The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Nineteen - Since Thou Dost Not Hate Me Quite
Duo groaned in pain as he rubbed his rump where it had struck the dry road. It wasn't the first time his questions had caused that kind of a reaction, but the shopkeeper had been a lot stronger than he looked.
He sat up fully and turned toward the sound of his name to see two horsemen approaching. His mouth dropped open. This could not be. Sir Yuy and Lord Winner should not be here in Nevers.
"I must be dreaming," Duo said, looking straight up at the man on the brown steed.
"'Tis not a dream, Duo," Lord Winner said, dismounting and kneeling next to him.
Duo stared into the nobleman's face, disbelieving. "Then I am dead. This is but a strange vision to ferry me over to the afterlife."
"Nay, Duo. It is I, Quatre Winner. We have been searching for you."
Duo looked to Sir Yuy standing there, having also dismounted his horse. He was as fierce and beautiful as ever, and a sight Duo never expected to see again. It had been so many weeks, and Duo had traveled so many miles that it seemed improbable for their paths to cross. Then it occurred to him that something terrible must have happened for them to journey this far to find him.
"Do you bring ill tidings? Has Wufei...?"
"Take heart. Wufei grows stronger every day," Lord Winner said.
"His Grace is most robust." The gentle nobleman held out his hand, assisting Duo to his feet.
"I am pleased to hear it," Duo said, brushing the dust from his black tunic and hose. "Pray tell me of your errand."
Quatre glanced at his companion.
"You will cease tracking the rogues," Sir Yuy said.
Duo cocked his head, puzzled. "You came all this way to tell me that?"
"It is a knight's duty to uphold the law of the land. Those men are none of your concern."
"Methinks not," Duo said. Had the knight taken a more pleasant tone, Duo might have acquiesced to a less prominent role in this search, but as usual Sir Yuy preferred force to diplomacy. To illustrate his independence, Duo patted the sword at his side. "Is your concern with the rogues or with me? I believe you cannot rest knowing that I have broken free of my chains."
"You live above your station," Knight Yuy said.
Quatre stepped closer to get a proper look at Duo's sword. "Where did you get that? You did not leave the castle with a sword."
"I bought it," Duo said, raising his chin. "The bow and arrows proved an inefficient defense."
Sir Yuy growled. "You have no right... Great responsibility comes with wearing a sword."
"I agree that you have taken this too far," Lord Winner said. "Give up your sword and return to the castle with me."
The nobleman's pleading tone nearly faltered Duo's resolve, but so deep was his commitment to his goal that he could not waver. If he was to become a knight - a titled nobleman - then he could not fail. "I must continue!"
"But Duo, please listen."
Sir Yuy stepped forward, coming within arm's length of Duo. "Can you not see that you are a danger to yourself and the citizenry around you?"
"I know the odds are against me," Duo said, gritting his teeth. "But I cannot allow a little danger to deter my efforts."
"A little danger?" Lord Winner asked.
"Your words illustrate most clearly that you lack the ability to succeed," Sir Yuy said.
Duo's cheeks grew flush with anger. He curled his hand around the hilt of his sword. "You know me not, sir."
"You will desist," Sir Yuy said.
"By whose authority do you propose to stop me?"
"By mine own." The knight's words were annunciated carefully, forcefully.
"And how do you propose to stop me?" Duo asked, testing the waters.
Knight Yuy put his hand to his sword's hilt - a small gesture with great consequences. Duo was not so foolish as to think his dueling skills were anything close to the knight's, but he did believe he had enough training to go a round or two against him. Perhaps that would be sufficient to convince the noblemen to leave him be.
He took a step back, and stood with his feet aligned with his shoulders for balance, as Sir Chang had taught.
Lord Winner moved between his stubborn friends, holding up his hands to calm them. "We should not fight each other. We share a common goal. Let us unify to defeat our enemies."
"I will not ally with an untested swordsman," Sir Yuy said.
"Then test me," Duo said with a sneer.
He had not imagined his end this way - their end. Duo had preferred not to be faced with the problem of his heart again. It would have been so much simpler if Sir Yuy had stayed away. Now all the feelings he had buried were surfacing in a mix of anger and regret. Why had this man pursued him to Nevers when the Duke must have told him that Duo would not return? Was the knight's hatred for Duo so great that he needed to taunt him all the way to the Gates of Hell?
