Michael was in the yard when they got back to the manor, surprising Duo with his unkempt appearance. The archangel’s blonde hair was pulled back in a
loose tail, tendrils curling around his dirt-smudged face. His clothing, a cheerful blue-green tunic that would have been appropriate for any banquet, was
dusty with the sleeves rolled unevenly to his elbows. He was weeding the flowerbed the horses had been nibbling at earlier.
Tasuki had the good sense to steer the animals clear of that grazing spot, waving them over to the edge of the forest instead. And Duo approached Michael
with what he hoped wasn’t a timid expression on his face. He didn’t know what to make of the wide eyes Michael turned on them.
“It’s bad manners to lower yourself to menial tasks,” Houjun said in a lecturing tone, his eye sparkling merrily. “You’ll get yourself in trouble if Raphael catches
Michael sniffed carelessly, and then ruined the effect by sending a worried glance at the door of the manor. “Don’t be ridiculous. If Tasuki can spend his free
time grooming his horses, I don’t see why I can’t tend to my flowers.”
“Big difference there,” Tasuki said with a smirk. “I don’t care if he hates me.”
Houjun winced, turning a sad look at his partner. “Raphael doesn’t hate you, Tasuki…”
“Yes he does,” Michael said cheerfully. He tucked a bit of hair behind his ear, adding another smudge to his cheek. “I take it you three had a good trip? How
was the flight, Duo?”
Duo stiffened at the three looks and resisted an urge to scuff his foot in the grass. “Okay, I guess. I didn’t pass, but I’m going to try again tomorrow.”
“Duo needs to change for the energy class,” Houjun said to Michael. “Tasuki can tell you about the flight test while I get him ready. We need to leave in a few
Michael nodded and waved them off, his attention already latched onto the orange-haired angel. “Sit, sit. I have it on good authority that your nemesis isn’t
coming over till this evening. No need to lurk in the shadows.”
“Lurking’s fun,” Tasuki smirked, dropping down to sit crosslegged beside the archangel. “You know you’d get a kick out of being caught looking like that, even
if you did have to suffer a lecture because of it. That’s half the fun of sneaking around – the chance of getting caught.”
Duo watched the two from over his shoulder, taken by the amiable way they were chatting. Houjun reminded him of the task at hand by giving him a light prod
on the shoulder.
“They’ll be fine,” said Houjun. “It’s only the opposite checkers who clash on instinct.”
“But the two of you don’t clash,” Duo frowned. “I know you said you switched, but you don’t seem negative at all.”
“That’s because you’re not a positive checker.”
Duo jerked to a halt, his eyes sharp and suspicious. Houjun winced away with a weak smile.
“Not that you’re negative,” Houjun said quickly. “It’s just that you’re not settled in your field. You’ve never partnered with anyone, so you haven’t grown
accustomed to looking at things a single, limited way. I’m more versatile than you might think, watching me with Tasuki. In the actual field, I can be very strict
and exacting. Or, if Tasuki is in one his morbid moods, I can be as playful as he is on a good day. My behavior depends on my partner. I suspect you’ll be
the same, wavering between extremes and leaning toward the aspect you choose to portray – rather than some instinctive nature you can’t change.”
Houjun had started walking again, Duo keeping pace beside him and noting how sober he looked without his seemingly typical smile. He could imagine he saw
Raphael in the angel’s profile, even though he knew the two men shared no blood. They had that same expression of not being happy – not angry or upset,
just not happy. Then they reached Duo’s room, and that expression disappeared, replaced by an almost mischievous smile.
“If you’re set on being a positive checker,” said Houjun, “you should have no trouble assuming the role. Raphael likes you. You’re the only positive checker
aside from Michael and myself that I've ever heard him admit to liking. That you can get along with both him and Tasuki, two extreme opposites, shows you’ll
do well finding a partner. Don’t get worked up over stereotypes. We like to exaggerate our differences, but even strict types like Heero can be playful in the
Duo snorted a little, choking back a laugh. “Him? Playful? I can’t see it.”
Houjun shrugged lightly and walked over to open Duo’s closet. He immediately wrinkled his nose at the disorganized pack of colors and cloths. “Muriel must
be busy getting your uniforms settled. She hasn’t even color-coded this…”
The angel started pulling various outfits, all dark blue in color and moderate in design. Duo blinked wide eyes at him. He edged off to the side so Houjun
could toss the clothes in a pile on the bed.
“She had someone take my measurements,” said Duo. “But I don’t think anything’s come in yet. That’s what she found in my size last night.”
Houjun smirked and held up a bright lavender robe. “More like your shades – half these clothes aren’t appropriate for boys, Duo. You’d better watch what
she picks out for you. Ribbons are lovely, but if she tries to get you in anything without legs, make sure Birdie checks it over before anyone else sees you.
Knowing Michael, he’d let you go out in a dress just for the fun of watching people’s reactions. Muriel means well, but you’ll want to take charge of your
wardrobe as soon as you can. Fashion has changed a lot since Michael was a boy, and she’s had trouble keeping up with that. Ceremonial robes are
distinguished according to gender now. Anything with a bodice like this-” he waved at the sloping ‘v’ neck and high waist of the robe, “is a woman’s garment.”
“Got it,” Duo blurted, his cheeks burning with a hot blush since he’d almost worn that very robe to bed last night. “I’ll remember that.”
“I’ll stop by this evening and help you root through this,” Houjun promised. “Right now, I need to get you over to Tasuki’s before his cousin leaves for the
class. You’ll be riding over with him. They don’t let one-eyed angels drive, you know.”
That last bit was given with a flippant smile as Houjun ducked back into the closet. Duo stared in surprise. As much time as he’d spent with the angel that day,
and the night before, he hadn’t really thought about Houjun’s scar. When they’d walked together, he’d been on the man’s right side. And even when they
were facing each other, Houjun’s head was usually tilted enough for his bangs to hide his left eye.
“Could Raphael heal that?” Duo asked quietly. “Your scar?”
Houjun jolted, dropping an outfit and ducking down to retrieve it again. He had a pained look on his face when he turned to set the clothing on the bed. He
pointedly shut the bedroom door before responding.
“You shouldn’t refer to that so openly,” said Houjun. “But since you asked, yes, he could heal it. By opening the wound again and letting it seal as a fresh
injury, he could. He and another friend of mine have both offered to heal it for me. I declined.”
Duo winced in discomfort, doing his best not to look away from Houjun’s piercing gaze. The angel tilted his head after a moment and Duo nearly sighed in
“My father didn’t ask you to bring that up,” Houjun said slowly, his words a statement rather than a question. “I’m sorry, Duo. I didn’t mean to snap at you.
This scar is important to me. I keep it covered so it won’t upset other people, but I’m not going to heal it just to satisfy someone else’s sympathy. Here. I’ll wait
for you outside.”
The man handed him a dark outfit and left him, shutting the door again behind him. Duo grimaced, biting back a need to curse or kick something. He barely
looked at the clothes as he changed into them.
He was getting himself involved in some family dispute, worse than the issue with Heero, since this really had nothing to do with him. No matter how much he
liked being on Raphael’s good side, he detested the thought of being pitted against Houjun. And honestly, he still didn’t have enough information to even
know what the issue was. All he knew was that Raphael felt his son has switched sides for ‘the wrong reasons’, and that he was using Duo as an excuse to
keep Houjun on Eden. He didn’t know what those reasons were, or why he’d need or want an excuse to keep a checker from doing his work.
It wasn’t until Duo moved to fix his hair that he really noticed what he’d put on. His eyes trailed the full-length mirror that sat on the back of the closet door.
The outfit was layered comfortably, a tight vermilion shirt just visible beneath the black vest that closed in a low ‘x’ over his chest. The outside tunic was black,
trimmed in a similar red shade on the edges and closed with a silver catch so that it hid the bottom half of his vest, hanging loose until it caught at his waist.
The ends trailed in an open ‘skirt’ that reminded him of Tasuki’s outfit, except it was loose enough that he thought it would ghost his hips when he walked. The
pants were the worst, snug enough to make him want to flush or grimace, and making his legs seem to have far more curves than they should have
considering he was slender for his age.
A quick tap on the door warned him, Houjun peeking in after a moment of silence. Duo promptly scowled at the man.
“Are these pants tight enough?” Duo blurted.
“I hope so,” Houjun said slowly. “If they’re any tighter, you won’t be able to sit down…”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Duo. “They look…that is…”
He grimaced at his reflection, blushing a little at the sight of his almost provocative appearance – from that bold red neckline to those formfitting pants.
“I don’t like it,” Duo said stubbornly.
Houjun smiled and stepped over to sweep Duo’s hair back into a loose tail behind his head. “You have only one chance to make a first impression. That outfit
is actually less bold than what teenagers prefer these days, but it’s far more elegant than what a timid or low class person would wear. It’s the perfect mix of
confidence and reserve. It’s also the closest thing in your closet to the academy uniform.”
Duo blinked as he had a sudden image of Heero or Sanada wearing the outfit instead of him. Despite himself, he imagined Heero would look much more at
ease in it. Sanada…he couldn’t imagine the teen in anything black after seeing his oddly stylish outfit at the test flight. It was the thought of the little white-
haired boy – Sasuke – that made Duo’s lips twitch. If they really did have a uniform like this outfit, then there would be quite a few odd-looking students at the
“Is the uniform mandatory?” asked Duo.
