He was growing, and it came as a surprise to the braided boy when he first realized that fact. His new growth was first discovered when Heero, standing next to him as they observed jugglers entertaining a crowd for coin in the center square of Skeer, no longer towered over him - though the other boy remained at least three finger widths taller.
This realization caused him to take stock of the other changes in his body. He was no longer skinny. The hearty meals he’d eaten since his arrival months before helped to fill out the hollows. Added to that was evidence of daily strenuous training, producing defined muscles that could be seen on both his arms and legs and a stomach that was taut and hardened from sparring. He felt good, vital, and more than a little pleased with the way his body was changing. He was less of a child now and on his way to becoming a man.
Though on better terms with Heero, Duo continued to feel uncomfortable around the dark haired boy. The older boy’s close proximity never ceased to cause his stomach and tongue to tie up in knots. This unfortunate physical reaction was an almost daily occurrence, for Heero was a constant at Trowa’s side and he, more often than not, was with Quatre, who sought the auburn haired boy out at every chance.
Aware of the close friendship between the other two riders, Duo couldn’t help but wonder if they practiced kissing each other, like he and Quatre did. He quickly dismissed that thought after recalling Heero’s declaration of not getting involved with any rider. If Heero’s aloof manner and stoic personality were indeed a part of his nature, he doubted the shaggy haired boy had been given many opportunities to kiss anyone, despite the fact that he was very attractive. Was it because he was so handsome that Zech had become so determined to claim him? The memory lingered in Duo’s mind of the older blond rider forcing a kiss on Heero, and every time he thought of that incident a sudden burst of anger rose within him.
As Quatre began to achieve some success in his pursuit of Midia’s rider, the blond’s interest in "practicing" waned. Quatre, having been the more assertive of the two and often the initiator of their kissing, now showed little to no interest at all in their secret activity. It seemed to Duo that his friend found more enjoyment in talking about Trowa than anything else.
Did you know that Trowa’s from Orinda?
Trowa says his favorite color is blue, like the blue in my eyes.
Did I tell you Midia fancies Sandrock?
Trowa’s favorite food is fruit. He adores apples and grapes.
Trowa’s family lives in a large stone house on top of a hill, surrounded by an orchard. His father is a very important business man in his corner of the kingdom.
Trowa learned to ride a horse when he was...
And so the blond went on and on about his obsession, namely Trowa. Quatre seemed to have an endless stream of trivial information about the other rider. Several times Duo instigated a kiss just to get the infatuated boy to cease his prattling about the object of his desire.
When he wasn’t in his room with Quatre, engaged in either listening to his friend prattle on or, on a rare occasion, being kissed senseless, the two youngest riders spent their free time with the others. To his credit, Heero did make several attempts to engage the braided fledgling in conversation. Despite there being less strain between them, Duo stubbornly held fast to the memory of his his humiliation following the unfortunate sparing incident, waiting for an apology that was, apparently, not forthcoming.
His stand-off attitude did not go unnoticed.
One cold, rainy afternoon, while Quatre and Trowa were engaged in a lengthy conversation, sitting in front of the blazing hearth in the dining hall, Heero turned with a slightly puzzled expression on his face and looked Duo in the eye. "You’re still angry with me about your first day in training, aren’t you?" he quietly questioned. "Do you always hold a grudge this long?"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Duo said bristly, sticking his chin up in the air. Uncomfortable about being openly confronted, he shifted his gaze away from the boy gazing at him so intently.
A moment passed before Heero spoke again. With a tone of sincerity and in a voice almost too soft to be heard he said, "I’m sorry." Standing, Heero grabbed up his cloak from the bench and left the room without another word, leaving Duo to stare after him.
"What was that all about?" Quatre asked a moment later. Duo looked up at his friend and saw that Trowa had witnessed his friend’s departure and was quickly following Heero out of the room.
"Heero asked if I was still angry with him, and then he apologized."
A blond eyebrow rose, disappearing under the matching fringe of hair. "Now that you have his apology, are you ready to let go of this unwarranted animosity and be friends with him?" The tone of Quatre’s voice told Duo his friend thought he was being ridiculous. Perhaps he was.
