For You I Suffer
Though I almost dared not believe my eyes, it was indeed the baron who stalked across the clearing toward me, bow in hand. His eyes burned bright with anger and I flinched away fearing that, somehow, I might be the target he intended. His gaze narrowed even further and his lips pressed into a tight line as he stared at me.
But as frightened as I was, when he suddenly swung his bow in Argent's direction, I leapt toward him without thinking.
"No, please!" I grabbed his arm, not realizing that it was the first time we had touched in countless days. "This is the wolf that Tro...that I told you about, the one that I cared for." I thought better of mentioning the gamekeeper's name. The firm muscles in his arm tightened under my grip, reminding me of the strength lurking just below the surface of his skin. My heart threatened to bruise against my ribs such was the force with which it beat in my chest. I suddenly felt shy and was no longer able to meet his piercing stare. I dropped my hand from his arm as I bowed my head. "Please, you must not hurt him."
The wolf mistook my abrupt movement and thought that I was being threatened. Although he did not move away from where he crouched over the bandit, he swung his massive head in our direction and speared Heero with a glare to rival his own. Pebbled black lips pulled back from his lips, bearing dagger-sharp teeth. The baron returned his glower measure for measure, and when I saw his grip tightened on his bow, I rushed to diffuse the palpable hostility between him and the beast.
"Wait," I said softly, not wishing to startle either of them. "Just, just calm down." I reached a cautious hand out toward Argent. I saw Heero, Wufei, and Quatre stiffen as the wolf's muzzle moved close to my hand, sniffing curiously. When he suddenly forced his nose into my palm, I smiled and dropped to my knees. Heedless of the astonished men staring at us, I wrapped both arms around the wolf's thick neck.
Fetid breath blew hotly over my cheek and I was forcefully reminded that the beast I held so tightly was a powerful predator that could easily tear me apart. Even though I built quite a rapport with him as I had nursed him back to health that had been some time ago. Maybe I was just fooling myself that the wolves had come to rescue me. Maybe they were just looking for a meal and had been attracted by the smell of cooking food. Although wild creatures would normally keep away from such a large fire, perhaps hunger had drawn them out into the open.
I began to feel incredibly foolish and not a little frightened as I realized just how close the wolf's teeth were to my throat. But then a rough tongue swept up the side of my cheek, quickly followed by another wet lick. I laughed despite myself, days' worth of tension bleeding away at the unexpected show of affection. I ruffled the fur on his head playfully before staring into a pair of uncanny silver eyes.
"I am sorry about your friend," I murmured softly, keeping the communion as private as possible. Argent whined and my heart ached for the beautiful creature lying lifeless in the dirt on the other side of the field. I felt guilty, knowing that if I had not been in the forest and had not been captured by the bandits, Argent and his pack would never have been brought into such a dangerous situation. Still, I could never express how grateful I was that they had saved me from such a horrible fate.
"Thank you, Argent. Thank you so much." I stayed like that for a long moment, just content to lean against my furry guardian and try to borrow some of his indomitable strength. But the sounds of curses and feet scuffling in the dirt reached my ears, shattering the moment. Wufei's soldiers had finished rounding up those bandits who had survived the fight, and they were being none too gentle with the eight or so men who remained. Soon they would turn their attention to the gray wolf that, on the baron's orders, should have been nowhere in the vicinity. I gave Argent one more, fierce hug before reluctantly releasing him.
"You have to go now, Argent. Take your friends and go far, far away from here." The wolf stared at me for a long moment with his beautiful silver eyes as I rose to my feet. My heart ached at the thought of parting from him again. I waved my arms forcefully in his direction. He cocked his head to the side and watched me curiously.
"Go, I said!" I flung my arms towards the trees more forcefully and he shifted slightly away the wild gesture. I felt a tear course down my cheek. "Go on! Get away from here!" Argent wuffed in bemusement at my strange motions. But he suddenly whirled around and ran off into the darkness, turning back at the last moment to throw me a silver glance. Arms wrapped around me as the wolf disappeared amongst the trees and I realized that I was crying as Quatre held me tightly to him.
