For You I Suffer
The sound of horse hooves clopping against the hard packed dirt made for a soothing cadence. We had left the noise and bustle of Pholan far behind, and the rolling hills that marked the outskirts of Fashel stretched into the distance. The air was fresh and redolent with the pastoral scents of my childhood. After a journey of nearly two days, our destination lay only another hour or so away. It had been many months since I had last seen my farm and anyone in my position would have been excited and eager to return after such a lengthy absence. But I felt hollow and incomplete as though the most essential part of myself had remained back in the place I had left the day before.
Although the distance between Windshire and Fashel was easily traveled on horseback, the journey would have proved suicidal if I had attempted it on foot. There had, indeed, been a path along the river that led through Furuiki, but even with a guide who knew the forest well, it had not been easy to find. As I thought about my foolish attempt to find my way through the forest in the darkness, I could almost be grateful to the bandits for saving me from my own fatuity, for the baron and Quatre likely never would have found me before the beasts of the forest made a meal of me if I had not been captured.
I shifted in the saddle for the hundredth time, still unable to get use to the feel of cloth between myself and the hard leather. Sunlight beat down upon my head, and my face was flush with sweat from stifling heat unusual for early autumn. My skin seemed to itch and crawl all over as the fine linen of my shirt and the soft material of my breeches brushed against me with every motion of the horse beneath me. My feet felt hot and pinched, chaffing at the unaccustomed sensation of being bound by the stiff, expensive leather of my boots. I looked every inch the wealthy lord I had suddenly become, and I was loathing every minute of my transformation.
My traveling companion glanced over at me as I fidgeted yet again. I threw him what I hoped was a reassuring smile, still somewhat amazed by his presence. His expression showed that he was wholly unconvinced by the forced curve of my lips, but he turned away to gaze out at the scenery, considerately leaving me to my thoughts. I was not entirely certain that I was grateful for his kindness, for my thoughts were the last things I cared to dwell upon.
After reading the baron's letter, I had been torn between inconsolable grief and believing the missive to be nothing but a tactless joke. But Quatre's reaction thwarted all of my attempts at self-deception. The letter contained no explanation of why I was being discharged from Windshire a full two months before the scheduled completion of my contract. Those three, succinct sentences revealed nothing other than the stark fact that the baron had decided to send me away forthwith.
But I needed no elaboration. The baron had not forgiven me for betraying him with Trowa, for acting on my own desires rather than submitting myself completely to his will. And if that betrayal were not enough, I had compounded it by running headlong into danger, fueled by nothing more substantial than the idle tongue of a young maid. Although the baron had rescued me from the clutches of the bandits who roamed the old forest, I had seen the disgust on his face from being forced to put up with such an inconvenience for the sake of a wayward slave.
Quatre sat with his head hanging down, his shoulders slumped as he tried to come to terms with the fact that I was being made to leave so suddenly. I could hear him muttering under his breath, saying things about the baron that would surely earn him a swift and painful execution if he were anyone but the baron's closest confidant.
"He told me to bring you here to my quarters on our way back from the forest." Quatre glanced at me, noting the shock that had rendered me incapable of schooling my features into any meaningful arrangement. "You had fallen asleep, you were so exhausted," he said as though I had asked him to explain why I was unaware of the exchange between him and the baron. He looked down toward the letter that was lying on the top of the bedclothes, having fallen from my nerveless fingers.
"I thought he just wanted me to look after you, to make certain that you got some rest." Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose as though it pained him. "I never imagined that he would do something like this."
I managed to focus on my erstwhile trainer's face and when he opened his eyes again, my blank gaze caught his.
"You want to know why, don't you?" I shook my head slightly, reflexively denying his supposition, for I already knew the reason for my imminent ousting. But Quatre ignored me, perhaps just needing to fill the silence for he seemed to expect no response. "In truth, Duo, it has been some time since I can claim to have any understanding of what is going through Heero's mind." He shifted on the bed, turning so that he could face me fully and taking up my limp hand. I looked downward, unable to bear the sympathy and concern swimming in his gaze. I tried not to look at the fallen note, but it hovered tauntingly at the edge of my vision.
