Duo stood outside of the prince's chamber, balancing a tray which held a goblet and a bottle of port. He could hardly believe his good luck. After performing the previous night, Duo had contacted Duke Dermail with the enchanted mirror to apprise the duke of his arrival and acceptance by the court. After being treated to another round of the duke's threats, Duo had ended the communication. He'd despaired of how he would ever get close enough to the prince to carry out his assignment. Then out of the blue, Duo had been given a job as the prince's personal valet, a position that would give him constant contact with the prince. Taking a deep breath, and resolving to end this as quickly as possible, Duo reached back to make sure his knife was securely hidden under his jacket. Duo reached for the door handle, turned it, and entered the room.
Duo looked over to the chair in front of the fireplace. The prince sat there silently, watching the dancing flames. 'Here's my chance,' he thought as he moved towards the prince. With his free hand, he reached for his knife.
'You can't stab him in the back,' his conscience scolded.
'And why not?' replied his more practical side. 'Just do it and get out of here.'
After a few more moments of arguing, Duo quickly settled his inner debate. 'No! Tomorrow will be soon enough.' He dropped his hand from the knife. Inexplicably satisfied with his decision to wait to kill the prince, Duo came to a halt near the chair.
"Your highness? Here's the drink you asked for," Duo said nervously.
Heero had heard the servant enter the sitting room but didn't dare turn around until he felt he could resist the urge to jump up and grab the boy into a passionate embrace. Finally feeling at least marginally in control of himself, he replied, "Just put it on the table here." He turned to look at the servant as he bent to place the tray where Heero had indicated.
Duo straightened and found himself staring into the incredible cobalt blue eyes of a young man he realized was no older than he was. Suddenly wanting nothing more than to get out of there, Duo backed away, stuttering, "I-if there's n-nothing else, I'll just ..." He turned to leave.
'Don't go,' Heero yelled in his mind. "Wait," he said calmly. 'Okay, now what? His name, ask him his name.' "What is your name?"
Duo hesitated in his escape and turned back. Clearing his throat, he replied, "Duo, your highness."
"Well, Duo, if you are to be my valet, you might as well call me Heero."
'I don't want to know your name,' Duo shouted to himself, but now it was too late. Nodding towards the prince, towards *Heero*, Duo turned to leave again.
Heero thought quickly. "Why don't you have a seat and I'll explain what will be expected of you," he said. Duo turned back slowly and reluctantly went to sit in the second chair in front of the fireplace. He tried not to fidget as Heero sat across from him, looking at him with those intense, gorgeous eyes.
"Basically," Heero began, "your duties will be to assist me. For instance, in the morning, you'll help me dress."
'Great,' Duo deadpanned to himself.
"During the day, you'll attend to me and serve me at meals."
'Will *you* be on the menu?' Duo tried to shush his errant thoughts.
"Finally, at night you'll help me undress for bed and see to it that there is a bath ready for me."
Duo groaned to himself at the images his mind conjured up at that last statement. Distracted by the sudden bulge that appeared at his groin, he leapt from the chair, then played off his hasty action by moving to the fire and pretending to tend it.
Heero watched the light from the flames play over Duo's long chestnut hair as he stood in front of the fire. Swallowing at the intoxicating sight, he could think of nothing else to say.
Duo took a breath to calm himself. He half turned and asked, "Will that be all?" He took Heero's continued silence as an affirmative and once more made his way towards the door.
"Wait," Heero said again, not willing to let Duo go just yet. "Help me get ready for bed and then you may go." He rose from his chair and went into the adjoining bedchamber.
'Why me,' Duo moaned to himself as he moved to follow. Trying to sound impartial, he asked briskly, "What would you like me to do?"
Refusing to give voice to the answer he really wanted to give the innocent question, Heero responded instead, "Help me removed my jacket." It was a legitimate request as the jacket's design made it impossible for the wearer to remove it on his own. All of his jackets were made of a similar design, Heero reflected with pleasure.
Taking a deep breath, Duo moved closer to the prince. 'For Christ's sake, he even smells good,' Duo thought helplessly as he unfastened the buttons on the jacket. Finally, the jacket was undone. After Heero shrugged out of it, Duo took it and went to place it in the wardrobe.
Heero watched him, racking his brain to come up with something else for Duo to do, but he could think of nothing. In a gesture of frustration, Heero grabbed his shirt and pulled it off over his head.
Duo turned back around and inhaled sharply at the sight of the half-naked beauty before him. His lips parted as he stared, unable to tear his eyes away from the prince's chiseled chest, sculpted stomach, and muscular arms. Fortunately, Heero wasn't looking towards him, for there was no way he would have missed the look of naked desire that crossed Duo's face. Desperate to leave before he did something foolish, like attacking the stunningly handsome prince, Duo mumbled good night and beat a hasty retreat.