He shrugged, then leaned forward to rest his forearms on his knees. "I don’t know, Quatre," he answered with a sigh. "There’s just something about Heero that makes me ill at ease. In a strange way, I do want his approval and yet I don’t want him to get too close in case he decides he doesn’t really like me. Every time he looks at me I feel... jittery inside. My stomach tightens and my heart beats quickly. I swear that all rational thought leaves me and I can’t seem to think of anything to say."
Quatre gave his friend a knowing smile.
"What?" Duo questioned, a bit perturbed by his friend’s amusement at his discomfort.
The blond sighed. "Your heart is fixed on him, Duo."
The braided boy scowled. "No it’s not."
"You can deny it all you like, but what you’re feeling about Heero is very close to how I feel around Trowa. Believe me, I know how unsettling it is, but once you acknowledge that what you’re feeling is an attraction to him, you’ll find it most pleasurable." Duo gave him a skeptical look and Quatre could see he hadn’t convinced him yet. "Just think about it, all right? Trowa says that despite Heero’s cool demeanor, he’s really a very nice person once you get to know him. Just try to be a bit friendlier and maybe you’ll find out for yourself if that’s true. Can you do that, for my sake?"
"What?" The braided boy looked perplexed. "Why for your sake?"
"Because if Heero is happy then Trowa doesn’t have to run off to see if he’s all right, like he did a few moments ago."
Duo felt only slightly guilty about Trowa leaving the blond to go after Heero, but he had other things on his mind to worry about. Before replying to Quatre’s request to let bygones be bygones, he would have to think about how he really felt about Heero and then decided what to do. In order to buy himself some time to figure things out, he changed the subject. "Are you finished here?"
"Yes," the blond sighed, looking disinterestedly around the hall. "With Trowa gone there’s not much else to do." Turning his gaze back to his friend, a gleam of interest entered the blue-green eyes. With a teasing wink he asked, "Do you want spend some time in my room?"
By the look on Quatre’s face, Duo knew exactly what would happen if he accepted the other boy’s offer: more practicing. They didn’t engage in this activity very often, and he didn’t usually object to such a pleasant pastime, but his mind was too busy with thoughts of Heero to want to ‘practice’ at the moment. Perhaps later, after he figured things out.
"Why don’t we explore a bit? Maybe sneak into the upper levels and have a look around?," he suggested as an alternate activity.
In the blink of an eye, Quatre’s mischievous expression turned to one of hesitance. He scanned about them to see if anyone could overhear their conversation. Seeing no one close by, he leaned over to Duo and quietly answered, "We’re not allowed on the upper floors."
"Our goal will be to see what’s up there and not get caught," Duo said, liking the idea more and more. "I go up to Jan and Garron’s rooms almost daily, so I know the way. Besides, we won’t get caught. The corridors are far too damp and cold for the bones of the older riders. Howard’s almost as old as Garron, and he told me that the rain and cold made his joints freeze up and ache. He stays close to the fire on days like this, so I’m sure they do as well. Come on," his eyes sparked with the excitement of a challenge. "It’ll be fun as well as something to do."
The blond hesitated a moment before conceding with a hesitant nod. Both boys grabbed their heavy, gray woolen cloaks and threw them over their shoulder while slipping out of the dining hall.
Pulling their hoods up over their heads, Duo led the blond to the back staircase that he climbed every day when going to Jan’s quarters for his lessons. He snatched up a candle holder that had been left on the table next to the entry to light the path of the person ascending the enclosed stairwell. Lighting the candle by putting the wick up against the flame of the nearest torch, the braided boy then proceeded up the stairs, holding onto Quatre’s cold wrist.
When he’d first climbed these stairs with Jan, he had no idea that he was being given preferential treatment. It wasn’t until later, after he’d spoken to other riders, that he realized he’d been singled out. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Jan was the most esteemed of the riders in the Halls, looked up to as their leader by riders of all ages. Trowa had mentioned to Quatre that the other riders in training were somewhat intimidated by Duo’s close association with the older riders, especially Jan. There was little doubt that his connection with the older rider had been one of the reasons why the braided boy escaped the usual harassment by those riders a few years older than himself. It would be foolish, after all, to pick on a boy who had the attention of all the senior riders.
