In his first free moment, Duo went to Quatre's house and was lucky to find the busy young man in his study.
"Duo!" the blond exclaimed when the other knocked on the open door. "Come on in."
"There's been some threats against Heero in Subura," Duo said seriously, "I want to learn the plan for the Equus October and make sure he wins - and comes back alive."
Quatre motioned him in as he pulled a large scroll off a rack. He unrolled the scroll on the desk, revealing a map of the city. Quatre explained the entire strategy and determined where Duo's skills would be most needed. Duo had never seen Quatre in his strategist mode, and was very impressed. They worked out all the details and contingency plans, and then Quatre took him to a storage room. He pulled what looked like a pair of leather gloves with no fingers from a shelf and dusted them off. They extended over the wrist and were reinforced with thick metal plating and studs.
"Heero said you've been training," Quatre said, "so wear these. They'll increase the power of your punches. You're working with Trowa; the two of you have an exclusive duty to protect Heero. You are the front line. It's not that I doubt you, Duo, I know you will do better than your best when the time comes, it's just that Trowa has more extensive battle training. You might need this edge."
"Thanks," Duo said, taking the heavy leather gloves. "I'm glad Trowa's going to be protecting Heero, too. Seems like he'd take them all on by himself."
Quatre nodded knowingly. "Yes, he has some kind of honor code from his homeland. You've probably noticed he will never fight Heero or even spar with him at the palestra. I think he would die for Heero if need be. I know Heero has tried to release him from it, but it's some kind of life-debt that he takes very seriously. I don't really get it, but it's between them, I guess."
They parted then and Duo put the gloves in his room. He still had time to get a few things done before he had to get ready for his performance. Heero was gone, off practicing at the track. Chariots were only used for sport these days and driving wasn't a skill most high-born young men needed, but Duo supposed Heero had to have gotten rather good at it in the last three years if he kept being asked to represent Via Sacra. He had not spoken to Heero since his apology, but he hoped that was enough to clear the air.
After getting dressed in his red tunic for the performance, he applied a little more make-up to his bruises for good measure. He took the stage and as he performed, his eyes searched for Heero in the audience. He was getting good at this. Usually, he let the audience be a blur to him, but somehow, he was always aware of Heero. Tonight, however, he couldn't immediately pick Heero out.
During his second song, Heero appeared in the doorway at the back, leaning his shoulder on the doorframe. Duo could see that his clothes were dirty and his hair even wilder than usual. He must have come straight from the track. He stayed right there for the whole performance. Heero had promised to come to every performance since the incident with Tsubarov and he'd been true to his word. Duo felt especially grateful because he knew that Heero disliked parties and would normally avoid them. Duo thought his routine must bore Heero after so many times. He changed it a little every time, but Heero had seen him perform more times than anyone else. Yet there he was, watching intently through the dark hair that always hung in his eyes.
Heero had that thrilling little feeling again, the one that made him think Duo was looking right at him. It was like a million little pinpricks on his skin. He told himself it was ridiculous, it was just his imagination or perhaps wishful thinking. Really, how could Duo pick out his face in this crowd? It was a bigger party than most and he was standing at the back. There were so many reasons this feeling was improbable, but none of them stopped him from feeling it. He'd always thought of himself as level-headed and realistic and it bothered him that his imagination could take off like this. He shifted and let himself forget about it as he watched Duo.
He didn't listen to gossip, so he didn't know what everyone assumed about him and Duo. He wondered if they knew he was just like them, staring at something they wanted (desperately, in his case), and could never have, something beautiful and out of reach. Part of him wanted to leave. Not once had he even thought of running away during battle, but in any confrontation with his emotions, fleeing was his first instinct. While a little part of him wished to escape this, the larger part craved it, so he wasn't going to move until Duo was done. Plus, he had made a promise that he wasn't about to break.