“You’re allowed a little variation,” said Houjun. “The coloring is limited, and you do have to keep the same material and number of articles, as well as the
standard outline. Accessories and style depend on the family. They do it so everyone – from labor class to archangel – has access to the same uniforms.
How they modify them is left up to the individual.”
Duo didn’t say anything to that, his gaze drawn to the mirror. Houjun had tied his hair off for him in a loose tail that trailed down his back in waves from where
it had dried in his braid earlier. He winced over his shoulder and flicked the edge of that tail.
“Wouldn’t it be better to get it out of the way?” asked Duo.
“You won’t be doing anything physical,” Houjun explained. “It’s lucky the lake is so clean that you don’t have to wash it. Since it’s already dry, you can have it
back without hiding it in a braid. You may not realize it, but there are actually few boys with hair as long as yours is. It used to be they’d mask their
appearance on earth without actually cutting their hair, but it’s gotten typical to take the easy route and simply crop it off. As casual as you look with a braid,
you can keep yours long without worrying about that.”
He stepped back with a conspiratorial smirk. “It’s something to show off without being conceited. After all, it’s not your fault you have naturally beautiful hair
and other students don’t.”
With a helpless blush for the compliment, Duo grinned wryly. “That sounds like something Michael would say.”
“Great minds,” Houjun beamed. “Now then, I brought shoes for you. And if you’re ready?”
Duo ducked to pull on the shoes Houjun handed him, his brows drawing into a frown. They were heavy and odd, almost as tall as Tasuki’s boots and reaching
up to hug his calves. But they were made of a slick black material he couldn’t place.
“What sort of shoes are these?”
“Earthian shoes,” said Houjun. “Standard issue at the academy. You want to get used to wearing them early so you don’t get blisters when you leave as a
checker. Unlike the uniforms, you have free choice of footwear so long as it’s Earthian issue. They do have sandals there, but only in select regions or during
certain seasons. Shoes are worn in most of the ‘civilized’ countries. It has to do with their globalization and international superstores.”
Houjun let out a quick laugh and patted Duo on the head, not minding the boy’s flustered glower. “There are some things you won’t read in textbooks. You’ll
have to wait till you go to Earth and see for yourself.”
He led the way out of the room, Duo following with tentative steps in the foreign footwear. They found Tasuki huddled by Michael just outside the back door,
his wide golden-orange eyes locked on a little cluster of white flowers Michael was holding. He flushed and wiped his hands on his pants when he caught sight
“About time,” Tasuki huffed, making a show of how impatient he was. “I was about ready to start eating Michael’s flowers.”
Michael beamed at Duo, his eyes doing a slow appraising sweep and coming up pleased. “It’s worth a few flowers lost to your stomach, to see Duo looking so
distinguished. Chiri, your fashion sense has certainly improved since your own academy days. I was half afraid you’d dress him in pink and white spots.”
Duo shot a wary look over at Houjun. He was a little reassured to see that the older angel sported a faint blush.
“I was ten when that happened,” Houjun said, a tight smile pulling at his face. “I never wore anything like that at the academy, if you’ll remember.”
Tasuki clapped a hand on Duo’s shoulder, winking at the boy and tossing his head in Houjun’s direction. “They got a picture of it, if you ask Birdie about it.
He was all decked out in a little girl’s dress, complete with pink flowers in his hair and a bow around his neck. I swear, one flash of that picture, and Chiri’ll
blush redder than Mira’s hair.”
The angel in question was wearing a rather put-out look on his face, his right eyebrow twitching. Duo gave a weak smile.
“We really have to be going now,” said Houjun. “Duo, you can ride with me.”
“You don’t need to double up,” Tasuki protested. “I can fly.”
“That’s quite all right,” Houjun said with a pleasant smile. “Duo isn’t dressed for the saddle, anyway.”
A glower snapped over to Duo, who blinked in surprise at the normally cheerful redhead. He shot a quick look between Houjun and Tasuki. The former had
coaxed the gray horse to him and was holding a hand out to Duo. With a wary eye on Tasuki, Duo crossed over to Houjun. The older angel pulled him up in
front of him and wheeled the horse off without a word in parting to Michael. Duo barely heard the startled grumbles as Tasuki hurried to follow with the black
They rounded the house and took the right path that ran adjacent to the road. It was a patchy dirt path, packed down from vehicles parking off the main road,
rather than random riders or walkers. Duo found himself blushing within a minute of the ride, after the first car drove past on their left.
He agreed that his pants were a little tight to be sitting astride a horse, but sitting sideways on Houjun’s lap, even with his back to the road, was very
embarrassing. Not to mention that Tasuki was riding alongside them and sending him pointed scowls every time he glanced over at the man. Then Houjun
leaned forward to speak into his ear and Tasuki spurred his horse on ahead with a loud mutter in some Earthian language Duo wasn’t familiar with.
“By the way,” Houjun said in a conversational tone, “I’d like you to call me Chichiri, Duo, at least when we’re around Tasuki’s family. They don’t know me as
anything else. Also, some of Tasuki’s sisters refer to him by his real name, Genrou. He doesn’t like to be called that, so don’t mimic them unless you want to
get on his bad side.”
Duo raised an eyebrow, his gaze directed on the retreating rider ahead of them. “I think I’m already on his bad side.”
“Possessive, isn’t he?” Chichiri beamed. “You should see him when someone tries to share his food.”
A tickling set up in Duo’s throat and emerged as a quiet laugh. “Are all checker pairs possessive?”
“Protective. Partners keep each other safe from strangers on Earth. Here, it comes out as possessiveness in extreme cases. Tasuki’s extreme in everything
he does. It’s sweet, and very easy to exploit when he brings up distasteful subjects.”
They broke from the path, Duo leaning forward as the horse slowed for a surprisingly steep climb up the grassy hill to the side of them.
He was still smiling at the idea of having a possessive partner he could tease regularly, or the even more laughable idea of himself being possessive toward
someone else. He had a difficult time just imaging a partner who’d want him. This little daydream was much harder to picture. That didn’t stop it from being
Tasuki was waiting for them on the hill. He wheeled his horse once they reached him, riding alongside without a hint of those previous glowers. Now his eyes
were bright and a tad wary as they swept the field. It made Duo nervous. He also took to looking around them.
The hill gave way to a grassy field that stretched out a few yards before striking a tall fence that was topped with what appeared to be metallic wires. There
was a nine foot tall gate open off to the side, so the reason for the fence couldn’t have been to keep random things in or out. Beyond that was a sprawling set
of gray buildings – stables, if Duo’s guess was accurate – with a large white house on either side. He could just pick out the shadows of a forest behind the
“Tasuki’s family is in the left house,” said Chichiri. “His is the side family. Both households united years ago to support the animals they raise. It’s a unique
profession that works best with multiple generations on hand to help.”
Duo gave a quick nod, his gaze locked on the circular arena that stood near the right house. There was a creature in there that he’d only seen a tiny picture
of in the textbooks he’d read. Even from a distance, he could see it was so large sneaking it away from Earth had to have taken at least two checker pairs.
Animals were taken as infants, but something that big…even a baby would be as heavy as a full-grown horse.
“It’s an elephant,” Duo breathed.
“You know it?” asked Tasuki, his eyes bright above a wide smile. “We brought her over two years ago. It took six angels to get her here, but we had to have
an adult. The Winners picked up a male for us back when we built the place. He started acting up so…well, we had to get him a mate before he tore down the
fence. Kept breaking right out of his yard, every night. And the noise he made… He’s much better now that she’s here.”
“Is that Catherine?” asked Chichiri, his gaze on the small figure near the pen.
Duo tore his eyes away from the huge gray animal, disappointed that he couldn’t hear the noise he’d read elephants made through those cylindrical trunks of
theirs. There was a redhaired woman leaning against the pen, her arm raised and waving at them.
The hair color reminded Duo of what Tasuki had said about redhaired angels being rare. He shot a look at him, surprised to see a wide smile instead of the
wary look he’d gotten when he spoke of Mira.
“A sister of yours?” asked Duo.
Tasuki’s eyes widened comically, and he broke into laughter. “No! No, and don’t you ever let Cathy hear you say that. She’s one of my cousins. Her father’s
a Barton – there aren’t many girls on that side, but the few of them are much nicer than my sisters, not to mention prettier, and smarter, and less evil, and-“
“Hello, Catherine,” Chichiri greeted, pulling his horse up short of the girl in question.
Duo found himself staring into bright and direct eyes.
The girl was tall and willowy, her rich red hair cropped in a short jaunty cut that framed her face and accented her shoulders. She was wearing a shockingly
immodest outfit, a rusty brown sleeveless vest that barely concealed her breasts and showed a fair amount of her pale stomach, and a very short skirt that
flared over shapely thighs. Duo blanched, and then flushed in embarrassment for having looked in the first place. The girl didn’t seem to notice, or if she did
notice, she was used to it and didn’t mind.
“Hi, Chiri. Did you have a good trip? I was just practicing my routine. What do you think of my new outfit? Is it wild enough to drop jaws at the Glamoura?”
Chichiri helped Duo slide to the ground and hopped down with a wide grin. “You’ll do more than drop jaws in that, Catherine. You’ll have them raising the age
limit for the show. I’m surprised Trowa would even let you outside wearing that.”
