Moments of Rapture
All submissions should involve one or more of these classic fan fiction themes.
Blanket Fiction (unusual sleeping arrangements)
Historical [not really in this case. More a shift in dimensions]
Slavery [does someone else as a slave count?]
Duo eyed the artifact with disfavor. "I don't like it, Heero. All this mythological shit is ... shit. And messing around with black holes and tesseracts is just guaranteed to get us into all sorts of trouble. That thing just reeks of trouble."
Heero nodded, eyeing the strange symbol carved into the floor of the room with disfavor. "Yeah, White Fang really was reaching at the last. This stuff just keeps showing up. Une is going to have a cow."
"Or at least a calf," Duo agreed. "Well, let's get this done."
Heero considered their objective, which was to destroy this pentacle, pentagram, whatever it was. "Ok. But ... humor me. I ... we need to have our packs."
Duo didn't argue with Heero. Every time he got a 'feeling' and they didn't go with it, they got into a situation. He fetched both the packs, and their big duffle, "Here you go. I'll hang onto this too. Feel better?"
Heero rubbed his face. "Yes, I do. Thank you."
"Sure thing, partner. You want to do the honors?"
Heero took a trenching shovel out of his pack. "Got it. I still don't understand why Une gets so crazy when we find one of these things. It's just voodoo, after all."
Duo just shrugged. Une did get really nuts when they found one of these magical constructs, not that they were more than a myth anyway. But they had orders to destroy then on sight so that is what they'd do.
This mission had been easy, a quick reconnoiter had shown that the building was empty and had been for some time. The only things here were a few boxes of odd instruments and this pentacle carved into the concrete floor. Heero eyed it again. It seemed that White Fang had even tried magic in its desperation. He snorted.
Duo took an incendiary grenade from his pack. "Ok, Heero, move and I'll get this over with."
Heero shook his head, messy bangs flopping. "Save it. I'm not wasting good ordnance on this shit. I'll just deface it with this." He gestured with his shovel. "That is more than good enough."
"I don't like it. But ... you sure?" Duo gave Heero a questioning look.
"Yeah. If you're worried, come guard my back."
Duo moved to the middle of the symbol to stand back to back with Heero, duffle strap hung over one shoulder.
Heero waited for the comforting weight of his backup against his shoulder before swiping the sharp shovel over the design. Unfortunately the swipe connected two final lines in the pentacle. A bright light consumed the two figures, leaving the rest of the team to stand in shocked dismay.
Duo sat up with a groan. "What the fuck? What ... Heero!"
Heero rolled over with a sigh. "I ..." he looked around. "Oh, fuck. Duo, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Duo, realizing where the quote came from, looked around too. "And this definitely isn't Oz. We are so screwed."
Heero nodded, looking around at the jungle in dismay. "No shit!" He tugged at the strap still over his shoulder. "Well, at least I've still got my pack. You?"
"Pack and duffle. Not too shabby. As long as physics works the same here."
"Point. We need to reconnoiter. No getting separated for any reason."
"Right." Duo stood up, staggered a bit, then steadied.
Heero stood too and sighed. "Dizzy."
"Me too. Status?
"Dizzy. Disoriented times one. No weakness or physical incapacitation. You?"
They carefully examined the clearing they found themselves in. It was just a grassy opening in the surrounding forest. There was a path at one edge of it and they followed it both ways for several yards before returning to their starting point. It seemed that they were in the middle of a vast forest, all old growth.
Duo groaned. "All our maps are useless. Wonder if the compass works."
Heero took his out of its pocket and looked at it. He turned this way and that then walked around a bit. "Works. Needle points the same way no matter what."
"Ok. That's a bit of good luck. We won't be able to tell which direction we're going in, but it'll keep us from walking in circles."
Heero put the compass away. "What do you want to do?"
"Set camp. We should stay here for a while. Just in case Une has some way of recovering us."
Duo started setting up the tent he pulled from the duffle. Heero got out their sleeping gear and started blowing up the air mattresses.
When Duo had the tent up, Heero put their mattresses and sleeping bags inside. Duo gathered wood.
"Fire now, or later."
Heero shrugged. "How much wood is there?"
"A whole forest full. No one around here clears the snags out. This is really a virgin forest."
"Fire now. And we'll keep it going 24/7."
Duo started the fire. Heero gathered more wood while Duo tended the infant blaze they already had.
After taking turns gathering and stacking wood, they took inventory of everything they had.
Duo summed it up easily. "We have enough supplies for two weeks without rationing, six with. We've also got a compliment of weapons for ... a full assault. Ammo up the wazoo. Explosives, prima cord, flash-bangs and so on. Once they're gone, that's it. I suggest dividing up everything 50/50. That way, if we get separated, we each have some of everything. Ideas?"
Heero shook his head. "Sounds good to me. I just wish. ... our credit chips aren't going to be any good here. I wish we had some form of alternate currency."
Duo smirked. "I've got some gold chains and a few plaques of gold and silver. Hard currency, no matter where we go. Here. I'll split that with you too."
So they took several minutes to divvy up their supplies, including Duo's small cache of precious metals. He'd given Heero a gold necklace and bracelet instructing him to wear them. He'd also handed him two Krugerrands and a finger sized bar of gold. He'd admitted to having an odd number of ovals of pure silver so Heero had insisted that he keep four of the seven, saying that as he was the one to provide the largess he should keep the odd one.
They stayed in the clearing for another two days, with growing concern. On the evening of the second day a small stainless steel container dropped into the clearing from about three feet overhead. Duo poked it with a stick several times before picking it up.
He settled beside Heero on a log they'd dragged to the fire. "Standard data container. Stainless steel, screw together in the middle. Here goes." And, with that, he opened it.
