"We are definitely ready for tomorrow, Heero!" Duo said excitedly at lunch the day before his performance with Stella. "She is going to knock everyone out of their sandals! Did you convince people from the performing schools to come?"
Heero took a slow breath and decided that this was a good time to ask what had been on his mind over the last few days. "Yes," he answered, "but I was wondering, Duo, if... perhaps I should keep her. You know, for you - if you wanted me to keep her. You seem to like each other very much..."
He trailed off again. It had been a hard thing for him to decide, but after watching them together, Heero could not deny it. They were so happy together, cooking, talking and brushing the horses, playing with the puppies, practicing in the peristyle. He was jealous of her, of the way Duo smiled and laughed when she was around, but if Duo loved her, then this was the right thing to do. He had not wanted another slave, but he could easily afford to keep her and mostly, he wanted Duo to be happy.
Duo's mouth just gaped. He knew what Heero was saying, he was offering to keep Stella as a companion for him. "Oh, uh, no, you don't have to do that," he stumbled, "really, Heero, you spent a lot of money on her as a favor to me, and I want you to make at least part of that back! You've already been so nice to me, you really don't have to do this! I mean it!"
Heero was very surprised that Duo turned down his offer, but he accepted it before Duo could change his mind. "All right then," he nodded, "we'll see what the performing school representatives have to say. Good luck to the both of you tomorrow."
"Thanks," Duo said before he cleared the dishes and went to the kitchen to clean up. He wondered how many performing schools would send scouts. His name added to the performance would certainly draw more interest. He had tried to visit Sara again, hoping she could convince her owners to buy Stella, but again she had been busy and he had only been able to leave a message.
He thought about Heero's offer again, and was still a little in awe. But after a while, the awe lie not with Heero, but his own response. He had been so quick to refuse. He had not even thought that perhaps it would be better for Stella to stay here. She'd be freed quicker, and Duo could be sure she was not being abused. Maybe they'd even get to perform together regularly. He had not thought about any of that. ‘No' had just been his gut reaction.
The truth was, he still could not imagine anyone else in the house with him and Heero, even if it was one of his best friends and he'd most likely get to have sex with her. Sure, he loved Stella and this week with her had been fun, but he'd done it all with the knowledge that it would only be for a week. He just didn't want anyone else in the house. He didn't want to share Heero. He wanted to get back to sparring, riding the horses, training the puppies, and going to the palestra.
That night, Stella helped him make the last rounds and then they retired to their quarters.
"Duo, I'm nervous! Would you sit with me for a bit?" she asked with a bright, jittery smile. Duo thought what a beautiful smile it was. There was a light in her eyes again, the bruises had almost completely faded, and she had even gained some weight back over the week. He agreed and followed her in. They sat on her pallet and talked for a bit, Duo doing his best to reassure her.
Stella observed Duo as he talked. He was everything she remembered and more. At seventeen, he had been young, fresh, and full of piss and vinegar. Now, he was still kind of like that, but he seemed older, a little more laid back, a bit more centered. He was becoming a man, a very fine young man. He had performed miracles with her that week, got her laughing again, loving life almost the way she used to. He had been so patient and affectionate with her, his kindness completely altruistic. He didn't expect anything from her, especially not sex. And that was one reason she wanted to give it to him.
"Duo," she began when there was a pause, "thanks for everything you've done for me. You are the best friend I could ever hope to have." Then she leaned over and kissed him deeply on the mouth.
Duo responded immediately. He had kissed her a few times, but this was the first time Stella had initiated anything physical. He thought it was another step in the right direction. He thought it was most certainly another step when her tongue gently pushed into his mouth and encouraged his to come out and play. Duo's tongue was always easily persuaded. He put an arm around her and she moved closer to him. They kissed longer and he felt her hand on his bare shoulder, pressing over his skin, then tracing his clavicle. Her fingers slipped down his chest and just stayed.
Duo felt no hesitancy from her, but he stopped her anyway. He pulled away from her lips and grasped her hand at his heart. "Stella," he whispered earnestly. She of all people knew just how sensitive he was and how easy it was to make him aroused.
"I'm not teasing, Duo," she whispered back, "I want it. I want you to make love to me."
