"Khushrenada doesn't win anything by trampling the countries," Relena chimed in. "What purpose does his aggressive expansion serve? The countries had their own governments, traditions, rules and classes -- maybe not to perfection, but people make least there wasn't war anywhere! People long for peace, not for war!"

"War will decide who has the right to live and who not," Dorothy snapped. "Life itself is a fight!"

"Not for people who live in castles and have warm beds and enough food to eat," Quatre commented. It was the first thing he said, and the atmosphere seemed to chill significantly.

A silence fell, but not for long. Dermail started to chuckle behind his own napkin, and Heero expected him to burst out in boisterous laughter, as he took great effort to muffle his sounds.

"Young and heated," the man finally said. "A discussion that brings out the fire in all of you! Come, come, don't let a difference of opinion allow to ruin our nice dinner. Enjoy it, we have much to discuss -- of course, not tonight only. You are all my guests, and Dorothy, I don't allow my guests to be offended in any way. We will exchange our arguments in a polite and mature matter."

"Yes grandfather," the girl answered immediately and showed a large smile that didn't reach her eyes. As the servants bustled about to keep everybody's cup filled, to place new dishes on the table and to take away dirty or empty plates, the atmosphere dropped below zero. Only Dermail didn't seem to be affected by it; he kept talking about nonsensical things, avoiding delicate topics at the moment, and Heero couldn't wait until this horrendous dinner had finished.

Two hours. It had taken them two hours to finish the meal, or at least when Dermail had decided that the servants could clear the table. Everyone had declined politely, but determinedly the desserts and a warm drink that was called 'coffee', claiming to be tired. Heero had felt Dorothy's eyes on him during the dinner, even though he was seated opposite of Duo. He had wanted to feel the mage's eyes on him, but Duo had been occupied with Dermail's talk of Khushrenada and the war. To be honest, Heero was quite hungry -- but he would rather eat nothing than to participate again in such a charade as dinner had been.

He had no idea how late it was, but he wasn't feeling tired at all and wandered through the long hallway of Catalonia Castle. He wasn't exactly admiring the collected art; suits of armor, paintings, weapons that looked like they could fall apart any moment. Standing in front of a statuette of a woman with a vase, he knew he wasn't alone.

"Esshan-dar Yuy," a voice floated towards him. He didn't have trouble recognizing her; she didn't speak as melodious as Relena, and though she tried to make her words sound lightly and sweetly, there was a harsh tone to it that she couldn't hide as well as she thought. Heero wanted to turn away, but out of politeness he stayed where he was, pretending to study the statuette. It was real pretty; the white stone it was carved from was smooth and gave extra texture to the frame of the woman, clad in various robes -- not mage robes, as far as he could tell.

"Real marble," Dorothy said. "Very precious, very beautiful. Do you take an interest in arts and crafts, esshan-dar Yuy?"

"You're mistaken," Heero answered in his own brusque manner. "I'm not to be referred to as such."

"Then as what?" she asked, her lashes batting at him. She had changed -- her dress, as black as the previous one, was low-cut and showed a lot of her chest, but not enough to be offensive. A black, silk shawl was draped around her bare shoulders, the fabric thin enough to show her skin.

"I don't have any rank or power, I'm just a servant," he said. "So esshan will do." For a moment, he thought he saw disappointment flicker in her eyes. It was gone in a flash, and she showed him another smile, though a lot smaller than during the dinner.

"I should really be calling you esshan-dar," she said and tilted her head a little. From this distance, he could see her eyebrows were quite typical, they almost seemed forked. It gave her an even more dramatic look. "You don't know what you are, do you?"

"I'm a servant, a laborer who worked on a farm," Heero answered in a deadpan tone. This time, she barked a short laugh; it echoed hollowly in the hallway.

"A servant," she repeated and brought up her gloved hand, putting it on her cheek as if she had been shocked to hear his answer. "No, no, esshan-dar, you're as far from being a servant as I am from being a nice country girl."

"I don't know what you mean," Heero said cautiously.

Her smile widened, but just a little. "Follow me."

He frowned at her, but did as he was told; he followed the girl down the hallway, around the corner, until they entered another wing. She stayed a few steps ahead of him, her footsteps muffled by the thick carpets on the stone floor. It was cold in the castle, the bricks isolating all the warmth from outside, and due to the high ceilings and small open windows, draft had free reign. He shivered when a particularly cold gust of wind blew past his shoulders.

"Where are we going to?"

"We're already there," she said and halted, turning around to gaze at him. Her smile was still in place, but it was just the corners of her lips curling; her eyes held the same calculating look he had seen earlier. "Did you know that our family possesses the last piece of what's left from the era when the Five lived, the legendary warriors who founded Sanq and battled to the death to protect it?"

"I didn't," he said. "I don't know much about history, Sanq, or those warriors."

She tsk-ed at him and made a gesture with her arm, pointing at a large tapestry hanging on the wall. Its width and height were impressive; if it were to be put on the floor, Heero was sure it could cover easily the town square in Romefeller country. The colors were faded due to old age, and the scenery suggested a battle between five people on the left side and an ominously large, oncoming army on the right. A white city in the background was visible, dark clouds looming over it. The five on the left bore unmistakable resemblances to the statues Heero had seen before, in both Romefeller country and here in Auda country.

Dorothy kept a close eye on him as to gauge his reaction. The clothing and armor on the people were outdated, but recognizable. Two held mages' staffs, one a short sword, and one a bow with a quiver, and the one, in front of them all...

"That's you," she said. "The brave warrior in the front. The one dealing the first strike."

Heero took a closer look to humor her, but suddenly all the blood drained from his face. The warrior clearly held a sollevar raised above his head, exactly the same weapon as his.

"A legendary warrior with a legendary weapon," she chirped, coming to stand next to him. "He doesn't need the protection of a shield, or the force of a broadsword to fight with, only a sollevar to keep the people from as much as touching him."

"A coincidence," Heero grumbled. He couldn't believe that a smith from his hometown had given him a legendary weapon -- it was just a coincidence. Maybe Howard had seen it in a history book and had tried to model it after the original sollevar...

"Mankind has always known war," Dorothy said. Her voice had sunk a few octaves. "It's the way people deal with life -- to fight. Fight for their freedom, for their right to live, for their children...humans will always fight. War is inevitable, be it because of a warmonger like Khushrenada, or any other man or woman jumping up on the barricades to cry out for revenge, for victory. Who knows what's going on in the heart of mankind? There's only one thing to be sure of -- death and destruction is in everyone's character."

"What has all that to do with this tapestry?" Heero interrupted her. He refused to look straight at the girl; he tried to discern more of the faces of the warriors, to see if it was Duo, or maybe even Quatre...

"Relena was right, you know," she said. He turned his head to her now; this was the first time he heard her so informally address Relena. "People long for peace. The majority does. Fighting is in mankind's nature -- but so is the need and longing for peace."

"That can't be. You can't wage war and long for peace at the same time."

"Not everyone gives in to their desire to fight." Dorothy looked at the tapestry herself, her smile a little fond. "I love this scenery. These Five are legendary. They united their own countries -- Oz, Epyon, Maganac, Nataku and Romefeller -- and founded the Kingdom of Sanq. The world had been soaked in blood, there was no organization, no control, only chaos." She licked her lips as if it excited her to talk about it. "Can you imagine, these brave people defying war and chaos to make a pact, to unite their countries, to promise to each other to abstain from fighting and only strive for peace?"

"If they truly did so, I can only commend them," Heero said dryly. He really didn't share Dorothy's passion, and was searching for her ulterior motives. Duo had hinted earlier at...certain things that had to do with him as well, asking him those questions, and Heero had noticed himself that some things weren't exactly...well, normal. The fact that he barely tired; that he was far stronger than anyone else; that he needed more food than usual to sustain himself. But still...a warrior?

Her expression was hard to describe, and she turned her attention towards the tapestry again.

"The Kingdom of Sanq was established to commemorate their pact," she finally continued. "It was going to symbolize hope and sanctuary, build upon the foundations of peace, equality and justice. Anyone, from farmer to criminal to king to servant, would be welcomed in Sanq and would be equal in terms of law and justice. No one would ever have to be afraid..."

"Sounds like a far-fetched utopia to me," Heero said. He had heard Relena using that name, and Dorothy snorted.

"Utopia? Paradise? A disaster! A farmer equal to a king? Disarmament in the whole world?" She flicked a few strands of long, blond hair over her shoulder and gazed at the tapestry as if she wanted to destroy it with the sheer look in her eyes, despite looking at it so fondly earlier. "It was a dream, a fantasy that could never be upheld -- though, I have to admit, it held up longer than I thought."

"How do you know all of this?"

"I studied it," she made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "There aren't many documents left, and certainly their first treaty hasn't survived the ages. Maybe they just agreed orally, and didn't know how to write it all down."

Heero ignored the jab, not taking the bait. His jaw tightened as he also stared at the tapestry. The mage with the fire orb in his hand had a staff just like Duo's with that typical centerpiece...he couldn't remember at the moment how Quatre's staff was shaped, though.

"They got their precious peace," Dorothy said. One of the black roses on the band in her hair was sagging. "For centuries, the world was one, smooth place to live in; until mankind's primal instinct couldn't be suppressed any longer. Sanq was attacked, and the warriors went under with their dream."

"Why would people attack the symbol of hope?" Heero asked. "Isn't hope something..." he hesitated to use the word 'beautiful', "...that lasts us forever, the last thing to hold onto, no matter what the situation?"

"Very deep," Dorothy answered, and she looked at him with new-found admiration. "You're a very surprising man, esshan-dar Yuy. I don't know the answer to that, though -- who knows, maybe people were insane, or they thought that with tearing down the white walls of the Kingdom they could demonstrate that even hope can be destroyed. In any case, Sanq didn't have any defenses but the five warriors, who couldn't manage to fend off the armies."

"Two mages couldn't fend off...?"

She plucked at the sagging rose, some petals falling over her shoulder. "Is there any way to tell how it really happened? I wish I was there to witness the fight, to see the battle first-hand. I don't know a thing about the strength of the mages -- they could have been weak, they could have been killed first so as to prevent from being a threat. Powerful or not, the sheer number of people fighting against them was far too much to take on."

"So you think I...we are those warriors again?" Heero was getting fed up with the girl; he wanted her to get to the point. Legends upon legends was nothing he was interested in, and without solid proof, he wouldn't believe it anyway.

"Yes, I think you are," Dorothy replied breathlessly. "Fate, the Twelve, an unknown divine entity or whoever, has made it so that these five warriors exist again in this world -- with only one reason."

"Which is?"

She looked at him, dumbfounded. "To resurrect Sanq, of course!"

"That's enough of legends for one night," Heero snapped. "You're not even sure about all of this."

She tapped at the fighter in front of the others on the tapestry. "I'm sure that this is you," she said. "I don't know how and why, but the dorshin has brought everyone together, gathering the Five again to resurrect Sanq, the symbol of hope and peace for the people to go to, to escape from Khushrenada's reign."

"Duo," Heero said. "His name is Duo."

"Duo," she repeated, a ghost of a smile lingering on her face. "Think about it, esshan-dar Yuy," her voice was nothing but confident, "a Fire mage, a Nature mage, a Nataku warrior and an archer that can hit something from a mile away. Legendary in their own sort and you're the fifth one -- the warrior in the front, who will deal the first blow."

"Enough." Heero tore his eyes away from the tapestry. "I'm going to bed."

"It's not always brute strength," Dorothy suddenly said, taking a step into his direction as to follow him. "It's about intimidation, imagination, manipulation. The glory of war will rule all over the world!"

"There's nothing glorious about war," Heero shot back.

"True warriors fight for the war they believe in."

"I believe in peace," he immediately rebuked.

"Peace! Like Noventa, like Peacecraft? Not everyone cares equally for peace! Why else did the Kingdom go under? Fighting is the answer!"

"That's easy for you to say," Heero said, and turned away from her. "You're here, safe in a castle, high and dry, in your dress wandering through hallways and gawking at ancient tapestries from ages no one can verify. You're not out there, where you can die any moment, or see people burn to their death with nothing you can do about it!"

"Spoken like a true warrior," she said.

"You're insane," Heero replied and walked away. His head seemed to burst from all the information, and he was sure he overlooked something -- something Dorothy had said and what was probably important, but he couldn't recall it right now. He was annoyed, and it even annoyed him more that she had been toying with him -- those smug smiles, that complacent, calculating look in her eyes...whatever Dorothy Catalonia was up to, he didn't want to have any part of it.

He decided to retreat to his room; it was late after all, and though no one of the servants looked at him in passing, he thought they turned around to stare at his back whenever he went by. They probably knew where his room was; he hadn't bothered to ask before. After addressing one with a particular plethora of golden stars and stripes on his uniform, as if he was the Dermail under the servants, he learned that he needed to go into the north wing, where the guest rooms were located. He politely declined the offer to be accompanied and stomped off, wanting to be left alone.

The hallway to the north wing was long, and torches were far in between. The small, arched windows didn't allow for the moonlight to shine through, and when Heero by coincidence looked out of one, he saw someone standing in the garden. It was a very small garden, probably only used for herbs to grow; it had a statue and a water basin, nestled in between two flower beds. Despite the faint moonlight, he didn't have any difficulties recognizing the person in the garden -- though he had expected Quatre to be outside, not Duo. It took him only a minute to find a small wooden door hidden behind another tapestry to gain access to the garden.

"You can't sleep?" Duo asked.

"Neither can you?" Heero replied.

He closed the door behind him; as far as he could see, this was the only entrance to the little garden, and he knew exactly why. Heavy scents of bread, meat and other food hung in the air; the kitchen was very close. It confirmed his earlier thought that this was mostly an herb garden, and whoever did the maintenance was a very meticulous person -- every bed had precisely the same dimensions.

Heero wondered briefly why he could see Duo so well despite the modest amount of moonlight. It was like he could fill in his silhouette and see him standing in front of him as if in broad daylight. The mage held his hands in front of him, fingers laced together. It was the first time they were together, alone, since the sudden kiss next to Seditch' house.



"No, you first."

"Ah no, you go first."

Heero brought up his hand into his hair, tousling it even more. He didn't know what to say. I liked kissing you, and now I would like some more? He had never given romantic interest much thought. Marrying Relena was out of the question simply because of the social difference between them -- that and he didn't care for her that way. Her husband was going to be personally approved by him, though; the girl would not end up with a deadbeat, good-for-nothing jerk as long as it was up to him. Heero had never asked himself if he had feelings for either boys or girls -- he just assumed that he would know if he met the right one, regardless of gender. How he ever was supposed to meet the right one when he was only staying on the farm working all day long, was another question.

"I'm sorry if I hurt you," he blurted out. From all the things visible, Duo's eyes weren't, regrettably.

A short laughter was all he got in return.

"Why are you laughing?"

"You didn't hurt me. I was just...thinking you were going to say something entirely different."

"Like what?"

"Like what your heart wants to say," Duo said. He moved forward. The hem of his robes floated behind him, just above the ground. He suddenly stretched out his hand. Heero looked at him quizzically, but returned the gesture. Their hands entwined, Duo turned his palm upwards.

"So warm," he said. "So full of much life."

"What do you mean?"

Duo smiled, baring his teeth. "You're very strong, but you know that already."

"Does that have something to do with what you asked me in the city?"

"Yes, it does."

"I never wondered why..."



"Not now."

"I don't get..."

He was cut off. Duo was kissing him. This time it felt much gentler and better than their first, fierce kiss. Duo brushed his lips, which felt disappointing to Heero. His touch was like fire -- already burning, and he wanted to warm himself, dive into the flames...he didn't mind if he got burned -- he could only think of the warmth. His hand rose, touching Duo's neck and with every intention to bring his head closer. Duo leaned into him, turning his head away at the last moment, and his lips brushed his cheeks.

"We know the entrance to the dungeons," he whispered, breathing against Heero's ear. "Be at the east gate in two hours."

"Tonight?" He kept his voice low. They couldn't be overheard in this small garden, but there were some servants still up and around. Duo nodded, nuzzling Heero's neck. A hand crept along his sides, and Heero's hand slipped into Duo's hair, the thick, chestnut strands framing his face, before being captured in the massive braid.

"Are you one of the warriors?"

Duo seemed to stiffen. Heero tightened his grip, but created a little room by tilting his head and looking straight at Duo.

"I'm not sure about myself," he answered. "But I think you are."


A small smile. "We don't have much time left."

With a swift movement, Duo freed himself from Heero's embrace and turned around to leave. It wouldn't be of any use to holler after him, and he watched him move away.

"Be there in time," was all the mage said. "We have a girl to save."

Rather cranky, Heero made sure that he was on time, if only to ask Duo what game he was playing. He couldn't talk to him though, as the mage was standing next to the others and Heero didn't feel like involving them in the matter. He could still feel Duo's touch burning, the soft nuzzling, it felt like his neck was tingling with...something he didn't want to name.

He shot the mage a rather murderous look nonetheless, but Duo returned an awfully neutral look, leaving Relena to look dumbfounded from one to the other. Heero hadn't expected Relena to be here anyway, and certainly not with Vayeate and Mercurius by her side. The hoofs of the horses were wrapped in thick cloth to muffle their sounds; their backs were saddled, some packs and other luggage tied behind the large saddles. The east gate was for servants only; no one was guarding this.

"The dungeons are just a little east from here," Duo spoke, voice low. "We could reach them from inside the castle, but there are too many servants around, and Trowa found the lower floors to be guarded quite heavily. Hilde has made us a sketch; there's a sewer entrance we can use, which has a connection to the dungeons."

Wufei had thrown a cloak around his conspicuous armor, and when he shifted a little, he revealed a long sword hanging from his hip. It was the first time Heero saw him actually carrying a weapon -- much longer than the warrior on the tapestry...he shook his head forcefully, which earned him a deep frown from Wufei. He needed to put that legend talk out of his head -- his whole conversation with Dorothy Catalonia didn't make any sense.

"Let's go," Duo said and opened the gate, hinges perfectly oiled. How many servants would pass through here each and every day? The two mages went first, followed by Wufei and Trowa, then Heero and Relena. He wanted to ask her what she was doing here with them, but it seemed better of course not to talk right now; she led the two horses who, for once, followed without any problem.

It took them only ten minutes to arrive at an iron gate overgrown with wild plants; Heero would have overlooked it if Duo didn't stand still, consulting a small paper that he put away in his sleeve when the others were looking.

Quatre cocked his head. "Is this really the only entrance, Duo? It's such a shame to remove the plants. These are quite rare, you know."

"Can't you harvest them and use them for one of your potions?"

He shook his head, regrettably. "No, they don't have any healing or restoring powers. It's just...a shame to remove them."

"If you please, Quatre," Duo said, a little impatience reflecting in his voice.

The other mage nodded and a faint, light blue glow enveloped his hands and with a small gesture, the plants just...dissolved. A few leaves fell down, but the iron gate was freed and Duo reached for the bars, yanking at them.

"Ah! I can't move them!"

"Let me try it," Heero demanded. The others let him pass, and he had no trouble at all bending the bars. Relena gasped loudly, quickly clamping her hand over her mouth, but no one else seemed to be much surprised by his strength. Heero wormed himself through the gate, his sollevar firmly in hand. Wufei followed him, and then Trowa, Quatre and Duo closed the line. When Relena moved to come with them, both mages halted and turned towards her.

"Princess, you wait outside," Duo said, friendly and his voice resonating as usual, but his tone clearly told her not to argue about it.

"I want to help," Relena insisted.

"We don't know what's inside that dungeon," Heero said. "You stay outside with Vayeate and Mercurius."

"There's nothing I can do here," she whispered angrily. "I won't allow you to face all that danger by yourself!"

"Relena," Heero shook his head. "You can't just..."

"Your friend is going to need all the help she can get once we free her," Quatre said, voice neutral and calm. "Without a doubt, Khushrenada will have had her exposed to his...activities, and she'll need to cope with what happened."

"You're the only one who can help her," Duo agreed.

Relena was still hesitating, and she even took another step forward as if she wanted to follow them after all. It took a few precious minutes before she nodded and backed out, her hands gripping the reins of both horses.

"Just a moment," Duo said. "Quatre?"

"But of course," he answered and stepped forward. Holding up his hands which turned an icy blue and white, he muttered a spell and the air seemed to freeze, especially around Relena. Wind surrounded her, cocooning her until some kind of transparent shell formed around her.

"What are you doing?" she asked curiously, her eyes shifting a little nervously.

"We nature mages call this an 'embrace'," Quatre said, and he smiled when he was done. "Look at it as some kind of...force field, a protective screen. No one will be able to harm you with any weapon until the effect wears off."

"Really?" she asked and poked at it, finger stabbing into the shell. Immediately, Quatre winced.

"Please Princess, don't touch it unless you really need to," he said. "I can feel anything touching the embrace, so if anyone tries to attack you, I'll know immediately."

She nodded. "All right, I'll wait outside, but you better be careful."

"The embrace isn't making you invisible," Duo commented, "or invincible. You have to be careful yourself -- if you see anyone approaching or walking guard or whatever, take the horses with you and hide. We will always find you."

Relena nodded again, lips pursed in a determined grimace. After one look at Heero she finally turned around, stepping a little to the side. The embrace was faintly visible around her. As soon as she had left, Quatre turned towards the group and started muttering again.

"What is he doing?" Heero asked.

"He's giving us an embrace as well," Trowa explained. Heero had all but forgotten about the archer; it was almost startling hearing him speak. "It's a protective shell, just like Relena's. It also temporarily boosts our abilities -- very handy, but it drains a lot out of Quatre."

It wasn't as thick or complex as Relena's embrace and Heero didn't feel any different, but he assumed it would suffice. He barely refrained from poking at the strange force field around him. Wufei looked impatient, whereas Trowa calmly took his bow and a few arrows, just in case.

"Bad light here," Duo said out loud and with a small gesture of his hand an orb of energy appeared, its light surrounding the group. "Now we can at least see where we're going."

Wufei snorted but took the lead, venturing further into the dungeon without allowing Heero to go in front. There wasn't much to see in the dungeon but rubble, broken tiles, shards of broken pottery, and lots of cobwebs. Sometimes they had to climb a few steps down, and the torches mounted on the wall lit the very moment Duo passed them. Wufei, Trowa and Heero opened some chests and large boxes scattered everywhere, but they held nothing but burlap sacks, some rusty swords and axes or insects. They also opened some doors, searching for Sylvia Noventa, but she wasn't in any of the rooms -- cells, with rusted shackles and dried blood on them. The stench was horrible.

Heero was getting frustrated. It seemed they were walking down here for hours now, and no sign of the girl whatsoever. No sign of someone ever having been down here in a long time anyway.

A large wooden door gave access to a large, square room. The door had oiled hinges, and some of the metal bands holding the wood together sported brand new nails. Quatre took a few steps down and frowned, concentration visible on his face. Duo followed him to the center of the room -- the floor was neatly swept here, not a single shard of pottery or dust soiling the neat environment. Even the walls were smoothly plastered.

"There's no one down here," Duo said, and was startled by the echo of his own voice. "I guess Hilde was wrong," he continued, lowering his voice.

"Something stinks here, that's for sure." Trowa wore an unhappy expression. His arrow went to his bow, tightening the string. "Something very close."

"Where?" Heero didn't smell a thing. The group moved into a lineup that almost felt natural; the mages in the back, behind Wufei and Heero, and Trowa with his bow behind the mages. His bow was long-range; he tightened the string some more while Wufei drew his sword. Heero held such a strong grip on his sollevar that his knuckles turned white.

"North," Trowa spoke, voice grim. He had barely finished his sentence when the door they were facing opened. The silence was breached by the loud noises of a pulley mechanism, hoisting up the door extremely slowly. Heero's eyes went wide. Some of the...whatever creatures they were behind the door were already trying to get through, and large, hairy paws with extremely sharp claws were visible -- and now the snarling and vicious growling of the beasts were audible as well. By the Twelve!

Wufei moved his hand, lifting up the sword as if saluting the oncoming enemy. Heero shivered and started to sweat at the same time -- Quatre on his left had summoned some kind of cold spell, lowering the temperature on his side, and Duo on his right had summoned a fire spell, raising the temperature on his other side. This was pretty awkward, and he gritted his teeth in concentration. I want to protect Duo. And the others of course, but Duo came first. A train of thought he didn't have time to explore right now. The sollevar pointed towards the door. He would be the first to kill any of those beasts.

"Spitting wrouven," Trowa suddenly said. "Watch out for their spit! It's poisonous!" One of the first animals to slip past the door immediately spat as if to demonstrate, and a large puddle ended up on the floor close to Heero's right foot. A revolting stench rose from the spit, and he made a sound of disgust.

"Silence!" Duo yelled. "Here they come!"

The door all but burst open, and a wave of spitting wrouven poured in, gnarling, howling, teeth bared in an all-destroying urge to kill. Heero had never seen such ugly animals before. No, these weren't animals, these were beasts -- brainless beasts bred to destroy, with their beaks filled with poorly fitting razor sharp teeth, and an overwhelming stench of filth accompanied them.

He was thankful for Quatre's magical embrace; he was sure that some of the spit would have hit him and burned away his flesh if it hadn't been for the embrace surrounding him. Trowa hit wrouven after wrouven with his arrows, the beasts going down with a high-pitched yelp. Fire scorched them immediately to the bone, adding the disgusting stench of burning flesh to the heavy smell. Huge chunks of ice impaled them, ripping their intestines apart.

Wufei's sword and Heero's sollevar swung and hit, striking beast after beast, the high-pitched yelping and guttural growling deafening. There were so many of them! Heero stabbed with the sollevar, skewering a wrouven lunging for him. From the corner of his eye he noticed Wufei's armor covered with bad spots -- Quatre's embrace was strong, but not infallible and the magic was wearing off. Heero had managed to stay away from any spit, though he was stepping in the puddles as he moved -- it was eating away his boots, but he couldn't afford to stand still or to carefully avoid anything on the floor. His weapon was as pristine as ever, as was Duo -- the fire mage whirled around the room without the littlest drop of spit on him, covered to his elbows with liquid, living, dancing fire, the heat too intense for anyone to bear. He was a dancing flame himself, burning everyone who touched him, scorching anyone who came close to him, frying anyone who turned towards him.

He thought that they were finally holding the upper hand when suddenly Quatre collapsed, crying out weakly as he fell to his knees, the magical embrace dissolving.

"The embrace!" He wheezed. "Relena...she's in danger!"

Another wrouven lunged for Heero, but was dead before he could move, the sollevar splitting the animal right open. Heero growled, hearing Quatre's voice over the noise -- Relena was in danger, and he wasn't there to protect her! Turning around, he reached for Quatre to help him get up, but Wufei bat his hand away as Quatre got up himself, a little trembling.

"You stay here," Wufei said. "I will take care of it!"

"No," Heero said angrily, "Relena is my responsibility!"

"You have to stay here," Wufei said, and his dark eyes narrowed, as if he wanted to fight Heero over it.

"Let him go!" Duo yelled just before unlashing another wave of large fireballs, fending off more of the despicable beasts. Heero wanted to disagree, and opened his mouth already to yell back, but Wufei had taken Duo's words as his excuse to leave and was already halfway across the room, towards the door. Gritting his teeth, Heero swung his sollevar again and chose to stand next to Quatre, who had barely collected himself. Arrow after arrow flew through the air, waves of fire thickening the atmosphere; Heero's lungs struggled for fresh air, to breathe without feeling smothered...

"Hold on!" he managed to cry out. "These are the last of them!" A howling noise close to his ear startled him, and a wrouven missed his ear by just a millimeter, teeth flashing wildly. An arrow protruded from its mouth, gurgling with blood.

"Thank the Twelve," Quatre muttered. He pulled his robes around him a little, face pale and obviously tired. His blond hair was plastered flatly in his face, another testament to the strength that had been sapped. His eyes searched out Duo, who was standing as straight as a ruler, eyes darting through the room.

"Was that really the last of them?" He sounded gruff.

The only sound was Trowa stepping forward. "I'm not sure," he said, voice nothing but a whisper. "It still smells."

The floor of the room was covered with carcasses, the revolting spit lying everywhere, blood and guts exposed to the air. Heero wanted to throw up if it weren't for his throat feeling as if he was being choked. He would gladly call upon any deity if he just could get out of here. His fingers tightened around the sollevar again, as if he could derive strength from the weapon... and he knew he needed the very last ounce of his strength when the door on the west side opened, revealing a fresh pack of spitting wrouven, hissing and growling and snarling with the same zeal as their predecessors.

A curse escaped Duo so loudly that it took Heero by surprise; the Fire mage stared at the oncoming wave, curling the fingers of his hands. Quatre looked pale, about to keel over any moment. Trowa was standing next to him. Without Wufei, they were short one powerful warrior, but if Relena truly had been in danger, they couldn't have abandoned her, not now, not ever... Heero shot Duo a look, as the others had obviously listened to his orders before.

"Too many!" he pointed out unnecessarily.

Duo didn't answer. His hands, covered in liquid fire again, slowly grabbed his staff, curling around the long shaft and tilting it a little. Heero didn't understand -- what was he doing? The wrouven were just a little distance away -- they had to fight!


It was Trowa who suddenly pushed Heero to the ground, elbowing him in the back.

"Take cover for the dortang!"

He couldn't even protest -- the archer was far stronger than Heero had expected, and he fell to the floor, his knees landing in a puddle of animal blood. Turning his head around, he was just in time to see Duo raise his staff, hands glowing, the orb of the staff glowing, and an ominous dark red light flashed, just once. The next moment, a thundering sound echoed through the room, ripping the wrouven to pieces. The scorching heat of the explosion blackened the walls, blowing the doors out of their hinges and destroyed stone, wood and metal. Chunks of flesh rained down on them, blood spattering, sickening, and this time Heero threw up. There was no one paying attention to him anyway -- Duo stood in the middle of the room, leaning on his staff and taking deep breaths, while Trowa was shielding Quatre, both on the ground, hair and clothes covered with blood and bones.

The sound of the blast was still ringing in his ears as he got up, mimicking Duo and leaning on his weapon as well. The small, light shaft of the sollevar didn't bend one bit despite his weight, but Heero was too preoccupied to notice it. He looked around the battlefield at the carnage. These were animals, monstrous beasts, not humans, but the sight of all the blood and guts wasn't any less horrifying. It was sickening, and if he hadn't thrown up already, he felt like he was going to do it again. One dead wrouven, killed by one of Trowa's arrows, rested close to his feet, lips curled up in a death defying snarl. He bent his knees, trying to get a closer look...

"Don't touch them," Duo said brusquely, followed by a cough. Trowa knelt down next to another animal that had miraculously survived the dortang intact, but dead. Heero figured that Trowa, being an archer and a hunter, was probably interested in its fur -- but he studied the animal silently, eyes gazing upon the carcass.

Heero straightening himself, careful not to touch anything, but his boots were soaked with blood and spit. It felt like he was wading around barefoot through a very thick kind of jelly, and he didn't want to think about what caused that feeling. He shivered. Duo didn't look as pristine as before; a dark look had settled into his eyes and his face looked a little pale, just like Quatre's. Magic, and especially such an outburst as the dortang, took a great toll on one's body, and they still hadn't found Sylvia Noventa. They needed to hurry up, before both mages were too exhausted.

"What about Relena?" he asked.

"She's fine," Quatre breathed, brushing away a few strands out of his face. His eyes were half-lidded and he was swaying on his feet no matter how hard he tried to stay upright. He probably needed days to regain his strength from summoning two embraces and wielding his own magic. Duo's cheeks were pinkish, and his braid hang half loose; he did, however, keep a close eye on Quatre.

"The embrace is still working, if that's what you mean. Whatever danger there was, Wufei certainly must have disposed of it. If something happened to Relena and the embrace was ruptured, I would have known."

"What if she's unconscious, or forced to stay in one place, not touching the embrace?"

"Calm down Heero, I would have known," Quatre repeated. "She's not unconscious."

"We go on," Duo said before Heero could press Quatre for more answers. The Ice mage flashed Heero an apologetic smile, but Trowa frowned outright at him when he fell in line with Quatre, staying close to his side.

Heero muttered something inaudible under his breath. He didn't like it at all that Wufei had saved Relena. He didn't want it to bother him, but it was already nagging at the back of his mind. It felt like he had broken his promise to Darlian, and with a sour look on his face, he went to the head of the group. The warrior in the front.

Even though he looked tired, Duo still kept a firm pace, his feet crushing slivers of stone beneath them. Heero could easily keep up with him and studied the mage's profile.

"You never told me you could do that Detonation thing as well," he said. Duo snorted.

"I told you that every mage has a dortang, a trademark, his or her magical signature, but that doesn't mean they have any exclusivity to them."

"Oh," was all that he could answer. Silence fell and it was pretty clear that Duo wasn't in the mood for talking so Heero took the lead, walking in front of the rest, his eyes sweeping the area. To his surprise, Quatre caught up with him.

"Duo taught Merquise the technique," Quatre explained. "He feels guilty about it enough already, though it's a fairly common technique. Every Fire mage knows how to perform a Detonation, but not every mage is strong enough to do it. Duo and Zechs are the only ones who are consistently...destructive with their Detonation."

"I didn't know that," Heero said, appalled.

"With people's general fear of magic," Quatre heaved a loud sigh, "we keep too much information to ourselves. I would love to teach people about magic, that it can be beautiful and wonderful, and such an amazing addition to life in general. I would love to take away that fear, but the more people know about magic, the more they fea--"

"Silence," Duo said again.

On closer inspection, the door to the west led to a confined room with nothing but hay on the floor, drenched with feces and something that passed for food -- bones and skulls, and chunks of flesh that looked disturbingly human. Heero was glad Relena had waited outside after all.

For a moment he feared Sylvia had maybe been served as dinner, and from the look on Duo's face, the Fire mage thought the same. It was hard to draw any conclusion from these few bones alone, so they decided to continue. Behind the door to the north, another long hallway stretched out in front of them. As they walked down the hallway, Heero was itching to ask where the animals had come from, besides from the room to the west, and who exactly had put them there. Judging from the solemn looks on everyone's faces, no one was in the mood to talk, and he refrained from asking out loud. It didn't take long to stumble upon another room, smaller than the previous one, and Heero walked briskly in front to check for any danger.

"Wait! If you pass that magic barrier, no one knows what's going to happen!"

"Magic barrier?" Heero froze on the spot. He couldn't see any barrier.

Quatre lifted up his hands, his staff tingling, and the temperature was lowered considerably. A faint, purplish barrier suddenly showed up, the ice crystals revealing the invisible magic force to the naked eye. He whistled as soon as he finished showing Heero.

"That's not good."


Duo scowled. "Death magic. Methinks someone in the Castle has been dabbling too much in forbidden books and knowledge."

Heero felt a chill running down his spine, and it wasn't because of Quatre's magic. He took in a deep gust of breath, almost shakily. Death magic was forbidden, and access to the little knowledge in existence was severely restricted. There were no active Death mages in this world -- at least, he very much hoped so -- and anyone caught in the act practicing this particular stream of magic would be incarcerated, if not executed.

"Dorothy?" he asked.

Duo shrugged. "If we want to find Sylvia, I'm sure she must be behind the barrier," he said. "Anyone who takes this much trouble to protect a run-down dungeon has something, or better said, someone to hide. If the potential rescuer hasn't been turned to wrouven dinner, he would certainly die from this little thing here. Whoever constructed this...he or she must have at least basic knowledge of Death magic."

"Can you dissolve it?" Quatre asked.

Duo snorted. "It's not that difficult."


"Yes, I know."

Heero looked at Duo who simply stuck his hands into the barrier, and wondered why a Fire mage could deal with Death magic as well and certainly wasn't afraid of it. He watched Duo work, as if he was knitting -- or rather, pulling some threads out and back in again, short but slender fingers, and before he knew it, pain exploded in his head, knocking him unconscious and he fell to the ground.

"Heero, wake up. Wake up, Heero."


He blinked, pain flooding immediately back to him. His head pounded, and his hand felt like it was broken -- it was hard to move. He tried to stretch his fingers -- he was still holding the sollevar. It was dark around him, and an almost familiar stench hit his nose; apparently, he was still in the dungeon. It wasn't someone he expected to speak to him right here, however.

"Relena...what are you doing here?"

The girl stood right in front of him, though she didn't do anything to help him. She smiled, looking perfectly all right.

"Get up, Heero. We have work to do. Please, get up."

Forcing himself to get up, Heero got back on his feet, the sollevar scraping over the floor when he straightened himself. Taking the weapon into his other hand, he stared at the girl. Relena simply continued to smile, disarming as always, but something was off. Where were the others?

"They're not here," she simply said, shocking him. Since when did he voice his thoughts out loud? "Heero, we have to go."

"Go where?"

"Go away from here," she said and looked at him strangely. "It's not safe here, Heero. You should know that."

"We wait for the others to arrive," Heero said. "How did you manage to get down here?"

"Don't be silly, Heero, I just followed the hallway until I found you. Come, let's get out of here," Relena pleaded.

"We wait for the others," he repeated stubbornly.

"The Fire mage destroyed everything behind us. We can turn back, now, before it's too late."


Duo and his powerful dortang; the Detonation. Heero cocked his head. He didn't...there was still something off, and it was coming from Relena.

"Too late for what?"

"Too late to save yourself," a male voice boomed and Heero whirled around, immediately pointing the sollevar into the direction the voice had come from. A tall man lifted up his hands defensively.

"No need to point that at me," he said. "I mean no harm."

"Heero, this man saved me," Relena said chidingly. "He helped me fight off some bandits outside, where I was waiting for you."

"What about Quatre's embrace?" Heero asked. Something flickered over Relena's face; it went away so fast that he wondered if he had even seen it in the first place.

"It wasn't strong enough," she said.

"Really? I thought it would be strong enough to withstand anything."

"No, it wasn't," she repeated. "Let's go, Heero. It's scary down here."

"Who are you?" Heero ignored Relena and glared at the man. The stranger was taller than him, and though he didn't carry a visible weapon, Heero regarded him as dangerous. The man didn't have an ounce of fat on him, his body wiry as far as it wasn't covered by his dark cloak, and his face wasn't exactly friendly -- stern and hollow. His eyes were hard to read, but they didn't let go of Heero. Calculating, but in a different way than Dorothy Catalonia. This man was calculating his chances of defeating him in a fight, while Dorothy had tried to calculate how she could manipulate him. The grip on his sollevar tightened.

"My name is Trent," the man spoke. "I'm a farmer, and I was passing by when I saw the young lady being attacked."

"It's late at night," Heero objected. The sollevar didn't waver. If the man felt intimidated by the weapon, he didn't show it.

"It's early in the morning," Trent said, a smirk curling his lips. "I travel from afar. Iria country has a market today. I usually don't travel this early, and I usually mind my own business, but I couldn't stand by and watch what was happening to this girl."

"What happened to Wufei?" he barked.

"He fought bravely," Trent answered, "but even a noble fighter like him couldn't withstand all those enemies, so I decided to help him out."

"Come on, Heero," Relena said again. "We owe esshan Trent our gratitude, not our disrespect or distrust. We better leave this place."

"Or else what?"

"Nothing." Relena beamed at him. "Are you afraid of something, Heero? We better leave here."

"You've repeated that often enough," Heero interrupted her. "We leave here, but not until we have found the others. And what about Sylvia? Have you forgotten about the girl?"

"She's not here," Trent was quick to answer. "Esshouin Khushrenada doesn't want the girl to be harmed."

Heero almost tripped, and the sollevar did waver -- it almost cut through the man's cloak. Narrowing his eyes, he straightened himself again.

"What did you say?"

"He wants Sylvia close to him," Relena said, "so he can keep an eye on her. He wants to take care of her. It's not that bad, Heero. He can take care of us. Wouldn't that be nice? We would never have to run again, never be afraid again..."

"I'm not afraid," Heero answered. Something was terribly wrong here, and that frightened him, despite his words. Was Relena under some kind of spell? "Giving into Khushrenada's threats would make you his pawn. You have never been a pawn, Relena!"

"What's wrong with being a pawn, if that means you're still alive?" She even had the gall to bat her eyelashes at him, smiling coyly.

