by Dyna Dee
The Prince's Heart had turned to go the kitchen as Quatre went to Master Thad for his afternoon training session. He was soon happily ensconced in the daily chores of the kitchen, up to his elbows in bread dough. This was his favorite chore that the kitchen staff had set for him to do while he visited them daily. Netta, a kitchen worker around his age, had initially teased him for being in the kitchen, but the two quickly formed a friendly, bantering friendship. Her temperament reminded him of Irea and they were developing a brother/sister like relationship.
The girl smiled at the boy across from her. She knew better than to allow herself to feel anything more than friendship for the unusually handsome boy. After all, he was the Prince's Heart. That announcement had hit the inner workings of the castle almost immediately after the Prince announced it, as well as his cousin Treize strong-spoken objections.
Netta frowned at the thought of the King's nephew. The castle's staff made sure to see to his needs when he visited, but they also avoided he and his First. There had been a few slight incidents over the years between Treize and Prince Heero that were well known to all those working and living within Castle Bronwyn. It seemed to many that the jealousy of the father seemed to have trickle down to his son. Netta sighed as she thought about it. The King's twin had paid for his jealousy with banishment from his home and family. Only Treize had been allowed to remain within the borders of Bronwyn as the good king did not want to blame the son for the father's misdeeds. She just hoped that history wouldn't repeat itself.
She pointedly changed the direction of her thoughts as she looked up at Duo, his hands covered in flour and dough, his sleeves rolled up, and a smudge of flour on his cheek and nose. She couldn't help the smile that grew on her face.
"Netta." a female voice called out the girl's name, causing both she and Duo to look up to see her mother, another kitchen worker, approach with a large wooden bowl in one hand and a bucket in the other. "Here are some scraps for the ducks and geese in the pond and slop for the pigs. I need you to feed them."
Duo could see the bowl was filled with dried bread and the bucket was full of just about everything that was leftover from the morning and afternoon meals. "Ducks and geese?" He asked. He'd seen the pigs near the stable, but not the fowl.
Netta's eyes sparkled. "Wanna come? It's fun." she urged, hoping for company.
Duo nodded and picking up a damp cloth next to him, wiped the flour from his hands and quickly brushed any flour remnants from the front of his clothing. Rodette, Netta's mother, brushed off the flour on his face in a motherly fashion, smiling at the blushing boy. "Go on, just be careful of those fierce fowl." she admonished with a teasing voice and a merry chuckle.
The Prince's Fourth took up the bucket and Netta carried the bowl. They casually made their way out the side door towards the stable yard. The brown haired girl walked with a sturdy stride. In fact, Duo used that word to describe her to the others. Sturdy. She was a bit taller than he, but surely outweighed him by another person. She was a combination of muscle and over feeding that was an added bonus to all who worked within the confines of the warm kitchen. She wore the common dress of a castle worker: a plain brown skirt with a woven blue blouse that was gathered at the shoulders blades by a drawn string through the top edge of the fabric and tied in front above her ample breasts. Her rounded figure matched her rounded face and large brown eyes. She wasn't what one would consider beautiful, but attractive in a healthy, natural way.
As they walked, she teased him about the way flour was attracted to him and about his hair and face being prettier than any woman's that she'd ever seen. He took her teasing in good humor, though blushed with embarrassment as she flattered his appearance. Approaching the pig's sty, she pointed out the trough and directed him to dump the contents of the bucket into it. He worked his way around the fenced area and hoisting the bucket over the top, dumped it into the trough. They both watched with amusement as the small population of swine ambled over as quickly as they could to shove their snouts into the muck.
Leaving the happy squealing animals behind, Duo followed her to an unfamiliar gate in the tall stone outer-wall of the castle that he'd never been through before. It took the both of them to pull open the heavy metal door, but at last, they prevailed and stood outside the castle walls. The castle of Bronwyn was constructed on a hilltop, and standing just outside it's wall, the hill sloped downward until, at the bottom of the steep incline, there sat a pond at the juncture to where another hill began to rise. From their point of view, Duo could see several varieties of geese and ducks floating on the water's surface and resting on the banks. On the lower edge of the pond were thickets of reeds, pussy willows, and shrubbery.
