Heero was arriving home from the palestra when he found Mona waiting nervously for him at the door.
"Master Heero, you better come see this," she said, wringing her hands. He followed her into the servant quarters to Duo's door. She knocked briskly.
"Come on in!" Duo called.
Heero pushed the door open. He found Duo sitting on the floor surrounded by paints and brushes, finishing a tree trunk. Diana was lying on a blanket near him. One corner of his small room was already finished in a woodland scene. He smiled and stood when he saw Heero.
"Well, what do you think? I know, I'm not that good, but - " Duo started, wiping his hands.
"What do you think you're doing?" Heero demanded.
"I was just painting my walls! I finished all my work for the day! Maybe I should have asked first? Ooops... These walls are just so - " Duo tried to explain.
"These walls are not to be decorated!" Heero snapped. "Remove it immediately!"
"Why?" Duo asked forlornly.
Heero calmed himself. It was obvious Duo didn't mean to disobey, he just didn't know the rules. "Duo, there are guidelines by which rooms are to be painted. I don't like a lot of decoration in my house. Servant areas are not to be painted. I'm sorry, I can't let you keep it."
"No one but me will see it! I bought everything with the money I earned from Quatre a few days ago! I just miss my home - " Duo insisted.
"No, Duo. Please remove it now," Heero finished resolutely, but he noticed Duo had become despondent. "If you like, the dining room off the atrium could use a new mural. You could paint it there. I'll reimburse you for the paints," he offered.
Duo started cleaning things up. "No..." he said glumly, "no thanks." He didn't look at Heero or Mona.
Mona felt a little guilty. Heero did not make a habit of entering the servile areas of the house, if she hadn't shown him what Duo was doing, he probably would not have noticed it. She had just been so alarmed when she discovered the painting. She felt like she had betrayed Duo in some way, but that sort of thing was just not allowed.
Duo was unusually quiet when he served breakfast the next morning. It was his duty to stand patiently while Heero ate and get him whatever he needed, but Duo habitually chattered on mindlessly about the dogs or the horses or something funny in town. Heero had gotten used to this, and the silence this morning was conspicuous.
"Duo," Heero said, getting his attention, "I have news for you. My father is throwing a party tonight, and he has requested you to serve and entertain."
"Me?" Duo blinked.
"Yes. I'm sure, depending on your performance, he will pay you quite well. He likes you. But I'll warn you, it will be a huge party and a major affair. If you feel you aren't up to it, or aren't ready, please say no."
"No, I'd love to! I can definitely handle it. I won't let you or your father down!" Duo swore.
Heero nodded. A thought occurred to him. "And Duo, please keep the dirty jokes to a minimum. The party is of mixed company."
The entire household's slaves had been called on to serve at the party. Scores of guests attended, political allies to personal friends. And as always, a Winner party was the place to see and be seen. Heero was trying to stay with his same group of friends, including his brother, Trowa, Wu Fei, and Zechs, and avoid unwanted company. All the while, he was watching Duo closely. He moved very gracefully as he poured wine. He was doing very well, smiling and only speaking when spoken to.
"A lovely party as usual," Relena spoke to Quatre as she sat down as close to Heero as she could.
"Why thank you, Miss Relena," he answered.
"And we even have the pleasure of your brother's company!" she exclaimed turning to Heero. Unfortunately, he wasn't drunk enough to be rude. Hopefully, Wu Fei would pull through.
Relena attempted to chat with Heero about his victories, and ignored just about everyone else. Heero thought this was extremely rude. She despised freedmen, and treated Trowa with extra disdain. She got away with being so rude because she was a Peacecraft. Conversation didn't stop as Duo came by to refill glasses.
Though she pretended not to notice him at all, Relena recognized a slave she did not know. It must be Heero's new slave, the one her brother spoke so highly of. Well, tonight she'd find out first hand if he was really that talented. If he was, he could be a valuable commodity. When she and Heero married, she could see about selling him and redecorating Heero's drab house. The collar around his neck caught her eye. It was certainly not unheard of, but an unusual accessory nonetheless.
"That was your new slave wasn't it, Heero?" she asked as Duo left.
"Yes," Heero answered suspiciously. It wasn't like Relena to notice slaves.
"He's wearing a collar," she observed. "Only the most disobedient slaves wear collars."
Duo was not out of earshot yet when she said this, and it was like an arrow to his chest. He was heading for the kitchen to refill his pitcher, and he took a minute for a deep breath. Was that what the collar meant? Had he been disobedient? Duo wondered in dismay. He thought he had been doing well! Why wouldn't Heero take the damned thing off yet? It was so humiliating! He decided that all he could do at this point was perform his best tonight.
Disheartened and upset, Duo had hurried away before Heero had answered Relena.
"No, he isn't disobedient at all really," Heero told her. "He's just wily. When he first came, I was sure he'd run away. I haven't taken it off because, well, now I'm afraid it's the only thing that keeps him here. As if he'll run away as soon as it's off..." Heero contemplated out loud, but he knew it wasn't the only reason he still had Duo wearing it.