“He hasn’t seen it yet,” the girl winked. “I don’t plan to show him till the actual performance, so he won’t have a chance to complain.”
Tasuki jumped to the ground at that, not minding the horses. The two animals pawed the ground a little before turning and docilely walking off toward the
“Where is Trowa?” asked Tasuki, his eyes wide. “I thought you said he’d take Duo to the class!”
“Calm down,” the girl frowned. She set her shoulders back and flashed Duo a bright smile. “Hello, there. I’m Tasuki’s cousin, Cathy Barton.”
“Like the loudmouth here said,” she jerked her head at Tasuki, “my brother was supposed to take you to the class. But he went in a little early. I’ll drive you
over there. He’ll drop you off at your house after it’s over.”
“You can’t take him wearing that,” Tasuki blurted, his face twisted in disgust. “You look like an Earthian prostitute!”
Catherine shot him a sharp look and arched an eyebrow. “An Earthian what?”
“Nothing!” said Chichiri. “It’s nothing, really. Just a showgirl. I’ve seen a lot of shows on Earth if you want help glittering up your outfit. Some sparkles on your
arms, and maybe a pretty mesh over your legs would really catch the eye during your performance.”
The girl’s eyes lit up, and Duo sidled over to Tasuki. They stood back, watching Catherine listen to Chichiri with a bright eager smile.
“What’s a prostitute?” Duo asked Tasuki quietly.
“You’re too young to know,” Tasuki grumbled, just as quietly. “Let’s just hope Chiri can get her to cover some of that skin, or Trowa’ll throw a fit and cancel the
“What kind of show is it?”
Tasuki shook his head, his expression still locked distastefully on Catherine’s outfit. “It’s like an Earthian circus, performing with exotic animals – the elephant
for one. You’d have to see it to really know what the shows are like. Michael’s been coming regularly since Chiri and I partnered, so you’ll probably get to go
to the Glamoura for the next one. I don’t usually take part in this stuff, but since Chiri’s staying on Eden for a while, they roped me into it. I do get to play with
fire, so it shouldn’t be all bad…”
Duo gave an uncertain nod, his eyes wide and doubtful. “Sounds fun.”
Catherine bounced over to Duo, her face flushed from whatever ideas Chichiri had given her. “Let me run and throw a cloak over this, and I’ll drive you to
your class. It doesn’t start for at least an hour, so you should be early enough to meet up with Trowa before the rest of the students get there.”
And run she did, so fast that all three of them turned away to keep from seeing her backside when her short skirt flared up behind her. Tasuki made mottled
gagging sounds, while Chichiri cleared his throat with a weak smile. Duo blushed.
“Bold, isn’t she?” Duo murmured.
“She likes attention,” Chichiri said kindly. “She’s at her best when an audience is watching her with bated breath. A born performer.”
“With no concept of modesty,” put in Tasuki. “You get her to fix that outfit, Chiri, or I’m showing it to Trowa. No way am I going on a stage with her wearing
something like that.”
Chichiri blinked in surprise. “I didn’t know you were a prude…”
“You’re calling me a prude?” asked Tasuki. “The guy who blushes if he has to take his shirt off?”
Duo smirked at the embarrassed flush that struck out on Chichiri’s face. Inside he sympathized, given his own penchant to blush in embarrassment any time
he had to show skin. The very idea brought Mira’s ‘examination’ to mind. His smirk turned into a pained and slightly fearful wince.
The girl was back in a matter of minutes, a long tan cloak billowing around her as she ran to meet them. She halted with a bright smile for Chichiri and waved
a jingling set of keys at Duo.
“I got my dad’s car,” said Catherine. “We better get going before he finds out!”
She latched onto Duo’s arm and drug him into a quick jog across the yard. He had a fleeting glimpse of Chichiri and Tasuki standing where they’d left them.
Then Catherine tugged him into an open garage and fairly shoved him at the car parked there. It was a bright cherry red sportscar, the sort that had been
modeled after an old Earthian vehicle – though it didn’t run on the same sort of propulsion and was made entirely of Eden materials rather than imported
Duo climbed in with a pained look for the girl’s seemingly rabid enthusiasm. She’d jumped right over the door and into the convertible, and if her gleaming grin
said anything, she couldn’t wait to get the thing roaring. Duo gave a fervent prayer that the evening wouldn’t find them upside down on the side of the road
somewhere. Then she gunned the engine and they shot out of the garage.
Once they were safely on the road, Catherine settled in her seat and glanced over at Duo’s stricken expression.
“I love this car,” she smiled. “Dad almost never lets me drive it, seems to think it’s too wild for a woman to handle. He’s a little naïve like that.”
“R-right,” Duo blurted.
He did his best not to let her see how tense he was. His experience in vehicles was limited to the single orphanage car – with its top speed of thirty miles per
hour – and that one limousine trip. Catherine had the needle buried at a triple digit number that made the wind howl past the windshield. It pulled Duo’s hair
so hard he was sure his tail was flailing straight out behind him over the back of the car.
“I’m really sorry Trowa went ahead without you,” Catherine continued. “I forgot he promised to get there early today. I didn’t think to ask him before I told Chiri
that you could ride over with him. But the class isn’t far. They’re holding it at the old Winner estate.”
“Winner?” asked Duo. “The same family that got the elephant for you?”
“Right,” Catherine smiled, looking at him in surprise. “They used to be the second most important family on Eden, before Raphael and Michael’s family
surpassed them. Since then, the Winners have merged with the Peacecraft family. A very good move for both. Since the Winner family has a history of lots
of female children, you can bet the Peacecrafts will be holding the top rank in Eden for a long, long time.”
Duo nodded, his mind caught on the family names. He’d heard of the Peacecraft family, the archangel line that had been heading Eden for as long as angels
had been visiting Earth. He wasn’t surprised to hear that the family would partner with a side family known for prolific childbirth. That was the typical reason
for such unions, after all. What surprised him was that the side family had kept its name.
Usually side families gave up the surname in favor of the main family. Duo could see that in the fact that Tasuki hadn’t given a last name, since his was a side
family, and Catherine had, hers being the main family. He supposed it was possible the Winner family kept their surname for the sake of history, since they
had been rather well respected before the merger.
Raphael and Michael were closer to equals. They’d both dropped their last names, to show that neither family was main or side – just one large family. But a
ruling family like the Peacecrafts probably wouldn’t drop their name, no matter who they merged with. So it was just as well that the Winner family not drop
“We were almost united, you know,” Catherine was saying. “Our family and the Winners, I mean. If they hadn’t united with the Peacecrafts, we would have
been part of the third family on Eden – possibly rivals to Raphael and Michael since we’d have a lot more children combined. Leave it to the Peacecrafts to
snap up every family they can. Would you believe they actually had the nerve to invite our family as a removed side? Not even an official side, just another
source of heads they can count as their own. My grandfather stopped that in its tracks. He said we’d sooner unite with the Yuy-Lowe family, than we’d stoop
to being cattle for the Peacecrafts.”
Duo turned confused eyes on her, not bothering to hide his disgruntled expression. “You mean your family could have been part of the Lowe family? Hou –
er…Chichiri...partnered with two people who could have been members of the same family?”
“Heard about him, did you?” Catherine sighed. “Yeah, it’s not surprising he’d look for a new partner in our family. But we weren’t going to unite with the
Lowes, it was the Yuys we were interested in. They’re the side family to the Lowes. They used to be an isolated military clan, before the Lowe family snapped
them up. Once that happened, we decided to just settle back and stick to ourselves. Big families like that are parasites. We’d sooner pick a clan than a
“A clan,” Duo repeated, his brows drawing close. “But…isn’t the point of a clan that they don’t stick with a single family? That they marry randomly without
“Right,” said Catherine. “But they do play favorites. We’ve had our eye on the Sanada clan for a while, and no matter what they claim about being self
contained, they tend to pick a family and trade wives. They just don’t bother to count heads or worry about status. That’s what makes them attractive.”
“So you can branch out without having to merge.”
Catherine beamed. “Exactly. But I’m not too worried about that, myself. I’m only nineteen. I won’t marry till I’m at least forty. No sense cutting my life in half
before I’ve had a chance to live it. So far the only man I’d have a baby for is Chiri, and he’s not required to marry.”
Duo’s face heated at the suggestion. He shook his head till his cheeks cooled enough for him to frown at the girl. “He mentioned that to me, that he didn’t
have a reason to marry. Can’t he have children?”
“Sure he can,” Catherine sniffed. “But Population Control doesn’t want him to. He’s Raphael’s son, so technically any children he had would be legitimate
heirs. But his blood father was still a Lucifer. Odin Lowe actually had the nerve to suggest blood descendants of Lucifers be sterilized. Of course, he knew it
wouldn’t get passed, between Michael’s say on standard laws, and our already low birthrates. He just proposed it to be spiteful. Did I mention how much I hate
“You didn’t,” said Duo, “but I can see why you would. He’d really go that far, just because his brother married someone under his station?”
“Odin Lowe is despicable. I don’t have any sympathy for Hiko, or Kouran, for that matter, but Hiko’s first child was supposed to inherit the family. Odin had
hopes to marry his younger brother to one of the Peacecrafts. Now the only chance he has left is Heero, and I really don’t see that happening. The
Peacecrafts approved of Hiko marrying into their family, it was all arranged and signed. I don’t think they’ll ever get over the insult of him breaking the
engagement like that, especially considering who he married.”
