Heero knew that his father usually retired to his study after dinner so that's where he led Duo after they left the stable. Duo absently tightened his grasp on Heero's hand as nervousness at the thought of facing the king assailed him. Heero looked at him and sent him a reassuring smile, guessing the cause of Duo's edginess. Duo returned the smile weakly as they paused in front of the door to the king's study.
Heero opened the door. His father sat at his desk speaking to several of his top advisors. Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei were also there along with several of the king's personal guards.
The king turned his head at the sound of the opening door. Upon seeing his son, his eyes raked over Heero as if examining him for signs of injury. Satisfied that his son remained in good health, the king rose from his chair and turned incensed eyes upon Duo.
"Guards, seize that traitor at once!" The king's bellow echoed through the room as he pointed an accusatory finger towards the wide-eyed boy.
Duo tensed as the king's guards moved towards him, but he made no move to defend himself. He completely sympathized with the king's anger and felt it to be fully justified.
"Stop!" Heero's deep-voice command rang in the room with as much authority as had his fathers. The guards paused, unsure of what to do as the prince eyed them with steady menace.
"Duo is not to be harmed." Heero turned towards the king. "Father," he said with calm intensity, "Duo carries no blame for any of this. Duke Dermail is holding his cousin hostage. He threatened to kill the girl after letting her be raped by his soldiers. Duo had no choice other than to try to protect her. Yet he still dared to defy the duke, even at the expense of his cousin's life. He deserves our help, not our censure."
The room was still as the others looked back and forth between father and son. No one, especially the king, had ever heard Heero make such a lengthy and impassioned speech. Everyone waited nervously for the outcome of the prince's defiance.
King Odin looked at his son with new eyes. Never before had he realized how much the boy had matured. Before him stood, not his little boy, but a fully grown man with an unconscious air of competent leadership. The king felt pride even as he felt annoyance at his son's stubbornness. Heero had turned to look at Duo and the king felt something significant pass between them. Then he noticed that his son held the braided servant's hand in a most protective fashion. He narrowed his eyes but held his peace. That would be dealt with later. Now there were more important points of concern.
"Yes, well, Dermail has gone too far. It's past time we took care of the Duke of Aku once and for all. I believe a decisive strike would be best. Therefore, I'm having a message sent to our allies, Prince Millardo of Sanq and Prince Treize of Oz. Their armies combined with ours should be more than enough to deal with the duke once and for all. The armies will strike at Aku Castle and destroy it utterly if necessary."
The king glanced at one of his advisors and the man left to send out the missives.
"What about the castle's servants and the surrounding villages," Heero asked.
"I have it on good authority that the paranoid duke won't allow anyone but his soldiers in the castle after the evening meal is done. So only the duke and his men will be there if we strike late at night. As for the villages, they are far enough away from the castle that there should be no danger to them."
"Hn," Heero interjected. "Something must still be done about Duo's cousin as well as the other prisoners that might be in the castle's dungeon. If the castle were destroyed, they would perish."
The king notice a glimpse of a plan in his son's eye. "What do you have in mind, Heero?"
"A small force should enter Aku just before the armies begin their attack. The prisoners could be liberated and use the battle as cover for their escape."
The king looked at his son carefully. "And just who do you propose be part of this rescue team?"
"Myself, Quatre, Trowa, Wufei ... and Duo."
The king shook his head emphatically. "Absolutely not, Heero. That boy could still be a traitor. I will not have you walking into Aku Castle with someone who is likely to stab you in the back!"
Heero opened his mouth to argue but before he could, Duo spoke.
"Your majesty, if I may say something."
The king turned angry eyes upon him, but Duo held his ground and met the king's glare. After a moment, the king nodded. Duo took a deep breath.
"Sir, the only reason I agreed to do the duke's bidding was because he held my cousin hostage. Believe me, I have absolutely no feelings of loyalty towards him. No one could hate him more than I do. He can go straight to hell for all I care. All I want is to get my cousin out safely."
The king looked into Duo's wide amethyst eyes for a long moment and read the sincerity in them. He turned back towards his son and nodded.
"Alright, he may go."
Heero bowed his head towards his father. The king made a gesture of dismissal and everyone began to move towards the door.
"*Wait*," Duo exclaimed abruptly.