"The Relena I know never quits, never gives up, no matter how difficult things might have become."

Relena gave him a soft smile. "Sometimes you just know when it's not worth fighting anymore, Heero."

"You should listen to her, san'durin," Trent joined the conversation and he tried to sound suave, but he failed horribly. It sounded like someone was chiseling and grinding bones together. "I'm in Khushrenada's service myself. His army welcomes every soldier, and he would be ecstatic to welcome especially such a good fighter like you."

"I knew it," Heero hissed and lifted the sollevar so it touched Trent's chin, the sharp trident tip denting his skin. The man was clad in dark red robes...a mage in training? Was he studying to become a Fire mage, just like Duo? Why was he wondering this moment about Duo, and especially his safety? The mage could take care of himself, he didn't need to worry at all. It was Relena who had him worried. She would never, ever go with someone like Trent, that was out of the question. Trent oozed danger. Still, she was standing in front of him, throwing an occasional glance over her shoulder at him, her braids shifting with every movement, that same smile on her face, as if she wanted to encourage him...

"Khushrenada is a usurper," Heero said rudely. "He annexes one country after another, plunders treasure and stock, and leaves the people to their own devices. He doesn't appoint good governments, and he only thinks of his own riches."

Trent laughed snidely. "This is just a preparation for a new world order under his command," he said. "Before that is achieved, some dead wood needs to be chopped, and people who don't want to listen need to be steered into the right direction."

"With force," Heero said. "Killed, if they don't want to." He looked at Relena. This was her cue to talk about how peaceful and hopeful everything should be, how people should talk and share instead of fight and kill. Why wasn't she saying anything?

Trent merely shrugged. "Some people don't understand things unless you use some force to make it clear. Words don't always convey the right meaning, if you know what I mean."

"I don't know what you mean," Heero said. "What have you done to Relena?"

Relena stiffened, her eyes suddenly unnaturally wide. Trent's hands clenched into fists. He didn't dare move out of fear the sollevar would rip his face open.

"Would you please take that...thing away from me?"

"Only if you answer my question," Heero asked dryly, exerting a little pressure on the sollevar, piercing the skin. "What have you done to Relena?"

"N-nothing," he said, licking his small lips. A drop of blood slid slowly over his chin. "She was...very impressed by what to what I told her."

"You're not a farmer! Who are you really?"

Trent heaved a sigh, as if disappointed that Heero had seen through him.

"I'm just here to offer the both of you the same riches you spoke of earlier, Heero. Imagine -- you would never have to be a servant, you will be served. You would receive a mansion, your own land, your own battalion to command, if you want. You and Relena would never be apart, and you would live your life in great luxury."

"And why would that exactly be?"

"Esshouin Khushrenada likes to know the people he...cares for are well taken care of," Trent said. "All what I can offer you is yours, on the condition that you will join his army...and if you don't want to, that you won't cross his path."

"Pawns," Heero snorted. "He wants his pawns close and secured, so they either work with him or not lift a finger up against him."

"You're a very interesting young man," Trent said. "You're very smart, smarter than we...I thought. Still, you don't know half of it, do you? Well, esshouin Khushrenada knows, and he can help you."

Relena hadn't said a word, and her lifeless smile was unnerving him. Her eyes lacked life; she was as soulless and motionless as a doll.

"I don't care," Heero said, glancing at Relena and back to Trent again. "I'm not interested in whatever you're offering me."

"It's not only about you," Trent snapped. "Think about it -- it also involves your friend here. Consider wisely my friend, or it all ends here, and not happily ever after."

"You wouldn't," Heero said, pushing the sollevar again, and Trent groaned. If the man was truly a Fire mage, he was in big trouble. Quatre's embrace had worn off, and it wasn't supposed to withstand fire in the first place. His sollevar wouldn't protect him from flames. He needed to think fast; otherwise he would end up as a pile of ashes at Trent's feet.

"Don't you want a life with your friend? And if you don't, why would you want to ruin her life? She already made her choice, but the final decision depends on you, Heero Yuy. If your choice is bad, she'll suffer from it too."

"Don't be ridiculous," Heero snarled, but his weapon twitched a little. Just a moment of insecurity, he wavered...and Trent lashed out, but not at him.

Relena's body suddenly was engulfed in flames, but she didn't utter one scream. She might have been dead instantly, burned to death from the vicious flames.

Heero cried out. "NO!"

Had he been wrong? Was she really dead? Wasn't she supposed to be an illusion? Heero knew from Duo's excessive talking that mages were able to create an illusion, but they were actually quite rare. Trent could be one of those few capable to make him believe that this was all real. Something with that barrier in that room... his brain didn't want to cooperate, the shock of seeing Relena die was too great.

"Such a shame," the man's grinding voice resonated through the dungeon, "a pretty girl died because you were unable to make a decision."

She was still alive, she had to be! His instincts never deceived him, and everything about Relena had been off. Still, if Trent was one of those illusion mages, he could have deceived Relena and convince her to come down here, and she was dead because of his hesitation.

"You made a big mistake," Heero hissed. "By killing her, you signed your own fate. It wasn't about her, or me..."

"Oh no, it's not all about you, but you and your friends," Trent said. "One by one all will die if you don't take the right decision, and you will let them all down."

"No!" Heero said out loud, and lifted up the sollevar. He didn't have any friends but Relena, and Duo's face flashed in front of his eyes. He didn't know where he was, and he told himself sternly that he just didn't care -- but he had made a promise to Darlian, to himself, and he would live up to that promise. "Where have you hidden her, you bastard?"

"Hidden? You just killed her by refusing me, so who's the bastard now?"

Heero couldn't stand the conceited look on Trent's face and growled, noticing the red flames leaking from the man's hand. He had to give the other one thing -- he wasn't intimidated by the weapon at all. Brave, but stupid -- Heero knew other ways of incapacitating someone and though it was tempting to kill Trent on the spot, he would make him suffer for killing Relena.

Pushing the sollevar, he was going to stab Trent in the face, before he could unleash his Fire powers. He stepped forward, losing his footing immediately -- the ground and the walls rumbled and shook around them, the bricks falling apart. Trent seemed to pale when he saw the large opening in the wall, and those who were revealed by it. He took a step back.

Heero didn't realize what was going on until he saw them -- Duo, Quatre and Trowa, clothes covered with dust and sand. They all looked shaken, a little upset, but Duo radiated pure murder.

Relief washed through him when Heero realized the look was meant for Trent, not for him. Duo stepped forward, for the first time his clothing dirty; not even the hems floated above the ground like they usually did. Quatre looked like he was only standing upright because of his willpower. Trowa had throwing knives between his fingers, his bow and quiver on his back. His frown was directed at Trent as well, and his hand trembled -- not from fear of exhaustion, but from eagerness to throw his knives.

"Trent," Duo snapped. Quatre suddenly stepped to the side to Relena's body, the flames still leaking.

"Duo," Trent answered coolly and he sketched a mock-bow.

"What have you done? How could you choose Khushrenada's side?"

"I wasn't told that I was forbidden to choose my own path," he said, annoyed. "I made my own choice, Duo. My choice, not yours."

"We are supposed to stay outside of politics."

"And a fine job you did," Trent snorted.

"Enough," Duo cut him off, and it was a loud growl. "If you want to settle this, Trent, you know the deal."

The man stepped back again, raising his hands in defense. Heero was disgusted by the man's cowardice, but it dawned to him that Trent probably was weaker than Duo and knew he was going to be defeated. He was just trying now to save his own hide.

"You don't understand. Khushrenada pays well, and he's the righteous leader, you know that he'll unite every country and place it under his power."

"Maybe the words hunger, war, death, sickness and despair don't mean anything to you," Trowa spoke up, "seeing as you dress nicely and have a three course meal every evening, don't you? You couldn't care less that it's over the back of hard-working people."

"We are mages," the man protested indignantly. "We're not supposed to be anything but worshipped. Khushrenada acknowledges our powers and our potential, and rewards us royally!"

"These powers were gifted on you," Duo hissed, "and you squander them for gold and riches? You sicken me, Trent!"

"Not everyone wants a life sleeping under hedges or keeping to himself, hiding out in whatever backwater town, hiding the powers that were gifted on him," Trent tried to defend himself. "Your little utopia is outdated, Duo. You can't keep everyone safe; and you should know it, as you deal Dea--"

"You don't understand at all," Duo interrupted him rudely. "I know first-hand that I can't control anyone nor do I want to! Everyone is free to make their own decisions, yes, even if they're disastrous. I only hoped to keep people together, especially in the world where fear and misconceptions about magic still exists. I wanted us to take those judgments away, not to add fuel to the fire."

"Too bad," Trent moved with his hand just a little, "what's done, is done. People are only interested in the knowledge you managed to acquire, not in how you drill your lackeys."

"Don't be stupid," Duo started, "you..."

"Watch it!" Trowa was faster than Trent. The mage's eyes suddenly broke and glazed over as he fell down, a throwing knife protruding from his chest. Out of his hand clattered a dagger with an ominous purplish glow. Duo clicked with his tongue and went over to the body, knelt down, grabbed the dagger and hissed at it.

Trowa was next to his side in a heartbeat, ignoring Heero and looking at Trent. He moved his foot, pushing against the dead man. For a moment, Heero thought he was going to kick the body, but he rolled him over. Duo had retrieved Trowa's knife, cleaning it on Trent's robes.

"Clearly reaching above his standards," the archer said and took his knife back from Duo, who just grimaced. He then turned towards Quatre -- none of them had expressed any panic at seeing the charred remains.

"What's going on?" he asked the Nature mage, who had extinguished the flames with his Ice magic; cold water was dripping from the burnt... chunk of whatever it was. A human form couldn't be recognized from the lump on the ground.

"A very powerful illusion. This is some kind of a doll of Relena," Quatre said. He looked up at Heero, smiling softly. "She's safe, Heero. If she was dead or hurt in any way, I would have known. My embrace is still in place, and Wufei is with her."

"I thought so," he nodded, though he hadn't been so sure about his earlier assessment of the situation. If Relena really had died because of him...

"Did she say anything?"

"Yes, she kept telling me to leave here, and how wonderful it would be if we were in Khushrenada's safe arms."

Quatre shook his head. "I'm sorry this had to happen to you," he said. "If only you had been prepared more..."

"Prepared for what?" Heero asked. Quatre looked up, almost shocked and surprised, as if Heero wasn't supposed to have overheard his last words. Duo came to stand next to him and poked at the charred lump.

"I see some people still haven't lost their tricks," he sneered, and muttered something under his breath that Heero certainly didn't mind if he hadn't overheard. Somehow, Duo knew the most expletive and colorful curses, and they spilled over his lips with ease.

"Tubarov," Quatre growled. "I thought he didn't have much power left, and unable to conjure such strong illusions anymore, let alone craft another mobile doll."

"Would somebody be as kind as to explain it to me?" Heero demanded.

"Remember the barrier?" Duo said. "It was a trap. It was a combination of Death magic with a strong illusion, with the goal to retrieve the greatest fear from your mind and project it to you." He tilted his head a little. "It wasn't...nice for anyone of us."

Trowa snorted loudly, sticking his knife to wherever he had hidden it previously. The Fire mage frowned in annoyance.

"Tubarov is a sick man, and one of the reasons why I wanted to keep him in Libra was because of his dolls. He can create dolls from scratch with a striking resemblance to anyone he wants. They're mobile because they can walk, but they don't have a soul or a will of their own. You need to control them to make them act and speak like a human being. Trent was in control of the Relena doll to try to get you to join Khushrenada's cause."

"He can do this easily," Quatre said. "It will exhaust him, but Tubarov can do this -- though he needs another person to help him; the one to control the doll. They didn't know how well you knew Relena, but hoped to have convinced you before you would see through their trick. In any case, they were wrong."

"And ended up dead," Duo continued. "At least, Trent did. Death magic and illusions is literally a deadly combination. When you're caught in an illusion, you can die, and most of these illusions are aimed to kill people. If you can't discern illusion from reality, you're done. I guess we have to be thankful -- it could have gotten way, way worse."

"I don't like knowing that Tubarov is obviously working for Khushrenada," Quatre voiced softly. "What's worse, he's probably somewhere very close to have made this doll and collaborates with Trent. Maybe he was even in the Castle..."

"We aren't going to return to the Castle anyway, not if we find Sylvia Noventa," Duo answered. Silence fell, a little uncomfortable.

"The question is: who's the one doing the Death magic?" Trowa spoke calmly, but glanced briefly at Duo. He held Trent's dagger, having lost its ominous glow, and stuck it in his belt.

"I'll find out," Duo said curtly and turned around, facing the breached wall. He was going to continue along the hallway, still with their original mission in mind. Heero quickly caught up with him, leaving Trowa to help Quatre. Something what Duo had said had intrigued him.

"So everyone was faced with their worst fear?"

"Yes," Duo answered. "That could be anything, but what most people fear is death of a loved one, failure... everyone has a deep, dark fear or secret." He waited a minute before adding: "Inner demons."

"What demons did you face?" Heero wanted to know, though it was too personal to ask. Duo hadn't asked him if he needed any help or what he had seen either, but his curiosity got the better of him. He was genuinely taken aback when Duo suddenly laughed at him.

"What demons I faced? Demons face me, Heero Yuy. They face me."

Silence hung between them as they continued down the hallway, leaving Heero enough time to brood. Trent had called him a san'durin, and 'a very interesting young man'. He didn't have much knowledge of the Ancient Language which was commonly used between mages and scholars, and he didn't recognize this word as all. Duo and Quatre had spoken to each other in the language around the fire when they had first met -- apparently, mages were very keen on preserving their specific language.

Heero wanted to ask Duo about the meaning of the word, but the tangible silence felt like it couldn't be broken. Were they all reflecting on whatever demons they had faced? What had Duo seen...and what did he mean with 'demons are afraid of me'? The torches still ignited when Duo walked by, the hem of his robes dragging instead of floating. There was a staircase leading down, and Quatre heaved an audible sigh. The whole group was looking tired, except for Heero. He had taken the lead again, descending down the stairs in front of them, his boots making the most noise.

Another large, wooden door obstructed their path, and now Heero wanted to sigh as well. There didn't seem to be an end to this blasted dungeon, and if there were more of these animals to be fought, he didn't know how well the rest of the group would hold up. Trowa was probably fine, but Duo and Quatre? They needed the destructive powers of the mages, and if both were too tired to conjure their spells...he wanted to know how Relena was doing, and was itching to get back upstairs, above ground, into the fresh air.

Duo looked at Quatre, who nodded briefly and stepped forward, folding his hands and lowering his head, as if in prayer. Nothing happened -- Quatre stood as still as a statue, eyes closed, apparently in deep concentration.

"What is he do..."

"Shhh," Duo said, though it didn't sound admonishing. Heero shot him a quizzical look, before glancing at Quatre again. The Nature mage suddenly opened his eyes and nodded again, taking a step back.

"There's someone behind this door. But weak...very, very weak."

"Sylvia Noventa?" Duo called out loud. No answer. "Sylvia Noventa, if you are in there, back away from the door!"

He prepared a circle of fiery orbs, unleashing them on the door, setting it on fire. Quatre had backed away as well, the intense heat burning down the wood, melting the iron hinges. Heero didn't wait until the complete door was destroyed; he kicked at the charred planks and created an entry for himself. It was dark in the room and Duo, who followed him closely, quickly conjured another set of those strange light bulbs, illuminating the environment. He squinted for a moment, and a sudden movement in the corner didn't escape him.

"Over there!"

"Stay back!" Quatre grabbed Heero at the elbow, and shook his head when he looked at him.

"Leave it to me." He let go of Heero's elbow, though he wasn't by far strong enough to hold him back if he really wanted to. Quatre straightened himself and walked into the direction they had seen the movement, calm and composed.

"Sylvia, it's all right," he said, voice soothing. "You're safe now. No one will hurt you."

Another movement, but weakly. It came from the stack of hay in the corner -- someone was hiding in there. It was amazing how someone could have survived in this dungeon in the first place -- no daylight, no fresh air, no refreshments. On the floor was a bucket with dirty water, and next to it a piece of bread -- moldy, with maggots crawling over it. It reeked of feces and blood and sweat, and the hay was colored brown, the whole dungeon smelling like death and despair.

"Sylvia, you can show yourself to us. We're friends, we won't hurt you..."

Trowa shivered. He stood next to Duo, and he was obviously feeling uncomfortable in these close quarters, the archer losing every touch with nature so deep under the ground. Heero couldn't imagine how life could be, captive and locked up like this; he had enjoyed his rather pleasant and carefree life at the farm had taken a different turn.

It took quite some coaxing from Quatre, but finally, he stretched his arms out and reached into the hay, lifting up a person -- a woman, no, a emaciated girl, her body dehydrated and underfed, a mass of tangled brown hair hanging in her face. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her up as she could barely walk.

"She needs Healing, bad," he said. "I can't apply it here. We need to get back above ground as soon as possible."

Sylvia tried to crawl away in his robe, but she was too exhausted and frail to do anything but sigh and move limply. Her clothes hung around her like burlaps, all dirty and torn. A few mewling gasps were audible, her chafed and cracked lips parting in an attempt to speak.

"We leave here," Duo agreed. "We can't leave here fast enough."

With no more spitting wrouven or any other animals or illusions to fight, they reached the surface quite fast, carrying Sylvia between them. Passing the iron gate, Heero blinked in surprise at the sun -- it was already rising fairly high. They had been down in the dungeon far longer than he had assumed. They all looked disheveled, clothes covered in dust and sporting either burn marks or frayed spots where the spit of the wrouven had affected the fabric. Their faces weren't in any better condition; hair sweaty and soaked, cheeks smudged, and in Heero's and Trowa's case, small scratches and cuts dotted their skin.

Relena came running towards them, face set in horror when she saw the group. Wufei followed her, jogging behind her in a calm pace, imperturbable. The magical embrace surrounding her dissolved when she halted in front of them. Heero was relieved to see her, knowing that she wasn't injured -- he pointedly ignored a few dead bodies shoddily covered with branches and leaves. Undoubtedly, Trent's men who had attacked her and met Wufei on their way.

"What happened?" she cried. "What took you so long? I was so scared, I..." Her eyes caught Sylvia, clutching at Quatre's side. "Oh, the Twelve have mercy, Sylvia! What have they done to you?"

The girl cringed from Relena's loud cry, and tried to bury herself in Quatre's robes. She heaved spasmodically, as if the fresh morning air was too much for her to deal with.

"We have no time for this, Princess," Duo said, glancing at Wufei to reassure himself that he was all right. "Put Sylvia on Vayeate," he continued. "We have to leave here, and fast!"

Relena pointed at the horses close by, and asked question after question, lowering her voice. She wanted to take Sylvia in her arms, but the girl shrieked and clutched at Quatre, eyes wide in fear. It took quite some cajoling from the Ice mage to calm her, and they got her on the horse without any further troubles. When Relena came to sit behind her, Sylvia leaned backwards, apparently calmed down enough to accept the other girl's presence and help. Relena threw a blanket about her bony shoulders, shielding her from the chill.

Duo climbed on Mercurius, together with Quatre. It didn't escape that Quatre was the one in front leaning against Duo, who had his arms around him, fingers gripping the reins. The horse danced around a little bit, obviously not used to two riders on his back. Trowa broke out in a jog, Wufei following in his path.

"Move, move!" Duo said and both horses jumped forward -- they galloped, away from the dungeon's entrance, Vayeate taking the lead along with Heero. He held the sollevar in his hand and he ignored the dark red clumps on the trident-shaped head. He wasn't tired at all and could easily keep up with the pace; his breathing was controlled and his legs moved, one foot in front of the other, on and on and on. He was glad to leave here, away from Catalonia Castle that loomed over the mountain top, as if it had eyes that were watching his retreating back.

The small village they entered after at least one hour riding wasn't very crowded, fortunately -- the group was a sad excuse for a bunch of travelers, smudged, injured, and with the exception of Heero, deadly tired.

The morning was already halfway passed, and the people up and about threw curious looks at them, mothers keeping their children away from the dirty party, their curiosity leading them to wanting to touch the strange travelers. Heero ignored the distrust and suspicion; this was nothing compared to the people in the capital city. He looked over his shoulder to check up on Relena; she held Sylvia close to her, the girl so frail that she would fall out of the saddle with the slightest gust of wind.

Nobody spoke, and it seemed as if the horses knew their way around, leading them to a fairly large two-story house, reminding Heero of the house where he had eavesdropped on Seditch and Nichol; it was certainly the same style.

Catherine Bloom welcomed them -- a slender woman with shoulder length, curly brown hair and wearing large, star-shaped earrings. Three white feathers were stuck in her hair, as showy as her red and pink dress. Heero thought the feathers were slightly strange, but after spending time with Duo and his group, almost nothing struck him as weird anymore. Mythical weapons, magic, monstrous beasts and dark dungeons -- he had learned his lessons. Deep down, it made him regret his earlier life and all the time he spent on the farm. The world was so large, so wide and so interesting... the guilt that followed was something he didn't know how to deal with.

The woman urged them to get inside, not only to discourage the curious neighbors, but also because almost everyone needed help, one way or the other. Quatre Healed Sylvia, but he was so exhausted from the earlier events in the dungeon that the Healing took the last of his strength and he collapsed. Trowa whisked him away, the archer seeming to be at the end of his rope as well. Wufei was still standing upright, shoulders straight, but leaned a little too casually on his sword. Duo didn't fare much better than Quatre; he was swaying on his feet and didn't protest when Catherine, acting like a mother hen, sent him to find a bed in one of the rooms upstairs.

She was clearly a woman of action -- she commanded her maid, Miidi, to provide for soap, towels, blankets and other clean bed linen, and took it upon herself to serve the people still awake and not keeling over, something to eat. Setting the wooden table with simple silverware and plates, she put a rather large porcelain bowl in the middle of it.

"Here," she said firmly, "eat to your heart's content, I can always make some more. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

Turning around to take care of Sylvia, the girl shaky, in tears and babbling incoherently, Catherine told Relena to eat something, but the girl politely declined, as she didn't want to leave Sylvia's side.

Heero served himself and Wufei some soup; he was feeling very hungry. His stomach was almost gnawing on itself. The soup was all right; a little burned and some of the ingredients, cut very roughly, were undercooked. Still, it all tasted like heaven to him; even Wufei had two helpings before excusing himself as well, leaving it to Heero to finish off the complete contents of the bowl, including two large loaves of bread.

He knew Catherine had returned as soon as he heard that typical swishing sound of her dress; the sore combination of extremely bright pink and red was painful on the eyes. The woman didn't seem fazed at all by Heero eating the whole pot, enough to serve at least a family of five. Instead, she asked if he wanted some more, and he politely declined. Catherine didn't seem to be a poor woman, judging from the simple yet classy decoration of her house, but he didn't want to eat all of her food, never mind that his stomach was still growling.

"It's all right," she said as if reading his thoughts. "Duo told me about you and I have plenty in stock to sustain your appetite. I'll ask Miidi to get you some more."

It was tempting, especially since he felt like he hadn't eaten much at all. Soup was light on his stomach, and the bread didn't fill up much. He still declined though, but Catherine just smiled at him and called for Miidi. The servant, a friendly red-haired girl, had already anticipated her mistress' wishes and carried a tray with several hearty dishes, including roast meat, grilled fish and a very generous helping of potatoes and vegetables.

As Heero ate, Catherine joined him at the table, carefully adjusting her dress before sitting down. As she didn't strike up a conversation and Heero didn't feel like talking, too busy eating, there was a silent atmosphere between them, though not uncomfortable. After a while she took a slice of bread and nibbled delicately on it. It would be lunch time for her soon; it felt strange to have a meal outside of regular hours, but this was just a...exceptional situation. Heero couldn't get past the fact that she was taking this all so calmly and lightly, as if it was normal for a bunch of exhausted travelers with a more-dead-than-alive girl in their midst to show up on her doorstep.

"You dealt with Duo before?" It was out of his mouth before he could do something about it.

She laughed heartily, putting the slice of bread down.

"I'm Trowa's sister," she said, and he did a double take. Her face softened, a fond look crossing her features. "Albeit not by blood, though I wish it would be. He's an orphan, and we found him with a bunch of mercenaries. Our caravan passed by, and I asked him to come along with us. I didn't think the environment he was growing up in would be of any good to him."


"We were a traveling troop of performers," she said proudly, and in a blink of an eye she held throwing knives in her hand, exactly the same way Trowa had done -- or maybe exactly the way he had learned it from her. He almost choked on a potato.

She smiled, obviously amused. "I think you can take a guess what my performance was," she continued. "We traveled all over the world -- we had exotic animals, the strongest man, a bearded woman, was a hard life, but a satisfying one. We were as free as a bird, and if we didn't like it someplace we would simply pack our things and leave. Khushrenada ended it all."

She didn't sound bitter, unlike a lot of people -- but maybe Catherine Bloom was more accepting of change than anyone else. Heero held her for a very practical woman who didn't waste her time on tears, but who would roll up her sleeves and do something.

"What happened?" he asked, though he could take a very good guess.

"We were forbidden to travel around any longer," Catherine continued. "Out of fear we could be smuggling or presenting any other kind of danger. Besides, a lot of family members of our performers were in countries that already had been overrun. They wanted to go back to make sure there were... any survivors. I used my family's heritage to buy this house," and this time a little sadness was audible in her voice, "just to have something of value. I didn't know what else to spend the money on, not in this time, and with not many of my relatives alive anymore... should Khushrenada or his army confiscate the house, it still has served its purpose -- a hideout to any one resisting the current tyranny... people like Duo."

"What do you know about him?" Heero asked. He didn't want to sound too eager, and missed the soft smile on Catherine's face as he cleaned his plate with the last piece of bread, rather taken aback to find his plate empty.

"Not much," she said. "Only that he's the strongest Fire mage in the area, if not the strongest one in this world. I learned very quickly to not get on his bad side, though his bad side is barely... to be seen. Duo is quite easy-going."

"He's a jokester," Heero muttered. Catherine's smile turned a little smug, as if she knew a secret and he didn't.

"You'll learn exactly what he is," she said and rose from her chair. Her movement was so rash that Heero wondered if he offended her, but she bowed to him, barely, holding up her dress as she bent a little through the knees.

"I have errands to run," she said. "Try to get some rest, Heero. Miidi will show you to your room -- everyone else is asleep, and you need to regain your strength."

He had definitely offended her, but he didn't know how. Sleep sounded good to him, and Miidi was already in the doorway, an amused look on her face -- probably because of the amount of food he had managed to take in, and he sure was glad he didn't have to do all the dishes. The girl showed him to a small, but decent room with a bed, a dresser and a large, wooden chest. The curtain was already pulled close, but couldn't keep all the daylight out. The girl giggled when she wished him a good night -- after she had left, Heero put the sollevar in the corner between the bed and the window and rolled into the covers, asleep before he could turn around.

It was Miidi again who woke him up -- she gently poked at his shoulder, her voice too soft to be heard. Heero shook awake, immediately reaching for his sollevar, and the girl stepped backwards, hands raised in defense.

"Sorry," he mumbled apologetically, cradling his hand to his chest. "What is it?"

"I've prepared a bath for you," she said. "Esshava Bloom has bought you new clothes, and after you're done, there'll be some more food ready for you."

He nodded, thanked the girl and waited for her to leave before slipping out of bed. The sun had climbed far above the horizon, the temperature rather warm. It had to be late afternoon; how long had he slept? Probably three, four hours at most. And was this Iria country, or still a part of Auda country?

Leaving the sollevar in his room, Heero traipsed to the bathroom and he all but jumped in the tub, his strained muscles relaxing in the hot water. He reached for the bar of soap, not quite satisfied with the overly rosy scent -- but beggars couldn't be choosers, and the Twelve knew how much of a mess he looked like.

His thoughts were occupied with a million questions and problems. Everyone at Catalonia Castle would know by now that Sylvia Noventa had been rescued. Trent's dead body would be discovered, as well as the pile of dead wrouven. It wouldn't be hard to see from all the traces that a Detonation had taken place -- Duo's dortang. With so much magic involved, who knew what was going on, and how fast Dorothy would inform Khushrenada... assuming they already knew. Heero heaved a sigh as he scrubbed all the dirt from his body. He soaked for another half an hour, until the water had cooled off so much that it had become uncomfortable.

New clothes were waiting for him in his room; probably Miidi or Catherine herself had put down the small pile on the wooden chest in the corner. Sturdy brown pants, a large yet fitting light yellow shirt, new underwear, socks and boots. He was puzzled by the rest of the clothing, until he figured out it was all extra; he had never possessed so much clothing before, and certainly not a cloak, a brown one just like his pants. He dressed himself quickly, tying up his boots and buttoning up his shirt. With a comb, he attempted to tame his hair, but gave up fairly fast -- it would never stay the way he combed it anyway.

He had to thank Catherine extensively later for all the good care and these clothes and wondered how they were going to pay her. He hadn't seen Relena carrying the picnic basket lately.

Coming down the stairs, he was relieved to find everyone alive and well in the large living room; Duo waved at him as soon as he saw him. He held a piece of bread in his hand and Quatre didn't mind that some crumbs fell all over him from Duo's enthusiastic wave. With the exception of Wufei, everybody greeted him -- the Nataku warrior looked tersely at some point in front of him, not acknowledging anyone around him.

The table was set with the same plates and cutlery Heero had seen earlier, and a few baskets filled with bread, cheese, and sausages. There were more varieties of cold meat, something that looked like mushrooms and large, round and red... whatever is was. Relena held one of those red things in her hand and offered it to him.

"Taste it, Heero!" she said enthusiastically. "This is a tomato! It's delicious!"

To please her, he bit into it, surprised by the refreshing taste. He already had another one in his hand when he sat down. Sylvia Noventa was wedged in between Relena and Quatre, still looking sickly skinny, but her cheeks sported a healthy flush as she was eating. Her hair was washed and combed, parted in two long ponytails. She wore a simple, light blue dress with long sleeves; Heero assumed that Catherine had burned the rags the girl had been dressed in. Quatre's Healing was nothing sort of a miracle; if it weren't for her frail frame, he would have taken Sylvia for being in perfect health, especially considering everything she had gone through.

Duo put some salt and pepper on his tomato before taking a large bite out of it. There were a lot of crumbs on his plate, as well as some slivers of cheese. Heero wasn't notably hungry after the few hours of rest, but he certainly wasn't opposed to eating some; he was already half way another loaf of bread when he realized what he was doing.

It was for the better, however, that everyone seemed to be in good spirits again. Heero was grateful for it -- they did make a good team; working together had been their key to survive the dungeon. He was used to working alone -- especially when he had been on the farm -- but he saw the necessity of joining forces; without Duo and Quatre's magic powers, he wouldn't have seen the light of day again. Heero almost forgot to take another bite. Since when was he thinking of these people as a team? Quatre and Duo seemed to be the only ones working together without a problem, and what Quatre was doing, Trowa was never far behind to do the same. Wufei was the only one to shirk any form of collaboration, though he had, albeit a little grudgingly, fought with them in the dungeon. Maybe he just didn't care.

Heero abandoned that train of thought to listen to the ongoing conversations, but it was just light-hearted chit-chat and he allowed himself to look at Duo and notice his slightly damp hair. His hair was done a little sloppily, the braid loosely tied with wisps of hair framing his face. Just like Quatre, he was wearing his mage robes again, both in pristine condition. The flames on the arms seemed to dance in front of Heero's eyes; every movement Duo made was enchanting, hypnotizing. He didn't exactly mind seeing him with his hair down again...

His delicious thoughts were interrupted by Sylvia, who was telling how she had been captured by Nichol, per orders of Khushrenada, and how she had been brought to Catalonia Castle. She never had met Dorothy, only Duke Dermail, who had simply told the Treize Faction to throw her in the dungeon. That was all that happened -- she had been thrown into the dungeon and left there to die.

"I don't know how much longer I could have held on," she said, voice a little shaky. "All I could think of was my grandfather and how his heart must have been broken. He gave up his country and his people for me, to save my life, and he was brandished as a traitor. And esshan Darlian... it's terrible."

"Khushrenada holds a grip on almost every country he conquers exactly the same way," Duo said. "If he doesn't kill them at first sight, he holds important people hostage until they cooperate and give him what he wants. The first thing he does is offer a false sense of security to have his precious Treize Faction assigned to every large city to uphold 'law and peace'. Then, slowly, he replaces people in high positions with his own pawns -- and that's only if he doesn't overrun them first."

"He'll be... careful when he wants to add Maganac to his 'collection'," Trowa said, his tone of voice surprisingly disdainful. Quatre agreed with him.

"He'll try to placate the tribes there first," the Nature mage said. "There's nothing Merquise can destroy with his fire there -- Maganac country is inhospitable, one and all desert and blistering sun. If he wants to seize control over the mines, he'll have to find them first."

He sounded a little smug, uncharacteristic for Quatre -- Heero figured he must be from there, and pleased that his home country was at least relatively safe. Khushrenada had seized Romefeller for a good passageway to Maganac -- stationing a large part of his army and the Treize Faction to scout the area.

"It's far too much honor, but I'd say that he's a master strategist, the way he keeps everything in play."

"He does not have any honor!" Wufei immediately jumped from his chair, raising his voice. "What honor lies there in using blunt force, using magic to increase pressure, all against the innocent and the weak! Everyone can conquer countries like this! The people need to stand up against him and fight him!"

Sylvia was obviously shocked by Wufei's outburst, and pressed herself against Relena, seemingly wanting to disappear. Relena put an arm around the frightened girl and dropped the slice of dark bread she had been eating calmly on the table.

"We all know that Khushrenada has no honor. We're all aware of his tactics -- we've all been a victim of it, one way or another. We can turn this around." She looked defiantly at him.

"We're only with the five of us," Wufei snorted, "six, if we count you, and you're a woman."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Heero growled. The Nataku warrior shot him a deadly glare.

"She needs protection, she can't fight with us. A woman like her only keeps us down and we're getting behind on our goals. We need to move speedily, not to lag because of a woman."

"You take that back," Heero said and he also rose from his chair. He had sworn to protect Relena, and that would include her honor. He didn't need someone in a pompous armor to talk badly about her.

"Enough, the both of you," Duo said. "Sit down, now."

"I won't stand for anyone offending Relena," Heero said and returned Wufei's deadly glare.

"Sit. Down. Now." Duo repeated.

They both sat down rather fast, obeying the Fire mage. Heero asked himself if it was because of him being such a strong mage or because of his voice -- sharp, curt, and with the promise of... danger and pain if they didn't obey immediately. The two faces of Duo of Maxwell Church were intriguing, yet difficult to understand, and a little tiring. Heero was almost pouting, as if he regretted missing out on the chance to hit Wufei. It dawned on him that he still needed to thank him for saving Relena nonetheless. He heaved a sigh.

"I want to look for my grandfather," Sylvia spoke up, softly, her voice lilting in the unsettling, uncomfortable silence.

"He's at an inn in Romefeller country, close to the border," Relena said. "You can't miss it once you ride out of the forests. He said he would return there every day to look for you."

The girl nodded determinedly. "I would like to leave as soon as possible."

Relena shook her head. "It would be better if you rested at least one more day before traveling again. You're not quite up to your normal strength again."

"But I feel fine," she insisted. Quatre mimicked Relena and shook his head as well.

"My Healing is strong, but it takes a lot out of yourself," he said. "I agree with Relena that it's better for you to stay another day and rest to gain back your strength. Your will is strong, but your body is still weak."

Sylvia pursed her lips, her eyes narrowed from a stubborn frown on her face. It took her a little while before finally relaxing and nodding. "All right, I will stay here with esshava Bloom for another day."

"The Twelve be with you," Quatre said. "You'll need their luck and fortune."

She was one and all determination now, her eyes fierce and her voice firm. "As soon as I've reunited with my grandfather, we will call for the people in Romefeller country to stand up against Khushrenada."

"Be careful," Trowa advised her. "Keep a low profile, especially in the beginning. Khushrenada won't be stopped at anything to do again what he has done to you before."

"I will," Sylvia agreed. "Without the help of you all, I would never be able to return and organize a resistance in the first place."

Relena flicked a braid over her shoulder. "And that's why I'm coming with you, to get things started," she said calmly. Heero choked on his umpteenth tomato. Even Quatre stopped in his movement to sip some of his tea.


"I'm going with Sylvia back to Romefeller country," Relena stated matter-of-factly. "We can't let her travel alone, certainly not in this condition."

"But Relena," Heero protested. He stole a quick glance at Duo, who was just as surprised by her words as he was.

"Princess, you can't go back now," he said.

"Where else should I be going?" she asked, though she looked a little pale. She probably hadn't foreseen these strong reactions, though Trowa, Quatre and Wufei didn't participate in the discussion.

"The Kingdom of Sanq," Duo reminded her. Her face fell.

"That's a fairytale." Her voice didn't waver for a second. "There's no such place, and whatever my father... meant with his words, it wasn't... for me."

Silence fell. Sylvia looked from one to another, not understanding -- Relena had told her about the Darlian's death, but had left out what her father had exactly said. The girl lowered her eyes.

"It's not that I don't want to, or that I don't believe..." Her cheeks colored. She had denied the existence of the Kingdom from the beginning simply because there were no records of it, but she didn't want to violate her father's words, despite her belief that the man had been hallucinating in the throes of his painful death. She was obviously torn -- and the more practical and rational part of her mind told her to go back to her homeland and get to work there; that was something she could do, something she could oversee, something she could... hold.

"You do believe, Princess," Duo said. "You believe in peace, in the goodness of people, in everything that is good for this world... you can't return to your homeland now."

"My father's name still holds influence," Relena answered. No matter how much time would pass, she refused to think about Darlian as her adoptive father. "In the Darlian's name, I will help the nation to overcome the yoke of tyranny."

"I can't force you," Duo said softly, "but you would be of more help to every nation by coming with us to find the Kingdom of Sanq, Princess. Not only Romefeller country... but every country. The whole world."


Sylvia put her hand on Relena's shoulder, and another silence would have fallen if Quatre hadn't spoken.

"Be it as it may, we can't stay here," he pointed out. "It will be just a matter of time, of hours maybe, before Duke Dermail informs Khushrenada that one of his hostages has been freed -- and they will know that it was us, or at least someone with enough power and knowledge to bypass their traps. No ordinary human would have survived down there, or he had to bring a whole army... and it would still be doubtful."

No ordinary human. Heero focused his gaze on Duo, and the Fire mage seemed to be fidgeting.

"What are your plans, Duo?" he asked out loud.

"Pargan country," he answered, voice flat. The others looked at him -- Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei -- with mixed expressions.

"If you really want to." Quatre's voice was strained, all of the sudden. Heero didn't know about this Pargan country, he only knew that Quatre's earlier words were true -- it would be only a matter of time before Khushrenada would be notified and send his Treize Faction after them.

"We better pack our things, then." Trowa rose from his chair and was out of the room before anyone else could comment. It wouldn't take them long, maybe a grand total of fifteen minutes to gather all their belongings, as Heero had never seen any member of the group with more than just a small bundle of things.

Following Trowa, Heero went upstairs to retrieve his sollevar and the rest of his clothes, leaving Relena to talk to Sylvia. He had never expected that Relena wanted to return so fast to Romefeller country. It was strange how his homeland had all but disappeared from his mind. The burning farm was still a memory he would never forget -- and he didn't want to forget about that. Khushrenada would pay for his crimes, and Heero Yuy would be the one to bring him to justice. Whatever the others wanted to do to him, Heero Yuy was the only one going to kill Treize Khushrenada and make him pay, make him suffer, for what he had done.

He bundled up his clothes and reminded himself to thank -- and pay -- Catherine before they would leave her home. Judging from the rather loud female voices coming from downstairs, she had returned; curiously, Heero went down the stairs again. He caught Catherine holding up a dress in front of Relena while Sylvia clapped her hands in enthusiasm, telling the other girl how good it looked on her.

It was a nice scene -- totally carefree, just women amongst each other, talking about dresses and trying them on. Before Relena was really going to change in front of him, Heero quickly went outside to check up on Vayeate.