"When he returned from meeting you during his first tour after becoming baron...well, I have honestly never seen him so interested in anything. As long as I have known him, Heero has been a rather - dare I say - cold individual. He has never been one to readily show emotion. But when he told me about you, he was undeniably intrigued. He was determined to have you as his manzoku no dorei. The only other time I had seem him so disturbed was when he developed a tendrè for his father's slave.
"Lady Une was against the idea from the start, lecturing Heero at length how his duty to Calderash should forbid any pursuit of what she saw as a mere frivolity. But I believe what really distressed her was the memory how her brother had succumbed to his love for Panella, following her even to the grave. For all of her strictness, Lady Une does truly love her nephew and wants only the best for him. But she would never accept that finding love might be just what he needed."
I could not answer as my tongue was still frozen with the knowledge that this would be my last night at Windshire. But moreover, I was unable to respond to what I knew to be a blatant misperception on Quatre's part. If the baron had, indeed, found love, it certainly had not been with me.
The blond watched me silently as I lowered myself back onto the bed, every specks of energy draining away from me in a rush. I was afraid to go to sleep given what the morning would bring, but my body demanded rest after the turmoil of the past few days. Beaten to within an inch of my life and permanently disfigured, stealing a moment of selfish happiness only to have my infamy discovered in the worst possible way, either of those incidents would have been more than enough for one person to bear. But then to be subjected to Lady Une's unjust treatment and nearly gang raped by the bandits, who could possible remain whole after all of that?
And now, just when I thought that I had survived the worst of what fate could subject me to, the man I loved had determined to throw me away. I had had enough, enough of enduring those who were cruel because they felt it their duty to be so and those who were cruel just for the sake of cruelty. Most of all, I was tired of offering my heart on a silver platter only to have it tossed on the floor and stomped beneath the baron's heel.
A hand stroked my hair when I closed my eyes, trying to offer comfort. I suffered it, too exhausted to turn away.
"I simply cannot understand why Heero has been so cold to you. How did his feelings change so drastically?" Quatre asked more to himself than to me. He was welcome to muse upon the baron's unfathomable mind all he wished. I certainly had no answers to give him.
Once I had finally accepted that I was really leaving Windshire, all I desired that following morning was to slip away quietly with nothing but my sadness to bear witness to my departure. So, of course, it seemed that half of the castle turned out to see me off. I knew from Quatre that my abrupt departure was not being kept a secret and had expected that maybe a few people would come out to say goodbye. But in addition to the few familiar faces that I was expecting were many - noble and servant - that I was not. Many of the people in attendance I had only seen at a glance or passed by at a distance, and I could not begin to account for their attendance at an event that was surely beneath their concern.
When I emerged from the castle into the courtyard, the air rang with encouraging shouts and applause. I had not been so mortified since I was first stretched upon that damnable, fur-covered chair for the Calderash nobles to ogle and fondle. This time, the unsightly ruin of my scarred flesh made the experience all the worse. But either everyone in attendance was already aware of what had befallen me or had been otherwise warned for no startled gasps of disgust or horror reached my ears, and I saw naught but friendly smiles from all sides.
In fact, the crowd was conspicuous only for those who were absent. Lady Une was nowhere to be found, and scan the crowd though I might, I saw no sign of the baron.
Among the throngs of well-wishers were the handsome Minster of Trade and his beautiful wife, who gifted me with a brand new pair of highly shined boots that fit me perfectly. Lord Zechs stood by patiently with the boots in hand while Lady Noin embraced me warmly. The tall blond stepped forward once I was free, holding the boots toward me and allowing his wife a moment to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
"So that you may always walk the right path," he said. Embarrassed at the unwarranted attention, I flushed a bright red. But Quatre had reminded me that, as per my contract, now that my service was complete, I was to be granted a title along with a sizeable fortune. Apparently those at the castle whom I had come to consider friends were honor-bound to send me off with the trappings of my new station. Thus forewarned, I was able to accept the gift with nothing but my heightened color to betray my discomfort.
"My thanks, my lord," I whispered. Quite recovered, Lady Noin smiled brightly, captivating me once again with her loveliness.