"It will be better for him if he goes as far away from humans as possible."
I knew that the blond spoke the truth but it did not make the pain of loosing him again any easier to bear, especially considering that I owed him my honor if not my very life. Thinking of the danger I had just been in reminded me of how I had come to be out here in the first place. I glanced furtively over my shoulder toward the baron, reluctant to catch his attention lest he immediately demand that I explain myself.
But I need not have worried as both Heero's attention and his bow were focused firmly on the man who still lay on the ground. The bandit leader eyed the arrow pointed toward him warily, but now that he was freed from the menacing presence of the wolf, it did not take him long to reassume his brash demeanor.
"Well met, my lord baron," he sneered. "How nice of you and your men to visit my humble little hideaway."
"Quiet, scum," Wufei snarled. "You may have managed to elude me until now, but your luck has finally run out. You will spend the rest of your miserable life rotting away in a very small, very dark cell. And if you're fortunate, maybe you can convince the rats to keep you company."
The bandit's grin froze on his face, but it never slipped. Instead, it gained a reckless edge as I saw in his face the knowledge that he had nothing left to lose. He laughed harshly, his scar puckering repulsively as he glanced back at the baron from the corner of his eye.
"Company, you say?" His smile morphed into something nasty and unpleasant as he turned to look at me. "I'll bet that nothing will ever prove as memorable as the company of your little whore, my lord baron. As often as he's probably spread his legs for you, you must know just how very sweet he tastes." He ran his tongue lewdly over his lips. "What do you say, love? Give us a kiss to remember you by." He palmed the bulge between his legs. "How about right here? My poor cock will need something to get it up when my hand is tired."
Before the disgust curling in my belly had time to heat into anger, the bandit let out an anguished scream. I jumped before staring in amazement at the still quivering arrow that stuck out from his right leg. Heero watched dispassionately as the man writhed in pain in the dirt before lowering his now empty bow and turning to walk away.
More than one of the captured bandits blanched as they stared at their fallen leader though it was difficult to tell beneath the bruises, cuts, and blood that covered them to a man. The soldiers had been particularly brutal with them, seeming to take it as a personal affront that the thieves had actually tried to escape with their lives.
I noticed that several of the soldiers smiled at me, prompting me to remember that I had once been quite intimate with every last one of them. I blushed painfully at the memory of that night, though I might have been more comforted if I had known then, as I learned later, that their viciousness with the bandits was borne out of their fondness for me. As it was, all I could feel and see at that moment was their pity and bewildered fury at the sight of my hideous scars.
"Quatre, bring him."
Even though the emotionless flatness of Heero's tone made me shiver in trepidation at what awaited me when I returned to Windshire, I was eager to be quit of Furuiki and the unsettling surprises it had proffered, both the good and the bad. My trainer stepped to my side and tried to give me a reassuring smile. It fell far short of its intended effect, doing nothing to relieve the knot in my gut.
The events of the last couple of days seemed to catch up with me all at once, and I barely managed a single step before my knees refused to bear my weight any longer. I stumbled and Quatre reached out to steady me. But before he could lay a hand on me, I was swept off of my feet. I gasped and wrapped my arms around the beefy neck of my rescuer as the ground fell away. I blinked as I found myself looking in to the familiar, weathered visage of Wufei's second-in-command.
"Sergeant Bruce?" My voice was breathy with shock, which only grew when the large man graced me with a gentle smile.
"You just rest now, little kitten. Ole' Bruce has got ya."
I caught sight of Quatre's startled expression as he watched the sergeant carry me away for a moment before shaking his head and following us with a bemused smile. The rest of the soldiers followed in suit with their prisoners in tow. I laid my head against Bruce's broad shoulder, feeling as safe as a child as he carried me toward the horses I could just make out beyond the edge of the clearing.
