Past Encounters
Part Six: The Tournament (cont)

Duo finished feeding sugar cubes to the horses, then noticed his two hanging their heads over the fence, staring at him with mournful liquid brown eyes. Duo rolled his own cobalt blue ones, and fed them a sugar cube each, too.

"It looks like they have a way with you, too."

Duo walked over to the Arabian and his companion. The man he had never seen before looked at him out of one cool green eye, the other hidden by ridiculously long bangs.

Duo flipped his own long braid out of the way as he sat beside Raberba on the fence. Who was he to complain about over-long hair?

"So, who's your friend?"

"Duke Maxwell, this is Barton. Barton, Duke Maxwell."

Duo leaned over the Arabian to shake hands with Barton. "Pleased to meet you," the man said.

Was it just him or did Barton have a trace of a French accent. "You French?" Duo asked.

Barton blinked. "Yes, I am. Very observant of you."

Duo shrugged. "You have a bit of an accent."

"Why are you not at the tournament, Duke Maxwell?" Raberba asked.

"Please, just Maxwell. And I was at the tournament. I was competing."

"Did you win?"

"Yes."

"Congratulations."

Duo shrugged. "There's tomorrow yet to go through, and the rest of the week. I don't think I'll lose, but you never know."

A bright blue eye peered at him from behind a curtain of gold bangs. "Why do you not think you'll lose?"

Duo smiled. "More than anything, because of them," he said, pointing to where Death and Hell were now chomping on grass. "I'll be riding Death, and he never lets me down. There's no way I'd come out of the saddle when I'm riding him. Hell I'm not sure about, which is why I'm not gonna ride him just yet."

"Unusual names for horses," Raberba commented. "Death and Hell. Very pessimistic."

Duo grinned. "It suits me, man."

"Ah. A fan of Shinigami?"

"Of who?"

"The Japanese God of Death."

Duo stared at the blond man, more interested now. "You know Japanese?"

"Yes."

"Then could you help me with something? I've been trying to find out what a couple of words mean, since I had a friend who threw little bits of Japanese into conversation all the time and wouldn't tell me what they meant."

"Of course. Fire away."

"What does 'baka' mean?"

Raberba snorted, then covered his mouth with his hand, looking embarrassed. "Your friend called you that?"

"Yes. What does it mean?"

"It means 'idiot'."

"Hm. Then what does 'aishiteiru' mean?"

It was Raberba's turn to stare at him, blue eyes getting bigger and bigger until they looked like they were taking over his head. "Let me ask you something first," he squeaked at last. "Is your friend male or female?"

"Why?"

"Because 'aishiteiru' means 'I love you'."

"It does?"

Raberba nodded.

Duo frowned, thinking. So that was what Heero had said! And no wonder he hadn't wanted to tell me what 'baka' meant, coz when he talked to me he usually called me baka...

Duo started grinning. He couldn't help it. Heero loved him. He had said 'I love you' (albeit in a way that meant he copped out of saying it and knowing Duo understood). But that wasn't the point.

He said he loved me!

But that was two years ago.

Duo's grin faltered. Even if Heero was still alive, which after two years without Duo finding any trace of him now seemed a little unlikely, there was no guarantee that he would still feel the same. None at all.

"Thanks, Raberba," Duo said mechanically, then hopped off the fence and wandered back towards the palace, deep in thought.

+

Quatre blinked at the retreating noble's back. "Well that was odd," he said.

"Was he the one you said felt confused to you?" Trowa asked.

"Yes. It was him who was the first I sensed was confused, and then there was another... He was even worse than Maxwell. As thought torn between two lives..." Quatre trailed off with a sigh.

"Shall we watch the tournament tomorrow?"

"What? Oh, um, okay then."

+

Heero scowled through his visor at his opponent. This was just too easy! Three opponents, excepting this one, in the past two days, two of them that day, and on the first run all were out of the saddle. This one was proving a little more difficult; Heero's lance had shattered on the first run.

Galloping Zero down the aisle, Heero leveled his lance, braced himself for the impact, and hit dead on target. His opponent went flying. Ignoring the slight numbness in his shield hand, Heero swerved Zero around and rode him back to the starting point, watching as a knight on a black stallion launched his opponent out of the saddle and sent him on flying lessons. Which one was that again? Oh, yes, number two, even as Heero was number one. Watching him, Heero saw he was very good. Perhaps even a match for himself, which was unlikely. Very unlikely.

Oh, well, he could find out when they met in a match.

