Duo had given himself an assignment a few days ago, and he thought maybe it would help him get his mind off of his new feelings for Heero. It still confused him, and he found himself dwelling on it more than he'd like to admit. So, he was going to look up The Girls. He was vainly holding onto the hope that maybe this society was getting to him after all, and seeing them would rid his mind of these weird new things. Even if that wasn't the case, he did want to see them again. His first stop was to the registry.
"Duo!" Magnus said. "Haven't seen you in a while!"
"Hi, Magnus, how've you been?" Duo replied. The nice thing about everyone knowing he worked for Heero was that people tended to assume he was on business, so they didn't question him. Who would want to piss off General Winner? Magnus immediately led him to the records when he asked to see them.
"They're filed by date of registry, and owner name," the scribe informed him.
This could cause a slight problem, since he didn't know the owner names. Duo started looking through them, starting on the date he was registered. He passed his own, ignoring it, and continued. At least the slave name was on there. He was able to find five out of six of his old friends. He decided to start with Saraswati.
It took him a while to find the house, and he had to stop and ask for directions several times. There was a slave outside the house, whom he approached.
"Is there an eastern slave named Saraswati living in this house?" he asked.
"No, she was sold," the man answered, "she was worth quite a bundle to the Ilusian Performing School, I hear."
Slaves had their own gossip networks, and Duo had learned that this was often the best way to get information. He thanked the slave and made his way to the performing school. He was actually kind of excited, this was the perfect place for Sara, and he hoped she was happy. There, she would be teaching other slaves how to sing, dance, play instruments and otherwise entertain. That would be perfect for her.
He knocked on the front door of the school, and a slave girl answered momentarily.
"Does an eastern slave named Saraswati teach here?" he asked again.
"Yes, she does, but she is busy. Can I give her a message for you?" the girl answered.
"Please. Tell her that Duo came to visit her," he said.
"Duo?" the girl asked. She blushed slightly. "She... um, she speaks of you sometimes. She says you became a successful performer."
Duo grinned, wondering what exactly Sara had told the young girls. "She's right, you follow her instructions closely, ok?"
The girl agreed and Duo left. He headed home, not wanting to be late for sparring in the afternoon.
The next day, when all his errands where finished, Duo went to find Luculla. Lu had rare light hair and very fair skin. She was working at a high-class brothel near the baths by the palace. Brothels were closed during the day so Duo went around to the side door where working slaves were coming in and out. He had to lie to get in, but was finally allowed into the back area. The girls slept in much simpler rooms than the rooms up front where they entertained clients. There were a few brutes patrolling here and there, and Duo was willing to bet the guard tripled at night when the place was open for business.
The older slave woman who had led him in went in to one of the rooms and Luculla came to the door a moment later, rubbing her eyes. She perked up immediately when she recognized her visitor.
"Duo!" she squealed excitedly. She grabbed him and hugged him hard. He hugged her back and lifted her off the ground a little. She felt thin, but well-fed enough and not noticeably boney.
"How are you, Lu?" he asked, releasing her and looking her over.
"I'm good, Duo, I'm doing ok," she answered happily, still holding onto his shoulders.
Sleepy, scantily clad women appeared in the doorway behind her. "You got a visitor right now, Lu?" one of them yawned.
"No, no, this is my friend Duo," Lu told them.
"Oh, the Duo!" one of the girls piped up.
"You said he was cute, but he's gorgeous!"
"Pretty young though," another added. "The way you talk about him, I didn't think he could be this young."
Duo chuckled embarrassedly, wondering exactly what Lu was telling them about him.
A door across the hall opened and another girl complain, "Hey, what's going on out here? We're trying to sleep."
"The Duo is here!"
"Oh? Is this him? The famous performer?"
Duo felt a tug on his braid and a giggle in his ear. "Say, your hair is a little long, but you could work here. I bet you'd pull in some serious money!"
"Ok, enough you guys!" Lu said, pulling Duo away. Ignoring pouts and complaints from her friends, she led the visitor away to a more private room.
