Heero stared at Duo across the duke's camp, still barely able to believe that the boy he loved more than anything was actually alive.
Then his eyes narrowed as he took in the change wrought in Duo by two months of mistreatment and near starvation. But although Duo was bruised and skinny and his hair was matted and dull, Heero thought he'd never seen anything more beautiful in his life.
Heero noticed the hollows under Duo's cheeks and the dark circles under his beautiful eyes, which held a haunted look of recent pain and abuse. Heero cursed Dermail with every curse he'd learned in his mother's tongue.
Then he saw Duo smile. Heero broke from his frozen stance and moved towards him, never taking his attention from the face he thought he'd never see again.
Heero walked towards Duo as if caught in a dream. Barely aware of the battle that continued around him, he stopped in front of Duo and raised a hesitant hand to the braided boy's shoulder. Channeling all of his emotions into the gesture, the months of depression and hopelessness and his current surge of elation, he grasped Duo's shoulder with a firm hand and squeezed.
Duo smiled, understanding that Heero was reluctant to express his true feelings in front of his soldiers. But Duo could sense them all the same and he placed a hand on Heero's shoulder in return.
Though loath to interrupt, Quatre cleared his throat to ask an important question.
"Duo, where is Dermail?"
Duo and Heero managed to unlock their gazes long enough to turn towards Quatre. Duo shook his head.
"Last I knew, he was in his tent. He probably disappeared at the first signs of the attack."
Heero clenched his jaw but was unsurprised at the news of Dermail's absence from the camp. His eyes returned to Duo's face after looking around quickly and determining that the battle was over, Dermail's men all destroyed.
"Quatre, tell the others to prepare to return to Hane. We will follow shortly, but first I must question Duo further about Dermail."
Quatre smiled, catching the true meaning behind Heero's statement, and moved off to fulfill his orders.
Heero took hold of Duo's arm and led him away from the camp and into the woods. As soon as he was certain they were out of sight of the others, Heero spun around and pulled Duo to him in a tight, almost frantic embrace. Without further ado, he crushed his lips to Duo's, pouring out his heart through his kiss.
The force of Heero's kiss caused some pain in Duo's cut and bruised lips, but the sensation only added to the intensity of the moment. Duo returned Heero's embrace with all the strength he was capable of, unable to believe that he was actually in Heero's arms after so long.
Duo wrapped his arms around Heero's neck as Heero tightened his hold around Duo's waist. They stood entwined with each other for an endless moment, content to remain so for all time if the gods would allow. Eventually, however, the need for air forced their lips apart. Their arms never relinquished their respective holds.
"I missed you so much," Heero whispered into Duo's ear, pressing his cheek against Duo's flushed one.
"Thinking of you is what kept me sane," Duo whispered in reply.
Unable to help himself, Heero unconsciously tightened his hold yet again. This time, however, Duo emitted a sound of pain as his sore body protested the strength of Heero's embrace. Heero immediately loosened his grasp, much to Duo's disappointment, and emphatically apologized. Duo dismissed the words with a shake of his head and pressed himself against Heero, encouraging him to renew his embrace.
However, Heero, once again made aware of Duo's injuries, refused to be sidetracked. He clenched his jaw and looked into Duo's beautiful amethyst eyes, his own cobalt orbs dangerous in their intensity.
"What did those bastards do to you?"
Duo shook his head. "Please, Heero, I don't want to talk about it now. I just want to go home."
Heero couldn't resist a smile at Duo's unconscious use of the word. He relented and nodded in agreement.
"Yes, let's get you *home*."
Heero decided that he could question Duo later when he was safely back at Hane. He had made certain that there were no extra mounts so Duo was 'forced' to ride double with him back to Hane. Heero made sure to keep well behind the rest of the group and he and Duo discovered the pleasure and difficulty of trying to make out on horseback.
Hilde stood anxiously in the courtyard of the palace, eagerly awaiting the battle group's return. She let out a squeak of joy as she saw the first of the soldiers entering through the main gates.