Heero had already reached his mount. He sat motionlessly in the saddle, his gaze inscrutable as he watched the sergeant perch me up on his own horse before maneuvering his bulk to sit behind me. As the large man gathered up his reigns, the baron clicked his tongue and turned his mount, riding away without a backward glance.
The soothing browns with which Quatre had decorated his suite were a balm to my jangled nerves. I had barely had the energy to allow Helen to help me wash away the dirt of my ill-conceived adventure, but although she had fussed over me something awful, I felt much better for being clean. I burrowed into the comfortable softness of my trainer's feather stuffed mattress and warm quilt, trying to succumb to the heavy weight of exhaustion that pulled at my limbs. But the tangled whirl of images churning in my mind made sleep impossible. Worried that I had not had a proper meal in over a day, the blond had gone in search of food and drink, not trusting the summoning bell to bring it quickly enough. And so I was left alone to ponder the incredible events of my rescue from the forest.
I glanced over at the bedroom door as it swung open and watched as Quatre entered bearing a heavily laden tray. He struggled to close the door behind him with his foot, and I sat up, intending to help him.
"No, no," he panted as he saw me move. "I can manage." He did indeed, finally catching the door and kicking it closed. He struggled over to the bed and swung the tray onto my lap. I winced at the weight of the tray atop my legs.
"Did you invite the captain and his men to dinner? You could not possible mean for the two of us to finish all of this." Quatre stared at me with a wide, blue-green gaze.
"What, aren't you famished? You have not eaten in nearly two days at least."
I did not feel like explaining that I could not possibly catch up on all of the meals I had missed in one sitting. Instead I picked a fork and started into the delicious servings of vegetables drenched in butter, roasted pork fresh off of the spit, and large, fluffy bread rolls. And that was the fare on only one of the many plates that covered the tray.
The blond joined me in the feast and we ate in hungry silence for some time. I had not asked why he had instructed Bruce to bring me straight to his quarters when we reached the castle rather than to the baron's suite. Heero had arrived before us and was no where in sight when we entered the stable yard. I had learned at long last not to expect anything where the baron was concerned. Beside, although I wanted to see him again more than anything, I was far too tired to press the issue.
But there was one thing I was extremely curious about and I knew that I would not be able to rest until my mind was settled on at least one point.
"Why did you leave me?" Quatre looked up mid-chew. He struggled to swallow quickly without choking.
"What do you mean?" he asked. I looked down at the food, my appetite swiftly disappearing.
"When Lady Une took me and chained me down in the kitchens, I waited for you to come. I thought you would be on our heels, but you never came." I blinked at the irritated groan that issued from my trainer's throat as he sighed and put down his fork.
"Duo, please believe me when I say that if I thought I could have done anything to thwart her, I would have done it in an instant." His delicate jaw tightened with frustration. "But she was right, blast her. She is the most powerful person in Windshire next to the baron, indeed in all of Calderash. I knew that I had no hope of helping you without his intervention. So the moment Lady Une took you away, I went in search of Heero. But my timing was ill-fated. He returned immediately after I left."
My hands clenched into fists. My mind might have been settled about Quatre, but I could not be so sanguine about what had happened when Heero had returned.
"He knew," I whispered. "He knew what she had done to me, yet he did nothing." I felt nauseous, the delicious food I had just eaten threatening to rebel. I feared that I might be sick all over Quatre's bed. After learning that Heero had come to find me at Trowa's out of concern for my well-being, I could hardly reconcile that with the knowledge that he had been content to let me remain chained down in the kitchens. Certainly finding me with the gamesman had infuriated him, but had I so completely destroyed any feelings he may have still had for me? I trembled, fearing to discover the truth but driven by the insatiable need to know it.
"Duo." Quatre's voice was unusually firm. "Duo, look at me." I could not find the courage to do so, to look him in the eye as he told me that Heero hated me. But the fingers lifting my chin gave me no choice.
"She tricked him. When Heero returned to the castle, Lady Une had him brought directly to her quarters before he could discover what had happened to you. It was not until I had given up my search and came back myself that I learned how she had deceived him."