"So, how is it here, Lu?" Duo asked eagerly when they were alone. "Are you really ok?"
"Yeah," she answered with a smile. "It isn't so bad here, they take good care of me."
"Is the work all right?" Duo asked hesitantly.
"I'm pretty popular here. Most of my clients are good men, some of them will pay extra to see me dance and sing!" she answered. "It's not like before, but it's a life. You're some big-time performer now, aren't you? I heard something about that ceremony held at the palace."
"I did get to perform there," he told her, "it was really exciting. The Emperor is kind of sleazy, though."
She laughed. "You didn't have to sleep with him, did you?" she giggled. It seemed she had pretty much come to terms with the fact that men here slept with both sexes.
"No! Thank the gods! He wanted to buy me though," Duo replied.
"Give him my name then, I'd love to live in the palace," she sighed. "I look at it everyday from here, wondering what it's like inside."
Duo smiled and told her about the enormous meeting rooms, the sumptuous decorating, and the lush gardens. He didn't say anything, but maybe he could have someone like Zechs tell Trieze about Lu. Maybe she would like him. He was rich, and could be indulgent and charming when he favored someone. He realized Lu was gazing at him.
"Duo," she said coyly. "Stay with me for a bit? I've learned a few things. Free of charge for you, of course. I don't usually do that, but... I miss you, Duo."
"I miss you too, Lu," he said wistfully, "but I don't think I have time today."
"Time!" she laughed, "Duo, no one else takes time!"
He laughed too.
"Come on, Duo, you're just so irresistible with a tan, you know!" she coaxed with a tug his braid.
"Really, though, I'm expected back at the house," he said apologetically. "Maybe another day, ok? I'm really glad I found you. I'll come by again sometime!"
She led him back through the hallway to the door, and a few girls appeared in doorways when they heard the footsteps. Lu made sure to gave him a big kiss in front of all the other girls and Duo helped her put on quite a little show for them before leaving. He bid her goodbye and started home.
That kiss had felt really good, it had been a while since he'd kissed anyone. He knew he could have stayed; he wouldn't be in trouble for being out a little later. Maybe he should have, maybe that would relieve some of the uncomfortable things he was feeling for Heero. He didn't want to take advantage of a friend, but it was more than that. Something stopped him. Was it just that their lives were so different now? Duo wasn't sure.
Heero was working all afternoon and did not even know what time Duo returned to the house. When he was finished, he found Duo in the barn and told him to get ready to spar. It was quiet in the armory as they strapped on guards and selected weapons. A sweet smell got Heero's attention. It smelled like perfume or perfumed oil, the cheap kind they used in brothels. He looked over at Duo, who was obliviously fitting a leather gauntlet on. He moved a little closer to Duo and sniffed again. It was definitely coming from Duo. Heero frowned. He'd never told Duo that he couldn't go to brothels, so maybe he...? But brothels were closed during the day, why would Duo have been hanging around one? Maybe he'd just been sprayed with something accidentally at the marketplace, or caught next to someone in line that smelled too strongly.
"Ready?" Duo asked, breaking into his thoughts.
"Yes," Heero replied automatically, and followed Duo to the peristyle.
The following day, Duo found the house his friend Thalia was supposed to be living in. Thalia was dark-haired and curvaceous, always very skillful in bed. He asked the slave who answered the door if there was a way he could see her. As a slave himself, he didn't have much sway to get other slaves to do what he wanted, though the name around his neck did carry some weight. In this case, however, the kindly old janitor at the door probably couldn't even read his collar, but he said he could get Thalia if Duo waited outside.
Thalia appeared in the atrium, wearing very elegant clothes and expensive-looking jewelry. She peered out the open door.
"Duo!" she exclaimed. "Gods, come in!" She met him at the door and led him in by both hands. "It's so wonderful to see you!" She hugged him and kissed his cheek when they were inside. "My goodness, you're hard as a rock!" she chuckled, squeezing his shoulders again.