The party droned on, Heero sighed, wondering how he would escape Relena this time. Wu Fei and Trowa had abandoned him and Quatre to put up with her. They were both relieved to see servants setting up for the entertainment in another room. He and Quatre excused themselves to go find seats. Heero wanted to enjoy Duo's performance without Relena around. He found a seat next to Zechs, who he knew was eagerly awaiting the performance.
"I still can't believe you've had him this long and never seen him!" Zechs leaned over and whispered.
"I've heard him!" Heero said a little defensively.
"Well, anyone else would have him performing every night! Just think! You can have private performances whenever you want! And more... It's just not fair!" Zechs laughed, only half kidding. Heero did his best not to roll his eyes and just sat quietly.
Duo appeared before everyone and bowed. He looked very nice in the special outfit Heero had had made for him for the performance. Duo had been really excited until he realized it was still just a skirt. In fact, this one was a little shorter than his regular. But it was a beautiful deep red that highlighted his light skin and dark hair. It was trimmed with gold, and had been tailored so nicely he didn't need a belt.
Duo played instruments and sang first. His voice and presence were captivating. He sang several songs: a few love ballads, a couple short limericks, and a couple he had written himself. He showed off his talent at several different instruments, and then told funny stories about life as a bandit and living with women. Zechs had certainly been right about his abilities. Heero was very impressed, but he was spell bound along with the rest of the audience when Duo began to dance. Other musicians took the stage to play while Duo danced. They were dances he obviously must have mastered while acting as a handmaiden. He moved with miraculous grace and perfect rhythm. It was an intoxicating mix of masculine and feminine, and Heero had had just enough to drink to not be able to stop himself from being totally mesmerized.
Zechs noticed his friend's response, but kept his chuckling to himself. "I don't suppose there's any hope of buying him from you now, hmm?" Zechs whispered, breaking Heero's trance.
"Captain Yuy!" one of his father's friends congratulated him after the show. "How is it you always get such talented slaves? First Trowa the Gaul and now this youth!"
"Just lucky, I guess," Heero smiled faintly. The man offered to buy Duo, but Heero said he wasn't for sale.
"How'd I do last night?" Duo asked earnestly the next morning while he served Heero's breakfast.
Heero gave him the monetary total. "And about a dozen work offers," he added calmly. Duo nearly fell off his feet.
"Whoa!!" he exclaimed with a huge grin. He composed himself and bit his lip as he looked at Heero. "Well, uh, what did you think?" he asked tentatively.
"Your serving skills are excellent, and the performance was... extraordinary," he answered. "Everyone there was very impressed."
"So, have I been good?" Duo asked, obviously leading up to something. "You know, obedient enough?"
"Yes, you've been behaving just fine," Heero answered, sipping his water. "What makes you think I'm not pleased with you?"
"Well, you've still got me in this collar," Duo said uncomfortably. "Doesn't that mean I'm disobedient?"
Heero narrowed his eyes. Duo's words sounded familiar. "Did you hear Relena's comment?" he asked.
Duo looked at the ground, and answered with a quiet 'yes.'
"But you must not have heard my reply," Heero guessed.
Duo looked up at him again. "No," he said, surprised.
"I said that you aren't disobedient, you're just too smart. And I want to keep you around," Heero told him casually.
"You said I only had to wear it until I earned your trust! Don't you trust me? I've done my best for you! I'm not going to run away, I promise! I'm going to stay and earn my way out, I'm sure with all the work I can get, I'll pay you off in no time! Can't you PLEASE take it off now?" Duo begged desperately.
Heero put his glass down and folded his arms over his chest. He'd never had a slave attempt to negotiate with him before. He realized he was going to have to tell Duo two things he wasn't going to want to hear. And besides that, he still hadn't settled on an amount for Duo's value, it kept going up. He hoped Duo wouldn't ask.
"Duo, I know this isn't what you want to hear, but I've decided to wait a bit longer before removing the collar," Heero told him. Duo's face fell. "And I'm not going to let you work outside of family parties," Heero finished.
"What? Why?" Duo demanded. "What if I finished all my work for the day, or did it in my free time? My work here won't suffer, I promise! All the money will be going to you anyway!" Duo pleaded.
"I'm going to save your talents only for parties thrown by my family," Heero said a little impatiently, unused to explaining himself to slaves.
Duo closed his eyes, trying to maintain control of himself. He bitterly reminded himself that he was just property to Heero, to be used as he saw fit. How dare he forget? He remained sullen and silent. Heero couldn't stand to see him so miserable, so he excused Duo and ate by himself.
"I just don't understand him sometimes!" Duo complained to Ala as he curried her shedding coat. "He says I'm doing good and he's pleased with me, but he won't take this damn thing off! The hair and the clothes I don't care so much about anymore, but I'll never get used to this. What's it gonna take?"
"You asked for me, Sir?" Duo asked, approaching Quatre in his peristyle garden. Lucius had told Duo to bring Quatre some tea after he was done with his work.