After the performance, he didn't have time to clean up before the obligatory socialization, but the guests seemed to love it that he'd stepped right off the track to come party with them. Heero didn't think he could tolerate anymore talk of the Equus October, but that's what was on everyone's mind. He tried not to roll his eyes or fidget too much while another of his father's cronies talked at him obsequiously. He was just thinking that he hadn't seen Duo since he left the stage when a blue tunic across the room caught his attention. He unapologetically stared past the man who was attempting to talk to him. Duo was coming towards him with a smile and a glass of wine. Eyes never leaving Duo, his hand automatically raised to take the glass when it was offered. Blue. Duo was wearing the blue. Heero heard the lackey's attention shift to Duo, and he let the performer field questions as he drained the glass quicker than he probably should have.
"Is the party really that bad?" Duo chuckled softly, nodding to the empty cup. Heero saw that Duo had somehow gotten the leech to leave and they were alone.
"I thought you were supposed to help serve," Heero said, side-stepping his question. He figured Duo had to have gone home to change clothes.
"Change of plans," Duo answered.
"Yours or theirs?" Heero asked, still unsure if they were on steady ground. Something had happened between them in his room when Duo apologized, something brief but so powerful it had struck him to the core, like lightening. It was just so fast - when Duo had touched his arm and their eyes locked. Heero didn't know how to describe it or what exactly to make of it. All he knew was that remembering the raw emotion in Duo's face made his whole body tighten... and he wanted more of it.
Duo's eyes lowered and an unreadable smile tugged his lips. "Mine," he finally answered Heero's question. He looked back up Heero. "Thought you might need a bodyguard at this party."
"Definitely," Heero muttered as another well-fed, overbearing senator led an entourage his way.
The next two days before the Equus October were hectic and rushed. The house was a beehive of activity. Heero remained characteristically calm, but the house teemed with friends and supporters. Their regular activities were interrupted, and Duo was sent on extra errands and tasks. He and Heero barely found time to spar, and Duo very much missed the time they spent together alone. At the moment, however, it was enough work just to make sure Heero ate well and took care of himself.
The morning of the festival, Duo got up just before dawn as he always did, but he found Heero already in the peristyle exercising. He decided to leave Heero alone and went to feed the animals. Heero had been guarding his emotions carefully for the last few days, more so than usual. Duo had almost forgotten what this immovable expression from their first weeks together.
All of this reminded Duo of when Heero had participated in the Hunt for the Peacecrafts' games during the summer, only it seemed there would be a bit more audience participation for this ritual. Duo was glad that Quatre had sagely assigned him to a post that would keep him near Heero and allow him to watch the entire ceremony, unlike Zechs and Wu Fei whose teams were both stationed inside the city.
Quatre came over to invite Heero to breakfast, so Duo ate with Baltus and Mona. He was kept busy right up until Trowa came to get him when it was time to go. All of the Winners would be in attendance, of course, and Heero was accompanied by his family to the Campus Martius. The old army assembling field stretched just outside the city walls and had been well-prepared for the proceedings. Duo marveled at the changes. Temporary alters and tents had been constructed, as well as a holding area for the horses, vending stalls, crowd seating, and most impressively, the elliptical racetrack. Heero and his father were met by officials at the entrance and led away. Duo asked Quatre about it as they found their seats.
"According to ancient law, we are all property of our fathers, so each of the participants' fathers have to go through rites to release them into the service of Mars for the sacred race," Quatre explained. "You'll see, it's part of the ceremony."
Duo nodded and everyone found seats in the Winners' box. Quatre took the seat nearest to the exit, Trowa next to him, and then Duo. They watched the dance troupe entertain before the actual ceremony began. When the dancers were done, musicians began to play and the procession started moving towards the center of the track. It was led by two gigantic armored slaves, both carrying red and gold flags. They were followed by a red-robed priest, two women in white, and then Heero and another young man. The patriarchs followed the participants, tailed by the rest of the slaves and attendants.
Quatre leaned over Trowa to explain the procession to Duo. "The man in red is the Flamen Martialus, the Priest of Mars," he said, "the other youth is Valgius, from a freedman's family. He's very popular with the Suburans. Heero beat him last year, but I heard he's been spending a lot of time at the track lately. It's a damn good thing Heero's been practicing."
