The next morning, Duo packed up Heero's things as he practiced by himself in the peristyle. Duo watched him through a doorway. He was just warming up, whirling and slicing with his blade. Duo already knew Heero was a master, it showed in everything he did. It made it difficult to judge his own progress. Heero joined him in the armory, and handed him the sword.
Zechs' words occurred to Duo suddenly. "Heero, are you sure you don't want to bring more armor, just in case?" he asked.
"No, this will be fine," he said. He wondered why Duo was bringing this up again. "Ready to go?"
Duo's face brightened again, "Yeah!"
A slave from the Peacecraft household, one of Zechs' own, was waiting for Heero at the entrance, and led him inside to the sublevels. He showed them to the changing area and assigned them their own bench. Duo could hear the roar of the animals that were kept in cages not far away from the changing areas. He also noticed that Heero was the last one to arrive. No wonder the slave had looked so nervous! The other hunters were already in the armor, talking, laughing and practicing with one another.
To Duo's horror, everyone else wore much more protective armor than what he'd brought for Heero. He could barely recognize them, but he picked out Trowa, in chain mail, with the symbol for Gaul on his shield, Zechs looked like the sun-god in his brilliant silver armor and helmet, and Wu Fei wore a burnished bronze set. Every other one of the hunters wore full metal armor, even leg protection! Heero just had sandals. This must be what Zechs was talking about.
"Heero," Duo whispered frantically, "I'm going to run home and get you some better armor while there's still time! I'll be very fast, I promise!"
Heero looked at him with a little irritation as he removed all his clothing besides the thin, short tunic. "Duo, calm down, what we have will be fine. I told you that. Now, help me wrap my wrists."
Duo did as he was told, except for the calming down part. "Maybe they could lend you some. Yes, I'm sure they would! Just please wear something else! A helmet at least!"
"Duo," Heero warned, "your nervousness isn't helping anything. I was expecting you to handle this better. Relax, ok?"
Duo didn't say anything else as he helped Heero into his leather breastplate and skirt, and secured his gauntlets. The roars of the hungry, caged animals got louder and people began to fill in above. He bit his lip nervously. Heero gently touched his chin and turned his face so they were eye-to-eye.
"Don't worry so much," he said, looking into Duo's indigo eyes. Heero seemed frighteningly calm. "I need you to cheer for me. Now, go back to the booth and sit with Quatre. He'll feel better if you're there."
Duo just stared at him. No emotion at all showed on Heero's face. Duo nodded numbly and did as he was told.
Quatre certainly did need him. All the Winners had turned out again to support Heero and his friends, but they were not their usual good-natured selves, they were somber, and looked worried. Duo tried not to look worried himself as he joined them. He sat down next to Quatre who immediately turned to him.
"He's not wearing armor again, is he?" Quatre asked, searching Duo's face. Duo bit his lip.
"No, but he insists he'll be fine," Duo tried to sound encouraging.
Quatre rubbed his forehead, muttering, "Every year... every year..." He turned his head and looked back at Duo. "Don't tell my sisters," he sighed, "they'll be horrified enough when they see him. Especially Iria."
Duo had learned that Iria's husband had been killed in battle shortly after Quaterine's birth, which was why the two of them lived with her father. Quaterine had no father and had, to everyone's surprise, chosen Heero as her father-figure and favorite uncle. He hadn't taken to her immediately, but she eventually won him over. Much to her mother's disapproval, the two bonded over Heero teaching her to sword-fight. She had thrown a tantrum this morning, and demanded to watch him in the hunt.
Duo nodded. "Just how dangerous is this?" he asked.
"It gets pretty dangerous. They start out with the gazelles, the timid herd animals, but it gets harder later with the wild dogs and then the tigers. They keep the cats strong, but starve them for two days before the hunt," Quatre told him. "The hunt can be difficult and unpredictable. You can't count on your friends to help you when everyone is in danger."