Heero turned in time to see Duo's braid disappear through the door. He sighed and finished undressing, contenting himself with the knowledge that he would see Duo again first thing in the morning.
Duo practically ran back to his room in the servant's quarters. He shut his door and leaned against it, breathing heavily. "Damn it!" Duo sighed and closed his eyes, only to open them again as the image of a shirtless Heero came instantly to his mind. Groaning, Duo moved away from the door and flung himself onto his bed.
"He couldn't be ugly, annoying, or spoiled," Duo complained. "No, he had to be polite, look like a bronzed god, and smell like heaven. Arrgh," Duo screamed.
"Look," he scolded himself, "it doesn't matter what he looks like, what he smells like, or how polite he is. You know what you have to do."
Duo moved off of the bed and went to his nightstand. He picked up the enchanted mirror and spoke the incantation the duke had made him learn.
The duke's unattractive visage appeared in the mirror. "Ah, Duo, my dear boy, how goes it."
Duo cringed at the duke's false friendliness. "Everything went fine. I was accepted without suspicion. In fact, I've been given a position as the prince's new valet."
"Excellent," the duke crowed. "I have the utmost confidence that you'll complete your mission."
Duo rolled his eyes. "May I see Hilde?"
"I'm sorry, my boy, but that's not possible." The duke gave a reptilian smile. "You see, I have a feeling that you'll be more motivated if you're left to wonder how your lovely cousin is fairing. Perhaps tomorrow." He severed the connection.
Duo scowled and resisted the impulse to throw the mirror against the wall. He sighed and fell back onto the bed. If he was going to get his cousin back safely, he had to get his mind back on track and figure out away to accomplish his objective.
'Like you're actually going to be able to kill that beautiful man.'
Duo growled at his pesky conscience as he flopped over on his stomach and buried his head under a pillow.
Duo stood in a small dining room the next afternoon, trying not to be noticed. Heero glanced at him occasionally but Duo avoided his gaze. That morning had been awful. If seeing a half-naked Heero last night had been bad, seeing him that morning, half-naked, warm and mussed from sleep, was infinitely worse.
He'd left Heero's chamber as soon as possible and had managed to avoid Heero for the rest of the morning. Heero had breakfasted with his father so Duo hadn't been needed. Now, however, Heero was having lunch with his three closest friends and Duo was required to serve. Duo recognized the other young men from the night he'd danced. The blond mage was presently engaged in an intimate conversation with a green-eyed young man with interesting hair. Quatre Reberba Winner, Heero's advisor, and his bodyguard, Trowa Barton, Duo remembered from Heero's introductions. And sitting to Heero's left was Heero's own bodyguard, Chang Wufei. The intense young man had coal black hair and eyes and was looking at Duo with ill-disguised dislike.
Wufei couldn't say why he felt suspicious of Heero's new valet. The young man hadn't done anything to warrant his distrust. But something about him didn't sit well with him. Wufei's instincts had served him well in the past so he always paid attention to them. He resolved to watch Duo closely. However, he refrained from mentioning his suspicions to Heero. He'd seen the surreptitious glances Heero and Duo had been giving each other whenever they thought that the other wouldn't notice. Something was definitely going on between them and Wufei didn't want to say or do anything that might upset Heero.
Quatre also found himself paying close attention to Duo. But rather than suspicion, he felt something like pity for the young man. Quatre had sensed that Duo had some sort of feelings for Heero. However, there was also some dark undercurrent of emotion that Quatre couldn't quite place. He decided to watch, wait, and see what developed.
Over the next two weeks, Heero found himself growing more and more frustrated. 'Why is he avoiding me,' he asked himself one morning. Duo hadn't spoken one word to him since that first night. Duo had done his morning tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible and then disappeared, as he did every morning. Heero knew that, unless he commanded Duo's presence, he wouldn't see him again until dinner where Duo would serve him quickly and efficiently and without a word.
Heero had found himself seeking out his elusive valet just to give him silly tasks that required him to be where Heero could see him. He would find Duo sometimes in various corridors, charming the other servants with his laughing eyes, winning smile, and witty comments. But as soon as he saw Heero, he would always vanish.
Finally, Heero decided that he'd had enough. Narrowing his eyes, he resolved that he would find a way to get Duo alone long enough to talk to him. Heero's feelings for Duo had only grown more intense as the days went by and he was anxious to know how the braided beauty truly felt about him. An idea came to him suddenly. Wearing a rather crafty smile, Heero went in search of his erstwhile valet.
Duo sat with the old woman who was in charge of the gardens, wishing he was anywhere else. All the old woman could talk about was the prince. He's so kind, he's so smart, he's so brave, he's so handsome... She droned on and on until Duo was ready to pull out his hair.
Heero was the last thing he wanted to think about. Every minute he spent in the gorgeous prince's presence was sheer torture. He would perform his tasks as quickly as possible and then would leave as soon as he could before he gave into the constant temptation to blurt out the truth of why he was there. Every time he saw Heero in the palace, he would head the other way lest he give into the urge to kiss the prince on his oh-so-tempting lips.