"It's wonderful to see you too, Thal," he laughed sheepishly. "You look great!"
She thanked him and led him to a side room.
"Are things going well for you?" he asked as he took the offered seat.
"Things are wonderful here, Duo. I took your advice, you know, to make the best of a new situation. Marcus really isn't a bad man, and I managed to make him fall in love with me. He freed me and married me," she told him.
"Married? Congratulations!" Duo exclaimed. "That's good to hear. Are you happy? Do you love him?"
"Yes, I think I do love him," she said benignly, "and I'm very happy."
Duo nodded in approval.
"You've done well, yourself, haven't you?" she continued, squeezing his hand, "I hear you're in the Winner family, and I've heard all about your performances!"
"Yeah, things are going all right," he answered, "I wish I were free like you though. It's going to take me a few years to earn enough money for freedom, but Heero's nice and the Winners are great. I'll make it."
"Heero Winner... Was he the one in the Hunt?" she asked. "It was so exciting to watch!"
"Yeah," Duo chuckled, leaving that can of worms shut, "say, have you talked to anyone else? I haven't been able to locate Stella."
"I've not heard about Stella," Thalia frowned, "but I think Leona knows where she is. Have you talked with her yet?"
"Nope you're the second. I visited Luculla yesterday. I tried Sara, but I guess she's really busy. I'm going to see Leona tomorrow," he said.
Thalia looked concerned. "Nothing in the registry on our Stella?"
Duo shook his head.
"Tell me when you find her, ok? And give them both my love," she requested.
Duo agreed, apologized that he couldn't stay longer, and she kissed his cheek one more time before he left.
Duo followed Leona's trail to a bakery the following day. He entered and over the counter, he saw a shapely rear end bent over the oven, removing bread. He grinned.
"Hi Lee," he said.
The woman stood and turned around, her face saying she already recognized his voice.
"Duo!" she practically squealed in joy as she rushed around the counter. She could not give Duo a proper hug, however, because of her pregnant belly.
"My goodness, you look good enough to eat, dear!" she remarked as she released him.
He laughed. "Don't tell me your cravings are that strange, Lee!" he joked. She laughed too, touching her swollen middle.
"Look at you!" she continued. "You look all grown up! You were cute as a skinny kid, buy now look at you!"
Duo ducked his head and chuckled, but then became more serious. "How are you doing, Lee?" he asked.
"Just great, Duo!" she smiled, her round cheeks pink and rosy, "I'm practically chained to those ovens, but it's not bad work, and I'm good at it."
"And, um..." Duo hinted, letting his eyes drop to her large front.
"Don't you worry, sweet thing," she smiled, "it's my husband's. Well, we're not really married because we're both slaves, but someday we will be. When I came to the city, I happened to catch the eye of the master's head slave. And not by accident, mind you! I put on all my charms!"
Duo knew Leona had many charms.
"He's a good man, and since the master likes him so much, he deemed we should be together. I feel pretty secure, Duo, and I know our baby won't be sold from us," she said, rubbing her belly again.
"It's so good to know you're all doing so well," Duo said, putting his hands on her strong shoulders. He filled her in on Lu and Thalia.
"Married the master!" she exclaimed, "and here I thought I was doing well! How about you, darling?"
"Doing fine. It'll be a few years before I save enough for freedom, but I'll be ok in the mean time. The performing is going well," he told her.
"Yes, I'd heard about a famous performer named Duo, I knew it had to be you! You were better than I was!" she exclaimed.
"No way," he protested adamantly.
"Ugh, you would be now," she groaned, leaning against the counter and patting her tummy.
"Thalia said you know where Stella is. I can't find her in the registry," Duo said, tone serious again.
"I don't know about her myself, all I know is that Elisa knows where she is. I see Elisa now and then," Lee continued, "she was sold to a weaver, you know. She was always good at that. Haven't seen her lately, though. Give her my love if you see her."
