**"Please, Heero. I love you. Please go!"
Duo's voice followed Heero as he ran from the castle, feeling like the basest coward. He almost turned back but was stopped by the flaming rubble that had begun to fall from the ceiling. He finally reached the entrance and stumbled out into the night, coughing from the smoke billowing from the burning structure.
Heero saw his friends standing in the clearing near the castle entrance in clear disobedience of his orders. He was unable to share in the relief that appeared on their faces as they saw that he was safe. He was also unable to meet the hopeful eyes of Duo's cousin. He refused to look at her as she gazed past him, searching for her cousin.
"Duo," she said questioningly. Heero felt her eyes search his face. She found the dreadful answer there. She shook her head in futile denial but Heero was unable to reassure her. Finally, she screamed and fell into Wufei's arms as she cried out her anguish.
The others looked at him with sadness and shock in their eyes but Heero wouldn't look at them. Instead he looked back to the castle, his very soul feeling as if it were trapped along with Duo in the conflagration.
Suddenly, the castle shuddered as the entire upper level was rocked by an explosion.
Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei rushed to Heero to prevent him from trying to reenter the ruined castle. Bodily, they forced him away and back into the woods. Heero continued to yell Duo's name as he was dragged towards an undesired, undeserved safety.**
Heero gazed out of the window, trapped in the past. The events of that night replayed themselves over and over in his mind, mocking him for his weakness. His days and nights were filled only with thoughts of the boy he had left behind. He felt as if he were going mad with grief but embraced the journey willingly.
Hilde looked up from the table where she sat playing cards with Quatre. The king had told her that she could stay in Hane for as long as she desired, and as she had nowhere else to go, she gratefully accepted the kind offer.
She sighed and her eyes threatened to fill with tears yet again as she took in the morose figure at the reading room window. Heero had stood there nearly every day since that awful night. Although over two months had passed, Heero's pain showed no signs of diminishing.
Even if the others had not told her of the relationship between the prince and her cousin, the love Heero had borne for Duo was obvious to her. Although Heero didn't broadcast his feelings, his despair was clearly etched upon his entire being. Hilde knew that Heero blamed himself for Duo's death and even though she had reassured him that he carried no blame, he didn't seem willing to believe.
Hilde forced down another sigh as she dropped her gaze from Heero. She missed her cousin terribly and only the thought that he had truly known love, even if only for a short time, gave here some measure of solace.
Quatre was forced to keep a nearly constant damper on his empathic powers these days. Otherwise the wave of darkness that continuously emanated from the prince would have certainly overwhelmed him.
Quatre was very concerned that the only emotions he'd sensed from Heero ever since Duo's death was an unrelenting surge of the blackest despair. It was almost as if Heero had completely lost the will to live. Quatre feared that it was only his promise to Duo that he would look after Hilde that prevented Heero from seeking to end his own life.
However, Quatre worried that Heero's desire to survive without his beautiful braided lover was rapidly fading. Everyday his depression worsened. Quatre was at a loss at how to console his dear friend and his helplessness pained him greatly. Dermail, may his soul rot in hell, had much to answer for.
Hilde and Quatre looked towards the door as it opened, admitting Wufei and Trowa. Trowa stopped over to Quatre and placed a hand of greeting on his shoulder. Wufei sketched a deep bow towards Hilde, his customary greeting for her. And as usual, Hilde blushed and smiled in return. Wufei had done much to help her deal with the tragic loss of her cousin and they had come to care about each other a great deal.
Wufei straightened and shot a glance towards Heero. Keeping his voice low, he spoke to the others.
"How is he today?"
Quatre sighed and shook his head. "Same as always, I'm afraid."
Wufei looked back towards the silent prince and pursed his lips. "Trowa and I thought we should try to get Heero to leave Hane for a few hours. It's not good for him just to stand there and brood."
Wufei left the others and walked over to Heero. Although Wufei had none of Quatre's empathic powers, even he could sense the depths of Heero's despondency. His heart ached for his friend but Wufei was determined that Heero end his self-imposed exile. Heero was, after all, a prince and had duties he could not ignore. The situation had become so grim that the king had asked them to intervene and try to draw Heero out. So Wufei took a deep breath and spoke.
