**

Interlude

"The queen has fallen."

"What? How did this happen?"

"She is very sick. There are many whispers."

"We can't trust castle rumors. Watch this. I don't want anything to happen to her or the others."

"Yes, sir."

"Keep them safe, until we may implement our plan."

"Yes, sir."

**

Chapter 2

Heero and Duo stepped into the new sleeping hut. It wasn't much different from the first one in the original village. A long oval shaped building made of branches and tree trunks, tied into place with thin vines that were barely noticeable from the outside, but created a very safe looking net from the inside. Light shone through two holes in the roof from the bright blue sky, one of which fell on Trowa who sat near the far wall atop a pile of sleeping blankets. As usual he didn't look up when they stepped into the room, his eyes focusing on something else while his mind seemed elsewhere. But his unique eye tattoo swiveled in its place on his shoulder, meeting their gaze.

That eye still gave Duo goose bumps, even after a year of seeing it.

Heero stepped forward, making no effort to keep his steps quiet, just in case Trowa hadn't noticed them come in.

After a long silent moment Trowa's head moved and he turned it to face them, blinking his eyes back into focus. He nodded a greeting to Heero, and in the same nod, motioned for him to proceed.

"The boarder patrols have found nothing of interest." Heero said simply.

Trowa responded in a quiet voice. "And what of the caravan which we spotted yesterday?"

"The were merely camping the night on their way to the Locke Kingdom. Nothing more."

The leader of the Marked Ones nodded, but his expression remained a bit preoccupied. Frowning to himself he stood up and leaned against the wall of the building. Duo waited silently by the door, confusion crossing his face. He hadn't known their leader for very long, but Trowa never struck him as someone to be so preoccupied with things. He could see in Heero's face that his lover noticed it too, because Heero showed no sign of leaving.

"Trowa?" Heero said in a softer tone. This tone was quite different from the one that Heero generally used to make his reports when he was assigned to watch their boarder. This wasn't the tone of a soldier reporting in to his captain; instead it was the tone of a friend speaking to a friend. Something Heero rarely did anymore with Trowa, now that Duo thought of it.

Trowa sighed softly. "Kaysei lost her child last night."

Duo drew in a sharp breath at that. He knew Kaysei and her lover had been trying for a child for years, despite their age. Everyone had been so overjoyed when the older couple had gotten pregnant… Duo knew he wasn't much of a doctor, but he sure thought Kaysei wasn't old enough to lose a child simply from her age. He frowned even more as he realized that had this been something as simple as that, it wouldn't have kept Trowa up all night thinking.

"Stillborn?" Heero asked softly.

Trowa shook his head. "No, it died soon after birth. I helped Selenay deliver it last night. But the child was very sick, Heero. It looked frail and old, the skin leathery despite the fact that it was just born." Trowa shook his head, as if pushing away the image, his eyes meeting with Heero's. "I haven't seen anything like it before."

Heero brought a hand to his chin, rubbing it just slightly in thought. "But Kaysei's all right?"

"She's sick. Selenay is attending to her right now."

Both Marked Ones dropped into a preoccupied silence that filled the room thickly. Duo fidgeted from one foot to the other, his eyes roaming the vine net as his mind ran over what he'd just heard. His tongue practically burned with unanswered questions, but he bit it, knowing it wasn't his place to speak. He hadn't been invited into this conversation, and he doubted if Trowa meant for him to hear it. So he couldn't ask the questions, no matter how much they seemed to churn inside him.

Why was this so important? How did a baby come out looking old and leathery? Had it done anything? Had the mother said anything? Did this have to do with a Marked belief he wasn't aware of yet? Maybe some myth? Some superstition? Heck, some other creature?

Duo shifted once more in frustration, gritting his teeth. Once in every long while he wished he was a Shadow again. At least there he'd been able to say what he liked at royal proceedings and no one cared. Granted, it hadn't been polite and usually it was only a comment to make fun of the situation, or call some visiting diplomat a blockhead, but at least it had made him feel better. This was definitely one of those times.

"There are five others who have fallen ill," Heero said a second later. His voice hadn't changed at all; in fact it was like he was just continuing the cryptic conversation. Like they hadn't even paused at all. Duo settled for simply shaking his head and smiling at the situation, for he suddenly found their actions quite amusing.