The horse was standing protectively close to Mercurius, bumping into each other whenever the other wanted to take a step away. Trowa and Wufei were nowhere to be seen, and Duo and Quatre were, quite surprisingly, arguing. He was too close to not overhear it; stepping a little to the side and leaning casually on his sollevar, Heero listened.

"We can't go there," Quatre said, his voice uncharacteristically low, whispering as if conspiring together. "We're going to get everyone in a whole lot of trouble if we go back now. We just can't, Duo."

"Khushrenada is a force that needs to be stopped," Duo objected. "We need to go now, otherwise it'll be too late."

"No, Duo. The man will cry murder because it's pretty much obvious that mages have been involved in freeing the girl. We don't want to give Libra up, I don't want to give Libra up. We can't involve all the others, not now."

"We knew it was inevitable," Duo muttered.

"I would rather postpone it even longer," Quatre shot back, and his usual calm face was marred by unspoken irritation. "Excuse me, I need some fresh air."

They were already outside and Heero looked a little dumbfounded, but Quatre stalked away. Duo was wearing a stubborn expression on his face, looking at Quatre's retreating back as if he wanted to burn holes through him.

"Something the matter?" Heero asked, a little too lightly. Duo startled, but just a little, and immediately threw him a brilliant smile.

"Even the best of mages have an argument every now and then," he said and made it sound like it was the most normal thing in the world to happen. "Have you packed already? We're about to leave."

"I'm ready," Heero simply answered. "What about Relena?"

"I can't force her. It has to be her own decision," the mage said, shrugging. His tense gaze belied the casual gesture. "It would of course be for the better if she went along with us. I don't think it's possible to find the Kingdom without her, and even if it was, I don't know..."

Duo heaved another sigh and raked his hand through his thick bangs. Heero switched hands with the sollevar, and tilted his head a little to look at Duo.

"It's already late in the afternoon," he said. "Maybe it's better if we postpone this decision?"

"No, we can't," Duo answered, "Khushrenada..."

The door to the Bloom residence opened and Relena came out, carrying a large bundle and a woolen bag. Her expression was difficult to read -- mildly aggravated, disappointed, annoyed? Heero stared after her as she threw the bundle onto Vayeate's back, tugging at the ropes of the other luggage.

"We go to Pargan country."

"Are you sure, Princess?" Duo asked.

"Yes, I'm sure." She avoided looking at him, and Duo exchanged a brief look with Heero before turning to leave, his robes as usual floating behind him, untouched by any dust of dirt from the ground.

"Relena, are you really sure?"

She avoided looking at him as well. "Yes, I'm sure. Really."


Fiddling with the stirrup of the saddle, Relena shrugged, but the movement was brusque. He didn't believe for one moment that it really didn't matter to her. Heero took a step closer, hesitated for a moment but decided to put a hand on her shoulder. She tensed, but relaxed soon after. He was still a servant, and she was the daughter of a landowner, and that hadn't changed in his mind.

"I don't have much choice, do I?" she whispered.

"You always have a choice," Heero answered. "Whatever choice you make, whatever decision you take, I'll follow you."

"That would be wonderful," she said and finally turned around, but still didn't look directly into his eyes. "But what about you, Heero? What do you want?"

"I want to go where you're going," he said.

Her smile was genuine, warm and gentle; but there was also a touch of sadness. "Do you want that because you want it, or because of what you promised my father?"

Heero looked surprised. He hadn't thought that she had overheard that particular part of the conversation, literally in the heat of the moment. It was a veritable dilemma -- he did follow up on his promises, sacrificing his own happiness if need be, without a doubt... but did he really want to follow Relena to wherever she wanted to go? Back to Romefeller country, rebuilding the farm maybe?

She moved her hand up and touched his cheek. He blinked, and almost took a step back.

"I can't have everything I want," she murmured. "I can't always shirk my duties and obligations, even if it has to do with a mythical Kingdom barely anyone has ever heard of..." Her voice trailed off. "Duo believes in me," she continued, and now she sought out his eyes.

"He does," Heero agreed, "but it's your decision to make."

"I made my decision," she said, a little too quick. "We go to Pargan country, all right?"

It was all right with him, and he nodded. Her smile turned a little wider, but she kept her hand on his cheek until she blushed, withdrew and turned around to start fidgeting with the stirrup again.

The hours went by as they were on their way. Trowa and Wufei sparsely showed themselves, keeping an eye on bandits and obstructions on the road. The both of them scouted the area while the others followed; Heero and Relena on Vayeate taking turns -- Relena still pressing him, he didn't exactly need it -- and Quatre and Duo on Mercurius. While Quatre was silent and pensive, Duo was talking about everything, from the blossom on the trees to a pebble on the road, and he kept on talking until Wufei told him to shut up because they could hear him even from miles away. Heero didn't think Duo was offended by it, but the Fire mage walked along sullenly, muttering something under his breath every now and then. He offered to walk in front and help scouting the area, but Trowa told him that he knew the environment better, so Heero stayed with Relena and both mages.

As the evening fell and it was getting too late to travel further, they set up camp with a routine that showed how familiar they were with doing this: Duo took care of the fire, while Trowa and Wufei hunted for food. Quatre hunted out some fruits and vegetables, preparing the latter exactly the same way as he did the first time Relena and Heero had met him.

Some of the usual, informal mood returned at dinner, and every conversation went smoothly. Relena tried some of the vegetables she didn't know and was immediately enthusiast about the spices and herbs Quatre used. He was all but happy to tell her his secret recipe and while they were talking amiably, Heero noticed Wufei leaving the small circle.

Jumping up, Heero took his sollevar with him and followed the Nataku warrior, easily keeping track of him. Trowa had designated this as their camping place because of a small river nearby. He could easily jump over it if he wanted to, and for a moment he thought Wufei was going to do it; but instead, he sat down on the bank of the river.

Heero approached him from behind, trusting the other to already know of his arrival; he hadn't been exactly quiet when following him. Indeed, he saw the man twitch a little; he had already been spotted. He didn't ask if the other minded his company. He was just going to thank him for saving and protecting Relena, that was all.

Wufei shifted a little, as if making room for Heero. He sat down and stretched his legs, his muscles protesting after sitting cross-legged for so long during diner. Looking out over the river, witnessing a beautiful sunset, he cleared his throat.

"You've been to Pargan country before?"

Wufei raised an eyebrow, obviously having expected something else to be said.

"Just once. It is just the passage to Libra, you know."

"Really? I didn't know Duo wanted to return to his home..." Heero frowned. He wasn't sure where Duo was coming from. Wasn't it Epyon? He didn't think Libra was an acknowledged state or country; he couldn't recall Darlian ever mentioning it.

Wufei pursed his lips a little and nodded. "Something about the Legends of the Five he wants to research, with the girl being a Princess and all."

"Relena isn't a Princess," Heero said. "She's the daughter of..."

"I do not know and I do not care," the other cut him off. Heero frowned, but as they were on the subject of Relena anyway, he took a deep breath and thanked the other for coming to her rescue.

Again a terse nod; the man was as tense as a bow string. Did he feel threatened or something?

"My honor towards her has been restored," Wufei said. "Those bandits were Trent's accomplices, they were hardly worth killing. They dared to lay their hands on the girl, a crime for which they have paid with their lives. Now I only need to restore my honor towards you."

"What do you mean? You don't need to restore any honor," Heero answered, baffled, but recalled at the same time Duo's remark about Wufei's intricate honor system and knew he had offended the warrior by telling him that he didn't need to restore it. Heero hadn't taken offense to Wufei's behavior when they first met each other, but apparently their opinions differed. Wufei simply snorted.

"You come from Nataku, right?"

Wufei wasn't particularly fazed by the sudden change of subject. "Yes, I am. I was trained and educated in the most sacred and ancient arts of fighting, strategy and tactics, but also in the most wondrous and strict traditions of our culture."

"How was your country occupied?"

"It was not," Wufei said, jaw tight, as if he had to force out the words. "We did not allow it to be occupied."

Heero didn't know why the other was so distant and tense, but it was obvious he had a bunch of skeletons in his closet, and even more nightmares about Khushrenada and his army than he held for possible. Bluntly, he asked outright what happened. Wufei wasn't the one to sugarcoat his words, so he wasn't going to tiptoe around him either.

"We destroyed our own lands," Wufei said and looked at the river again. The sun had already set, and a faint moon had taken its place. The hilt of Wufei's sword caught a bit of light and flickered. Heero hadn't even seen the sword lying there -- it had been hidden so well that he could've been killed without noticing.

"We destroyed our own lands and houses, buildings and possessions," he murmured. "There would be nothing for Khushrenada to conquer, and when he entered our country he found nothing but rubble and debris. He was not amused."

After a short moment of silence, Wufei continued. "I challenged him to a duel, and he accepted -- but I was overconfident, immature, and not ready to face him. I was defeated, and my honor was... brutally violated. I had lost everything in front of my tribe, ashamed to the very core of my being."

"Our tribe leader told Khushrenada to go away, as there was nothing to conquer for him. He simply laughed and wanted to enslave us, incorporate us in his army and to die for his cause. We all refused, of course. At the same moment that he ordered his men to capture us all, the mage of our tribe unleashed his dortang."

Heero was fascinated, despite the dry, distant tone of Wufei's voice. He was re-telling the fate of his homeland, not re-living it; though he stared suspiciously terse at the horizon, not at Heero.

"Detonation," he guessed.

"Detonation." Wufei nodded. "Not as strong as Duo's, though, but still strong enough to destroy the majority of our tribe...our nation, our people. The survivors were killed by the Treize Faction... I was the only one to escape."

There's something not human about us. Heero shivered. Wufei had survived pure, unleashed magical power, and the eradication of his own tribe and nation. Though it was a horrible decision they made on their own, to not fall into the hands of the usurper at all cost, Wufei had survived it -- and ended up in Duo's group.

"If you are cold, you better get back to the fire."

Heero wasn't cold, but instinctively felt that the conversation was over. He decided to respect Wufei's mannerisms and left him at the riverbank to ponder.

The campfire was burning low, giving off a nice, comfortable warmth. Relena had already made herself a nice bed at a little distance; the pillows and colorful blankets new to Heero. Just like her new clothes, they were probably a gift from Catherine. Only Duo was around the fire, and he was moving with his hands, face frowned in utmost concentration.

Assuming that Relena was already asleep, Heero lowered his voice and avoided making any noise as he sat down next to the mage.

"What are you doing?"

Duo didn't even look up. "I'm trying to figure out something."

"Something what? A puzzle? A riddle?"

"This." Duo opened his hands and showed Heero shards of an unknown material. He poked at it. It looked as fragile as porcelain and felt as smooth as metal, but it was neither one of them.

"What is it?"

"Gundanium," Duo said and he beamed at Heero. "It hasn't been recovered for millennia and I have a handful of gundanium, right here and right now."

"I'm happy for you," Heero said dryly. "What can you do with it?"

"Prove that Sanq exists," Duo answered, deadpan. Heero rolled with his eyes.

"Just because of something you found? Where did you find it, anyway? In the dungeon?"

"It's the key to Sanq," Duo said, mildly irritated. He didn't like being ridiculed. "It's believed that the legendary Five left keys, riddles and clues just in case Sanq would go down -- and their premonition came true. I'm sure Khushrenada is looking for it as well. He believes in Sanq too."

"Sanq is something only simple people believe in," Heero said derogatively, conveniently skipping the fact that Darlian had believed in it as well -- his last words to Relena had been no less of an urgent message to find the Kingdom of Sanq. Heero refused to believe that Darlian was simple and na?e, so he chose to ignore it.

"If believing in hope and peace is something only simple people believe in," Duo replied, "then I would be happy to be a simple person. I've seen enough death and destruction around me as it is, and if I can bring something to this world that will give people hope and faith again, I certainly will. The Kingdom was lost once, we can find it, and make sure that we won't lose it again. We can't afford ourselves to lose it again."


"If Khushrenada destroys Sanq, the whole world will come to its end," Duo answered. "Because that will mean all hope and peace is trampled by his greedy feet, and we would have nothing to live for. End of hope, end of time."

"Duo, not many people know it exists anyway. How can you destroy something that's not even there?"

"It is there. Sanq exists. We will find it, and secure it before Khushrenada can get his paws on it. If he finds it before us..." Duo frowned. "Hope should never be lost to the world."

His hands moved to the slivers of gundanium again, and he tried to fit the shards together, holding the pieces against one another and shifting them. He turned to work on the puzzle again, trying to fit the shards together. It wasn't the end of their conversation, but Heero didn't want to talk about Sanq and hope and the end of the world. He just wanted to sit next to Duo and watch him work. Their knees and shoulders touched, Heero was leaning into Duo to look at his hands. The Fire mage was too absorbed in the fascinating puzzle, and Heero regretted that there wouldn't be another kiss -- besides, any of the others could return any moment. It did bother him though, that Duo hadn't taken any effort to talk to him, or at least try to get close to him. Was Duo interested in the first place? The silence was far from uncomfortable, and he scooted a little closer to Duo, who briefly looked up, smiled, and turned back to work again. Heero would simply watch, and at the same time admire Duo's hair and his eyes, narrowed in concentration, and the little tip of his tongue sticking out between his lips.

They reached Pargan country the next day. The borders weren't closed, even though members of the Treize Faction patrolled around, demanding every traveler offer up toll money -- everyone except for those with a certain white scarf around their arm. If messengers were kept from their work, heads were going to roll. The quickest way to spread information was to hire a messenger; people lost faith in pigeons a long time ago as they ended up far more often as dinner than in the recipient's till.

Quatre paid the toll and they passed without a problem. Both mages received strange looks; even without their staffs in hand -- both on Mercurius' back -- it was fairly obvious what they were. Suddenly, an elder man disbanded himself from a group of soldiers who had just confiscated three wooden chests, picking through their contents. The owner, judging from his clothing a trader, hopped from foot to foot complaining about the waste of time.

Almost unnoticeably, Heero moved his sollevar to his right hand and made sure he had a good grip on the weapon. The elder man was coming straight at them -- he was scrawny and ugly, with a bony face and thin, tangled white hair. He was clad in a uniform that didn't look like any of the Treize Faction ones; a blue chest plate and tight, light gray pants. He looked preposterous and Heero wondered why the man hadn't keeled over from the weight of the chest plate.

"Esshan-dar Duo of Maxwell Church?" The man bowed impressively, all but doubling over while he moved with his arms as if flailing. "My name is Quinze, I am the commander of the Treize Faction stationed here in beautiful Pargan country. Our exalted leader, esshouin Treize Khushrenada, would be honored if you would accept his invitation to visit him."

Duo, seated on Mercurius, looked down on the man whose face was split in two by a gigantic hooknose. The horse even stepped away from him, bouncing. Duo tugged at the reins and steered the animal back, but not too quickly.

"I do have to decline the invitation," he said, voice low yet easy to overhear from a distance. "Do give the esshouin my regards and all the other formalities, yadda, yadda, yadda. I have other things to attend to, and I'm needed at the Church."

Quinze pursed his lips, a dark look crossing his face. "Esshan-dar, I beseech you to reconsider. Libra will be the next target if you choose to ignore this invitation. You are being seen as a representative authority of Libra, authorized to negotiate on behalf of..."

"Libra isn't a country," Duo interrupted him rudely, "it's a location standing outside of every law. We live there in peace and tranquility, and we do not seek out contact with the world."

"After Catalonia Castle, I think that view has changed," Quinze answered dryly. Duo shot him a glare, then tugged at the reins and nudged Mercurius into a gallop, away from the commander. Neither Quatre or Trowa acknowledged Quinze, and Wufei ignored the man as if he were a fly on a wall. Heero memorized Quinze's face; he had the distinct feeling that trouble was coming from this, and the commander would be the first one to go if things got out of hand.

The inn Duo had sought out was small, but tidy. To Heero, every inn was beginning to look the same, and even Relena had lost her enthusiasm with every new room. He certainly liked traveling around and seeing so much of the world, and an inn was to be preferred over sleeping under a hedge -- maybe he was just getting biased. It was hard for him to believe that he once had felt at home in Romefeller country, content to stay in one place, at one farm.

He wanted to ask Relena about the picnic basket, but she was already on her way to the bath room. Using the water basin in his own room, Heero freshened himself up and changed shirts. When he dried off his hands, he heard noises coming from downstairs -- yelling, a high-pitched female scream, glass and porcelain shattering in pieces. Grabbing his sollevar, Heero rushed down the stairs -- to see the living room packed with members of the Treize Faction, all neatly aligned, weapons in hand. A waitress tried to clean up the mess of broken glass, but the innkeeper pulled her away.

In front of Treize Faction soldiers stood five people. Heero quickly counted them and tried to gauge how dangerous they were. The woman in a dark midnight robe with chestnut hair draped stylishly over her shoulders had to be a mage. There was a similar embroidered, white pattern on her sleeves and hems as Quatre. Next to her stood a man with sideburns, lips pursed, an impatient look on his face, overall conceited. On his right was a man who could be his elder brother; though his hair was curled, he had sideburns as well and looked to be in his late forties, his eyes darting through the room.

His eyes were focused, however, on with the silver mask. Heero had never seen such a man before. He was dressed in fiery red robes, no black, reaching to his ankles but left open in the front, showing pristine white pants and black, knee-high boots. The mask covered the top half of his face, leaving Heero to wonder how the man was able to see. His platinum blond hair was waist length, neatly groomed and held together with a red tie. In the middle was another man, tall, gingerbread hair and smooth, flawless facial features. A royal, important aura emanated from him, all but oozing power and domination. His clothing was richly embroidered, made of the finest fabrics: a midnight blue jacket combined with similar white pants and knee-high boots as the masked man, and his dark purple cape sported many golden buttons and bands. He was looking at Duo.

"Esshouin Khushrenada," Duo said. "Such a pleasure."

Heero's knuckles turned white. So this was Khushrenada? Alive, standing right here in front of him? The man who had given the orders to burn down the Darlian farm? He wanted to jump at him and kill the man on the spot, but a strong hand grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back. It was Wufei; he silently shook his head.

"You are very difficult to get a hold of, esshan-dar Duo of Maxwell Church. I guess I have to thank you as well; it's been a while since my curiosity has been...tickled this much."

"What is it, esshouin?" Duo asked rudely. "Don't you have anything to burn down? Churches, houses, farms?"

There was uproar in the row of soldiers; some growled or snorted, clearly not appeased by Duo's way of talking.

"I suggest you shut your mouth," one was brave enough to yell out loud, voice echoing throughout the small parlor. Khushrenada himself didn't seem to be offended at all; instead, he chuckled lightly.

"To the point, I like that," he said. "Crude, but to the point. No, esshan-dar, I have other and better things to do, like shaping this world to my vision and image."

"You mean, killing everyone who doesn't agree to your 'rule'," Duo gave back. "Whatever you have in mind Khushrenada, Libra will be the last place where you'll be welcomed and where you can spread your tyranny around. We aren't bound to any law, and you have no business going around threatening to target it!"

The increasing dark tone of his voice made the soldiers feel uncomfortable, even Khushrenada himself. The man wasn't a fool -- he sensed that something was in the air that was growling and rearing its head, even though it wasn't physically present. He even went as far as to take a step back -- a very small one, but a step back nonetheless.

"You are exposing Libra to an attack yourself if you refuse to negotiate with me."

"You have two mages," Duo said, nodding at the woman and the man in the silver mask. "I have far more to fear from you and your people than you have of me. Libra is of no interest to you."

Duo's sing-song Epyon accent was clearly audible. Epyon had been one of the first countries to be overrun violently. Khushrenada had attacked it first because of its rich resources, and when he had the government in his grasp, he used the men to form his army -- anyone opposing would be sold in slavery, if not ending up dead. The woman in the dark blue gown stepped forward and put a slender hand on Khushrenada's arm. She whispered something in his ear. He had the decency to look a little disturbed after the woman had spoken, but then a cunning smirk crossed his lips.

"I see I have gravely misjudged you, dorein'ang'essuyin," he said. A greater and deeper silence couldn't have fallen in the inn -- that was, after the sounds of breaking dishes and mugs and the collective, heavy gasps had died down. Everyone was nailed to the floor.

Heero frowned. What was going on? The only sound he caught was Quatre sipping his tea. They were standing eye to eye with the greatest usurper of all time and the mage was sipping his tea!

"Death magic," the innkeeper whispered and he sweated like a pig. He nervously laced his fingers together as if he wanted to pray. The shards of broken pottery reached to his ankles.

No one else dared to speak or to move. Khushrenada simply smiled at Duo, as if he had discovered something great. Duo showed him a watery smile in return.

"Your...friend is quite the educated one," he finally said.

"Oh yes," Khushrenada agreed. "Though she recognized your dorin'essauyan much easier."

Another gasp went through the audience, though not as profound and shocked as before. Heero suspected it had something to do with Quatre. The Nature mage was undisturbed, though Trowa moved stealthily a little closer to him. Duo's fingers drummed on the table.

"I'm glad she has had at least some training. I don't recall seeing her in Libra."

"It's a shame that you don't remember Lady Une," Khushrenada said. Quatre's eyebrows shot up; now he connected her to the name they had overheard in Auda country. "Though she looked very differently back then."

"You can say that again," Duo muttered. "What is it you want?"

"You wield Death magic," Khushrenada said and another collective gasp went through the parlor. The innkeeper looked about ready to sick up. "That is forbidden, you know."

"I would never have sought out forbidden knowledge if it weren't for you. I can play the blame game just as well, Khushrenada. I made a deal with the devil," Duo said and bared his teeth. "The same devil who came to me after you burned down my home and ruined my life."

Khushrenada looked pensive, ignoring how crudely he had been addressed. "Oh yes, that church." His voice held an infuriating amused tone. "A priest and a nun, right? Such a shame..."

Duo immediately rose to his feet, tipping over his chair. "Father Maxwell and Sister Helen," he barked. "Good, innocent people, who hadn't done anything wrong! They deserved to live, and you and your men took all they had and ended their lives without a second thought!"

"I remember now." Khushrenada studied his nails. "Such a high burning fire, as if burning out all hope and salvation."

Duo trembled and his hands balled into fists. Heero kept a sharp eye on everyone in the room, ready to jump and come to the rescue whenever necessary. He had no illusion that Wufei wasn't doing the same -- the Nataku warrior was as sharp and keen as ever. The man next to Khushrenada had to be Merquise, and Heero cursed mentally. His expression was hard to determine with the mask on his face. Despite Wufei holding him back, fingers digging into his skin, Heero doubted that the other would really be able to stop him -- he was by far the strongest. He narrowed his eyes. Merquise moved his fingers, barely noticeable.

"Stop preparing your Detonation, dorshin'esshun," Duo snarled, and Heero's jaw dropped when Merquise flinched and stiffened, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Whatever Duo's word had meant, it had hit him -- he was fidgeting, but it was difficult to tell if it was from anger or real embarrassment. Lady Une stepped forward, her luxurious dress swirling around her ankles.

"Stop preparing your Icicle blast as well, dorin'essauyava," Quatre said as he stood up. Trowa immediately followed -- he didn't hold any weapons, but it would take only a fraction of a second for him to get his throwing knives out.

"We are not looking for a fight here," Khushrenada said, tone commanding. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand and both his mages relaxed -- apparently. Quatre and Duo, however, remained standing and didn't budge. "I would like to hear your opinion on this."

A soldier handed a flat package to him, a disk wrapped in a piece of cloth. Khushrenada held it up to show it to Duo. It was a large disk of a faintly shimmering metal, missing a few shards here and there.

"Does this look familiar to you? I know you are looking for them too."

Gundanium, Heero's mind provided him. Wufei hissed. His sharp eyes had noticed the same material, and this disk was far more than what Duo had held in his hands. Heero's knuckles had turned white from his grip on the sollevar. He was very glad that Relena hadn't come down yet -- hopefully the bath would take her another hour or so -- he didn't know how she would handle a meeting with the murderer of her father.

Duo refrained from looking too interested, and instead showed Khushrenada an almost bored smile.

"You have a disk," he said. "Good for you."

"Oho, but not just a disk, certainly not," the man said and waved it at Duo. "One of the keys to the Kingdom of Sanq. That's something you would love to get your hands on, right?"

"You seem to know me better than I do myself," Duo replied. He was dying to get his hands on the gundanium disk, Heero could see it from this distance -- which only served him to wonder how he was able to read the Fire mage so well. His mind was quick to supply him with memories of how he had been studying Duo, simply looking at him... very recently, around their campfire when their knees and shoulders had touched. The kisses they shared... even if it had been awkward... he wasn't blushing, but his face felt heated. He swallowed, ignoring Wufei's estranged look, and forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand.

"If you do not want to agree with me or cooperate with me, you will be opposing me and I will regard you as my enemy." Khushrenada handed the disk back to the soldier, after carefully wrapping it back up in the cloth. "No matter what you say, Libra is a country, a state, and I am going to conquer it. You can have the key to Sanq if you give me free passage. Otherwise, I will find my way in more... violently."

"Absolutely not," Duo hissed sharply. "You can keep your key! How dare you come here and ask of me to squander a whole society, a nation, that I built up myself?"

"Like I said, if you do not give me free passage or are not willing to negotiate, I will find it with my army and force my way in." Khushrenada's face was deceptively neutral. His voice didn't even sound threatening, but everyone knew what his words exactly meant. Duo was red in his face from pent-up anger.

"You do not threaten me, you do not assault Libra," he said. "If you do, you'll die. Your assault on Libra will be the last one you'll ever charge."

Some unrest waved through the soldiers, some shifting nervously with their weapons, touching their swords or maces. Merquise only had to look over his shoulder once to fix everyone in place again, though some shuffling of feet was still audible.

"I have power, Duo of Maxwell Church," the taller man said. Heero noticed him leaving out any title, but Duo didn't seem to care. "I know exactly how strong you are. I know exactly where to begin and how to charge Libra and how to get it into my hands. I only ask of you to give it to me, so we can spare ourselves the trouble of wasting weapons and people's lives."

"You don't care for that either way," Duo replied. "You don't need Libra. Our knowledge will not fall into your hands."

"We will have to see about that," Khushrenada said. "I will give you until tonight to open the gates to Libra and let me in. The choice is yours."

He turned around and finally left with all of his men, Une and Merquise glaring at Duo one more time before following him out of the inn. Quatre fell back into his chair, releasing the breath he had been holding. Heero jumped forward to join them, immediately followed by Wufei. Duo was trembling, and the look on his face was so dark and ominous that it reminded Heero of what the Fire mage had said in the dungeons of Catalonia Castle: "Demons face me, Heero Yuy. They face me."

With this particular look on his face, Heero would be afraid of Duo as well -- it promised pain and death to anyone who bothered him. It took him some veritable courage to tap Duo on his shoulder.

"Are you all right?"

Duo whipped his head around, as he had been watching the soldiers' retreating back, the blue dress of Une and the red robes of Merquise the last thing to see.

"Yes, I'm fine," he said a little too fast and flopped down, almost dropping himself on Quatre's lap. He coughed and sat down on another chair. Heero immediately sat down next to him.

"What was that all about? I heard some noise, and the soldiers..." A female voice asked, and everyone looked up. Relena stood next to the table, a towel wrapped around her still damp hair, looking frazzled and confused. "Were those Khushrenada's men?" Her voice turned shrill.

"Yes, and Khushrenada himself," Duo cut in before Heero could speak up. If he didn't know any better, Duo sounded... jealous?

"He was?" A grimace marred her face. For a moment, her pain and own anger were visible on her face, the pain of witnessing her father die, the farm burning down, the anger at someone for turning her life upside-down... but it was gone as soon as it appeared, replaced by her usual calm senses of acquiescence and acceptance. "What did he do here?" She sat on the table next to Wufei, who scooted away from her. She ignored him.

"Basically launching into a villain speech on how he's going to trample Libra," Duo said. He still sounded annoyed, and with that hint of jealousy Heero picked up earlier. Strange, he usually wasn't susceptible at all to such details in voices.

"But that's horrible," Relena said. "How... but there are all mages there! They can stop his army -- if they unleash their magic..."

"There aren't that many left," Duo gritted through his teeth. His hands were on a mug in front of him, and the object rattled on the table top because of his trembling hands. "And not strong enough to withstand an entire army."

She still looked confused, and so was Heero. The girl seemed to sink into her own thoughts as no one spoke, and Heero was busy assessing the situation. They were going to fight, and they were only many men? How many mages could assist them? He realized what he was doing and stopped mid-thought. He had been a servant, helping out on a farm, and now he was thinking about the best ways to attack or defend.

Quatre was served another cup of tea, and the waitress pointedly ignored Duo who was all but strangling the mug in his hands. She ran away from the table, and people herded together in small groups, rumors and whispers filling the room. The Fire mage radiated annoyance and anger, and the rest ignored him as well, to allow him to calm down.

"Who were those two with him? Merquise and..."

"Lady Une," Quatre answered, his voice friendly and calm as usual, but with certain... reservation to it. He shot a glance at Duo, but as he was staring into his mug, the Nature mage deemed it safe to continue. "She's very loyal to Khushrenada, the Twelve know why. She studied at Libra and she was a very diligent student. I remember her now; I have taught her a few classes quite a while ago, and she was quite spoken of in the community. I believe they saw her as a prodigy."

"Pfft -- prodigy, right. Lady Une is a dorin'essauyan herself, that's why she recognized Quatre so well," Duo explained, albeit muttering. "Her ice magic isn't half as impressive as Quatre's. She's more prone to make some ice cubes in your drink than a full Icicle blast like him here."

"Duo, quit it."

He hmpf-ed, and Quatre continued. "I recognized her as a Nature mage the moment I saw her, but couldn't place her face. She looked very different when she was in Libra; I vaguely remember that she wore her hair braided in buns, typically Ventei country style. I never asked if she hailed from there, however... We teach and learn in Libra, we don't interrogate. Nonetheless, she was a good and punctual student and if I recall correctly she was very efficient with her Ice magic. I had the feeling though, that she was looking for someone to look up to, to bind herself to and be loyal until the end of times. I'm afraid she found that one in Khushrenada."

"She simply tied herself to the winning party," Heero snorted.

"I doubt it," Quatre objected. "She would have tied herself to either Duo or me if we had just as great and glorious goals as Khushrenada, I guess."

"But what about Libra?" Relena asked.

"It was an ultimatum," Trowa said.

Duo grunted, still staring at his mug.

"Quatre," was all he said.

"I know," the other mage sighed. "We'll go."

They left as soon as they finished packing, which took as little time as usual. Trowa saddled up both horses quickly and efficiently, dividing the luggage evenly. Relena added her bundle of clothes and blankets, confessing to Heero embarrassedly that she left the picnic basket behind at Catalonia Castle, forgetting about it in the tumultuous situation. Though he couldn't care much for the loss of the basket -- they didn't have that much money left anyway -- Relena blamed herself and mourned for the loss, as it has been the last lingering remains of her life as it used to be.

Heero took his sollevar with him when he sought out Duo and found the fire mage nibbling on a piece of bread, gathering his robes and some personal belongings.

"Heading straight for Libra is exactly what Khushrenada expects," he said. "There must be another way we can do this."

"He'll expect it, oh yes, and I'll be happy to live up to his expectations," Duo answered dryly. He shredded the piece of bread, a few ducklings pottering around and flocking to his feet, quacking loudly. "There is no other way. We have to go and lock the gates ourselves. We can change the gates so he won't find us, but I don't know how long that will hold. Sooner or later, he'll come, one way or the other. His attempt to intimidate me has backfired, but I need to draw up my plans and execute them."

"I can't protect you if I don't know how Libra is build and how its defenses are," Heero said. The look on Duo's face was a mixture of surprise, endearment, amusement, and gratitude all at the same time.

"You... as in 'all of you'," Heero finished lamely. He held his breath when Duo put his hand on his face, touching his cheek. With his thumb, Duo stroked his skin, touching the corner of his lips and the tip of his nose. Heero had witnessed the Detonation in the dungeon; he knew very well that Duo could take care of himself.

"Thank you," he said and for a moment Heero thought Duo was going to do something else, as the mage cocked his head. Wufei yelled "We are ready!" and he answered it with an "All right, we're coming!"

Heero stared at Duo when he walked away lightly, as easy as nothing had happened. The touch on his skin felt pleasant, a light imprint on his cheek. When they reached Libra, Heero made a mental note to ask Duo what this was all about. He didn't like having mixed feelings, or receiving mixed signals. He was convinced that he knew what he was feeling, or at least recognized it -- but even if he couldn't name all of his emotions, he was sure of one thing: he wanted to stay close to Duo. And rake his fingers through his hair. And to kiss him again and again. Heero blinked, and jogged after Duo to join the others.

They left Pargan country in the middle of the night, unhindered. Heero was prepared for a surprise attack, or Quinze setting up a trap for them, but the night was peaceful and quiet. He could almost imagine the world to be like this forever; without fear, without war. Wufei had told him in passing that they were heading for the mountains; Heero had never traveled this far before. He tried to recall the map in Darlian's living room, but couldn't remember if he had seen any mountains being drawn onto it. It was almost surreal -- to him, mountains seemed to be the end of the world.

Small light orbs danced around the group, especially around the horses, to make sure they could see where they were going. Vayeate's determined step followed by Mercurius' tranquil one evolved into a pattern that dragged Heero through the deep, silent hours of the night. No one spoke, sensing that the atmosphere was quite tense. Relena sometimes looked at him with unasked questions clear in her eyes, but she didn't voice them and he didn't initiate a conversation either.

The road was going up; the horses snorted from the extra exertion. Duo, who had been riding Mercurius, dismounted the horse, immediately followed by Relena dismounting Vayeate. Though the large horse was cut out for physical labor, she didn't want to exhaust him -- not that her negligible weight would have mattered much. The road was steep and less well-traveled, littered with rocks and boulders. Trowa told Heero in a rare moment of interaction that this area was prone to avalanches, hence the lesser accessibility. After what seems to be a whole lifetime of toiling, the group finally halted on a small clearing.

"All right, get back, just a little." Duo herded them all together. Despite the numerous light bulbs, Heero still couldn't see as clear as in broad daylight. The clearing was completely surrounded by rough mountain walls, as high as the sky, covered with patches of leathery dark green leaves. It baffled him that nature had found its way up here; he could even make out some tree stumps, but the wood appeared to be petrified.

Quatre walked towards the center of the clearing, his staff in hand. That was an unexpected twist -- Heero had been sure that Duo would open the gate... or whatever gate there was. Raising his staff above his head, Quatre made a full circle with it, a 'woosh' sound splitting the air, rippling it. Heero and Relena followed the scene attentively, both their mouths falling open when an orb appeared in the midnight sky. At Quatre's gesture, the orb was divided in two halves and started to spin in the air in a continuous circle that made one dizzy when looking at it for too long. A circle encompassed the halves, circling around them in the opposite direction. It made a strange metallic noise as it hovered above them.

"This is the gate Khushrenada wants," Duo explained, and his voice held a mocking tone to it. "He's very welcome to use it as many times as he wants -- it will lead him to exactly the same spot every time he tries to use it. It won't stop or deter him for too long I'm afraid, not if Merquise has paid proper attention to his classes...but it buys us some time."

Heero and Relena exchanged confused looks, magic still too complicated for them. He figured he could ask for a more in-depth explanation when they had reached Libra. Relena pulled her coat closer -- Catherine Bloom had been truly generous, but hadn't paid much attention to suitable fabric for the dresses; silk and linen were far too thin for the cold mountain winds.

Duo was indeed the one to open the real gate to the mages' refuge; at his command, a triangle of blue and purple rays cleaved the darkness and connected with each other, shaping itself into a portal. A spiral of the same purple light was visible, and that was it -- Heero scratched the back of his head. Were they really supposed to go through that? Relena claimed Heero's hand, slightly trembling. Even after all the magic she witnessed, a gate leading to nowhere in the middle of the mountains was still scary. Heero wouldn't have trusted it for one bit if Duo hadn't been the one creating the portal, so he gently returned the gesture, squeezing a little.

Wufei poked him, ignoring how the girl was leaning on Heero. Quatre and Duo had already gone through, taking the horses with them -- the animals hadn't protested for a second. Trowa calmly walked through the portal, his bow and quiver the last thing they saw of him before the portal engulfed him and only the purple spiraling light was visible. Subconsciously, Heero took a deep breath and guided Relena through the portal, holding his sollevar in front of him, just in case... and blinked from the intensely bright sunlight, a calm, warm wind rippling his clothes.

"How...?" Relena stared at the lush grass under her feet -- they were standing on a slightly sloped hill. For a moment, Heero thought he was back in Romefeller country, judging from the green pastures, but this was a deep valley surrounded by mountains, and in the depth below them there was a very small village.

"Come on, Heero!" Duo yelled, bubbling with enthusiasm as he waved. Trowa and Quatre were smiling, feeling at home here. The sky was clear blue, an abundance of birds and butterflies flying and floating around, colorful flowers everywhere. Heero shielded his eyes from the bright sun, marveling at the intense beauty of the nature all around him. Taking Relena with him, they went down the hill, not even leaving footsteps in the perfect green grass.

In Heero's mind, Libra had taken the shape and image of something grand; a gigantic city with sky-rising towers, otherworldly technology, unequalled grandeur... but when he passed through the large gate, it just looked like a regular monastery to him. The hooves of both horses clacked on the pavement, reminiscent of every other time they had entered a city. The main building, which seemed to encompass a small village, was erected from dark red bricks, faded into gray and black from the passage of time. The roof pans were a striking red, mixed with blue and black ones in a nonsensical pattern. Vines and ivy grew all over the place, curling around the wooden shutters, covering the majority of the walls. It wasn't hard to see, however, that most walls were rather deplorable and weak; a large part of the roof was even missing.

The large courtyard was crowded by people, gathered around the inevitable fountain in the center -- though it wasn't working. It was a large granite pond with a statue of a man with his hands raised up to the sky as in offering. Some people were pointing and gasping, mages-in-training dropping their chores to excitedly watch the group. Duo's and Quatre's names were mentioned abundantly, both in awe and in jealousy.

Not many of the people present wore mages robes; not even those of mages-in-training. Heero recalled Duo saying that there weren't many of them left; these were all commoners, clad in rather simple clothes in the style of the country they hailed from. It was a rather interesting mixture of styles, and he regretted that he wasn't able to tell which one was from what country.

Two young kids tugged at the horses' reins, asking what breeds they were and what their names were. Duo told the kids to bring the horses to the stables and unload them; the small boys cheered and beamed at the Fire mage. Heero trusted his judgment and allowed Vayeate to be taken care of by the kids who were really impressed by the horse's height.

Quatre turned around to address him. "We're going to our rooms," he said. "I'll have guest rooms prepared for you and Relena as well, Heero. You're safe here."

Safe? He wanted to throw his head back and laugh out loud. Khushrenada had given them an ultimatum, threatened them, and Quatre them they were safe? Did they really think that one false gate was going to keep the man from finding them? Trowa shot him a glare, looking at Heero as if he had gone crazy. The archer shook his head and said: "No one will enter Libra without our permission. Not even Khushrenada, no matter what he says about it."

Trowa didn't elaborate and walked away with Quatre, the mage using his staff as support. That left either Wufei or Duo to ask, but the Nataku warrior had already disappeared and Duo was surrounded by children -- a surprising large number of them, all asking for his attention, tugging at his robes, hope and enthusiasm brimming in their eyes. Relena looked endeared and amused at the same time.

He caught the looks he and his sollevar received, but the mythical weapon didn't cause any commotion. Relena made sure to not leave his sight, her eyes darting around curiously. Two young girls, hair braided and put up in buns, approached them. Giggling in sight of Heero, they said: "Princess, your room is ready." They giggled again, but more out of nervousness than out of disrespect. One of the girls even sketched a bow, and Relena frowned.

"I'm not a Princess," she said, friendly but determinedly. "My name is Relena, and I would like you to address me as such."

"Yes Princess Relena," the girls answered in unison and she heaved a mock-sigh. Heero just shrugged and followed her. Princess or not, Relena needed his protection, just as he promised Darlian.