By now, people had gathered around them, villagers curious and excited to witness a fight. They were openly wagering on the outcome. None favored Duo.
So be it, Duo thought, drawing his sword from its sheath. "I am ready, sir knight."
Quatre gasped. "Pray stop!"
"Step aside, my lord, and let me teach him what I learned from Sir Chang."
"I fear it was too little," Knight Yuy said.
"Of course, your teachings were most plentiful." Duo spoke with sarcasm. "You have insulted me enough for one lifetime, sir. Now give me satisfaction."
The knight looked Duo over and scanned the growing crowd of onlookers. "Very well." He drew his sword, prompting the crowd to take several steps back, forming a wide circle around them.
Lord Winner reluctantly stepped back with the horses. His face was sad, but he seemed resigned to letting the two resolve this matter with their swords.
Duo took the fighting stance that Wufei had taught him, holding his heavy, double-edged sword with both hands. Sir Yuy also moved into a fighting position. The scene was reminiscent of the one at the castle when the knight had made a fool of Duo in front of the other nobles. The memory boiled inside Duo. This time he was prepared, and would not let the knight best him.
The instant Duo leaned more heavily on one foot, Sir Yuy sprang forward. The knight's attack was so quick, and so fierce that Duo barely had time to raise his sword in defense. The sound of the steel clashing rang loudly in the street and the crowd let out a cheer. Sir Yuy pressed forward, and Duo pushed him back. Their swords crossed, and their bodies pressed against each other, each man trying to move the other aside.
Sir Yuy bumped Duo's leg with his thigh, setting Duo off balance. They broke apart, giving Duo a moment to catch his breath. The knight was powerful, deceptively strong for his size. He lunged again for Duo, but this time Duo met that force with an angry snarl. Duo's arms ached as their swords pressed together. He would not relent. To stop now, to admit defeat to Sir Yuy, would be to give up on his dream.
The knight's face was mere inches away, his breath mingling with Duo's, and brushing his cheek. The closeness triggered sweet memories of their brief encounters. The warmth they had shared. The taste of Sir Yuy's kisses. The remembrances flooded Duo, overwhelming his conviction. He had not counted on the good memories overriding the bad, and knocking him asunder. He could not go on. He could not fight the one he had loved... still loved. It tore at his heart, ripping his chest open to see this man again. The man he could never have.
He pushed away from his opponent, crying out with an anguished wail. Safely out of reach to another quick attack, Duo sheathed his sword. The crowd jeered and booed.
"I am done with you, sir." Duo clenched his fists at his side, trying to maintain composure as he stared at the knight.
Sir Yuy gave Duo a long look as he lowered his sword, and slowly sheathed it. Duo expected the knight to mock him, but no assault came.
Duo gave a sharp nod, turned, and walked away. The crowd shouted after him for ending the fight abruptly, but Duo did not care. He could not go on hurting like this.
~ ~ ~
"Duo!" Lord Winner called as he stepped towards him.
Heero reached out, grabbing Quatre by the arm. "Let him go."
The noblemen watched as Duo disappeared from view, and the onlookers gradually dispersed. Heero had hoped that Duo would see reason, but the young man was true to form - stubborn and disrespectful. It was a wonder he still had his tongue.
"You are the greatest fool I have ever known," Quatre said.
"Perhaps it was foolish of me to spare his life."
"How noble of you." Quatre's hands were curled into fists and he seemed ready to unleash a barrage of criticism, but instead turned for his horse and mounted it. "It is past time to meet Trowa."
Heero nodded and pulled himself into his horse's saddle, giving one last look in the direction Duo had gone. This was not over yet.
He and Quatre returned to the village square where Trowa was waiting. The stable hand had managed to secure a room at an inn, even with the great crowds here for the jousting tournament. They would need to stay at least the night, and re-assess what to do about the rogues and their roguish friend.
At dinner, Quatre barely spoke to Heero, but that was better than having him pick apart and expose Heero's emotions. The knight felt raw and dissatisfied from the encounter with Duo. He should have played things differently, but as always when he was around Duo, Heero's temperature rose. Perhaps if he had finished the fight, instead of allowing Duo to stand down, a resolution would have been found. But what resolution would have been satisfactory? Was he really after Duo's submission? Would it please him to have Duo stand meekly by his side as Heero vanquished the countryside of rogues?