"Is that..." Duo squinted at one of the women as the assembly mounted the raised platform in the center of the racetrack, "your sister, Iaia?" Duo was reasonably sure she was the second eldest, but it was so hard to keep track of all seven Winner sisters.
"That's right," Quatre said. "Did you not know she is a Vestal Virgin? She and the other Vestal will be helping with the ritual. They collect blood to be used in sacrifices at their temple."
The music stopped and the blessing began. Heero and Valguis were "lent" to Mars for the race and then they were both brought forward, stripped down to just the loincloth, and searched so that the crowd could be sure they didn't carry weapons or armor to help them in the race.
The Flamen stepped forward and announced to the crowd, "Mars has given signs that should Heero Winner Yuy win again this year, then he has found favor with the god, and shall not race again."
Quatre looked surprised, and the crowd was silent. Duo expected cheering for Heero like in the Hunt, but he supposed this was a more serious occasion. His attention was caught again when the chariots entered the track, the four horses trotting proudly. The chariots were decked with flowers and streamers, one red and the other white. The white chariot was led by a pair of white horses, and the red chariot by two shining blood-bays. They halted at the stage and handlers rushed around to hold the beasts as the drivers got out and climbed up to the podium.
Iaia presented the Flamen with a ceremonial helmet held upside down. He took it and held it out to Valgius, who reached inside and drew out his fist. Heero drew next, and then they both opened their hands. From his vantage, Duo could not tell what they held in their palms, but the driver of the red chariot gave Heero the helmet he wore, and two attendants fitted him with a scarlet tunic while Valgius was being dressed in white.
Horns blared as the two young men left the stage and climbed into their chariots. At just the lightest of touches, the horses were moving towards the starting line. They stopped there and it seemed the entire crowd was holding its breath, waiting for the Flamen to give the signal.
The ceremonial helmet clattered loudly to the wooden stage and the horses surged forward. Even for Heero the roaring of the crowd drowned out the pounding of hooves and the din of the chariots. He had beaten Valgius the year before, and was well-acquainted with how dirty he would try to play this. Valgius had more racing experience, so Heero's strategy was to take the lead and keep it any way he could. Drawing the red horses had given him the advantage of being on the inside track, and he was able to pull ahead on the first tight curve.
He ended the turn wide, forcing Valgius farther to the outside, and cracked the whip over the backs of the bays, knowing that his opponent would not let him keep such a lead. He resumed a gallop along the inside rail, trying to make the most of the long straightaway. He could hear the pair of whites gaining on him. Injuring the horses was a sacrilege, so using his own whip to scare them was not an option. The whites were fast and Valgius a relentless driver. He managed to pull up alongside Heero and trap him against the rail. He lashed at Heero's back with his whip, and Heero fought back with his own until he was able to urge his horses ahead. He could feel that his tunic was ripped and wet with blood.
Valgius remained right on his tail around the next curve and the whites burst ahead as soon as they straightened out again. As soon as he had just enough space, Valgius jerked the reins and cut the bays off, taking the inside rail and causing Heero a major slow-down. He swore to himself and cracked the whip over his horses. He was afraid the whites were faster, and hoped his bays had the heart to take over on the final lap. He snapped the reins over their backs and made his approach.
Being on the outside was a further disadvantage because he was on Valgius' right, and being right-handed, his whip hand was to the outside. Valgius struck out at him with the whip, as Heero expected. He blocked it with his forearm, the leather cuff preventing the whip's stinging blows from cutting into him. Trusting his horses, he kept his eye on his opponent for just a moment and was able to grab the end of the whip and rip it out of his hands when he attempted another strike. Heero took advantage of Valgius' surprise and pushed his horses ahead. He threw the whip out behind him and the noise from the crowd was deafening as the Suburans heckled him and the Via Sacrans cheered.
There was not enough left of the straightaway for him to edge his way to the inside and Valgius caught up at the turn. They were neck and neck heading down the track. Heero knew he had just one more turn and then part of the next straightaway to take the lead. He drove his bays hard toward the final turn. He managed to pull ahead and knew he had enough of a lead for a gamble as they approached the last tight bend. He went slightly wide to the outside and was able to angle in straight for the rail just as Valgius was having to slow his own horses down for the curve.