"Stella," he whispered again, not sure how he felt or what to say.
"Will you, Duo? Please?" she asked, stroking his cheek, "I know we have different lives now, but I still love you, Duo. You to do this for me, you make me feel like me again! I want to be with someone who cares about me, someone I know won't hurt me. Can you do this for me? Please, Duo? This will probably be our last chance."
Duo looked into her eyes for a long time, seeing the love and the need.
Stella had never known hesitancy in Duo, so it told her just how much he had changed. But she recognized the smile that crossed his face then, and knew his answer when he pulled her into a kiss.
He would do this for her, he decided and slowly unfastened the dress pin at one of her shoulders. He would do it as a friend, because he loved her, too. Because he missed it, too. Because she needed it, needed to know that she could choose, that she could say yes. Because she needed to enjoy it. He would do this for her because he so readily gave her up. Because this would be his goodbye.
"Mmmmmm," Stella sighed sleepily, "you'd think it would be impossible to forget how amazing that is..."
Duo smiled. "Glad I could remind you," he said, pulling her against his chest and kissing the top of her head. He had been happy to remind her this time, but he knew it would be the last time. He felt happy, calm, sated, and his thinking was surprisingly clear. The sex had been great, very comfortable and loving. It had been nice to have a partner again, but for some reason he did not feel utterly fulfilled. Maybe he never had, and just hadn't noticed it before, but it was very clear to him now. Lying in the dark, holding the sleeping girl close, he felt a confusing mixture of happy and sad that should have been impossible. Happy that he could be intimate with a friend, sad that he felt so... distant at the same time. He told himself it was just some weird post coital effect and went to sleep before a new feeling could lodge itself into his mind.
By morning, that feeling had set in full force - panic with a trace of guilt. Duo woke before dawn with the urge to flee. He knew exactly where he was and what he had done with the girl he still held in his arms. Subduing his urge to run momentarily, he squeezed Stella gently and whispered, "I'm gonna get started for the day, you just rest up, ok?"
She muttered something sleepily and rolled over when he released her and carefully left the bed. He pulled on his skirt and opened the door cautiously, desperately not wanting to be seen leaving her room. What if Baltus or Mona saw? And what if they told Heero? Seeing no one in the dark halls yet, he crept to his own room and changed into some fresh clothes and combed his tussled hair.
It was still early, but he was too anxious to sleep any more. The horses were spotless, but that was his favorite chore to think while doing, so he went to the barn, said a quiet good morning to Diana and the puppies, and picked up a brush. He brushed Ares' shining coat and tried to analyze his feelings. He felt... guilty. He felt like he had betrayed himself. And betrayed Heero. Wait a minute. Heero? Duo groaned and threw his arms over the horse's back, letting his full weight fall on the gelding's flank, his face buried in the soft hair. He breathed deeply, inhaling horse, hay, and grain, and the scent calmed him slightly.
Duo had never thought a monogamous thought in all his life, and now he was wanting to be faithful to someone he wasn't even sleeping with? He groaned again, feeling like a total idiot. He had to be pretty stupid to fall into something like this! Well, at least it helped him understand why he had declined Heero's offer to keep Stella and why he had refused Lu's invitation. He cared about them, but he wanted Heero. And only Heero.
As the sun came up, Duo mixed Diana some breakfast and then started on Heero's. He was nervous and a little jittery, and he hoped to the gods Heero wouldn't notice. How was he going to sit at the table with the man? He felt like the words ‘I screwed someone else last night,' were carved across his forehead, or like he'd blurt it out the moment his mouth opened.
Of course, Heero noticed right away. "Duo, are you ok?" he asked with genuine concern. Duo was acting so strangely, drumming the table with his fingers, shifting in his chair every 30 seconds, eyes darting across the room. Most notably though, he was not eating and not talking.
"Oh fine!" Duo grinned widely. "Maybe I'm a little nervous about the performance or something!"
Heero frowned. He'd never known Duo to be nervous before performing. Perhaps it was because there was more riding on this one than ever before. She was really that important to him. But, a smug little voice reminded him, he didn't have to keep her, so it didn't matter. Heero shooed the voice away and finished breakfast.