Checking the board, Heero's mouth twisted. It looked as though he would be meeting 'number two' last of all his opponents, on the end day of the week.

Satisfied he had no one else to meet that day, Heero rode off.

+

"Which is which?" Trowa asked Quatre in a whisper as another knight was unhorsed.

"The one riding up now on the black horse is Duke Maxwell," Quatre whispered. "I can feel him even from this distance. A very forceful personality. The other . . . I don't think he's here -- no, wait, here he comes now. The one on the blue roan at the other joust court. They're numbers one and two."

Trowa looked where Quatre pointed. "The one who just unhorsed the other knight?" he asked.

"Yes."

Trowa looked at the two knights who were jousting. His lover was curious about the two men, and whatever Quatre was curious about, Trowa was curious about.

"Any word on J or G?"

"No. Nobody knows anything, or if they do they don't want to say." Quatre sighed, frustrated. "Any mention of BG or BR or contacting either and people either ask you come with them to the City Guard or back away as fast as possible. No one wants to have anything to do with either. I wish this place was the same as home!" he burst out all of a sudden. "Then people would talk to me."

"Or face the wrath of your father?" Trowa teased gently.

"Don't make fun, Tr -- Barton, that is. H gave me very specific orders, and I imagine S did the same with you. If we can't contact J or G we have to contact their two best warriors -- what are they called again? Duo and Heero -- and the only true way to do that is to meet them on the battlefield, and having heard their reputation I think that's something neither you nor I want to do." Quatre stared out over the jousts through his bright blue eyes, not really seeing what was going on.

"Duke Maxwell is good," Trowa commented, hoping to change the subject.

"Yes. Well, I knew he would be just from watching him walk, and so would you. And then the horses..." Quatre trailed off again, thinking of that incident. He had never seen those horses react like that to anyone but himself and Trowa, yet after the initial confrontation the horses had treated Maxwell like one of their own. Touching his mare with his mind, Quatre had found acceptance for Duke Maxwell, and a sense of comradeship for Trowa's gelding and for Maxwell's two horses.

Quatre's hand slid under the burnous he refused to take off and touched the hilt of one of the two weapons buckled at his waist. It was a comfort even as he shuddered at the memory.

"Duke Maxwell and the other man have both left the field," Trowa whispered to him. Quatre nodded and stood, weaving his way through the stands with Trowa close behind.

+

The rest of the week and the tournament passed, for Duo and Heero, much the same as it had before. They continued to blast their way through the ranks of the people they were cast against, winning every joust easily.

Then they were pitched against each other.

On the last day of their part of the tournament, Duo and Heero lined their horses up at the end of the aisles, shields and lances in hand. The knights in the tournament had been allowed to use their own shields on the proviso that it did not have the family crest on it or some other easily identifiable mark.

At the horn blast, both kicked their horses into a gallop, charging down the aisles. Each one's lance hit true with a force no other knight had previously employed on the two, throwing them back in their saddles and shattering their lances.

But neither came out of the saddle.

Almost simultaneously the two rode back to the beginning of their aisles, shook out impact-deadened arms, and prepared for the second run.

The same was repeated.

And again on the third run. As neither had been unhorsed, the chief judge of the matches stood to announce a sword match -- the first of the tournament.

Both knights dismounted, drew their swords, discarded their shields and, still in full armor, began their fencing session.

It was soon plainly obvious that the knights were equally matched. Both had the same strength, and where one was slightly faster than the other, the other had what appeared to be a slightly longer reach. They danced around each other repeatedly, swords crashing together in thrust and parry, slash and riposte.

The audience's idle chatter died out as the match continued on. And on. And on. Soon everyone was hanging on each move with bated breath. The knights the two dueling had previously defeated began to feel better about themselves as they watched. No one, they said to each other, no one could stand against two knights who could continue that quality of swordsmanship for that long in such heavy armor when they were so small. They had to be the finest warriors among the nobles gathered there, all the knights agreed.

Finally, when the labored breaths of the two knights became audible to everyone, when their sword stroke became evermore clumsy and they staggered repeatedly, and when the sun finally crept towards the horizon, the chief judge stood and announced that the judges had decided the match would continue the next day in the fencing courts.

Both knights staggered their way off the field into tents they were guided into and had their armor removed from them. They weren't allowed to sleep until they had drunk a vast quantity of water and eaten a large meal, and then both collapsed into bed.

For the first time both Duo and Heero were so exhausted after a battle that they just sank straight into sleep.