Trowa nodded. "I know." And then he seemed to straighten up and banish whatever heavy weight was on his mind and shoulders. His eyes flickered once to Duo, finally acknowledging his presence, and then to Heero. "I wonder if the both of you would like to accompany me on a journey."

"Where to?" Duo asked, happy for the change of subject. He took Trowa's small glance as a sign that he was finally allowed to participate in the conversation, and didn't even try to hide the sudden perk of interest in his voice.

"The Chang Kingdom. Time has passed so quickly, it seems we haven't spoken with them in months."

A smile crossed Heero's face. "You know we'll get quite a lecture about that from Brei and the others."

A similar smile crossed Trowa's face and he nodded. "I look forward to it."

Duo grinned full force. "All right! But you better tell Quatre, I'm sure he'll want to come too." Duo couldn't help but wiggle his eyebrows a bit. "Otherwise the journey might be a little boring for you."

Heero discretely hit him in the shoulder and coughed softly at his boldness, but Trowa took it in stride and nodded. Strolling past Duo, the leader of the Marked Ones patted him on the shoulder with a small smile.

"I think I'll do just that. We should head out tonight." And with that Trowa left the two standing alone in the sleeping house. Duo turned to watch him leave, and smiled as he felt Heero's arms slip over his shoulders from behind.

Duo leaned his head back against his lover's shoulder. "What was that all about, Heero?"

Heero rested his head against Duo's and spoke softly. "Probably nothing." He kissed Duo's neck softly.

But Duo twisted around in his arms and gave him a determined look. "Oh no you don't, don't even try to distract me. What the heck has him worried so much?"

A small smile crept across Heero's face and he shook his head. "I'm sure Trowa will explain, since Quatre will also have no idea what's going on. Trust me, we will explain, but now isn't the time. In all likeliness he's just overly worried because of what happened to Kaysei's child. Nothing more."

Duo pouted slightly at not getting the answer he was looking for. "You sure?"

Heero nodded.

"All right, I suppose I'll believe you on this one. On one condition."

Heero raised an eyebrow. "And what would that be?"

A smirk crossed Duo's face. "You said before that we had all the time in the world. I'd say this sudden journey will be cutting our time down quite quickly. The condition is that we make use of the time we have."

Heero's face went completely blank and he stepped closer to Duo. "Granted," he said in a flat voice and then seized Duo's lips in a deep kiss.

Duo managed a small laugh that melted into a moan. He loved it when Heero was forceful.

**

The city below moved about its daily routine, none the wiser. From his high window, Wufei could see the people rushing out of their homes to their destinations, pausing only to pick something up at small booths before continuing with their business. To him, the entire city seemed peaceful and serene, a picture-perfect portrait of normalcy. But then, things always looked like that from the distance.

He didn't have to squint to notice the small clusters of people in the corners, speaking in secretive tones. He didn't have to have magical eyesight to know that in the taverns and inns people were having heated arguments about his marital choices. And he certainly didn't have to be able to read people's minds to know how displeased they were. All of those things had been communicated to him from his guards and the frequent walks Yuki and Brei took through the city in disguise.

He sighed softly and ran a hand through his hair. A year ago he'd thought this would be so easy to solve. But now he realized that a lifetime of being taught to hate and fear wasn't easily combated.

"Highness?"

Wufei blinked away his thoughts and glanced to his side, finding Iason standing next to him. The young advisor was only a few years older then the king, but he'd already proved himself to be quite useful. Iason was one of the few men left from his father's original advisors, whom Wufei had weeded out and replaced with men he trusted from the castle. Iason was the youngest among them; his short cut brown hair making him look incredibly normal. Wufei had no doubt that with his other dull features this man would have no trouble blending in anywhere. It made him an asset, if sneaking around was ever something the king needed.

Even though he hated such backward approaches.

Wufei raised an eyebrow in question at the advisor.

"I just came from the Queen's quarters."

"Any news?"

The advisor frowned for a moment, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well, the nurse wasn't the friendliest person in the world. She insisted that I wasn't able to see the Queen, period. I doubt she'd even let you in at this point."

Wufei swallowed and made an attempt to keep the worry from his expression, but he didn't think he succeeded. "Annah's condition?"

The advisor let a small smile cross his face. "There's good news, to be sure. The nurse said that the Queen is sick, but that it is to be expected."

"What in the world are you talking about?"

Iason's smile grew. "The Queen is pregnant."