"Oh, come now, my dear Duo. We are equals. There is no need for formality, although such niceties have never had a place between us, have they?" My blush deepened as she caressed my cheek with a graceful hand, but I managed to summon a subdued smile to thank her for the kindness she had always shown to me.
"Here! I am next!" The breathy, girlish tone announced Relena's approach. She had apparently been delayed and had run to the courtyard, for her cheeks were pink and her chest heaved as she came to a sudden stop in front of me. Something soft was shoved into my chest and I blinked at the heap of cloth questioningly as she caught her breath.
"I only learned that you were leaving late last night, so I had to hurry to finish this on time. I thought I would have another two months at least, but, oh, Duo, why are you leaving so soon?!"
"Relena," Noin cautioned with a warning tone, but the girl was heedless as she burst into sobs. I soon found my arms full of more than just clothing as she barreled into me and wrapped her arms around my waist. Struggling for a moment with my burden, I ultimately let the boots fall to the ground with a wince of apology to Zechs. He merely shook his head and smiled at his sister's antics. If anything, Relena's cries grew louder as my arms came about her slender shoulders.
"Thank you, my lady, for your gift and your friendship." If you had told me back when I first met the young noblewoman that she would become one of my dearest friends, I would have scoffed at such a foolish notion. But truly, Relena had been my savior while I was recuperating from Dorothy's assault. Without her unfaltering, comforting companionship, I shudder to think what would have become of me.
It was only when Lady Sally stepped forward to give me a pair of buttery-soft leather breaches that Relena release her hold on me. She did not retreat far, however, staying firmly by my side as several others brought gifts to send me off in style. Soon, I was in possession of a full outfit, complete with a jaunty hat that I could never see myself wearing. Relena had given me a beautiful, hand-embroidered shirt of the softest linen that I had ever felt. Even the baron's shirts had not been so fine as this. A small hand rubbed gently over the long puckers over my back, and I realized that she had chosen the material out of concern for my particular need for physical comfort. I marveled anew at the vagaries of fate in giving me a friend that I never could have imagined but whom I was now sorely loathe to part with.
Helen swept forward with an expression of disapproval stamped on her face. Clearly displeased with the knowledge of my imminent departure, her lips were pressed into a tight line as she wrapped a warm scarf about my shoulders.
"It was supposed to be winter when I gave this to you," she grumbled. "What use you'll possibly have for this now I can't imagine. But maybe it will come in handy when the wind starts to blow cold in a few months...which is when you should have been leaving in the first place."
I interrupted her grousing with a hug. She harrumphed as though not in the least appeased by my attempt to placate her. Still, I had to struggle to breathe when she engulfed me in a rib-crushing hug.
"I will miss you, son." Her stentorian tone was uncharacteristically subdued. "You don't forget about old Helen, you hear me."
"Never," I whispered. My throat was tight with tears, but I forced them back for her sake, or so I told myself. We stood thus for a long moment, and I felt as though she took a piece of my heart with her when she finally released me. "I love you," I said, wiping away the wetness from her weathered cheek.
"Don't you sass me, boy." She sniffed, and settled her features into a look of motherly disapproval. "I'm sure that I'll find my way to your home before too long. Gods only know how a man living alone can take care of him self without someone to cook and clean for him." I let her mumble on, not bothering to tell her that I had been taking care of myself since my parents had died and that Hilde had always been willing to lend a hand. If she wanted to come and see me, I certainly had no interest in dissuading her.
But when she stepped to my other side, I was shocked to see Wufei and his burly sergeant emerge from the crowd. I had noticed them and the other soldiers, but I had never imagined that they might be among the gift givers. My surprise was all the greater when the dark-eyed captain held out a sheathed dagger. Relena took the various pieces of clothing from my hands so that I could accept it.
The weight of the weapon was surprisingly substantial, yet I somehow managed to grasp hold of the hilt and pull the blade free. Nearly nine inches of folded steel met my astonished gaze, the gleam long its edge attesting to its excellent make and sharpness. Even with my lack of experience with weapons, I could feel how well-balanced it was, and it was but a moment before it felt completely natural in my hand. But the most striking feature of all was the silver grip that was fashioned into the long neck and snarling head of a wolf. It was beautiful and I scarcely knew how to voice my gratitude.