Despite Quatre claiming that mages did all of their work themselves 'to build character', there were an awful lot of servants and maids walking around the hallways, busying themselves with mundane chores: lugging baskets with laundry or provisions around, carrying buckets of water, dirty dishes, sweeping, cleaning. Heero had no idea where all these people came from, or where they stayed. The two girls, skipping now as they giggled, led the way to the southern wing of the monastery, through a dazzling maze of stairs and corridors.

"I'll definitely get lost in here," Relena mumbled after they took another turn. Her sigh was one of relief when finally the girls stopped in front of an oak door.

"Princess Relena's room," one of the girls said, her voice holding the same singing accent as Duo's.

"Warrior Heero's room," the other girl sang in front of the door opposite Relena's. Warrior? He blinked a few times. Relena shot him a pitiful look, and then shrugged; apparently, people in Libra liked to address anyone with a title. Taking out a bronze key out of her apron, the girl opened the door and showed Heero a rather large, but sparsely decorated room.

The bed took up the most space, looking very comfortable and laden with blankets and pillows. Next to the bed was a writing table with a small chair pulled up to it, writing utensils on the desk. A small chest, a large cupboard and a low dresser completed the furniture. On the tiled floor was a carpet, depicting some kind of battle scene -- fitting, though the colors were faded and he couldn't make out exactly what was going on, except for some kind of humongous tentacle monster being defeated. At least, he hoped it was being defeated.

"Dinner will be at eight," the girl said and left the room, waiting for her friend to join her before they both skipped off, their singing enchanting the hallway. Heero left his room to check up on Relena. Whoever had decorated her room, Heero was glad he or she hadn't ended up decorating his -- it held similar furniture, but with lots more frills to it. The pillows and blankets were brightly colored, sporting dazzling striped and spotted patterns. A huge vase filled with flowers stood on the desk and the carpet on the floor was as bright as the bed linen, depicting a flower field in a forest.

"What do you say about getting something to eat? It's not dinnertime yet, but maybe we can mooch something off of the kitchen." Relena's dresses were neatly displayed on the bed; she picked a pinkish one up, holding it front of her. If she was upset that the girls had called Heero outright a warrior, she didn't show it. He had difficulties reading her eyes -- she could be as clammed up as Duo. Why was he comparing so many things to Duo?

"Let's see if we can find our way back. Do you want to change first?"

She pursed her lips in thought, debating between changing or not. Throwing him an apologetic smile, he took the hint and left her room. It didn't take her long to change, and when she emerged from her room she didn't only wear the pinkish dress, but had also remodeled her hair, confirming the strands to one braid instead of her usual hairdo.

To both their relief, finding the way back wasn't as difficult as they had feared. Walking around the monastery's large halls wasn't that uncomfortable; it was nice and cool inside. Heero wondered how cold it would be here in the winter; these type of bricks isolated natural heat, lowering the temperatures in the hallways to chilly. As they emerged from their wing, they entered the large center court, pleasantly crowded with people of all kinds.

Women of good standing were showing off their beautiful dresses, the Nature mages under them wearing theirs covered with the typical white, intricate embroidery, chattering entertainingly about the day that magic would be accepted throughout the whole world. One woman, with strawberry blond hair curled in twisted braids that reached over her shoulders, looked directly at Heero and smiled at him.

Mages-in-training were freely showing their spells, hands covered in either liquid fire or chunks of ice, either faces frowned in concentration or encouraging one another, even laughing good-naturedly every now and then. Servants bustled about, simply dressed, and other men busied themselves with other chores, ranging from carpentry to simply delivering messages.

Children were running around, playing with everything they could find, buckets, pebbles or sticks, pretending to either fight valiantly in a tournament or destroy evil usurpers with powers beyond anyone's imagination. Relena asked one of the children where the dining hall was, and they continued their way, both ignoring the people bowing to them as they passed.

It wasn't eight o'clock yet, but no one in the kitchen was taken aback by Heero's request if they could be served something to eat. He didn't want to assume they had been anticipating it, because only after a few minutes that they were seated, the cooks brought out a hefty serving of dishes: warm bread with garlic butter, sweet potatoes with mashed peas, poached fish and a large roast beef, all accompanied with vegetables.

Heero ate to his heart's content, but Relena just moved her food around, poking with her fork at the fish, and slicing one of the potatoes into minuscule dices. She looked tired and worried, and Heero put his fork down.

"Won't you tell me what's on your mind?"

She startled, and it took her a few seconds before she mustered up her usual smile.

"I'm fine. It's just...everything that has happened. I...I don't know how to deal with it."

"I know you can deal with them just fine." Heero realized how brusque he sounded, but it was too late to take his words back. Relena still smiled, but the flash of disappointment on her face was unmistakable, though quickly gone. She had probably thought to marry him one day, he thought, despite their different social ranks. Their lives had been turned completely upside down, and with no conclusive end in the foreseeable future. There was a war going on, and Duo believed her to be a Princess of a mythical Kingdom...

"I don't know how to deal with it, Heero. I can't return to my home country yet, where I hoped to have lived for the rest of my life and marry, have children..." She hesitated, then continued. "Instead I'm with a group of mages, an archer and two warriors," she said, a little sourly.

"I'm not a warrior," Heero was quick to answer.

"Please stop denying it, Heero," she whispered. She left the rest of her food untouched. "The way you handle that weapon, the way you... thrust yourself into a fight. I've seen it first-hand, and... I don't know how to deal with it. I don't know why it was so wrong of me to dream of a simple life with a husband and children..."

"There's nothing wrong with that dream." He shook his head. "Nothing wrong at all. What I did was to protect you, Relena."

"I know." Her sigh was heavy. "I know, and it's not... I don't know how to say it, Heero. I don't want people to fight, not even for me. I don't want any bloodshed, I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"Getting hurt is inevitable in a war," Heero said. "Especially when a usurper adds country after country to his empire, and isn't open to reason."

"I saw... a certain look on your face," she said, and her cheeks turned a bright red, mismatching her dress. "That look of fierce protection, that look that promises pain to anyone who touches what you deem yours."

This was actually the first uncomfortable silence that fell between them. Heero had stopped eating, his mind racing about what Relena could be hinting to.

"I saw quite a few of them, but they weren't meant for me."

"Relena," he said, not knowing what else to say. She pushed her plate away, but she didn't seem offended, just... disappointed and sad.

"It's all right," she said and tried to muster up a brave smile. "I won't force you to anything, Heero. I never wanted to. If I learned anything in life, it's being forced into something never works out. It's not the right thing to do. I just wanted... to be happy, myself and you. I want you to be happy. I...simply never thought that... he would be the one catching your love."

He? "Wait a minute, Relena," Heero spoke hastily. "I'm not even sure... Relena, please..."

"I'm sure he'll answer your feelings," she said, and her smile turned wistful. "I've seen a few fierce, protective looks on his face as well, Heero. His eyes are following you, you're the first he seeks out. You should really try to talk to him."

"I made a promise," Heero answered and raised his head when Relena suddenly stood up, plate in her hand.

"I discharge you from that promise," she said, voice strained. "You're free."

Before he could stop her or say anything, she turned around and walked away, her pace rushed, the pinkish dress flowing in the wind. A few people quickly stepped to the side when she passed, looking confused. It was getting close to eight o'clock and the first dinner guests had arrived. Heero looked at her retreating back, at a loss for words.

How could she discharge him? He made the promise to Darlian, the man who he held in high regard, and he would see to it being fulfilled until the end. She couldn't discharge him that easily, just because she thought he was in love with Duo -- that was a train of thought he didn't want to address at the moment -- and he stood up to leave the dining hall.

The large courtyard was still crowded, but significantly less than earlier. Heero could oversee it effortlessly; no Relena in sight. He noticed Wufei standing close to a woman, of all people. She was the same woman who had smiled at him before; she was a Nature mage, judging from her midnight blue dress with the white embroidery. Wufei's jaw tightened and he glared defiantly at Heero, but he wasn't in the mood to deal with Wufei.

He quickly entered the monastery's wing and searched for Relena, but she was nowhere to be found. After searching for hours without any results, he decided to leave the girl be for now; it was impossible to search every nook and cranny of the building, and if she was in one of the many, many, many rooms, it was going to take him hours and hours more. He briefly contemplated to go look for Duo, but decided against it as well. It was probably better to leave things be at the moment.

Returning to his own room, he flung himself on the bed, his mind mulling the events over and over again, keeping him awake and from dreaming for the remainder of the night.

The next morning brought rain, much to Heero's surprise; he hadn't seen rain in quite a while now. The day of their arrival had been nothing but bright, hot sun -- would the climate here reflect the mood of the citizens of Libra? With that many Nature mages in one place, it could well be a possibility -- or it was just a reflection of the fear of Khushrenada's usurping power. Heero muttered under his breath; he didn't want to think about the esshouin right now. He would get what he deserved -- Heero would cherish the moment he would drive his sollevar into the man's throat.

Deciding not to disturb Relena as her door was closed, Heero went out to get himself some breakfast. He wasn't feeling up to eating the simple porridge and convinced a kind kitchen girl -- she reminded him vaguely of Miidi -- to give him some bread and a dry, spicy sausage. Together with a fairly large jug of milk and a thick slice of cheese, that would have to do until he was feeling hungry again. This time he wanted to search for Duo, and he asked one of the many kids in the courtyard for directions.

Duo's room was the only one inhabited on the second floor. Heero wondered why no one, mage or not, had taken the effort to repair the large holes in the roof, or at least replace the blackened bricks. It looked like a fire had raged here; some of the support beams were as black as charcoal. The door was slightly ajar, and bore the traces of fire as well. Heero knocked on the door, and was answered with a loud "Enter!"

He peeked around the corner when he opened the door. Duo was sitting, with his back towards him, in a large chair behind a writing desk. Light came into the room from three high church windows, with a strange statue in between them. A man on a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, and blood oozing from the wounds where he was nailed to the cross -- Heero didn't recognize it at all. The windows were made out of colorful pieces of glass, each depicting a certain scene; what kind of windows were these?

The room was incredibly spacious, more than triple the size of Heero's room, and he didn't even see a bed. Had Duo assigned the largest room for himself? He couldn't imagine the Fire mage to be this selfish. Duo turned around, hanging half out of his chair, with a pleased expression on his face.

"Good morning, Heero," he said.

"Good morning," Heero returned the sentiment and walked over the large carpet to get to Duo.

There was a mug of that strange 'coffee' concoction that was served here on his desk; Heero had tried it at breakfast, before returning it as quickly as he could -- it burned a hole in his stomach. Duo's fingers were curled around the ear of the large mug, the damp visible. His other hand was on a stack of papers and he had thick walls under his eyes.

"You've been up all night?" Heero hated that he couldn't read. Darlian had taught him the simplest beginnings, but that wouldn't help much here -- Heero was sure that the papers were all written in that Ancient Language Quatre and Duo had talked in before. It still was a great part of any mage's daily speak. The written alphabet resembled the markings on Duo's staff and his own sollevar, strengthening his suspicions about his weapon's origin. If Duo was right about all this Legend thing and he truly was a warrior, then it wouldn't be more than logical to wield a mythical weapon, would it? It would certainly explain why everyone was so apprehensive of it.

"I wasn't lying when I told you that Libra holds more knowledge than anyone or anywhere else," Duo said and rubbed his eyes. "I had Sally turn up most of the documents I wanted."


"You've probably seen her; she's a formidable mage who specializes in Healing. She's mostly in Wufei's vicinity." Duo chuckled as if he just had told an awesome joke. Heero couldn't help but smile; Duo's laughter was contagious.

"What kind of documents?"

"You've learned so much the last few days and still you're in denial, aren't you? Look around and see for yourself, Heero. Open your eyes. I'm not the one and only to see things, and I'm sure you've seen them as well. I only needed these documents to...confirm my findings."

"What findings?" Heero parroted, a little impatiently. He wasn't going to admit to Duo that he wasn't able to read. "I'm not in denial."

Duo frowned a little, his lips pursed as if he was disappointed. His index finger started tapping on a particularly thick document.

"Your country probably will have some reference to the Five Warriors," he said.

"Yes, the Legends of the Five," Heero answered. "There's a fountain in the middle of the capital city with a statue of them. Time has worn off the faces and details, though."

"But of course, it's been so long," Duo said. "Listen, Heero. Those Five are heroes, each and every one of them; they risked their lives to protect their respective countries and defied lots of trouble to unite them into a pact. They founded the Kingdom of Sanq, an everlasting symbol and home of hope and peace."

That was reminiscent of what Dorothy Catalonia had told him, Heero recalled. It seemed ages since he had talked to the girl with the freakish eyebrows and her obsession with war.

"Sanq was lost for humanity when the Five lost against an army of nations wanting to conquer the Kingdom, mostly blind by fables and myths of riches and treasure -- while the only true treasure was eternal peace. It was destroyed by mankind's greed and blood thirst."

"And you wanted to find this Kingdom?" Heero snorted.

"The Kingdom has disappeared, but what is lost, can be found," Duo said, stubbornly repeating his previous words. "You saw Khushrenada in the inn, Heero. He believes in it too -- he has a seal!"

"He knows you're looking for it too," Heero reminded him.

"We're going on a tangent." Duo shook his head. "The Five are heroes, like I said. They were brought together by circumstances to ensure peace and hope for mankind. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was the Twelve, maybe it was another god, coincidence, or whatever have you. Fact is, I believe that the Five are brought back together in this age and era to find and resurrect Sanq, to bring peace and hope back into the world!"

"I still don't see what it has to do with us."

"Don't you see, Heero? When are you going to open your eyes? Each one of the Five has a certain skill, a talent that's above any human's skill or talent. The five of us, we all have something special, something that makes us stand above others." Duo's tone of voice was pensive, with a hint of sadness to it.

"Wufei is the last of his clan and country, and with one exception, unbeaten in combat. Trowa is able to shoot arrows from incredible distances and still hit bull's-eyes, not to mention his ability with throwing knives and his seeming ability to communicate with animals. Quatre, a Nature mage who is proficient in two streams of magic: Ice and Healing. You, the ultimate warrior with strength and stamina."

"And you," Heero added. It made sense, though it was still preposterous. "A Fire mage, and one who wields Death magic."

"A Fire mage, and one who wields Death magic." This time it was sadness in his voice. People were afraid of almost everything magical, not to mention Death magic. Duo was more than probably the last one to wield it; if he was just as proficient with it as his Fire powers, there was no telling what he could do.

"It must be terribly hard for you," Heero said.

Duo wasn't the one to have self-pity. The sadness in his voice wasn't meant for himself; a fighter's mentality shone through in his every action.

"It wasn't hard for me, Heero. It was harder for the others, or anyone else who encountered me." A soft smile graced his lips. His eyes darted to his staff standing next to the desk, the pointed tip menacingly hovering over him. Heero had never asked for the meaning of the words carved into the shaft, and he didn't think now was a fine time either.

The moment of reflection was gone soon, and Duo suddenly beamed at him.

"I'm sure that the five of us are the new Five, destined to bring peace and hope back in this world, or at least rid it of Khushrenada, and stop him from usurping more countries!"

"You don't have definite evidence for that." Heero stepped a little closer. "We just have certain... skills, not powers. It's just coincidence that both you and Quatre are able to wield dual powers instead of one, and Trowa's just an exceptional ranger, and..."

"You're just a farm boy with stamina and strength to outdo an army, who knows how to wield a sollevar without any proper training," Duo added. "Don't play stupid, Heero, you know that's not nor--"

He stopped talking as soon as Heero put his hand on his cheek, leaning into him. He forcefully moved his head away, avoiding looking Heero in the eyes.

"No Heero, you don't know what you're getting yourself into."

"Enough," Heero said. "Enough, Duo. Tell me."

"I'm tired. I need to lie down."

"Don't lie to me."

With the same brusque movement, Duo moved his head back, and his violet eyes were darkened in anger.

"Don't ever accuse me of lying, Heero. I run and I hide, but I never tell a lie."

"Enough," Heero repeated. "I want to see one face, not two, Duo. Tell me."

His eyes softened, but just a little. Duo slumped into his chair, but Heero didn't lose his grip on him. His fingers remained on his cheek, on his smooth skin, a wayward strand of chestnut hair touching his digit.

"I have made mistakes in my life, very grave mistakes." Duo sighed, but he didn't sound sad. "I wasn't able to protect those I had sworn to protect, and because of a very selfish reason... people were punished. I cried and swore that I would do anything to make it all right... even becoming Death itself if needed be."

"And?" Heero urged him to go on.

"Shinigami listened to me and granted my request," Duo answered sourly. "From being a simple Fire mage, I became the only one to wield Death magic, and I have been the God of Death ever since. I will be relieved of my task when I find life."

"The lives of people you need to protect? Is that why you want to find the Kingdom?"

Duo bowed his head. "The God of Death will cease to exist when he finds life. It's his duty to take life, unless it is dead. It's some kind of riddle, some kind of curse...I haven't been able to figure it out. Apparently I can't take someone's life because it's too strong to be taken, and I need to find it."

"I'm around you, and I live," Heero said softly.

"Because you're one of the Five," Duo answered, "even Shinigami himself doesn't think about taking one of the Five. It would be..." He took a deep breath. "Shinigami is the God I answer to, Heero. I'm first and foremost a priest. Go take a look outside if you don't believe me."

"A priest?" Heero was surprised. "But you're a mage..."

Duo shook his head. "Never mind, Heero. I want to get some rest. We all have a lot of work to do if we want to find the Kingdom of Sanq."


His hand slipped from his cheek to his shoulder. Duo looked up again, eyes unreadable.

"No, Heero. It's not worth it. It can't be. If you already don't end up dead one way or another, it's simply not worth it."

He withdrew his hand, but not in disgust or horror. He wasn't even shaking or trembling from Duo's confession; he had never believed in the God of Death, that Shinigami deity Duo had named. He hadn't been afraid of the Fire mage before, he certainly wouldn't start now, even despite learning the truth.

"Please," Duo said.

He had no choice but to leave, and he closed the door behind him. If he thought his feelings had been confused before, there was no way describing them now.

The dreary rain didn't exactly improve Heero's mood, and he kicked a few pebbles to the side, hands balled to fists in his pockets. First Relena, now Duo. He wasn't used to be subjected to his feelings and mulling over them so intensely. What was still left of Heero Yuy, the servant, the farm boy, and what had turned into Heero Yuy, a supposed warrior, a Legend, a member of the Five? It was preposterous.

He always had believed in acting upon his emotions; but his primary emotion was to feel... this deep and warm caring for Duo, the same fierce protection as Relena had said, for him as for her -- for Duo because he wanted to, and for Relena because he promised to. He wasn't enamored with Relena, but respected and appreciated her as the good friend she was. Why was he feeling so much for Duo while barely knowing him... and what he knew of him should be scaring instead of encouraging him.

It was easy to get lost in the monastery and instead of going back to the central courtyard he followed the stairs down, his hand sliding over the ancient oak banister. He had no idea where he would end up, but he figured it out rather fast with the help of the rows and rows of books he saw upon entering; this was the library.

Four mages-in-training gathered around a large rectangular table threw him curious glances, all of them taking a reverent step back when he passed. He all but ignored them; they shuffled the papers in their arms meticulously as they kept staring at them, their robes missing the characteristic embroidery. The atmosphere was very dry here, and heavy. The lack of ventilation would give anyone a headache, but Heero didn't need much time to find the person he was looking for. He already saw the familiar blond standing up on a ladder and rummaging through the top shelf of a rickety bookcase.

As soon as he approached the ladder, Quatre exclaimed a loud "Ah!" and held up a heavy book, as large as his lower arm. "Here you are! An excellent copy of the Book of Legends, and it looks in perfect condition... what's the matter, Heero?"

He should have known that nothing would escape Quatre, especially not a change of mood. The Nature mage seemed to pick up on the slightest changes in one's disposition.

"I need to talk to you," he said harshly. He figured that Quatre was the only person knowledgeable enough to help him. The mage just nodded and stepped down the ladder, cradling the book to his chest.

"We can sit right over there." He pointed at a table with three chairs in the far corner of the library. Only the four mages-in-training were present, and they would need very large ears to be able to overhear them. Heero followed Quatre, coughing a few times from the dry air.

"What is all this Shinigami talk?" Heero voiced out loud before they even sat down, not beating around the bush. Quatre put the book on the table, and looked pained.

"Heero, please. The name of the God of Death shouldn't be used so casually. I take it you've talked to Duo?"

"Yes, I talked to him," Heero confirmed. "And I want to know what I can do about it."

"Sit down, Heero," Quatre said. His voice didn't have a commanding tone at all, but something in his tone made Heero sit down immediately. "You have to understand that certain people are born with certain powers, thus becoming mages. Duo chose them -- he chose to live with the stigma, the fear, the misconceptions, the pain. He chose to have them and live it to every extent worth."

"You can't be serious. He was born without powers and chose to have them?"

"Duo is a Fire mage by birth -- but yes, he willingly chose to become the last and most powerful Death mage to walk this world. That doesn't mean that he only wields Death magic, but also that he takes souls of those in pain, helps spirits to cross over, kills in the name of his God and will assume the position of the God of Death when he sees fit."

Quatre sat down as well. "I was born with the ability to wield two powers equally strong, which is a rarity in itself. It's either Healing or Ice, not the both of them, and certainly not in the same strength. However, I'm sure that no one is as strong and as qualified as Duo to wield the two most powerful magic streams in this world."

"He was just a kid. He said something about Shinigami granting his request. How conscious could he have made his choice?"

"Very conscious," Quatre said and frowned. "Don't belittle him, Heero. None of us had an easy life, and he had the most to suffer. If you want to know how much, just look outside -- look at all of Libra and you know how much pain he had and still has."

"I'm not belittling him," Heero protested, and felt small under the nature mage's scrutinizing gaze. "I'm just wondering how it's possible..."

"Duo's reasons are his own," Quatre cut him off. "I've known him for quite a while, and you're only barely starting to know him. I know you want to know him at a whole another level, Heero."

Heero looked up in surprise, but Quatre simply put his hand on his own chest, and smiled.

"I can feel it, right here. You like him, right? You like him more than just a brother in arms. But your anger and vengeance stands between you and him, and his grief and sadness stands between him and you. As long as you both don't learn how to solve this, you'll always be apart, no matter what I or anyone else says."

"I want to... I do like him," Heero said. It felt right to admit it to Quatre, because he knew he would take his confession seriously and not mock him. "But I hurt Relena in the process and Duo thinks that it's not worth it, or that I'll die when being with him." He heaved a sigh.

"The Princess is strong." Quatre put his hand on the book, fingers stroking the leather cover. "It's easy to hurt someone, and it's not easy to forgive someone. Relena has a good heart, and she will accept how it is between you and Duo. Stay as good as a friend to her as you have always been -- she'll appreciate it, and she'll need your protection and friendship."

"Do you believe in Sanq?"

Quatre seemed to be caught off guard by that question, and he answered confusedly: "Of course I do, but I also believe that we need to do a lot more of research before we can even begin searching for it."

"Duo believes in it religiously," Heero said. "He told me about the Legends of the Five. How much do you believe in that?"

Quatre chose his words carefully. "In all honesty, I'm afraid that Duo imagines Sanq to be too much of a paradise, a decisive solution for everything. He told me he made many mistakes in his life, and I think he tries to atone for his sins to find something pure, something paradisiacal, something heavenly: the Kingdom of Sanq. As it is, several signs have directed him onto its path, and there's quite the chance that it does exist, but how? Even if we manage to find it, how do we revive a paradise, a kingdom?"

"That's what I was thinking," Heero agreed.

Quatre patted the book. "The difficulty is that we don't have enough time. Khushrenada can't be fooled long enough by the false gate, and will be with an army here sooner or later. Libra is Duo's creation, to be a haven for knowledge, a sanctuary for refugees, a resort for those who have lost hope. No one wants it to fall into Khushrenada's hands. The man needs to be stopped before he enslaves every country and the last free human left."

The mage showed a warm smile at Heero's nod.

"Concerning you and Duo, I think you both need some work," he said with a low chuckle. "I'm convinced you can make it, if you overcome the things that stand between you. Remember that some things are out of your hands however, don't ever forget that. Talking about work," he patted the book again, "I still have a lot to do, so if you'll excuse me?"

Heero left the library not exactly uplifted, but in a better mood anyway. Not even the rain could change his mood this time and he lifted up his face to the sky, to allow it to get wet. He closed his eyes, lost in thoughts.

Despite the threat of Khushrenada and the ominous promise of an invading army, the next two days were peaceful and calm; Heero spend his time training with the sollevar, and was pleasantly surprised by Wufei joining him with his sword, which he called a 'katana'. The Nataku warrior even showed him new techniques to use with the mythical weapon, and Heero soon came to respect Wufei's extended knowledge of the fighting arts. It made their interaction less awkward, but not especially more friendly. Wufei wasn't the one to talk about personal things, and Heero certainly didn't want to ask his opinion about him and Duo. He appreciated him showing the new techniques and helping him practice, but after they were done with the training Wufei bowed to him and left the training grounds. Heero didn't know how to return the favor -- it was pretty obvious that Wufei had been trained to be a warrior from birth, what knowledge could he share with him? If this was the man's way to repay his honor to him, Heero was grateful -- but it didn't make things easier.

Quatre's strange 'look outside' remark still played in the back of his mind, and when he wasn't training, Heero walked around the premises to search for anything that Quatre could have meant. He finally found a plaque, bricked into the outer south wall, blackened and barely legible. Once again he was frustrated by his disability to read, and told himself he could distinguish the name "Maxwell" a few times. Duo had introduced himself as "Duo from Maxwell Church" and he had named a 'Father Maxwell' during his confrontation with Khushrenada back at the inn. Below the plaque was a colorful amount of flowers, gathered together with burning candles.

It puzzled him, and Heero didn't like riddles. He wanted to talk to Duo again, but whenever the Fire mage was around, he was either surrounded by hordes of children who apparently idolized him, or he was discussing with other mages, faces stern and worried. Relena had befriended Sally Po, the strong Nature mage with the incredible Healing ability. Heero felt guilty for not talking to Relena since their last shared meal.

She wasn't as much avoiding him as he was searching her out; she was always in the company of either Sally or any other woman when he saw her. Since Sylvia had returned to Romefeller country and Relena had been in the company of men for quite a while, he figured that she preferred female company for the time being. She did seem more at ease, but her eyes always darted towards him when she saw him, only to lower them and avoid looking straight at him.

Heero briefly considered talking to Quatre again, but decided to not push matters. It had only been two days; he made a mental note to talk to Relena soon and clear the air between them. Somehow, that seemed easier than talking to Duo again; but the Fire mage never left his thoughts, and Heero didn't like it that he saw so little of him.

The rest of his time he spent studying Libra and its strengths and weaknesses. The monastery was tucked snugly in between mountains, and there were two ways of reaching it: either by creating a gate like Duo had done, or an extremely steep, troublesome, small path to the north. No army could ever squeeze itself past there without being noticed from far away, and it took Heero almost two hours to travel half a mile, hugging the mountain wall to avoid being blown off the path and into the bottomless ravine. At any other location, the monastery would have been overrun in less than an hour; there were no significant defenses, the walls would crumble under the smallest of attacks, and weapons were non-existent, except for Wufei's katana and Heero's sollevar.

p> On the third day, the sun shone as intensely as on their day of arrival. The heat was bearable, but Heero decided to quit his training before it got too hot. He grabbed the jug of water and poured it out over himself. Water was in abundance here; the fountain in the courtyard also functioned as a pump, draining fresh water from a basin deep in the mountains. It had a slightly different taste than Heero was used to; according to Quatre, it was because of the extra minerals. Heero had never heard of minerals before, but he absorbed the information like a sponge, just as almost everything else people told him. He was still embarrassed about being unable to read, and didn't want people to hold him for stupid. Nobody had mentioned his past as a simple servant on a farm; despite quite a lot of people referring to Relena as a Princess, even though they knew that the both of them had the same background. In passing, Heero was mostly referred to as a warrior or the all-formal, neutral "esshan".

With the jug of water in his hands and a couple of rolls he saved from breakfast, Heero wandered around to find a suitable place to sit down and eat. Somehow, as if his feet had moved of their own accord, he ended up at the blackened plaque in the outer south wall. Seating himself on a large rock opposite of it, he kept staring at the plaque and the amount of flowers and burning candles gathered under it.

"That's Duo's place, you know."

"Trowa." Heero acknowledged the archer's presence with a simple nod. Trowa looked at ease, but his expression was hard to determine, and not only because of his typical hairdo, obscuring one side of his face. He had mastered, just like Wufei, to keep a perfectly neutral expression at all times.

"He's usually the one to sit here."

"I don't see him sitting here now."

Trowa sat down, but not on the rock. His eyes darted to the plaque and back again.

"Who's putting the flowers there?"

"Everyone who wants to," the archer answered. "To make sure that no one forgets. Mostly the children, though."

He seemed to sink deep in thoughts. Heero sipped a little of his water, waiting for Trowa to elaborate.

"Libra isn't really a monastery," he continued after a while. "It used to be the Maxwell Church, founded generations ago by the family of the same name. They preached the existence of one God, instead of the Twelve as we know it."

"Shinigami?" Heero asked. It was out of his mouth before he realized it.

"No, just one 'God'." Trowa frowned. The Twelve had always been the main, dominating religion in this world, but apparently some groups followed a different path with their own deities. It was unheard of. "One universal God of love, peace and understanding," he continued. "Something about sending his own Son to atone for our sins. I never really understood it, actually. Duo can tell you everything about it, of course."

The archer heaved a sigh. His characteristic bow and quiver were nowhere to be seen; he took one of Heero's rolls and started eating it, fingers tearing the bread apart.

"The Maxwells and their Church were tolerated, mostly because they did good work for the community. They took in orphans, taught them to read and write, clothed and fed them. Not many converted to their beliefs, but nobody wished any harm upon them."

"...and along came Khushrenada and obliterated the country," Heero said.

"Epyon country." Trowa nodded solemnly. "It was annexed with great force, and the church was burned down to the ground. Father Maxwell, the last of the family and head of the Church for some decades, was killed immediately. Sister Helen, a good friend of the family and the most friendly and lovable woman I've ever met, died in Duo's arms."

Heero arched an eyebrow; it was the first time he heard Trowa talk this... concerned and he had to admit that he was jealous of him for knowing Duo and the people he loved and cared for, for so much longer than he did. Duo already had lived a whole life, and he felt like he was missing out. Heero had witnessed Darlian die, and it had caused great pain and grief. He had always considered the man to be his father, his mentor -- he was a good man and deserved all the respect he could get. Heero owed him a lot, and not only the promise he made to him to protect his daughter. To watch someone you loved die...

"Duo has seen more death than anyone else," Trowa said. "That's why he doesn't believe in the Twelve, Father Maxwell's God or any other deity people believe in -- only the God of Death."

"And he'll take his place," Heero said.

"He'll take his place, one day," Trowa confirmed. "This is the place where the people he loved and cared for died. This is the place where he swore Khushrenada and his men would pay. This is the place where he became Shinigami's apprentice."

"The flowers aren't only for the deceased," Heero suddenly realized.

"They are for Duo too."

The evening had turned cold. Heero pulled his woolen vest closer around him. Esshava Bloom had been truly generous with the new clothing, and not every garment was frilly or inadequate for the weather; this vest was warm and sturdy. All the wool in the world couldn't keep him warm at the moment; Heero wasn't sure if he was feeling cold because of Trowa's words or not. He wondered why the archer had chosen to sit down with him. They had barely interacted before -- had he actually thanked him for killing those bandits when Relena was about to be assaulted? It had served him, however, to learn more about Duo, and the mystery surrounding him. Heero was sure Duo was worth the trouble, but he still wasn't sure what Duo was feeling for him. His mind kept running around in circles, telling him that he shouldn't bother, that Duo had all but rejected him -- but Heero could just be as stubborn, and he wanted to work this out. It wasn't about the dazzling smile, the smooth chestnut hair or the dark, soulful eyes... well, it was about the eyes. Weren't his eyes the first thing that had drawn him in? That, and the burning flames on his robe, the way he had held his staff, the way he had talked?

If anyone would ask him, Heero would deny it. He hadn't forgotten about Relena's words, and if she already saw it, then it would be pretty obvious for everyone else, wouldn't it? Quatre... Quatre had 'felt' it too. Was he really going to admit to himself that he liked Duo more than... more than anyone else? If his heart already knew, why was his mind objecting?

Liking him or not, it would take two people to get a relationship going on -- and the Fire mage had done nothing but to elude him, to hide from him. He had to take matters into his own hands, otherwise Duo would slip through his fingers -- and he was sure that he didn't want that to happen.

Heero walked up the stairs to Duo's room; another thing that Trowa had told him, were that these had been Father Maxwell's quarters. The whole Libra population had insisted that Duo take them -- they saw him as their leader, the one in charge. That's why Khushrenada had wanted to talk to him; as the leader, the representative of the mages' society. Libra was founded by Duo, who had rebuilt the church from its ashes and turned it into this monastery to house other mages and refugees. It was a sanctuary, commemorating the fallen, but encouraging the others to live and to hope.

He knocked, but he didn't receive an answer. He knocked again, but was met by silence -- Heero pushed at the door, wincing from the squeaky sound when it opened. Stepping into the room, quietly, he saw Duo behind his desk, writing in concentration.

The mage must have heard the knocking after all, as he put away the quill, cleaning the excess ink off and placing it back in its holder. He turned around; the look on his face was fairly neutral. A little pensive perhaps, unspoken questions reflecting in his eyes, as he looked up at Heero who stood still in front of him.

"Whatever there is, I want to share it with you."

"Heero, you can't."

Whenever the situation turned serious, Duo seemed to lose his singing Epyon accent. He didn't give it any attention -- it didn't matter where the Fire mage originally hailed from. Backgrounds and origins didn't matter, as long as Duo was with him. He simply didn't want to be separated from him; he wanted to stay with him for as long as possible.

"Yes I can. I'm one of the Five."

Duo's eyes widened in surprise. He looked insecure, and he searched Heero's face for lies, for any evidence of mocking, lips parted in a silent question. Heero put out his hand.

"If I'm really one of the Five, then I want to believe it for you," he said.

"I want you to believe it yourself too," Duo answered. He took Heero's hand, smooth skin meeting calloused skin -- he entangled their fingers together. "The Five of us are all very special, and I'm sure that --"

Heero put a finger to his lips, interrupting the Fire mage.

"Yes, we are special," he said, "and you are very special to me." He didn't care how clich or cheesy it sounded. He was simply telling the truth, and he didn't know how to word it any other way.

Duo chuckled softly, his eyes shifting nervously. "I'm a Death mage, Heero. I told you..."

"You told me enough to know that I don't want to be apart from you."

That was the simple and undeniable truth. Heero hadn't allowed himself much time to think of the foreseeable future, but he was certain of one thing: Duo would be involved somehow. Returning to his homeland and the farm was an option, though Romefeller country didn't only seem literally far away -- he felt like he severed ties with it, subconscious or not, and it didn't hold any importance for him. Duo's touch felt warm, their hands entwined, fingers caressing. Duo himself looked a little quizzically, eyes going down to their hands.

Heero pulled Duo up, not as gallantly as he expected -- he barely knew his own strength. Duo chuckled as he was all but smashed against Heero, wrapping his arm around his waist to keep himself balanced, pressing their entwined hands against his chest.

"There's so much more you need to know," he whispered.

"There's also much more you need to know about me," Heero answered dryly. Duo's lips were so close. He only needed to tilt his head a little to taste them... their faces were only inches apart, and their eyes met again -- on a different, more intense level. What was Duo looking for? What was he, Heero, hoping to find in the other's eyes? Violet, purple, dark blue... shimmering with life, despite the kind of magic he was wielding, vibrant life, beautiful life, and he didn't want to miss a second of it.

The next moment, he had claimed Duo's lips, but this time the Fire mage didn't protest or pull away. Instead, he wrapped both arms around Heero, responding to the kiss with a passion that overwhelmed him, taking his breath away.

"Duo," he murmured his name, hands tightening their grip on him. What did he know about love and relationships? The Darlians' marriage was the only example he ever had, and he had both admired them for their strong, deep bond, based on equality and respect. Heero had seen from Darlian's friends that equality wasn't always taken for granted; a relationship was hard work, but he wanted to try, with Duo, to form an equal strong base with mutual respect, but most of all he wanted Duo to be the other person in the relationship.

"Heero, we can't do this," Duo mumbled in return, but his voice lacked the previous convincing tone, and he pressed himself closer instead of tearing away. "This can't go very well..."

"It can," he insisted, and his hands tightened their grip again, fingers clutching at the heavy, dark red robes. The fabric was too strong to be torn, and he tugged at it. Duo shook his head.

"If you're sure... Heero, I..."

"I know," he said and moved his hands forward, to the buttons at the front. The robes parted, the fabric sliding down along his sides, pooling around his feet. Duo wore light armor underneath it, skin tight black leather, offering the most basic of protection. It was amazing that he wasn't sweating from the heavy robes and the armor. Heero touched some of the buckles.

"You must be feeling so very hot," Heero said. He realized what he had said as soon as the words left his mouth, and Duo started laughing. He hiccupped from laughter, embarrassing Heero who quickly nuzzled Duo, pressing his head against his neck to keep the mage from seeing the red color on his cheeks.

"I liked you from the moment I saw you," Duo whispered, not moving while one by one, the buckles of his tunic were undone. His own fingers darted over Heero's shirt, tugging at the sturdy fabric, pressing and exploring, touch firm, yet gentle. "I knew that one day, my warrior would show up."

"You've been waiting for your warrior?" Heero parroted, sliding the tunic from Duo's shoulders. He wasn't as muscular as Heero, but he would certainly stand his own in a fight; Duo didn't rely only on his magic to survive.

"Waiting... maybe praying," Duo said and now he was the one to turn his head away, suddenly nuzzling Heero, sliding his shirt over his shoulders in return. He nipped at Duo's ear briefly, suddenly catching a small flicker from the corner of his eyes. A necklace dangled from Duo's neck, it looked like silver to Heero. He brought up his hand and touched it -- it was fragile, the chain incredibly small and intricate. Even though he had briefly touched it, Duo moved and put his hand over his -- he didn't want it to be taken off.

"Praying... something special?"

"Praying that I would find life," Duo answered and turned his head. Heero saw that a silver cross was attached to the chain, similar to the cross with the man hanging from it. The mage took his fingers away from it, lifting up his head to press a kiss to Heero's chin.

"Are you really sure you want to do this?"

"Death couldn't keep me away from you," Heero said.

"Please, don't..." Duo's sentence was cut short by another kiss. Heero hoped he wasn't going to say something silly again, but he knew that Duo wouldn't think any less of him. He felt Duo tugging at him, leading him, and he followed, arms still around Duo. He guided him to a velvety, black and purple curtain in the north corner, pushing it to the side. It was the bedroom -- nothing much but a bed and a small chest and a dresser, tucked away in the shadowy corner. Heero already sat down, Duo leaning into him as he kissed his lips, pushing at him. He fell backwards, but Duo prevented him from hitting the granite back wall, slipping into his lap, arms around him again. Returning the movement, Heero leaned over to the side and took Duo with him, rolling over each other on the covers. Duo ended up on top of him, smirking as chestnut bangs obscured his eyes. Heero ruffled his hair, the long braid shifting with every movement and slid over his bare shoulder to dangle in between them.

A little annoyed, Duo threw the rope of hair over his shoulder and kissed Heero.

"Did you ever think of how love was going to look like in your life?"

Heero shook his head, too occupied with the kiss. The Fire mage chuckled again and kissed the tip of his nose.

"I never thought there would be any love in my life."

"After seeing so much death?"

"After seeing so much death," Duo repeated, but his smile didn't turn sad. Before he could continue speaking, Heero put his fingers on his lips -- again.

"I want to be with Duo of Maxwell Church."

"You're here with him," Duo said, Epyon accent clearly audible.

"I want to be with the real Duo of Maxwell Church," Heero repeated, stubbornly. Duo looked at him, puzzled, eyes focused as if piercing through him. He tilted his head curiously, like a small child, before breaking out in another smile, but this one was different... more genuine, more mature.