Tigers. Duo had only seen drawings of them on the posters. They looked terrifying, huge, with sharp claws and teeth. Hungry tigers. And Heero in leather. Duo cursed himself for not following Zechs' advice and bringing more armor.
"Are worried about Trowa?" Duo asked.
"Not as much," Quatre answered. "He use to do this for a living. I've had to watch him take on two tigers by himself! Plus he has the brains to wear the appropriate metal armor!" Quatre looked distraught again. Duo looked around the Winner box. Everyone looked upset, except Quaterine, who didn't fully understand what was going on. Duo gritted his teeth. Why did Heero do this to the people who loved him so much?
The music blared and the crowd stood as the Emperor entered. He gave another short speech, lauding the brave hunters, and then sat so the festivities could begin. The arena was decorated with large boulders and several shrubs, much like a real landscape. The music sounded as the hunters appeared, pushed through the floor on platforms in great clouds of dust. It was an impressive entrance. First a few older men, who were Hunt and military veterans. They were well-loved and the crowd cheered. Then Wu Fei and few other local heroes entered, getting much cheering. Then Zechs, shining like a silver god, and his military-hero father appeared and the crowd showed their appreciation with loud cheering. Next was the infamous gladiator, Trowa the Gaul, nearly causing fits in the audience. And finally, the renown captain Heero Winner Yuy, who had given them quite a show in the past. The crowd went wild and he ceremoniously raised the Winner shield. Duo remembered what Heero had told him and cheered loudly for him. The Winners cheered passionately for him despite how worried they were.
The men greeted each other with handshakes and slaps on the shoulder. Heero and Trowa stood together. The orator shouted for the herd animals to be let loose, and the hunt began. The audience watched as the men worked together and alone to trap and kill each member of the fifteen-head herd. Cheering erupted every time another animal was brought down. Finally, all were slain and the amphitheater was deafening with the applause. The animals were dragged from the arena and soon the wild dogs let loose.
The wild dogs were also pack-hunters, so the men had to organize and beat them at their own game. The pack was again fifteen, but then men out-smarted them. Heero, Trowa, Wu Fei and Zechs made an unstoppable team and killed the most dogs. However, a few of the other men were injured, and had to leave the arena. The emperor made a speech about their bravery, and then praised those still remaining. He sat again, and the tigers were released next. There were six total, and now only eight hunters.
Quatre reached over and squeezed Duo's arm. "Not so many were supposed to be injured by the dogs. The odds aren't good," he said quietly. The audience was bolt upright in their seats, waiting to see who would be injured next. Zechs' own father was, bravely, the first to meet a tiger. He was slashed down one leg and the other hunters staved off the tigers as Zechs helped him to safety. This kind of predator required a new strategy. All the men listened as Trowa appeared to be shouting commands. It was impossible for Duo to hear what he was saying. Zechs and Wu Fei teamed up and were the first to kill a tiger. The crowd roared their approval. Trowa and Heero killed the next tiger, and then they helped another youth bring one down.
"Three left," Quatre whispered. But the three left were the larger and meaner three. Duo found himself unable to speak. The group split into two and attacked two of the remaining tigers. However, things did not go as planned. The third tiger leapt out from behind a bush as the men fought the other two. Surprised shouts filled the arena and the audience was dead silent. The renegade tiger took down one of the military heroes, but Captain Yuy was next in her path. He broke from the group and fought her back by himself, shouting for someone to get the injured man to safety. The crowd cheered crazedly.
"No one can help him!" Quatre gasped, realizing that the other men were having a tough enough time with the other two killer cats. "Oh, gods, not again!" Quatre moaned. Several of Heero's sisters screamed and a few had to leave the box completely.
Heero continued to fight the biggest tiger by himself. She attacked and he cut her shoulder, which angered her further. Her roar was lost in the insane audience. Heero slashed at the buckles holding his breastplate on and threw it to the ground. Quatre shot out of his chair and leaned over the booth, begging, shouting at Heero to stop. Heero and the tiger circled each other as he removed his gauntlets. The crowd was in a frenzy. Heero ripped off the top of his tunic, and faced her bare except for his skirt made only of strips of leather and the thin white fabric underneath it.