They soon passed the second tier of the Halls, where the mated couples roomed together and larger lairs were provided to house two dragons. The two boys continued to climb. Duo noticed that Quatre’s steps faltered as they reached the last few steps to the top tier of the Halls.
"I don’t know, Duo," the blond said, worriedly, tugging to free his wrist from the fledgling’s hold. "We were expressly told not to come up here."
"Don’t worry," the braided boy replied with a reassuring grin. "If we get caught, I’ll just tell them I was taking you to visit Jan."
"A... all right." Quatre still didn’t sound reassured.
At the top of the stairs, Duo released his hold on his friend and blew out his candle before setting the holder on the table next to several others. Quatre peered over his friend’s shoulder and was somewhat disappointed after seeing the corridors of the most revered dragon riders looked almost identical to their own, with only the space between the doorways being further apart. The nondescript, unadorned hallway with torches lighting its length was not what he’d envisioned. Duo led him by a grip on his arm down the hallway, telling him which rider lived in each room.
At the far end of the hallway, they came to yet another stairwell that led upwards. Duo paused, turned to his friend and whispered in a conspiring voice, "These stairs lead to the lower levels of the palace. I’ve never been up there before, but I’ve always wanted to see what it’s like."
Quatre vigorously shook his head, realizing that Duo wanted to explore further. "No, I don’t think we should, Duo. You can’t use the excuse of visiting Rider Jan if we get caught up there."
Duo’s expression displayed annoyance as he reached for a candle and quickly lit the wick. He looked over his shoulder and said, "Then we’ll have to make sure we don’t get caught." He tugged on Quatre’s cloaked covered arm and pulled the reluctant blond after him as he began to climb the unfamiliar stairs.
From what he’d been told, Duo knew that, like the Halls of Dornan, there were several levels that made up the Palace of the King and Queen of Amulah. Quatre whispered that he’d been to the palace before. Though he wasn’t present for the spring mating festival, he had been there for the winter celebration. He admitted that he’d never been in the stairwells or lower levels of the palace for Sandrock had flown him up to the courtyard on that occasion.
As they came to the doorway to the lowest level of the palace, the two boys paused on the landing. There was a definite contrast between this level and the Halls of Dornan. The floor and walls were covered with carpets and tapestries, lush with vibrant colors and thick enough to hold off some of the ever-present chill coming from the stone. Bright and ornate metal brackets with wide catchers beneath held the burning torches that lit the windowless corridor, the dish below preventing ash from damaging the carpets and tapestries.
After checking to see that the long corridor was empty, the two boys began to walk side by side, moving slowly forward and with caution while staring in amazement at the intricately woven historical scenes depicted on the hanging tapestries.
Hearing a sharp intake of breath, Duo’s looked over his shoulder to his friend. Quatre had stopped completely and was presently staring up at a tapestry that depicted a battle between a white and a green dragon, their riders in full armament; body armor, swords and shields. "That must be one of Sandrock’s ancestors," the blond said with wide-eyed wonder.
Duo recognized the tale from the scrolls Jan had made him read. "That’s Rydell, the dragon for which the city below was named. His rider was Mikah. The city used to bear another name, Kolob, but the people of the city wanted to honor the valor and nobility of the white dragon and his rider by changing its name."
"Who is he fighting?"
"The green dragon was Muir. His rider was Uther. They fought a long battle in the sky over Skeer."
"They both perished in that fight. The two riders were princes who fought over the right to rule Amulah after the king had died. Uther was the king’s brother, Mikah his son."
"If they both died, who ruled as king?"
Duo turned to his inquisitive friend and frowned. "You should listen a bit closer to the history lessons Osh gives us."
"I do," Quatre said defensively. "But with so many names of riders and dragons, the dates and places... well, they all tend to get mixed up after a while."
The two walked on and further away from the stairs, growing more confident about the excursion when the corridor remained empty. They were more than half way down its length, absorbed in the scenes and tales on the tapestries, when one of the doors abruptly opened and the sound of voices filtered into the hallway. The startled boys looked at each other, panic mirrored in their eyes. Together they turned and began to run back towards the stairway.
"Halt. Stand where you are!" a booming voice commanded.
Reluctantly, the two boys followed the sharp command and stopped before slowly turning around to see a small group of two men and two ladies approaching them.