Wufei's eyes widened and he took a step back in surprise, his back hitting the wall behind him from lack of room. He'd never felt so shocked in his life, and in a second all kingly manners were thrown away. He felt a large smile cross his face, something that even his Shadow had rarely seen, and then he was running down the hall.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd run down the castle halls, and truly didn't care. He doubted now, though, that any would try and stop him. Annah was with child? The whole thought just couldn't seem to fit in his mind. It seemed completely impossible that he could actually be a father. Nearly impossible.

The King rounded the corner to where the Queen's quarters were and nearly ran headlong into his head nurse, who stood in the hallway with her arms crossed. Her narrowed and pinched eyes seemed to glare back at him.

"I figured that man would tell you." She said in a low voice. Had Wufei not known this woman for most of his life, he might have thought she was threatening him. But he knew the truth, the royal nurse was fiercely protective of her patients, and it helped to keep everyone in the castle as healthy as possible because most feared her temper, even if she was one of the gentlest people he knew.

"Just as he should have," Wufei countered.

"You're not going in to see her." The nurse stood firm.

Wufei's own eyes narrowed. "And why not?"

The nurse sighed softly, but didn't lose her cold expression. "Because I may know next to nothing about Marked health, but I know that she needs her rest. She took a nasty fall down those stairs and, at the moment, has had about as much stress as I'm willing to let her take. You can come back and see her in the morning."

Wufei frowned deeply.

"If it makes you feel any better, it took me nearly forever to convince her she needed her sleep. The first thing she wanted to do was jump out of the bed and tell you."

Wufei chuckled at that and was rewarded with a warm smile from the nurse, something most people never saw.

The nurse clasped a hand tightly on his shoulder, then turned and stepped back into Annah's room, closing the door behind her.

Wufei wanted nothing more then to follow her into the room and wrap Annah is his arms. He felt like the happiest man alive right now, like all his troubles had just evaporated at this news.

But he knew better.

Contenting himself with a big smile, that he was sure looked as silly as can be, he relented and followed the nurse's wishes.

He'd just have to be sure to be at Annah's room early enough the next morning to wake her. Wufei was sure the nurse wouldn't deny him that.

**

By the time everything had been arranged for the journey, the sun was already starting to set. Still, Trowa insisted they fill the packs and set out that night, rather then getting a good-night's sleep and starting early the next morning. Quatre found it strange that Trowa seemed so insistent on leaving, but when he looked to Duo and Heero for answers, they didn't seem to have any. Heero simply responded with a cold and blank look, clearly showing that if he knew anything he wasn't telling, and Duo just shrugged in confusion. He was clearly as much in the dark about this as Quatre.

The small group set off not half an hour later, leaving Selenay in charge of the clan, and headed down the trail which would lead them to the Chang Kingdom.

The nice thing about this journey, Quatre reflected, was that it would be a short one. Thankfully the new Marked home was actually closer to the Chang Kingdom then the previous one, and the journey would only take four days, at a relaxed walking pace. On horseback it took no time at all. Still, since horses drew unwanted attention, the group was forced to walk the journey, which Quatre didn't mind too much.

They walked in silence, Heero taking the lead. The unspoken chain of command made Heero Trowa's protector in this instance, along with the rest of them. Heero was the one in charge of the safety of the small travelling group, so he took the lead and made sure they moved at a safe pace, while not running into anything dangerous.

After long hours of walking in silence, the group finally came to a stop at the end of a small field. Camp was set up for a few short hours of rest before they would continue on when the sun rose. A small fire was lit, to cook what little food they required. Duo took up the task of catching the food, a talent he'd mastered with his serpentine hair and soon they were eating freshly cooked meat that couldn't have been tastier had Shai cooked it back at the clan home.

"Heero, what happened to your arm?" Quatre asked, trying to break the uneasy silence which had settled over the group.

Heero gave a small shrug. "I brushed up against something during patrol, that's all."

But Quatre seemed to have hit upon something important because now the other two were looking at Heero in curiosity. Duo leaned over to inspect the small cut and began pestering Heero, until he finally relented and turned so they could all see it in the firelight.

To their surprise, they found Heero's wound to be quite a bit more serious then a simple scratch. Already it seemed to be infected, the surrounding skin taking on a deep red tint. Duo moved to gently touch it once and Heero responded with a soft hiss, much to his own surprise.