She sent Duo a taunting look, her lips curved in a taunting smirk. “I bet they’d sooner marry Relena off to Michael’s heir, than they would to Heero.”
Duo choked and broke into a quiet coughing fit. He leaned closer to the door of the car so he could send the girl a suspicious and guarded look. "You do
know who I am, don’t you…? I thought Tasuki or Chichiri would have told you.”
“What?” asked Catherine. “You mean your wings? Sure, I know. Everyone knows by now. Why should I care about that? So your wings aren’t white – Chiri’s
permanently blind in one eye, Tasuki’s on probation for letting his old partner get spotted three times on Earth during their first week there, and I was engaged
to a Sanada who turned Lucifer two months before we were supposed to be married. We’re all freaks, if you ask me. At least you have Michael’s status going
Duo stared at the girl, not sure which to comment on first. “You were engaged to a Sanada…? And he turned Lucifer? I thought they were a respected clan.
The way Tasuki talked about that Yukimura guy, I thought-“
“He wasn’t really a Sanada,” Catherine shrugged. “He was one of their wards, so his deflection didn’t hurt the clan’s status any. It wasn’t much of an
engagement, though. I never actually met him before he disappeared for Earth. I’m just saying half the people I know have something that makes them
outcasts. We just don’t let things like that get to us. People think my fiancé turned into a Lucifer to avoid marrying me? Fine. That just means I won’t be
pressured to start having children any time soon. Works out in my favor.”
“I…didn’t think of it like that,” said Duo.
Catherine beamed over at him. “You should look on the bright side more.”
With a nod for that advice, Duo let his gaze shift to the scenery.
He’d spotted a labor district a few minutes ago on Catherine’s side of the road. They’d been going so fast he hadn’t seen more than the stark wrought iron
gates of the turn-off. Now he looked over his shoulder to watch the forest on the right side of the road. He could almost pick out patches where workers had
harvested the trees. The floating factories hovering along the skyline were easier to see, with their hazy sheen of heat against the blue. There were probably
orchards past the woodlands, and a patchwork spread of farmland.
He hadn’t realized archangels separated themselves by labor districts. Now he imagined it was intentionally done to keep them from butting heads on a
regular basis. As much contention as there was over marital issues, he didn’t want to think how much petty squabbling would result from daily interaction. He
wondered idly if the military clans were also separated that way. From what little he’d read about them, they had weekly meetings between the heads. If they
were spread out as much as archangels were, that would be a lot of traveling.
Duo glanced back at Catherine and was startled to find her watching him with darting looks. She’d split her attention between the road and him.
“What is it?” asked Duo.
“I was just wondering what family Michael will marry you into,” Catherine admitted. “So far he and Raphael have set a standard of refusing all offers, picking
wives from lower class families. I’m curious what Michael has in mind since they don’t have any wards young enough to marry to you. Have you been tested
for fertility yet?”
Heat swamped over Duo’s face and for a split second he thought he’d swallow his tongue. He didn’t bother trying to speak. He shook his head violently, his
eyes very wide. She was so forward he didn’t know what to make of her.
Catherine turned back to the road with a worrisome scowl on her normally perky face. “That’s usually done at puberty. They probably don’t want you to breed
any more than they do Chiri, afraid you’ll pass on bad blood or some such nonsense. But they can’t outlaw it. As long as Michael’s in charge of passing or
cutting standard laws, they won’t get away with anything like that. It would take the elders to approve a new mandate.”
“I don’t think you can compare me with Chichiri,” Duo said slowly, looking away. “Whatever made my wings black is a genetic factor that probably will be
passed on to any children I had. And really, I’m not – that is…I never even thought about children. I’m only fi – sixteen.”
Sharp eyes flicked to him above a wry smile. “Fifteen or sixteen, with an archangel for a father, age doesn’t matter. Chichiri was only three years old when he
was engaged to Kouran – the same day Raphael took her as a ward. You may not get married for years, but assuming you’re fertile, it’s never too early to
think about your future children. If they don’t pass any laws preventing it, you’ll be held accountable to have at least one child – the same as any archangel.”
Duo jerked in his seat, his expression severe. “I am not an archangel, and I’m not going to be. Even if I did get enough support to stand for Michael’s side of
the family, I don’t want the position. I’d rather be sterilized.”
A loud ‘humph’ sounded over the wind as Catherine glowered. “You boys are so selfish, it’s ridiculous. You sound just like Chiri. It’s no wonder Raphael
takes his frustration out on Tasuki, having his heir just decide on a whim that he isn’t going to take his place. Us girls have to produce at least one child – as
far as I’m concerned it should be the same with men, too, archangel or not. Now, even the guys who should be forced to breed are finding ways out of it. Don’
t want to have children? Just don’t be an archangel. Must be nice to have such an easy way out.”
There was no arguing with the truth of her statement. Duo looked away, guilt creeping over his stubborn expression. It wasn’t fair that women were forced to
have children, while only a select few men had the same responsibility. But that didn’t mean he had to take on a role he was entirely unsuited for. He’d repay
Michael by doing his best at the academy. He didn’t owe the man anything more than that.
Two archangels were chosen to represent each of the prominent families on Eden. They were chosen by majority, not just lineage. Even if he’d been Michael’
s blood son, that didn’t necessarily mean he would take his place. As friendly as the two archangels were with him, he couldn’t imagine the extended family
seeing him in such a good light. And no one could be forced to take the archangel title. As long as Duo was set in his refusal, he was safe. Maybe it was
selfish, but he didn’t care.
Neither of them spoke after that. Catherine maintained her stubborn frown, and Duo kept his attention on the blurring road on his side of the car. He didn’t so
much as glance up until she slowed and turned to enter through wide silver gates. Like anywhere else on Eden, a person couldn’t see the home from the
road. The gates told what sort of area they were entering. One glance at the exotic curls and decorations of that delicate metal was enough to guess either
an archangel or a formerly prominent family resided on the property.
They drove down a narrow road shadowed by towering shade trees and framed with carefully maintained flower patches of pale blue and pink. Duo’s first
thought was that Michael probably hadn’t visited this place, or he’d likely have mimicked the style with his own drive. The forest parted after a while to give
way for an interesting yard that was covered with flowering ivy rather than grass, the road creeping off to the large garage on the left.
Directly ahead stood a large white manor every bit as extravagant as Michael’s home, complete with a shiny walkway from the parking garage to the front
steps. From the way the walk sparkled, Duo suspected it was made with some sort of quartz and marble mix. Gaudy and appropriate for the third most
prominent family on Eden – now part of the first. Duo was grateful that Michael’s home could be called reserved in comparison. He wouldn’t have wanted to
live in something so…prettified.
Catherine actually opened her car door when she got out, telling Duo that she did behave properly when occasion called for it. Either that, or she was still
stewing over that little conflict they’d had. He followed silently, his attention sweeping over the windows and balconies on the tall manor. It appeared that all of
the upper rooms had a landing from which an angel could take to the air. That made him wonder about Michael's home. He hadn't explored the place yet, but
he knew there were no balconies on the back side of the manor.
A huge man answered the door before Catherine could bruise her hand by knocking. He greeted her with a bow of his head and his eyes fell on Duo when he
looked up. Duo gulped and hoped his shock didn't show on his face. If he'd thought Mitsukake was large, this man was a giant. His shoulders were so broad
they nearly filled the doorway and his complexion was a russet gold, as if he'd gotten lost on a trip to the earth and had flown too close to the sun. His hair
was a blackish brown shade, jagged and thick, and he had facial hair, something unheard of even in the labor districts. Duo had seen pictures of Earthians
who looked more angelic than this man.
"Rashid will take you to Trowa," said Catherine, her clipped voice making it evident she was still smarting over their little argument. Her parting nod to the tall
angel filling the door was painstakingly polite. "Please give my regards to Quatre.”
“Of course,” said Rashid.
The man waited until Catherine had disappeared into the garage. Then he stepped back and gestured for Duo to enter. He led him across a soft tan hall that
was notably bare of statuary or pictures, a door opening to either side, and a single set of stairs arcing over the back of the room to separate the doors above
from the ones below. They climbed these, and Duo vaguely noted that Rashid walked just slowly enough so he didn’t have to trot to keep up with the man’s
considerably larger steps.
The brief hall above the stairs was also bare and empty. Duo wondered if this was what Catherine had meant when she said the class would be held at the
‘old’ Winner estate. If the family had moved to a different residence since merging with the Peacecrafts, they’d kept the old manor in a good state of repair.
There wasn’t a single hint of dust in the corners, nothing to suggest that the hall was rarely used.
Rashid paused before a door and rapped lightly on it in warning before opening it to announce Duo’s arrival. It was so formal, Duo suspected the servant was
impartial toward rank and circumstance. The man hadn’t shown any hint of surprise at his appearance, and no inherent curiosity considering he knew who he
was. His behavior was very different from the man who’d greeted Duo on his first visit to Michael’s home the day before. It reminded Duo how much he’d
changed in a single day.
He hadn’t even thought to be wary and suspicious of the servant he was left with. Being around Michael’s family, and Tasuki’s, had put Duo at ease to the
point where he almost forgot he was a pariah. So far, aside from Lowe and his foul mannered son, people were treating him as if he were just another angel.