It was true that Heero resented a commoner's interference in knightly matters, but it was also true that he had gone after Duo to... rescue him. When he had learned of Duo's fate, alone on the road and pursuing a menacing gang of thieves, tightness took hold of Heero's chest like a falcon's claws had pinned him to the ground. Nothing could have prevented him from this search, from saving Duo from his own stupidity, and from seeing that beautiful face again.
He pushed his plate away, the leg of lamb only half eaten. "This has to stop."
"What pray tell?" Quatre asked.
Heero's mind was filled with images and sensations from that afternoon. When their swords had clashed, a glint of sunlight off the steel edge shimmered in Duo's eyes. Heero should have been concentrating on the fight, but in that moment he was reminded of how easily Duo could captivate him. From the start of their acquaintance, he had struggled against the youth's allure. That was why he had backed away from Duo's training, leaving the tailor's son to the influence of a foreign prince. The non-traditional training must have been to his liking, because Duo's strikes with the sword were stronger and his balance better.
"He has improved... enough for me to worry all the more."
"What are you talking about?" Quatre asked.
"Duo. I cannot let him get hurt." Heero got up from the bench, his fists resting on the table.
"Friend, sit down and finish your meal. We can look for him after supper."
"I should go... I will make inquiries and see you anon."
"The guilt is not yours to bear alone," Quatre said. "We all let Duo down... even Duo himself. After all, he was the first to draw his sword."
Heero blinked. "He drew his sword, because I provoked him. There has to be another way to deter him from this path."
The path that led to danger, the path that led away from Heero.
Quatre opened his mouth to speak again, but Trowa wisely placed his hand over his lover's, silencing him. With a nod of reluctant approval, Quatre watched Heero leave the inn.
Heero set off on foot through the streets, walking into every public house in search of Duo's cocky grin. He was not sure what he would say or how he would act when he found him, but he had to get Duo to return to the safety of Castle Khushrenada. Perhaps then they could begin again. After all, the Duke had implied that Duo had been unhappy after Heero's departure, and that the knight no longer needed to guard his "admiration" for Duo.
The next tavern he came upon had a wooden sign hanging out front with the image of an anvil, a pitcher and a cup. The Anvil seemed a strange name for a public house, but he went inside. The tavern was busting with a rough crowd of large, brutish men and overly perfumed prostitutes. It was not a place he would choose to be, but he would make a thorough search of it before moving onto the next drinking house. He eased his way between the tables, glancing at the card games as he crossed the room to where the proprietor and an assistant were pouring wine and ale from kegs for the customers.
It was then that he saw Duo with a mug of ale in hand, and a broad, hairy man at his side. Heero slowed his steps, relieved that Duo had not fled town. Of course, that also meant that Duo was still on the trail of the rogues.
The man bent closer to Duo, and whispered something in his ear, causing Duo's cheeks to blush crimson. Heero's fists clenched. Even at thirty paces he understood the meaning of cheeks that brightly colored, and where Duo's rendezvous could lead. The man's hand slid out of sight, and Heero rushed forward, pushing past the smelly, drunken patrons until he was standing in front of Duo and his companion. Now he could plainly see that the man's hand was on Duo's behind, in a crude, possessive display.
Duo saw Heero in that instant, and his features quickly turned to anger. "I have nothing to say to you."
"Shove off," the burly drunk said. He was a head taller and twice as broad than Heero.
"I do not take orders from a sheepherder," Heero said, derogatively.
"And I do not take orders from the likes of you."
"Step aside," Heero said with authority. "I have business with this man."
"He does not want to speak with you."
Heero's hand went to the hilt of his sword.
"Oh, is that how you want it?" The man laughed.
"Find your own wench," the proprietor shouted at Heero. "Or take your fight outside."
Duo turned to sneer at the proprietor, no doubt for the 'wench' remark, and the drunk grabbed him about the waist, pulling him closer.
Heero could barely contain his rage at seeing the man's grimy hands on Duo. It had been difficult enough when Duo was with the Duke, but this was intolerable.
