The little blonde lad lay with his head against the golden dragon's flank.  It nudged him a little.

"I'm awake," he told it softly.

It thought of him, smiling and laughing and climbing trees.

"I can't," he choked.  "I just can't."  Tears ran from his blue-turquoise eyes onto the burnished flank of the dragon.

The dragon eagerly pictured them soaring above the clouds.  It loved to fly, and so did Master Quatre, usually…

"No.  I don't want to.  I just want…"  The tears continued to fall down his face, and he buried his face in his hands.  He couldn't get the image out of his head – the archer on the road, bleeding in the dirt, with his arrow protruding so unnaturally and stiffly…  It made him sick – but it wasn't just that.  He didn't want his dragon to know, and if he kept thinking about it, Sandrock couldn't help but find out.

The golden dragon tentatively sent an image of Quatre looking disapprovingly at him.  It was as close as the creature could come to "Are you angry with me?"

Quatre shook his head silently.  How could he not think about it?  He might've taken a life, he couldn't just not think about it!!!

The golden dragon gently nuzzled its master, trying comfort him.

"Hey, take it easy," Zechs admonished, putting his hand on Noin's shoulder as she drew her bow taut.

She rolled her eyes at him as the new recruits conscientiously lowered their bows from their awkward positions.  "Watch your form," she instructed them, "and I want to see those targets full of shafts when I'm back."  She lowered the bow, and beckoned Zechs aside slightly.

"What do you need?  I don't think the new colonel came all the way down here just to make sure the archery instructor's injury wasn't being over-exercised…"  One of the hardest things about keeping up her "disguise" had to be not using feminine pronouns when speaking of herself.  And hoping no one would notice her face flushing and her heart racing when the commanding officer was in close physical proximity… like now…

"Don't push yourself.  Does it still hurt?" he asked, taking a hold of her elbow and gently touching her shoulder.

"Zechs, it's been weeks, I'm fine.  Stop that…" she added belatedly.

"Noin, look…" he began, dropping his voice as they walked behind one of the tents, "I need you to promise me you'll be careful and take care of yourself."

"You think I don't do that now?" she asked dryly, raising her eyebrows.

He frowned a little.  "It's not that.  It's just that… well, I try to look out for you too," he began.

"And I need looking after?" she inquired curtly.

"…and I'm not going to be able to for a while," he continued, ignoring her.

Noin blinked.  "What?"

"Lord Treize has plans for me," he explained, shrugging.  "So I'll be away for a while.  But… just promise me that I'll find you here and well when I come back, all right?"

"All right."  Noin gave him a lopsided smile, touched beyond what she would consciously admit by his concern.

"I mean, I do owe you my life…"

So that's how it was.

"I'll be fine," she said shortly.

"Noin…" Zechs protested, wanting her to be solemn about this.

"You needn't feel obliged to 'take care' of me.  Your debt was long repaid, so consider yourself rid of me."  She had an inkling that she was being hurtful, but she couldn't help saying it.

"That isn't what I meant…"

"Well, it's certainly what you said," she retorted, turning to go back to her students.

"Noin…please…" he said, taking her elbow to hold her there.

"Please what?" she demanded.

"It's not about debts or feeling that I'm obliged to take care of you.  It's that…  I'll worry about you.  Promise you'll be okay?"

He caught her eyes, and held them, pinning her soul to the ground in front of him with his penetrating sapphire gaze.  Did he know what his eyes did to her?  Did he realize that when she looked too deep, she felt as though she could drown in their sadness and pain, and all she wanted to do was comfort him… 

If he did, he certainly made use of it…

"I promise."

"I suppose you heard what happen to one of 'our' fortresses?" Lord Treize addressed the young swordsman seriously, as he took a seat at the oaken desk set up in his tent.

"The fire?  Yes, we received news of the situation…" Zechs replied, nodding curly.

"It wasn't a fire, exactly," Lord Treize informed him.

"Beg pardon?"

"Well, there was certainly a great deal of fire involved, but there is a little more to it than that," Treize informed him, as the woman – ever in the commander's presence, it seemed – came and stood behind his chair, her chestnut hair still in its tight crown of braids.

Zechs shifted his weight a little as he waited for the man to continue.  What was he getting at?

"The Imperial fortress was attacked," he stated dryly.

"The people rose up?" Zechs inquired sharply.

"A boy on a dragon set the place aflame."

Zechs blinked.

He'd seen dragons, of course.   The ones the military was trying to tame as mounts were thick-witted creatures that couldn't be trusted not to turn on their "riders."  The concept was sound, however.  No one on foot, or on a horse, would stand much a chance against even a small dragon.  It was controlling them, however, that presented most of the problem.

"If you'll forgive me, sir, that seems a little…far-fetched," Zechs stated respectfully.

Treize turned his gaze on the younger man, and Zechs returned it, undaunted by the commander's presence.

"It seems… someone has found, or conjured some magnificent new species of dragon.  Even legions of the lizards we might command would be no match for these creatures.  There is a threat, and we do not know the source."

"The nobles who oppose the Empire?" Zechs suggested.  Much like my own family…

"I think not.  This move is too bold, too reckless for those who are cautious and comfortable.  My only thought, is that there are those among the people, those capable of some great magic, who are going to make a nuisance of themselves…"

"And so we match fire with fire, and dragon, with dragon," the woman said briskly.

"Indeed, Milady," Treize replied, not taking his eyes from Zechs.

At first, he had trouble getting any impression about it, apart from its sheer, unthinkable size.

Well, it was white.

And thank God, it was asleep.

"And you want me to control…that…" Zechs managed to ask.

"It's a simple creature.  It will submit to you by merit of your stronger will and superior intellect," the lady told him coldly.

Zechs didn't see her volunteering to climb onto it's back and fit it with a bridle.

Why me?

"I chose you, Zechs," Lord Treize began, eerily answering his unspoken question, "because you are the strongest, and the best."

Zechs wasn't one to be turned by flattery.  "I don't know if I'm capable," he admitted dubiously.

"And how will you know, until you try?" Treize prompted.

Zechs took a step closer to the slumbering dragon.  What it came down to was that he hadn't had enough of life…  He wasn't willing to throw himself with complete abandon into this….

Treize put a hand on his arm as he stepped forward.  "This is your opportunity…  If you succeed, vengeance is in your grasp as it never was before."

And if I fail…  well, he failed.  What was there to live for aside from his vendetta anyway?

…just promise me that I'll find you here and well when I come back, all right?  

"The key….," Treize stated, tone sounding almost idle, "is knowing that you will succeed."

Zechs steeled himself and stepped forward once more.  He would succeed.

He had to.