"What is it?" Heero looked at him with concern as the room's occupants turned towards him. Duo had gone pale and Heero could only wonder at the reason.
"I completely forgot. Dermail told me that if I didn't show him Heero's dead body by tomorrow afternoon, he would kill my cousin immediately. He'd gotten fed up with my stalling and thought to motivate me to move things along."
"Perhaps we could fake Heero's death somehow," Quatre conjectured. "Duo, how did you stay in contact with the duke?"
"He gave me an enchanted mirror. He taught me the incantation so that I could activate it and report to him."
Quatre clenched his teeth in frustration. "It would never work then. A mirror such as that would allow the duke to see through the ruse if we just had Heero lie still in front of it. The duke would know he wasn't dead. He'd be able to sense his heart beating and his lungs filling with air."
Quatre's head came up suddenly as a thought occurred to him. "Wait a minute! An enchanted mirror? Since when has the duke been a mage?" Everyone turned to him but no one could provide the answer. In light of the more urgent situation, the question was put aside.
Duo wore a thoughtful expression. Then he looked up at Heero. "The gypsies who raised me and Hilde taught me much about herb lore. There is an herb, the nemuri plant, which the gypsies use to induce a trancelike state during religious ceremonies. It brings on the aspects of death without actually killing the one who takes it. The gypsies believe the herb helps them get closer to the divine. If Heero were to drink an infusion of the herb, he would appear as if dead and the duke would be none the wiser."
The king had been shaking his head throughout much of Duo's speech. Now he spoke with indignation.
"*Absolutely not*! You, young man, just tried to poison my son. What makes you think I would allow him to drink some foul concoction you've devised?"
"Your majesty, I would *never* harm your son." Duo returned the king's glare with calm conviction.
Heero spoke up. "Father, I would trust Duo with my life. If doing this would help save his cousin, I do it gladly."
The king and the prince again locked gazes and wills, identical expressions of determination in their matching dark blue eyes. After a long moment, the king lowered his gaze. He again felt a surge of pride at his son's resolved mixed in with fear over his safety.
"Alright, Heero, have it your way," he sighed. Then he turned to look at Duo. "But know this. If anything should happen to my son, I will personally remove your head from your shoulders and stick it on a pike."
Duo returned the king's glare and nodded. Although he kept his face expressionless, inside he smiled. He was very pleased to know that his love had a father who cared so much for him.
The king looked away. "We'll meet in Heero's chamber in an hour to pull off this ruse." He waved in dismissal. Everyone vacated the study. The king sat at his desk with his fingers steepled beneath his chin, staring at nothing. He sighed deeply, hoping he'd done the right thing.
Everyone stood in Heero's bedchamber an hour later. Duo ignored the king's black looks as he handed Heero the flask. "The nemuri plant will slow down your heartbeat and your breathing. It will make your skin grow cooler. To anyone who looks at you, you will appear dead. But you'll be fine. You'll feel very tired so go ahead and go to sleep. We'll take care of everything here. I've made the potion so that you'll wake up in a couple of hours. When you do wake up, you'll feel as if you've gotten a full night's sleep."
Heero's eyes never left Duo's as he took the flask. He let his fingers brush against Duo's, sending a shiver down Duo's spine. The look of trust and love in Heero's eyes made Duo want to throw everyone out of the room so that they could be alone. Instead, he swallowed and lowered his gaze in order to break Heero's spell over him.
"The potion will taste bitter, but you must drink all of it," he warned.
Heero nodded and drank the potion in one swallow. For the first few seconds, he felt nothing. Then suddenly he was so tired, his legs wouldn't hold him. As he began to fall, Duo grabbed one of Heero's arm and placed it around his shoulders. Wufei supported him from the other side and they led him to his bed. Seconds after his head hit his pillow, he was in a deep sleep.
The king motioned to his personal physician. The wizened old man bent over the prone prince. He felt Heero's pulse, checked his breath, and felt the temperature of his skin. He turned towards the king with a slight look of concern.
"Well, your majesty, if I didn't know any better, I would think that the young prince is indeed dead."
The king nodded in acknowledgement and turned to glare at Duo. "Get the damn mirror and lets get this over with."