He attacked the tiger madly, driving her back against a wall. Fearful, she charged him, but he slashed her front paw. The crowd roared with her. Duo stood riveted to the front railing of their booth. The large tiger jumped at Heero, but this time his sword found her throat. She fell and he approached her as the crowd demanded he kill her. The other men had killed the other two tigers and stood frozen at the other end of the arena. He looked fearlessly into her eyes and she hissed and swiped a paw at him. She didn't reach him, however, and he raised his sword and stabbed her chest as the crowd stamped and hollered.
The emperor stood, but it took even His Excellency a few minutes to calm the audience. The triumphant hunters gathered in the center of the arena as the animals were dragged away.
"Congratulations to all of our brave hunters," he said as the injured were brought out for their reward as well. "We should all thank the Peacecrafts for providing us with such a magnificent spectacle," he continued, and the crowd cheered as Zechs and his injured father raised their hands and waved. "And my most awed congratulations to Captain Heero Winner Yuy for his courage and skill." The crowd went nuts for Heero, who just bowed slightly to the emperor. Duo noticed he didn't look especially pleased or impressed with himself. He didn't raise his arm or strut around during his applause. He just stood there, calmly. The other hunters applauded for him as well.
Duo rushed from the box to the sublevels to wait for Heero as they had discussed. He was still a little riled up from watching the hunt. From the way Heero had acted, he had never imagined it would be such a big deal - and so dangerous! Music sounded and the hunters marched out of the arena and tromped down the stairs to the changing areas. Guards at the entry kept wild fans back, but recognized Duo and let him through. He waited nervously for Heero. He was feeling a whirling mix of emotions, joy, relief, excitement, and anger. He was upset with Heero and he didn't really know why. It mostly had to do with his family's reaction. Poor Quatre probably wouldn't be able to eat for the rest of the day.
Heero walked over to him, looking like he was returning from a boring walk through the countryside. Duo didn't know how to express himself. What could he say? He just took Heero's weapons and put them in the sack. The other men laughed and boasted loudly with one another as they undressed, but Heero stayed away from them, changing silently. Duo wondered what was going through his mind. He wondered again what he should say. A slave timidly approached him and handed Duo the leather breastplate and gauntlets. Duo barely got a chance to thank him before he hurried away.
Duo knelt to help Heero untie the heavy sandals. "Why'd you take the armor off?" he asked softly.
Heero still looked frighteningly emotionless. "It's only fair," he said after a moment, "the tigers don't wear any."
As bizarre as that logic was, it was true. Duo didn't bother to argue. "I think your family is pretty upset at you," he hinted.
Heero stood and tied on a toga. "I knew they would be," Heero replied with an air of resignation. "I tried hiding from them last year, but it didn't help. I may as well just face them." He looked at Duo, who was still kneeling on the dirt floor.
"Come on, Duo," he said impatiently. "We better get going."
Duo stood slowly and followed Heero out a back way to try and avoid the crowds. They made it home with minimum hassle, but had to enter the house through the barn. Heero kept the iron gate on the front door locked, but his family came in through the conjoining hallways.
Iria came storming through first, screaming, "Heero! How can you be such an idiot? What do you think you were trying to do?!"
She looked for a moment as if she were going to hit him, but she collapsed on the floor sobbing instead. "Oh, Heero, you could have been killed! You're so thoughtless! You didn't even think about us did you? How we would feel if something happened to you! And what about Quaterine? She could have watched you die!! Oh gods, if we lost you...! How can you be so callous...?"
Julia, the youngest sister came rushing in next and knelt to calm her sister. She looked up angrily at her brother. "Look what you've done!" she said accusingly. "Why do you do this to us? We love you so much Heero, but it's like you just don't care!" She whispered some calming things to Iria.