"You're here with him," he said, voice a little lower, and the accent was gone.

Heero's hands kept wandering over Duo's body, who returned the gestures vividly, fingers stroking and touching, prodding and poking gently.

"You silly thing," Duo said and kissed him again. "So much to learn, so little time. You want to be with me, I want to be with you. Carry on, Heero Yuy of Romefeller country, before I get cold."

Turning around in the small bed, Heero bumped his nose against a cold, granite wall. Growling under his breath, he shivered from the sudden cold influx. This wasn't his bed -- he had a larger one...! He moved a little, finding his feet oddly wrapped tightly in sheets, leaving the rest of his body naked. He felt a little clammy though, and other parts of his body had severely cooled down as well.

He turned around, slightly confused, and gazed at a large cross on the wall, in between the three high church windows, directly above Duo's empty writing desk.

It wasn't hard to figure out in whose room he was, and the very pleasant feeling in his body was unfamiliar, but certainly not unwelcome. Duo wasn't in the bed with him, which was a disappointment -- why did he leave? Heero rolled out of the bed and searched for his clothes.

They were strewn all over the floor, and he traced his shirt back to the chair next to Duo's writing table. The desk was empty but for a few blank sheets of paper, the quill, and the ink pot. Heero assumed Duo had left for something important; he couldn't imagine the Fire mage walking out on him. Didn't they straighten out certain feelings?

After dressing himself, Heero used the water in a golden engraved bowl to clean himself up a little and grabbed the top one of a stack of towels to dry himself off. Curiously, he eyed a small reed basket that was covered with some sort of table linen, and when he lifted it up he had to smile; it contained fresh rolls of bread, still warm. Taking a few of them, he left the room and took the staircase down to search for the others.

A scruffy child told him that 'Duo and the rest' were at the dining hall and he found them perched together at one of the largest tables in the back of the room; only Wufei was absent. Heero joined the group, not missing the saucy wink Duo gave him. Relena sat on the other end of the table, close to Quatre, her hair neatly tied in two braids like Sally Po, and with the midnight blue dress she was wearing, she very much looked like a nature mage herself.

"Some nasty rumors have been spreading around," Duo said. "Merquise has tried to recruit people for the cause of strengthening Khushrenada's army; he only approached the ones with the strongest Healing and Fire abilities. Though Merquise couldn't reach Libra on his own power, we're not totally isolated from news. He's been doing the rounds in Auda and Iria country, as well as Oz and Ventei. He promises in the name of esshouin Khushrenada that anyone who ties himself to his army will have, when proven valuable and eligible, access to a larger library and more studies, and of course, total acceptance of magic."

"In other words, in any country under Khushrenada's command no mage would ever be feared for the sake of magic, not rejected from society, no longer treated with disdain." Quatre frowned. "Though I would love to see that happen in the world, the problem is that it's going to be forced upon the people -- and when forced, people can do strange things. It's never going to work unless people will change their mentality voluntarily."

"It'll be only a paradise for those who already are in power, like Merquise himself." Duo shook his head. "Besides, he's not classified to teach, he hasn't even finished his training here. We all know what he's going to teach -- how to be as destructive as possible, and increase the area of effect of one's dortang... preferably Detonation."

"Khushrenada can make all these things come true?" Relena suddenly asked.

"Yes he can, Princess," Duo answered, "and better than us -- he can promise and deliver, and we can promise but not deliver. Khushrenada has the men, the facilities, and he's the man in charge -- no one's going to go against him, but he can't keep an eye on everyone. How to make everyone obey, however, is a whole other question."

"Libra never imposed any doctrine on anyone -- one is free here to train, to stay, to have an opinion. We don't control them, but we don't make any false promises either. The bonus for Khushrenada is having more Fire mages in his army, which will strengthen his position even more."

"Won't Merquise's own position be in jeopardy when he adds more Fire mages to his army?"

"I don't know -- I think he's a personal friend of Khushrenada."

"He didn't seem all too happy to me."

"Enough about Merquise," Duo said curtly. "He's just a dorshin'esshun, and that will be his downfall. He didn't stay long enough here to learn that there's a hierarchy under mages -- the one with the most experience, not necessarily the most power, will always be higher than a mage without experience, and certainly higher than one who hasn't even finished his training. Experienced mages are respected for their knowledge and what they can teach others. Merquise might be able to offer the facilities, but not the studies as people receive here."

Relena pushed a little at her hair, as if to make sure it was still staying that way. "So, what will be our next step, now that we are in Libra?"

"Going to Sanq, of course," Duo said and she rolled her eyes, but all in a good manner, and she even laughed.

"But first, we have some great news for you, Relena," Quatre beamed.

"Great news? For me?"

"Ah Wufei, there you are," Duo suddenly said and he motioned at the Nataku warrior to come join them. "I don't want to tell this twice."

"What's going on? What great news?"

Duo tapped on the sheets of paper in front of him. "You have a brother, Relena, by the name of Milliardo Peacecraft."

Relena paled. "I have a what?"

"A brother," Duo repeated. "According to these documents, the Peacecraft family was appointed by the Five to be in charge of the Sanq Kingdom. Quatre found a rather detailed genealogical tree, and we traveled the countries, not only in search for the rest of the Five, but also to find the remaining Peacecrafts. Not only we did, but people we trust as well, keeping out an eye for anyone who could possibly fit the description or matched any of the Five." He threw a meaningful look at Heero, who recalled Howard's words when he gave him the sollevar: "Find yourself a priest of Maxwell Church". So, the Romefeller smith had been one to look out for any of the Peacecrafts or the Five as well.

"We could finally track the last living Peacecraft couple down, but they had died before we found them," Duo continued. "Their children, a daughter and a son, were separated and ended up with totally different families. Darlian took you in, Relena, and he might have been looking for your brother as well, but he was nowhere to be found."

"This is ridiculous. I don't have a brother," Relena said. "My father... my father was about to die. He was delirious, he hallucinated," she continued, face still pale. "I love my father, and he would never lie to me -- but this just isn't possible. Never in all the time I've known him, that he raised me, he never mentioned a brother, never mentioned Peacecraft... my father was always there for me! Please, it's just not true. Let it go! He was in a fire, he was in pain, he was dying... the name, the's all delirious, it's not true!"

"Darlian was a good man," Duo said. "He must have known, Relena. He must have known and believed it somehow -- whatever you want to call it: reincarnation, fate or destiny... but he must have known that the Five were somehow walking this world again. If he knew that, he also must have known that they needed the Princess to bring her back to her home in order to bring about peace in this world."

She swayed in her chair, trying to keep herself upright by holding onto the table. Quatre put a hand on her shoulder to soothe her, but she pursed her lips, almost disapproving, but her look was more meant for Duo than for the nature mage. She stared defiantly at Duo, but remained silent.

"I'm not sure how we can find the Prince; there are absolutely no records of him anywhere." Duo reclined into his chair. He peeked under his long chestnut bangs at Heero, as if to convince himself he was still there. Heero nodded to him, wanting to let the other know that he was still here, in body, spirit and soul. He caught a particular smug look on Quatre's face; he had picked up on the furtive looks back and forth. Trowa and Wufei weren't paying attention to what was happening around the table; the archer had pulled the stack of paper away from Duo and spitted through it, with Wufei looking over his shoulder.

"I have never heard of a Prince of Sanq before, or a Milliardo Peacecraft. There is no family holding that name in all the countries I have ever been to," Wufei said.

"Darlian was smart enough to realize that keeping Relena's original name was a danger in itself. Calling your daughter Peacecraft is like raising a red flag," Quatre objected. "The Prince could be anywhere, under any other name."

"And far out of our reach," Duo sighed. "We managed to find the Princess, but it took us fifteen year... and we had the luck of the Twelve that she was with our warrior."

All heads turned to Heero; they knew his opinion about the Legends of the Five. He shrugged. For Duo's sake, he wanted to believe, but he wasn't convinced about it -- to him, it was more of the same. It was too far-fetched for a person like him to turn out to be a legendary warrior, while he couldn't even read, and he was sure that he wasn't using his weapon to its full potential either.

"So, what will be our next step?" he said, repeating Relena's earlier words. He was already mentally planning on how to find this Prince, or Sanq, when Duo dropped his bomb.

"We're going to Barge country and confront Khushrenada on his own turf."

This time, Relena fell off of her chair, and even Wufei's jaw dropped. Heero had the feeling that Duo had only discussed this with Quatre -- the Nature mage looked grim, his eyes uncharacteristically gloomy. Trowa raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips just as disapprovingly as Relena had done.

Duo reached for Relena to help her up, but she batted his hand away with surprising strength.

"Are you mad?" she hissed. "You can't possibly think that... that confronting Khushrenada is a good idea!"

"We don't have much choice, Princess," Duo said.

"People will die when you go to war," she shot back. "Fighting leads to killing, leads to death! When will this all end?"

"Ironically, when Khushrenada is dead," Wufei provided the answer. "Take out the main reason for the current war and it will end."

"He has a lot of people in command after him," Trowa objected. "Killing Khushrenada will not immediately solve everything. If his army disintegrates from the lack of a leader, the whole world will turn into a fire zone. Not everyone will return to his homeland, and traditions and bonds have been broken because of the war."

"That's why we need to find the Kingdom of Sanq," Duo insisted.

"Duo, not even that can change the people's hearts in a second," Quatre said. "Not many know of the Kingdom in the first place, why should they instantly believe in hope and peace if we manage to uncover it? Maybe history will repeat itself, and the Kingdom never meant to be found again."

"We talked about this," Duo said, and his voice was low, clipping every word. "We talked about this, Quatre Raberba Winner, and you agreed with me that the Kingdom exists, and that we needed to find it again!"

"I have never denied the existence of the Kingdom, Duo of Maxwell Church," Quatre returned sharply. "If the legends about the Kingdom are true, yes, than I wholeheartedly agree that it should be found again! Yet, we have to be realistic -- we can't spend another fifteen years traveling around to find the Prince, or the Kingdom in itself. Khushrenada is stronger and more powerful than us at the moment, and we are with the five of us."

"The Five," Duo shot back.

"Legends," Relena said softly.

"Supposedly legends," Trowa said out loud and Duo threw him a murderous look. The next moment, he shoved his seat backwards, standing up, and the flames on his robe seemed to engulf him, the colors more vibrant and deceptive than ever. He stared at the group, just for a moment, before turning around and stalking away. His soft leather boots didn't make a sound on the tiled floor, but his robes flared dramatically behind him and everyone went quickly out of his way.

Quatre slumped in his chair. Relena tugged at her hairdo, her fingers entwining the strands.

"How much chance do we have?" Heero asked.

"How much chance at what?"

"At carrying out Duo's plans successfully."

Wufei snorted. "Maxwell can't plan. He has an idea, thinks his idea is the greatest thing to happen to this world since early sunrise and goes to execute it his own style: improvise without a solid back-up plan."

"We can back him up," Heero said, determined. Relena reached for him to put a hand on his arm.

"I don't want you to fight. I don't want anyone to fight. I don't want people to die."

"We cannot write a note to Khushrenada and ask him to sit down and have tea with us," Wufei said. "I agree with Duo that we attack him on his own turf. If we do not stop him, no one will. Legends or not, I can take out a man single-handedly. Khushrenada is not a God. He will die from an arrow or a spell just as easily as any other man."

"It's horrible," Relena shuddered.

"What, Khushrenada dying?"

Heero had never seen Wufei this fierce before, and eyed him quizzically. Did he show the same anger when talking about Khushrenada? It was because of the usurper's doing that Wufei's homeland was destroyed and his people wiped out... and it was because of Khushrenada that Darlian had died, and that many other good people had died in the name of war.

"No man should die," Relena repeated. "We must show the people that we can solve this without weapons, without going to a war."

"There already is a war," Wufei objected, voice heated.

"And it should be stopped, now," Relena said, her voice holding the same ferocity. "What good will it do us, when people end up dying? If you truly are the Legends, if I truly am a Princess, then it's our job to set the example -- to show everyone that we can do this without violence."

"Are you going to beat Khushrenada to death with nice speeches?"

"Enough, Wufei," Quatre intervened. "Relena, I'm the first one to disapprove of violence, and I would like to see everything return to the way it was... without war, without fighting."

"The problem is that Khushrenada has gone too far," Trowa took over from him. "He'll never give up the lands he already conquered, the power he already gained. He won't give that up for anything."

"There must be another solution," Relena insisted, "a solution that works for everyone, that can restore this world..."

"The Kingdom of Sanq," Quatre sighed. "If Duo is right and we can resurrect said Kingdom, it will bring peace and hope back into the world."

"We're just with us five," Heero reminded him. "We might be special, the Five, but there's still just the five of us."

A silence fell. Relena bit her lip.

"There must be something we can do..."

"There is," Heero said. "We can either follow Duo's plan or come up with an alternative. Raising an army on our own would take too much time and too much bloodshed -- confronting Khushrenada personally, on his own turf, will be for the better."

"And what if you manage to kill him," Quatre said. "There would still be his second-in-command, Merquise, his whole army to deal with. Taking him out doesn't solve things in a snap."

"You can rehash this as many times as you want," Heero answered stiffly and rose from his chair. "Excuse me, I have to talk to someone."

"Heero," Quatre called out. "We..."

"Must think of a plan," he finished the Nature mage's sentence. "Whatever the plan will be, I'll follow Duo." To the end of the world, he thought, but decided not to speak it out loud. He grabbed the sollevar next to him and stalked away from the table. Relena and Quatre could chitchat about peace all they want; at least Trowa and Wufei seemed to understand the necessity of fighting, and that people would die. No peace would be obtained without sacrifice... and though Heero was sure Relena would take on whatever sacrifice there would be needed, he doubted that she really understood it. It was easy to say that she didn't want any fighting, it wasn't like he was looking forward to die in a battle -- but his warrior's blood had stirred, Legend or not, and Heero was determined to be the one to end Khushrenada's life. For all that he had done.

He set out to find Duo, and he already had a good idea where the Fire mage would be. His instinct proved him right. He was at the outer south wall, staring at the commemorative plaque. His eyes weren't sparkling or shining with any mirth; his lips moved in either a silent prayer or he was reading the names on the plaque without as much of a sound. Heero waited to approach him until Duo was done; he was fairly sure that the other had already noticed him.

"Strange, huh?"

He walked up to Duo as soon as he started talking. Heero had never really been a touchy-feely kind of person, but put his hand on Duo's shoulder anyway; he felt that the other needed it. Duo didn't look at him, but his facial features softened a little.

"Strange what?"

"Strange how things can change, and how people can judge a situation differently." "Quatre, you mean?"

"No, in general. I've talked to Quatre a million time about this... well, he doesn't like leaving Libra behind. I don't like it either, but sitting here and doing nothing won't help us. Khushrenada can launch an attack on us anytime now, and though I'm convinced we can fend him off, we can't stand our ground forever."

Heero mulled over his words. He saw the necessity to keep moving, certainly if they wanted to find that illusive Kingdom, but Libra felt like a veritable sanctuary, and he would hate for it to fall into enemy hands. Duo's eyes were fixed on the blackened plaque, his lips not showing his usual smile.

"Sister Helen and Father Maxwell, right?"

"Yes," Duo answered. "They were my family."

"Your parents?"

The mage shrugged. "I'm an orphan. I used to steal everything: food, clothes, valuables so I could sell them -- I was part of a gang, we shared our profits, and told each other about the best places for shelter."

"I'm an orphan too," Heero said. "Until Darlian took me in."

"Father Maxwell took us all in. He said there was room enough in the church for everyone. We were curious, of course -- we never met someone before who offered us a place to stay. So we went into the church, and there we met Sister Helen."

A fond smile finally tugged at the corner of his lips, and his hand went to the thick braid, tugging lightly at it. "She taught me to braid my hair."

Heero had to think about Relena and her mother. Esshava Darlian had been a little distant, but kind nonetheless -- she had welcomed Heero in her home just as her husband and daughter had done. She hadn't deserved to die in that terrible fire; for some reason, he could only remember her eyes, calm and accepting eyes.

Duo turned a little towards him, bringing up his hand to put it over his; his smile had waned, and he looked pensive.

"It wasn't Khushrenada who killed them. It was me."

Heero took a step closer, his fingers tightening their grip. Duo wouldn't probably feel it through the heavy fabric of his robes, but he tightened his grip on Heero's hand as well.

"What do you mean by that?"

"The church was also an orphanage," he said. "The whole gang was taken in, and any other orphan who needed shelter -- some stayed, some disappeared, some were adopted... but not me. I don't know why, and I don't care; I liked staying with Father Maxwell and Sister Helen, and I thought their teachings were very interesting. When Khushrenada appeared on our doorstep with his army, I rebelled; I would do anything to keep the church safe."

He heaved a sigh. "I was too late. I was out that night, stealing a weapon that I could use against Khushrenada and his army, and when I got back..." He suddenly chuckled, but there was no amusement to it. "All that was left for me were the ruins... I could do nothing but to try to rebuild, try to establish the same kind of sanctuary for those who needed it. Irony would hit me in the face once more when Merquise came to us to train his power, only for me to find out later he had joined forces with Khushrenada."

"You aren't responsible for the choices people make," Heero said.

"Maybe not, but I gave them everything on a silver platter," Duo answered, bitterness coloring his voice. "The reason why I can't find life is that I'm already dead inside -- from all the mistakes I made, from the pain and the hurt that I caused --"

"Nonsense!" Heero almost yelled, and took Duo in a forceful embrace, arms sliding around his shoulders to press him closer. "You're not dead! You're the liveliest person I've ever seen, and..." You're mine. "... you're not dead. You're not dead..."

Duo put his head against Heero's shoulder, returning the embrace, albeit with lesser force.

"You know what I chose for. You know what I chose to do..."

"I made a choice too. I want to kill Khushrenada just as much as you do... but I want to stay with you."

"You can't."

"Quit it, Duo."

"Don't be so stubborn."

"I said, quit it. Self-pity won't get you anywhere, and that's not like the Duo I know."

A smothered, short laugh. "You hardly know me."

"I know enough about you."

Duo fell silent. Trying to press himself even closer, his hands tightened their grip on Heero's shirt, knuckles pressing against his back.

"I don't know if I'm making the right decision."

"I don't either, Duo."

"Well, at least you don't sugarcoat anything."

Now it was Heero's turn to chuckle, albeit shortly. "Brutally honest, isn't that what they call it?"

"Brutally honest," Duo murmured. "And that's what I like so much about you."

Heero tilted his head a little to scent Duo's hair. "I like your openheartedness."

"I like your straightforwardness."

"Is that even a word?"

"Who cares... thank you."

"For what?"

"For just being here. And for believing."

Heero didn't reply to that. He believed he was truly in love with Duo, and loved many of his qualities -- but his unwavering belief in the Kingdom of Sanq was something he didn't share. He would believe in it for Duo's sake, he would even believe to be one of the legendary Five, but everything else left him filled with skepticism. Pressing a soft kiss to Duo's head, they remained standing for a long time, until the sun was setting.

They left Libra the next morning. Quatre and Duo both looked melancholy, Quatre even more so, his expression mixed with unspoken annoyance and a little sadness. He had sealed the library and most of the books were relocated so nobody had easy access to them.

Heero didn't say a thing and just stepped in line with Duo, whose robes swished around his ankles, once again without getting dirty. Vayeate and Mercurius were standing in the large courtyard, looking in perfect condition and well groomed after their stay in the stables. Trowa added another pack on Mercurius' back, not disturbed in the least by the crowd; they weren't the only ones leaving. Duo had informed everyone in Libra about the situation and the possibility of Khushrenada attacking them -- if only to get his hands on the library. Those who wanted to stay were allowed to stay, but Duo recommended them to leave, as not to fall into Khushrenada's hands and be forced to enlist in his army or become a slave.

The children, all orphans, were leaving with the mages-in-training. Most of them would return to their homeland if it hadn't been annexed by Khushrenada; otherwise, they would go to Romefeller country and search out the Resistance. Relena told them the best way to get in touch with Sylvia Noventa and her grandfather if need be; the Resistance could always use some help, especially from mages, in training or not. Everyone else who had searched refuge in Libra, were given several options to look for and find other sanctuaries; but one, general promise was made: everyone would return as soon as Khushrenada was defeated.

"Juuu," Trowa patted Mercurius, urging the animal to start walking. Vayeate immediately followed; the tall horse not leaving his mate out of his sight. Wufei, with his katana firmly girded, stared after the horses before resuming his pace and catching up with them.

Duo looked over his shoulder as they left, passing the iron gate, setting his first steps on the steep and narrow mountain trail. The way into Libra was easy once one knew the whereabouts of the gate, but it didn't work both ways, unfortunately.

Heero caught him looking; it seemed to him that Duo thought he was never going to return. Quatre took the first turn to ride Mercurius, settling himself between the saddle bags and the large packs. Even Trowa and Wufei carried backpacks to Heero's surprise; it was the first time he had seen them carrying luggage. Relena sat on Vayeate's back, hands in the horse's mane, soothing herself. Her bundle of clothing was strapped together with a large pack and a basket on the animal. Vayeate was used to carry riders, not luggage, but the tall horse determinedly stepped forward, searching its way on the narrow path.

Going to Barge country was not much of a plan, but searching out Khushrenada would lead to an inevitable confrontation. Was Duo planning on killing the usurper? He tightened his grip on his sollevar. The man was for him; he would die solely at his hands, not at anyone else's.

Trowa cocked his head; the archer looked at him strangely.

"Something bothering you?"

"Just thinking," Heero answered and left it at that. Trowa however, broke the silence again.

"You have saved a damsel in distress and now you're guarding a Princess. Everything should be easy and sunny for you."

"Why do you keep calling me Princess?" Relena interrupted, overhearing the conversation.

"You're the only woman in our company," Duo answered smoothly.

She just smiled and laughed.

"I would like a serious answer, Duo," she said, frowning. It had bothered her from the beginning that they referred to her as 'Princess'. It was a strange title, and even though she knew about the legend and the royal couple, it still felt unnatural to her.

"As you were born in the Kingdom of Sanq to the royal couple, you're the Princess," Duo answered. "The Peacecraft family..."

"I told you, my father was delirious from the pain, he couldn't have been serious," Relena said again, but her voice lacked conviction. She didn't want to believe it, just yet -- it would mean that her father spoke the truth... which meant that he wasn't her father. What did that make him? He meant so much to her, it was hard to believe that he had 'only' been her adoptive father. She fell silent, deeply in thought, and Duo looked a little concerned at her.

It would take them hours and hours to get from this mountain, following the narrow path. Trowa was extra careful with the horses, avoiding at all costs that the animals would trip and break a leg. It was cold on this side of the mountain despite the sun shining, and Heero didn't protest when Relena handed him a coat. Both mages didn't seem to be affected by the change in weather, and Wufei's armor must be protecting him from the cold; Trowa was intensively occupied with the horses. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, and everyone was concentrating on where they were walking. As far as Heero was concerned, they couldn't leave the mountain soon enough.

The group reached the borders of Barge country two days later. The weather had been good, sunny and cloudless in general, and they had made good time after leaving the mountain trail. The road was wider and easier accessible, though they had to fend off two gangs of thieves and robbers. It was pretty obvious that the people in this region were quite desperate when it came to obtaining money or food; as soon as they passed the border, Heero saw nothing but poverty and despair around him. The first village they passed breathed one and all hostility and envy, primarily aimed at the rich golden embroidery on Duo's robes.

The hunger was clearly visible in the townspeople's eyes, if it wasn't already obvious enough from their bony faces and clothing hanging around their emaciated bodies. They reminded Heero of how Sylvia Noventa had looked when she had been rescued. They all sported the same matted hair, the same exhausted look, as they pressed their children closer, suspiciously eyeing the group. Heero made sure to walk next to Duo and to swing his sollevar casually; it made him shiver when the citizens licked their lips, assessing the weapon and calculating their chances. These people were desperate enough to murder them in their sleep to get their hands on anything valuable.

He wanted to disagree loudly when they halted at the town's square, deeming the citizens too hostile and unfriendly to stop, let alone spend the night here. He was silenced however, by Duo, who started unloading the packs and bags on Mercurius' back. Quatre and Trowa helped him while Wufei supervised; his hand was close to his katana, eyes darting towards the approaching townspeople, curiosity winning from suspicion.

Heero had assumed that Duo had packed so many things because he thought he would never return to Libra; but the Fire mage took out an abundance of supplies. Blankets, candles, bottles of oil, bars of soap, packages containing those 'coffee beans' -- Duo and Quatre took everything out of the saddle bags, displaying it on the ground. Children were already gathering, looking at some of the simple toys Duo had packed as well: a few dolls and stuffed animals, but they looked like treasures to the poor children, often not wearing much but a ragged skirt with a shirt or a pair of pants.

As Duo started to distribute the goods, Quatre went around Healing cuts and bruises, worn and torn feet and calloused and bloodied hands or noses. The word of a Healer being present quickly spread around, and people who had been hesitant at first, came rushing towards him. Mothers with newborns, fathers with sore backs and bodies from toiling on the lands formed a line before the nature mage, whispering ecstatically. Quatre sat down, Trowa taking a defensive position next to him, and set to work.

Duo had soon handed out all the supplies he possessed, and the rest of the townspeople quickly lost interest him in, walking over to Quatre to get their sores and pains healed. They were still giving him strange looks, recognizing his robes, but gave Heero the same nervous glances -- mostly because of his weapon. He could see them translating its value in their eyes, and as if to demonstrate, he tightened his grip on the sollevar.

"Let's find a place to stay," Duo said, folding up the empty saddle bags. "Quatre's going to be busy for a while, and he'll be tired. We better get some comfortable beds... when he's done, it'll be too late to travel."

"Word of mouth of... these services will go around quickly," Heero remarked as he grabbed the reins of Vayeate and Mercurius. Relena sat close to Quatre and Trowa, her sewing materials in her hands to repair clothing, the children hopping from foot to foot and giggling while they waited until she was finished with their garment.

"I don't mind; Khushrenada may know that we're on his ground," Duo said. He shrugged. "For all the proclamations he has done, an all-around prohibition of traveling wasn't one of them. We're as much entitled to... visit his country as he is ours -- though we're not the usurpers, of course."

"What about Libra?"

"What about it?" Duo tensed a little, his movement jerky.

"What's going to happen to it?"

"I don't know." He fiddled with the clasps of the saddle bag. "Most of the mages-in-training and the children are gone by now, and those remaining aren't of...any value to Khushrenada. The library is sealed, so our books, scrolls and scriptures are safe for now. I founded Libra to make it a place to gather knowledge and to help people with their powers and possibilities. I wanted it to be free, though -- no obligations, no duties. I wanted to leave it to everyone individually to make a choice, what was best for them."

Heero brought up his hand and touched Duo's hair, the long braid running down his back, gently swaying to the sides with every movement.

"You can't always make a decision for others. I think Libra was a good place to be, for mages and ordinary people. It would be a waste if Khushrenada were to destroy that."

"He would do it simply out of spite," Duo said. "He only wants Libra because it's on his list of 'countries I still need to conquer'. Libra has nothing to offer him, be it for the library -- but that's sealed, so if he already manages to come in, he won't be able to break the seal and get his hands on any information."

Heero snorted. "If there's any way we can thwart him, we must do so."

"I know," Duo confirmed and squinted his eyes. A dilapidated building across the street had the appearance of an inn, judging from the half-rotten sign. He looked at Heero, and his cheeks reddened a little. It amused Heero more than it should; his hand hadn't left Duo's hair, fingers tangling in the chestnut strands.

"Come, let's go inside, and see if we can find a bed."

It turned out to be an actual inn, but the rooms were dusty, the wooden furniture -- and notably the beds -- moldy and half-rotten, the drapes and linen rather smelly, and it was more than obvious that no traveler had passed here for quite a while. Duo didn't need to bargain long for their stay though, and brought up their remaining luggage to their rooms, the skinny innkeeper bowing and nodding to him as if he were a very important man. In the end, Heero had to shoo the man forcefully away, shutting him out by throwing the door shut.

"Is it time for dinner yet?" he asked.

"We wait for Quatre," Duo answered, showing a tired smile. He didn't have the same stamina Heero had, but hadn't complained for a second after their daily, hour-long treks through the woods and the land, leaving the mountains far behind him. He flopped on the bed, the embroidered flames melting around his body. Boldly, Heero sat down next to him, his hand on Duo's shoulder. The Fire mage immediately put his hand over his, his tired smile dissolving into a fond smile.

"Are you hungry?"

"I could eat something, yes," Heero admitted. Moving his hand up, he touched Duo's cheek. What was the next step in their... relationship? Was it a relationship already? Duo wasn't going to leave it at just physical affection, was he? He was rather surprised to reach the conclusion that he would even accept that -- as long as he was with Duo. How strange it was to feel this way; to feel so certain about something. Just as he had thought he would stay in Romefeller country forever, he was now sure he was going to be with Duo forever, in whatever relationship, in whatever bond... as long as they would share the day, the night...

"What's on your mind, mighty warrior?" Duo asked. His large eyes were half-lidded, and he looked about ready to fall asleep. Heero brought up his other hand, brushing away a few stray strands.

"A lot of things," he said. How to attack and defeat Khushrenada was only a few of them, but he didn't want to talk about the usurper now.

"I know," Duo said and patted him on the knee, his fingers trailing playfully along his thigh. "Tell me, how was life on your farm?"

Heero raised his eyebrows at the question, but he answered Duo by describing him his usual days, the lunches with Relena on the green hill, looking out over the city, without any trouble in sight. How he had taken care of the animals, repaired the gate, ploughed and sowed the lands, with or without Darlian's help.

"Sounds like a paradise to me," Duo said. "I love animals. We only had chickens and a few goats. We always had omelets on Sundays." He snorted, though he sounded amused. "Can you imagine how much we looked forward to it? An omelet on Sunday, baked by Sister Helen. She could make the finest omelets in the whole world."

"Were you born in Epyon country?" Heero asked. "Your accent..."

"I don't know," Duo said and turned his head a little to lean into his touch. "I don't know any better than that I spent as long as eight, nine years on the streets in Epyon, along with the gang, until Father Maxwell took me in. I could have been born in another country, but I adopted the accent just as a survival mechanism. The Officials don't like foreigners -- it must have been more than just humiliation when a lad from Barge country stomped all over them."

Heero stroked his cheek, his calloused fingers touching smooth skin. He trailed over Duo's cheek towards his lips, tracing the outlines. "Quatre is an orphan too?"

"Oh no, he derives from a very wealthy family," Duo shook his head, but then parted his lips to nip at Heero's fingers. "He has 29 sisters. His father had multiple wives, according to ancient traditions of his tribe. I think the Winners formed a tribe all on their own."

He chuckled at that, before flicking out his tongue. Heero was rather taken aback by this new piece of information; he had somehow presumed everyone of the group to be an orphan, and the Nature mage having such a large family surprised him.

"How did he end up here? If he was the only son, I can imagine his father wanting to keep his heir close?"

"Meh," Duo said as he nipped at his finger again. "It's also according to ancient traditions that anyone disposing over magic powers is to be sent away. I don't know the details on that one; Quatre never really explained that to me. I have the feeling he went away on his own as not to shame his father that his only son and heir was a mage. I think they have spread the rumors around that he died in the desert."

Now Heero shook his head in disbelief. Sometimes people's lives really didn't mean a thing... and it wasn't something he wanted to think about right now. His thumb went over Duo's chin, and he leaned more into him. Duo tilted his head, parting his lips more.

"What about us?"

The Fire mage was the first to ask. Heero grinned at him, not realizing the wolfish nature of it. Duo's eyes sparkled, but looked examining at him nonetheless. Again if they were searching for something, but Heero felt like he had nothing to hide. He was open in his emotions towards Duo, and he expected him to be honest as well.


"Yes, us."

"Don't you want to be together?"

"Don't counter-question my question," Duo said, but his smile was wide. "I want us to be together, yes. It's..."

"Then it's settled," Heero interrupted him and made sure the mage couldn't talk anymore -- he claimed his lips fiercely, tasting the strange, spicy flavor, drawing him in and intoxicating him. Leaning into Duo more, he pushed him further into the covers of the rickety bed, the other shifting his arms around him, sinking a hand into his unruly mop of hair. Heero broke up the kiss briefly to take a deep breath and continue, when a harsh knock on the door interrupted them both.

"Duo? Heero? Quatre is downstairs, we're done." It was Trowa's voice, and the archer hadn't sound distressed or surprised at all by calling out to the both of them in one room.

Barge country was so poor that dinner consisted of stale, hard bread that was dipped in something akin to soup -- after a few bites, Heero figured out that it was more like gravy, pulled from an unidentifiable kind of meat, reheated over and over again. Relena politely but quickly declined the bowl filled with liquid fat, and Heero had enough after three bites as well. The citizens, grateful for Quatre's Healing, tried to give the group their own, very much needed dishes -- but they declined the half-rotten potatoes and moldy vegetables as well. The townspeople needed it more than the group did, and Heero would happily skip this meal in their favor.

"How can Khushrenada deplete his own country like this? His people?" Relena asked. Her hands were Healed by Quatre, as she had been pricking herself with needles, mending the rough fabric of the children's clothing for hours on end.

"This is where it started," Duo said. He hadn't eaten anything either. "Khushrenada overthrew the government here, which was corrupted to begin with, and started... expanding. He needed resources to build up his army, so he robbed his own people and depleted his country before he passed the borders. I don't know when or why Merquise joined him; but rest assured that Khushrenada did more than enough to his own people. Instead of trying to improve their situation, he worsened it. Barge country has never been flourishing, but this is the complete other side of the balance."

"Incredible," Relena muttered. Absent-mindedly, she nibbled on a piece of bread, swallowed, frowned in disgust and put the food back down.

"These people have barely anything to eat, no clothes on their backs, and there's no one to help them or to give them medical care." She looked at Quatre, his complexion quite pale due to all the exertion. Healing for hours had depleted his energy, and he needed good food more than anything to regain his strength. Trowa never left his side, not even taking the effort to go hunting; the woods had been the first places for the citizens to look for food. If there was any wildlife left, it would have been a miracle.

"I know, Princess," he said, tiredly. "It's in his blind greed to conquest and conquer the countries around him, not stopping at anything. These people need to rebuild what's left of their lands, but fear and hunger is paralyzing them."

Trowa shoved his plate aside, food untouched. "If anything, when Khushrenada is gone and his army disintegrated, the people can start the rebuilding at least without fear."

Relena looked sad. "Fear shouldn't exist like this," she said softly, before retreating into a sullen mood, occupied with her own thoughts.

The evening smoothly transitioned into the night, but Heero was the only one who didn't go to sleep. He patrolled around the inn and mostly the stables, having a strange sense of d? vu. The risk of the horses getting stolen and ending up in a stew was too great to take, and he could do without a night of sleep. No one bothered him or the horses, but he was sure it was because of his presence and the sollevar, as he saw enough people scurrying around in the shadows.

The next morning, they prepared to continue their travel and declined breakfast in favor of the people needing their own food again. Duo claimed that everyone was feeling fine and that they were in a hurry, despite the citizen's pleas to stay. Vayeate looked annoyed -- he hadn't been fed simply because there was no food for him, and if a horse was able to pout, he was certainly doing so. Mercurius simply danced along, not bothered by the lack of dinner, but tried to grab a few mouthfuls of grass whenever possible.

It was early in the afternoon when both horses suddenly pranced, whinnying loudly. Trowa, who had been jogging in front of them as usual in this rather forestry part of the landscape, returned with his bow and arrow in hand. He made a few signs with his other hand, and Quatre immediately took a few steps back while Wufei unsheathed his katana. Heero wasn't up to date with the use of their sign-language; this was only the second time he saw Trowa using it. He looked over at Duo.

"Skeefs," Duo said before he could ask. There was a glint in his eye. Heero realized Duo wasn't afraid -- he was anticipating the fight.

"Spread out! They'll attack in packs!"

Heero had never encountered skeefs before, and grunted at the thought of killing vicious animals again, wondering why Khushrenada send these beasts on their path -- it had to be Khushrenada, he had never heard of skeefs in the wild. It was still preferable to killing people, he thought, but even that was inevitable as long as the balance of the world was disturbed, and usurped by one person only. Holding up his sollevar, he took the front line with Wufei, the Nataku warrior snorting.

"These pesky vermin are not worthy of my blade," he said. "They will die because they don't deserve to be in this world!"

The noises were already audible; deceptively low, as if a few meowing cats were approaching them. There was a slight curve in the road and Heero squinted his eyes, concentrating -- there was the first pack! Skeefs had the same impressive teeth and jaws as spitting wrouvens, snorting almost the same, but they didn't yowl. Quatre summoned one of his embraces, but Heero noticed it wasn't as strong as it had been in the dungeon -- the Nature mage was probably still tired from all his Healing yesterday. He reminded Duo's words of how magic drained one's body.

"Show them your fire!" He hollered to Duo standing behind him, and he shifted into one of the stances Wufei had showed him, his training and exercises paying off.

"Skeefs are resistant to fire!" Duo yelled back, just before the first pack hit them, the animals jumping on their surprisingly strong hind legs towards them.

The next moment, chunks of ice hailed from the sky, killing the animals instantly, or freezing them to death on the spot. The ice was so intensely cold that it even affected Heero and Wufei; they moved away from the largest chunks and their point of impact, fending off the skeefs as they alternated the front position. The sollevar sliced through the beasts, tearing skin and flesh, while Wufei's katana cut them open as they attacked, Trowa's arrows hitting them straight between the eyes.

A massive amount of skeefs were unleashed, attacking the group indefatigable, despite ice, katana, sollevar and arrows killing animal after animal. Finally, Heero felt like he was standing to his knees in blood and guts, there weren't any more left. He turned around, hands trembling from the crushing grip on his sollevar, breathing slightly erratic, to see how the others were doing. Duo was standing next to Quatre, hand on his shoulder, and the nature mage looked like he could keel over any moment now, while Duo was breathing heavily, sweat dripping from his face. Trowa walked around, seemingly calmly collecting his arrows, but Heero noticed his strained movements. Wufei pursed his lips as he observed the battlefield; this had just been a waste of time and strength.

"Khushrenada knows we are in his country," the Nataku warrior commented. "He would not be wasting his time creating and sending more creatures on our path if he did not know we were here. If he tries to exhaust us... he is on the right way."

He simply nodded to Duo and Quatre, both using each other for support to at least remain standing up. A faint reddish glow faded around Duo; Heero didn't know how he participated in the battle, but magic wasn't his forte anyway. He assumed Duo had given somehow his strength to Quatre as his own Fire magic was useless concerning the skeefs; and maybe he would explain, maybe not. One thing was clear -- there would be no more travel for today. From the corner of his eyes he caught a glimpse of Relena, who was dry heaving in the bushes, a few feet away from the carnage. Her whole body shook, and as always Vayeate was close to her, the tall horse forming an impressive defense, just in case -- but from the looks of it, none of the skeefs had ever gotten close to her.

Trowa managed to find a suitable place to camp for the night, though it wasn't far from the battlefield. Relena shivered, and mumbled something about the stench of the cadavers, but she fell silent soon, realizing that they couldn't travel much farther with two exhausted mages.

The archer surpassed his own hunting skills, returning after a while with several fish and two rabbits. Duo had lit a fire in the meantime, and together with Trowa he improvised a stew, using a handful of beans and lentils from their own provisions. The fish were grilled and served on the side, together with the last remaining slices of bread. It didn't surprise Heero that the largest portion went to Quatre, as he needed to replenish his strength, and preferably soon. Relena said that she was too upset from the fight to eat, and Heero, even though he could eat a whole army's worth, lied for their benefit that he wasn't nearly that hungry, claiming he barely had lifted a finger. Duo looked strangely at him, but Quatre needed the food more than he did, so he didn't say a thing about it.