"Well, what have we here?" one of the richly cloaked men said in a mocking tone. "Two wayward fledglings well above the floors of the lower Halls." The man’s eyes narrowed as he closely studied the boys. Those piercing eyes were green, Duo noted, slightly hooded by bushy eyebrows of the same color as the man’s dark blond hair. They narrowed further as the man leaned closer to try to see under the hoods that covered the young riders’ faces. "What are your names?" he demanded.
"Quatre, rider of Sandrock," the blond answered timidly.
"Duo, rider of Wu Fei."
"Riders of the white and black dragons," the man said knowingly, giving a quick glance back to the other three just behind him. "And what mischief are you up to so far from your own rooms?"
"No mischief." Duo took the lead. "We were just admiring the tapestries depicting the famous dragons and riders we’ve been learning about."
"Is that true?" the man asked, focusing his question and narrowed-eyed gaze on the quiet boy.
"Yes, sir," Quatre answered.
"I hear the black dragon’s rider is a very pretty boy," one of the women said with a dainty giggle. "Have them remove their hoods. I would like to see if that rumor is true."
The man standing in front of the two boys sighed and rolled his eyes at the request, but gave into the lady’s desire by telling the young riders to remove their hoods.
Reluctantly, both Duo and Quatre reached up to slide the hoods from off their heads and nervously looked up at the four adults. One of the women smiled at them while maintaining a bored expression, then looked to her side after her female companion gasped. All eyes turned to the other woman and witnessed a look of stunned surprise cross her rather plain face. The surprised woman composed herself and spoke for the first time, directing her question to Duo. "Where do you come from?"
Duo swallowed with some difficulty before answering, uncomfortable with all eyes now back on him. "From the village of Ha’ber, in the Gerza Valley."
"Have you ever lived in Rydell?"
"I was born and lived my entire life in Ha’ber until I came to the Halls this past Spring."
"What are you going on about?" the dark haired man standing next to the questioning woman asked with impatience.
Instead of answering, the richly cloaked woman with pale skin and hair continued to stare at the fledgling. Then leaning over, she used her gloved hand to cover her mouth as she whispered something into her male companion’s ear. The dark haired man with small eyes and large nose that gave him a hawkish look, kept his eyes fixed on the two boys while he listened. Then shifting his gaze to Duo, his eyes noticeably widened just as the woman leaned back. "It can’t be," he whispered, almost inaudibly.
"What?" The woman who requested they remove their hoods, a brunet with brown eyes and pale skin, draped in an equally fine, rich cloak with fir trim asked, looked perplexed by her companions’ reactions.
"What are the names of your parents?" The question was directed to Duo again by the dark haired man.
Nervous, Duo’s feet shifted beneath him He didn’t like this questioning by strangers, but having been taught to respect his elders he felt he had no choice but to answer. "My mother was called LaLinna but I don’t know who my father was."
"Lalinna? Was she from Ha’ber?"
Duo shook his head, confused about why these strangers were interested in him. "She arrived in Ha’ber alone and I was born a short while after. She never spoke of where she came from or who my father was. She took that information to her grave when I was five."
"What did she look like?" the woman next to the darker man asked.
"I’m told that I take after her in appearance, except that she had green eyes. I must have inherited my blue eyes from my father."
A moment of silence followed while the four adults studied the youngest rider. Both Duo and Quatre shot nervous glances at each other while under the close scrutiny. The braided boy caught sight of the dark haired man and woman who had looked at him so strangely exchange a knowing look, though he was at a loss to understand the reason behind it.
When man spoke again, his voice was only slightly scolding. "You two had better hie back to your quarters before you’re found out. Just this once we’ll keep quiet about your adventure above the Halls of Dornan."
"Thank you," Quatre said with a slight bow to the group.
"Ah... yeah. Thank you," Duo added belatedly, then turned away with Quatre and pulled up his hood. The two boys made a hasty retreat from the four adults, running to the stairwell and pausing only to light the candle. They fled down the several levels of stairs, retracing their steps without pause until they shut the door to Quatre’s room behind them.