"Pretty, isn't it?" Netta asked as she watched the boy's face and grabbed hold of his hand. "Let's go." Pulling him along, they ran down the hill. Ducks and birds that lay in their path of descent flew out of their way as the two barreled down, laughter heralding their way. Netta took a handful of bread and threw it out, and with delight they both watched the birds and fowl scramble for the scraps. She held the bowl out for Duo to help, then noticed his smile fading as he looked back up at the castle wall, now high above them.
"I don't think I'm suppose to be here." he said worriedly.
"We're safe here." Netta reassured him with a casual shrug, dismissing his concerns. "I do this all the time." she explained. "And, after all, we are on the King's land and you're wearing the Prince's emblem of protection." she motioned to his blue vest.
Still, Duo hesitated and looked concerned.
"This will only take a few moments, then we'll return. Alright?" she held out the bowl to him again.
"Very well." he replied and offered a slight smile. Sticking his hand in the bucket, he grabbed a handful of dried bread and flung it outward towards the ducklings on the outer ring of the more aggressive ducks and geese. The two laughed at the antics of the animals before them, and were so caught up in their activity that they failed to notice several men sitting in the shadows of the brush and reeds at the edge of the pond.
The girl's sharp intake of breath alerted the braided boy's attention from the ducks and geese back to her. He looked up to see her staring wide-eyed over his shoulder. Turning his head in that direction, he was surprised to see three men scrambling towards them from the brush.
"Run!" Netta cried as she dropped the bowl, gathered up her skirt, and began to scamper up the hillside towards the castle, Duo was quick to follow. As he climbed the steep slope just behind the girl and nearing the mid-way mark, his ankle was grabbed and he was pulled off his feet and down onto the ground. A moment later, Netta, too, was felled by another assailant.
Instinctively, the braided boy rolled himself over and began to fight off the attacker above him. Yet not having learned much on how to protect himself, he used all that he had; his hands, feet, teeth and fingernails were his only weapons. As the larger man struggled to pin the boy to the ground, Duo flung his free arm upward, managing to rake his fingernails across the man's face. It was then, in a moment when both man and boy froze in realization that he had injured the man, that he got a good look at his assailant. Of course the man was bigger than he, and he wore an unkept, scraggly beard. He was dirty and smelled of sweat and dirt and other unidentifiable things. His sneering smile showed rotten and few teeth in his mouth, and his breath was indescribably foul.
A scream turned Duo's head away from the awful spectacle above him. Netta, fighting for all she was worth, was being dragged down the hill by two of the men. She was crying and calling for help just before one of the men put a filthy hand over her mouth to silence her.
Pulling his knees up as close to his chest as possible, Duo managed to plant his booted feet up against the man's chest and flung him backwards and off of him, sending the smelly bugger tumbling down the hill. He quickly jumped to his feet and ran to help his friend, throwing himself at the closest man as he tried to tackle him to the ground. Unfortunately, his body mass was barely enough to make the man stumble more than a foot or two. That man then turned and back handed the boy across the face, a fierce pain was immediately stung his lip. Duo stumbled to regain his footing and, with anger welling inside him, he once again threw himself at the same man, only lower this time and succeeded in knocking them both to the ground. Both boy and man recovered quickly and scrambled to their feet. Duo turned and ran for the other man who still had his hands on Netta, who was not cooperating with her attacker in the least. Fortunately, the man was distracted, his back to what was happening behind him, and Duo leapt through the air, landing on the man's back, his arms flung around the attacker's neck cutting off his breathing.
The singer's head suddenly snapped back as his braid was savagely pulled from behind. His arms released the man in front of him as he fell backwards and onto the ground. Netta took advantage of her captor's distraction and turning, kicked him right between the legs. The man's eyes bulged and he folded in upon himself gasping for air and let go of her arm.
Meanwhile, the angry man he'd tackled moments before threw himself on the grounded boy, sitting on his mid section. Bringing up his hand and clutching his fist, he lowered it forcefully, hitting the boy in the face. He smiled with grizzly satisfaction as the boy immediately stopped squirming and looked dazed. His satisfaction, however, was short lived as the girl threw her considerable weight at him, knocking him off the slender boy.
With his head and face throbbing in pain, Duo rolled himself off his back and onto his hands and knees just as his first attacker reached him and kicked the unsuspecting boy in the stomach, flipping him over onto his back again.
Gasping to regain the air knocked out of him, Duo found himself unable to stand up to defend himself. He felt his braid grabbed by the nape of his neck and he was pulled to his knees. Someone else grabbed him from behind and pulled his arms back behind him, causing even more pain. Then he found himself roughly pulled to his feet. He looked up just as he saw another equally and desperately ugly wretch of a man raise a fist and hit him on the opposite side of the face from his last blow.