"Heero, Trowa and I heard about a new blacksmith in Ichiba who supposedly makes weapons of an unsurpassed quality. We are going to take a look at his merchandise. Would you like to join us?"
Heero never turned away from the window and was silent for so long after Wufei had finished speaking that Wufei though he wouldn't respond at all. Finally, however, without turning away from the window, Heero shook his head, denying the request.
Wufei sighed but persisted. "Please, Heero, come with us." This time Heero didn't even bother to acknowledge Wufei at all and Wufei turned away in defeat. He walked back over to the others.
"He won't come. Oh well, Trowa, we might as well go. Perhaps we'll find him a weapon that will spark his interest in rejoining the world."
Wufei and Trowa said their goodbyes and left for Ichiba.
Duo huddled on the floor of a tent, curled on his side. He knew not what day it was or even where he was. He and Dermail had appeared here after leaving the besieged palace. Duo had immediately been seized by a group of Dermail's soldiers and put in chains.
As Duo was realizing that Dermail had pre-planned every aspect of his abandonment of Aku, the evil duke stood in front of him, laughing at his struggles. Dermail told him to get used to his accommodations, as he would be there for a very long time. Then he'd chanted, invoking some foul magic. Suddenly, Duo felt as weak as a newborn foal, his legs no longer able to support him. The soldiers drug him to the tent where he now lay, as it had become his home.
Duo received visitors for only three reasons. Once a day, a soldier brought him food that wouldn't keep a bird alive. Twice a day, a soldier dragged him from the tent since he remained too weak to walk, so Duo could relieve himself or to throw him into the nearby river for a perfunctory bath.
It was the final reason, however, that Duo dreaded the most. Either some bored guard would come into the tent to 'have a bit of fun' with the weakened, though still comely, prisoner, leaving Duo to fondly remember the nights he'd been sold to travelers while living with the gypsies or, even worse, someone would come and take him to Dermail so that the vile duke could have his way with the helpless boy.
Duo knew that, if this continued, he would eventually go mad. Many were the days that he wished he had the strength to kill himself. The duke had made the soldiers leave Duo's boots, with his knives tucked securely inside, just out of his reach to taunt him. The elusive promise of freedom was worse than anything.
But through it all, something deep within Duo refused to let him give up. When his pain and humility were at their worst, thoughts of Heero and Hilde, the two people he loved most in the world, kept him sane. Duo was a hopeful person by nature and he knew that something had to change.
Wufei and Trowa meandered around the market at Ichiba, neither very interested in the weapons they'd come to see. Concerns for their prince weighed heavily on their minds.
Wufei could only imagine what Heero was going through but Trowa knew very well how he would feel if something were to happen to Quatre. He wasn't sure how Heero was managing to hold himself together as well as he was. Trowa didn't think he would have Heero's strength if the situations were reversed.
They passed by a stand where a woman sold jewelry and bits of cloth. Wufei brushed his hand over a scrap of fabric, musing about whether Hilde might like it, when Trowa's hand on his arm abruptly stopped him in his tracks. He looked at his friend curiously and saw that Trowa's attention was fixed on something several stalls down. Wufei turned to follow his gaze and found himself freezing in shock.
"That's one of Dermail's guards," Wufei whispered. Trowa nodded in confirmation. "I thought they'd all been killed the night of the attack."
"Apparently not," Trowa muttered.
They both recognized the man as one of the guards who had first brought Duo to Hane. The man was obviously one of Dermail's top men and would surely have been in the thick of the battle to protect the duke. The fact that he was now walking around alive defied explanation. The man began to walk away from the stall, his transaction completed. They noticed that he was headed out of the village altogether.
"Let's follow him," Wufei whispered.
Trowa nodded in agreement. Without being detected, the two bodyguards followed the soldier out of the village and into the woods. The man was on foot so keeping out of sight as they followed was not difficult. They walked for perhaps an hour when the soldier walked into a clearing that appeared suddenly. Wufei and Trowa kept to the tree line, watching without being seen.