"Did you have Selenay check it out before we left?" Trowa asked quietly.

Heero frowned and shook his head. "There wasn't enough time."

Duo frowned deeply at that. "All you had to do was say something. We could have easily stopped by Selenay's hut to get something for it, you know that."

"It's not that serious," Heero protested in a cold voice, meant to silence the others. On anyone else it would have worked, anyone but Duo.

"Well it certainly looks serious enough to me." The braided boy retorted back.

"Heero," came Trowa's quiet voice. "What gave you that scratch?"

The two met eyes for a long moment, as if something silent were passing between them. "A tree branch. Pine."

Trowa nodded very quietly and went back to his food, not offering another word.

Quatre watched as Duo's eyes flickered between the two and a look of complete frustration covered his face. The former Shadow looked about ready to burst with questions and in any other situation Quatre might have found himself chuckling at Duo's antics. But he was worried as well, and figured he'd better say something before Duo, not so politely, demanded an answer out of them.

"Trowa, what's going on here? What are you and Heero keeping from us?" The blond asked softly.

Duo, not one to remain silent on any subject, also added in his two cents. "Yeah, what's with all these cryptic silent glances? You two don't usually keep people in the dark like this."

The two shared another silent glance and Heero gave the smallest of nods, indicating that whatever was going on, it was Trowa's story to tell. The leader of the Marked Ones gave a very soft sigh and set down what was left of his food, apparently not hungry anymore.

"This isn't a social call to the castle," he said softly, after much hesitation.

"I gathered that," Duo muttered. He received a quick glare from Heero but didn't seem to notice. Despite the sarcastic remark his expression was all seriousness.

"Why are we in such a hurry?" Quatre prompted quietly.

Trowa paused, as if he were searching for words to describe his thoughts. After a moment he met Quatre's eyes, then turned to look at the fire. "Neither of you two were around to know my mother, but she's the one who first spoke of it. Jana had a strange way of seeing what the future would bring, but not by any magical means. Rather she was just that good at leading people." He paused for a moment, seemingly lost in his own memories.

"Marked Ones are the offspring of Izardl mixing with humans. But we have more human blood then you do Quatre, therefore we don't have your talents. Still, with the tattoos, we hold a small amount of that magic within us."

"What does that have to do with your mother?" Duo asked softly.

This time it was Heero who responded. Picking up one of the long sticks they'd used for roasting the meat he gently poked the fire, sending up small sparks of light in the darkness. "Jana mentioned, once, that she wondered what would happen if the magic ran out. She didn't think it would happen, but she said that, if it did, people would most likely start to fall ill in succession of age."

Duo's eyes widened. "Kaysei."

Heero nodded.

"The others in the village, who are sick as well, all of them are among our oldest members."

Quatre blinked and looked from Heero to Trowa, worry crossing his face. He'd heard of Kaysei's baby, since news traveled quickly through the small clan, but the others had only been a passing mention. He hadn't even thought it could be something this significant.

"But you have no idea if this is something like that. They could just be getting sick, could be a coincidence." Quatre protested. But in the darkness and their soft silence his voice sounded thin and it was clear he barely believed his own words.

"Coincidence or not I wanted to check on Brei, Annah and Yuki. They have a right to know, even if we are simply getting ahead of ourselves. That's why we need to move fast, I want to reach the castle as soon as possible and speak with them."

Quatre nodded, understanding. "Then we should get some sleep and head out as quickly as we can in the morning."

"Agreed." Heero said.

With those words the four put out their small smile and settled down to sleep. Quatre snuggled close in Trowa's arms, willing his mind not to worry. From where he and Trowa lay, he could see Duo and Heero sleeping on the other side of the still smoking fire circle.

Suddenly Quatre felt incredibly aware of the horrible possibilities if what they suspected was true. Despite the fact that Wufei and Annah had been working to make it so Marked Ones were more accepted, it didn't change the fact of decade of hatred and fear. The result of that hatred was that there were only a handful of Marked Ones left and they still lived day to day in hiding. Were something like this to hit, it could easily wipe them all out in a year.

He didn't want to think about the fact that Kaysei wasn't actually that old, by their standards.

Quatre also didn't was to think about the fact that Trowa was only a few years younger then her, along with most of the others.

If this hit in succession of age like they thought it would, then it wouldn't be long before Trowa and the others…

No, he definitely didn't want to think about that.