A bundle of paper fell out, along with more precious metals and a small pouch.
Duo left dividing that up to Heero while he read the mission brief.
"Oh, man, we are screwed, blued and tattooed. We're in another dimension. Une couldn't be bothered to tell us that magic exists. That thing was a portal, activated by closing the pentacle. We have to get to a temple and get the high priest there to bring us back over to our own dimension. Fuck!"
"Time limit?" Heero handed Duo his share of the extra gold and silver. The small pouch proved to contain several cut gems which he apportioned as best he could. He let Duo have the pouch while he put his share in an evidence bag.
"None. But the squints suggest traveling as fast as possible as travel during winter is difficult. This place is on a medieval time scale. Think late middle ages. They also say they're sending us another container soon. Swords, and stuff."
Heero just grunted, "I hope they send us some more clothing too."
"Yeah, laundry is going to be a real bitch." Duo sighed and rubbed his face. "Why me? What god did I ever insult enough to make them hate me?"
Heero, used to this kind of outburst from Duo, just sighed, "No fucking idea. Maybe, if we find out, we can make some sort of sacrifice and fix it."
Duo just snorted.
They both jumped as a container the size of a steamer trunk dropped out of nowhere.
"Ok, I really do not want to know how they do that. Let's see what goodies we have now."
Duo moved to open the container. Heero just sighed. "If they can send us stuff, why can't they get us back?"
"No idea. Maybe the squints sent an explanation. Let's see."
The scientific team had sent more information. It seemed that the pentacle was a one way portal. There were portals that led to, and from, various dimensions; some one way, others two way. The portal Heero and Duo had activated was one way, to this dimension, and they had to travel across the continent to get to one that could take them back.
They'd also sent swords, shields, knives and more equipment. The extra equipment included blankets, cloaks and clothing. The clothing was designed to see to it that they didn't stand out too much. Duo turned his nose up at the baggy pants, tunics and gaitered soft boots.
"I'm not wearing that stuff. Looks like that shit the slaves wore in that historical movie Quatre made us watch last week."
Heero had to agree that the baggy, ill-fitting, rough garments, made from loosely woven cloth made them look like vagabonds. Not a good appearance for strangers.
Duo shrugged and stuffed the offending garments in the bottom of the container which he announced was now called a 'trunk'. "We might be able to sell this for a few coins of some sort. The cloaks are nice though. Wonder how we were supposed to explain the difference between the quality of the cloaks and the clothing." He snorted in distain. "Squints! I swear."
Heero silently agreed with Duo and started sorting out what they would leave in the trunk and what they would keep in their packs.
"And, horses would be nice." Duo frowned. "You know anything about horses?"
Heero gave him a rather wide-eyed 'who me?' look, then shook his head. "I ride well but I have no idea how to care for one."
Duo sighed, "Well, shit. Ok, then."
Heero offered, "We can pole carry the trunk between us. It's not that heavy."
"I think I'm scared."
"Me too. We'll just have to stick together and tough it out."
Duo fed more wood into the fire, dusk was falling. "Man, I just hope there's no slavery here. I hate that. Remember those kids on L3?"
Heero thought back to the sex slave ring they'd broken up on that colony. The whole cluster had been involved. "Yeah. Not so good. If there is, we'll just have to look the other way. We can't fight a war without resources. And we'd probably violate dozens of laws. Just ... we can't."
"I know, but I don't have to like it, right?"
"Right. Bed soon, it's getting dark."
They woke with the dawn, put together a sling for their trunk and started off.
They traveled for several days, camping as close to dusk as they could risk. Duo proved to be very good with a simple shepherd's sling, bringing down rabbits and some birds that looked like quail only larger. One of the things that had been included in their trunk was a book of edibles. Pictures of plants and animals that were food sources, it even included some plants that were culinary herbs.
Duo gathered great bundles of these and hung them over the carry pole. Heero endured this as he was well aware that barter was a prime method of commerce in a society like this.
They'd been traveling for a bit more than a week, without having seen another soul, when Duo finally broke.
Heero had been watching Duo's sidelong glances with some amusement.
"Ok, how do I ask this without getting killed?"
Heero snickered, well aware of Duo's habit of talking to himself when stressed.
"Just ask. I swear on my possibly nonexistent mother that I won't smack you. No matter what you ask."
Duo swore softly. "Ok. Straight or gay?"
"I'm ... bi? Not even really that. I was trained to have sex with either gender."
"Trained. Ok. Preference?"
Heero had to think about that for a few steps. "None. You like who you like. Why?"
"Ok, here's where the no hitting bit comes in. I think you're hot. I've been trying to figure out how to ask you for ages. Wanna date?"
Heero's rare laugh rang across the clearing they were in. "Sure. Ok."
Duo sagged with relief. "Well, that went well. Um ... 'Ro? We got company."
They stood and watched as a small group of men and women, dressed in white monk style robes, walked into the small clearing.
The group of clerics looked at Duo and Heero, who looked back with interest.
"Hail, travelers. Well met."
Heero stepped forward. "Hail, all." Then he just stood. Having no idea of proper manners in this place, he decided to let the others take the lead.
"Have you dwelling for the night?" The leader was an older man with a double cape over his shoulders and a hood with a colored band around it. He pushed his hood back so that his face showed clearly.
"No. We usually set up a camp about dusk." Duo gave the man a winning smile.
"You must come to the monastery then. It is not safe to camp in this valley."
So Heero and Duo followed the clerics to their monastery, a very large complex built on the side of a mountain. The first gate opened onto a suspension bridge which led to another gate. The path from this gate led through terraced fields and across a deep ditch to the bailey. This wasn't the simple square tower that you might expect. It was a huge circular structure with several towers. Duo gawked, then whispered, "Wow! A double keep. That ain't Cinderella's fairy castle."