One by one, Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei came into view. Frowning at the absence of Heero, and most especially Duo, Hilde ran up to Wufei to question him.
"Wufei, what happened? Where is Duo?"
Wufei smiled and dismounted along with Quatre and Trowa. He turned to the anxious girl and took her nervous hands in his.
"Duo is fine, Hilde. Everything went exactly as planned."
Hilde graced him with a quick smile before her frown returned.
"Then where is he? And where is Heero?"
Wufei shot a glance at Quatre and Trowa who returned his smirk. Wufei turned back to Hilde.
"Oh, I'm sure they will be along shortly. They are just getting ... reacquainted."
Hilde blinked at him then broke out in a huge grin as she finally understood. She was preparing herself for a long wait when Duo and Heero suddenly rode through the courtyard gates. Hilde ran to them as they dismounted.
Duo turned at the sound of her voice and smiled as she ran into his opened arms. Ecstatic at finally being reunited with his cousin at long last, Duo found the strength to pick her up and swing her around. She shrieked and the others laughed at their antics.
"Oh, pixie, how I missed you!"
Duo placed Hilde on her feet and surrendered himself happily to the multitude of kisses she placed all over his face. Suddenly she backed away and hit him in the shoulder with her small fist, a scowl firmly on her face.
Duo winced at the strength of her blow.
"Ow! What was that for," he whined.
Hilde glowered at him, hands on her hips.
"Don't you ever, *ever*, disappear or die or anything like that on me ever again, Duo. I've never been so scared or sad in my life. I'm apparently going to have to put you on a leash since you obviously can't take care of yourself. And another thing..."
Duo stood patiently while she rattled on. He was well aware of her temper and knew it was best to let her get it out of her system. However, he forced himself to hide a constantly threatening smile as she railed at him. He truly had missed her.
After the soldiers had returned to their barracks and Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei had gone to report to the king, Hilde finally wound down. Suddenly a smile appeared on her face. Duo laughed at the confused expression that appeared on Heero's face. He would have to remember to tell his love that his cousin was a law unto herself. It was best to just accept and not to try to understand.
Hilde looked Duo over from head to toe and her smile faded. Tears filled her eyes as she took in his bedraggled appearance.
"Oh, Duo, what did they do to you? You're all bruised and you're so skinny?"
Duo forced a smile. "Gee, thanks, pixie. That's just what a guy needs to hear when he's been away for a long time, that he looks like hell."
Hilde didn't share his humor. She pursed her lips and got that stubborn look that let Duo know he was in for some serious mothering.
"You're coming with me right now and getting into bed. And you're going to stay there until I say you're well enough to get up. And I'm going to bring you some food and sit and watch you until you eat every bite. And then I'm going to do something about your hair since I know you don't want me to cut it. So you'd just better come on."
Hilde had taken hold of Duo's arm and was dragging him into the palace with Heero following behind. Abruptly she stopped and turned to Heero with a slight blush on her face.
"Ummm." She cleared her throat. "I was wondering, ummm, where should I put Duo?"
Heero answer her question with no hesitation.
"He'll stay in my room, of course."
Hilde smiled. It was the answer she'd hoped to hear. She liked the prince very much and approved of him for her dear cousin. Dragging Duo behind her, she headed for Heero's chamber.
After being fed and summarily put to bed by Hilde, Duo slept for a day entire. Although he'd protested to Heero and Hilde that he was fine, his body and mind had been through much over the previous two months. They demanded that he rest even if he didn't think it necessary.
After a day of sleeping, however, Hilde began to worry about Duo's stomach so she entered Heero's room the next afternoon with a tray of food. Heero had given her free run of his chamber while Duo was recovering. Since she knew Heero was presently elsewhere, she didn't bother to knock first.
Duo awoke at the feeling of someone gently shaking him. He yawned and turned over, smiling as he saw his cousin.
"I thought you might be hungry," Hilde said softly. "You've been sleeping for an entire day."
