Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 19
Cat on a hot tiled roof

"Fancy meeting you here." Duo smirked.

Captain Yuy made no sign of recognition, didn't even twitch. As if sitting on a roof examining a map was normal leisure activity. As if finding your employer strolling along that roof's apex was just as normal.

Duo did love a challenge. In the five months Captain Yuy had served him -excellently at that- he'd not been able to get more than a shadow of a raise out of him. Even Trowa had plied a little to the Lord of Lin's well-known charm. Yuy was as pliable as stone, though not quite as friendly.

Duo's grin widened as that oh-so firm and muscled back twitched a bit after all... when Duo spun and sat with cat-like grace to lean his own lithe back against the captain's. Yuy didn't do or say anything else though. After a few minutes he lay down the map and documents, picked up his sword and flint and continued with what had to be his favourite leisure activity. That sword should cut sunlight into prismatic colours by now...

Duo, still leaning against his back, looked out over the rooftops. His highways, even now. As one of the two remaining candidates, Duo was allowed free access to any parts of the council complex he wished. In practice, though, Duo had found that his ability to sneak around and break into places was still very useful when trying to catch people off guard or learning what they didn't want you to know.

He'd spotted Yuy out here before. The captain was looking for solitude, not excitement or a discreet route around the council complex, like Duo was. The child of Lin had never disturbed the solitary captain before. But now they were both relaxed -well Duo was relaxed, Yuy probably didn't know the meaning of the word- after a week of Rao and his men being sent out into the boondocks to flush out some more fiends. Duo's troops had been given the day off after a week of rigorous training. The Lord of Lin was getting slightly bored, and, wanting to keep his wits sharp while waiting for Rao's return, decided to indulge in one of his own favourite leisure activities. Baiting the dour captain. A little fun never hurt.

Duo and his men had also been sent out several times to protect Lin, this last week's respite had been much needed. Lin had been hard-hit by the creatures, who were, like most monsters, attracted to the spoiled pools of raw magic that coiled about the mountains and valleys of the harsh country. But they'd not found it easy living; the smallest village of Lin, the weakest child, possessed defences of magic and steel and would fight to the death to hold on to the little they could scrape from the mountain.

Duo shifted on the tiles beneath him. They were rough and pitted with age, but durable, like all of Linheights, the capital of Lin. He glanced around them, sheltering his eyes from the sun which was warming the grey slate despite the chill of mountain air. They had been lodged in the council complex since they'd returned from Sansbury. The place was huge, a sprawl of interconnecting stone buildings and towers, like a net thrown across the pass between two tall peaks from which it clung. The council complex held the school, the Library of Lin, the council hall, and all the halls and living quarters of the Houses of Lin. The rest of Linheights, the houses of servants, merchants and the family of soldiers, hung off the web of the complex wherever it could, between cliffs and crags and ravines cutting the mountain faces like scars.

The only thing moving in the afternoon sun was a couple of old crows on a roof nearby. Duo brought his attention back to the man behind him, whose back muscles shifted rhythmically beneath his as he ran the flint along his blade.

"So, how'd you like it here in Lin? We do have the best roofs, you gotta admit. Much pointier than in Kespar. But with these neat flat stone gulleys on top you can sit on comfortably. Plus all these great gargoyles. Whopping big crows too... "

The flint rang on the steel as if its owner were deaf to the babble of his lord.

Duo was thinking how he could bait the man next when Yuy unexpectedly spoke.

"It's a rough country. But it presents opportunity. How do you like it?"

It was Duo's turn to stiffen. As much in surprise that Yuy had asked a question that was not mission-related - that man was just too obsessed with his job- as at the question itself. On reflection, it was a very strange question.

"What do you mean, how do I like my own country?"

Ring, ring... Pause to test the blade with a thumb... Ring... "Sergeant Bull told me you had not been raised in Lin."

The ringing punctuated the silence that fell over them. Duo found his eyes wandering over the sturdy, venerable towers of the council complex, the lower houses beyond hanging stubbornly to the mountain face, the mountains themselves rearing like fists shaken at the sky... The houses were grey and rugged like the peaks that cradled them. Rough and built for a purpose. And inside, you would find a small library, or a pulpit of rare wood, or a stained glass window, or a garden water-fall with three alpine plants arranged in simple harmony around it...