Heero examined the monastery carefully. It was the real thing, stern, defensible and forbidding. "I like it."
Duo pouted a bit. "You would. I bet it's cold and cramped and ... medieval in there."
"Don't pout. It makes you look about three."
Duo stuck his tongue out at Heero.
Unbeknownst to them, the Abbot saw. He smiled behind his sleeve. Those two were destined for each other. They had already begun the age old courting rituals. He always found it amusing when same sex couples got together, some had the strangest ideas.
After they entered the inner keep the Abbot turned to the two lost men and said, "Here we are. The guest quarters are over there. The monk in charge is called Father Michael. He will find you a room and provide you with places at table. If you ask him, he will seat you at the general table, or you may eat in your quarters." With that he bowed and walked away.
Duo eyed Heero, then the long path up to the two story guest quarters. "Well, let's get going."
The monk that met them just nodded at their request for a room. He asked if they wanted to eat in their rooms or at the general table.
Heero looked at Duo who just shrugged. "General table. It's way too much trouble to tote the food all the way up here."
Father Michael just smiled genially at them. "You are very kind. It is some trouble, but we do try to accommodate our guests."
Heero glanced at Duo, he wasn't sure what was going on but he had a bad feeling that they didn't have all the data necessary. Duo just patted his shoulder, nodded and hoisted his end of the carry pole. Father Michael led them into the building and showed them to a room.
Once they were in the room, Heero turned to Duo and said in a flat tone of voice that indicated how uncertain he was, "There are hidden expectations here, aren't there?" Duo just nodded. "What are they?"
"If we don't have hard currency to pay, we're expected to work off our board. The more demands we put on them, the more we're expected to pay. We've got more than enough to take care of any costs, but they may have trouble with it." Heero gave him a blank look. "Barter is the cash du jour. Copper coin is the most common. Our gold and silver may cause problems. I really think a Krugerrand is nearly a year's income for a place like this. They may have trouble making change."
"Oh, we'll just have to play it by ear. Maybe we can buy a horse from them?"
Duo thought for a moment. "Maybe. Or a mule or donkey. Well, let's look around a bit."
The room was nice, in a spartan kind of way. It was whitewashed with clean rushes on the floor. There was a small table, two chairs and two beds but no wash stand or bucket for their personal needs.
Duo glanced out the window and noticed a jakes just outside a small door in the wall of the building. At least that's what he assumed it was, as the man who stepped out of the small building was adjusting his garments in a fashion that indicated that he'd had his trousers down.
Heero looked around the room again, noting the quality of the sheets and blankets, the fine craftsmanship of the furniture and made a decision.
"Duo, maybe we can buy some clothing and stuff from the monastery. Proper clothing and equipment. That sort of thing."
Duo bit his lip for a moment. "Maybe, but how do we explain ... anything."
"I think the Abbot might know that we're not ... from around here. We could just say we're foreigners. They're backwards enough that they won't know that we're from a different dimension rather than a different country."
"Good idea. And, if we don't actually say anything, it wouldn't be lying to him, right?"
A tap on the door led Heero to call, "Enter, please."
A young novice put his head in the door and smiled at them. "Supper is in one hour. Would you like your bath before or after."
Duo sniffed himself. "Before, please. And, we need clean clothing and this stuff washed. Can you help us with that?"
"Yes, of course, but ... I should tell you that ... we do charge for every extra service. It keeps the community going. So ... do you still want laundry done?"
Heero eyed the young man for a moment, made his decision based on his honesty and clear, innocent gaze and said gently, "Please come in a moment. We have some questions and I think we can trust you."
"Of course you can trust me. I'm a novice here but I do know the rules of the guest. Ask and I shall answer to the best of my ability."
Duo smiled at him too and pushed one of the chairs in his direction. "Take a load off." the boy gave him a puzzled look. "Sit down."
"Oh. But sir, where will you sit. Or ..." He glanced at Heero who just shrugged and leaned on the wall. He'd leave the main questioning to Duo. He knew that his glower could scare the strongest men and he did tend to glare rather hotly when he was confused.
Duo smiled and took the other chair. "Now ... we need to know how much this is worth here. I know approximately what it is worth in our country but not in this one. See?"
The young novice looked at the oval of silver that Duo put on the table and gulped. "Oh, my. This ... is it pure? May I pick it up?"
Duo just pushed it to him with a nod. The novice picked it up, hefted it for a moment, then examined it for foundry and assay marks. Not seeing any that he recognized he put it back down.
"I can't say for sure. I don't recognize any of the markings on it. But ... if it is pure, it is the equivalent of half a year's income for this monastery. With it you could by a palfrey and a charger or war horse with all the trappings. Or a complete suit of armor with the weapons. You could support a mid-sized manor for three or four years, depending on how frugal you are and what your crops were like." He blinked when Duo put a finger bar of gold on the table.
"And that? It's nearly pure. Just enough copper in it to make it easier to cast."
The boy paled. "Oh ... oh ... I don't know. I've never seen that much gold all at once. We have a bit that we use for illumination but it's a grain. A tiny piece the size of a millet seed. That's all we can afford at one time." He took a deep breath. "Sire, I should call the Sub-Abbot. You need to show this to him and ... and ... excuse me." With that he dashed out of the room.
Heero glanced at Duo. "You sure that was a good idea?"
Duo shrugged, looking worried. "I think so. Got a feeling, ya know?"
"Ok." Heero was well aware that Duo's 'feelings' usually panned out.
They only waited a few minutes before Father Michael tapped at the door.
"Might I come in?"
Duo motioned, "Please do. Chair?"