Duo smiled at the food and then chuckled when his stomach acknowledged the savory smells with a grumble. Hilde sat on a chair next to him and smiled wistfully.
"And to think, it was your stomach that got us in all of that trouble in the first place."
Duo stuck his tongue out at her and attacked his food without further comment. Warning him to take it easy lest he get sick, Hilde watched him eat, chatting about various inconsequential matters. When he finished she took his tray and sat it aside. Then she stood next to the bed with her hands on her hips and a determined gleam in her eye.
"Now, about that hair."
Duo remembered her previous comment and clutched his ragged braid to him protectively.
"Oh, don't worry," she teased, "I'm not going to cut it."
Duo relaxed and released his hold. Hilde ordered him to get off the bed and sit in the chair she had just vacated. Using a pitcher and a catch basin, Hilde deftly washed Duo's hair without making even a bit of a mess.
Duo brought a fist full of the now gleaming strands to his nose and sniffed appreciatively. Hilde told his to get up and she moved the chair to in front of the fire. Armed with a brush, Hilde sat him down again and proceeded to brush his hair dry.
Duo smiled as she worked through the tangles. When they were younger, Hilde had loved to play with his hair and had spent many hours brushing it as she was doing now. The soothing motions brought back happy memories and Duo felt himself drifting back to sleep. She spoke, however, bringing him back to wakefulness.
"Duo, I'm so glad you managed to find Heero, even with everything else that's happened. I don't think I've ever seen you so happy."
Duo smiled, agreeing with her assessment. Duo was happier than he'd ever been, having the two people he loved most in the world with him. However, he sometimes felt that his happiness was almost surreal. Although he knew that he and Hilde would always be together, he kept waiting for something else to tear him and Heero apart again.
Duo shook his head sharply, clearing away the uncharacteristically glum thoughts. He decided to improve his sudden gloomy disposition by teasing Hilde.
"And what about you, pixie? It seems as if Lord Chang would be most distraught if you were suddenly to leave."
Duo glanced at her over his shoulder. Sure enough, her cheeks were flushed with a slight blush. He grinned and turned back around. Hilde reacted to his teasing by pulling the brush a bit harder than necessary, but she did answer.
"I must admit, I have become rather fond of Wufei. He was very kind to me when we thought you dead. I was a bit of an emotional mess."
Duo's tone turned more serious. "Do you think he might propose?"
Hilde ducked her head even though he couldn't see her flaming face. A slight smile played around her lips as she considered the possibility.
"I don't know, Duo. Do you even think it's possible?"
Duo smiled. "Certainly. In the short time I've known Wufei the one thing I've learned about him is that he is always straightforward with his opinions and his feelings. I've seen the way he looks at you, how he treats you. I think a formal announcement of his intentions may be very shortly in your future."
Hilde's smile broadened. She knew she loved the handsome, sometimes haughty guard and looked forward to the day when he might declare himself with pleasant anticipation.
"What about you, Duo? I'm sure the prince will ask you to stay with him. It's obvious to everyone how he feels about you and how you feel about him."
Duo's smile faded as he thought about having a future with Heero. He sighed and his shoulders slumped slightly. Hilde stopped her brushing at his despondent posture. She walked around in front of him and knelt before him, placing a hand on his knee. She looked up into his solemn face with a concerned frown.
"What's wrong, Duo? Don't you want to stay here with Heero?"
Duo looked into her blue eyes. He nodded. "Absolutely. But, Hilde, Heero is a prince and I'm ..." Duo looked down and swallowed past a suddenly lump in his throat. "I'm just an orphan who has no idea where he came from. I'm nothing."
Hilde frowned. Placing a hand under his chin, she forced his eyes up to hers. "I'm an orphan too, Duo. Yet you seem to think that has no bearing on my relationship with Wufei. Why should it be an issue between you and Heero?"
"Because, Hilde, while Wufei is a nobleman, Heero is a prince. A prince, for god's sake. He should be with royalty, Hilde. That's how it works."