After lighting the candles in his room, Quatre turned to his friend, flushed and with anger sparking in his blue eyes. "I will never let you talk me into something like that again. We might have been in a whole lot of trouble if those people decided to tell on us."
Duo looked worriedly at his friend, chewing on his lower lip before he asked, "Do you really believe that they won’t tell anyone they saw us?"
The blond frowned and rubbed his chest. "I’m not sure. The dark haired man felt... sincere to me when he said he wouldn’t tell, but I sensed something odd from him as well as from the lady next to him as they spoke to you. It felt something like recognition and excitement. It was as if there were undercurrents of something going on that was lost on the other couple. It just didn’t feel right."
Both boys exchanged a worried look, then Quatre seemed to shake off the unsettling feelings and sighed deeply. "Well, what’s done is done." He unclasp his cloak and shrugged it off his shoulders. Walking to the bed, he carefully set it down on the bottom end of the mattress.
Duo watched his friend sit down on the bed’s edge, leaving enough space for him to sit by his side. "We should probably go back to the dining hall," he advised with a quick glance back at the closed door. "Our absence will be noticed sooner or later."
With a shake of his head, Quatre patted the spot next to him and Duo complied by moving forward and sitting there for a moment before he too relaxed and lowered his back down to the soft mattress, unclasping his cloak so that he could bring his arms up to cradle his head. Staring at the ceiling above, he said, "Well, despite being discovered, it was kind of fun sneaking upstairs, wasn’t it?"
Quatre gazed down at the boy laying on the bed next to him and a slow smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Yes, it was exciting. For a moment I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest it was beating so rapidly."
"My stomach felt like it was about to make its way up my throat," Duo said with a matching grin. Relief, mixed with their former anxiety, suddenly made the entire excursion seem funny. Duo’s grin led to a snicker, which turned into a chuckle and finally into outright laughter. His merriment proved contagious to the blond and before long both boys were laughing out loud, gripping their sides until they were gasping for air.
Quatre found himself lying next to his friend when their laughter finally subsided. He shifted to rest on his side, a beckoning gleam in his eye. "You know, we haven’t practiced in a while. Do you want to?"
In answer, Duo reached over and grabbed a handful of the blond boy’s shirt and pulled him on top of his body, bringing their mouths together. And despite their laughing again, a perfectly executed kiss began.
They were just beginning to feel passion rising in their bodies when a slight sound came from the doorway, causing both boys to start and turn their heads in unison to look at the door. It was uncertain who was the most surprised, the two boys on the bed, or Trowa, standing with a shocked expression on his flushed face, which perfectly matched Heero’s, who was standing directly behind him, looking over his shoulder. The shock on Trowa’s face was almost immediately exchanged for one of hurt.
Quatre scrambled off of Duo and the bed, looking embarrassed and guilty. "Ah... this isn’t exactly what it looks like," he rushed to explain.
"I... I should have knocked. I a...apologize," Trowa stuttered, his voice barely audible. He then turned, pushed past Heero and fled down the corridor. Heero remained in place for a moment longer, just outside the door. He gave the two remaining boys a look of disapproval before he too disappeared, running after his friend.
With their sound of their retreating footsteps, Quatre turned to Duo, now standing by his side, and his flushed face crumbled, his eyes filling with pools of tears. "Oh, Duo," was all he could manage before the threw himself at his friend and held tightly to him as he began to cry, anguished over what had just happened. "Trowa’s never come to my door before. Why now? After this he’ll never want me," Quatre cried dejectedly into the braided boy’s shoulder. "He’ll think I’m in love with you and he’ll turn to someone else when the Spring mating comes."
Duo hadn’t been in a position to comfort anyone before, especially someone his age who was crying disconsolately. He frantically tried to think of something to say or do that would make things better. Awkwardly patting his friend’s back he said the only thing that came to mind. "I can try to talk to him. Explain that we were only practicing."
"Do you think that he’d really believe you?" the blond sniffed, pulling back to use his sleeve to wipe away the tears leaking from his red-rimmed eyes.
"I don’t know, but it’s worth a try, don’t you think?"
"I just... like him so much, Duo," Quatre whispered shakily, his breath hitching. "I know we’re supposed to be too young to fall in love, but I think I do love him, and now he must hate me." His friend’s quivering chin was more than Duo could bear.