The afternoon was spent solidifying the routine and smoothing over last minute details. Heero went to the party at Quatre's right when it started, stopping to wish the two performers good luck before he left. Duo watched with a pang of jealousy as Heero went. He would have liked to accompany Heero, but he had other things to concentrate on tonight. He and Stella got ready together, reviving their old pre-performance rituals. Duo didn't wear make-up or style his hair anymore, but the customs were still calming as he helped her do those things.
They made a stunning pair in their new outfits. Heero had taken them both to the clothier a few days ago, and Duo had managed to cajole him into buying them matching outfits. It was the most time they'd really spent together all week, and Duo had relished it. He and Stella had chosen shining green and black cloth. Duo wore a black tunic with green trim. It was the first outfit he'd worn since arriving in Rome that covered his chest. He had chosen understated since he wanted Stella to be the star. She wore a beautiful dress in green with back trim. They had chosen the green specifically to make her red hair look good.
Heero took a seat next to Wu Fei in the room Quatre had converted into the entertainment room. The party was supposed to have been smaller, but had become a much bigger affair once Heero had asked if Duo could perform. Winners didn't need excuses to throw big parties so Quatre had readily agreed. So far, four people had introduced themselves to him as being from local performing schools and thanked him for the invitation. Four was a fair number. Each time, he'd had to bite back a growl that Duo would not be for sale. No doubt they'd offer.
The performers appeared on stage and sang first. They did a few duets, then Duo sang a solo piece and Stella sang two. They played instruments and in Duo's tradition, ended with dancing. Heero looked on proudly. They really did look gorgeous in the costumes Duo had chosen. As much as he shared his people's unease about red hair, he had to admit, the copper color was kind of pretty. That trip to the seamstress had been... fun. He'd gotten to spend so little time with Duo this week, he'd nearly forgotten how energetic and funny he was. Ok, so he hadn't forgotten at all, but he realized how much he'd missed Duo. Gods, it was only a week, how pathetic. The playful atmosphere of the trip had resulted in him being a total push over about the cost of the new clothes.
After they finished, the pair served refreshments and mingled. Zechs had managed to snag Duo for another glass of wine, and Heero approached just in time to hear him say, "Why Duo, I almost didn't recognize you in this," and playfully poke Duo's covered chest. The youth laughed graciously and turned to Heero.
"May I refill your glass?" he offered with a smile. Heero almost didn't hear him, he was so preoccupied admiring Duo in the black tunic. Perhaps it was because he knew the contours of Duo's chest so well, but he swore the tunic only draw attention to the muscles there.
Heero wasn't thirsty, but Duo's smile compelled him to agree.
"What did you think?" Duo asked, pouring the red liquid.
"Wonderful, as always," Heero answered, taking the glass when offered back to him, "I think she will get sizable offers. You must have gotten over that nervousness from earlier."
"Nervousness? Oh! Right," Duo agreed. He was still trying not to think about it. Before Duo could part their company, a man approached them and held his glass out to Duo. He filled it obligingly and handed it back.
The man turned to Heero and made an offer on the performing pair that nearly made Duo's jaw hit the floor. Zechs chuckled and held his shoulder to steady him. Heero refused politely, and said that only the girl was for sale.
The man thought a moment and said, "Sir, she is a redhead..."
"True, but as you have seen, she is very talented, and you can always dye the hair," Heero responded coolly.
The man thought a moment more, and made an offer after all. Heero thanked him, and said he'd get back to him later with an answer.
"You're not going to take that?" Duo hissed when the man had wandered away. It had been way more than what Heero had paid for her. He'd be making a nice profit.
"Now Duo," Heero instructed, "I can't seem too eager to sell. Besides, I'm waiting to see if we get better offers."
"You're expecting better offers? Well, shit!" Duo declared proudly.
"Duo, language," Heero reprimanded.
Zechs laughed. Duo just gave Heero a impudent smile and excused himself to serve other guests. It still blew his mind that people bought... people. Heero had never told him what his worth had settled at, so he didn't exactly know what his own price would be. Apparently, really high, seeing what Heero had just turned down and knowing some of what the emperor had offered.