Hilde struggled to think of an argument but came up with nothing. She'd lived in the world too long not to know that Duo was right. Royalty always ended up with royalty. There was really no practical way that Heero and Duo could have any sort of life together, no matter what they both might wish. She blinked away the sudden stinging sensation in her eyes and looked at Duo sadly.
"Well, Duo, if you do leave Hane, of course I'll go with you." She tried not to think that she would be leaving Wufei behind but Duo was family and she wouldn't abandon him. But Duo shook his head.
"No, Hilde, you won't have to leave." Duo's face took on a wry expression. "The truth is, although I know it would be better for Heero if go, I'm much too selfish to even think about actually leaving him anytime in the near future. I love him too much to think of living without him."
Duo gave her a crooked, slightly forced smiled. "Don't worry, pixie. I probably won't find the courage to go for at least fifty years or so. You won't have to leave Wufei too soon."
Hilde smiled at his silliness, glad his mood had lightened. She stood and stepped behind him to resume brushing his hair. When it was finally dry, she braided it in a neat plait. Then she forced him back to bed over his protests. She told him that he wouldn't be getting out of bed for any length of time for at least a week so he'd better get used to it.
Duo grumbled but got back into Heero's bed and promptly fell asleep. Hilde kissed him on the cheek, leaving him until it was time for his next meal.
By the fourth day, Duo was ready to climb the walls with boredom. But not only had Hilde laid down the law, Heero had reinforced it with his hand on the pommel of his sword for effect. Duo would have enjoyed his time in bed more if only Heero would spend more time with him.
Hilde would come at least three times a day to feed him and make certain he hadn't tried to climb out of the window to escape. But Heero made himself scarce. In fact, the only times Duo saw him were shortly before Heero retired for the night and then it was only for a few moments.
Heero would gift Duo with heated kisses and caresses and would hold him if Duo cried out during the night from a nightmare brought on by his ordeal. However, once Duo was sleeping peacefully, Heero would always leave him in the bed and abscond to his sitting room to sleep on the couch.
Heero felt that Duo had been taken advantage of enough. Although Duo never did say exactly what happened to him in Dermail's camp, Heero had no trouble guessing what fate had befallen the beautiful boy. But Heero didn't trust that he could keep his hands to himself whenever he was faced with the delightful temptation that Duo presented as he lay invitingly on his bed. So Heero kept his distance as much as he could tolerate.
Duo, however, quickly got fed up with Heero's judicious consideration. His only desire was to completely forget the horrors of the duke's camp and he wanted Heero to help him in the best way possible. Night after night Duo tried to tempt Heero into staying with him but Heero's sense of honor could not be overcome. So one night, nearly a week after his return, Duo decided that desperate times called for devious measures.
As usual, Heero came to kiss him goodnight, but this time Duo was waiting for him wearing nothing but his unbound hair. Heero stopped in the doorway, his mind urging him to leave as quickly as possible while his heart and the sudden fire in his loins begged him to stay. Duo just looked at him with a silent invitation in his amethyst eyes.
Heero stood frozen for several moments. Then he sighed and entered the room as his sense of honor lost the battle with his desire. He walked over to the bed and leaned over the now smiling boy. Duo took a fistful of Heero's shirt and pulled him down for a scorching kiss. Heero surrendered and kissed Duo back with a week's worth of repressed passion.
He suddenly backed away, however, when Duo unconsciously made a sound of discomfort from the force of Heero's kiss against his still bruised lips. Heero's face paled as his conscious railed at him for his lack of control. He tried to pull away from Duo's grasp but Duo was having none of it. He relinquished his hold on Heero's shirtfront only to grab both of his sleeves.
"No, Heero, you're not leaving me again. I need you to stay with me. I need *you*." Duo's tone was insistent as he pulled Heero down for another kiss. "Please, Heero," Duo whispered against his lips, "make me forget everything else but this."
Heero sighed in surrender as Duo pressed eager lips against his. He slid his tongue along Duo's lips and lay down on the bed next to his beloved as Duo parted his lips for Heero's invasion.