And now that he thought about it, he wondered if he weren’t setting himself up for a rough time at the academy. If he dropped his defenses, he wouldn’t be
prepared for the treatment he knew he’d receive. He couldn’t allow himself to be lulled into believing everyone was as nice as the few he’d encountered so far.
The room was white and empty, with a pale ash floor that clipped when Duo stepped on it, telling him how hard the heels of his Earthian shoes were. A single
cabinet stood in the far corner, dark mahogany with glass doors that revealed a few musical instruments and rolls for notation. A few feet away, off in the
other corner of the room, the two occupants were seated at a round glass table with silver braces that curled on the edges and down to the floor. A large
double window gleamed behind them, giving a nice view of the sun shining through foliage across the back yard.
The smaller of the two boys was a young blonde with pale skin and wide turquoise eyes. His fluffy pale blonde hair was cut short and gleamed in the light from
the window, making him look every bit as angelic as Michael. Duo’s first thought was that this boy would be an archangel in a few more years, since radiant
blondes were getting more and more rare as time went on. He stood when Duo entered the room and crossed to greet him. His outfit was much more formal
than his smile, a strict cream blouse buttoned all the way up, and a straight tan vest that matched his loose slacks. In Duo’s mind, the boy looked prim and
proper, which made him all the more aware of his own outfit.
“Welcome, Duo,” the boy said, “I’m Quatre Winner. It’s a pleasure to meet Michael’s new heir. I’ve heard good things about you.”
Duo blinked dumbly as the boy gave his hand a firm shake. Two things flashed through his mind. First, Quatre pointedly addressed him as Michael’s heir, as
if that were the main reason a person would know of him. That meant he was probably going out of his way to avoid mentioning Duo’s other noteworthy
attribute, his wings. And second, he’d heard about him. He’s expected that much, for his name to get around to the students before he even met them. What
surprised him was Quatre’s claim that what he’d heard were good things.
“You have?” Duo blurted, immediately wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.
“The academy results are sent to the top ten percent,” explained Quatre, “so we can compare ourselves to the best and learn to emulate him. You have a
very interesting way of approaching theoretical situations. You don’t appear to expect the worst or the best. If there is any pattern, no one I know has been
able to identify it.”
The boy smiled again, and Duo gave him a weak smile that probably came out as more of a grimace. Again someone was picking at his lack of consistency,
though this time it seemed to be intended as a compliment. “Right...”
“And this is Trowa Barton,” said Quatre.
Although the second boy stood and acknowledged him, Duo was quick to note he didn’t offer his hand. He was a good foot taller than him or Quatre, but not
quite as slender. His hair was a tawny brown, short aside from a long sweep of bangs that fell diagonally over one side of his face, obscuring it from view so
only one calm dark green eye was visible. Like Duo, he was wearing a semblance of the purported academy uniform, dark gray double vests and Earthian
footwear. It wasn’t until he turned back to lift a scroll off the table that Duo noticed he was wearing dark brown gloves that covered his palms and ended just
past his knuckles. The gloves were visibly worn, and he thought they might even be made of leather. He’d never actually seen the material well enough to
say for certain.
Trowa cleared off the little table, replacing rolls in the cabinet along the wall. Duo awkwardly accepted Quatre’s invitation to sit while they waited for the
students to arrive, since the class wouldn’t be starting immediately. The blonde boy seemed very at ease, generous with his smiles, and not the least bit
bothered by who he was speaking with. Again, Duo was certain the boy would be an archangel. Even if he hadn’t looked the part, his manner was one that
would surely draw people to him, more than enough to gain the necessary votes from his family.
Like Catherine had done, Quatre volunteered his lineage, explaining the recent merger with the Peacecrafts, and some of the matches that hadn’t gone
through. Duo was quickly learning to expect this. Most angels identified themselves according to family, wives, and partners. It was a reminder of how much
he’d been cut off at birth, that Duo couldn’t say a word about his own family history. He hadn’t just missed out on having a place in Eden society, he’d lost his
own identity. Simple introductions were awkward when one side of the discussion remained absolutely silent. Duo did what he could to encourage Quatre to
share, while the blonde boy did his part by not drawing attention to the fact that he was doing all of the talking.
Quatre trailed off somewhat as he began discussing the class they were waiting for, and the academy. The blonde boy sent a furtive look at Trowa, and Duo
found himself paying more attention. He’d been surprised by how quiet Trowa was, considering Catherine was his sister. Judging by Tasuki and Mira, Trowa’s
side family was crowded with self-confident extroverts, and his sister was the same way. The green-eyed boy had yet to say a word, merely watching him and
Quatre, mostly Quatre.
“Trowa and I were partners when we were young,” Quatre was saying, with a wistful smile, “back when our families were considering a merger. We even took
our flight test together. Things have been a little disjointed since my family merged with the Peacecrafts instead. Since I moved onto the double estate, we
don’t have many opportunities to meet. Properly speaking, we’re no longer partners, but that’s due more to Peacecraft tradition than any true rift between our
“The Bartons no conflict with any family,” Trowa confirmed. If he noticed the way Duo blinked in surprise at having him participate, he didn’t show any sign of
it. “The Lowes are the exception. Now that Genrou has partnered with Raphael’s son, we’ve sided with him on that conflict.”
“As have we,” Quatre said quickly, as if he thought Duo might take offense. “The Winners have always sided with Michael’s family, in every conflict, not just
this one. Michael’s mother was a Winner, so I hope you’ll feel comfortable coming to me with any trouble you might have at the academy. Our houses may not
have merged, but I do consider you a cousin.”
The boy gave him a warm, hopeful smile. Duo couldn’t help but shoot a look at Trowa before responding. No one had said a word to him about Michael being
related to the Winner family. It was true that daughters were often married out without an official merger, but the idea of two members of such prominent
families joining without so much as a name claim was difficult to process. More troubling than that was the way Quatre was looking at him as if he’d found a
long lost brother. Duo didn’t know what sort of response was appropriate, so he gave a weak smile and dropped his eyes.
“Thank you,” said Duo. “I doubt we’ll see much of each other at the academy, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“How sweet,” a saccharine voice noted. “Even a pariah is besotted by his radiance. It’s no wonder Trowa keeps coming back, the way you flick on the charm
Duo jolted around to look behind him. He was frozen on being called a pariah, especially in such a sarcastic and insulting tone. But the comments clearly
were not aimed at him. If he hadn’t known no one would be stupid enough to insult a Winner, he’d have said the comments were aimed at Quatre.
“Dorothy,” Quatre greeted, with just a hint of disapproval in his voice. “This is still my room. I would appreciate it if you’d knock before entering.”
The girl who’d spoken was a striking blonde, her flaxen hair falling straight down past her waist, all but a few strands held out of her face by a black
headband. She was wearing a black double vest, similar to Duo’s and Trowa’s, and a bold red skirt that billowed around her calves. Strange black shoes
adorned her feet, shiny and balanced on very thin, almost stem-like heels. Duo couldn’t remember ever having seen the like.
“If I did knock,” the blonde girl smirked, advancing on them with a provocative twitch to her step, “I’d never be able to catch you and your former partner doing
something inappropriate enough to claim foul. I warned you, dear Quatre, that if you’re unwilling to break with tradition, I’ll be forced to do it myself. You know
a girl can’t break without claiming foul, so you have no one to blame but yourself for forcing me to it.”
Duo whipped back around to send a wide-eyed look at Quatre. He didn’t understand what was between him and the girl, but he knew what it meant to cry ‘foul’
on someone. It was the same as ‘adultery’ on Earth, where one partner betrayed the other with a third party. Like rape and murder, adultery was a foul,
punishable by castration, banishment, or death. It was also the only way a marriage could be broken, not counting replacements for sterile partners. He’d
never heard of checker partners needing to go to such extremes in order to break from one another.
Quatre sighed at Duo and shook his head, his expression resigned and unhappy. “Duo, this is Dorothy Catalonia, sixth side family to the Peacecrafts, four
generations removed. She’s also my unwilling partner.”
“Unwilling and unwanted,” Dorothy scoffed. “Neither of us want to be partners. Quatre would much rather stay partnered with Trowa, and I would rather quit
the academy than be partnered with a boy, especially one so disgustingly sweet I’d have to protect him, instead of the other way around.”
“It’s Peacecraft tradition,” said Trowa, who’d noticed the confused looks Duo was flashing at the three of them. “Other families partner children according to
sex and convenience. The Peacecrafts partner according to status and marriage potential.”
Now that was something Duo understood. He couldn’t help but send Quatre a commiserating look. “You’re engaged…?”
“Don’t even suggest it!” Dorothy grimaced. For a moment she lost that playful, almost cruel smirk. Across the table, Quatre was wincing as well, equally
disturbed by the very idea.
“No,” said Quatre. “It’s a potential match because we share no blood and are compatible according to Peacecraft standards, namely appearance and
“And status,” Dorothy added, now scowling at Duo. “But he’s going to be an archangel by the time he graduates from the academy. We might be compatible
now, but I’d never be married off to an archangel. So the partnership doesn’t even fit with tradition. Only, we can’t argue that until he’s actually named an
archangel. Unless he breaks from me, I’ll be tied with a partner I can only keep for two years. It’s ridiculous.”