"Hey, it’ll be all right. And who knows, Trowa and Heero are such good friends that maybe they’ve tried practicing, too."
The blond continued to be disconsolate. "I don’t think we should practice any more," Quatre sniffed.
Duo, feeling uncertain, reached up with his right hand to scratch absently at the back of his head, just above his braid. "Yeah, maybe you’re right. I’m just glad that they only caught us kissing."
Quatre’s cheeks began to blush at the thought of the other two boys seeing himself and Duo in a more compromising position. Clearing his throat, the blond looked at his friend, looking worried and uncertain. "Do you think you could go and find Trowa now, Duo, and explain things to him?"
The fledgling shrugged his shoulders, looking less confident. "I don’t know if he’ll talk to me, but if it will make you happy, I’ll try."
"If he won’t speak with you, perhaps you can explain things to Heero and he can be the one to speak with Trowa. Trowa holds Heero in high regard, I’m sure he’ll listen to him."
The idea of talking to Heero about this brought a new wave of embarrassment and anxiety to the braided teenager. "We’ll see," was all he could reply. He slipped on his cloak, fastened it, then walked to the open door and paused to look back at the blond boy whose worry was etched on his fair face. "I’ll be back soon."
Duo had never been to Heero or Trowa’s rooms, which were located at the other end of the long row of doors from their own. He knew which ones were theirs, of course, for Quatre had pointed them out numerous times.
He came to a halt in front of Trowa’s door and stood facing it, contemplating what he was going to say once he knocked on the wooden surface. He remained unmoving for several moments, coming up with several ways to approach the auburn haired boy, and discarding each idea one by one. It was clear that he needed to explain to the other two riders what they had seen in Quatre’s room and to try and mend the hurt that their discovery had caused. His fingernails bit into the palms of his hands until they began to ache. Bolstering up his courage, he brought one hand up and rapped his knuckles three times on the solid wood door, then stepped back to wait for a response.
A moment later the door opened, but only by several inches, just enough to reveal Heero’s unhappy face. "What do you want?" he demanded churlishly.
Duo swallowed hard, then cleared his throat, feeling nervous. "Can I speak with Trowa?" And as Heero’s frown deepened, Duo suddenly felt that this was probably the worst idea he had ever come up with.
He watched as Heero turned his head and addressed Trowa in a soft voice. A moment later his piercing gaze returned. "He doesn’t want to speak to anyone at the moment," Heero answered in a sharp tone. The soft-spoken tone he’d used to speak with Trowa a moment earlier had vanished completely as he spoke again to the boy standing alone in the corridor, but Duo wasn’t to be discouraged. If Trowa was that upset, it meant he really did harbor some deeper feelings for Quatre.
"Then can I speak with you for a moment, Heero? I’d like to try and explain what it was that you and Trowa saw, that it isn’t what you think."
One dubious dark eyebrow rose, then Heero nodded and stepped out into the corridor, shutting the door behind him. "Well?" he asked, folding his arms over his chest and waiting for an explanation.
Duo looked up and down the long hallway and was grateful to see it was empty. He didn’t like the idea of anyone overhearing what he was about to say. Now his only problem was where to start. "Can I ask a question first?"
Heero thought about it for a moment before nodding his head. Duo leaned in closer and whispered. "Does Trowa like Quatre? Maybe more than just as a friend?"
Duo was a bit put off after seeing the deep frown on the other boy’s face, but then Heero replied. "What do you think?"
Heero was making this as difficult as he could for him, but the fledgling wasn’t to be thwarted, especially with Quatre waiting back in his room for his return. "I think he does," Duo answered, his courage building. "In fact, I’d venture to guess that he likes Quatre quite a lot. Am I right?"
For a moment Duo didn’t think Heero would answer, but then suddenly he glimpsed the slightest of nods from the dark haired boy. Duo couldn’t keep the smile of relief off his face. Quatre was going to be very happy when he told him that bit of news.
"What’s so funny?" Heero demanded, seeing Duo’s growing smile.
"Listen, Heero," Duo rushed to explain before the stronger boy took a swing at him. "Quatre’s heart has been fixed on Trowa from the start. It’s not a passing fancy, but something much stronger. In fact, he hopes that Midia will choose Sandrock as her mate in the Spring so that he and Trowa can also be mated."