The Sub-Abbot shook his head. "No, I thank you. I would like to ask you to come to the assay office here in the monastery to have your ... money assayed. I understand that you have a full finger of gold and a disk of silver. We would like to help you keep from being cheated in the cities. It is one of our missions. Please."
Heero eyed the man for a moment. He was relaxed, standing easily and balanced on his feet. He didn't shift nor take his eyes off Heero's.
"Very well." Heero glanced at Duo who just nodded. "We have more than what we showed Brother ..."
"Novice Brian. He is a good boy and was quite upset that you seemed not to know what you have. I sent him to contemplate the noble virtue of honesty, which he has in abundance. I gave him great credit for it." He walked to the door. "This way, please. I swear by my life and honor that you are safe here. Please bring anything that you need evaluated with you."
Heero eased back behind Duo and gave him a quick scan. They were both armed with handguns, knives and various other bits and pieces. He didn't want to think that holy men and women couldn't be trusted but better safe than sorry. Duo gathered all their wealth and turned, got a nod from Heero and they both turned to follow Father Michael.
They were led to a small room that was obviously the assay office. The Sub-Abbot introduced them to the elderly monk there. Brother Raphael nodded to them kindly and said, "Just put your bits here. I'll assay them for you in no time."
Duo gave the Brother a sheepish look. "Um ... we've got a lot more than a bit."
With that, he put all their sliver, gold and jewels on the table and stepped back a step.
Both monks gasped. Duo had casually put fifteen oval plaques of silver, six fingers of gold and twelve Krugerrands on the table. The Brother opened the small pouch and dumped out half a dozen cut diamonds, four small but perfect rubies, and a table cut emerald the size of a postage stamp. Heero muttered, pulled the evidence bag from his breast pocket and added another half dozen diamonds, eight sapphires and another emerald to the table.
The Sub-Abbot just blinked at the small pile of metal and gems for a moment, then asked in a hesitant voice, "Are you princes?"
Duo looked blank, he didn't want to lie to the Abbot but being a prince would surely help their situation.
Heero took the decision out of his hands. "No, we are not. We are traders and travelers. Is it a lot?"
"My ... Young Sir, there is enough wealth there to buy most of the kingdom. If it is real, that is." He eyed the gold and silver for a moment.
Heero started to say something but the Sub-Abbot held up a hand. "No insult intended. But ... it must be marked. Will that be a problem?"
Heero shook his head. Duo just eyed the small pile with a calculating eye.
Brother Rafael picked up one of the silver plaques and put it on a scale.
"The great goddess Planora gave us a system of weights and measurements. This plaque of silver weighs in at exactly 100 urts. Very nice." He took the plaque and rubbed it against a touch stone. "Mmmm. Nearly pure. I would estimate 99.7%. I will take a tool and mark it with it's weight and purity. The scratchings are the fee."
Heero nodded. "Good. Duo?"
Duo just agreed too.
They stood and watched as the Brother checked and marked each plaque and finger. He touched the Krugerrands a bit sadly. "I do hate to mark these. It will spoil the design and it is so very pretty."
Duo picked one up and eyed it for a moment. "Well, why don't you just re-mark it right over the date. Here on each side of the deer. They don't mean anything to you and they're not important."
"Yes, a very good idea." The monk proceeded to do as Duo suggested.
He had worked over a piece of parchment, carefully dusting off the sheet after each marking. Now he put the tiny dish of silver shavings onto his scale, then wrote something on a palimpsest. He weighed the gold and did the same.
"I need to take a bit off one of the silver coins. This isn't quite enough to pay for valuing the jewels."
"Take what you need. I'd like a written appraisal, please."
Brother Michael said mildly, "Of course. It will be available in the morning." He gathered up the metal and carefully tucked each finger, coin and plaque into a carrier. This was just a piece of cloth with pockets sewn into it. He folded it shut and tied it with a piece of string. "Here you go. I'll need to keep the gems overnight. They'll be perfectly safe here."
Heero glanced at Duo. Duo just nodded back, then said, "Take your time. We'll be here several days at least. We need horses or mules or ... riding animals of some sort. And training in how to care for them."
"Why don't you just join a caravan?"
Heero shrugged. "There's the question of safety. Bandits do tend to attack caravans more often than individual travelers. And speed, we need to get to the Temple of the Portal before snow flies."
This garnered them both a sharp look. "The Temple of the Portal? The only travelers who go there are people who have been accidentally transported from their home dimension to this one."
Duo turned scarlet while Heero tried to decide whether to attack or not.
Father Michael hurried to reassure them. "Oh, it's nothing to worry about. This planet is a nexus, all sorts of people fall in all the time. You can usually tell them because they act so ... foolishly. Demanding things that don't exist. Wanting to be taken to our leaders. As if the lords, princes and kings had time to bother with them. We're an old fashioned people and feel that, if you've managed to get yourself into this situation, it's up to you to get out of it. At least you have resources to fall back on."
Duo cracked up at the disgusted expression on Heero's face.
"Sorry, sorry. I ... really. Oh, man." Duo wiped tears out of his eyes. "So, now what?"
"We eat supper. I'm sorry that you don't have time to bathe before we eat. I understand that you wished to do so. Clothing and other supplies can be bought from us. If you'll let us look over what you have, we'll be glad to make suggestions."
Heero nodded once. "Good. Thank you."
And with that, the Abbot led them down to the dining hall.
Duo leaned back in his bed, arms crossed behind his head. "What do you think?"
"I think that these people are very sophisticated. Just because they are not technologically advanced does not mean they are stupid."
"Right, but can we trust them?"
Heero thought this question over carefully. "The people here in this monastery, yes. Others, we should be cautious. A case by case analysis seems to be the best course to follow. We need to regard this as a mission in and of itself. We seem to have a great deal of money; and some power, just because of our weaponry. We need to find out all we can about the customs of the area. If we keep a low profile, we might actually get through this without ..."