Quatre motioned him over with a smile, "Yes, Duo. Please, join me!"
Duo put the tray on the table and stood by Quatre's chair.
"Duo, please sit down!" Quatre laughed. Duo sat down a little unsteadily. Quatre poured Duo and himself a cup of tea.
"Mm! Duo did you make this? It's terrific!" he asked, taking a sip.
"Yes," Duo answered, staring at the cup poured for him. "Thank you," he smiled.
"Anyway, I wanted to congratulate you on your wonderful performance!" Quatre continued. "You are very talented. It was I who suggested you to Father. I must admit, at first I was worried it would be a bit much for you right now, but you did a superb job."
Duo was speechless. "Uh, thanks," he managed to mumble stupidly.
"You may think this is silly, but I'm very intrigued by your years living as a handmaiden. And the culture of the kingdom seems so different! Would you mind telling me more?" the blond youth requested. "How did you learn to dance like that?"
"The hand-maidens I lived and worked with also entertained," Duo willingly obliged him. "I had to get everything perfect, and be fairly convincing as a girl. I was terrible at first! Tripping and falling all over myself. The instruments were tough to learn, too. The girls used to yell at me and refuse to sleep with me after performances if I messed anything up! So, I got good quick!" Duo winked.
Quatre laughed, and Duo continued, talking about anything that popped into his mind. He kept it interesting in hopes that Quatre would not think to ask about his life before that, it wasn't something he was so willing to talk about.
"Duo," Quatre said after talking with him for a while. "How are you doing here? Are things going ok?" he asked. He had grown to like Duo, and was genuinely concerned about him.
"I'm fine I guess," Duo said with a shrug.
"You know, if you're having any problems, even with my brother, you can tell me. You should have someone, besides the animals, to talk to." Quatre said kindly.
Duo colored slightly. Did Heero have to tell everyone that he talked to the animals? "Things with Heero are ok, I just wish he'd take the collar off now. I feel like I've been really good and trustworthy, you know?" Duo said with frustration. "And he isn't going to hire me out to anyone to perform! I could make a lot of money doing that, but he says he wants to keep me at family parties. I understand, I guess, but it's almost like he's holding me back."
Quatre stared into his tea thoughtfully. The collar was a sticking point. It was so unnecessary; Duo was behaving very well.
"Hm," Quatre thought out loud. "Don't believe my brother if he tells you he doesn't know anything about politics. He pulled a fantastic political move four years ago with Trowa. You see, he was only fifteen, and in the lowest rank of the military. My father could have gotten him moved up, but he refused. Anyway, he beat Trowa in battle and brought him back to the city to be a gladiator. But Heero didn't sell him to the trainers like most people do. He kept Trowa and paid them to train him, even though he didn't need much training!"
Quatre took a sip and continued, "Anyway, every time Trowa won a match, which was every time, the announcers said something like, 'Trowa the Gaul, ladies and gentlemen! Conquered and brought to you by Heero Winner Yuy!' Every time Trowa won, the crowd was reminded that a young soldier from the city had beaten the unbeatable gladiator. Trowa became immensely popular and thus everyone in town knew who Heero was, and that Heero was good enough to have bested him in battle. It was pure genius. And I suspect he's doing something similar with you.... I just haven't figured it out yet."
Duo thought about the story. It was definitely possible that Heero had some sort of purpose for him. But he couldn't quite figure it out either. He decided to indulge his curiosity instead.
"So, is that how you met Trowa?" Duo asked tentatively, hoping he hadn't overstepped his boundaries.
"Oh yes," Quatre nodded. "My family isn't really big on the Games, but Heero went to every one of Trowa's matches. He finally dragged me to one. Oh gods, I could barely stand it!" he laughed at himself. "By that time, Trowa was fighting matches to the death. I didn't even know him yet, and I was so worried about him! Heero always went to congratulate him and talk with him after matches, and I demanded to meet him. They keep the slave gladiators in cells, caged like the wild animals. Naturally, I was appalled because he wasn't like a wild beast at all. He was fearless in battle, but when I met him, he seemed like an introspective, sensitive person."
Quatre's tone changed to sad, "Those were very rough times between me and my brother. Trowa and I became very close. I nearly tore my hair out every time he fought. Oh gods, if something had happened to him I don't know what I would have done! I begged Heero to set him free, or let me pay the rest. But Heero refused to just free him, and Trowa refused to allow me to pay for it. He's too honest. But Trowa became more and more valuable as he fought, so his worth kept increasing. It took him nearly three years to buy his freedom."
Duo thought silently about his too. Maybe that's what was going on. Every talent he displayed drove his value up. That was why Heero still hadn't set a price. Duo had a couple more aces up his sleeve, but now he was determined Heero never find out about them.
 wall decoration - this is generally true, but not always. Heh, that was actually part of the report I was writing when I started this, so I thought I'd throw it in. It's kind of tedium, but it's not completely random, it comes up later. ~_^
 tea is an anachronism! They didn't have tea as far as I know, or lemonade (no sugar!)