"Are you crazy?" Duo barley heard Netta scream in anger as she fought off the third man. "He's the Prince's Heart. You are dead men!"
The statement didn't seem to impress the man in front of him as several more blows from his fist impacted on the boy's torso and face.
The Prince's Fourth was not aware when he was abruptly let go, or that he had dropped to the ground in a heap. Nor did he hear the three attackers scream in fright as an angry Wufei ran towards them, his sword in hand, and a much taller red-headed man followed closely behind, also brandishing his weapon. Their screams eluded him as their lives ended by the sword of justice and vengeance.
He came out of the darkness into the bleak awareness of pain, and that he was being held in someone's arms, someone who was apparently walking quickly, while a flurry of urgent whispers surrounded them. The events of what just happened brought back the urgent need to escape, and he began to struggle to free himself of the hold on him.
"Easy boy. You're safe now." a soft timbered voice assured him. Managing to open one pain-filled eye, Duo saw the red hair and recognized that it was Jens, the King's Heart, who was carrying him.
"Netta?" he managed to say, though he quickly discovered talking hurt.
"She's fine." Jens assured him. "In fact, she's in much better shape than you are."
The braided boy carefully nuzzled his face into the older man's shoulder with a feeling a dread descending on him. He knew he was in trouble now.
Tearfully, Quatre lifted a cup of broth to Duo's swollen and split lower lip. His right eye was swollen completely shut and discoloring, as was the left side of his face, though he could manage to peer out for that eye just slightly. But after seeing Wufei's scowling countenance, he decided he would prefer it to be as completely swollen completely shut as the other eye.
"You disobeyed Prince Heero by going outside the wall." Wufei stated cooly, his anger in check for the moment.
"Don't scold him now, Wufei." Quatre pleaded. "He's in pain."
"And I'm left to explain this to Heero. Not a pleasant place to be in, I assure you." he snapped back.
"Thorry. Tho thorry." Duo mumbled quietly through pained lips and an aching face.
"You had better be!" the Princes Hand replied with a snarl. "You are confined to your room until Heero returns. Then you can explain to him why you disobeyed him and nearly lost your life."
"I'll stay with you, Duo." Quatre gently offered as he lifted the cup again to his friend's lips.
"No, you won't." Wufei countered. "He will stay here alone and you will continue with your daily schedule.
"No buts!" Wufei interrupted the sympathetic blonde. "He'll finish his broth and we'll dress him for bed, then we'll retire to our own rooms."
Quatre wanted to continue to protest, but he had learned from experience that Wufei took his obligations seriously, and when he made his mind up on Duo's punishment, he knew there would be no changing it. He nodded his acceptance of the situation and with sorrowful eyes, he turned to finish his task.
As the trio entered the main courtyard, they exchanged curious glances at not seeing the customary welcoming group of people at their arrival. Leading the horses to the King's stables, Heero looked up the castle wall where the royal chambers were and frowned. He couldn't sense Wufei even though he sent out his greeting of arrival. "Something's wrong." he stated out loud as he dismounted and handed the reins to the stable master.
"Has everything been all right while we were gone?" Trowa asked the elderly man who mumbled an incoherent reply about some excitement. He quickly turned to lead the three horses away.
"I wonder what's amiss?" Rolf asked as they began to walk towards the castle door.
"Look there." Trowa's hand directed their eyes to the side door where in the shadows stood Wufei and Quatre, both looking uneasy.
"Where's Duo?" Heero asked, his worry turning to alarm. With a quick step he approached the two, forcing himself not to run. He could sense Wufei's apology and Quatre looked to be on the verge of tears. He stopped just before them and, after only a moment's hesitation, the small blonde launched himself unto is chest, hugging him fiercely.
Barely audible, the smaller boy began to cry against him, his words coming out in a rush. "Duo didn't mean to, Heero. Don't be mad. Wufei did a wonderful job watching over us. Don't be angry with him. Duo's in pain, please don't scold him. I'm so glad you're back. Everything will be alright now."
Quatre's emotion and slurred words made it difficult for the homecoming three to understand just what was going on, but they began to piece it together. Heero held the trembling boy in his arms and looked over his shoulder to his First whose face bore the look of dread.