The small river wherein Trowa had caught the fish was surprisingly clean and clear, a relief in comparison to the gloomy and gray environment. Large willows flanked the river banks, thorny bushes covering the land, and there was weed everywhere, not a single flower in sight. Some of the bushes carried dark purple berries; as Trowa hadn't harvested them to serve at dinner, Heero took it that they might be poisonous -- he didn't expect the archer to have overlooked them.

He rinsed his blood-soaked clothing and left them out to dry in the setting afternoon sun, and went swimming. It wasn't a surprise that their arrival in Barge country hadn't remained a secret for long. He couldn't imagine them being the only ones after Khushrenada's life. After all the pain and grief the man caused, wouldn't there be more people swearing revenge? He didn't care, as long as the man would die at his hands. It was hard not to get angry when thinking about it, and Heero gritted his teeth. The man would pay, and when he had executed justice on him... he would be free. Raking his hand through his wet hair, Heero finished another lap and decided to get out of the water. Free to live his life without fearing for another battle, for another war... what was it that he wanted? Peace and hope for the nations, and peace and faith for himself?

Mulling over his own thoughts, he returned to his clothes which were already dry and redressed himself, still pondering. It was getting chilly nonetheless, and he returned to the camp where he found Duo, next to a perfectly controlled, small fire. He had dug up the shards of gundanium again and was trying to fit them together into a disk.

"Look, another clue to the puzzle," Duo said when he noticed Heero, holding up a large sliver of the indestructible material.

"Where did you find that?"

"One of the kids in the border town was playing with it; told me that he could stomp on it as hard as he wanted to, but it would never break. I knew enough when I heard that."

"With that many fragments, it's going to take a while to complete a whole disk," Heero said. "Especially compared to the one Khushrenada has... which was in one piece."

Duo moved with his fingers to fit some of the pieces together, and he heaved a sigh.

"Some of the documents I researched told me about certain keys that were needed to open the gates of Sanq," he said, a little frustrated.

"That is if we can find Sanq," Heero reminded him. "We don't even know where it is, Duo. You don't even know which direction to take!"

The glare he received from the Fire mage would have burned him to ashes on the spot, but he refused to budge. What Quatre had said in Libra's library had been true -- Duo put everything on everything to find a magical place that would absolve him from his sins.

"We will find it," he said determinedly. "After we defeat Khushrenada, we will find it and bring peace and hope to the world."

"And peace for yourself?" Heero asked, tentatively. Duo's glare softened.

"If that were possible, yes."

"Duo, listen... I want Khushrenada dead just as much as anyone else," Heero started, "but..."

"I don't want him dead," Duo interrupted him. "I want to see him punished for his crimes. There have been enough deaths already, and him leaving this world will not return the lives lost, or correct the damage that already has been done."

Heero brought up his hand and put his arm around Duo, pulling him a little closer. To his relief, Duo allowed him to -- that glare had really been devastating. "He'll pay for what he has done to you, and what pain he caused you."

"It won't bring them back," Duo said softly. "It won't bring back your loved ones either, Heero. As it is, I'm the one going to take more lives, only in the name of a God, not in the name of war."

"Khushrenada took the lives of the innocent, Duo. You saw for yourself how he treats his own people, how he stripped his own country and left it crippled. Nothing, not even his death, will make that right. Your situation is different, believe me."

"I believe you," Duo said and looked up, smiling. "I always do."

It was extremely tempting to kiss him. The night hadn't fallen yet, and anyone could catch them in the act. They hadn't shared much intimacy since their time in Libra, be it for the one interrupted time in the inn. Heero found himself longing for it, and apparently so did Duo; he turned his face towards him, lips upturned, and Heero claimed them for a kiss.

"These things you're doing to me..." he whispered.

Duo chuckled softly. "I'm doing things to you?"

"Yes, you are."

"Do you want me to make them stop?"

"No," Heero said, determinedly.


"I believe you too, Duo. If you say there's a magical Kingdom somewhere, there is one."

"I didn't say it was magical. And you're avoiding the subject."

"What subject?"

"About this," Duo said and returned the kiss. "What we're sharing... you know I'm not the most regular guy around."

"I'm not regular either," Heero promptly replied, though it had in reality only been two weeks, or maybe three, that he had been working on the lands like a regular, average servant.

"You're a warrior, a fighter. Such strong arms..." Duo all but snuggled up against him. "Anyone would feel safe in your arms."

Heero mulled over his words. Safe... how safe did he feel anyway? He had made a promise to keep Relena safe, to protect her from any harm. He knew she was safe in this group, with two warriors, an archer and two mages, but was a promise he had made, and he always kept himself to his promises. It tied him to Relena for the rest of his life, no matter how many times she told him that he was discharged from his promise. How could she be safe without him? She was a strong woman in mind, but she would die from the first robber on the road, the first fall she would take, and he would never forgive himself if something happened to her that he could have prevented. It was something to think about -- but not now, not when they were relatively in private. He scented Duo's hair -- herbs he couldn't identify, but it smelled heavenly. He kissed him on top of his head.

"Ahem," someone cleared his throat. As if stung, Duo disentangled himself from Heero, his hands immediately reaching for the gundanium pieces in his lap. Heero shot Wufei a deadly glare -- the proud Nataku warrior would have been reduced to nothing but dust if it had worked. At that very moment, Heero wished for powerful mage abilities as well, preferably Fire.

"No news from Libra yet," Wufei said. Duo looked into his lap, rearranging the pieces. He wasn't blushing, but the bangs in front of his eyes made it difficult to discern his expression.

"Khushrenada has made no new plans yet except for returning to Tallgeese."

"Tallgeese?" Heero repeated.

"That is the name of his estate," Duo provided. "It's tall, large, and extremely ugly. Probably also the breeding ground for his animals and where Tubarov fabricates his dolls."

"Where is this Tallgeese?"

"It is in the mountains of Barge country, but at this rate, it will take us two weeks to even get there," Wufei said disdainfully.

"So he's returning to his homeland after all," Duo said. "How convenient."

"I think he expects us to show up there," Quatre said and he neatly straightened his robes, the white embroidery as pristine as ever. He looked a little better than before, but the fatigue was radiating off of him. Relena was next to him, arm hooked into his.

"Maybe he's gathering his army to confront us head-on. He'll want the gates for Libra for the knowledge and the power it represents. He won't take no for an answer, or a sealed library for that matter."

"I know, Quatre. We'll confront Khushrenada when we're ready," Duo said. Heero looked at him quizzically.

"May I remind you that we're only with five, Duo? We're not an army worth."

"Five of us are exactly enough," Duo answered.

"The Legends," Quatre said. Heero couldn't make out of his voice whether he was stating just a fact or simply accepting Duo's words. Trowa joined the group, as always using the landscape to move almost undetectably. Wufei stood silently, arms crossed in front of his chest, and shared a perfect neutral look with the archer.

It dawned to Heero that he never wondered before why exactly the group followed Duo -- or why he had stuck around himself. Was it because they all believed in the Legends, the legend of Sanq, or anything else Duo said? The word of the Fire mage almost seemed to be imperative, and they followed him, though not always quietly. Quatre had objected more than once, but still, Duo's word was followed in the end. It was strange; what kind of influence did Duo hold over the others?

Relena stared at her nails, arm still hooked through Quatre's. She looked from one to the other, studying and gauging their expressions. She tried very hard to keep her face just as neutral as the others, which was a shame -- her face had always been open and easy to read.

Duo looked at the others defiantly, as if he wanted to challenge them to go against him. It didn't escape Heero though, that his hands were clenched in his lap.

"We're going to retreat for the night," Quatre suddenly announced. Heero nodded briefly to him. The Nature mage's eyes were warm and friendly; no harsh words would be spoken tonight. He was thankful for it -- Duo didn't say anything in return and simply watched his friends leaving. Wufei and Trowa went in opposite directions; the Nataku warrior muttering something under his breath that deceptively sounded like "morons" and "idiots". He was out of Heero's mind soon enough.

Duo shifted as he stifled a yawn. Turning his head a little, he collected the gundanium slivers, once again trying to puzzle them together.

"Look, they have to fit in each other somehow."

Heero took the pieces out of Duo's hands and put them aside. Before Duo could protest, he cupped his face and looked directly into his eyes.

"Are you ashamed?"


"When Wufei arrived -- are you ashamed of the two of us?"

The Fire mage shook his head. "I'm not ashamed, Heero. I just don't want it... to be in public where it might offend people. I know the others here don't mind, but I didn't know if you wanted it out in the open yet, and I don't even know Relena's opinion..."

"We have the Princess' blessing," Heero said, a little wryly. He had hurt her big time, and the promise he wanted to keep to her was his only way to make it up to her, albeit weakly. "We talked, and she understood."

"She was really in love with you, right?"

"Don't change the subject."

"I'm sorry," Duo said. "No, I'm not ashamed, and if we weren't at the brink of a war I would have married us ourselves. After all, I am a priest." He laughed, and leaned a little into Heero.

"Then, as soon as it's possible, we will get married."

"We're still two guys..."


"A marriage is about a woman and a man..."

Heero nodded. "I know, but you're the priest around here. So unless you want to pose as a woman or simply reject my proposal, we're going to get married, two guys or not." It sounded logical to his own ears, and he couldn't care less about what the rest of the world thought about it, as long as he was with Duo.

"You don't know what you're saying," Duo snorted, but it lacked vehemence.

"I want to be with the real Duo."

"You wouldn't want to."

"I do."

"You won't like him."

"Duo. We had this conversation before."

"I know." Duo lowered his head. "It's so easy to hide behind a mask and distract people from your real self," he said. "I figured it was easier to keep up a happy sweet persona instead of introducing myself as Shinigami's little replacement."

"What did the God of Death ask of you?"

He pursed his lips, and darted with his fingers over Heero's knee. Absent-mindedly, he increased the open fire in front of them with a simple gesture and snuggled closer, enjoying the warmth.

"He asked life of me."

"To give it to him?"

"No, he told me that I could break his... no, our mutual commitment if I were to find life."

Mutual commitment? Heero started to despise Duo's heavy mage robes. The only skin he could touch was his neck, and Duo was slightly ticklish there.

"If you have a mutual commitment with Shinigami, then there's something he must be doing for you, too," he wondered out loud.

"Don't ask," Duo said sharply.

"What do you gain by this commitment?"

"I said, 'don't ask'," Duo growled. He squirmed a little, shifting around, all but wrestling himself free from their embrace. Heero was stronger, so he kept the Fire mage in place -- he wanted to know.

"What, Duo?"

"What are you doing?" he hissed, and his eyes darkened dangerously. "Why do you want to know?"

"I want to know so I can help you break this commitment," Heero answered. "I don't want you to owe anything to anyone else."

"Let me go," Duo hissed again. "Let me go, or I'll set you on fire. I mean it, Heero."

Heero lifted his arm and Duo pulled away from him, his face an unreadable mixture of emotions. He might have been a simple servant working on a farm, but he was intelligent enough to see certain connections. A commitment with mutual benefits -- how could he help Duo if he didn't know both sides of the contract?

"What made you ask for your powers," he said, though not loud. "What made you choose for him?"

Duo looked at him, and now his expression was just blank. "If you can't figure it out for yourself, then we're not on the right way to become what we want to become," he said curtly. "I have answered enough of your questions, Heero. I'll answer only one more, and then you can think about what you have gotten yourself into."

"Duo, I..."

"Enough," Duo cut him short. "Yes, I have a commitment to Shinigami, and he has a commitment to me. For as long as I haven't found life, I can't find death either -- I'm immortal, Heero. Do you see now why not everyone can come close to me? They just die. I have never believed in any God but the one who mastered Death -- because I have never seen anything but death, and the only smell I scent is the one of rotting corpses, and the only beauty I see is when someone dies without too much pain. I hope you understand it now, Heero Yuy of Romefeller country."

He couldn't say another word. Duo didn't wait for him to start talking either; he grabbed the gundanium slivers and walked away; without him, the fire died spontaneously. Heero shivered from the sudden cold, and shivered from the cold settling into his bones.

The night had been restless. Heero didn't have any nightmares, but felt too uncomfortable to sleep and spend the eerily silent hours awake and patrolling around, checking up on every one of the group. Relena was all bundled up in the blankets, not far from Quatre and Trowa, mage's staff, bow and arrows between them. Wufei had made an accommodation for himself away from the group; far enough to be on his own, close enough to come to their aid if need be. Heero slightly panicked when he couldn't find Duo, but relaxed when he saw him close to a large birch tree, rolled up in a blanket, fast asleep.

Morning couldn't come fast enough for him, especially because the stench of the decomposing skeef cadavers was getting horrible and drenching them and their belongings. When the sun finally rose and everybody stirred in their blankets, he had to refrain forcefully from not urging them to get up and hurry. Fortunately, nobody felt exactly comfortable staying around here, so they improvised breakfast from the leftover bread and some fruit which was edible thanks to Quatre's Nature magic. Not a single one of them dallied while breaking up camp, and they were on their way sooner than Heero thought.

He ended up walking next to Relena, Wufei taking his turn to lead and scout for the group. Quatre was on Mercurius' back, talking to Duo -- Heero was glad to see him in good spirits again. Vayeate followed the other horse's trail, slightly peeved they weren't galloping and he bristled every now and then.

"Relena," he called her name softly. She looked up, showing him a warm, yet... changed smile. He couldn't make out what exactly was changed in her smile, but it was definitely different.

"Heero," she replied, and he was relieved to hear the same, genuine warmth in her voice -- that hadn't changed.

"How are you?"

She didn't hesitate. "I'm all right," she said. "A little shaken from all the... events. I thought... I hoped we would never have to live through such a slaughter again. It's horrible."

Heero took it one of the others had told her about the spitting wrouvens -- it had been his first massacre, and he didn't feel a thing for strangely manipulated animals serving Khushrenada's cause. They were simply sent to slaughter them, and he didn't care for their death.

"I'm sorry," he said. "If I could make it that you wouldn't see it, I..."

"No, Heero." Relena heaved a sigh. She pulled her dark red vest tighter around her, the morning chilly. Esshava Bloom had thought to put at least one practical dress into the lot she bestowed upon Relena; this one was matching the vest, reaching mid-calf and pleated in the front. It didn't show any embroidery or other frills; even her matching boots were simple and sturdy. "I know you would do so if it was in your power, but it's time that I don't hide behind... that I don't hide behind the person that I'm not."

"What do you mean?" He asked, genuinely confused.

"What if this is a test, Heero?" she said, her voice hitching. She looked stealthily at the mages in front of her, afraid they had overheard her. Quatre was laughing amiably and Duo was talking, flailing his arms around, wildly gesticulating. "What if the Twelve are testing me, what if I'm really a 'Princess'... how am I supposed to be a ruler, the head of a Kingdom, when I don't even know where to begin? When I don't even know who I am? What if I'm not this 'Princess' Duo believes me to me?"

"You are Relena Darlian," Heero answered. "That by some... legend you're supposed to be a Peacecraft now, doesn't change who you are. You've been raised by esshan Darlian, and maybe he didn't have enough time to prepare you, but you're intelligent and wise enough to make it work."

Her features softened, but were quickly replaced by a frown. "That's sweet of you, Heero. Still... I've been thinking. I wanted to return to Romefeller to help Sylvia, to help the people there. Maybe I'm adequate to do this, but a whole Kingdom, not to mention this high... this high regard Duo has of me, even without knowing me!"

"Do you believe in the Kingdom of Sanq and the Legends?"

"Do you?"

"I believe it," Heero answered, and wanted to add "for his sake" but found himself oddly unable to do so. "I believe it. It's quite the story, maybe even too fantastic to be true, but there has to be some truth to it. The things he has said and shown us..."

"You always only believed something when presented with undeniable, irrefutable proof," Relena teased him lightly. "You must really love him if you believe it so much." She averted her head, immediately blushing. "I'm sorry, that was out of line."

"No, it wasn't." He hesitated for a second before putting his hand on her shoulder. The look in her eyes was one of surprise, but also one of gratitude.

"I'm happy for you, Heero, I really am."

He nodded. Relena would never lie to him, and she was too caring to even think of lying into his face.

Withdrawing his hand from her shoulder, her smile turned a little wry.

"You always know what to say. Maybe you should be the ruler instead of me."

"That's not true, and you know that. You were the one discussing politics with me, remember? I'm just a servant."

She laughed abruptly. "You've long surpassed that stage, Heero." She eyed the sollevar in his right hand, almost hissing at it. "Ever since you picked up... that thing, you stopped being a servant and became a warrior."

He didn't know what to say to that. Relena despised every use of a weapon, and she had a lot of trouble accepting the necessary violence -- if they hadn't killed all the skeefs, the group would have ended up as dinner, it was as simple as that; enraged animals didn't listen to reason. It was sad to realize that it had drifted them apart, in some way; Heero had accepted, all but embraced the need of violence, while Relena was ironically fighting against it. Anything involving weapons and fighting had her disapproval; only the future would know if she would ever change that point of view or not.

The roads were changing again. There was barely any pavement, and the horses trudged through the thick mud as the continuous dreary rain turned sand into a massive sludge, slowing down their pace considerably. Wufei seemed to know where the Tallgeese estate was, and grumbled about the delay. Heero didn't expect Khushrenada to travel all that fast either, especially if he brought his army along. No one could make any progress on these roads-turned-mud pools, and he was getting quite fed up with the weather. The steadily rain soaked him, but apparently didn't bother Duo or Quatre in the least -- both mages kept their pace steady, the water pouring off their robes without actually touching them. Grumbling himself, Heero wished that the mages would apply their magic trick to the rest of the group as well; he could really do without the rain.

Duo didn't know much of Tallgeese estate. He thought it was just a mansion with a few barns and some acres of wood. For all that was known about Khushrenada, his family origins were quite prominent.

"The only reason he can afford an estate is that his family has become rich from exploiting the population," the Fire mage explained. "Barge country doesn't know any authorities, no government, nothing -- mostly because nobody ever tried to. There isn't even a capital, the people live throughout the land and do whatever needs to be done to get through the day: cooking, building, breaking, mending... the country doesn't have many natural resources, and actual good arable land is scarce."

"Let me guess, Khushrenada and his family were the closest things to an authority, and the people listened to them?"

"He owns the lands, Heero," Duo said and shrugged. Strangely enough, the rain had affected his hair and his face; he blinked a few times. "He enforced certain contracts on them, and the people signed; they couldn't read it anyway, and Khushrenada promised them good, profitable lands in exchange for a small percentage of the harvests for him."

"A percentage that increased every year," Trowa added. The archer had joined them without Heero noticing. He should really ask him how he managed to do that. "He had both the lands and people working cheap for him -- no wonder he could afford himself an estate."

"Well, this is Khushrenada senior you're talking about," Duo said, a little too airy. "I don't know what happened to his parents, though. The Khushrenada we know is the only son and heir of the family."

Relena looked pensive. "How strange that nothing is known about his family. Does he even have a wife? Children? How would they feel about their father's actions?"

"I don't even know if the people around here know what happened, and they probably don't care," the Fire mage said. "They're too busy rebuilding the country; they could well do without a usurper starting the depletion anew."

"Agreed," Relena said. She pulled her vest closer around her body. The roads were changing, but the landscape wasn't -- every tree, every bush looked as if it was in its last stage of life, showing brown leaves and dried branches. There was no color to be found here, no wild flowers, no intense green grass. It made everyone feel uncomfortable, and Duo seemed to be the most unnerved of all. Not much was said, though; they tried to keep resting to a minimum, as to make good speed on their travel. Trowa took care of the horses, and Heero trusted him, recalling Quatre's words about the archer's uncanny ability with animals. As it was, Vayeate seemed to accept Trowa, the tall stallion obeying him as well as he did Relena.

At night, Heero heard strange birds crowing, and strange animals slithering over the forest floor. By day, they struggled on and on through the mud, the everlasting rain soaking them to their bones with exception of the mages, and they ran out of provisions -- the berries on the thorny bushes they encountered all over the place were poisonous, despite their appetizing appearance. No one complained, and the more they closed in on Khushrenada's estate, the more determined and high-strung Wufei seemed to become. His hand was on the hilt of his katana, itchy to pull the sword and skewer anything, anyone with it. Heero noticed his own grip on his sollevar was ridiculously strong and tight; he forced himself to relax, but found himself impossible to do so. This country affected every one of them; Relena had fallen silent days ago, staring gloomily in front of her, her hand always at her vest to keep it as closed as possible; the wind was becoming chillier with every passing day.

The Tallgeese estate wasn't as depressing and looming as Catalonia Castle had been -- on the contrary, the mansion was painted in brightly yellow colors that mismatched completely with the gray natural environment. Even the roof tiles were a broken white, while the shudders bore light brown colors; they were all closed, a dark, almost black vine crawling between the cracks.

"It looks abandoned," was the first thing Heero mentioned. Wufei shot him a dark glare.

"We made it before Khushrenada himself," Quatre said and his voice sounded so hesitant that Heero lifted his sollevar again, ready to attack if need be. Trowa helped Relena off of Vayeate's back before rearranging his quiver, filled to the rim with sharp arrows. The bow in his hand was steadfast as ever; nothing much seemed to disturb Trowa.

"There have been people, many people here," Wufei said out loud. "Recently." The rain was busy washing away the tracks, but even Heero could make out the imprints of boots.

"If there has been an army, where did it go to?" Quatre asked. He looked at Duo, who remained silent, a scowl on his face. His lips mouthed the word 'coward', but no sound was coming out of him. Heero wished for the umpteenth time for the blasted rain to stop. If they were here, at the gates of a mansion, they might a well just go inside and find a fireplace.

Relena shivered from the cold and her hand trembled a little. "What's going to happen now?" she asked, voice drowned out by the howling wind.

"I don't know, Princess," Quatre answered absent-mindedly. Wufei was ranting incoherently, but the word 'coward' appeared often, with much disdain. The two horses scooted closer to each other, searching for some warmth. Heero was feeling quite hungry, and he wanted to be somewhere dry for a change -- and so he stepped towards the large stairs leading up to the massive entrance doors of the mansion.

"No, stop! Heero!"

Duo's voice had never sounded so imperative before. Heero stopped, turning half-way around.

"What?" He was grumpy from the cold, the rain, and the lack of food. As long as they were here, they could wait inside if Khushrenada decided to show up, and who knows, maybe the kitchen still had some stock. He was prepared to even eat that filthy grease-and-bread dinner again they had in the town at the border.

"There is..." Duo spoke, and the next moment the doors flew open with a force that slammed the panels off of their hinges. A large monster rammed through the opening; as large as the door panels were, they were still too small for this being, its massively thick and muscular arms destroying rock and bricks as if it was wet paper.

Heero was frozen to the spot; only his instincts made him lift up the sollevar, pointing it menacingly at the monstrous huge animal. He had known fear in his life before -- and now, now he was terrified. Only one look told him how heavy and how strong this beast was, and his rapid mind told him that if he were to fight it, he had better come up with a plan, and fast. It walked on its hind legs, using its arms to swing, right in Heero's direction.

"Heero!" Duo barked, the others calling out his name as well, but he just couldn't move. His eyes were focused on the mouth, foam spattering into every direction, eyes narrowed in pure bloodlust, baring sharp, large, yellow teeth as it roared for the attack.

"It's a dekka-zod! Heero! Get out of the way!"


Its eyes were red, a hypnotizing red. They mirrored its rage, its lust for blood, and it had found a new victim, standing on the stairs. The sollevar was nothing but a wooden match compared to the hairy arm of the beast, but still Heero lifted it up, his body obeying instincts he didn't know he possessed in an attempt to fend off the inevitable.

The dekka-zod howled all of the sudden, a dark red ray piercing its upper body, but not killing it; dark purple spots circled around the entry wound. It howled again, almost pitifully, and it batted at the magic unleashed at it, as if not understanding what was going on. Heero noticed the scaled skin on the dekka-zod's ears, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hind legs. The rest of its body was covered with fur; when he saw an amount of arrows bungling from the matted hairs, he figured that this... being was going to be very hard to deal with. He only had time for one look over his shoulder, looking at Duo who had conjured the magic -- one look, and then the dekka-zod lunged forward on all fours, rampaging towards the one that was hurting him.


Quatre swung his staff, wielding his magic through it, and the animal was encased in a thick layer of ice, freezing it mid-way through its jump.

"Almighty Twelve," the Nature mage muttered, panting from the exertion. Encasing such a large being took a lot out of him. "What are we going to do now?"

Relena had hidden herself behind the two horses while Vayeate was stamping with impatience to take on the monster himself. Mercurius half-heartedly blocked his way, though, keeping both horses in front of the girl. Wufei had drawn his katana, swearing briefly. Normal weapons were too small to accomplish anything with a beast this size. Forcing himself to take the few steps down, Heero approached the two mages, trying to convince himself that the fight was over. Shivering from the cold when he passed the iceberg encasing the dekka-zod, he glanced at Duo.

"I tried to leech its life," he said, shaking his head. "It's an extremely strong beast, and I figured that if I could leech its life, I could weaken it... but I only managed to enrage it."

This time Heero didn't shiver from the cold. This was his first taste of Death magic, and even Quatre seemed to have distanced himself from Duo, literally -- he stood a few steps away from him, and Heero could have sworn the two mages had stood next to each other when the whole ordeal had begun. Trowa was inspecting his quiver, and though Wufei had stopped talking, his shifty eyes spoke volumes. Knowing that one was in the presence of a Death mage was one thing, seeing him wielding it was a whole another thing. Heero refrained from shivering again. Duo had told him about it, and he shouldn't be afraid of the one he... loved. Really? Did he really love...?

"Can we just go inside?" Relena's voice was nothing short of a little singing bird, and he didn't blame her for being scared. Quatre had encased the dekka-zod in ice, but it still oozed danger, and those teeth and eyes would scare anyone. Nobody moved, however -- only a silence fell, interrupted by a creaking sound. And again. And again.

"Get away from there," Quatre hissed, gesticulating at Heero. He stepped to the side as Quatre positioned himself in front of the huge chunk of ice, raising his staff again. Heero assumed that the mage was going to strengthen his spell to keep the dekka-zod in its cold tomb, and took a few more steps to the side to allow him to work freely. Just as he did, he caught a large crack from the corner of his eyes.

"Quatre! Over here!" he warned, but it was too late. The dekka-zod freed itself, the ice not strong enough to imprison it, and with another deep howl, it continued to jump forward, straight at Quatre. Huge pieces of ice scattered around, the thick encasement breaking apart, and Heero was thrown to the ground when a particular large lump hit him in the stomach. He tried to get back up on his feet immediately, his voice having died in his throat -- was he going to witness Quatre being torn to pieces by the animal, or...?

It was Duo who pushed Quatre out of the way, rolling with him over the ground and was barely missed by the dekka-zod's jaw snapping shut as it finished its jump. Relena screamed, seeing the beast coming straight at her, but the dekka-zod turned around, snorting and growling, movements sluggish. Heero crawled through the mud to Quatre who had been pushed to the ground, Duo on top of him.

"Get up, get up!"

Trowa hopped around the animal, darting like a faun, unperturbed by the rain, cold, or the mud. He faced the dekka-zod head on, aiming his arrow and shooting it with a disturbing calm composure right into its eye. Howling in pain, the beast straightened itself on its hind legs again, mowing around with its huge forearms. Its deafening cry of pain pierced the sky; Trowa quickly moved away from where he had been standing as the dekka-zod blindly stampeded forward... to where both mages were lying in the mud, with only Heero standing upright to defend them.

Duo cursed wildly as he tried to get up, the weight of his heavy robes almost pulling him down, and he used Quatre unceremoniously for support to get up and straighten himself.

Heero gritted his teeth and braced himself for the impact. He had no doubt one hit of the animal's arm would wipe him out; but he would rather die protecting Duo, Relena, the rest of the group, then running for his life. Duo was a little quicker than him -- rapidly, the mage cast his leeching spell again, and this time in short bursts instead of one concentrated beam of magic. The dekka-zod stopped its oncoming charge, howling again as it tried to fight off the pain.

Duo slowly stepped forward, approaching the beast. The magic was becoming more intense, concentrating on leeching all its life force. It growled and howled; Relena clamped her hands over her ears. The noise was horrifying, but as it was fighting off the magic, it still tried to attack -- flailing wildly with its arms, it finally managed to hit Duo, who flew through the air like a discarded sheet of paper.

Heero was sure he screamed his name. He screamed, but it was drowned out by the triumphing, boasting roar of the dekka-zod, who simply picked out its next target despite being weakened by the Death magic. In its hesitation to decide on either Quatre or Heero to be the next, Wufei charged forward, plunging his katana into the beast's fur, scraping its skin. It served nothing but to enrage the animal further, distracted for only a mere second -- but enough for Quatre to roll away and stand up, collecting his bearings again.

"Heero," he said. "Heero! Focus!"

He didn't care. He couldn't care. Focus on what? Duo was lying in the mud, in the rain, his face turned away from him, and Heero couldn't see if he was breathing or not. He can't be dead. He's immortal as long as he hasn't found life, remember? Strangely, it didn't calm him; it only made him more anxious.


He couldn't help Duo if he didn't manage to defeat this beast. It was growling, preparing itself for another charge -- it was sluggish, but so extremely strong that, even though Duo had leeched some of its life force, there was still plenty left to make it dangerous and unpredictable. His grip on his sollevar tightened, his knuckles turning white. He was one of the Five, just like Quatre, Wufei, Trowa and Duo. They couldn't die here. They had come too far to die here on the lands of the usurper, after seeking him out to fight him on his own turf. Heero refused to die -- he was strong, he wasn't feeling tired. If he ignored his hunger, if he ignored his worries about Duo, and concentrated on taking on the beast, he could defeat it, together with the others.

The dekka-zod roared again, resuming its charge. Heero counted the number of steps it was taking, assessing its rhythm. One, two...Quatre's hands were covered with a thin layer of ice, and a pale blue light surrounded his fingers.

"No," Heero said. Three, four...

"What?" Quatre didn't look back. The light intensified -- whatever spell he was preparing, maybe his own dortang, it was going to be strong.

"No," Heero repeated. One, two...He shifted the sollevar, the trident-head pointing upwards, the shaft over his shoulder. The beast roared.

"You're kidding..." Quatre's voice was drowned out, but he didn't complete his spell. I'll ask him later why he trusted me. Three... four!

It jumped, arms forward, stubby nails visible. Its teeth made up for the sharpness its nails missed -- its mouth was open wide enough to drive a whole carriage through. Please! Heero threw the sollevar with all his strength, praying as it went, flying through the air, a perfect arc as it landed into the dekka-zod's mouth, the razor sharp trident splintering bone and rupturing tissue, penetrating the skull. Spitting out blood, the beast fell to the ground, and only because both Wufei and Quatre pulled him aside, it didn't land on top of Heero.

He didn't hear what they were saying, ears deaf to anything that didn't carry Duo's voice. Duo... his eyes sought out the Fire mage, still lifelessly on the ground, and his feet were walking towards him, breaking out into a jog, accelerating to a fast-paced run until he reached him, dropping to his knees, hands grabbing Duo at the shoulders.

"Duo! Duo...!" He shook him a few times. "Duo! This can't be!"

"Easy," Duo coughed, tilting his head, his face covered with mud, eyes half-lidded, blood dripping into them.

"You're injured," Heero said, keeping the worried tone out of his voice. "Quatre! Come over here!"

"I'm okay," Duo groaned, coughing again. "I might be a Death mage, but I'm not indestructible. I should have known that that beast could knock me over like anyone else."

"Quatre!" Heero hollered again, trying to get the mud off of Duo's face, his fingers moving gently, but unable to wipe the caked blood away.

"I'm okay," Duo repeated, immediately followed by a grunt. "Help me up."

"You'll lie down until Quatre has taken a good look at you," Heero said and all but pushed Duo back into the mud when he tried to get up on his own. Duo grunted again, but obediently lied down. In the background, Heero could hear the dying snorts and groans of the dekka-zod, but the animal was the last thing on his mind to worry about.

Heero unabashedly brushed wet strands of hair out of Duo's face, gritting his teeth when some of them were matted with blood, and he cursed the rain once more. Finally, he noticed Quatre standing next to him, the midnight blue robes flowing around him, untouched by any of nature's antics.

"Let's get him inside," he suggested. "Wufei and Trowa are scouting if there are more of... these surprises in the mansion, but we would be at least sheltered from the rain."

"Best idea I've ever heard," Heero grumbled and wrapped his arms around Duo, who groaned once more, Heero being none too careful in his haste to get him into the mansion.

He didn't pay any attention to the demolished furniture and damaged decorations when they were inside; his eyes darted around in search for the best place to lie Duo down. The Fire mage was leaning on him, but not lifelessly; he moved his arms to rub over his bruised chest, still groaning every now and then, more in irritation than from real pain.

"Over there," Quatre pointed to a sofa who had miraculously survived the destructive nature of the dekka-zod. Heero moved towards it and helped Duo to lie down on the abundantly embroidered cushions, outlined with pompous tassels in every corner. Its sandy-yellow color clashed with the intense pitch black of Duo's robes, and as soon as the fabric washed over the sofa, its colors seemed to pale and wash out. Nobody paid attention; Quatre pushed Heero gently to the side to check Duo's injuries.

"What are you doing?" Heero asked as Quatre just... stood there.

"Shh," Duo shushed him, coughing a little. Heero frowned.

"Duo, you need..."

"Patience, Heero, patience," Quatre said, his eyes never leaving Duo. "I can't Heal him before I know what injuries he has sustained. If I apply Healing just like that, the patient wouldn't really benefit from it, now would he? Not every injury is the same, and sometimes it's more difficult to assess one's condition... ah, at least you don't have any internal injuries, Duo."

Duo muttered something that had to be a sarcastic remark, but it was muffled by the large sleeve of his robe as he held up his arm, hand pressed against his forehead. There was still some blood on his face, but it seemed to be a superficial cut, much to Heero's relief. Quatre just nodded and lifted his hands, palms up, pressing them together as if cupping something. A white-ish, pale orb was formed, slowly spinning around as the mage chanted his Healing spell. Heero almost took a step back when he saw something flowing out of the orb, some kind of semi-transparent tendril, coiling as it descended down on Duo.

"What are you doing?" Heero asked again. It almost looked like the magic was attacking Duo instead of healing him; the tendril stretched itself along Duo's body, curling around his limbs. Quatre shook his head in annoyance, too busy with the spell to give an answer. Duo didn't say a word either, only heaving a deep sigh. Heero couldn't see what was happening, only that Duo looked pale and his eyes slid close, lips slightly parted. The blood and the cut on his face disappeared, a bruise on his cheek was gone as well, and the healing spell even removed the caked blood from his hair.

"Amazing," Heero said in awe, though he knew how good of a Healer Quatre was. This was the first time he actually witnessed a Healing. Quatre nodded again and both the tendril and orb disappeared. He wiggled with his fingers a little before dropping his hands next to his sides. Duo seemed to be asleep; his eyes were still closed, and his chest rose and fell in a steady, healthy rhythm.

"Healing is intense, especially when you have already given so much of yourself." Quatre said. He didn't look as tired as Duo, yet his face was a little pale. "Magic is hard work, and it has to come all from your inner self. He's exhausted, Heero. We can let him rest for a while, for as long as it takes for the others to sweep the house for other, uninvited guests."

"Quatre," Heero said before the other could walk away.


"How does... how does one live with magic?"

"Live with magic?" Quatre looked confused. "You don't have a choice, Heero. Either you have those powers or you don't -- and when you have them, you just live with them. At Libra, we taught people how to deal with it; how it affected one's life. Others learned from experience, I guess."

"True, but Duo chose to wield these powers..."

"Only the Death magic," Quatre corrected him. "He's a Fire mage by birth, but he chose to wield Death magic, yes. I take it he told you about it himself. He might be the only and last one to walk these grounds, completely schooled in Death magic. He opened himself for it, he sought the knowledge out. That's the difference. He takes the risks for all of us, so others don't have to fight. He saw his home and his church burn down, he saw the people he loved, die."

"Like so many of us."

Quatre sighed, a frown of sadness marring his face. "Like so many of us. It's terrible, but that is the way it goes. I'm not all-powerful, I'm not a visionary, and nature magic is just what it is... nature magic. I'm a Healer, not a fighter, Heero. I do know how to fight, and I will fight by using my magic, using the power and forces of nature to defend myself and protect those around me. Death magic or Fire magic like Duo's is much more offensive and deals a lot more damage -- but as you saw yourself out there, Death magic takes a lot of concentration and leaves you open for an attack. Furthermore, anyone wielding Death magic is unable to heal himself."

He waited until the mage continued, but Quatre remained silent, apparently lost in thoughts. When he looked up and spoke, his voice was calm and composed.

"Keep guard around him, Heero. I'm going to see how the Princess is doing."

Heero acknowledged Quatre's order and sat down on the floor as there was no other furniture, be it severely damaged, around to sit on. Whoever had left the dekka'zod in the mansion, had done it on purpose. Heero had already seen the dust and deteriorating state of the walls. No one had been here in quite a while; it made him wonder about the fate of the rest of the Khushrenada family, be it for Treize. If anything, he would pay, Heero vowed to himself. Anger flowed through him, fueling his desire to end Khushrenada's life himself. His moment would be when his sollevar would pierce the man's neck, and he would gurgle and die in his own blood. Which reminded him that his weapon was still in the dekka'zod's mouth if none of the others had pulled it out yet. Grumbling, he remained with Duo and calmed himself by focusing on his breathing; chest rising and falling, rising and falling. His braid had slipped over his shoulder and dangled from the sofa, close to Heero's foot. As his anger calmed down, a feeling of guilt took over; he hadn't even asked how Relena was doing and where the horses were.

He didn't realize how much time he spent next to Duo, legs crossed, mulling over Quatre's words and pondering the recent events. His stomach was growling, hunger pains plaguing him. Heero wished they could leave here already; how long was it going to take for the others to search through the mansion? If he had paid attention, he would have known how large it was, and Wufei and Trowa were only the two of them. If there were any other beasts to deal with, they needed his help... but he didn't hear any commotion, and he didn't even know where Quatre and Relena were.

A sound to his left startled him out of his thoughts, and he looked up to see Relena next to him, placing a silver tray beside him on the floor.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

He shook his head. She apparently thought she had disturbed him, presuming that he had dozed off. "It's okay."

"I brought you something to eat," she said. "There weren't any provisions in the kitchen left, but the garden was full of wild fruit, and we still had some flour and sugar from our own stash. Quatre checked the fruit, it's all right -- I baked you a pie."

He couldn't suppress a laugh; the fact that they were on enemy's turf after having defeated a gigantic beast, contrasting with something as sweet and simple as a pie was actually quite funny. She didn't get it, and tilted her head curiously.

"You'll make a good wife someday, Relena," he said and she laughed softly; this joke she understood.

"I'll try," she answered and sat down, carefully wiping away some of the dirt and dust first. She glanced at Duo. "How is he?"

"Just tired," Heero said and removed the silver lid from the tray. The pie was golden brown and smelled heavenly. He didn't know what kind of fruit she had used, but it was mouthwatering. Using the utensils on the tray, he cut off a piece for himself.

"That was Death magic outside, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was," he answered. "I've never seen something like it before."

"It was horrible," Relena said. "That...animal was horrible. Who creates such beasts?"

"Not the Twelve, if that's what you think," Duo said, voice raspy. Heero almost forgot to chew on his pie, but the Fire mage looked at him amusedly, eyes tired but glimmering.

Relena shook her head. "I wouldn't even consider thinking that they would create such monsters. I... even when they die, it's awful, but...they're so horrible..."

"Don't worry, Princess," Duo said and tried to sit up straight. "These monsters don't have any feelings, and I mean they really don't -- not a feeling at all. They were bred, cultivated with only one goal: kill."

"Horrible," Relena repeated and her hands went to the tray, cutting off another piece. For a moment Heero thought she was going to eat it herself, but she handed the plate over to Duo.

"It's not as nutritious as regular dinner," she muttered. "But Trowa says the woods around here don't have any wildlife worth hunting, and skinning that dekka'zod thing..."

"It isn't edible anyway," Duo soothed her, accepting the plate gracefully and using his hands instead of the accompanying fork to eat the pie. Soon, his mouth was covered with crumbs and fruit stains, and Relena wordlessly handed him a napkin.