"I like it here."

The ringing was ever so slightly off tone. "Really?"

"What do you mean by that?" Duo snapped. That 'really' had sounded like it'd slipped out involuntarily, but to his knowledge Yuy had no spontaneity whatsoever. And why would he be surprised that Duo would love his own country?

The ring of flint on steel was his only answer for a minute, then: "I just wanted to know if that's what you really thought. It's a hard country, and you have had to fight here every day since you arrived. But of course as a candidate to the throne you'd have to say that you like-"

"I don't lie!" It was a snarl. "The first twelve years of my life were one big lie! I never lie, Yuy!"

The ringing stopped abruptly, a slight hiss behind him and the back under his moved forward. Duo glanced, frowning, over his shoulder.

"What, surprised I'm not a lying conniving snake like- hmm, so you actually do bleed. I was beginning to wonder."

Yuy's eyes were hidden by his long bangs as he bowed his head over the small cut in his hand, clasped around the flint. He said nothing as Duo moved around him to sit facing him.

"Here, give me your hand. I'm not mad at you, buddy." He added as Yuy made no move. Duo was regretting his lapse. This man had now heard more about his inner feelings than anyone apart from Wu Fei.

This wasn't the first time he'd let slip more than he'd intended with the captain, and since this was one of the rare times they'd been alone, he'd said even more than usual... Duo was always left slightly reeling as the mile-thick defences he kept between himself and others were suddenly inexplicably missing when he was around those dark-blue eyes. It was probably because talking to Yuy was a lot like talking to yourself. Or a wall.

Duo settled gracefully, cross-legged, on the sun-warmed tiles and reached out to grab the hand gently. There was no resistance, it was as if it belonged to someone who wasn't anywhere near the roof. Duo covered the hand with his free one and concentrated. He saw Yuy's eyes widen slightly as the small sword wound on the side of his hand started knitting together.

"Bet you didn't know a Lord of Lin could do that, either."

"... no, I didn't."

"I can't heal anything much bigger than that." Mainly because his white magic was out of practice, but he wasn't going to admit that much about himself or his past. "I use it to get rid of Wu Fei's burns when he hasn't moved away from me quick enough."

This time the words were deliberate. A reminder to himself that people he got near to got hurt. You didn't walk side by side with death without feeling it brush you from time to time. Wu Fei had nothing to lose but Yuy had a future ahead of him...

"You like Chang a lot." Once more, Duo thought this sounded less premeditated than most of Yuy's crisp, factual statements.

"Yeah, well, I'm not going to marry the man, OK?" Duo snorted.

The hand in his went rigid as Yuy's head flew up. "What?" he blurted, momentarily off guard. Duo blinked in surprise. He'd never asked Yuy his age -or any other personal detail, despite his teasing; the man just looked like he didn't have a life and never had had one- he'd always assumed the captain was a few years older than he was, but in that one unguarded moment he looked as young as Duo.

"Don't worry, it's a joke between us." A joke that would be deadly serious if Duo lost the race against Rao. Wu Fei's life was the sick punch line to that joke. "If I become the next heir of Lin, I'll let Wu Fei go, I won't force him into an 'alliance'. I like the guy but not that much." He added in a mutter.

Yuy nodded slightly. Apparently he was aware of Chang's situation. Though he seemed to have the curiosity of a cat - a cat that had died three weeks ago and had been buried under a pile of rocks, that is- he'd visibly been inquiring about Duo and Chang and the others around him. Probably the wise move of a tactician who wanted to know the details of those he needed to deal with, Duo thought sourly, not any personal curiosity. He admitted that Yuy's single-mindedness was a quality, one that he was beginning to slowly rely on little by little, but it was not something he could relate to at all.

He realized, with some embarrassment, that he was still holding Yuy's hand, though the cut was now completely healed. He dropped the hand as casually as he could manage and turned a bit, looking out across the view as Yuy tested the mended skin with a rough thumb.