Duo spent his days coming up with excuses to give to Duke Dermail as to why he'd been in Hane for two weeks and hadn't yet found the right opportunity to kill the prince. He'd told the duke how Heero was never alone, constantly surrounded by friends and guards. He'd told the duke how Heero's bodyguard was clearly suspicious of him and kept him under constant watch. He'd said how, if he killed Heero in his chamber, the blame would fall squarely on him and thus on the duke. Dermail had accepted these excuses until now, but Duo could tell that he was growing impatient. Plus, Duo was very worried about Hilde as Dermail still refused to let him see her. Duo let these unpleasant thoughts run through his head while he listened to the old woman extol the virtues of the man he was coming to care entirely too much about.
He was so lost in thought that he didn't notice at first when the old woman suddenly stopped talking. His head came up sharply, however, when he heard her greet the prince in a respectful, though affectionate tone. Duo looked around for a quick escape, but it was too late. He refused to meet the prince's eyes as Heero stopped in front of him.
Heero looked down at the top of Duo's head. Duo continued to stare at the ground, but he was undaunted. "Duo," he began, "I feel like going on a long ride today and I would like you to accompany me."
"Wufei, Quatre, or Trowa could go with you," Duo replied without looking up. The old woman gasped at his insolence.
Heero didn't react other than to smile. There was no way he was letting Duo get out of this. "They are all busy with other things. No, I'm afraid *you* will have to go with me ... *alone*."
'No way!' The thought rang in Duo's head as he looked up to voice his opinion out loud but he was silenced as he found himself caught by Heero's steady deep blue gaze. They looked at each other for a long moment, locked in a battle of wills. The old woman was beginning to suspect that something else was going on between them when Duo sighed and dropped his gaze. "Fine," he mumbled, cursing himself for being weak.
Heero smiled triumphantly. "Good. Meet me in the stables in an hour. Oh, and have one of the cooks pack us a nice lunch," he said before striding away confidently.
An hour later, Duo stood in the stables with a basket of food waiting for Heero. He'd been unable to think of a good reason why he couldn't go. 'That's fine,' he thought defiantly. 'I'll just go and not talk to him. He'll get bored, we'll come back, and that will be the end of it. And tomorrow, I *will* kill him!'
Duo was still frowning at his doubting inner voice when Heero arrived. Duo refused to look at him. Undisturbed, Heero indicated that he was ready to go and they mounted their horses and rode off into the surrounding countryside.
After an hour, they stopped in a small clearing to eat their lunch. Venerable old trees provided dappled shade and a small brook flowed nearby, offering a tinkling counterpoint to the birdsong in the air. Duo sighed as he took in the romantic, idyllic setting. 'Even mother nature is against me,' he thought glumly.
True to his word, Duo hadn't spoken a word since their departure. Heero had cheerfully filled the silence by telling Duo the entire history of Hane. He was alone with Duo, finally, and Duo couldn't escape. Nothing could spoil his good mood.
Duo sat out their picnic as Heero tethered the horses. They ate in companionable silence, well, companionable on Heero's part. After a while, though, Duo started to relax. Heero wasn't trying to force him into conversation or anything else. 'Maybe all he *really* wanted was to be outside today,' Duo mused. Then he and Heero reached for the same apple at the same time. Their hands touched and the sense of peace fled.
The young men looked down to where their hand met. Simultaneously, they looked up until their eyes locked. They stared at each other for a long moment, eyes full of emotions they could not express. Duo lowered his gaze first. His cheeks were flushed and he took a shuddering breath. He pulled his hand away, breaking the electrifying contact. But before he could get far, Heero reached out quickly and grabbed his wrist. Eyes wide, Duo turned back and once again met Heero's intense stare.
"Duo," Heero said in a voice that had gone deep with emotion. "Why have you been avoiding me?"
Duo's eyes widened even further in an attempt to look innocent. "I-I haven't," he stammered weakly.
Heero was silent for a moment as his eyes searched Duo's face. Duo squirmed under his intent perusal. Finally, Heero asked, "Have I done something to offend you?"
"What?" Duo frowned in confusion as he repeated his mental question aloud.
Heero paused a moment before answering. "You never talk to me when you're with me. And unless you're doing something for me, I never see you." Heero's voice became agitated. "Hell, when you are doing something for me, it's as if you can't wait to leave."
Duo lowered his gaze again. He hadn't thought that Heero was paying that close of attention to his behavior. "I th-thought I w-was just doing m-my job," he stuttered.
Heero repeated his first question. "Have I offended you?"
"No," Duo said quickly.
Heero looked at him for another long moment. "Then I hope this doesn't cause offense," he said softly. Using his grip on Duo's wrist, Heero pulled the bemused young man to him and covered his lovely mouth with his own.