The Via Sacrans cheered passionately as Heero snapped his bays with the reins. He did not look to see what kind of a lead he had on Valgius, he just concentrated solely on his horses, urging them to give him everything they had. They were truly fine racing animals and galloped madly up the track and across the finish line.
Quatre managed to slip out during the excitement of Heero's victory. He darted out of the temporary stadium and ran to a small altar to Mercury just outside the city gate. He found the bow and quiver he had hidden there and quickly pulled out an arrow. He aimed straight up into the sky and let it fly. Heero had won and the signal was out.
Duo cheered along with Heero's ecstatic family as the winner took his victory lap. Women threw flowers and scarves; coins and charms rained down on him. After the lap, he pulled the chariot up to the podium in the center. Handlers took the horses and he got out to join Valgius on the platform. Duo sat back down as the crowd calmed for the next part of the ritual. He frowned when a handler released Heero's right-hand horse from the harness and brought it up in front of the platform to face the Flamen.
The crowd chanted a prayer to Mars, and Duo cringed when one attendant raised a hammer over the unsuspecting horse's head. The hammer struck the horse's brow and the unfortunate animal was stunned while the Flamen stabbed its throat with a spear. Iaia came forward with a jar and let it fill with blood. The other Vestal filled a jar as the Flamen said a prayer.
Duo cringed when the blood collecting was finished and the Flamen decapitated the horse and held the dripping head aloft. The crowd clapped and chanted as the head was placed on the altar. He didn't quite understand why the Vestals then laid fresh-baked cakes on top of the head, but it wasn't the first time Roman rituals had boggled him. The cakes, however, were the cue. He and Trowa got up and slipped down the stairs to the exit that Heero would be coming out of. Duo couldn't see in, but he heard the Flamen announce that Mars was satisfied and then the audience roared to life again. He nervously strapped the leather gloves to his wrists and waited. The next thing he knew, Heero was running full tilt in their direction carrying the bloody equine head, just as planned. Valgius was storming after him, covered in mushed-up cakes. Duo could only imagine that the fight at the altar had been messy.
Duo had noticed some Suburan thugs had gathered at the exit as well and he took out one with a surprise kick to the knee. When the other turned around, Duo dropped him with a heavy backhand as Heero ran past. Duo sprinted to catch up with him and Trowa.
"That was some impressive racing!" Duo shouted as they headed for the city gates.
"It's not over!" Heero gritted his teeth as he spotted three more thugs. They fought them off and were joined by some Via Sacrans as they entered the city walls.
"You know the route?" Heero asked.
"Yeah!" Duo shouted back as they were accosted by more angry Suburans. Valgius fought his way through and jumped on Heero. He wrestled Heero to the ground, and Heero knew he was on his own since it looked like Duo and Trowa both had their hands full. The head was heavy and trying to hold onto it handicapped him slightly in a fistfight.
Valgius choked him and managed to rip the head from his hands. Two of his lackeys held Heero as he got up and took off with the head. Zechs arrived with reinforcements and helped Heero get free. They all ran ahead and found that Valgius and his friends had been slowed by some helpful Via Sacrans. Heero kicked him in the kidney and dodged a punch from one of the thugs. Valgius went down and Heero reached for the head. Valgius jerked it with a growl, trying to pull Heero over. Heero yanked the head from the hands of the flailing man and his allies closed around him.
Zechs' men held boards up over their heads as they ran down the street just as arrows began to fly down from the rooftops. Duo could see that they were blunt-tipped, but would still hurt on impact. Quatre's archers remained hidden above and kept up the volleys until Valgius' men thinned out behind them.
"They're setting a trap down by the fountain!" Zechs called as they ran up some stairs, "We're going to plan B." Still protected by the wooden shields, the group ran down the cobbles of Dr. Sally's street. Heero, Duo, Trowa, and a small contingent of men ducked out of the main group and into Sally's door. Zechs led the rest on toward the fountain as a decoy. Two arrows were shot into the sky, signaling that plan B was in effect.