"I do like it here." Duo didn't know why he was still talking. Yuy wasn't someone you could reach, whatever you said, however much you revealed. But his question about Lin had touched something in Duo. Something that had taken a lot of time to come out from behind the fury and the madness that had buried him for so long.

"I know what everybody thinks of Lin. I... thought the same for a long time. Some of it is true. People here are hard. Cruel even. But when you see where they live, all the raw natural magic that can obliterate villages, or produces monsters bigger than houses, or-... Still, there's something about this place, the mountains, the sheer raw power... Besides... Well you come from Kespar, right? So you should appreciate this.

"I know there's the Lords of Lin, but that's nothing like the nobility in Kespar or - or Sanq or elsewhere. Their nobility is pretty useless for the most part, their only accomplishment is to have been born. Big deal. I was born. Hell I bet even you were born, Yuy, though that stretches the imagination!

"The current batch of Lords in the council are, I grant you, kinda rotten. But that can change radically in just one generation! If you ever developed the ability to cast magic, Yuy, or if your children did, then their children would become the next generation of Lords of Lin, if they were strong enough. One of them could even be the next king! Lin won't look down on you because you're some low-born Kespar mercenary. You'll be treated like scum anyway, as I'm sure you've noticed." Duo grinned as Yuy snorted. "But it's because you're assumed to be weak until you've proved otherwise. But when you've proved otherwise... you'll be a citizen of this country on equal footing with someone who has ten generations behind him. You'll be respected here for your merits alone." Duo recalled ragged little street urchins in the streets of Sanq who, smart, precocious and talented as they were, would never amount to anything and would probably end up in a galley or a whorehouse by the time they were adults.

"But a lot less if I'm not a sorcerer." The words were quiet, without emotional content. But Duo winced a bit anyway.

"OK, I didn't say it was perfect." He muttered. And it certainly wasn't.

He wasn't lying about his feelings though. Because he didn't lie anymore, and yes, he did believe in Lin now. It had crept up on him slowly, and it had been quite undesired. The first year, in the hothouse of the school of Lin, had done little to change his hatred for the country that had ravaged Sanq. But afterwards, when he finally came into contact with what he thought of as the 'real' people of Lin, his hatred had started to fade.

Even in school, Amon and a few others who'd rejoined his faction that first hard year had almost reconciled him with the children of Lin themselves. Most of them were inbred over-powered half-insane maniacs -actually, he could relate to that, but not the arrogance, intolerance and cruelty that had been bred into them. But Amon was what Duo had been telling Yuy about, a second generation Lord of Lin, his family only recently accorded a House because of their mastery of sorcery. Amon had been refreshingly real, both in his support and his behaviour, and he was now one of Duo's rare friends.

Then when he'd mingled with the troops he'd been given -and Duo did mingle, it was the only way he knew how to relate to people- he'd met Bull and Sally and others, soldiers and warriors of Lin, and as tough and straightforward as the mountains that had spawned them. They accepted their lot in life; the interminable struggle against man and nature, the overrule of sorcerers, the way they would be called to sacrifice themselves for the good of their country at the bidding of the man who was strong enough to win their kingship and trust. Duo had found a reluctant respect growing in him ever since.

It had been hard to start with, because he thought this was isolating him from the only real close friend he had; he couldn't imagine Wu Fei ever feeling anything but absolute hatred for the country that had wiped out his wife's clan and enslaved him. But that was a miscalculation. Wu Fei hated Septim and the degenerate vermin who ruled the country and had ordered the cowardly massacre of a clan that couldn't defend itself against such odds. But Wu Fei also admired strength and rectitude, and the ordinary men -and women- of Lin had those in spades.

Duo had realized he might have misjudged his friend's attitude when he'd figured out just how much time Wu Fei was spending with Lieutenant Sally Po, teaching her more and more about the advanced medicine from the orient. Wu Fei had been downright cagey about that, Duo recalled with a delighted grin, saying it was important for one of the officers that had been assigned to the potential heir to have good knowledge of field medicine, to care for their soldiers. Duo hadn't bought it. Judging by Sally's gentle smile, he didn't think she'd bought it either. He snickered, and caught a small glance from beneath dark brown bangs.