Duo nodded and retrieved the mirror from where he'd placed it on Heero's nightstand. Making sure that the mirror could only see Heero and himself, he spoke the incantation. Quatre had assured them that the duke would not be able to detect any presence through the mirror other than whoever was in front of it so everyone stayed in the room to watch.
The duke appeared instantly. "Duo, you'd better have good news for me. I would hate to think of what will happened to your cousin if you don't."
Projecting the proper amount of nervousness into his voice and expression, Duo replied, "It's done, your grace. The prince is dead. I poisoned him with an herb that didn't affect him until he went to sleep. He'll never wake up. I'll leave now before anyone discovers him."
"Wait," the duke interjected. "It's not that I don't trust you, my dear boy, but I don't. Let me see the body."
Duo took a deep breath and turned the mirror so that the duke could see Heero lying lifeless on his bed. The duke peered closely at the young prince. As the seconds dragged on, Duo feared that the duke would not be fooled by their ruse. Finally, however, the duke smiled.
"Excellent! I knew I could count on you. Yes, you may make your escape at your leisure."
"Your grace, what about my cousin. Will you release her immediately?"
"I'm sorry, my dear boy, but I've decided to keep you around for a while. Therefore, I still have need of the girl. Now, hurry back so that I may ensure her continued good health." With an evil laugh, the duke broke the connection.
Duo closed his eyes and pressed his lips together in vexation. He'd hoped that the duke would release Hilde once the job was done. He knew now that he'd been a na´ve fool to think so. He'd seen the look of lust in the duke's eyes that first night in the dungeon cell. Apparently, the duke still had a use for him.
Quatre stepped forward and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Duo, we'll get her back."
The king nodded in agreement. "Yes, my boy. We'll see to your cousin and that bastard of a duke." The king stepped forward and placed a hand on Duo's other shoulder. He squeezed gently and Duo looked up at him. "I'm sorry for ever doubting your word, Duo. I see now that the duke was indeed using you." The king's lips firmed in grim determination and disgust. He'd heard the lust in the duke's voice when he'd commanded Duo to return to Aku. "I promise that he'll never use you again."
Duo smiled. "Thank you, your majesty. You don't know what that means to me."
The king returned his smile. "Well, you seem like you're a good lad." He gave Duo's shoulder a final squeeze and turned to the other's in the room. "Now, why don't we let my son sleep off his bravery. There will be much to do in the morning."
As everyone filed out of the room, Duo turned and took another look at Heero. Duo could hardly believe that he'd been lucky enough to find someone as caring, brave, and loyal as the sleeping beauty on the bed. Feeling a surge of love for his beloved prince, Duo made a silent promise as he turned to leave. 'I'll be back soon.'
Heero felt himself rise out of a the depths of a deep ocean. His heartbeat grew in strength and his breath quickened. He felt cold but was becoming warmer by the second. Slowly, he blinked his eyes open and shed the last vestiges of his drugged sleep.
Heero looked up at the ceiling and realized that he was in his bedchamber, lying fully clothed on his bed. Memories of what had happened came rushing back to him and he sat up, feeling refreshed as Duo had promised. He saw a figure out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Duo sitting in a chair next to the bed. Duo had turned the chair backwards and had crossed his arms along the back. His chin rested upon his arms as he gazed at Heero.
Duo had snuck from his own room and returned to Heero's chamber as soon as he could. He knew that Heero wouldn't wake for a couple of hours, but he was content to watch him sleep, taking in the beauty of his face relaxed in repose. He knew that he could quite happily wake up to that sight every morning for the rest of his life. Now as Heero woke and blinked like a sleepy child, Duo favored him with a tender smile.
Heero looked at Duo, thinking his smile was more seductive than tender. He felt an answering tightening in his groin. He looked past Duo and saw that they were alone.
"Where is everyone else?"
"Everyone left to let you rest. You've been asleep for almost two hours."
Heero looked into Duo's eyes. "You came back?" At Duo's nod, he asked softly, "Why?"
Duo rose gracefully from the chair and slowly walked to the bed. He sat next to Heero and lowered his eyes as a blush suffused his cheeks. He finally looked up at Heero and licked his suddenly dry lips, eyes full of naked desire and fear of rejection. He replied in a whisper.
"Someone had to help you take off your jacket."