"If that’s the truth, then why was he kissing you?" Heero snapped. Yet even as he spoke, Duo noticed by the slight slump of his shoulders, that some of the tension had gone out of the other boy.
"Quatre and I had no experience with kissing anyone," Duo began. "So in order to not be clumsy or sloppy when at last we do have the opportunity, we ... practiced on each other. Quatre’s heart has always yearned for Trowa, not for me. I’m just his friend and he has no romantic feelings for me."
"And you let him use you like that?" The look of formidable disapproval appeared on Heero’s face.
"Who says I didn’t want to learn?" Duo retorted, a bit of his own ire rising. "I didn’t want my first meaningful kiss to be clumsy. If I did it poorly, maybe the person I chose to kiss wouldn’t want any more of my affection."
One dark eyebrow rose on Heero’s forehead and disappeared beneath the thick fringe of hair that fell over his forehead. "You’re telling me that Quatre was practicing for his first kiss with Trowa?"
"Then who were you practicing for?" Heero’s serious expression didn’t give Duo any hint that the other boy was teasing him.
"Ahh... no one in particular. I just... wanted to know what to do when I do kiss someone."
"Are you planning to kiss a lot of people?"
Duo wondered what Heero was getting at. Was the other rider teasing or belittling him, or perhaps he was just trying to understand him? "No," he answered warily. "My mentor cautioned me to give my affections sparingly, that I should save my greater affections for my future mate."
"So you don’t think your future mate will mind that you gave your kisses to someone else first?"
Duo blinked, he hadn’t thought of it that when he began practicing with Quatre. He really only wanted to be a proficient kisser when he first kissed his mate. "I don’t know," he replied truthfully, canting his head to the side as he contemplated the question further. "Have you ever kissed someone, Heero?"
Heero’s frown deepened and his feet shifted in an obvious sign that the question bothered him. Yet after a moment’s pause, he answered. "Yes, but not by my own choice."
Of course, Duo thought, he’d seen Zechs force himself on Heero the second day in the Halls. "Oh yeah, sorry."
"Relena will no doubt take a mate in the Spring," Heero said out of nowhere, and Duo was curious about where the conversation was headed.
"I’ll be seventeen by the next harvest," the older boy continued. "The guidelines set by the guild state that sixteen is the youngest age acceptable for a rider to take a mate, though it entirely depends on the dragons. The dragons themselves are to be four years old. Even then, not all male dragons are chosen and the females don’t always choose their mates during their first or even second mating seasons."
Duo’s heart suddenly felt heavy as a stone in his chest. Relena would most likely choose a mate in the Spring and, from what he’d just learned, Wu Fei and himself wouldn’t be one of her suitors because they were considered too young. "I’ll be fifteen when she comes in season and Wu Fei will be only three," he said dispiritedly. He looked up through the fringe of hair over his forehead to Heero, noting the troubled expression on the other boy’s face. The braided boy could only hope that maybe Heero felt as disappointed as he did at not being in contention for the honor Relena would bestow on another dragon and his rider. He wondered if Wu Fei would be disappointed as well, for he’d shown some preference for the blue, female dragon and her rider over any other female dragon.
"I didn’t know you were that much younger than me," Heero said quietly.
"Yeah," Duo replied, not wanting to talk about it any more. "Do you think you can explain things to Trowa, I mean about me and Quatre."
Heero nodded. "I’ll repeat what you have told me."
"Tell him... we’re not going to practice any more. You’re right. Our future mates might be hurt that we gave affection to our best friend. Thanks, Heero."
With their conversation having come to a gloomy end, Duo turned and slowly trudged back towards Quatre’s room to tell him he’d done his best to clear things with Trowa. His heart ached with disappointment, but he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do but accept the fact that, come the next Spring, Heero would belong to someone else. He wondered when and why he’d set his heart on having the other boy as his own when he rarely spoke to him. He sighed as he reached Quatre’s door, deciding it was a waste of his time worrying and longing for someone he couldn’t have. He could only hope that his aching heart would accept the inevitable and that he’d be able to hide the great sense of disappointment that filled him so completely from the other riders.