They had followed the guard to some sort of encampment. There were perhaps thirty men milling around, all wearing the colors of Aku. Apparently, these men had disserted their duke during the battle and were hiding out here in the woods. What seemed incredible was that they had the gall to do so less than a day's ride from Hane.
They saw the man approach a large tent and heard him call out. A figure stepped out of the tent and took the item the soldier had purchased. Wufei and Trowa gasped uncontrollably when they saw that the figure was none other than Duke Dermail. They turned to look at each other, blatant astonishment written on their faces.
"If Dermail is alive then what about ..."
Before Wufei could finish his thought he and Trowa saw a bit of commotion towards the side of the camp. A guard was dragging a slight figure from one of the tents. Wufei felt his jaw drop open and he heard Trowa inhale quickly as they both saw the unmistakable length of the braid the figure sported.
"My god," Wufei whispered. "Duo is alive."
Wufei and Trowa winced at the rough handling Duo was receiving and were dismayed to see that Duo was obviously too weak to protest the treatment. Wufei firmed his lips and turned to his companion.
"We must return to Hane at once. Heero must know about this."
Trowa nodded. Carefully, the two young men withdrew from their hidden position and ran with all haste back to Ichiba to retrieve their mounts. Not wasting a moment, they drove their horses into hard gallops and raced back to Hane.
Hilde heard a commotion in the hall and went to the door of the reading room to investigate. She stuck her head out of the door in time to see Wufei grab a servant and order her to fetch the king there immediately. She quickly ducked back into the room as he and Trowa barged in.
Wufei spoke without preamble.
"Heero, Duo is alive."
Hilde gasped and Quatre looked at Wufei in shock. All eyes swiftly turned towards Heero. Wufei didn't think Heero had heard him as he didn't react immediately. But then Heero slowly turned away from the window and looked at them with haunted eyes.
"What did you say?" Heero's voice was hollow and Hilde shuddered at the emptiness of his gaze.
Wufei swallowed, taken aback slightly by Heero's expression. However, he pressed on.
"I said, Duo is alive. Trowa and I saw one of Dermail's supposedly dead guards at Ichiba. We followed and found an encampment full of about thirty of Dermail's men. Then we saw Dermail, alive, and ... we saw Duo."
The king had entered the room on the tail end of Wufei's speech but he'd heard enough.
"Dermail and Duo are alive? That bastard, what he must have done to that poor boy. You must set out at once. Destroy the camp and bring Duo back. As for Dermail, I want that bastard dead."
Everyone but Heero nodded in agreement. Heero just stared, his mind struggling to process what he was hearing. 'Duo is alive ... Duo is alive ...' The incredible thought ran endlessly through his mind. Suddenly, he felt a gently hand on his arm.
Hilde looked up at Heero with wide, concerned blue eyes. She was afraid that Heero was in shock and hoped she would be able to bring him out of it and to the task at hand.
"Heero," she began softly, "my cousin is alive. Duo is alive and he needs you. You have to snap out of it, please."
The words 'Duo is alive and he needs you' reached through the fog Heero was trapped in. He blinked and looked down at Hilde. Suddenly his whole being felt suffused with and almost blinding light as hope flowed through him. He straightened his shoulders and regained his former confident demeanor.
"Father, I'll need fifty men. I want there to be no chance that any of Dermail's men survive this time. We will leave immediately. Duo will not be left there another day."
Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei turned towards him, immeasurably grateful that he seemed to be back to his old self. King Odin nodded at his son. He hadn't realized the depth of the feelings that existed between Heero and his braided valet. The depression that had threatened to swallow Heero whole had opened the king's eyes even while it grieved his heart. He was glad that his son would now find some measure of peace ... even if it would only be for a limited time.
The fifty Hane soldiers made no sound as they surrounded Dermail's camp. Heero studied the layout of the encampment to confirm the soundness of his plan of attack.
The Hane force had arrived fairly early the morning following Wufei and Trowa's discovery. Only a few of Dermail's soldiers were about. The rest were still sleeping in their tents. Wufei stood next to Heero and indicated which tent Duo was being kept in. Heero nodded and quietly addressed his men.