The King's Hand had observed the scene before him with curiosity. Through the open doorway and behind Wufei, he saw Jens and his own wife waving him to bypass the Four and come to them for an explanation.
"Excuse me." he worked around the group and slid into the castle doorway. He could see the growing tension as the Prince and his Hand communicated wordlessly. He knew his questions would be answered momentarily, also.
Duo sat on the thick rug in front of his hearth, his body stiff and his thin legs crossed under him. It was one of the few positions that he deemed semi-comfortable, that is if he didn't more or breath too deeply. He gazed at the dancing flames coming from the burning logs in the fireplace. He wore only his breeches, warm woollen socks, and his white shirt that tied down the front. He left his over shirt and blue vest in his trunk, not knowing if he would ever wear them again. His unbound hair warmed his back as, once again, his mind turned to his predicament. Wufei was very angry with him, and he had indicated that Heero would be most displeased with his disobedience. He'd been left alone in his room for three days now. Quatre was only allowed to give him his meals. He had been his only visitor except the housekeeper, who gazed sympathetically at him as she silently tidied his chamber. He worried the entire time as to what the prince's reaction would be. Would he cast him out of the castle? Out of the Four? He became frightened and despondent at the thought. Master Rem was long gone and he didn't know where he would go or what he would do if he was turned out of the castle. His worry caused him to have an unsettled stomach and he hadn't been able to eat his last two meals because of it, even though those meals were mostly porridge and soups, soft foot that took little chewing. His untouched meals caused Quatre to become upset by his lack of appetite. He knew he would apologize to the blonde boy for he couldn't bear the thought of anyone else being unhappy with him.
A slight knock on his door drew his attention to the entry to his room and he watched as the latch lifted. He smiled in anticipation of greeting Quatre. But when the door swung open, it revealed Prince Heero. His smile faded. Instinctively, from years of trying to protect himself from physical abuse, Duo brought his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, and pressed his aching face against them to protect it from further damage. His hands then came up to protect as much of his head as he could manage. A slight whimper escaped his throat. The moment he had dreaded for days had come. "I'm thorry, Heero. Tho thorry." he choked out.
It took a few startled moments for him to realize that he was being held, and not beaten. His tightly clenched body was lifted to fit on a lap. He hadn't realized how chilled he'd become until he felt the other's warmth. Lifting his head, he looked into Heero's concerned eyes.
The dark haired prince studied the boy in his arms noting that his eyes were puffy, discolored, and swollen, and that dark bruises covered the once unmarred surface of his face. The right side of his mouth was also swollen, one lip had painfully split and was obviously going to take some time to heal. Heero looked into the boy's damaged eyes to see a look of guilty sorrow in them. Drawing Duo closer, tucking his head into the crook of his neck, he began to rock back and forth a bit in a comforting gesture.
"I'm sorry, Duo." he whispered.
Disbelieving what he heard, the battered boy pulled away from the warm embrace to look at the prince questioningly.
"Wadda you thorry about?" he asked, and winced at the pain talking caused and as his words sounded funny because of his damaged lips.
"I promised you safety." Heero pulled him back against him. "That you would never be beaten again. Not even two weeks have passed when that promise was broken." he said sadly.
"Ith's not your fault." Duo replied. "Ith's mine." He sighed deeply, feeling relief that the prince didn't seem to be angry with him. "I didn't mean to dithobey."
"Shhh." Heero hushed him and began to rock again. "I talked to Netta and she told me all, including how you bravely fought to save her."
Duo paused, enjoying the tender moment. Only Irea had ever tried to comfort him like this. "Tho, you're not mad at me?" he asked in a small, tentative voice.
"No. I'm not mad at you." Heero replied. "Though I am upset that you're hurt."
Duo shrugged. "Ith's not tho bad anymore."
"Let me look." The prince drew the boy on his lap away from his and studied his face in the candlelight. "It looks painful to me." he observed and then surprised the other boy by leaning just slightly forward and gently kissed each eye and the healing split lip. "Better?" he asked with a slight up turn of his lips.
Duo nodded with a shy smile. The prince's arms tightened around him to give him a hug. Unfortunately, the squeeze brought pain to the boy's battered stomach area. Duo gasped and pushed Heero's arms away from his tender mid-section.
"What's this?" Heero frowned. He quickly began to untie the lacings that held Duo's shirt together.
"I'm alwight, weally." Duo rushed to reassure the prince.