"Captain, I-I could not p-possibly accept this," I began. Wufei merely smirked and dismissed my stuttering response.
"This dagger belonged to the strongest man I have ever known. Captain Oh, my predecessor, was a singularly impressive soldier. He practically raised me and taught me everything he knew about how to fight. When he made me his second-in-command, it was the greatest honor I had ever been granted in my entire life. And when he lay dying after being ambushed by some of same bandits who are now moldering in the dungeon, he passed his command along to me and made me swear that I would do everything in my power to protect Calderash and the baron.
"Since you are the strongest person I have ever met next to him, I thought it was appropriate that you should have this. It's thanks to you that we finally managed to capture those bastards once and for all. If we hadn't been looking for you, we never would have found them. And it's not too many men who would have been able to keep their wits about them when in such dire straits." He chuckled. "Don't think that I didn't see that glare you gave the leader when he insulted you. Besides, it seems that you have quite the affinity for wolves. Perhaps this will bring you luck someday when you have need of it."
I had never heard the dark-haired man make such a lengthy speech, but it was not surprise that had hobbled my tongue. I could do nothing except hold the dagger to my chest and nod my silent thanks. Bruce reached out a meaty hand and mussed my hair in a fond gesture.
"You be safe now, little kitten." I smiled at him, amused by how much I had come to like the appalling nickname. And I did not mind one bit when he nearly crushed me to bits with his massive arms.
Quatre was the last to present me with a gift. Aided by two of the soldiers, he gave me a beautiful hand-tooled saddle. The rich smell of the oiled leather filled my nose even as affection for the small blond filled my heart. Ours had not always been the easiest of relationships. The small blond had pushed me beyond the limits of what I had ever thought I could endure, and in doing so, had showed me that there was strength and contentment to be found in giving oneself to others. He was my best friend, and even if I never saw him again, I would never forget him.
"Duo...." He sighed and shuffled his feet in the dirt, the childish gesture of discomfort making him look even younger than he usually did. "I hate this. Truly, this is not how I imagined your send off would be." He spoke quietly so that only Relena and Helen could hear us. Even then, he hesitated until Helen took the hint and drug Relena away with her to give us some privacy.
"This is madness, Duo," he began, his agitation apparent in his clipped words. "I will try to talk to him again, only, you must not leave. Not with everything so uncertain." He shook his head, his shoulders straightening with sudden resolve. "I do not care what foolishness has addled Heero's wits. I will make him see reason!"
He broke off only when my lips pressed against his. I wrapped my arms around him, and for a moment, he struggled to resist me. But when I held firm, he simply collapsed in my arms until it seemed it was only my hold that was keeping him on his feet.
"If the baron no longer wants me here, then I must go," I whispered against his cheek. "There is nothing else to say." I felt Quatre's head move against my shoulder as though he wished to negate my words, but I could not allow him to change my mind. I wanted nothing more than to go to the baron, fall to my knees, and beg him to let me stay. But now that this moment had finally come, I was almost relieved. Or perhaps, my heart had just become so numb that I only imagined it was not breaking into a million pieces. I pushed my former trainer back just far enough so I could look into his eyes.
"Thank you, Quatre, for everything." I tried to gather my thoughts, to figure out how to put everything I wanted to say to him into words. But I hesitated when I noticed that the blond was glaring fixedly over my shoulder. Wonder who he could possibly be looking at with such anger, I turned around and then immediately berated myself for not realizing that there was only one person who could have put that look on Quatre's face. I struggled to master my expression even if I could do nothing about the thundering speed of my heartbeat.