Duo leapt up and clapped a hand over Heero's mouth. "Do. Not. Say. It. You'll jinx us."
Heero, well aware of Duo's superstitions, just shut up.
"Now. We need to get the Abbot to find us someone who can explain things to us. Teach us how not to offend the wrong people and whatnot."
Heero shrugged. "If we do, we can always bribe someone. Cultures like this one work on barter, bribery and menace."
"Yeah, but would you actually trust someone to stay bribed?"
"Point." Heero poked at his pillow, which was soft and sweet smelling. "I'm going to sleep. It's past dark and I'll admit that this bed is more than tempting."
Duo got up, stretched and announced, "I'm moving the table in front of the door. Not that I don't trust these people. It's just that ... my paranoia is on overload."
"Mine too. Thanks." Heero waited until Duo had moved the table, then he blew out the betty lamp and pulled his covers up.
Duo whispered into the darkness, "Is your bed more tempting than mine?"
Heero was sure he wasn't meant to hear that so he didn't reply. But he thought that Duo's bed was much more tempting that his.
The next morning they were awakened by a different young novice, who cheerfully called through the door, "Breakfast is in ten minutes, then your bath will be ready. Up, please."
Duo groaned, rolled over, smacked his lips and whimpered, "Please tell me we still have toothpaste."
Heero laughed and hopped out of bed. "We still have toothpaste. Four tubes of it. Come on."
They dressed quickly, in monks robes that had been left on the table for them, and headed for the dining hall.
They heard the soft murmur before they got into the hall. Someone was speaking softly, over the general conversation.
Heero was a bit astonished to see that there was a lectern at the head of one table with a senior monk reading from a scroll while the children and young men listened intently.
The other tables indulged in general conversation.
The novice led them to a table, then scurried to join his companions at the table with the lectern.
They were handed bowls of porridge with cream and honey. There was also a heavy mug of some sort of herbal tea and a slice of toasted bread with butter and jam on it. They both ate quickly as they wanted their bath rather badly.
When they finished their meal, they were taken to the bathing chamber. This chamber was like an old fashioned Earthly bath house. Tubs lined the wall on one side of the room, separated by curtains. The front of each cubicle was open to face a wooden structure which contained an open locker to hang their clothing in and shelves for towels, soaps and shampoos. The tubs were obviously filled by bucket but there were drains in the floor directly below the tubs for the waste water to flow through.
Both men were shown to a cubicle and given soaps and razors. Duo groaned as he saw they were straight razors. He hated them and usually wound up cutting himself several times with one. Heero, on the other hand, was expert with one and immediately began to shave.
Duo nearly cut his own throat when a voice from behind him asked, "Would you like me to do that for your, sire?"
Duo just handed the boy the razor over his shoulder and leaned back. "Please, I'm not good with one of those. And don't sneak up on me, I nearly cut my own throat."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Well, lean back."
Duo did and relaxed as the bath boy moved the razor over his face, removing the stubble that covered his face. He wished he'd thought to bring a razor from his supply but he'd forgotten.
Then the boy moved a strange apparatus to the back of the tub behind Duo.
"I'll wash your hair for you, sire, then brush it out nicely."
Duo blinked for a moment, then nodded hesitantly. If this didn't work out, he could always tell the boy to stop. He was very particular about who handled his hair, after all.
The washing bench was positioned behind Duo, who leaned his head back against the edge of the tub. The bath attendant, who admitted to being Ben, carefully placed Duo's braid on the smooth washboard and carefully unbraided it. He used a smooth beech wood comb to remove the minor tangles, then poured water over it all.
"I'll wash your head last, sire, this is going to take a bit. Your hair is as thick and long as any I've seen. Very beautiful, if I may say so."
Duo murmured, "Thank you." Then sighed. "Feels good."
Ben shampooed the length of Duo's hair, unaware that Heero had a sharp eye on him. Duo opened one eye once, to see that Heero was watching his back. He didn't think there was any danger but it was wise to be cautious.
He closed it again when Heero smiled at him.
The boy finished washing Duo's hair and bound it up in a towel. Duo bathed, then climbed out of the tub. Heero was long finished, dressed and sitting on a small stool waiting for him.
"Mmm, I like this soap. Maybe we could get some to take with us?"
Heero shrugged, "Sure, it lathers well and isn't as harsh as that cold water junk they sent us. What next?"
Duo pulled the towel off his head. "Comb this mess and get it re-braided. I really like that washing thing."
Heero went to look at it quite closely, storing its design in his memory for reconstruction later. He even fingered the surface of the board to memorize the pattern of ridges and dimples on it.
Duo smiled his brilliant smile and braided his still damp hair. He took the wide-toothed wooden comb, waved it at the attendant and stuck it in his pocket, raising his eyebrows at the boy. He nodded and made a motion, rubbing his thumb and first and second fingers together in a universal gesture. Duo nodded to that, then realized that Heero was halfway out the door. He scurried to catch up.
They walked around the grounds, examining the defenses, the fields and the outbuildings. Duo admired the dove cote and the coops for the various birds. He wondered about the numerous peacocks, pheasants and doves.
Heero, calling up boring hours of history lessons, said, "I think they eat them."
"Peacocks? Eeuw! Won't they taste funny?"
The wrinkle in Heero's brow deepened, "I don't know. I guess, if you're used to eating them, they just taste like peacock."
A voice from behind them laughed, then remarked, "They taste fine, but we only eat the hens. The cocks and all the pheasants are sent to the lord's dwelling as tribute." The short, round monk smiled at them in a fatherly way and turned, "The Abbot would like to speak to you. This way."