They dashed through the house and out the back door. Duo knew the route from Sally's was longer, narrower and more twisted, but it looked like they may be able to reach the palace and avoid the largest group of Suburans. Zechs' recruits fought off any attackers as Heero kept up the fastest pace he could. They rounded a tight corner and found a larger group of thugs awaiting them. Heero had to fight and carry the heavy head, so Duo made sure to stay at his side the best he could. More Suburans came running when they heard the commotion and a few ran off in the other direction. It seemed Subura's strategy had been to place men randomly throughout the city with only short distances between them to carry messages quickly. Duo knew that if they didn't get out of there soon, their position would be given away.
He heard a shout from a second story window, but he was too preoccupied with an opponent to look to see what it was. Suddenly, roof tiles came soaring down, striking several of the Suburan thugs and causing general confusion. There was shouting from the rooftops and the clay tiles continued to sail down onto the heads of the Suburans. Duo looked up to see a bunch of boys running round on the rooftops and chucking tiles as they cheered for Heero.
They fought their way out and Heero turned to wave at his young helpers before they tore down the narrow street towards the palace. Duo would have liked to get have gotten farther before they were chased down by a large group of thugs. Their small band was outnumbered and not gaining as many members as the Suburans'. Duo was starting to get worried as he fought off two more attackers and helped Heero knock another guy out. Valgius appeared and pushed his way through the group toward Heero and the head.
Duo tried to intercept him, but he was assailed by someone else first. Heero saw his opponent coming and ducked when he threw a right fist at him. Twining his fingers tightly in the forelock, Heero swung the head high and caught Valgius in the face, smearing his neck and dirtied white tunic with blood. Valgius snarled and managed to land a punch to Heero's jaw. Heero then caught Valgius with a surprise kick to the stomach, making him double over. Heero lifted the equine head and brought it down over the Suburan man's head.
He knocked Valgius to the ground, but he had left his midsection open and received a punch in the stomach from one of the other thugs. He gasped for breath and his vision went blurry as he stumbled back. It looked as though the man was going to come at him again, but Duo tackled him to the ground first. He managed to clear his head somewhat when he heard surprised shouting.
"Heero!" Wu Fei called as he led a fresh team in.
"Glad you could make it, Chang!" Duo growled as he got up and gave the man on the ground one last kick.
"You were supposed to be at point Z ten minutes ago!" Wu Fei shot back as he joined the fight.
"We got a little hung up!" Duo explained sarcastically as he pulled one of Heero's arms over his shoulder and started running. Trowa caught up and supported the arm Heero was clutching the head with. Wu Fei's men ran off the thugs and then escorted Heero through the winding streets. They charged through a square and fended off a small group of waiting thugs.
"You ok?" Duo asked when Heero did not pull his arm back to run on his own.
"I'll make it," Heero panted in response.
They were in the district now, they just had to get the head to the palace. They continued running down a few more alleys that dumped them by one of the smaller temples. A waiting crowd of Via Sacrans met them with cheering and lifted Heero up away from Duo and Trowa and onto their shoulders, carrying him and the head the rest of the way. Duo did his best to keep up, but was beginning to feel his injuries. He felt Wu Fei's hand on his shoulder.
"You can stop now," Wu Fei said.
"Where are they taking him?" Duo panted, still running at the back of the group.
"The head is deposited at the palace, and then he will probably be sent home in a litter," Wu Fei answered, "and then plenty of partying."
Duo set his jaw and kept running. There wouldn't be much partying for Heero. He'd been the target of most of the attacks, and he'd taken that last punch pretty hard. Duo was too damn worried to stop now. He, Trowa, and Wu Fei found the celebration already in full swing outside the palace as the head was being staked on a balcony above. The three pushed their way through the party, looking for Heero. Most people either ignored them or passed jugs of wine their way.
They made their way into the palace itself and found a slave who directed them out to a side door where Heero was being lifted into a litter under the watchful eye of Dr. Sally. She greeted them with a broad smile and congratulations.
"Is he ok?" Duo asked.