"Here," he began to carefully lift the boy off his lap and onto the floor in front of the warm hearth. "Lie down here and let me see."
Duo's cheeks pinked with embarrassment as he lay quietly before the Prince as he finished undoing the ties of his shirt and opened the sides to exposed the bruised torso. The braided boy had gotten somewhat use to the other boy's helping him dress in the mornings, but the prince had never seen him before and he was ashamed of the dark bruises that covered him.
Heero eyed the damage. There were two major bruises; one across the left rib cage, and the other large one in the center over Duo's stomach. He determined that he must have been hit repeatedly there for the large bruise to be as big as it was.
Duo hitched in a breath, and chills rippled across his skin as the Prince of Bronwyn leaned over and, once again, gently kissed the bruised areas. The braided boy was unused to this kissing stuff, but he decided that it was nice, and he liked it.
Heero raised up and give him a slight smile. "You're to stay in your room or my chambers until the obvious bruises fade." he told him.
"But,.... you thaid you weren't mad at me." Duo pouted, then winced at the pain in his lip.
"I'm not." Heero smiled indulgently. "And this isn't a punishment. It's just very unsettling to see you like this. If anyone who doesn't know what happened should see you in this state, they may start rumors that I was cruel to one of my Four. I can't let that happen."
"I underthand." Duo replied sulking a bit.
Heero brought the shirt back together and began to tie it back to it's original state. "The other's are in my chamber and are anxious to see you." He remarked while working on the laces. "Do you feel well enough to meet with them?"
The prince had been told Duo had been confined to his room for several days, and he thought the boy would jump at the opportunity to see the others. But he was disconcerted to see the boy on the floor turn his head towards the fire, his face decidedly reflecting unhappiness.
"Wufei's vewe angwe wiff me." he said sadly.
Reaching out to take hold of the uninjured chin, Heero turned the battered face to look at him. "Wufei takes his responsibilities very seriously." he replied. "Your beating under his protection made him feel that he had failed in his duty to protect you. Yes, he's upset that you left the castle, but his failure to protect you challenged his honor. He's more upset with himself than with you." he finished, hoping Duo could understand his Hand's feelings as he'd explained them.
"But he did thave me." Duo whispered, then grunted and winced as he struggled to sit up. "He came when I needed him the mothd." He gasped at the pain from the movement. Heero was at his side and helped him as he slowly made his way to his feet.
"Do you need help? Shall I carry you?" The prince asked anxiously concerned at the boy's slow and stiff movements.
"No!" Duo said, aghast at the idea of appearing so helpless.
Heero smiled, his deep blue eyes sparkling. He was pleased to see the spunk back in the singer.
"Juth walk thlowly." Duo requested and began to carefully move towards the door then stopped abruptly. "Oh," he began as if something just came to him. "Could you go ahead of me and tell Quatwa not to pounth on me? He doth like to hug, you know?"
The prince laughed out loud. "Yes, he does. He's actually made all of us more open about embracing each other. His family is quite affectionate." he continued with a smile. "Took them half a day in saying their goodbyes to him when he became my Third."
Duo tilted his head to the side. "Well, huggin ith a good thing, ithen it?"
Smiling with affection, the prince ruffled the boy's bangs. "Yes, it's a very good thing."
Quatre was properly held back from flinging himself at Duo as he slowly entered the room a moment after Heero. Trowa's face fell into a look of dismay as he viewed the damaged face that had been so beautiful and vibrant the morning they had left. He approached Duo and gently placed his arm around his shoulders and eased him into a gentle embrace, kissing the top of his head. Quatre came forward as Trowa stood back and took his battered friend's hand into his own. It was obvious to all in the room that the distance between Wufei and Duo seemed wide and strained.
"Wufei." Heero called to the black haired boy and held his hand out to him. His First dutifully walked forward, taking his beckoning hand. "Come," Heero's voice urged him on. "Duo needs your reassuring embrace."
Wufei's eyes shifted from the cobalt blue eyes to the large, uncertain violet ones. Without further hesitation, he walked forward and took the braided boy carefully into his arms. There were no words of apology from him, nor those of recrimination as Duo's head tucked under his chin.
"Thank you for thaving me Wufei." He whispered sincerely. "I am thorry."
The Prince's Hands tightened his arms just slightly in gratefulness. His honor had been restored by the smaller boy's words. "Just don't scare me like that again." he said quietly and he felt Duo's head nod in agreement.
"I'll twy." he answered.