"A weaver? Do you know which one?" He had not heard that information.
"The one by the amphitheater, I think. Owned by the Caelii," she informed him.
"I know the one," Duo said, "I'll look her up tomorrow and tell her you send love."
"Wonderful," Lee grinned. She went behind the counter and offered Duo a fresh loaf of bread. "Take this dear, maybe it will convince you to come back now and then."
"Of course," Duo said, taking it and kissing her cheek.
Duo was a little late for lunch that day, but the fresh bread made up for it.
"Duo, you have been out longer lately, what have you been up to?" Heero asked, trying to sound pleasant instead of nosy.
"Just catching up with some old friends from before. One of them baked that bread," he told Heero.
"Are these your handmaiden friends?" Heero asked. He had of course heard Duo's tales of living with women, but he wondered how much of it was made up.
"Yeah, they seem to be doing really well here in Rome. It's nice to see them again," Duo said.
Heero didn't say anything more. Sometimes, he felt like he could go on forever pretending that Duo was just his, but then he was reminded that Duo needed other people. Duo missed his friends, and probably missed women in general. Heero kept himself from sighing audibly. He himself was not a very social creature, but Duo clearly had many friends, including people he'd known a lot longer than he'd known Heero. It hurt a little to remember that he was not the center of Duo's world, but it was the truth and he should not forget it.
"You're not angry that I'm out longer, are you?" Duo asked, noting his silence.
"Oh, no," Heero said quickly, "you may do as you wish as long as your duties are finished." He did not want to hold Duo back.
The next day, Duo entered the Caelii weavers and asked if Elisa was free. This was not the weavers Heero used, the Winners supported the Chang's weaving shops, but it was still a very nice one. The slave told Duo to meet him around back and he would take Duo to the workroom. This was, of course, something he was not supposed to do, but Duo had offered him a little money.
Duo was shown to the workroom, and he saw Elisa immediately.
"Lis!" he called, entering the room. She looked up from her loom.
"Duo!" she gasped in disbelief. "What on earth are you doing here?"
"Came to see you!" he said, hugging her.
She hugged back ferociously. "Oh, I missed you!" she exclaimed into his shoulder, and then looked up suddenly. "Have you grown taller?"
"Ah, maybe," he shrugged.
"I think you have! My word, you look fantastic!" she smiled, pushing him away slightly to look at him.
"So do you," he said, kissing her cheek. "How are things here? How are you doing?"
"I'm doing all right," she told him with a firm nod. "I was sold to a widow, the Lady Caeli who owns the shop. I should be able to earn freedom, but it will take a while."
"Yeah, I'm in the same situation," Duo replied.
"But you're some fancy performer, aren't you?" she goaded with a proud smile, "I think the Lady's family has seen you at the Winners'."
"Probably," he answered. The Caelii were high class. Not as high as the Winners, but they were richer. "I see you're weaving the purple," Duo noted. That was a special position, since purple dye was so expensive. Only the best weavers used purple.
"Oh, yes, I do pretty well," she smiled.
"You were always the best weaver," Duo reminded her. She just laughed. "Have you heard from Stella at all?" he asked. "Lee said you might know where she is, I couldn't find her in the registry."
Elisa's expression went from joyful to strained. "I have seen her a few times, just out at the market. I don't think she's doing well, Duo. They changed her name, they call her ‘Rutilia' because of her red hair. She looked gaunt and tired last time I saw her, I think she's having a rough time."
Duo was now very concerned. Red hair was some kind of bad sign to the Romans, he had been worried she would have it rougher than the others. "Do you know where I can find her?" he asked.
"A stone carver's shop over by the odeon was the last I heard," Elisa told him.
"Thanks, Lis," he said, "I'll stop in again, sometime. Lee sends her love!"
She kissed him goodbye and, since he had time today, he went straight to the stone carver's. Again, he had to ask directions because he had never been there and didn't really know this part of the city. Heero did not do a lot of business here. He asked the slave at the front of the shop if the red-haired Rutilia worked there. He said no, but the master had a domestic servant by that name with red hair. Duo thanked him with some money and offered more for directions to the master's house.