"You know, he could barely stand, but it still took three men to pry that head from his hand. He's probably still clutching some of the hair. He seems a little dazed, but I was going to get him home before looking at him," she explained, and then frowned at Duo, "I want to have a look at your head as well."
Duo touched his right temple and felt dried blood all the way down the side of his face.
"There's only room for two to ride in there, why don't you get in? Wu Fei and Trowa will escort me to Heero's house. We won't be far behind," Sally said, ushering Duo towards the litter. Duo would normally have objected to being carried by other slaves, but he was just too exhausted. It was a small litter in which one had to sit or recline. Heero was lying inside, not moving. Duo climbed in beside him and just about collapsed. The slaves were strong and well-trained; he barely noticed when they started to move.
It was dim inside the curtained litter, but Duo could see that Heero was breathing regularly. There was indeed a long lock of black hair still clasped tightly in his right fist.
"Hey," Duo said softly as he touched Heero's arm, "you can let go now. You won." Heero's eyes fluttered open but he seemed unable to focus on the source of the voice. Duo smiled when his hand opened and he let the hair be taken away. His eyes fell closed again and they did not open even when Duo shook him gently.
Concerned, Duo looked him over and noticed that the red tunic was shredded and torn in several spots, including the stomach area. Duo touched the folds of fabric lightly and found that they were sticky. Heero was unresponsive to further careful shaking, so Duo gingerly pulled up his tunic. His abdomen was bruised and bloodied from four shallow puncture wounds. Duo swore under his breath. That last thug must have had spikes on his fist to do that kind of damage. Duo remembered that the guy had been wearing similar leather and metal gloves on his wrists and figured the knuckles must have been pointed.
They reached Heero's house and Duo was able to get him to wake somewhat. Quatre and Baltus were waiting and helped Duo get Heero out of the litter and up to his room. Wu Fei, Trowa, and the doctor arrived quickly and joined them upstairs.
"The hit to his stomach is worse than it looked," Duo informed her right away. It was easier to see the blood in Heero's bright room. They helped Sally cut the red tunic away and a frown crossed her face when she got a good look at the open wounds. She felt his forehead and pulled his eyelids back to check his pupils. She looked closely at the wounds and then quickly looked at the blood stained cloth, lifting it to her nose and sniffing.
"He's been poisoned!" she growled. "Wu Fei, pass me my bag!" He did so immediately and she soaked a clean cloth with liquid from a glass jar. Heero gasped in pain and twitched when she set the wet cloth to his wounds to clean them.
Duo wanted to kill someone as he watched the pain pinch Heero's face. "The thug who punched him had those boxers gloves on," he told them through clenched teeth, "they must have had metal spikes on them, and I bet they were laced with whatever he's been poisoned with!" Unable to stand still anymore, he paced and wrung his hands. He had been watching for a murder attempt, but he had been expecting something more obvious, like a sword or dagger. It upset him that the would-be killer had gotten past him.
"I think he bled most of it out," Sally said, relaxing somewhat. "This type of poison at this dosage would have needed more than one hit to kill him. He's not in danger and it should be out of his system in a day."
When the wounds were cleaned, she finished up with the rest of him, and then treated anyone else with injuries.
"Duo, you should go get some rest," she advised after bandaging his head.
"I'm going to stay with Heero," Duo said.
"I'll stay with him, you go lie down," Sally promised.
"Duo, you barely made it to the palace," Wu Fei said, "go take a rest."
"But he's been poisoned," Duo argued, "I really need to stay!"
Sally looked to her three friends, and they wordlessly wrestled Duo downstairs to his own room.
"No!" Duo protested desperately as they dragged him down the hall. "It's my fault! You don't understand! I have to stay with him!" He knew he was too weak and tired to stop them as they gently set him on his bed.
"And how would this be your fault?" Quatre asked. "Did you do this to him?"
"No, but - "
"Of course you didn't, so it's not your fault, Duo," Wu Fei reasoned.
"No! You don't understand! I knew! I should have - I should have - "
"No, Duo, it's my fault," Trowa said quietly.
Quatre rolled his eyes. "Just drop it you two, he's going to be fine. You know he'd be angry if he could hear you right now. And he would want you, Duo, to take it easy, so lie the hell down and get some damned sleep."