"Duo, I came to tell you - " The rest of his words gasped out as he was sucker punched in the stomach, doubling him over.
The drunk laughed in triumph. "Now get out before I dirty that pretty face of yours."
"Leave him be, Jacques," Duo said.
Heero stood, clutching his stomach. Jacques stepped towards him, and held an arm out to prevent Duo from interfering.
"Sir knight," Duo said with concern in his eyes. "You should go."
"Not until he stops touching you," Heero said, growling the words between clenched teeth.
Duo blinked in bewilderment, but then chuckled. "I am all astonishment at your words, for I am not your charge, nor your servant, squire or lover."
The last word of that statement hushed a group of patrons at a table nearby. "You a fairy knight?" one of the men asked as he got to his feet a bit unsteadily.
Heero sighed, not needing more men to get involved in this. "Duo, please, if you would only speak with me."
Jacques answered the request by lunging for the knight like an ox in a barnyard. Heero dodged the attack only to come up face-to-face with three drunks, fists flying. A couple of hits connected, but were weak from all the ale the men had been drinking. Heero struck back, swinging hard blows, and knocking all three out. In less than a minute, half the men in the tavern were fighting, and the prostitutes, too. A full-on brawl had erupted, though it was no longer directed at Heero.
A hand clamped down on his shoulder, and Heero spun around, fist flying in defense. Too late he saw the beautiful face, and struck Duo in the cheek, sending him reeling backwards onto the floor. Heero dove under the fray to kneel beside Duo who was lying flat on his back and unconscious.
He shook Duo's shoulders to rouse him. "Duo! Duo!"
Slowly, violet eyes blinked open. "I suffer at your hand," Duo said, and then drifted again into unconsciousness.
Heero shook his head, frustrated at the mess he had made. He had to put things right, but first he had to get them out of here before they received further injury. He slipped his arms beneath Duo's knees and shoulders, pulling him close to his chest as he lifted him and carefully avoided the wrestling, punching, bottle throwing men.
Outside in the back alleyway, he stumbled over a wooden crate, losing his balance and tumbling them both to the ground. The fall jostled Duo into wakefulness. He slowly got to his knees, and just as Heero did as well, Duo slugged him across the chin.
"You great fool!" Duo shouted.
The blow was enough to knock Heero on his ass. "That man would have used you," he said, rubbing his jaw.
"He had information for me."
"You would bed a stranger for information?"
"Everything has its price, sir knight."
"And what is the price of giving yourself away?"
Duo growled and held up his hand to strike him again, but this time Heero was ready. He grabbed Duo's wrist in mid-air. They stared at each other in the dim light of the alley with the noise of the raucous brawl still going on inside the tavern.
Duo wrenched his wrist away. "You think very little of me to assume I would..." He was silent for a moment before continuing. "Jacques needed more persuasion, but I would not have done that." He gritted his teeth and turned his face away.
Heero felt a stab of guilt for that assumption, but also jealousy. The memory of that man touching Duo had made his blood boil. "There are other ways to get information."
"I know," Duo said, glaring back at him. "You probably think that I found this place on a lark. I could not have possibly tracked the rogues here."
"You tracked them here?"
Duo smirked. "Why should I bother telling you? You would not believe me. In your eyes, I am only a courtesan, pretending to be a swordsman."
"You should give up the sword."
"Because only a nobleman can be so skilled?"
Yesterday, Heero would have agreed, but after crossing swords with Duo, he felt differently. In truth, Duo had improved, significantly, but to compliment him now would be to encourage him on this dangerous path. "You must give up. I do not wish to see you hurt."
"You have hurt me far more than any sword could." Duo moved to stand, but Heero grabbed his arm.
"Where are you going?" Heero asked.
"To bed... alone. Now leave me be, sir knight."
Heero released Duo's arm, and put his head in his hands. He was exhausted in so many ways. He had to think, find a way to get Duo back to the inn where Quatre could talk some sense into him.
"Are you injured?"
"Hmm?" Heero looked up, surprised that Duo was still kneeling before him.
"Are you injured? You lied to me before, and that brute struck you hard."
The soft concern in Duo's voice was soothing and reminiscent of the tone Duo had used in the barn, when they were traveling alone to Lyon. Duo had been so attentive and charming, and warm that day. How lovely it would be to experience that again.