They followed the monk, asking questions about the things they saw as they went.
He was happy to answer and stopped a few times to lecture cheerfully on the subjects in question.
They finally arrived at the Abbot's office nearly an hour later. He didn't seem upset about this; in fact, he gave the guide a genial smile and waved him away.
"Welcome to my office. How are you today?"
Duo, as was usual for them, took the primary role in the conversation. "We're fine. The bath was great. Our room is very nice and the food's good. What more could a pilgrim want?"
Father Michael smiled at them. "Excellent. I'm very glad you like the accommodations. We do have a bit of business to take care of now." Duo nodded for him to continue. "We do charge for guest rooms, it is one of the ways we support ourselves, you see. So there is some question of rooms. Do you wish to continue on in the room you have now? Or would you prefer other quarters?"
Heero shrugged at Duo's questioning glance. Duo returned his attention to the Abbot. "The room we're in now is good. We do need some things though. More clothing, horses or ... something. And training in how to care for whatever we decide on. It seems that we have plenty of currency, money, funds. Take you pick."
"Yes, you do. That was the other thing I was wanting to talk to you about." He turned his attention to Duo. "You wear the hair of a warrior. You," he turned his attention to Heero, "have the hair of a slave. But you seem to be friends instead of master and man. We need to know what you know and what you need to know. Lessons are not expensive but they do cost so it would be better to keep them to a minimum. Yes?"
Heero snorted. "Yes, and I am not a slave, nor his servant. We are ... something else. Partners for one."
"Ah! I see. Good, good. Are you competent with a sword? Bow?"
Duo shrugged. "A friend of ours is excellent with a sword. I won't cut my foot off. Heero?"
"You're much better than that. And I'm just as good."
"I see." Father Michael smiled at them. "I'd like to have you tested anyway. I don't want to feel like I'm tossing babies to wolves. A turn of phrase only." He stood up and went to a small door to one side of the room. "Please come to the courtyard."
They followed him down to the courtyard and up to the pells. Heero glanced at Duo who just shrugged, neither one of them knew how to use a western sword. They were both trained with the short 'ninja' style sword that Wufei always referred to as a ninja-to. Heero preferred the 32 inch style while Duo, with his shorter arms, used a longer 36 inch one.
"Father Abbot. We don't use this style of sword. If you would allow, I'll go get our swords while Duo explains the set up we need to demonstrate our skills."
The Abbot smiled gently at him. "My proper address is Father Michael, or Abbot Michael. But don't worry about it. Any attempt to be polite is most appreciated. Now ... about your swords and style. If you have swords, this is very good as swords are extremely expensive. I know you have funds to pay for them but the more you have when you leave here, the better you'll be prepared to meet emergencies."
Heero thought about this for a moment. "Your consideration is greatly appreciated."
Duo returned just then with their swords, wrapped in the blanket off his bed to make it easier to carry them. He'd also brought a collection of shurikin and throwing pins as well as their tantos and the other blades that Wufei had sent. He wanted the Abbot's opinion of their quality.
He put the blanket down on the long table the Abbot pointed at and unrolled it. He put his sword down on the table then his favorite tanto, his shurikin, pins and a garrote. Then he put out the wakazashi, katana and tanto that comprised the daisho that Wufei had sent for him.
After checking to make sure that he hadn't dropped anything, he put out Heero's gear. Heero's gear was very similar to his but had a heavier otachi instead of the wakazashi. With Heero's near superhuman strength, the much longer, more curved sword was deadly. However, they both preferred the ninja-to because the scabbards contained a few extras. Duo's contained a few smoke bombs and some plastic explosive, detonating caps and so on. Heero's just had an empty place, good for concealing small things.
The Abbot examined their swords, glancing at them for permission to take them in hand. He used a small, folded cloth to keep from actually touching the blades. After turning each blade to look at the back and blade, hilt and scabbard he gave his opinion.
"These swords are ... worth a king's ransom, each. The shorter ... tanto?" Heero nodded. "They are worth the same as a war horse, or charger, and a palfrey. And you have four long swords, two short and three tanto. As well as these things ... which I do not recognize."
Heero touched one object and said, "Throwing pins and this..." He picked up a star shaped steel object, "is a shirikin. Deadly in the right hands."
Father Michael nodded. "And I recognize a garrote. Seasoned warriors?"
Heero glanced at Duo, who just said, "Heero and I were both fighting in a war by the time we were fifteen. Members of an elite team. We're in law enforcement now. That's how we wound up here. We were tasked with destroying a ... I have no idea what to call it. A gate thing, pentacle, pentagram, I'm not sure. But we closed the activation circuit, for lack of something better to call it, and here we are."
The Abbot nodded his understanding. "And now you have to get to the Temple of Gates to get home. At least you have money, weapons and skills to aid you. Some who come expire before they can return home, others ... go through many trials. You seem better equipped. Now. I have had things set up as Master Duo requested. Please, demonstrate your skills."
So first Heero then Duo spent a bit cutting bundles of reeds stuck up on poles. After they were done the Abbot nodded.
"Very well. Now we see how you deal with a knight. I have heard of such things as armor made of rings of metal. Or plates. But only kings can afford such things. Defend yourself."
Heero's reaction wasn't exactly what Father Michael was expecting. He was expecting a flinch and a grab for the nearest sword. Instead, Heero vaulted over the table and grabbed up the otachi, ducked under the stab that the father aimed at his chest and slashed at his arm. They fought back and forth over the grassy middle of the yard with first Heero then Father Michael defending. Father Michael noticed that Heero wouldn't engage his heavier sword, fearing to spoil the edge of his sword or actually break it. Heero noticed that the father was heavy on his feet and wanted desperately to engage his edge. They ended when Heero touched the edge of his sword to the father's throat.