Quatre ushered everyone out and shut the door behind them. Duo grumbled to himself as he undressed. Man, Quatre could be so grumpy when he was in charge. He had to admit he could use a rest; it had been a rough morning. Nothing would be expected of him until the evening. The Winners were throwing a party, of course, and Heero would be expected to be there. He looked like the Furies had had their way with him. Duo hoped he was going to be well enough to go. Something black fell out of one of his pockets as he folded his tunic, and he stooped to pick it up. It was the thick lock of horse hair that he had pried out of Heero's hand.
Sally looked up from organizing her supplies when Heero's breathing became raspy and quick. She immediately sat down in the chair next to the bed and took his pulse. His heartbeat was faster than she would have liked and he was still feverish. He shifted a few times and it looked like he was trying to open his eyes.
"Heero, are you awake?" she asked him.
His eyes opened. "Dr. Sally," he rasped, "there's... something wrong with me... I can't seem to... I think I've been... poisoned."
"You were," she confirmed, "it's under control. Your body is fighting hard and the effects should lessen in a few hours."
"It was that... Duo!" he gave a broken cry and tried to sit up. It was a testament to his poor health how easily Sally was able to push the man back down onto the bed.
"He fought the same guy!" Heero struggled. "He might be... You have to check on him!"
"He's fine, Heero, I promise," Sally comforted him, "he didn't get any of the poison."
Heero's eyes closed and his body was overcome with exhaustion, even though his mind willed him to stay awake. When he went still again, Sally wasn't sure if he was asleep or unconscious.
~ + ~
Duo awoke at a sound outside his door. It was still light, but the sun was very low in the sky. He couldn't believe he'd slept all afternoon. He sat up when the door opened and Heero stumbled in.
"Heero!" Duo jumped off the bed and was instantly at his side to help him stand. "What are you doing? You should be resting!"
"I had to make sure you were ok," Heero said weakly. "You didn't get poisoned?"
"No," Duo shook his head, "I fought with that guy, but he didn't get me with the spiked fist. I'm ok. Now come on, you're going back upstairs."
Heero didn't protest as Duo helped him up the stairs and back to his room. Duo frowned at Baltus, who had taken over watching Heero and fallen asleep in the chair next to the bed. He got Heero settled and then woke the old man to offer to watch Heero. Baltus left them and Duo pulled the chair over to the side of the bed.
"You should get some more rest," he told Heero, "the poison will wear off soon and you've got a party to go to."
Heero groaned and Duo chuckled. "Well, you can't go like this, you look like shit, so just sleep a few more hours and see what that does for you."
Duo remembered moving to the floor so he could lean against the bed, but he didn't remember folding his arms on the bed and falling asleep. However, that is exactly how he woke a few hours later in the dimming light of the setting sun. He could see his braid coiled on the blankets, the end trapped in Heero's lax grip. He grinned. He liked the way that looked.
Heero was sleeping peacefully now, on his back with his mouth open just slightly. The last thing Duo wanted to do was to wake him and make him go to a party he dreaded, so he decided to let someone else do that. He just lay there, watching Heero sleep. Someone would be by to drag him to the party soon enough.
The knock at the door came too quickly, in Duo's opinion. Heero stirred and tightened his hold on the braid. He moved to turn over and pulled it a little before realizing he had something in his hand. Duo chuckled at his expression when he opened his eyes to see what it was.
"S-sorry," he mumbled and released the braid immediately.
"It's ok," Duo smiled at him sleepily.
"Heero?" Quatre's voice came through the door.
"Party time," Duo teased, stretching his arms above his head.
"I'm awake, come on in," Heero surrendered without a fight.
Quatre opened the door and poked his head in. "Well, you look better," he said approvingly. "How do you feel?"
"Like all of Subura just chased me through the streets trying to kick my ass," Heero winced.
Duo stood as Quatre came near to the bed to feel Heero's forehead. "Your fever is down, I think the poison is receding."
"I'm not poisoned anymore, so you feel the need to torture me," Heero muttered, throwing the covers back.