Amazed at what he was telling me, I could only stare at him. I could hardly believe that Lady Une would go to such lengths. The depths of her hatred for me defied all reason. Seeing that I was listening intently, Quatre continued.
"I went directly to her rooms and told him myself what had happened. I have never seen him so shocked or so irate. Even Lady Une's courage seemed to falter, he was so livid. He left her without a word and ordered me to take him to you directly. But when we reached the kitchens you were gone." He shook his head and looked at me with sadness and mild disgust. "Heero immediately mustered Captain Wufei and his men. It took much longer than any of us supposed to track you, but find you we did, and just in time as it happened. Whatever possessed you to run away, Duo, and to Furuiki of all places?!"
I felt light with the realization that neither Quatre nor the baron had abandoned me. And at the same time I felt even more foolish for my rash actions. If only I had had a little more faith, if I had been a little more patient, I would not have lived the nightmare of the last two days. I could not forget what I had heard the serving girl's say, that Heero never wanted to see me again. But maybe she had misheard or been mistaken.
"Forgive me," I pleaded softly. "I thought...." I did not even bother to finish the thought, feeling like a fool for letting the girl's gossip prompt me to abandon all common sense. If I had not been feeling so miserable, I would have realized that, if nothing else, my trainer would never have left me there without a good reason. Now that I had learned the full story, I could do nothing but beg for clemency.
Unable to think of anything else to say in my defense, I tucked back into my dinner, my appetite restored by the easing of my anxieties. I still did not know why I was here instead of in my master's room, but I was willing to let that mystery keep for another day. I played Quatre's recounting of what had happened after my imprisonment and subsequent escape over and over in my head, taking comfort at the thought that Heero had been sorely displeased at what his aunt had done to me.
Neither could I forget that he had reacted most violently to the bandit's false boasting that he had violated me. Although Heero had kept his face expressionless, the arrow he had shot through the man's leg was testament enough that he had not appreciated the thief's base insinuations.
Maybe all hope was not lost. Perhaps my quest to win my master's heart was not completely in vain.
I had not even realized that I had fallen asleep until I felt Quatre take the fork out of my hand. My head drooped over my plate and long strands of hair were falling dangerously close to the food. The blond removed the tray and tucked me beneath the covers. My mind eased for the first time in days, I felt at peace as sleep took me.
I was nearly gone when a knock at the main door to Quatre's quarters kept me from sliding that last inch into insensibility. I heard my trainer speak to someone briefly before the door shut with a quiet thud. Quatre returned to the bedroom, reading a letter that had apparently just been delivered. I watched him blearily, torn between curiosity at the letter and the desire to just fall asleep.
But when every trace of color abruptly drained from his face, all feelings of fatigue quickly fled. I sat up, looking from the letter to my trainer's strained features.
"What is it?" I asked anxiously. "What has happened? Is someone ill?"
"No," he replied absently, "but I believe I might be."
My forehead wrinkled in confusion. He looked up at me, his expression shifting between disconcertingly between shock, disbelief, and unabashed fury. My breath became short, a rising sense of panic manifesting as an old trauma. It took me several tries to swallow the lump that rose in my throat enough so I could speak.
"Did...did somebody die?" Quatre shook his head, his expression as grim as I had ever seen it.
"But only because I have not killed him yet. The damned fool."
As though he were a bubble that had burst, the blond seemed to deflate before my eyes. He slumped to the bed and handed me the letter. Puzzled that the missive could possibly have something to do with me, I took it gingerly, as though I was afraid it might burn if I touched it. There was no signature, but with a single glance I was able to recognize handwriting, having seen the bold stokes of the baron's pen on several occasions. But when I finally read the body of the letter I felt as though the very ground had been pulled from beneath my feet.
Bring Duo to the courtyard in the morning, and make sure he is fully dressed. I will have everything prepared for him before your arrival. I am dismissing him from my service, effective immediately.