"Well done, well done. I can see that you need no training. Master Duo?"
Duo just snatched up his ninja-to and hopped over the table. "I'm ready. Whoa!" Duo ducked a swipe of the sword that would have knocked him unconscious. "Bad. Really bad."
Heero flinched, stuff like that was quite likely to bring out Shinigami. He really liked the monk and didn't want to see him hurt.
This fight didn't take as long as the one with Heero. Duo used a street-fighting technique to drag the father in and, chest to chest, he said softly, "Look down." Father Michael did, only to see that Duo had a tanto pressed to his belly. He stepped back with a smile.
"Well, well, young man, you are quite good. I'm very pleased to see that."
Duo grinned in a slightly manic way and put his sword away. "Father, I thought monks were sworn to ... er ... peace and chastity and ... stuff."
The man smiled, then remarked, "No, some religions require things like that but my Goddess does not. She requires that I not start frivolous fights." Then he posed a question that made them both grin. "Who do you think protects all this from bandits? And you should be aware that many abbots and abbesses are the youngest children of noble families."
Duo grinned, "Ok, I get that. So, what do you think about animals?"
"You should get mules. You can ride them, and they can carry fairly heavy loads. Also, mules are not as attractive to bandits as horses." He didn't seem the least bit put off by Duo's quick change of subject. "Now, I'm going to assign you to the stables for a few days. The stable lads will teach you how to care for mules and horses, the difference is negligible. And they'll help you pick out two riding mules and a pack mule. The harness is included in the price of the beast."
They stayed for over two weeks, learning now to care for their mules and deal with day to day life in this dimension. As they worked and learned, the courting dance between them continued. Duo was well aware of what was going on but Heero was still Mr. Clueless. The Abbot chose to be amused.
Heero was, surprisingly, shy. He was very unsure of human relations still and very aware of this fact. He had always showed his feelings in action rather than words. So he made sure to acquire several bars of the soap in a scent that Duo favored. He also traded the clothing that had been sent by Une for other things to please Duo. For his part, Duo just stood back and waited his opportunity.
Their last day was spent in packing their saddle bags, checking the mules' shoes and tack and saying good-by to everyone they knew at the monastery.
Of course, they were summoned to the Abbot's office for a last formal meeting.
"Boys, I am so glad to see you. How is everything?" He was glad to be able to return to the monastery to say good-bye. He'd had to leave to check on several of the farms that were under his protection and so had just made it back in time. He explained this to Duo and Heero, enjoying their well thought out questions and intelligent suggestions. Finally he rose, saying, "Well, I have enjoyed this last talk very much. Now, I understand that you do not follow the Goddess but; I think she would grant you a blessing, if you asked. Would you like to?"
Duo looked eager but held his tongue; Heero glanced at him, then nodded to the Abbot. "Yes, I think it would be a good idea to ask for Planora's blessing. What do we do?"
The Abbot smiled at him. "You sleep on the altar. It's not as uncomfortable as it might seem. We'll set it up with padding and blankets. You will sleep and we will pray over you. If you have a dream, we'd like you to tell us about it."
Duo grinned. "That sounds interesting. I'd like to. Heero?"
Heero could tell that Duo really wanted this so he just nodded. He'd do a great deal more than sleep on an altar with people praying over them to please Duo.
They went back to the room that had been their home for so many days and checked one last time to make sure that everything was properly packed and ready to go.
It was, so they returned to the main courtyard to find out where they were supposed to go now. They were just beginning to think about returning to their room to wait when a voice from the dining room door called, "What are you doing standing around out here? Come in."
They entered the dining room to find the Hosteler there. He had set up a small table right by the door on which he had a small scale, a set of weights and a tally book.
Heero knew they had to pay for their room and board, the mules and harness so he wasn't surprised. What did surprise him was that the Hosteler insisted on going over very notation in the tally with them. Then he gave them the bill. It came to three grains of silver for everything. Heero just handed over one of the silver ovals and watched as the Hosteler used a tool to cut off a bit of the silver. He weighed it, then scraped off a bit more. He let Heero and Duo check the scale, in fact, he asked them to do so.
When they'd agreed that the payment was made, Heero took a moment to ask the Hosteler to cut the oval into smaller pieces. He did and weighed them, then marked them. He handed them back to Heero, saying, "I think that is a very wise idea. It's not a good idea to wave that much hard silver in some people's faces. You tuck that away carefully. Nice doing business with you."
Duo wished him a good day and Heero led the way to their usual places at table.
Before they ate there was a special prayer for Heero and Duo's safety while traveling. Duo teared up a bit. Heero felt bad as he knew that they would most likely never see any of these people again. Duo made friends so easily. Heero sighed.
"'Ro? You ok?" Duo's tender heart shimmered in his eyes.
"I'm fine. I'm just worried about you. Are you ok?"
Duo smiled, "Yeah, I'm fine. I just know I'm going to miss some of these people. But ... I wanna go home."
Heero took the chance of patting Duo's shoulder. Duo patted his thigh. "Me too. I never thought I'd miss the eternal wrangling between you and Wufei but I do. And Quatre is probably in bed with worry by now."
Duo stared into the middle distance. "You know, I wonder if time runs differently between here and there." He turned to Heero, eyes wide and distressed. "What if ... if it goes faster there than here. We could get back and they'd all be old ... or."
Heero clapped a hand over Duo's mouth. "Do not say it. We'll get back and they'll just have finished tea. We got the trunk in what? Two days?"
"Yes. Ok, I'm a hysterical old woman. Shut it." Duo sighed.
The conversation was terminated by a young novice coming to them to tell them that they could have one last bath after which they were to come to the sanctuary to be prepared for their vigil.