The crowd seemed to shift back as the baron approached, repelled by the sheer force of his presence and his utter lack of expression. My gaze fell to the ground on its own accord, schooled by habit and pulled by my unwillingness to look at him directly. With merely the brief glance I had allowed myself, I could feel my resolve begin to crumble. His handsome features, his striking figure, everything about him drew me like a moth to a bewitchingly brilliant flame. Even through the depths of my grief, I could feel my body begin to stir beneath the magnetic force of his dark-glue gaze. Helen's scarf was still wrapped around my neck. I reached up and pulled it away. Balling it up in my hands, I lowered the scarf before me, grateful beyond all measure for the impromptu shield as I reacted to Heero's presence with horrid predictability.
The baron left plenty of space between us as he stopped in front of me. The days when he had felt no hesitation in treating my body like his own playground were clearly long past. I resisted the urge to squirm, hating this awkwardness. Even when I had been forced to lay myself utterly bare before him, I had never felt so uncomfortable. Heero examined my face minutely for a long moment, before the sound of metal clinking together distracted me from his scrutiny. I looked down at the small pouch in his hand, watching blankly as he tossed it again. I had barely begun to be curious about it when it was thrust toward me. I took it automatically, my breath growing ragged when our hands brushed together during the transfer.
I forced myself to put portray a calm façade as I pulled open the draw string that was wrapped around the next of the leather bag. My false calm was quickly replaced with shock when no fewer than fifty platinum coins were revealed. Even one of the precious coins would have been enough to see me comfortably settled on my farm for many years. I could scarcely comprehend the wealth that lay so unassumingly in the palm of my hand.
"Twenty more bags just like that one will be delivered to you under guard within the week per our agreement. Although the forest is free of bandits, there are still plenty of other miscreants who would be willing to attack you for such a treasure. But so that you will not leave here empty-handed, I am sending you off with this small token. You are a lord now, and are entitled to all of the privileges being a member of the gentry entails. Even so, I hope that this will suffice for the time being." Heero's voice dropped so suddenly that I nearly missed what he said next. "It is far less than what you deserve."
He turned to look behind him so abruptly that I had no time to decide whether I had heard him accurately before I was presented with another shock. And this one was almost enough to make me lose my grip on the bag of treasure in my hand. A man was leading two horses. One was astonishingly familiar, but the other was a very handsome gelding that I had never seen before. The horse's chocolate brown coat gleamed in the morning sunlight and its black mane blew in the gentle breeze. Its chest was deep and its power and vigor was evident in the smooth, sleek motion of its muscle beneath its hide. I was not unknowledgeable about horses, and I realized that I was looking at the most magnificent two-year-old I could ever hope to see in my life.
But it was the man who drew my startled gaze, for even though I had seen his horse, I could scarcely believe that he was there at all.
"Trowa?" I breathed, my jaw falling agape in my confusion. But even the shock of his unexpected presence paled in comparison to the surprise I received when Heero nodded at his former gamesman, silently ordering him to present the horse to me. The green-eyed man smiled at me with tight restraint as he handed me the reins.
"He does not yet have a name. Since he is yours now, that will be your first task as his new master."
"What are you doing here?" I asked baldly, unwilling to let my confusion fester any longer. "I thought that you were...?"
"I am," he replied, anticipating my question. "Today is the third day, the last day that the baron gave me to leave Windshire."
"He is to travel with you, for as long as you both wish it." Trowa was as gifted as ever at hiding his feelings, but I noticed the twitch in his cheek that betrayed his astonishment at the baron's pronouncement. "Trowa has traveled far throughout Calderash in my service and knows the land as well as anyone. Since you need a guide it makes sense for the two of you to travel together. Of course," Heero added, "what you choose to do once you have left here is your concern."
As he turned away, I wanted to ask him what in the hell he meant by being so obtuse. Why was he sending Trowa and me off together when it was our perfidy that had led us all to this regrettable circumstance? But before I could shout after him to explain himself, Heero paused. I silently willed him to turn around, but as ever, the baron remained immune to whatever meager powers I cared to claim.
"Duo," he said, speaking my name for the first time in what seemed like forever.
"M-My lord?" My voice wavered, as though it, too, were amazed that I was addressing him directly.
I watched him helplessly as he walked away toward the castle without looking back. I looked after him until he disappeared through the courtyard door. At long last, I lost my battle with the tears that had been threatening the entire morning. And for once, I cared not a bit who saw me.