Duo ventured a wary look at the fuming girl. “And you can’t do anything about it?”
“He can,” said Dorothy, with a glare at Quatre. “A woman can’t protest without claiming a foul.”
Quatre sighed again, wilting a little in his chair. His expression was one of resigned pain and helpless guilt. “I can’t, either. My father supports the
partnership. There’s nothing I can do.”
Dorothy waved a mocking hand and leaned against the table, her sights falling to Duo. “So we’re stuck with each other, all because he’s afraid to go against
his father. If he ever grew a backbone, we’d probably have anarchy on Eden. It’s really not fair at all. It took me years to get used to having the princess as
my partner. Now I’m supposed to just switch, all because his old partner is too poor for him?”
“Dorothy!” Quatre gasped, anger sharpening his eyes.
The girl winced, her expression fading into simple and honest unhappiness. She flashed a sullen look at Trowa. “Nothing personal.”
“I know,” Trowa said back, not the least bit insulted by the truth.
Duo shook his head slowly, looking at the three unhappy teens. He’d known there were problems in every family, even the prominent ones, but he hadn’t
expected to see it firsthand. It was funny for him to feel sorry for a boy who’d one day be an archangel at the head of the most powerful family on Eden. But
he did feel sorry for him. Duo might have been a non-person since birth, but at least he’d never been forced to partner with someone, just to maintain
appearances. The worst thing he had to worry about was not finding a partner. And seeing how unhappy Dorothy and Quatre were, he suspected having no
partner was better than being tied to one he didn’t want.
A tap on the door warned of the servant’s return. Rashid opened the door and gave a pointed nod before disappearing again. Quatre was on his feet almost
immediately. He gave a relieved smile and waved for them to head out of the room.
“The first students are arriving,” he explained to Duo. “I don’t expect many to come, so it shouldn’t be long now. Our instructor is an actual Hunter, five years
of experience tracking Lucifers, on top of his checker time. The academy was hoping to get him as a real instructor for some of the courses, but he isn’t on
Eden long enough for that. The meetings will be random this year, but I’m sure we’ll learn more than we could in the official classes alone.”
Duo nodded with wide eyes. He’d never seen so much as a picture of a hunter. They were supposed to blend in with ordinary checkers, enabling them to find
Lucifers without being identified. To meet one in person was…about as amazing as a laborer meeting an archangel. Duo’s face dropped, a weak smile
curving his lips. Considering who his new ‘father’ was, he couldn’t be amazed anymore. Hopefully he’d remember that when he met this man, and not make
an embarrassment of himself.
Quatre led them down the hall and into a wide white room that was cleared so nothing but a circle of mats lay on the pale floor, space open in the middle of
them. Dorothy trailed back by Duo, her eyes bright and devious. She flashed him a smile that left him staring in more than a little confusion. He didn’t
remember becoming friends with her, but that was how she was looking at him.
“He’s not just a hunter,” she murmured to him, quiet enough that the other two wouldn’t hear. “He’s also the most delicious Peacecraft Eden has ever seen. If
he hadn’t been the best hunter on record, he would have been named archangel years ago. And he’s single. There are so many women volunteering to
have children for him, that he could double Eden’s population in a single year…”
Duo stared at the girl’s almost evil grin, which really brought attention to her unusual black eyebrows – they had an insect-like split to them that really made
her look less angelic than she would have otherwise. Combined with that smile, Duo couldn’t tell if she were enamored with the hunter, or mocking him and his
admirers. She passed him and went to sit on the thin mat to the right of Quatre, who had chosen to sit to the side, where they’d have a view of both the back
of the room – where the instructor would sit – and the doorway.
Duo was surprised to see Trowa waving him to sit between him and Quatre, but considering the issues of present and past partner, he thought it was a way to
avoid problems. He wasn’t about to argue against having an ally beside him when he met more of his future classmates. If they were as difficult to read as
Dorothy, he wouldn’t be able to immediately tell who was going to make his life miserable, and who might actually accept him. He hoped Quatre would be able
and willing to advise him on the students who attended this class.
The first people to enter were more familiar than Duo would have liked. He immediately reminded himself to gripe at Tasuki later, for getting his hopes up.
Whether Yukimura had already learned to use his life force or not, he and Sasuke were the first to join them in the circle. Duo was faintly surprised that the
teen didn’t speak to him as he moved to stand behind one of the mats, near the back of the room. He’d expected some joking comment about his failed flight,
something that would humiliate him in front of Quatre, and give fodder to Dorothy, who he suspected was the sort to prod at a person’s weak spots. Yukimura
blinked when he saw him, and gave a somewhat friendly nod to Quatre, but he remained silent.
Sasuke sat down on the mat and proceeded to stare at him. For a brief moment, Duo wasn’t sure if the boy’s gaze was hostile or acknowledging. Then those
golden eyes dipped a bit, and Duo realized what he was looking at. Duo blushed and shifted in embarrassment. He’d sat on his hair without even noticing. By
the time he’d brushed the tail out from under him, the silver-haired boy was watching the door again. Yukimura stepped back and sat down against the wall,
directly behind his partner. He flashed a sly smile at Duo, but didn’t speak.
Quatre broke the silence, instantly gaining Duo’s gratitude by asking the question he’d been wondering himself. “Will you be providing a demonstration?”
Yukimura’s smile widened. “Just support. It would be too dangerous for me to go against a hunter here. In such a small room, the bystanders would likely be
“He’s just watching,” said Sasuke, in a slightly threatening tone that was aimed more at Yukimura, than Quatre.
“Ah,” Yukimura gasped dramatically. “My apologies, Quatre, but I’m not supposed to speak. I’m merely a silent observer.”
He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms over one knee. His amused eyes flickered over the four of them before coming to rest on the boy seated
in front of him. As if he could feel that gaze, Sasuke’s eyebrow twitched. Neither of them spoke again as they waited.
“Do you know them?” Quatre whispered softly to Duo.
“We’ve met,” Duo said with reluctance.
Duo was startled by the girl who entered next, because she went from wearing a haughty expression, to a warm smile, which she flashed at Dorothy. She was
young, of medium height, and dressed in a conservative magenta skirt, with pale silver and white vests. Her Earthian shoes were similar to Dorothy’s, but the
heels were thicker and not nearly as high. She had sandy blonde hair falling straight to the middle of her back, two small braids curving away from her
temples, and neat bangs dipping toward sky blue eyes.
She stepped into the circle to have a word with Dorothy and Duo found himself distracted by the person who’d followed her into the room. His first thought was
a petty little sniff that Heero didn’t clean up nearly as well as he did. The boy still looked like his hair had never met a brush, and he hadn’t bothered to
change at all, merely having taken off the dark jacket. Duo noticed, in a reluctant, begrudging way, that Heero’s arms weren’t nearly as thin as he’d expected.
He did his best not to stare at those lithe muscles. Instead, he focused on the boy’s face and waited for whatever insulting comment would come out of the boy’
Heero walked right past, his gaze barely shifting over them. Duo didn’t know whether to wilt in relief or bristle at being ignored. Then the boy jerked to a halt
and looked back over his shoulder, staring with wide, startled eyes. Duo almost grinned in surprise. Had Heero really not recognized him? Sure, his outfit
was…considerably ‘louder’ than what he’d worn for the flight test, and his hair was a lot more noticeable when down, the loose tail still curled beside him,
where he’d brushed it out from under him earlier. But his face was the same, and he really doubted there were that many angels with violet eyes.
The girl turned when she noticed Heero’s distraction, her curious gaze moving to Duo as well. Duo noticed this peripherally, but wasn’t willing to break the
strange staring match Heero had instigated. That startled expression had shifted into vague confusion that made him appear disturbed and thrown.
Whatever it was, Duo preferred that look to the cold, almost mechanical stares he’d gotten from the boy earlier that day. He only wished he knew what had
bothered his rival so much – his change in appearance, or the fact that he was there in the same class.
“Who is this?” the girl asked, with a terse frown.
Dorothy smirked. “He’s the black one, Michael’s new ward. His name is Duo.”
Duo flinched, more from the new girl’s gasp than from Dorothy’s reference to him. The girl’s face had gone pale beneath her flushed cheeks, horror and what
might have been outrage glinting off the white of her eyes. She snatched Heero’s wrist and pulled him away and toward the mats on the other side of
Dorothy. Duo didn’t need to hear the words she hissed into Heero’s ear to know they were unpleasant. He dropped his eyes and marveled at himself.
The girl’s reaction had caught him off guard. As long as he’d had to deal with disgust and hate and fear, he should have been grateful that she didn’t shout
those words to the entire room, instead of whispering them to her friend. He knew he’d been dropping his guard more and more, the longer he spent around
people who accepted him. He just hadn’t expected to feel so…hurt…by a single encounter. If being rejected by a stranger bothered him that much, how was
he going to get through a single day at the academy?
A tentative hand brushed his right shoulder. Duo jerked away, his eyes wary until he remembered it was just Quatre sitting beside him. The blonde boy was
giving him a very dark look, almost as if he were furious or so unhappy he was beyond caring. It just didn’t fit with the bright, easy smiles Duo had seen on him
“I apologize for her,” Quatre said quietly, his tone clipped and almost emotionless. “She’s Relena Peacecraft, and she lacks a reasonable counsel. As the
only daughter, all the information she receives is filtered a dozen times over before it reaches her. I realize that’s no excuse, but I don’t want you to hold her
views against the Peacecraft family, and my family by association. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and your family.”