"I have lied to you," Heero said.
"You should not, if you are injured." Duo's eyes swept over Heero's body searching for a visible wound. "Show me where it hurts."
Heero swallowed hard and pointed to his heart. "Here. This is where the pain is most great."
Duo leaned closer. "I see no blood. Perhaps if we move closer to a lamplight - "
"It is not an injury you can see, but one that you have caused."
Duo shook his head in bewilderment. "Your words are most peculiar, sir. Are you feverish?" He pushed the bangs away from Heero's forehead and placed his hand there. "You do not feel unusually warm."
Yet, Duo's touch sent warmth though Heero's entire body. "My heart aches," he said, taking Duo's hand from his forehead and clasping it over his heart. "Duo, I am trying, most unsuccessfully, to tell you that my heart aches for you."
Duo pulled his hand away immediately. "You jest and torment me at every turn."
"I did torment you and pushed you away, because I was tempted by your beauty. There was no room for my feelings when you were with the Duke."
"Feelings? You scorned me and shamed me... the only feelings you showed were those of contempt."
"And for that I am truly sorry."
Duo tilted his head. "Are you... apologizing?"
Heero nodded. "I pray you will accept my apology for wrongs committed out of confusion and pride."
Duo sat back on his heels, and scratched his head. "I have never heard you speak this way."
"Nor have I... If only Quatre were here to tell me what to say next."
Duo gave a little laugh, but quickly forced the grin from his face. "I thank you for your apology, sir knight. I regret that we were unable - "
Impulsively, Heero lifted his hand to Duo's cheek and caressed it.
Duo's breath hitched. "Why did you do that?"
"Do you remember when you served me wine at your family's home?"
"Yea, but - "
"Your hair brushed against my cheek."
The memory was welcome and comforting on this night, and Heero let it wash over him, urging him on. He could do this, he could reveal his heart to Duo, and be damned the consequences if Duo would not have him. "You were so beautiful to me... even then."
Heero leaned towards Duo, searching his eyes. "Shall I show you how my fate was sealed?"
Duo was shaking his head, confused, but wide-eyed with curiosity. Heero might not have gone further, but then he saw the pale blush on Duo's cheeks. It was the last ounce of encouragement he needed.
"Remember the barn?" Heero closed the space between them and placed a kiss on Duo's lips. The tremble of those lips against his sent a spike of arousal through Heero.
Duo leaned into the kiss, fervent in his acceptance, and then suddenly pulled back. "We should not. It never ends well when we kiss."
Heero took Duo's hands in his. "You told me once that you are mine for the taking. Tell me your feelings remain true, and I will honor you and love you with my heart, body and soul."
A gasp escaped Duo's lips. "You know I have waited for those words."
"Then tell me you want me still."
Duo's hands trembled and his eyes filled with tears. "Do not ask this of me."
"I thought you would be pleased."
Heero understood the silence, and that look in Duo's eyes. He had hurt Duo deeply, and it would take more than a few pretty words to mend the bridge between them.
"You are right to hesitate," Heero said. "I have been the worst sort of man to you. I mistreated you to protect myself, because I had fallen in love with you... and I could not have you. It makes no sense when I speak of it now, but at the time it seemed my only defense."
Duo's brow furrowed. "You doth not hate me?"
"This is no place to tell you," he said, looking at the smelly, dark alley around them. "But at last you have the truth. I love you, Duo, and I do not want to deny it anymore."
Duo's hands slipped out of his, and for a painful heartbeat, Heero feared that Duo would run away. Instead, Duo cupped his hands around Heero's cheeks and leaned in until their foreheads touched. "Is this a dream? You love me?"
"Tell me you will have me, Duo, and I will show you my love is not a dream."
"Here, in the alleyway?" Duo chuckled.
"Anywhere you like." Heero kissed Duo then, hard, quieting Duo's nervous laughter and hopefully his doubts.
When Duo returned the kiss, Heero felt his heart swell in his chest, swell and beat harder. He kissed Duo, again and again, until Duo's mouth opened and let Heero's tongue slip inside. They grasped each other, wrapping their arms around each other, and moaned into the kisses.
Heero felt a soaring exhilaration, knowing at last that Duo was his to kiss, to touch, and to love.