Duo lingered in a hallway, feeling awkward about seeing this display. Heero was just standing there with a hard expression, looking at the floor and not saying anything. This was this face that had scared Duo, so stony and unemotional. Duo wondered how many times this had happened. Master Winner entered the house next, followed by the rest of the sisters, many of whom had tear-streaked faces. He helped Iria up and gently told her not to cry. He just looked at his son, but not with pride or satisfaction. More with sorrow and perhaps even guilt. Heero looked him in the eye, face still betraying no emotion. Master Winner shook his head and sighed, but he didn't seem angry. He walked over to Heero and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Heero, please try not to upset your sisters so much," he said. He wanted to be angry at his son. He loved Heero and didn't want to see him killed. He worried about him the same way his daughters did. But as much as he wanted to yell at him, he couldn't be angry at Heero. After all, it was he who made Heero the way he was.
Master Winner put an arm around Iria's shoulders and led everyone out. Heero went upstairs to his bedroom and said he didn't want to be disturbed. Big houses had several smaller rooms on the main floor that were supposed to resemble bedrooms or sitting rooms. The host would entertain valued guests and close friends in these rooms to make visits and meetings feel more intimate. No one actually slept in them though, they were for show. Heero had turned one into his office, and he actually slept upstairs in a very simple room.
Duo wondered what to do now. Everyone was tense or upset, even Mona and Baltus. He wished he had someone to talk to, but Quatre was probably with Trowa, and would be over later to yell at Heero. Duo was upset too, he'd never seen the Winners argue before. He'd never even heard any of them raise their voices. He busied himself by cleaning the weapons and trying to mend the broken breastplate. He realized he'd been scared. The last thing he wanted was to see Heero get hurt. He also realized that Heero scared him. He seemed to have no common sense. It was like he didn't care what happened to him. No wonder his family had been so nervous.
Heero did not come out of his room all evening, not for dinner, and not for the big party at the Peacecrafts. Quatre and Trowa came by to get him. Duo let them in and told them Heero hadn't even been out for dinner. Quatre sighed and led the way upstairs.
"Heero?" he asked gently after knocking on the door.
"Go away Quatre, I've heard enough, ok?" Heero said tersely through the closed door.
"Heero, I came to get you for the party. It's already past dinner. I thought maybe you'd forgotten or something. There's going to be a big feast..." he said lamely.
"I'm not going," Heero said flatly.
"But everyone will want to see you!" Quatre protested.
"Another reason for me not to go," Heero grumbled.
"Heero, I'll go with you if you want," Duo tried, pressing his palm to the door, "you don't have to stay long." He didn't care about the party, he just wanted Heero to come out of that room. He was getting really worried.
"No, Duo, you stay here. We are not going. Now, go away, all of you," Heero growled. Quatre looked angry, but he just shook his head. He and Trowa left for the party.
Duo milled around in the barn for a while, but then wandered back upstairs. He stood quietly by the door for a minute.
"Heero?" he asked softly. Silence. He might be sleeping, Duo thought. It was early for that, but anyone would be tired after a day of tiger slaying.
"What?" Heero finally answered.
"Are you coming out of there? I mean, do you need anything? Are you hungry? I could get you - " Duo offered before Heero cut him off.
"No, I don't want anything. Leave me alone," Heero said harshly and then added, "Please," in a softened tone
"Ok," Duo said uncertainly, "but if you change your mind, just call for me." He waited another moment or two for Heero to say something, but there was only silence from behind the door so he finally turned and went downstairs.
Bedrooms (cubiculae) - uh this is hard to explain. Use of space in (elite) Roman homes was all about who was in, and who was NOT. It was kind of like visiting a celebrity. Maybe you'd be allowed to stand in the entryway (atrium) and take in the place and catch a glimpse of the person, but you knew they were back there with other guests who were more important than you and allowed to be in more rooms in the house. Having sets of increasingly more intimate rooms kept visitors in line, and reminded them of their place. Like saying "You are important to me, but you are not."