Heero took another slice of the pie, savoring its taste. His stomach wasn't satisfied at all, but it was a beginning, it was at least something. It didn't surprise him that the kitchen had been empty; only a fool wouldn't notice that this estate was just ripe for demolition. Duo moved his legs and sat upright, enjoying his food.

"You're eating already," Quatre's voice resonating through the hall. "Good, I thought you were going to be out for longer."

"Are you kidding?" Duo boasted, but ruined it by coughing rather violently. He used the napkin to hide his face, pretending he just choked on his bite of the pie.

"There is no one in the building," Wufei said, words clipped as usual. "We found Khushrenada's study; it is locked, and there is a presence in it."

"A presence?" Relena parroted.

"We saw the shadow over the threshold," Trowa clarified. "There's someone in the study, but there was no answer when we knocked."

"Did you try to break open the door?" Heero suggested, almost annoyed.

"That is why we are here for you," Wufei shot back. "We need your brute strength to open it."

"Such a delicious pie," Quatre said a little too lightly, and served himself. Wufei glared at Heero before sitting down, his own hunger keeping him from refusing to share the meal.

After they had devoured the pie, Heero asked where the horses where. Trowa answered him that Vayeate and Mercurius were in the garden, enjoying their own dinner. The stables belonging to the estate were in deplorable condition; they had found a barrel with water in the garden, along with the abundance of fruit. While Duo got up from the sofa and stretched, Heero went outside to retrieve his sollevar, yanking it out of the dekka'zod's open mouth, the lingering stench of its breath almost causing him to throw up.

With his weapon safely back into his hands, Heero joined the rest of the group. Wufei had his hand on his katana, and Trowa also had his bow and arrows ready; despite no other animal being around, they were clearly not at ease. The eerily empty mansion was grating on his nerves as well, and Heero allowed the two to lead the way to wherever Khushrenada's study was. All the doors in the long hallways were open, and Heero understood why it had taken them so long; they had searched through all the rooms, examining them meticulously. It had bought Duo some time to rest, and even though Heero himself hadn't felt tired at all, his short nap hadn't been unwelcome.

Relena followed in the back, with Quatre closing the line as they went upstairs to the study. Her hand went past the beautiful wallpaper, showing an intricate pattern of flowers and plants, faded and torn. A few of the paintings still on the wall showed wonderful landscapes. The Khushrenada family had come a long way, in the negative sense; all this beauty and grandeur was hard to reconcile with the all-out war, the horrible monsters and the coveting nature of the family, extorting their own people.

"Here it is," Trowa announced when he halted in front of a large, dark red painted door. Heero knocked on the wood to determine its origin, but he couldn't make anything of the dark, low sound.

Duo frowned when he saw the door. "Very shrewd," he said, and he didn't take the effort to keep the irritation out of his voice. "This door has been sealed for any magic; if I were to use any Fire to try to burn it down, it would simply repel it."

"I thought so," Quatre sighed. "Well, force is all that we have left, then. Heero?"

He growled. This was going to take several tries, he was sure of it; the wood was thick and sturdy. He put his shoulder against it and pushed, then he pulled back and tried it again, this time with all his weight. The door creaked, but didn't budge.

Soon, they all lost count of how many times he tried; slowly but surely, the door was getting off of its hinges. Heero alternated between pushing with his shoulder and kicking with his foot. Finally, a final kick broke the door's resistance, and it flew open.

The first thing that stood out was that the study was completely unaffected. Lavishly decorated with the most expensive wooden furniture, all sporting delicately carved patterns, there wasn't even a speck of dust to be found. Tall bookcases, filled to the brim with books and several statuettes of a material that Heero didn't recognize, covered the wall-papered walls with the same design as in the hallway.

The second thing was Treize Khushrenada himself, standing in front of a massive wooden desk, ink and quills laid out next to a small stack of hand-crafted sheets of paper.

"What a delightful surprise," the man spoke. "Duo of Maxwell Church, you honor me. Quatre of the Maganac Deserts. Trowa of the Oz forests. Wufei of the Nataku clans. Heero of the Romefeller warriors. Bravo. You managed to find them all."

"That's enough," Duo said, voice dangerously low. "How is this possible? You can't have hidden yourself all the time here."

"Who knows?" Khushrenada snorted. "You are not a hero, Duo. You are just fulfilling some kind of legend you stumbled upon in your libraries."

"Libraries you would kill to get your hands on," Duo reminded him dryly. He took a step forward, but Heero immediately grabbed him by the arm. The Fire mage shot him a glare.

"Maybe, but you resigned Libra to me the moment you refused to show me the gate and open it for me. I do not forget things lightly. It is all upon your shoulders -- the fire, the destruction, the death."

Heero looked aghast at Duo, but he shook his head, just like Quatre. What they meant, was for another time; Heero swung his sollevar around and pointed it at Khushrenada.

"Don't you dare put the blame on any of us," he spoke out loud. His shoulder hurt from the ordeal with the door, but he ignored the pain, numbing it with his willpower. "You have caused more death and destruction than any one of us, anyone before us. You'll pay for all the pain and all the deaths!"

"No Heero, wait!" It was Duo who grabbed his arm. "It's not worth it."

"Not worth it? What do you mean? We have the chance to finish him, for good!"

"This isn't him," Duo said, gritting his teeth. "Where are you, Tubarov? You and your dolls won't fool me again, you know!"

Khushrenada threw his head into his neck and laughed wildly. It wasn't his voice anymore, and his body shook wildly for a brief moment. "Magnificent! Marvelous!"

"What is going on?" Wufei demanded. He had unsheathed his katana, and his whole position was catlike -- ready to jump forward and attack.

Heero recalled the dungeon under Catalonia Castle; the mage-in-training Trent, with the Relena doll, trying to manipulate him. This wasn't Khushrenada; he was deluding all of them.

"This can't be true!"

Khushrenada shrugged. "You are all a nuisance," he said. "Nuisances need to be dealt with. It is frustrating though, that you still manage to defeat every creature I sent for you."

"Because we are the Five," Duo answered. "We are those who not defeat only your creatures, but you in the end as well."

"Brave talk," Khushrenada sneered. "I do not know how you managed to get every one of them to follow you, but you manipulated them perfectly into your plans, based upon an ancient legend almost no one knows the true origin of. You are a smooth talker, Duo, and you have tricked all of these fine young men and one beautiful girl into giving up their lives and trot behind you all over the world for your own glory."

"Nonsense," Duo said crudely. "Stop talking nonsense!"

"I know better," Khushrenada continued. "I know something much better. You can all come to me, join me, work for me. There is much more I can offer than what he can."

"No one will even consider your 'offer'," Duo snarled.

"Coward," Wufei spoke, but he wasn't talking about Duo. With one supple movement, he unsheathed his katana, the metal reflecting some of the last daylight filtered through the windows. "Doll or not, you will suffer as long as you refuse to take responsibility for your actions!"

"I could use a swordsman of your caliber," Khushrenada said, unaffected by Wufei's words. "I could use a Nature mage with incredible Healing powers. An archer with unsurpassed aim, a warrior whose strength is almost legendary."

"What, you don't want any Death magic thrown into the mix?" Duo asked. He flexed his fingers, and he wasn't the only one aching to attack. Heero had his sollevar still pointed at Khushrenada, only noticing now that his eyes weren't really following anyone; it was true, it was just a doll. If so, where was the real Khushrenada?

"If we are just following Duo for his so-called legend, why are you so eager to enlist us in your mighty army?" Trowa was aiming his bow. Khushrenada didn't even blink.

"I would be a fool to keep myself deprived of such power," he replied simply. "I know your potential, I acknowledge your talents. You can develop yourself in my service, and I..."

"Enough!" Wufei hollered as he lunged forward and decapitated the doll. Relena, not having anticipated this, gasped, only able to hide a scream by putting her hands over her mouth.

The head of the doll bounced off the floor, rolling around until it finally came to a halt in front of Duo's feet. The Fire mage grabbed the head at its hair and held it up.

"Put that away!" Relena said, though she was unable to keep her eyes off of it. It was a perfect duplicate, life-like and deceptively real; Heero could see the details on the face. He shuddered.

Quatre looked pointedly the other way, as if he was studying the books in one of the tall cupboards. Trowa simply grinned before schooling his face into its well-known neutral expression again, and Wufei looked angry as he sheathed the katana again.

"We cannot afford to waste our time here," he said, "and if Khushrenada is not here, I would like to know where he went to!"

"I don't know where to go from here," Duo suddenly said. Everyone turned their heads.


"What, Duo?"

"I don't know where to go from here," Duo repeated and dropped the head rather unceremoniously. "I expected Khushrenada and his army to be here, and was prepared to take them on, with just the five of us -- because that's what we are, the Five of us."

"Shh," Trowa interrupted him. Heero shifted his stance immediately -- he had heard it too. When the head of the doll had hit the ground, another bump had followed. Wufei narrowed his eyes; he had missed out on the sound, but was ready to battle if anything would happen. His hand crept back to his katana again.

"What's going on?" Quatre whispered. Relena scooted closer to Heero.

"There's someone here," Trowa whispered in return. "Someone real."

"Where?" Duo lowered his voice as well, his fingers clenching itself into a fist, an ominous red glow enveloping him.

"Behind the bookcases," the archer answered. Duo didn't hesitate for a second and unleashed his Fire, engulfing the wall in vicious flames, giving off a heat that made everyone shrink back. The heat was gone as soon as Duo called off his flames, the massive bookcases reduced to mere ashes. Trowa had been right; a tight space was revealed, and a body was lying on the floor, motionless. It was charred beyond recognition, but Quatre didn't need facial features to know who he was.

"Tubarov," he said. "Apparently, decapitating the doll was too much for him."

"He's tied to every doll he makes," Duo said, and Heero wasn't sure if there was a kind of grief in his voice; he certainly spoke with some regret. "I have never understood exactly how his magic worked, but there was an unmistakable connection between him and any of his dolls, no matter the distance. His work literally killed him."

"I will not mourn for the death of a cowardly manipulator," Wufei said.

As Quatre looked around to see if there was anything important or worthwhile to them in Tubarov's space, Duo walked over to the large window behind the desk and stared outside. The sun was setting; pretty soon, it would be night. Heero came to stand next to him, staring outside as well -- there was not much to see but an impenetrable wall of mountains in the distance. Everything looked grim and dark, and they had nowhere to go.


"I don't know, Heero, I really don't."

He ignored the defensive tone of the Fire mage and turned his head to look at him. Duo looked pointedly outside, face bland.

"Khushrenada told nothing but lies."

That seemed to take him by surprise. Duo arched his eyebrows, but he didn't look at Heero.

"I didn't manipulate anyone into following me. I don't ever tell a lie, Heero."

"You never asked me to follow you."

"You never walked away from me."

"You never told me to go."

"You never left."

It brought a smile to Heero's lips. "No, I never left. Do you want me to?"


"I thought so."

Finally, Duo turned his head to look at him, a similar smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

"I appreciate it. Still, I don't know where to go from here. It's not like any legend lays out exact, detailed plans of how things are supposed to go, you know."

"Legends, legends," Heero shrugged. "We're not living in the time of those legends."

"No, but we are legends. Legends of the Five."

Heero put his hand on Duo's shoulder. "Maybe it's time that we let go of that Legends talk and just focus on the here and now. At best, we resemble those warriors of ages ago, but we aren't them, Duo."

He crossed his arms in front of his chest, the embroidered flames on his sleeves deceptively real. Duo pursed his lips.

"We are the only ones able to stop Khushrenada."

"Really?" Wufei snorted from the west corner of the study, kicking at a pile of books. "If we cannot even find him, there is not much stopping we can do, is there?"

Trowa turned around to look at Duo, and Quatre stood up as well, briskly dusting off his hands. Relena had been browsing the books on the other wall, and turned around as well.

"We're not at an end here," the archer spoke. "There must be a way to find him."

"Tubarov was only here in a last ditch effort to sweet-talk us into joining him," Quatre said. "The doll was nothing but a decoy, however you want to name it. Khushrenada was on his way to Barge country, and he must be around here somewhere."

"What makes you so sure?" Wufei asked.

"The skeefs, the dekka'zod," Quatre immediately shot back. "All these creatures on our path are nothing but Khushrenada's, and he's the one sending them after us. How can he send them after us if he isn't around, somewhere close by? I thought you would know that by now, Wufei."

The Nataku warrior glared at Quatre, which resulted in a warning cough from Trowa, who stepped closer to the Nature mage. Duo moved away from the window, arms still crossed in front of his chest, his eyes visibly darker.

"It was of my own volition that I chose to follow you around," Wufei said, his voice clipped. "I realized soon enough that, on my own, I would not stand a chance against Khushrenada. Still, that doesn't mean that I feel obliged to follow you any longer around then necessary -- I will do anything that it takes to find him, Legend or not, and see to it that justice is served."

"We all have a reason why we followed each other." Quatre's blue eyes were friendly, yet careful. He sensed the tension just as anyone else, and didn't want the situation to escalate. Duo, however, proved to dispose over less than subtle diplomatic skills.

"You're free to leave whenever you want," he said, voice just as clipped. "I have never forced anyone to follow me, or to serve me -- what I could only offer was shreds of a legend, believing that any of you fitted it, and drawing hope and strength from it to bring peace back to this world, submerged in war and violence. Legend or not, this world needs people who can and will stand up to tyranny."

"No one is going anywhere."

It was Relena who spoke, and Heero wasn't the only one whose eyes widened. Relena was determined in her own beliefs, and seldom had he heard her speak with such conviction before.

"No one is going anywhere," she repeated, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. She spoke softer, almost as if embarrassed for raising her voice. She looked at the book in her hands, surprised to find it there, and put it behind her on a shelf. Clearing her throat, she looked from one to another. "We have to stay strong as a group, together. There's nothing we can't accomplish as long as we're together. Breaking up and following our roads separately won't help us."

Quatre nodded. "We should come up with a plan instead of arguing."

Trowa shoved his bow onto his back, next to his quiver. His sudden movement reminded Heero that he had a tense grip on his sollevar himself, and that Wufei's hand on his katana twitched. The mages didn't show any sign of having conjured a spell, but Heero had no doubt they could have done some serious damage when feeling cornered.

"I can't believe you were willing to fight each other," Relena said. "In the spirit of the Legend, we should be a tight-knit group, willing to die for each other instead of fighting each other to the death."

"Are you willing to die for me, Princess?" Duo suddenly asked. His facial expression was hard to see now that the night had fallen; there wasn't any light in the room. Heero all but wished he would conjure one of those light orbs, like he had done in the dungeons before.

"Yes." Not a second of hesitation.

"I am willing to die for you too, Princess."

"Are you willing to die for me, Princess?" Quatre's voice.

"Yes." Relena didn't hesitate again.

"I am willing to die for you too, Princess."

Trowa chose to go next, and Heero waited a few heartbeats when they were finished to speak his words; he didn't know if it was his imagination or that Relena's "Yes" was truly a bit warmer than with any of the others.

A silence fell. This was the first painful silence Heero had encountered with this group, whose bonds he still didn't quite understand -- but he felt bonded with everyone, even with Wufei. They weren't 'normal' as Duo had once called it, and that which tied them together was stronger than anything else. He couldn't name it -- friendship, fate, destiny, the legend itself -- but he knew it couldn't be broken either. His instinct proved him right, when he heard Wufei's voice. The Nataku warrior wasn't hesitant when he spoke, but the silence between his and Heero's words had been significant.

"We are tied together beyond any normal or regular bonds," Relena voiced his thoughts out loud after her final "Yes". "We've been through so much together already that it's impossible to give up now. Though we all have our own interpretation of what's about to come, we're going to face it together. Together."

"There will be more fighting, Princess," was Duo's answer.

"There will be." Heero could almost hear her nod. "There will be, and I won't ever like it or encourage it. Weapons are wrong in this world... in any world."

"Wrong, but necessary." That was Trowa.

"Tied together, but with nowhere to go." Wufei shuffled his feet -- it took Heero a while to realize that he was sitting down. This was ridiculous, and he nudged Duo. The Fire mage understood him without words, and soon a dozen of small fire orbs enlightened the study.

Quatre blinked, but smiled. "We'll find our way."

"Our way to Sanq," Relena said.

Duo showed a watery smile. "The Kingdom for our Princess."

She mimicked his smile, but nodded again. Heero was about to say something when Trowa spoke up: "I guess we're not going anywhere for the night, so we better make our camp here...?"

Relena swallowd. "I would rather not stay here." Her eyes went to the direction where Tubarov's corpse was.

"We can... take care of that," Quatre said soothingly. "This room is the only one intact."

She twitched a little nervously, but agreed and looked pointedly the other way. Duo offered to go get the blankets, not minding the walk down and out to the horses in the garden. Heero was about to go with him, when Duo already started walking, passing Relena at the same time the girl turned around for whatever reason, and they bumped into each other.

"Oh! How stupid! I'm so sorry, Duo...!"

"No worries there, Princess," he grinned goofily, exactly like he used to grin, the tension gone. Before he could continue, something slid out from under his robes and dropped to the floor, clattering. Duo clicked with his tongue.

"Let me get that for you," Relena said and already crouched down. It was the half-finished gundanium disk wrapped in a piece of cloth; Heero hadn't been aware that Duo was wearing it on his person. He remembered the Fire mage telling how valuable it was, so it wasn't that strange for him to keep it close. One or two slivers had fallen out of the cloth, and Relena moved to pick them up.

"I knew I should have tightened it better, but knots have never been my forte..." Duo's voice died down as soon as Relena picked up a sliver -- which started to glow immediately at her touch.

"Wha... what?"

"Relena," Heero said, confused by what was happening. The others looked up from her surprised cry, and even Duo's eyes were wider than usual.

She got up, straightening herself, looking disturbed at the glowing sliver of gundanium in the palm of her hand. Duo picked up the other one and put it on her hand, and it started glowing immediately.

"What's the meaning of... of this?" she asked, but there was no fear in her voice -- it was curiosity, and Heero didn't know if that surprised or shook him. Relena was hardly the girl he knew before, and maybe he wasn't the same as he used to be either. It always took her some time getting adjusted to a new situation, but once accepted, Relena adjusted herself the best way possible. Had she accepted herself being a 'Princess', or was she genuinely interested in the strange thing happening?

Wordlessly, Duo nudged her towards the small table in front of one of the surviving bookcases, and at his command several light orbs swarmed around them. Relena put the wrapped disk on the table, and Duo removed the small cords holding it together. It was half- finished, odd pieces and slivers surrounding it as he hadn't managed yet putting them together.

"Please finish this for me, Relena," he said.

"What?" She looked at him as if he had gone mad. "I don't know how!"

"You know," Duo said confidently. "Touch the pieces and fit them together."

Relena gave him one more doubtful look, but she touched the disk, immediately basking in the same glow. The material seemed to... grow together, the cracks disappearing, the pieces joining together to form one, smooth surface. She moved a few of the pieces around, and every one she touched started to glow until she fitted it together, completing the disk.

"Amazing," Quatre said, standing up on his toes. Even Wufei had come close, unable to hide his own curiosity. They were all huddled together around the small table, watching how Relena finished the puzzle Duo had been working on for so long. As soon as the disk was complete, it glowed even more intense than before, rendering the light orbs superfluous.

"Amazing," Quatre repeated. Duo looked a little sour, slightly miffed that Relena managed to finish the disk with barely any effort compared to all the work he had done. She seemed to be startled by her own success the most; she kept staring at the disk as if it was going to bite her.

"Why is it glowing so much?" Trowa asked, squinting. He had barely spoken or the light intensified again, and Heero shielded his eyes, just as everyone else. The disk vibrated on the table as if an invisible hand was moving it. "What's going on?"

"Get back," Duo hissed. "Get back everyone! It's opening a portal!"


"Get back!" Duo grabbed Heero at his elbow and tugged at him. He stepped away from the table, just in time to see the disk standing upright on the surface -- how was that possible? It was only a mere second before the light was too intense to look at, and to see how the disk grew in size, enlarging itself in the study.

Trowa said something, but Heero couldn't hear him. The disk was still growing in size, the edges of the portal cutting through anything in its path. It changed its shape; it was no longer a perfect circle, but a triangle shape, reminding Heero oddly of the gate Duo had opened to visit Libra. It finally stopped growing, but the light remained intense, and he held his hand over his eyes.

"This side," Duo hollered to Trowa and Wufei who had been on the other side of the table. A portal could only be approached from one way, and they quickly came over to Duo's side. He still stared in disbelief at the portal, shining brightly in front of them.

"I should have known," the Fire mage sighed. "The disk was the key -- even Khushrenada said so, and I overlooked the only one who could solve it for so long. We had the Princess with us all the time, and I didn't connect the dots."

"This is a portal to Sanq?" Quatre's voice almost skipped an octave. Trowa shared his incredulous look, and Wufei had recovered from his earlier surprise and looked as stone-faced as usual. His fingers were around the hilt of his katana, however.

"Are you telling me that we find Khushrenada if we go through this portal?" He already stepped closer, but Duo firmly placed his hand against his chest plate, holding him back.

"He had a disk, but he doesn't have Relena," Duo said. "Apparently, only a Peacecraft can activate the portal. This really is a wonderful discovery."

"You could have come up with it sooner," Wufei remarked, but his voice lacked the usual disdain. Duo grinned widely, taking his remark in stride.

Heero looked at the portal suspiciously, and then looked back at Duo. He was all but prepared to step forward and go through that portal -- as the first, to see if there was any risk.

"I go first," he announced. Duo didn't even look at him.

"No, I'll go first, Heero. If I don't return in five minutes, the portal is probably a blank, and Quatre knows how to close it."

"But then we would lose you."

"We can't risk going through it together, we don't know what's on the other side -- if it's the Kingdom of Sanq, it could be a dangerous place after being abandoned for so long."

"You're not going first," Heero insisted. "If we really don't know what's on the other side, it's too dangerous."

Relena took the decision out of their hands. "I'll go first," she said. "If I'm really a Peacecraft," -- her voice held a funny tone when she pronounced the name -- "and able to open a portal to supposedly Sanq, I doubt it will hurt me."

"Relena, wait," Heero hurriedly said, but she slipped past him before he could grab her, and she was engulfed by the light soon after. He immediately jumped after her through the portal, together with Duo, who had grabbed him by the upper arm. They were so hurried that they lost their balance and rolled over each other, ending up in a heap of limbs on a large courtyard paved with cobblestones. Not a moment thereafter, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei stepped through the portal, calm, but careful.

Duo rolled off of Heero, lithely getting up and dusting off his robes again. Heero groaned and got up himself, using his sollevar as support.

"This is Sanq?"

"It has to be," Duo said and tilted his head. They were in the middle of a large courtyard, pristine buildings surrounding them. There was no one to be seen, not even a gust of wind to be felt. The buildings were plastered white, the shudders painted a lively green, and there were flowerboxes hung below the windows. Light red roof tiles reflected a weak sun; it wasn't outspoken hot or cold. All the windows were open, but there was no movement behind them. The wooden gate in the north wall was wide open; the locks keeping it in place violently broken.

"It looks like something is missing," Trowa remarked. He had been looking at the sky -- not a bird in sight.

"It is, it very much is," Quatre murmured. "Everything here is out of balance."

"Maybe we need another key?"

"No," Duo shook his head. "We are here, that's what matters. The environment is distorted, and that can mean only one thing -- Khushrenada is already here."

"How?" Quatre asked, shocked.

"I don't know," he answered. "It feels just strange being here, everything is distorted, out of balance, as you said yourself. Either an unknown force is at work, or Khushrenada has managed to find a way in."

"He could not find his way into Libra," Wufei snorted. "And now you are telling me he is here all of the sudden?"

"I don't know," Duo repeated and his voice was borderline angry -- not with Wufei, but with the strange situation. Quatre seemed to gripe for something, but he suddenly pointed at the gate.

"Someone has gone through that before, or it still has to be from the first attack on Sanq."

"That's impossible," Trowa said. "Everything would have to show signs of battle. The Five couldn't defend the castle and were overrun by the people. Nothing seems to be demolished here."

"Maybe magic healed this place in time," Duo muttered and he stepped forward to touch a wall, his hand darting over the white plaster. Not a speck of dust or a grain of sand stuck to his finger. No flakes of paint, no cracks in the woodwork. Nothing.

"We better restore the balance before worse things happens," Quatre insisted. As a Nature mage, he felt the distortion better than the others, though anyone would have to be blind to not see that something was wrong. As they moved over the courtyard, Heero still hadn't seen a bug or a bird, and there was no wind or sound but their own voices and footsteps. Relena hurried to stay in line and walked close to Heero, the hems of her dress dragging over the cobblestones -- but just like the mages' robes, no dirt stuck to it.

"I don't get it." Duo said, puzzled.

Trowa looked at the small wooden cabin outside of the gate and suddenly nodded. "It's for a guard," he said. "He could take shelter for the rain, and keep an eye on everyone passing the gate from here."

"I think in this case, this was for a writer," Quatre pointed at the small desk inside the cabin. The Kingdom of Sanq didn't know of an army or any other form of military, so they probably wouldn't have guards either. "The writer would take your name and write it on the list, so they would know who was inside the castle or not."

"All the way over there?" Relena asked. Despite the sun not being bright, she used her hand to shelter her eyes from it and pointed it in the distance. A plain, similar white-plastered castle was a mile away, bearing two large towers with huge banners. From this distance, Heero could only make out the light colors of the banners, not what was on it. Trowa patted on a strange wooden construction next to the cabin.

"There would be horses waiting here, to transport the guests to the castle so they didn't need to walk. Courteous and polite."

"We'll have to use our own feet," Duo said lightly and started walking down the path. Just like Quatre he had left his staff with the rest of their luggage on Mercurius' back, but their magic wasn't dependant of it. The intense glow of the portal was still visible behind them, yet it made Heero uncomfortable as he resumed his pace, walking next to Duo. Maybe for the others, walking through portals and ending up somewhere only the Twelve knew, was the most normal thing to happen, but to him it felt like he was ripped out of his environment, an environment he trusted and knew.

It didn't escape him that everybody walked closer to Relena, forming a circle around her. This was their destination, the place Duo had talked about so often before; the Kingdom of Sanq. Heero thought it was just as eerie as Catalonia Castle -- despite the nice weather and the bright colors, something was just not right here, and his own gloomy feelings made him tighten his grip on the sollevar. Someone touched him; it was Duo, who put his hand on his. He moved his lips, mouthing an "It's all right" to him, but it didn't comfort him.

They reached the gate of the castle without any delay, and Heero inspected the heavy iron bars. Why did a Kingdom so proud of bringing peace, have such a defensive gate? He could see from the perfectly aligned cobblestones that the gate had never been closed, however. Madness, he thought. Overrun by their own good intentions. He walked in front along with Wufei, with Duo and Quatre flanking Relena, while Trowa covered the back. He hadn't whipped out his bow and arrows, but he was tensed enough to draw his weapon any second -- Heero felt the tension too, the growing tension of danger.

"It feels so wrong," Relena suddenly said, and her voice sounded sad. "It's such a beautiful place, and... it's just like I can feel how soiled, how tainted it has become. This isn't how the Kingdom is supposed to be."

Trowa moved forward and all but slapped Duo on the shoulder. He immediately halted.

"Skeefs," he said. "A lot of them. A whole lot of them."

"How?" Duo hissed. "They must have been brought here!"

"Khushrenada," Wufei growled, unsheathing his katana again. There was nothing to be seen ?et -- but everyone felt the ominous threat. Relena trembled in indignation; all this beauty and hope the castle represented was already soiled, and was going to be tainted more, as a fight was imminent. Her eyes were darting around as if she was looking for someone to talk to, to call off any attack, but as soon as they moved into the courtyard of the castle, all the doors and windows burst open, pouring out the vicious animals, howling, their sharp nails damaging the perfect walls and stones as they moved.

Skeefs were immune to fire, Heero recalled, and he expected Duo to team up with Quatre again, doing whatever needed to be done to fend off the animals. To his surprise, the Fire mage was right next to him, a lopsided grin on his face. He could let himself go with these creatures that had been bred for fighting only; no one would be grieving for them. Trowa was already aiming arrow after arrow, animals going down with a high-pitched yowl. Heero lunged forward, the sollevar cutting through skin and fur, ripping out intestines and carving up bones as he went. The temperature around him dropped, and he took it that Quatre was conjuring one of his ice spells, but this cold felt different... it felt... hollow.

The air was torn by a howling noise, and dark red and purple rays went through the animals, and Heero swallowed when he saw what exactly was leading those rays. Skulls. They searched out their victim and flew right through them, animal immediately dropping dead after the slightest touch. The creepy skulls flew howling past Heero, and he had one moment to compose himself before another skeef jumped to him. The sky darkened from the use of Death magic, and as the skulls did their work, Heero noticed more skeefs running through the open doors, as well as people.

Duo had been right; Khushrenada was here. He recognized the soldiers of the Treize Faction by their armor and uniform, and he hollered to Duo.

"His army is here!"

Duo looked to the side. "Save the Princess! Get her out of here!"

He hissed when seeing the soldiers, the look on his face regretful. It was too late to call his spell off, and the skulls went around the charging soldiers, bodies dropping with eyes dazed and confused, unable to grasp that they were dead. The skulls howled and floated through the air, tearing everything and everyone apart they came across. Heero embraced himself for another wave of skeefs, and to his horror he noticed some soldiers coming after him. He had killed humans before -- back at the farm, when they were all but trying to kill him. These soldiers would kill him as well, in the name of whoever paid them, and they would have no qualms using their swords... and if he wasn't able to stop them, they would go after Duo, after Relena... his sollevar sunk into human flesh, and the scream of agony was awfully high-pitched -- when he withdrew his weapon, he ignored the sickening sound of the trident-shaped head tearing bits of flesh with it, dripping with blood.

The chunks of ice were almost familiar, and both skeef as human were crushed by it, some soldiers trying to protect their faces from the sharp edges of the ice, but not even their helmets were helpful in this battle. Heero saw men and animals fall to the ground and grunted whenever one managed to injure him; he had scratch marks all over his torso, and one soldier had managed to knick his thigh. There were so many; Khushrenada believed religiously in 'power by numbers', Heero thought. The usurper didn't skimp on fodder; man and beast were nothing but cheap and expendable to him. He growled; how was it possible that one man could be so disdainful and careless about human life?

Two men were standing out -- men clad in robes, not in armor, and they managed to behave themselves extremely calm, unperturbed by the chaos of fighting soldiers and snarling beasts around them. So this is were the mages recruited by Khushrenada end up. Heero didn't know and didn't care if they were still in training or not; it was rather obvious they were conjuring other animals, strengthening them, and from the look of their robes they were both schooled in Fire -- one Detonation and they all could die here.

"Get the mages first," Trowa hissed. "No animal can be conjured if they're dead!" At least the archer had less scruples, Heero presumed, but he was right; without the mages this battle could be easier -- as far as any battle could be 'easy'. He didn't realize how fighting was in his blood, and how fast he had accepted that people would die, even by his hands. Preparing himself for the onslaught, he wielded his sollevar, paying no heed to the howling noises and screams. He tried to clear a way for himself, when he saw one of the mages' hands engulfed in reddish flames. The man was preparing a spell or a dortang, and Heero hurried, disposing of his enemies, man or animal, focused on the mages.

He wasn't going to make it. How long would it take for the mage to prepare his spell? So many of those blasted animals, each and every one of them vicious and strong, he had to strike twice or even thrice before they went down. Growling in frustration, Heero started pushing and stabbing, hurrying along. Suddenly, he was pulled backwards and he raised his sollevar, ready to stab anyone who dared to attack him from behind. It was Wufei, the Nataku warrior sweating from exertion, his armor covered in blood.

"You stay here," he barked, "and protect the Princess! Leave the mages to me!"

"No!" Heero shrugged his hand off. Wufei's katana was dirtied and dripping with blood, much like his own sollevar. "I can handle them!"

"The Princess needs you more than I do," Wufei said dryly, lifting his katana, pointing behind him.

Heero whirled around, his eyes searching out Relena. To his horror, she was standing in the middle of the battlefield, surrounded by the remaining three -- Trowa, Duo and Quatre. Strangely enough, there was quite a circle of space between her and the others, as if she had marked an invisible territory. She was just standing, her hands clenched at her dress, her lips clamped together. Heero's mouth dropped open in a silent 'o'. He wanted to ask her why in all the gods' names she hadn't taken cover, why she hadn't hidden herself. The courtyard was filled with fighters, with vicious animals, with people who would kill her if they could reach her.

"Relena," he mouthed at her, but she didn't pay attention to him, forcing herself to look right past him. Wufei grabbed him at the shoulder again.

"Go to her," he urged him. "Leave the mages to me. You can defend her better than I can."

"You..." There wasn't time for a discussion. It suddenly dawned to Heero what Wufei was doing, and he wanted to grab the Nataku warrior to keep him from plunging himself into death.

"No! You're not going to die for me because of your stupid honor, Wufei!"

The mage was about ready to unleash a spell, and Wufei stormed forward, cleaving a way through the masses. Heero's voice was lost in the cacophony of howling noises, human screeches and the horrifying sounds of the Death magic floating around. Quickly, he turned around and ran back towards the circle, taking his place right on time to prevent a skeef from jumping towards Relena and ripping her throat out.

Duo's skull spell was finally depleted and he switched to leeching life force; Heero didn't want to stop and think about it, whenever he saw one of the dark purple or dark red beams of magic flashing so close to him. The howls and the screeches were the worst -- it was nightmarish, and he thought he was never going to get used to it. He might be a fighter, but this was the worst part; the horrible screams, people twitching and jerking in their hour of death. He would continue to fight to reach his goal Khushrenada -- and between him and Heero was this sea of animals and soldiers. Gritting his teeth, he swung the sollevar and struck another skeef down.

It felt like hours had passed when the last of the soldiers and the last of the skeefs had fallen down, gurgling when blood welled up in their mouths, bodies jerking before death claimed them. Heero panted from the exertion and used his sollevar to keep standing upright. Wufei was calmly wiping his katana clean on the robes of the fallen mages, his face oddly serene. Trowa collected his arrows, face set in something similar to disgust, mixed with nausea. Anyone would throw up when seeing this carnage -- right on a courtyard belonging to a castle that was the supposedly capital of peace.

Relena hadn't moved, and her face was so neutral that it was almost painful. She stared in the distance, focusing on anything but the bloodbath surrounding her, swallowing thickly. Quatre stood close to her, collecting his bearings, chest heaving up and down. Heero couldn't find Duo, until he saw him kneeling down next to a soldier. Frowning, he saw how Duo held his necklace, the cross dangling on a chain, in his hand as his other hand went over the soldier's face. The man twitched once more.

"What is he doing?" Heero asked, confused.

"He's granting death to those who are on the threshold," Quatre answered. "He soothes their pain by helping them to cross over. No one would survive long with all these injuries; he makes their death less painful."

Relena swallowed again and again. She did everything she could to not start crying or screaming, but her hands twisted and clenched at the fabric of her dress.

"We better get out of here," Heero said. The sight of all this blood and cadavers wasn't something he wished to see for much longer.

"He's almost done," Quatre said, almost absent-mindedly. Trowa finished collecting his arrows, herding them together in his quiver before hoisting it over his shoulder, next to his bow. Wufei was studying the castle, weighing his options.

"I would say that Khuhsrenada is in the throne room," he thought out loud. "Isn't that the place where everyone in power goes, especially those who are doing the usurping?"

"I guess that's the best place where we' him, too," Trowa said listlessly. Despite these animals bred for death and destruction, he didn't like them all being killed. He preferred to have one to tame or to study; but with their deadly character and nature, he knew that was unlikely to happen.

Duo came walking towards them, not a spatter of blood on his robes. His face was pale, if only for his cheeks burning with a fiery red color. Somehow his eyes looked hollow, so unlike Duo that Heero had the feeling that he was seeing someone else instead of the Fire mage he knew.

"I'm done," he said, rather brusquely. "We have to continue. We'll be encountering Merquise and Lady Une somewhere down the road, I'm sure of it."

Quatre nodded. "She won't be surprising us."

"The throne room," Wufei suggested again. He showed a brief smirk when Duo agreed that the throne room was the best place to go looking for Khushrenada, and they crossed the courtyard, Relena safely in their midst.

Heero entered the castle first, sollevar clenched firmly in his hands. There was no one to see in the hallway. Large pillars supported an ingenious structure of a soft-white, gleaming material, far higher than Libra's monastery. Heero tried to mentally calculate how many people could stand on each other's shoulders before reaching the ceiling; it had to be at least twenty, twenty-five. The ceiling was painting with a floral pattern, unknown animals in the middle of flower fields with cloudless skies. No dark colors were used in the paintings, not even in the tapestries on the wall.

He was cautious to proceed, but it appeared that really no one was in the castle. If Khushrenada was really here, he would have taken more men with him than those who had died on the courtyard; the sheer volume of his army had been daunting to everyone. Wufei was just as careful, dark eyes darting between the pillars, aware of a possible ambush. Not a gust of wind, not a single sound. Lifeless. Wrong.

"Which way?" Heero asked, wondering briefly why he whispered. The hallway had ended and they had the choice between right and left. Huge windows offered a view on a luscious garden, beautiful flowers adorning a summer-house covered with vines, every color vibrant.

"It's so beautiful here," Relena said and pain was audible in her voice; so much beauty and calmness, and it had already been tainted by battle and fighting. The garden was the first place Heero saw natural life of all of Sanq; a butterfly moved from one conspicuous orange flower to another, its wings a lilac-white with a dotted pattern. Beautiful, indeed.

"Go left," Duo said. "We need to walk around the garden, and there will probably be some steps... the throne room usually is in the center of a castle, if I'm not mistaken."

"I know the way," Relena suddenly piped up. "It feels like... I've already been here."

Duo looked oddly at her, but it only took a second before a bright smile graced his face. "By all means, Princess, lead the way." It didn't mean that he allowed her to walk in front freely; both he and Heero flanked the girl tightly. Wufei and Trowa followed, while Quatre brought up the rear.

They were only past the garden, turning around the corner, when Quatre said: "Show yourself, dorin'essauyan."

The rest immediately halted, Heero pulling Relena towards him as they took cover against the wall -- not that there was much cover to begin with. The east walls all sported the same open windows with the view on the garden.

Heero reproached himself mentally for overlooking the small corridor on the west side, especially when someone stepped out of it -- every movement calm and composed, the heavy dress rustling gently. He recognized them; the same white embroidery as Quatre's, the same midnight blue color... and the woman wore a tight smile, colorless lips pursed together, but the fierceness in her eyes was undeniable.

"I can't let you continue," she said, her voice reflecting the same fierceness. Her hands were limply next to her sides, and there was no sign of her summoning or conjuring any spell yet. Her chestnut hair framed an intelligent face, beautiful in its own way -- the Nature mage who had been accompanying Khushrenada, looking for glory and honor.

"Lady Une," Quatre said, sounding tired. "This is not as it's supposed to be. Please, return to Libra and remain there. So many people can learn from you, you and your talent --"

"Enough, Quatre Raberba Winner." She stuck out her chin. "There's nothing you can tell me that will ever change my mind. You barely know me, who are you to judge me?"

"I know that you are a talented mage," Quatre continued. "You were very eager to learn -- I'm sure you can pass your knowledge with the same zeal onto your students. There --"

"A teacher," she interrupted him again. "Do you really think I want to stay at one place and teach children? That's not my place, and you don't know anything about it! My place is next to Tr-- Khushrenada, that's where I want to be."

Duo shook his head; her slip of the tongue didn't elude him. "We're wasting our time here," he said. "We can't change her mind, and even if we were able to, it doesn't matter in the end."

"Duo," Quatre said sharply, "we have the obligation to protect our brother and sister mages, and help them wherever we can."

"She's beyond our help," Duo shot back. "Her loyalty to Khushrenada far surpasses every other wish of hers. He's the one she's been searching for, for glory and honor, and her own opinions and ideas have mingled with his. She's blinded by him!"

"You don't know what you're talking about," Une retorted, and moved her hand.