"Archers will set all of the tents on fire, except for the prisoner's tent and the duke's tent. I want to see Dermail die with my own eyes," Heero growled. "Swordsmen, you'll clean up any soldiers that remain after the initial attack. I want this finished as quickly as possible."
As the archers prepared their flaming arrows, Heero turned to Quatre.
"Quatre, I want you to find Duo. If he's locked up or he's hurt in someway, you can more easily free him or heal him enough so he can leave with us."
Quatre nodded his understanding.
Heero looked around and saw that his archers were ready. Making sure he had everyone's attention, he raised his right arm. The archers raised their bows, fitted with blazing arrows, and aimed at various tents. Then Heero drew his raised arm forward sharply and the archers released fiery death on Dermail's camp.
The few soldiers who were milling about were immediately caught in the onslaught. Soon, disoriented and confused, soldiers began to pour from the engulfed tents.
Heero yelled the order to attack and he and his men surged out of the woods and besieged Dermail's encampment.
Quatre avoided the battling soldiers as he made his way quickly to the tent were Duo was being kept. He stepped inside and paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim confines.
"Duo," he called. "Where are you?"
Quatre heard a moan and turned to a blanket-covered mound that lay on the floor. He rushed over and pulled back the blanket. There he found Duo, chained to the floor and suffering from obvious abuse. Quatre sucked in his breath at the sight of the mistreated but somehow still handsome boy and placed a hand on Duo's shoulder.
"Duo, are you alright?"
Duo, wracked with pain from the abuse he'd suffered the previous night and weak from the duke's spell, thought he was dreaming. When the question was repeated, however, he opened his eyes, hardly daring to believe that it really was who he thought it was.
"Quatre, is that really you?" Duo looked up and into the relieved, smiling face of the blond mage.
"Yes, Duo, it's me. I can't believe it! You're really alive." Quatre's smile grew broader. Then he remembered the task at hand. He used his unlock spell to free Duo from his shackles.
"Can you stand," he asked.
Duo shook his head. "Dermail put me under some sort of spell that makes me too weak to move much on my own."
"A disabling spell," Quatre murmured. He closed his eyes and placed his hands on Duo's head to judge the strength of the spell.
Quatre was surprised that Duo was as lucid and coherent as he seemed to be. The strength of the disabling spell Duo was under would usually render its victim unconscious. Something must have somehow reduced the power of the duke's spell.
Rather than waste time now trying to solve the mystery, Quatre quickly invoked a spell of his own to counteract the duke's magic and heal Duo from the worst of his aches and pains.
Duo immediately got to his feet, obviously feeling much better. He smiled his thanks and went to retrieve his boots. Before he put them on, however, he reached inside them and removed his knives. Quatre opened his mouth to ask the obvious question but Duo preempted him.
"Dermail left my weapons nearby, knowing I was too weak to use them. It was his idea of a joke."
Quatre shook his head in disgust. "Let's go," he said. Duo didn't need to be told twice and they exited the tent to find the battle nearly over.
All of the soldiers lying dead on the ground wore Dermail's colors. Heero's plan to attack while the enemy was disoriented had been very successful.
Duo looked around eagerly, searching for Heero. He opened his mouth to ask Quatre for his whereabouts when he finally caught sight of his beloved prince.
Duo froze, letting his long deprived eyes drink in the sight of Heero skillfully fighting two soldiers at once. His movements were quick and sure, his strength ferocious. The two men fell quickly before him.
Duo took an unconscious step closer to his lover and opened his mouth to yell a greeting when he saw one of Dermail's men moving up to an unaware Heero from behind, sword poised for a killing blow.
"Heero, get down!"
Heero dropped to the ground, not questioning the order, although the voice was hauntingly familiar. He looked over his shoulder to see the soldier that had been trying to sneak up behind him lying on the ground dead, a knife buried in his eye socket. Heero knew only one person who had such deadly accuracy. He turned back around slowly, his mind struggling to process what his heart screamed was true.
Duo stood there, no less that twenty yards away, arm still in position from his incredible saving throw. He slowly lowered his arm back to his side as his eyes locked with Heero's. Slowly Duo smiled.
Heero stared as he finally accepted the amazing reality.
Duo was alive.