Duo shook his head slowly, still taken back by how much that expression disturbed him. He almost felt as if he were the one who should apologize to Quatre,
as if he’d crossed some political line and endangered a truce. It was the tone, how carefully chosen and formal the words were. He felt as if he were a breath
away from losing a friend, but more than that. His instinct was telling him that he’d stumbled into something much bigger than a personal insult, and that it all
went back to the family lines. This was a pressure he could have done without.
“I wouldn’t hold something another person did against you,” said Duo.
He thought he should have added that he wouldn’t hold an entire family guilty for something one person did. He would have added that, but it was a lie
because he’d already condemned the entire Lowe family over the actions of a few members. Now that he realized what he’d unconsciously done, he made up
his mind to stop. It wouldn’t be easy with so many people telling him how bad the family was. Seeing how worried Quatre was at the thought of being held
accountable for Relena helped strengthen Duo’s resolve. He wouldn’t want to be blamed for something a member of Raphael’s family did, so he’d be a
hypocrite if he were to do the same to someone else.
“Really,” Duo said, with a sober nod. “You’ve been nothing but courteous to me.”
Dorothy leaned back so she could whisper around Quatre. “He was aiming for friendly. He just gets all stiff when he has to be the proper Winner heir.”
That strained expression broke from the blonde boy’s face, and Duo found himself giving Dorothy a confused look. She’d appeared to be close friends with
Relena, so why was she smirking at him like they were the friends? He just couldn’t get rid of his instinctive distrust. He didn’t know what to make of her.
Quatre gave him a faint smile and dropped his eyes. Duo did the same.
A strange thought came into his mind as he waited for the rest of the class. He was recalling something Cathy had mentioned during his ride over. If Relena
was the only daughter, she was the one who’d been engaged to Chichiri’s partner. That explained why ;she’d entered with Heero, if Odin planned to marry his
son to her instead. From the way she’d latched onto the boy, she probably didn’t mind the switch. But Cathy had said the Peacecrafts were against the match
– unwilling to forgive the insult of the first broken engagement. She’d said they were more apt to marry the girl to-
Duo choked, his stomach clenching in a nauseating knot.
Was that why Quatre had been so worried that he would turn against the Peacecraft family? Because they were planning a future match with Michael’s
house? Even knowing who Michael had adopted as his heir, they still supported it?
Even if Duo refused to consider being an archangel, Michael could put pressure on him if he were in favor of a marriage between the families. And Michael’s
mother had been a Winner. If Duo were to marry a Peacecraft, it would elevate both houses.
But that was completely ignoring the fact that he was a mutant, who’d almost certainly pass that on to any children he had. And the girl despised him – just as
much as he hated her for hitting him when he hadn’t been prepared for the emotional blow. The very idea was disgusting and quite ridiculous. Quatre had
probably only been concerned because Michael shared blood with his family, and the two remained close allies. Duo was more than happy to leave it at that
and wipe all thoughts of anything else out of his mind.
A lone boy entered the room. Duo, who was eager for a vivid distraction, centered his attention on him. He was about the same height as him, with black hair
pulled tightly behind his head and held in a small tail at the nape of his neck. He was dressed in a loose version of the vested uniform, white and cream with
red markings on the outer vest. What caught Duo’s eye the most was the sword slung on the boy’s hip, the sheath even wider than the one Yukimura had.
The boy crossed to sit beside Sasuke, with a nod of acknowledgment to Yukimura.
“Wufei Chang,” Quatre whispered, having noticed Duo’s interest. “They and the Sanada’s are both border clans. I’ve heard Wufei aims to be a hunter or a
border guard. You can usually tell because they’re the only ones who don’t have partners.”
Duo refrained from commenting on that. He didn’t have a partner, either, but that didn’t automatically mean he wanted to be a hunter or a guard. He simply
refused to believe anyone would trust him to hunt down Lucifers, let alone to guard Eden from them. As far as most people were concerned, he’d been born a
Lucifer and it was just a matter of time before he showed himself as such. While it would have been nice to aim for a position that didn’t require a partner, Duo
was more realistic than that.
“I think that’s everyone,” Quatre was saying. “There should be more students once the academy starts.”
A tall man entered last, shut the door behind him, and crossed to stand near the back wall. Duo knew this had to be the hunter Dorothy had gone on about.
He was simply beautiful, but in a powerful way. His hair was striking, jagged white bangs dipping down into his pale blue eyes and framing his face, the rest
falling straight down to his waist. He was wearing a long black coat that fell loose from his waist, accentuating his lithe figure and his tall black boots.
Everything about him, from his unaffected grace to his steely gaze, screamed hunter. He was just the sort of figure children idolized and joined the academy
Duo was surprised when the man spoke, introducing himself simply as Zechs. He’d expected the man to have a booming voice, the sort that would echo off
the walls and demand their attention, as if they weren’t already watching him. Instead, he spoke in a soft voice that might have been lost in a room of
whispering teens. None of them were whispering. If any of them had been, Duo was sure they’d have gone quiet in order to hear him.
“Today, you are to tap your life force. Do not attempt to use it. You are going to bring it out in an active manner so you can determine the inherent power you
have at your disposal. Once you have become familiar with your limits, you will be able to draw from that energy without endangering yourselves.”
Across the circle from Duo, Wufei and Sasuke nodded and bowed their heads as if in some form of meditation. Duo shot a look of disbelief at the hunter. Did
he just expect them to just know what to do? If he knew how to use his energy, he wouldn't need the class.
The white-haired man stepped into the circle to look over the rest of them. Duo flushed a little when those pale blue eyes paused on him. He couldn't tell if
the hunter looked at him longer than he had Trowa, but it felt as if he were being put on the spot. He had no idea what he was supposed to be doing and he
was too embarrassed to ask. Then those eyes shifted on to Quatre and the other three on their side of the room.
"Take up a comfortable position and relax," said Zechs, taking a stance in the center of the circle again. "Close your eyes and listen to your body until you
can hear the heartbeats. Find the energy that allows your heart to beat, the force that keeps it beating, even after your mind has exhausted itself. Once
you've touched it, you'll be able to draw it forward on instinct."
Duo shifted his folded legs and ducked his head, relief sagging his shoulders as much as his attempt to relax. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to listen
for the sound of his heartbeat when he was supposed to be relaxing. It sounded like meditation. He thought the point of meditation was not to concentrate on
anything. As soon as he started listening to his breaths, he found himself breathing slower and deeper, unable to observe without changing the very thing he
was focused on. He could feel his heart beating but it was far too quiet to hear over his own breaths. His imagination helped add a sound to match the
rhythm, but he suspected that wasn't quite what the hunter meant by listening.
A quiet murmur caught his attention, coming from his left. He recognized Zechs' voice, though he couldn't make out what the man was whispering to Trowa.
Although he kept his eyes closed the distraction was too close to block out. He closed his eyes tighter and gave the best lecture he could to that silent
heartbeat of his. If he couldn't even hear that without pretending, there was no way he'd be able to find his latent power, let alone tap into it and draw it out.
He heard a wisping step, just enough warning to keep his eyes from flashing open when a light pressure touched his bowed head.
"You're trying too hard," was the murmured advice.
Duo's brows drew into a bitter frown and he felt his face heat with embarrassment. Of course he was trying too hard. Nothing happened when he didn't try at
all. Maybe he didn't even have the same life force normal angels had. He had absolutely no way of knowing.
"Stop," said Zechs, crouched close enough that only Duo would hear him. "If you use it like that, without understanding what you've tapped, you'll hurt
someone. Relax. Now close your hands. Softly or you'll provoke it. Don't think about what you're trying to do. Just hold it. When you can feel what you're
holding, open your eyes."
That weight lifted off his head as the man stepped to Quatre. Duo didn't try to listen to whatever advice he murmured to the other boy. The moment he'd
curled his fingers closed, he'd felt...something. His palms tingled warm and fluid and he thought his heart might have skipped a beat. He still had a strong
urge to clench his fists. He could imagine that, squeezing the sensation until it flowed through his arms and struck a flash in his mind, like pure adrenaline. It
reminded him of the terror he'd felt when he found himself in free-fall for the first time, except he wasn't afraid so much as...wary, maybe. He felt as if he could
do anything and he wanted to test that, right now. He was wary of his own enthusiasm.
He didn't know how much time had passed before he opened his eyes. He was afraid that sensation would disappear if he dared to look at his curled hands.
And he thought it had disappeared. There was no light, no visible proof that he was doing anything but sitting quietly with his hands palm-up on his knees.
But he could still feel the pressure in his hands as if he were holding water.
Once everyone had tapped their energy, Zechs stepped out of the circle and stood back near the door. "Now that you know what you're using, you should be
able to tap your life force any time you need to. The key is not to use any more than you have to. To find out your limits, provoke your energy as I warned
you not to. This is different for everyone. I'll take you one at a time so no one pushes too far."
Duo fidgeted as he waited for the hunter to get to him. He couldn't see what the others were doing - Wufei and Sasuke had barely glanced up before Zechs
nodded and sent them to stand back against the wall. There was no visible sign of the energy, no way to tell if one person's limit were higher than another's.