Duo found it and knocked on the door. The slave who answered told him that Rutilia was busy.
"I am an old friend," Duo said, flashing a few coins.
"No, no visitors," the old slave insisted and shut the door.
Duo still had some time, and insistent urge to see his friend. He wandered into the narrow alley behind the small house.
"Stella!" he called quietly. Since they called her a different name, he figured only she would know he was calling for her. If anyone asked, he would say he was looking for his master's run-away dog. He stopped by a kitchen window and called the name casually several times. He saw a figure in the window briefly and suddenly decided this was a bad idea. He hurried away, but turned around when he heard Stella's voice.
"Going to throw the trash out," he heard her call into the house as she exited the back door. She put the trash bin down at the stoop.
"Duo?" she asked, flying into his arms before he could answer. She hugged him tight, and he returned it doubly. His hand stroked her silky red hair. He had not missed the fading bruises on her face and arms. She felt thin and fragile in his arms.
"Are you ok?" he whispered into her hair.
"I'm so miserable, Duo!" she whispered back, voice shaking.
He pulled back a little to look at her. "What's going on?" he asked urgently.
"I hate it here, Duo!" she answered. Her wavering voice went cold, "I can't take it much longer."
"They hurt you?" Duo asked pensively.
"Yes," she whispered, "Every night..."
"Aw, Stel," he choked, hugging her again. He closed his eyes and suppressed the urge to kill someone. Violently.
"I can't stay here, Duo! I have to get out!" she said urgently. She pushed him away to look into his eyes. "I'm going to run away."
"Don't Stel," he urged. She had always been a spirited girl, but that could get her seriously punished if she were caught. Typical punishment was to be branded with an 'F' which everyone knew meant fugitive slave. "With your red hair, they'll find you. It'll only make things worse."
"Then I'll set his house on fire," she said in a low hateful tone.
"Stella!" Duo exclaimed, completely shocked. The idea was unthinkable in Rome. Most structures were made of wood and plaster; fires quickly got out of control. Arson was a serious offense. "They'll crucify you for that!"
"I don't care what they do to me, I need to escape this!" she said, eyes brimming with tears.
"Do you have any chance at freedom?" he asked, "any future hopes at all?"
"No, the master will never free me, or let me marry, he's already said so," she said desperately. Her head snapped toward the door at a noise.
"Do they know you're here?" she asked.
"I went to the front door first, but they wouldn't let me in. As far as I know, they think I left."
Stella cringed. "I'll probably be punished for having a visitor. Especially a male one..." she agonized.
Duo bit his lip. He was only making it worse. "Ok, Stel, go back before they come looking for you," he said, "I'm going to do all I can to get you out of here, ok?"
She nodded numbly.
"Ok?" he asked again, looking into her eyes.
"Yeah, Duo," she whispered.
"I love you, don't forget it," he said, kissing her forehead before letting her go. She dumped the trash and went back inside.
Duo nearly shouted in rage. He looked around for something to destroy, but luckily he stopped himself before a wooden barrel was the unfortunate victim of his wrath. He looked at the sun in the sky' he knew he'd be late for lunch, but he had to do something now.
-Rome was huge, with tiny winding streets. They didn't have street names or house numbers! Often, slaves knew their way around better than anyone else. Duo is out of his normal range, so he's asking for directions a lot.
-Janitor: the slave at the doorway, called such for Janus, the two-faced god of gateways and entrances. Sometimes the slaves were even chained to the door or gateway! Anyway, might sound familiar from our word ‘janitor' and the first month ‘January.'
-Rutilia: I got from the Latin "rutilus" for "red, golden, auburn" The UGLIEST name in the world, I know. (Thanks to Lev for the help on that!)
-Bribery: palms had to be greased in Rome! It was how one acquired information. And Duo keeps a tiny portion of what he makes, so he has a little money.