"You weren't seriously considering encasing a Fire mage in ice?" Duo asked snootily, and Une hesitated, if only for a second -- and that was all that Quatre needed. Vines burst out from the floor, ruining the perfect smooth surface, grabbing the screaming Lady and hoisting her up in the air.

"What are you doing?" she cried, and the temperature dropped significantly, ice forming on the vines, rendering them brittle and fragile. Quatre didn't answer, but at his command more vines shot up, wrapping around her body, not too tight, but tight enough to incapacitate her. Her eyes went wide when the vines pulled at her arms and forced her hands close to her face; she gasped audibly, her breathing erratic.

"If you unleash your spell now, you'll freeze your face," Quatre said. "You have my apologies, Lady. You will survive -- you deserve to survive, but you won't be involved in the battle."

"Let me go," she hissed. "Where is your honor, dorin'essauyan? And where's your honor, dorein'ang'essuyin, if you had any to begin with?"

Duo looked up at her, his eyes lacking every bit of compassion or pity. "My honor? Sorry about that, but it was destroyed when your beloved Treize burned down my church and killed my family. He might have been good to you, Lady, and whatever motif you have to follow him around is your own, but he killed every shred of honor and decency in me when he took my family away. You can think about it, for as long as it takes for you to figure how to get down or to be freed by us."

"Come back!" she hollered. "You can't leave me here!"

Relena threw a pitiful look at her, and she opened her mouth -- probably to ask to let the woman go, but she decided against it. Heero realized he still had his hand on her shoulder, the sollevar protectively in front of her, and he withdrew the weapon, out of her direct view.

"We have to go," he said and Relena nodded. Une yelled louder, and Quatre spared her another pitiful look, his hand on his heart as if it really pained him. The Nature mage was sensitive -- Heero took it that it really pained him, no matter that Une wouldn't hesitate to kill him as long as her Treize would order it. Her cries died away as they walked, and he couldn't shake the image of the woman with her hands close to her face. She would freeze herself to death if she would unleash a spell, any ice spell -- he had seen so much of magic now, but he still had the feeling he had seen nothing but the surface.

"Through here." Relena pointed to the end of the other hallway, to an artistically three-arched door. The panels were wide open, and from here they could see it gave way to a large room.

"Is that the throne room?" Wufei inquired. Relena nodded.

Subconsciously, everybody fell back to a cautious pace, forming a circle around Relena. Wufei and Heero had their weapons drawn, and Trowa looked ready to throw his knives. Quatre and Duo held their hands close to their sides, nothing indicating that they had prepared a spell, but Heero had no doubt they would react just as fast and adequate to an attack as the fighters.

They went through the door.

The new room, presuming it was the throne room, was humongous. The ceiling here was even higher, the arches from the same soft-white, gleaming material supporting it, artistically sculpted with waving lines. The same huge pillars were glistening in the setting sun; large windows providing a breathtaking view on the landscape. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, intricate and beautiful, and colorful carpets muffled the sound of boots and shoes. A single row of soldiers on both sides, all Treize Faction members, ruined the majestically character of the room.

Three men, with their backs turned to the entering group, stood in front of them -- the middle one wasn't hard to identify, with his flaring red robe. Heero narrowed his eyes, sollevar ready to attack. Merquise would probably meet his match in Duo, but he wasn't going to take any risk. Duo, however, lifted up his hand, a sharp gesture, and immediately put it down again, a signal to not attack. It took a little restraint, but Heero moved the sollevar back, allowing it to rest against his shoulder as if he were at ease, walking in complete silence over a flowery carpet, towards the three men.

As if someone had given an invisible signal, the three turned around simultaneously, Merquise's hands gripping the fabric of his robe before straightening himself, assuming the same false pose of being at ease, just like Heero.

The group halted, the five of them aligning to form a front to protect Relena. The Princess was finally in Sanq -- they had gone through too much to allow anything to happen to her now. Duo sketched a mock-bow to Zechs, even going as far as to bend through his knees, as if he was going to kneel on the floor. Heero recognized the two men flanking the Fire mage -- they were both with him at their first confrontation with Khushrenada in Iria country. The man with the sideburns looked friendly, despite being obviously tensed; he was significantly older than anyone else in the room. Heero estimated him at his late forties. Compared to him, the man on Merquise's left looked like a young boy; his eyes were narrowed and his lips were drawn into an impatient frown.

"Otto, Nichol," Merquise said. His voice was low, but held unmistakable authority. The elder man made a respectful bow and said: "I am not leaving your side."

"Me neither," the other was quick to answer, licking his lips after another look at Heero and the others. His hand had drifted off to his belt, fingers twitching slightly. Heero showed him a predatory smirk. So he finally met Nichol in person, after hearing so much about him, after overhearing his voice, talking about how he had captured Sylvia Noventa. He almost wished for the man to pull out his knife, or dagger...Trowa was at least ten times faster than him. None of these two posed any threat; it was rather strange that they were present here in the first place.

"Otto," Merquise said, this time turning his head to the elder man. "I appreciate it. Please, I beseech you. Leave."

Otto shook his head. "I have always served you."

"You can't send us away," Nichol insisted. "Zechs, you..." He swallowed when the Fire mage snapped his head back to him, and despite a large part of his facial features being covered by the silver mask, it wasn't hard to deduct from his body language that he was mad at the younger man.

"I can make it easier for you," Duo spoke up. "Leave now, the three of you, and end this puppet-show, why don't we?"

Merquise immediately turned to Duo, opening his mouth to retort, when someone suddenly clapped. The sound was muted, as if one was clapping with gloves on. Merquise stepped to the side, as well as Otto and Nichol, revealing Khushrenada sitting on a rather plain throne -- it looked more like a luxurious chair than a veritable throne.

He had dressed up in his finest attire: the same pristine white pants with the knee-high black boots as he used to wear at their first encounter, but his jacket was a deep purple with only a few golden buttons, as well as golden bands emblazed on the sleeves and collar. He wore a sash in a matching blue-purplish color, the borders also a bright gold, held together by a large brooch, encrusted with gemstones. The white gloves were new, as well as the heavy signet-ring on his finger and a broad, golden crown on his head.

"I always wanted to be King," he said and grinned widely. "It's like a dream coming true."

"You're not the one to rule this Kingdom," Duo immediately retorted.

Khushrenada shrugged. "I like the place. A little too quiet for my taste, but I can change that. I already noticed that it has good, nutritious soil, ideal for agriculture. A lot of natural resources and a vacant castle for me to move into, right now."

"We have defeated your army, we have defeated your hordes of vicious beasts," Duo said. "There's nothing left between you and me, Khushrenada. It ends here, and you know it."

Calmly crossing one leg over the other, Khushrenada didn't seem bothered in the least by Duo's words. He moved up his hand, and now they saw what was dangling from his fingers: a slim, intricate crown made of a pearly material that glittered whenever the imbued gemstones caught a flicker of sunlight. Definitely a woman's crown and Duo's eyes widened -- as did Relena's.

"How long have you studied on the lecture you're going to give me? Or is it a sermon? You're a priest, aren't you?"

"I'm in the service of a God," Duo answered.

"As far as you can call the God of Death a 'God'," Khushrenada snorted. "What kind of God are you, if you are only bringing death? Aren't you supposed to bring salvation, light, comfort?"

"Some find salvation in death," Duo snapped.

"Nonsense!" Khushrenada smashed his hand down on the armrest -- fortunately, not the one holding the crown. "I brought death to these countries in my quest to conquer them -- does that make me a God as well, Duo of Maxwell Church? I have conquered, I have been victorious..."

"At the price of many lives, and anger, hate, and fear ruling free," Quatre said. "Is that what you call a victory?"

Khushrenada looked at him, disdain dripping from his voice. "I hope you have been careful with my Lady, mage."

"She's doing fine," Quatre shot back. "And one day, she'll come to her senses and see what horror she has allowed herself to follow, instead of finding glory and honor."

"Ha!" Khushrenada reclined into the throne. "Just as your precious Duo, I have ensured myself of the absolute loyalty of those who follow me."

"I didn't force them."

"Really?" He looked about ready to yawn. His eyes darted over the rest of the group, suddenly breaking out in a smile when he saw Wufei.

"Looking for a rematch, Wufei?"

The Nataku warrior growled. His hand was on his katana, already a few inches unsheathed. Anyone approaching him the wrong way would be cleaved by the razor sharp blade.

"I am ready," he simply answered.

Khushrenada shook his head. "If it really ends here, I prefer it to be spectacular, not a boring swordfight which outcome is already known."

"You bastard!" Wufei lunged forward, katana fully unsheathed in less than a second, and it was only because of Heero's quick reflexes that he could pull him back and avoid the first draw of blood.

"No more!" Relena cried out. "This Kingdom has already been tainted by fighting! I won't tolerate any of this anymore, not here! If you want to fight, go elsewhere and leave this country. That goes for every one of you!"

"I'm not taking any orders from you," Khushrenada snorted, dissolving into a short laugh as he looked again at Duo. "You have managed to gather a nice bunch of idiots around you, though. You are the instigator of all of this, didn't you know? If you had not been so persistent in searching all over the world for them to fulfill those damn Legends of the Five... and I never knew that Darlian's daughter could be so persistent."

"They're my friends," Relena shot back. "If you insist on calling anyone a bunch of idiots, look around you -- the only idiots around here are you and your men, violating everything in this peaceful country, and for what? For nothing!"

"For power, 'Princess'," Khushrenada immediately answered. "The Kingdom of Sanq was going to be my ultimate victory -- at least, I thought so, until I saw what kind of dump it actually is."

"It's not a dump," Relena said sharply. "It's the symbol of hope and peace, and now that it's recovered, it will shine brightly to restore faith and the longing for peace in the people's hearts!"

"Princess," Duo said.

"There is not a single part you can play in this fairytale, Relena Darlian, Peacecraft, whatever your name is." Khushrenada's mocking voice was filled with disdain. "Whatever beautiful story Duo whispered in your ear, it is just not true. A handful of papers, a few half-decayed books, and no one really remembering who the Five were, or how the story goes in the first place. I came here for the power, but as soon as I realized that there was nothing to gain here, I came for the riches."

Relena shook her head sharply and slipped past Duo and Trowa who had been standing in front of her. She forced herself to look at Khushrenada, who was slightly surprised by her coming forward. He spun the crown around his finger, but his eyes never left her.

"Legends may have been forgotten, myths have been allowed to grow from unverified stories, but we are standing in a room in a palace, confirming that some of those legends have been true -- this Kingdom is destined to exist again, and every nation will look up at this castle and see hope and peace, not destruction and death!"

"Princess," Duo said again, this time more urgently.

Khushrenada barked a short laugh. "Girl talk," he said, "dumb, illiterate country folk talk. You should have stayed on your farm, or preferably, have died together with your parents."

All the blood seemed to drain from her face. Duo moved up his arm, ready to catch her if she should faint. Relena swallowed thickly, but didn't show any sign of anger.

"Whatever you will say to me will not affect me. Whatever you think you have, will not stay with you. It's not real power. You're building your Kingdom on nothing -- on fear, on hatred, on disgust. That will never hold, Treize Khushrenada."

"I have the power and the men to make my Kingdom stand," the man said and snapped with his fingers. "And no girl will stand before me to lecture me!"

Merquise stepped forward, his silver mask shimmering menacingly. He had barely moved, when Duo's voice rang out: "Quatre! Embrace!"

"I..." Quatre was going to say "I'm too late", despite his hands already moving to conjure the embrace, exhausted from the earlier fight and the encounter with Lady Une. Flames burst out from Merquise, engulfing both Duo and Relena, while the others were in time to jump away -- Trowa dragging Quatre with him, Wufei and Heero moving to the side. Their weapons were of no use against magic. Heero wanted to scream both Duo's and Relena's name, as he panicked -- the heat was sizzling, thickening the air, burning out everything that had stand in its path, the scorched carpet a silent witness.

"Duo! Relena!"

The flames were extinguished as fast they had exploded; Relena and Duo standing next to each other, completely unscathed. A light surrounded the girl, deflecting the flames, extinguishing them as they tried to reach her body. Heero thought it was Quatre's embrace at first, mentally thanking the mage for conjuring so fast, when he saw that it wasn't exactly an embrace as he knew it.

She looked rather quizzical herself, eyes wide in surprise. There was no visible source of the light, it just surrounded her, shining brightly, a tender white, not blinding or hard on the eyes. Duo had a comical expression on his face, but it was pure disbelief -- she had to be dead, consumed by the flames. The fire hadn't hurt Duo because he was a Fire mage himself, canceling out Merquise's spell. Relena, someone without any magical powers, shouldn't have survived this.

"Quatre, did you...?" It was a stupid question, because Duo knew very well how an embrace worked. He looked up, and his jaw dropped.

The same light also enveloped Merquise.

"What is going on?" Khushrenada yelled. He leaned forward, ready to jump out of the chair. "Merquise! What's with the light?"

"Oh, but I understand now," Duo said, and his lips turned into a wide grin. "Now I know why you were able to enter Sanq. You had the key with you all the time just like me, and you never saw it."

Khushrenada looked annoyed. "What do you mean? I had the disk sooner than you had yours, and Sanq was open to me when I found out how to activate the portal!"

"Merquise must have been in the room with you for the portal to have activated," Duo snarled in return. "Well?"

Khushrenada glared at Merquise, clearly not understanding. The man with the silver mask looked rather confused himself; he was moving his arms up and down as if he wanted to shake the strange light off.

Duo lifted his hands, the palms glowing red. Khushrenada hissed, but Duo didn't prepare an attack; he pointed at Merquise's mask. The Fire mage started to cry out in horrendous pain when the metal was overheated. Strange light forgotten, he clawed at the burning mask, glowing red from the immense temperature, yelling in pain. Quatre quickly stepped up, guiding icy wind, cooling off the skin to prevent it from being burned. The mask started to expand, a harsh crack resonating through the room.

"What are you doing? Stop this! Merquise, fight it! Fight them! Unleash your fire!" Khushrenada spoke up, leaving his throne to grab the Fire mage at the shoulder. Merquise didn't pay any attention to him, his hands still clawing at the mask, showing more and more cracks. It was going to break, and Khushrenada quickly ducked when it did -- with a loud pang, shards of the silver material blasted away, the larger pieces crumbling and dropping to the floor. Quatre continued with his ice spell as Merquise covered his face with his hands; he had stopped hollering in pain, but he was panting, breathing erratic.

There was a long moment of silence. It took a while before Merquise straightened himself, ice water dripping between his fingers. He stood amidst the remains of his mask; large, thick strands of platinum blond hair flowing free, bangs framing his face. Very gently, he removed his hands, eyes closed -- squeezed shut. His face wasn't burned, on the contrary: he looked pale, paler than Quatre even, and the Nature mage recalled his spell, leaving Merquise to stare at his wet fingers, opening his eyes like a newborn baby.

"I should have known," Duo said, almost cheerful. "There was no way for the lot of you to even be able to open that portal unless you had a Peacecraft with you -- hello there, Prince."

"Prince?" Relena repeated, in unison with the rest. Even Wufei's eyes were as large as saucers, the Nataku warrior unable to keep his face as neutral as always.

Khushrenada pursed his lips, and he glared daggers at Duo. If he was shocked by the news, he was a master at hiding it, but he took a few steps back.

"I knew it," Otto said, his warm voice brimming with joy. "You have always been a true King to me."

"What's going on?" Merquise asked, blinking, dropping his hands next to his sides, but he acknowledged Otto by nodding at him, a watery smile showing on his face.

"I take it Khushrenada has something to explain," Duo lowered his voice ominously, "not only to you, but to us as well. To me, it seems that the Kingdom of Sanq protects all of its children, and certainly its rightful heirs."

The usurper straightened himself, his fingers touching the brooch on his sash. One thing could be said about Khushrenada; he didn't lose his composure fast.

"I do not owe you any explanation," he said, voice flat. "You are painfully mistaken with every word. Only one command, Duo of Maxwell Church -- it will take only one command, to ruin this whole world, to kill everyone, and to bring this all to an end, indeed... your end, and that of everyone who was as foolish as to follow you!"

He snapped his fingers and the row of soldiers on both sides of the throne room immediately stepped forward, rising their weapons.

"No," Relena said. "Please, don't! Hasn't there been drawn enough blood? Stop tainting this castle, this paradise, stop tainting hope and peace!"

"I do not care," Khushrenada said. "No one will ever take this away from me, no one! Attack!" he hollered, and the Treize Faction attacked.

Heero wasn't tired. The adrenalin was pumping at its maximum through him, and he wielded the sollevar as if he was a true master. Had he been hesitant in taking lives a few hours before, now he was killing for survival -- for himself once again, for Relena, and for Duo, and for everyone he wanted to protect. There couldn't be many soldiers, not as many as on the courtyard, but still he found himself struggling, the sollevar feeling dull and heavy. He felt like his body was giving out of him after all; it had been a while since he had eaten, and he had barely slept, just to keep watch over everyone. Duo had told him that, even when being one of the Five, he wasn't invincible, and needed food and rest just like anyone else.


Another soldier died, and he noticed he was getting closer to Khushrenada, who gave his orders, calm and composed as ever, with only the slightest hint of panic rising with every one of his commands. The crown was slipping from his hair, and he still held the smaller, fragile one in his hand.

"Heero!" It was Trowa, but Heero ignored him. Khushrenada was close, and the usurper was going to die at his very hands!

"Dortang, get down!"

The archer pulled Heero to the ground, and he rolled with him, hands above his head. He expected another Detonation, or another onslaught of ice from the skies, but it remained silent -- just for a few seconds, then a dark purple light became visible. It circled above their heads, growing in size and changing in shape. He didn't recognize it, and stared at it in fascination. What was Duo creating? It had to be Duo, judging from the color of the magic, and Quatre was next to Relena who still was wrapped in that strange light. Her mouth was open, and the look of her face was one of horror, until Heero realized just like her what it was.

A large scythe was spawn by the Death magic, growing in size until it was abnormally large, descending towards Duo. He made a gesture with his hand and the weapon flew through the air, slicing through the remnants of the army, killing the soldiers on impact. Those who hadn't fled screaming for their lives, were struck down, dead before they hit the ground. The scythe made a gruesome round through the throne room, returning to Duo who lifted up his hand and took it into his hand, as it decreased rapidly in size.

With the scythe over his shoulder, Duo went straight for Khushrenada, who, sweating, refused to run. He stood in front of the throne, not about to budge, visibly shaking. Heero didn't wait for Trowa to declare the situation safe again and scrambled back to his feet, despite the archer tugging at his pants, urging him to stay down. With his sollevar clenched into his hands, Heero ran towards Duo. Just as the scythe hovered a millimeter away from Khushrenada's throat, the sollevar hovered on his other side. The slightest movement would cut his artery. The usurper stood still, chest heaving, sweat drops rolling over his cheeks.

"Duo!" Quatre yelled. "Heero!"

Duo didn't look at Heero, and he didn't look at the Fire mage; they both were focused on Khushrenada.

"I can't hold the dortang back for long. I summoned it and it will do its work unless I call it back. I don't know if I can hold it back, or if I want to call it back."

"Just get it over with," Khushrenada snarled.

"Heero, please," Relena said. Her voice came from far away. "Please, don't! Don't let your anger guide you!"

Quatre closed the distance between them, wringing his hands.

"I've waited so long for this," Heero hissed. "Everything we went through, everything that has was all worth it, because it would lead me to you."

"All the pain you caused, all the churches you burned down..." Duo spoke emotionlessly.

"Call off the dortang, Duo. Please, in name of all the Gods, call it off," Quatre pleaded. "It has ended, it's over."

"Darlian, the farm," Heero said.

"Epyon country, Oz country, Pargan country, Barge country, Romefeller country..."

Khushrenada licked his lips. "I did what I wanted to do, and I wanted to bring myself to great power. If it were not for me, there would be someone else who would have done it!"

"And we would stop him, just like we did you," Duo immediately answered.

"I suffered too, Heero." Relena had closed the distance as well, without any soldier alive in the throne room left she could move freely. The light had died down, and she pointedly ignored the bodies around her. "It was my father and mother who were killed, I saw them die in a burning farm, their bodies... crushed by a support beam. I had to leave my homeland, without as much of a keepsake of my mother except for that picnic basket..."

"I tried to survive like you, Heero," she continued. "I tried not to complain, I tried to believe, and I tried to hold on to what I have learned. I learned that I wasn't someone I thought I was, and I learned that there was more to me than I thought there was. I also learned things about you, Heero. That you're a warrior, a fighter... but you fight for the good side of things, you fight for what you believe in, for what you want to protect -- not for the lust to kill, to satisfy a desire to murder... and this would be a murder, Heero."

"You have found life, Duo," Quatre pleaded. "Look at us. Your friends. Look at Heero. He's more to you than we ever could be. He's your life. Duo, if you take Khushrenada's life, you will strengthen the curse over you. We're here for you. You help souls cross the final border, you don't... you don't chase them, Duo, and you don't kill anyone in cold blood."

"We all suffered," Trowa said, "but it's not to use to serve justice." He glared at Wufei, who remained silent, his katana still in hand. He didn't speak.

"Heero, please, I don't want you to do this," Relena said. "No one can, or will, excuse him for what he did. We can't take matters onto our own hands like this, Heero. You're not a judge, you're not a jury, and you're not an executioner. Please."

"Call off the dortang, Duo," Quatre said, softly. "For us. For life."

Khushrenada licked his lips again. He dropped the intricate crown to the floor, but still he refused to avert his head even if he had been able to. The eerie silence seemed to drag on forever, until Heero brought up his free hand, grabbing Duo's all of the sudden. Khushrenada looked at the gesture in confusion. The next moment, the scythe died down and dissolved, the magic being recalled. Heero withdrew the sollevar and Khushrenada, while heaving a sigh, slumped to the floor, his body giving out on him.

"Yes, it's over," Duo said. He didn't slump, but his face was still pale, and his cheeks shone an unnatural red from the exertion. He looked down at the former usurper on the floor, who just stared dazed in front of him. "You will be brought to justice, Treize Khushrenada -- but justice won't be served by me, but by the people you despised and mistreated."

Heero gazed at the man, pensively. He had been denied what he had strived to do for so long: actually killing Khushrenada. He didn't know whether to feel disappointed or relieved. He had dreamed about stabbing, piercing and mutilating the man to death, taking out his pent-up anger and frustration on him. If it hadn't been for Khushrenada, he would still be working on the Darlian farm, living his life in relative peace and quiet... he wouldn't be destined for great deeds then, and certainly not for guiding a Princess to her Kingdom, and he wouldn't have met the others... or Duo.

He shifted the sollevar in his hand, pushing the weapon back against his shoulder, resting it there. Khushrenada's eyes followed his movement, still nervously breathing, chest heaving. There was nothing of him left, pale and sweaty as he was, the carefully arranged clothes looking grotesque on him. Two red spots showed on his neck, exactly where the scythe and the sollevar had hovered. Dethroned, the man hissed when Duo suddenly leaned into him -- without letting go of Heero's hand -- and picked up the smaller crown the former usurper had dropped.

"This was never meant for you," Duo said, holding up the crown and plucking off the taller one from Khushrenada's head. "Never."

It looked like he was going to spit something in return, but Wufei stepped up and yanked at his arm. His face was as neutral as ever, and there was no trace of his disappointment -- the Nataku warrior had wanted to execute his personal revenge on Khushrenada as well.

"Get up," he said. "Get up and face justice, Treize Khushrenada."

Duo turned around, this time breaking his grip with Heero's hand, and walked away, straight towards Relena and Merquise. His servant Otto was standing beside him, wearing a pleasant smile. Nichol was nowhere to be seen; he was either dead or on the run, and Duo couldn't care less about one member of the Treize Faction. He sketched a half-heartedly bow to the both of them and extended his hands.

"These belong to you," he said dryly. Merquise looked like the Fire mage had grown a second head, and said: "I doubt it, Duo of Maxwell Church. What has happened here, is..."

"...something your sister can explain to you," Duo all but beamed. "You're Milliardo Peacecraft, the Prince of the Kingdom of Sanq, not Zechs Merquise. That silver mask must have repressed your memories somehow, or at least blinded you for the truth."

"I wore that mask all my life," he answered, astounded. "My parents... the ones who took care of my education told me that I had to, because of what I was. I took it they meant because of my powers -- I obeyed them... I loved them."

"They meant well, just as the Darlians," Duo said. "They thought that as long your face wasn't visible, no one could ever link you to the lost Prince of Sanq, a member of the Peacecraft family."

"Nobody ever asked why," Milliardo mumbled. "Not even Khushrenada. Everybody accepted I was wearing a mask, nobody ever asked why or how."

"I didn't either," Duo said, "because I accepted you as who you were, and you were a particularly strong Fire mage."

"Not as strong as you, apparently," the taller man answered wistfully and spared a look to his left, where Khushrenada was helped to his feet by Wufei, katana still in his hand.

"What is going to happen now?"

"A lot," Duo answered truthfully. "There is a lot we have to do, a lot still remaining to be done... but for now, I think we better leave this room, and... lie down somewhere."

Relena's smile was watery, but she nodded. "Lying down and getting some rest sounds great, Duo."

The courtyard of Sanq castle was filled with people, gathered together from every corner of the world. Now that the Kingdom was found again, the borders had opened to everyone who wanted to see or to visit it. The writers at the wooden cabin close to the entry gate were getting cramps of taking all the names down, while the transport services between the castle and the gate had been restored to its former glory. It was a coming and going of carriages and horses, picking up travelers along as they went; no money was asked for the fare.

Basking in a rather strong sun, the castle was literally shining as the pristine white plaster reflected the warm rays. Many of the people crowded on the courtyard protected their eyes by keeping their hand over them; some had brought a hat or searched out cool relief in the palace itself; every room and hallway was open. People walked around, gaping at the marvelous architecture of the high ceilings, admiring the wonderful materials used to build it, as well as the materials used for the carpentries and tapestries. Sanq was going to revive, was reviving, its luscious green landscape ideal for houses and farms to be build, where families could live, where cattle could graze in the pastures, where children could run across the streets.

Relena and Milliardo stood on the steps in front of the castle's large entrance, cheered on by the people in front of them. Milliardo was right next to his sister, an arm wrapped around her protectively. She looked beautiful with her hair braided in a crown around her head, topped off with the real crown, the encrusted jewels shimmering in the daylight. Her dress was as white as Milliardo's pants, only the hems a soft yellow color, embroidered with light pink roses and light green vines. They both wore a sash, similar to what Khushrenada had worn; Milliardo's one was a dark red, hers a deep purple, held together with a brooch sporting similar stones as their respective crowns.

Waving at the crowd who just gaped at them or shyly waved back, Relena smiled widely, her face no longer that of a girl's, but of a young woman. A young woman who had taken duties and responsibilities upon her shoulders at the rebirth of a Kingdom, determined to revive her family's name and to do them justice. Milliardo was more distant, not wearing a smile; only the corners of his lips were slightly curled up. He felt less comfortable in his suit, complete with cape. According to Duo, some kind of gold staff and other regalia were supposed to go with the outfit, but Milliardo had friendly but firmly declined to wear anything more than the crown and the cape. He didn't exactly feel like a Prince, let alone a King, and it didn't feel right to move around dressed like one.

Heero stood a little behind them, sollevar leaning against his shoulder. People took him for a bodyguard, perhaps, because of the way he carried his weapon around or simply glared at anyone who took a little too much time gaping at Relena. He plucked at his brand new shirt, one without bloodspots, burn marks or cuts in the fabric. Combined with his dark green pants and brown boots, he looked far better than he had in a long time, when they were still traveling around. The bath he had enjoyed earlier had contributed a great deal; he had never seen water turn black so fast.

He had been standing there for hours, and it didn't look like there would be an end coming to the masses soon. The rumors of Khushrenada being stripped of his power and a Prince and Princess reviving the fabled Kingdom of Sanq were going around; the words forming myths and legends on their own. Heero had heard people discuss whether Khushrenada was dead or not, and some people were convinced he was roasted by his own Fire mage, while others told around that he was still alive, but horribly tortured and kept in a dark dungeon underneath the very same castle. He could do nothing but shrug; he couldn't keep every rumor under control, and the right news would reach the right people hopefully enough so they could inform citizens and inhabitants.

"Heero," Relena called his name softly, as she looked over her shoulder.

"Relena," he said and bowed to her. Her smile tightened a little.

"You don't have to do that for me."

"You're a real Princess now," he answered.

She lowered her eyes, and Heero stepped forward to touch her shoulder. "A real Princess, but also my friend."

That brought back her previous smile, and she nodded enthusiastically. "Always, Heero. Don't ever forget that."

"Don't you forget it either," he answered dryly. She pursed her lips, her face one and all determination. Her eyes didn't match the youthfulness of her features; just like Heero, she had seen too much in too little time, starting with a burning farm and her parents dying and ending with an all-out carnage before the usurper had been forced to surrender.

"What are you going to do now?" she asked, her voice a whisper. There was a tiny hint of fear in her words, fear of what he was going to say.

"You don't need me anymore," Heero said, his hand still on her shoulder. "I'm... I'm just wondering if you ever needed me at all."

"Nonsense," she was quick to answer. "I still need you, Heero. I don't have much strength without you."

"Nonsense," he repeated her words. "Look at you, Relena. This whole Kingdom is yours, you have found your brother, the people love you. They're looking at you with devotion and admiration in their eyes, and they are very willing to become your citizens, and to submit themselves to your rule -- because they know it will be peaceful and right."

"That's not what I meant," she said, and her eyes became a little watery. "I don't want to miss you, Heero, I really don't."

He nodded, understanding what she meant. "I'm a fighter," he finally said. "A warrior. I will fight in your name, I will fight for you."

"You don't have to leave the Kingdom just because you wield a weapon," Milliardo suddenly spoke up. "You take a special place in my sister's heart, that's obvious for everyone to see. Every one of the Five will always be welcome here, no matter what the circumstances."

"Thank you," Heero answered, rather surprised by Milliardo's words. It was also strange to think of him as 'Milliardo Peacecraft', instead of 'Zechs Merquise'. Judging from how the man was acting, it was still strange and difficult for himself as well. The taller man showed a watery smile in return, but Heero could see the confidence slowly returning. Milliardo would make a good leader in time.

"I'm never going to wield anything magical ever again, and if I don't see a dortang for the rest of my life, I would be very happy."

"Your reputation as a Fire mage still stands," Heero said. "Any enemy will think twice about attacking the country."

Milliardo nodded. "Enemies," he said bitterly. "I have made mistakes, both in Khushrenada's name as in my own name. I believed him, believed his promises, believed his lies, and went on to add my own mistakes. I can understand that not everyone will be happy with me, but if there are truly enemies out there, they will be stopped at our gates."

Relena remained silent, and there was a slight frown marring her brow; the discussion about her total pacifism and Milliardo's own experiences with war and fighting would be a lively one. Heero had good faith that brother and sister would be able to work out their differences and set sail for a course that would make them both happy, as well be the best for their citizens. He blinked as she suddenly leaned towards him.

"You'll always be in my heart."

"You'll always be in mine," he said, patting her on the shoulder. When she looked up and straightened herself the tear was gone and she smiled at him, genuinely warm and caring.

"Go to your Fire mage," she suddenly said and laughed. "Shoo!"

Milliardo whacked him on the back in a friendly gesture. The man had more strength then he held for possible, and Heero almost lost his balance.

"Give him my regards," he said and shared Relena's laugh. "It's very funny to think that he used to teach me how to control my Fire spells. Master and student, now mage and Prince. How the world can change!"

How the world can change, indeed, Heero thought and bowed quickly to Relena and Milliardo despite her telling him that it wasn't necessary, and retreated into the castle, refraining visibly from groaning -- Milliardo really, really, really didn't know his own strength.

Duo was in one of the many rooms on the second floor of the castle, on the south side. Heero knew why he had chosen this one; it had the same, church-like ceiling as the main hallway, and it offered a view on the mountains -- not as tall as the ones surrounding Libra, but pretty impressive anyway. The sun was high in the sky; it was only in the afternoon.

"Where are you going to?"

Duo didn't look up from his position in front of the window. On the bed laid a small roll, a bundle of robes, wrapped around his staff. Heero hadn't seen the thing in a while; it meant that Vayeate had been brought from the garden in the Tallgeese estate to the royal stables here.

"I don't know," he said. "I was thinking of going back to Libra and unlock the libraries again. See how the children are doing, and if there are any new students needing my help."

Heero walked up to him and all but threw his sollevar on the bed, before putting both his hands on Duo's shoulders. It pleased him that the Fire mage leaned back against him, rather relaxed.

"I'm happy for you. With the Peacecrafts in power and Sanq restored, I'm sure that magic will soon have the respect it deserves to have, and that no one will look down at anyone with powers anymore."

"I'm still a Death mage," Duo said, lifting up his hands and studying them. A very faint, dark purplish glow enveloped them. "I don't understand... still, I'm not someone who summons simple flames. The things I studied and learned were forbidden, 'graced' upon me by Shinigami himself, and not many will forget that."

Heero shifted a little, moving his arms forward so he could place his hands on top of Duo's. The faint purplish glow immediately disappeared.

"We can go back to Libra, or return to your homeland, Epyon country, and see if there's a solution, something we can find to help you... maybe even a new home we can find."

"What do you mean, we?" Duo asked, but his eyes were brimming with mirth. He tilted his head backwards, slightly annoyed that Heero was a little taller, but this way, he could better look at his eyes.

"The legend of the Legends of the Five has ended," Heero said.

"It might have, but the Legends themselves continue to live on," Duo winked. "Isn't that how a fairytale is supposed to end?"

"Any fairytale isn't supposed to end with disorder and chaos," Heero brought his lips closer and touched Duo's cheek. "Which will erupt in this world if we don't do something about it. There are still commanders walking around, remnants of Khushrenada's army, people who supported him, people who have gained wealth and riches by standing on his side, people like Duke Dermail and Dorothy Catalonia, Quinze... some lives will be destroyed, torn apart..."

"And Relena will suffer the backlash one day," Duo answered, gloomily. "No matter how peaceful everything seems now, there will be people disputing her, rejecting her... there will be enemies one day."

"She's strong."

Duo tilted his head a little more to return the gentle kiss. "So are you."

"You too."

"Now that you figured that all out..." Heero and Duo both startled, and Heero almost dropped the Fire mage, quickly grabbing his robes to prevent him from falling.

"Wufei! Stop sneaking up on us, silly person!"

"Silly person?" Wufei's eyebrows shot up, but he was rather amused and walked into the room. It was the second time that Heero saw him out of his uniform; he was wearing the traditional garb of his clan again, the embroidered dragon on his shirt looking very lively in the broad sunlight.

"Are you leaving?" He said, his eyes darting over to the assembled gear on the bed.

"We aren't staying," Heero simply answered. "There's a lot more happening in this world, and a lot more things that need to be taken care of."

Wufei nodded, his expression slipping back into his standard neutral one. "Are you stopping by Libra? If so, give my regards to that Po woman."

"We will," Duo said, and hid a laugh behind his sleeve. Heero asked him why Wufei wasn't coming along with them.

The Nataku warrior shrugged, movement brusque. "My homeland was robbed of its inhabitants -- there is nothing left there that reminds me of our clans, our traditions, our culture... maybe one day I will travel back and teach the people who have taken up living there about our customs. For at least a generation, nothing will grow there. Such was the impact of the war. One day, the beauty will return."

"You're going to...ah, accompany Khushrenada first, right?" Duo asked.

"Yes. He and Lady Une, though for the woman there are certain... exceptions. She followed him religiously, but maybe, if she has been manipulated instead of following on her own volition, justice will have mercy upon her. It is out of my hands, but no harm will come to her for as long as it takes for justice to decide. I will personally see to it that it will be done correctly."

"Thank you," Heero said. "It's a great task you've burdened yourself with."

"It is the only thing I can do now," Wufei answered. "I do not know if I await the process and the trial, though. Maybe I will also travel around, hunt for those who have commanded and commandeered in his name, and will see to it that they are brought to justice as well."

"Libra will always be our safe haven," Duo said. "Libra and the Kingdom of Sanq."

"Is that how we're going to stay in touch?" Quatre's voice rang out, but they had heard the Nature mage approach, his dark blue robes swishing over the floor.

"Exactly," Duo confirmed. His smile was gone; he didn't like saying goodbye. Trowa entered the room after Quatre, and they were all together in one place -- five of them, just like they had traveled and worked together for so long.

"We're going to stay here for a while," Quatre announced. "We're going to keep some supervision on how everything's going here, to help establish the balance in the Kingdom, and to help Relena out the first few months with advice."

"I appreciate it," Heero suddenly said, and Quatre nodded; no one knew of his promise he had made to Relena before, but one had to be blind to not see the special bond between those two.

"I don't think she'll need that much advice, though," Quatre continued. "She's very keen and intelligent. Maybe she'll kick us out after a month or two because we're nagging her."

"Sanq and Libra will always be safe places," Duo repeated, tone of voice serious. "We can leave messages for each other if need be, and I'm sure that after everything we went though, we just... we just know when the other needs help. This is just a temporary break-up."

"Break-up?" Trowa asked. "It doesn't feel like a break-up to me. The group splits, yes, but it doesn't feel like it's falling apart."

"No," Duo hastily added, "I didn't mean it like that. We traveled around for so long, and we've been through many things. The dungeon, the battles, the fights, the confrontation with Khushrenada..."

The archer agreed. "Our goal has been fulfilled -- our primary goal, which was to stop and take down the usurper. Now we get to fulfill our secondary goals... be it personal or for the greater good..."

"I want to travel back to Maganac and see the mines of my homeland once again," Quatre said. "It can wait until we're finished here."

"I want to wander around in the huge forests of Oz country again, without being bothered or attacked by soldiers, without the burden of war," Trowa said. "I will fight when it's necessary, and you can always call for me. I prefer nature not crying from the atrocities enforced upon her, but I will fight. You can count on me, brothers."

"Brothers," Heero immediately echoed, along with Duo and Quatre, and Wufei agreed as well, which brought a wide smile on both mages' faces.

"We'll see all of you again soon," Duo promised as he took up the bundle from the bed, hoisting it over his shoulder, his staff in the other hand. Wufei handed Heero his sollevar without a single word.

"Thank you," he said to the Nataku warrior, settling once and for all any debt, with both their honor intact.

"Be well," Quatre said. "I was hoping you would stay for dinner..."

Duo punched Heero in the upper arm when he froze at the word 'dinner'.

"Hey you! I'm over here!"

Trowa burst out in laughter, and Quatre joined in, laughing out loud when the Fire mage put up a mock-offended expression, his braid swinging with every movement. Heero quickly went to stand by his side.

"Let's go," he said, forgetting about food when he looked at Duo, who already was smiling at him again. He had the same determination as Relena, but he was more wary; Duo knew realistically about the dangers and trouble they could still find on their path, and not only thieves or robbers, but fierce enemies, strong opponents, and... each other. A bond had formed between them, already too strong to break, but too fragile to survive each and every set-back, disappointment or problem. They needed to grow even more, physical attraction not the sole base of their relationship.

Quatre was certain the Fire mage and the warrior would stay together for as long as possible, though. Whatever they still needed to deal with, they would do so; fiery, passionate, maybe with some tears or a little fight, but always... together. That had been clear to him, he could feel it down in his heart, from the moment he had seen Duo and Heero meeting for the first time at the fire, back in Auda country.

"Yes, let's go," Duo said and raised his staff in a last greeting, a farewell to his friends, before turning around and leaving the room. Heero did the same, raising his sollevar to the others as he turned around, following Duo and falling into step with him. This was his place. Next to him, next to Duo, who had set his heart on fire; fitting for the person he was. Heero wasn't afraid of his magic, as Duo wasn't afraid of his will to fight. Whatever this world would force them to face, they would break down every barrier, every obstacle and stay together for the rest of their lives. A happy ever after, maybe with a twist.

Duo sought out his hand as they walked, the hallway seemingly endless. Heero returned Duo's firm grip.

"Hope should never be lost to the world."

With Duo, he had found it.

The End
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