Duo watched carefully when it was Trowa's turn. He thought he might have felt a vibration in the air, glimpsed a slight wave to the boy's long bangs. That was
all. It made him wonder how Zechs knew a person had reached his limit and wasn't just tapping enough power for it to be noticeable.
Those pale blue eyes landed on him, and Duo grinned. He didn't mean to. He was simply too impatient to school his expression. He closed his hands tight
and waited for the rush he'd imagined. That tingle ignited in a vibrant burning sensation, not flowing up his arms as he'd expected, but through every part of
him. This time he heard his heart skip a beat, echo, and then pound in his ears at a rate that made him feel as if he were hyperventilating. There was no
flash behind his eyes, but the room tinted faintly gold, turning Zechs' hair the same color as Relena's. Duo blinked and the sensations faded out to leave him
feeling heady and tired.
Zechs nodded and Duo pushed to his feet so he could join Trowa near the wall. He was glad to see that his legs didn't shake. He really felt as if he'd been
running for hours. And yet...he didn't feel as if that were everything. He still had that confidence that he could do anything, certainly much more than just
that. He kept this to himself and leaned against the wall where he could watch the others. Quatre wasn't long in joining them, which told him his own 'test'
hadn't lasted nearly as long as it has seemed in his mind.
Dorothy was grinning when she joined them. She crossed over to lean next to Duo, between him and Trowa. She didn't seem the least bit interested in
watching Relena's test.
"Didn't I tell you Zechs was delicious?" Dorothy whispered, her dark eyes glinting deviously. "He gets his looks from his father. His mother was pretty, but you
can see from Relena that it's just not the same as that white hair. Only Peacecraft sons have hair like that."
Duo stiffened and shot a look at Zechs, who was still standing in front of Relena. "They're brother and sister? Then he's-"
"The heir," Dorothy nodded. "But Zechs is his hunter name. He hasn't gone by his real name since he graduated from the academy. Ah, there goes Relena.
She's really afraid of you. A lot of people think it might be contagious and don’t want you so close to the rest of us. The activists really do have a reasonable
pitch, not knowing the cause or nature of the mutation. Not that they have nearly enough clout to get past Michael. Relena just has a weak spot for lost
causes. I can't wait till she sees your wings. She’ll probably have a petition going around the first week to get you thrown out of the academy. It should be
interesting to see who doesn’t sign it. With Quatre on your side, it’ll be like some Earthian civil war. He has as many supporters as Relena does."
She was smirking at him again, as if it were some joke between the two of them. Duo snapped his gaping mouth closed and looked away. The more she
smiled, the less comfortable he felt around her. He simply couldn't tell if she were being spiteful or playful. From how openly she derived amusement at his
expense, he wanted to pass her off as an enemy. She was far too excited at the thought of chaos erupting in the academy, with him in the center of it.
He forced his attention back to Zechs and blinked in surprise. The hunter was glaring down at Heero, his demeanor very different from the calm, almost gentle
way he'd approached the class.
"If you're not going to take this seriously," Zechs was saying, "you need not come back."
Heero didn't respond. Duo found himself startled by the open hostility on the boy's face. He was staring up at Zechs with narrow eyes, his mouth closed in a
tight frown. Dorothy eased closer to Duo's side, more than happy to fill him in.
"Zechs doesn't care for the way Relena dotes on Heero," she whispered. "But with Yukimura here, this should be good."
Duo raised an eyebrow, glancing from the smirking girl over to where Yukimura was still seated against the wall. Other than a slightly amused smile, the black-
haired teen didn't look overly interested in the scene.
"I refuse to believe that’s the extent of your power," said Zechs.
Heero eased back so he could rise to his feet. There was a significant height difference, but he didn't look the least bit intimidated. When he spoke, it was
with a cold, dangerous tone.
"Are you challenging me?" asked Heero.
"Heero..." Relena sighed.
Duo glanced over to find the girl staring at the two angels with sparkling eyes, her hands clutched over her chest as if they were about to fight for her honor.
His eyebrow twitched and he leaned away, instinctively putting more distance between them. Having Quatre between him and her wasn't nearly enough. Part
of his distaste stemmed from resentment at the way she'd reacted to him earlier. The rest was a cynical little voice that told him she was the melodramatic
type. He could only hope she didn't sigh like that very often.
Zechs stepped back and glanced at the teens watching from the walls. His expression shifted into a sly smile that rivaled Dorothy's. "Excellent suggestion,
Heero. Since you don't care to take part in the exercise, you can participate in a demonstration."
He gave a warning look at the others. "You are not to attempt this without supervision. As you should know, life-force can be used in both offensive and
defensive ways. Few of you will have need to use it as such. However," he turned to nod at the three clan members on the other side of the room, "when
combined with a weapon, your energy may allow you to overcome a more skilled adversary. Sanada?"
Yukimura raised an eyebrow. His smile eased into a flirtatious smirk as he ran a hand over the hilt of his sword. "Mine? Zechs...you should know better. No
one touches my sword."
Sasuke snorted and reached a hand over his back. The narrow straight sword he drew was nearly as tall as he was. He tossed it to Heero with a wry warning
not to lose too quickly. Wufei sent the boy a resentful scowl and slowly drew his own blade, which was considerably wider and curved in the middle till it
reached a tiny point at the end.
"Don't let Sasuke's muramasa scratch the blade," Wufei warned Zechs. "If there's so much as a chip, you replace the sword."
Duo blinked in surprise at the boy's disrespectful tone. Dorothy appeared to be smothering a laugh behind her hand, so he didn't bother asking if the clans
really had so little fear of a hunter, particularly a hunter who just happened to be the Peacecraft heir. He didn't know how skilled Heero was with a sword, but
he was sure a hunter would be at least as strong as the military clan members. Wufei's skepticism was a blatant insult. Zechs didn't appear bothered by it,
though. He turned to send one more look over the teens.
"In this aspect, you don't just to provoke your energy. You harness it." He turned dark eyes on Heero and lifted the sword so it was arched diagonally in front
of him. "When you're ready.”
It was fairly obvious to Duo that this was not a demonstration. He remembered what Chichiri had said about Heero not being the sort to worry about
competition. That didn’t fit with the way the boy was staring at Zechs, as if they were natural rivals. If they hadn’t been fighting over a girl, one Duo really didn’
t care for, he might have been more excited by the idea of these two facing off. He knew Heero was taking lessons in combat from the Sanada clan, which was
renowned for its skill with weaponry. Zechs, on the other hand, was a genuine hunter, not to mention heir to the most powerful family on Eden.
Heero moved suddenly. A ripple flowed from where the swords clashed, the sparks making it visible seconds before it could be felt by the students watching.
Duo’s attention heightened. He could almost imagine what their energies looked like, a simmering shroud of light that let off wisps as they moved. Suddenly
he wanted to be out there, using his own energy like that. He wondered if Michael would approve of him taking lessons from the Sanada clan as well. If he
gave the idea as a way to ‘best’ Heero, he thought the archangel would be quick to agree. And he thought he’d have a good chance of catching up to Heero if
he started soon. He could tell from watching the two angels that the younger boy was clearly outmatched. He didn’t know if it was a lack of skill, or a
difference in their powers, but Heero was definitely having trouble holding on to his sword.
A twisting blow sent the longer sword spinning free. Heero ducked back and crouched a few feet away, his thick bangs waving over his eyes as his energy
shifted from offensive to defensive. Zechs straightened with a cool stare. To the side of them, Sasuke caught his sword before it could dig itself into the floor.
His glare was even darker than Heero’s.
“Two weeks of training and you can’t last two minutes,” Sasuke spat at Heero. “You shame the Sanada clan.”
Heero’s glare darkened and Zechs relaxed his stance. Yukimura waved the comment off with a careless smile.
“It can’t be helped that a sword isn’t Heero’s weapon of choice,” said Yukimura. “Besides, it’s much easier to deflect a straight sword than it is a curved one.”
“Don’t make excuses,” Wufei sniffed. “Heero knows he had the superior blade and lost regardless of that.”
Zechs returned his borrowed sword and nodded once at Heero. “That really was your limit. I thought you would be the strongest in this field and so suspected
you of holding back. I concede my mistake in overestimating you.”
Heero’s low growl sent a shiver down Duo’s arms. He had a wild idea that the boy was seconds away from attacking the hunter with his bare hands, or rather,
with his life force alone. And just as he’d been confident that there was more to his own power than he’d tapped earlier, he knew this defeat was premature. It
was in those eyes. He could see it burning there, an icy blue sheen ghosting over the dark depths. He wondered what it would be like to have that directed at
him, and how Zechs could be so blind to the danger facing him. Then those eyes closed and Duo leaned back with a shaky breath.
He didn’t care why he was supposed to view the boy as a rival. Now he wanted to for his own reasons. He wanted to know if he really had as much potential
as he thought he did. He’d never been filled with so much self-confidence and motivation, and he liked the feeling. Even if he lost in a confrontation, that
would just drive him to push harder.
Duo wasn’t aware of the gleam in his eyes, or the almost predatory way he was watching Heero. If he had, he might have paid more attention to the sharp,
startled look Zechs sent him. He’d decided. He was absolutely going to make Heero acknowledge him a rival. It was only a question of how.