"Duo." The curt voice echoed from the tower that jutted above their rooftop, interrupting Duo's thoughts. He twisted and spotted the scarred face of Dr G in the window of the tower.

"Hey, you lookin' for me?" Duo stood with his usual lithe grace.

"If you don't mind. I have put together a warding cantrip you might find useful. You know, for when your archrival gets back in a few days and tries to kill you again. But if you'd rather spend time sitting on a roof-"

"Gods, OK, OK, I'm coming!" Duo's grin was good-natured. When he was heir of Lin, he hoped Dr G would not change his attitude, would always be there to remind Duo to get off his high horse and cope a dose of reality.

Dr G was a first-generation foreigner in Lin, his last name was too complicated to pronounce and had been conveniently shortened. He had been Duo's personal tutor in the arts for nearly four years now.

The second year of schooling in Lin saw students choose mentors in the higher ranks of sorcery to teach them their craft firsthand. If Septim had hoped Duo would come to him -well, no, the old buzzard probably didn't expect that. He wasn't stupid.

Duo had hesitated; the best and brightest of the sorcerers of Lin had died with Treize near the Gap of Sevring, eight years previously. The ones that were left were cowardly, verminous maniacs like Septim, and he'd wanted nothing to do with them. He'd broken out of the school on numerous opportunities, taking to the roofs and windows to spy on them, pinch their magical books, study them and their craft in secret, hoping to be able to do without a mentor. The fools hadn't even known a thirteen year old was having them all for a ride.

Except Dr G who'd caught Duo with almost disarming ease. Although the old man had later admitted that the thought of anyone, much less a skinny half-trained monkey, breaking through his wards, into his study and trying to make off with some of his manuscripts had impressed him.

Duo and Dr G had realized that they would make a good team. Duo was quick-witted, powerful and refreshingly different from the rest of the children of Lin. And Dr G, on his side, hated Septim and the ruling clique with a passion.

The small, scarred man -Duo always described him as a walking nose in a sorcerer's robe- had been isolated from the corridors of power before Treize had even attacked Sanq, because he was powerful but not Lin born and bred. Lin would have accepted his children as one of their own, if he'd had any, but considered him to still be suspicious, and as he had the tact and diplomacy of a landslide, this had not improved over the years. He was still very much respected as a sorcerer, and the council occasionally unbent enough to ask him for help on some matter or other, but he didn't have any direct input in the running of the country. He didn't seem to mind his role of political outcast; his studies seemed to consume him. But in the years, Duo had realized the man did have a strong sense of ethics and plans for the future, and they'd grown close enough that he counted as one of Duo's rare friends. Although this wouldn't be obvious to the casual observer of one of their conversations.

"Well, have fun, Yuy! Don't lop off any fingers, you might need to count to ten one day. I want to see you, Trowa and Sally tomorrow night, we'll have a lil' talk around a jug of wine and see what we can do to get ready for Rao's return. Bye!"

*

Heero sat as still as the stone statuary hanging from the eaves. One hand covered the other where Duo had healed the small cut.

So gentle. So dangerous. A great big grin. A manic smile. Death and the jester rolled into one. Duo had always been the more complex of the two boys, and now he was a bigger puzzle than ever, a puzzle to which Heero no longer possessed a key.

He couldn't say how Duo would react to the truth. He'd dared to ask out loud the question that had been gnawing at him these past few months, seeing Duo fight with his troops, study in the council library, talk with sorcerers and soldiers, apparently well integrated into the society of Lin. He'd never quite understood why Duo had made a try for the throne in the first place. The simple will to survive? There had to be easier ways. The wish to take revenge on Lin? Well that was not it, Duo himself had confirmed it. Revenge on Septim? That was the only hope Heero had to cling to.

Heero was afraid. It was an emotion he'd grown very unfamiliar with in the past few years, like most emotions. Trust Duo to unravel several years' work in a few months.

He was afraid he might have to trust Duo with his life and the fate of all the kingdoms.

He was afraid he couldn't do that and might have to kill Duo instead.

He was afraid he might not be able do either.

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