As he served, Duo kept an eye on Heero, watching other interested people talk with him. He saw Heero call Stella over after a while and keep her near by. Duo smiled. Heero was consulting with her about each offer, making sure she was comfortable with the people.
The night wound down, and Heero found Duo packing up some of the instruments.
"Duo, the night was a huge success," he announced.
Duo looked up from where he was kneeling, "Oh yeah? Did you get a good offer?"
"It could not have worked out better," Heero said with a small smile. "The Ilusian School made a very competitive offer, and that was the one Stella wanted the most. I take it you both know someone there?"
Duo grinned broadly. So Sara had gotten his message after all! "Yeah," he answered. "So, what was the offer?"
A widening smile appeared on Heero's lips as well. "Nearly double what I paid," he stated.
Duo steadied himself on the ground, shocked.
"I wanted to tell you," Heero continued quickly, guessing some rather colorful profanities were about to come from Duo, "that I'm taking only what I paid for her and putting the rest in your account. You really did all the work here. You more than upheld your end of the deal and created a profitable investment for me. I think you deserve this."
"Wha- T-thanks Heero!" Duo stammered. That was quite a lot of money! Almost a whole slave's worth! "But, if you don't mind, would you give it to her?" he asked, "I want Stella to have it."
Heero regarded him for a moment. Amazing. Presented with a load of money, Duo chose to give it to someone else. "How about you give it to her," Heero suggested, digging into a fold in his toga. He procured a small purse and a funny little smile spread his lips when he looked at it. "Cash up front," he said almost gleefully. Duo laughed. Heero was certainly no greedy miser, but there wasn't a Roman alive who didn't love money. He counted out his share and gave the purse to Duo. "She's in her room, gathering her things," he told Duo, "they wanted her right away."
Heero started to walk away, the coins jingling merrily in his tunic pocket. "Good thing I don't have to walk home on the streets tonight," he threw over his shoulder, "every thief within a mile would come running at that sound!"
Duo laughed. Joking was a sure sign that Heero had had more to drink than he'd intended. Duo enjoyed these rare occasions, though. He finished with the instruments and went to find Stella. She was indeed in her room, gathering the few things she had.
"Duo!" she exclaimed when she saw him in the doorway. She hugged him breathless before he could utter a greeting. "Oh gods, Duo, I am so happy!" she whispered.
"The Ilusian School, huh?" he asked when she released him.
"Yes! That's the one you said Sara is at, right?"
"That's the one," Duo confirmed, "and I'm sure she must have had something to do with this. I did leave her a message. I was hoping to see her, but she's always so busy. Say hi for me."
"This couldn't be better!" Stella gushed.
Duo grinned. "Sure it could," he said, "how about this?" He held the purse up in front of her.
"What is this?" she asked, not sure what to make of it.
"It's for you. Heero gave me a cut of what he earned after his initial buying cost, and I'm giving it to you," he said. She just stared at it. "Go ahead!" he laughed. "Take it!"
"I'm not sure what to do with it!" she told him.
"Nobody knows but Heero and I, so no one is going to try to take it from you. Just hide it away. Or put it toward freedom if they let you do that sort of thing. It's yours," he shrugged, "do whatever you want with it."
She took the offered purse and stuffed it to the bottom of her bag, not bothering to count it. That done, Duo gladly suffered another rib-crushing hug as she tearfully said goodbye.
"I don't know how to thank you Duo!" she said into his shoulder. "I thought I was going to die in that place!"
"You don't need to thank me," he said, kissing the top of her head, "all I wanted to do was get you out of there."
She moved away to put one palm on each of his cheeks. "You are my hero," she said with a smile and planted a kiss firmly and squarely on his lips. He laughed and they hugged one more time before he saw her back to Quatre's where the Ilusian scout was waiting. Duo saw them to the door and she waved to him over her shoulder before they disappeared down the street.
O_O I feel... I feel GUILTY! I feel like I just cheated on my true love!! My true love being 1x2x1, of course! No, for real, I did NOT want that to happen, but Duo had to learn the hard way exactly what his feeling for Heero are.
-Dying hair: I have confirmation from several readers that this was common enough! Thanks for the insight!