+

The next day Duo, dressed in the padded cloth armor of a fencing match, strode towards the fencing courts with his helmet under his arm and his sword in his other hand. He was eternally grateful that the judges had proclaimed that the two contenders did not have to wear full armor that day. Even with half an hour's stretches that morning and an excessive amount of exercising, he still felt like someone had trampled all over him. If he tried to wear his full set of armor he knew he would collapse under its weight.

"Duke Maxwell!"

Duo turned with a half-smile for the little blond Arabian. "Raberba, how many times do I have to tell you to just call me Maxwell," he said with a half-smile. Over the course of the week Duo had found himself liking the blond more and more, while his respect for the blond's silent companion had been instantaneous.

"Are you going to the fencing courts to watch the fight?"

Duo stared incredulously at Raberba, then pointedly looked down at himself, arms spread, and then back up at Raberba.

Raberba's fair cheeks -- a great liability in the desert -- slowly flushed. "Oops. So you are one of the contestants?"

"Yes, but you knew that already."

Raberba's cheeks went even redder before he could duck his head to hide the telltale flush. "H-how did you -- "

"I'm not stupid. That's all. And neither are you if I'm any judge." Duo resumed walking.

Raberba smiled at him, one with all the warmth of a true friend in it. He held out a hand which Duo paused in his strides to accept. "Luck, my friend."

Duo grinned at him. "It's the other guy who's gonna need luck!"

Raberba laughed and walked with him to the fencing courts.

Before entering, Duo put his helmet on and pulled the gauzy front down to hide his facial features. He was the first of the two to arrive, it appeared. Slapping the flat of his blade against his thigh, he waited in front of the four thrones that held the monarchs of the four kingdoms in their comfortable, cushioned arms, their ladies standing beside them.

The herald hurried up. "You are not permitted to speak," he warned him before asking, "What number are you?"

Duo held up two fingers, understanding that someone could recognize his voice.

Soon the other man entered the court and came to stand beside Duo in front of the thrones. From the corners of his eyes, Duo surveyed him. He looked confident and, from his stance, certainly didn't feel the aches and pains that Duo did.

The King of Sank stood and motioned for the two to take up the traditional beginning stance. "Do your best," he said, and they began.

The battle continued for the whole morning. Neither faltered or gave the other the smallest of openings. Both were supremely talented swordsmen, continuing the dance of thrust, parry, slash, riposte without a flaw anywhere. They paused briefly at noon to drink some water[5] then resumed the fight.

By the time both had been fighting for nearly nine straight hours, their limbs felt like lead, sweat had drenched through even the thick padding cloth of their fencing armor and both were having trouble breathing and concentrating on the fight at the same time. It began to show in their previously flawless swordsmanship; occasional stumbles in the footing, not being as fast as they had been before, the tips of their swords drooping as their arms gradually had the strength to hold them sapped out of them.

It ended when Heero took a step backwards and slipped, crashing to the floor heavily. Duo lunged forward, intending to end this before his opponent could rise to his feet, but he too slipped, sword flying out of his cramping hand the way Heero's had, and he landed heavily half on and half beside the other man.

The audience waited expectantly for them to rise again and resume the fight, but neither had the strength.

After a moment one of the three judges motioned forward two servants to check on the two. One rolled Duo off Heero and checked his pulse while the other did the same for Heero.

In the crowd, Quatre, who could no longer feel any conscious tug from either, bit down hard on his knuckles, praying to Allah that they were both all right. When their helmets were finally taken off, and their identities announced, he would finally know who the other person was whose mind had virtually screamed confusion at him. Then maybe he could help.

"They're both unconscious, my Lords," a servant finally reported to the judges, bowing.

Their was a hushed conference between the three judges, and after a moment the chief judge rose, bowed, and addressed the four thrones. "Your Majesties," he said, "however unorthodox this decision is, it is our conclusion that the knights 01 and 02 are equal in talent, and we pronounce this match a tie between the two. If it please your Majesties, we will reconvene here tomorrow when the knights are rested to find out their identities."

Almost in chorus the Kings nodded.

The chief judge clapped his hands, summoning servants to take the two knights away to rooms that would have to be hastily prepared for them and also sent a page to get two court physicians to ensure that no real harm had come to them.

The court was buzzing with speculation over who the two could be. Had Duo and Heero been conscious, they would have been wondering the same thing.

+

[5] Well, actually both drank nearly four liters in ten minutes, but it makes them sound more macho if I say 'some'. Duke was standing over me when I wrote that, making sure I make Duo bloody Maxwell as perfect as he wants him to be, or else the chainsaw's coming out of the cupboard again.

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