"Well, aren't you just chipper for the man who won the Equus October for the third year in a row, and brought another year of good luck to our district," Quatre observed sarcastically.
"And I'm sure everybody wants to thank me," Heero griped. He stood and cracked his back, making the vertebrae pop loudly.
Duo laughed at their brotherly bickering. "Can you walk all right?" he asked Heero. Heero didn't answer, but walked steadily to the bureau and pulled out a fresh white toga.
"Duo, you should go get dressed, too," Quatre said. Duo grinned and hurried downstairs to put on his blue tunic. He brushed his hair and, in the process, rediscovered his head wrapping. He unrolled it, realizing he must have looked so silly to Heero. He replaited his hair and then consulted a mirror in the hallway. The wound to his temple was still kind of angry-looking, but it was better than the white bandage.
He met Quatre and Heero in the peristyle and followed them to the main residence. Duo quickly realized that the more beat-up a man looked, the prouder he was of it. Zechs looked quite pleased about being so battered, and Duo guessed that the Suburans had indeed set a nasty trap at the fountain. Wu Fei was not so bruised, but he was more so than Quatre, who had spent most of his time on the rooftops. Trowa and Duo looked equally black and blue. Other local men were there, trading stories about how they had helped today. Heero was, of course, the most beat-up, and they celebrated him until he didn't think he could stay upright anymore.
"I don't think I can take anymore," he whispered to Duo.
"Want me to take you to bed?" Duo whispered back. He stomach did flip flops when he realized what he'd said. By the gods, did he want to take Heero to bed. He wanted to crawl in next to him, pull the covers up, rest his head on Heero's chest and fall asleep listening to him breathe. He wanted to wake up with Heero's hands touching his hair and not let him pull away so fast. He wanted... everything. He wanted it all. He just wanted.
"Yeah," Heero said, sounding as if he was out of breath. Duo tried to get his thoughts back on track as they went to find Zechs and Quatre. Heero asked them to pass on his regards to the other guests and they seemed to understand.
Once out of the main house, Heero held Duo's arm and allowed himself be led back to his own residence. He let Duo support him up the stairs and to his room. He expected Duo to leave him there, but Duo went in to light a couple lamps and straighten the bed. Heero unwrapped his toga and folded it back up. He practically collapsed onto the bed as soon as he was reasonably close to it.
"Thank you," he said as Duo leaned over him to pull the blanket up. He caught his hand to get his attention. "Thank you for helping today. Thank you for... everything."
It was that moment Duo knew he couldn't leave. He couldn't stand up, he couldn't move away. He couldn't escape it -- not this time. He was too hungry, his instincts were too strong. He wanted...
Duo closed his eyes and was thrilled at how easily his lips found Heero's. They were warm and pliable under his as he kissed them. His free hand came to rest on the bed by Heero's shoulder, and the other slipped free of Heero's grasp, moving to stroke his cheek. Heero's mouth went from pliable to inviting, opening slightly to tempt Duo inside. Duo let his tongue swipe inside just enough for a taste. He could feel where Heero's lip was swollen, he could taste the sweetness of the wine and a light metallic trace of blood. It reminded him that Heero was injured.
He made a soft, regretful humming noise as he pulled away and Heero opened his eyes. "You were amazing today," he whispered, continuing to caress Heero's face. He had to force himself to stand up and take the small lamp from the table. He made it to the door before feeling it was safe to turn back.
"I'll be sleeping in the next room if you need anything," he said before slipping out. He walked calmly to the room next to Heero's and tried to stop the feeling that he was going to splinter into a thousand pieces. He was elated and terrified, panicked and exhausted, euphoric and mortified, content and yearning. He was in no state to deal with this now, physically, emotionally or mentally, so he just laid down in the spare room and decided to worry about it tomorrow.
-Togas. Only citizens wore them so Duo would, of course, not be.
-About the Equus October: there was a chariot race between the districts, a horse sacrificed from the winning pair, and then a battle for the head that ended in Subura or Via Sacra, but I fudged a lot of the details. Oh, and the part about the cakes came from one of my sources. XD