So they bathed, said their good-byes to the bath attendant, Ben, and returned to the dining room to be taken to the sanctuary where they would spend the night.
The sanctuary was very like an ornate Catholic church, but with a statue of the goddess Planora in place of a cross. The altar was also much larger and made even larger by wooden benches the same height placed all around it, making it the size of a queen sized bed. It was also covered with a nice down mattress, sheets, blankets and pillows. Over all was a beautiful eiderdown coverlet.
They were fumigated with incense. Father Michael used a small fan to fan incense from a bowl held by a monk over their bodies. Then they were given a small cup of tea to help them relax.
After the tea, they were led by the hand to the bed, to be helped into it so that they didn't slip or fall. Duo took a moment to bow to the icon of the goddess and say softly, "Thank you for your protection, Lady."
They settled into the bed and were tucked in by a nun, who smiled at Duo's rather goggle eyed look. Heero poked him in the side which made him snuggle down.
The tea turned out to be a necessity as the prayers were chanted out loud. Not very loudly, to be sure, but they were a bit obtrusive and not conducive to sleeping well. The tea didn't knock them out but it did make it possible to ignore the sound and fall asleep. They slept with in minutes of lying down and slept the night through, never noticing when the monks and nuns praying over them were replaced by others.
They were awakened by a nun, who gently shook them by one foot. "Sires, it is time to arise."
Duo grumbled, smacked his lips, then mumbled, "'M up."
Heero, fully awake, said, "No, you are not. Get up. I'm sure the last group is tired and wanting their beds. They've been praying for over four hours and, I believe, can't stop until we're out of bed ... off the altar. Whichever."
Duo woke completely at that and scrambled to get up. "Ok, ok. I'm up for real."
They were handed robes by another nun and watched as the last group stopped chanting and left in an orderly line. Duo remarked that he hoped they went straight to bed, they all looked tired.
The nun who'd given them robes led them to a small alcove behind the inner sanctuary. Their clothing was all there, all clean and the tear in Duo's knee mended with neat, tiny stitches. The nun admitted to using thread from the kit in one of the pockets.
Duo grinned. "Oh, man, that's so kind of you. I hate mending clothing. I never get the stitching nice." He knew that they had several more kits in their trunk so he took the kit out of his pocket and handed it to the nun. "I assume you did it yourself?" She nodded. "Well, just keep this. I know you'll put it to better use than I will."
The nun took the kit with a shaking hand. Little did Duo know that the simple kit, with its scissors, needles, pins, seam ripper and thimble was a very expensive item in this world. The needles alone were worth a year's income for the monastery. No one on this world had ever seen a safety pin but it only took the nun a few minutes of careful experimentation to figure them out.
She thanked Duo, curtseyed and left. Neither Duo nor Heero ever figured out what all the happy squealing was about.
They were given stirrup cups at the outer gate and all their friends were there to wave them on their way. They rode, looking back occasionally, to the bottom of the road then, with one last wave and shouted 'good journey,' they turned the bend in the way and were out of sight.
Heero found himself feeling bad and very much like turning around and going back.
Heero started and said, "Huh?"
Duo gave Heero a sad smile. "We can't go back there. We don't belong."
Heero ducked his head, hiding his eyes. "I know. But ... it's so peaceful there."
"Yes, but they have their own protectors. We need to get back where we're needed."
"Right." Heero straightened, wiped his face with one hand and clucked his tongue at the mule.
They rode on, secure in the knowledge that they were headed back home.
They rode until nightfall, then made camp in a large clearing. One of the things they had learned was traveling manners. They had maps now, clearly marked with towns, camping sites and safe inns. This meant that, after they pitched their tent and set up camp, they gathered wood. Heero took out an ax which a powerful monk had taught them to use. He'd been a big man with wide shoulders and heavily muscled arms, cheerful and pleasant natured. He'd taught both Heero and Duo how to recognize time cured wood, how to saw and split it and when to bank their fire to best advantage. He was one of the people they would miss.
While they ate the wonderful meal that had been packed for them, they studied their maps. They'd gone over them several times and marked out the best route to travel but it didn't hurt to go over it again. Duo was paranoid about losing their maps. He'd lost one on an infiltration and had been lost in Brazil for days. No one laughed at him for that, they all had similar fears.
So they studied the map. They carefully put it away in the beautifully carved wooden tube, tucked it back into a backpack and cleaned up the scraps from their food. Duo tossed them into the fire, then banked it carefully. Then they crawled into the two man dome tent that Une had sent through in their trunk.
Duo went in first. "Left or right?"
"'Scuse me?" Heero gave Duo a slightly blank look.
"Do you want the left or right side of the tent? I'm ambidextrous so it doesn't matter to me."
Duo waited a moment.
"I'm ambidextrous too. Flip for it?" Heero pulled a twenty-euro from his pocket.
"Ok. Heads." Duo snickered. He knew why Heero hadn't bothered to show the coin to the Hosteler, it was composite, plastic. Coins in ESUN hadn't been made of actual metal in years; instead, each coin had a tiny micro-chip in it which told the sensor in the vending machine its worth. They were cheap to make and fairly indestructible. Also, nearly impossible to counterfeit.
Heero flipped the coin into the air, caught it and slapped it down on the back of his hand. "Tails. I'll take right."
"Ok. You wanna switch sleeping bags or just leave them."
"Just leave them. I think I can stand Duo cooties." Heero grinned at Duo's indignant expression.
"Cooties? Me? You ... You ..." Duo dived at Heero and caught him around the knees. They tumbled to the floor of the tent in a flail of arms and legs. Heero managed to pin Duo and tickle him into submission.
Duo fell back laughing. "Stop! Stop! I give!"
Heero just chuckled. "We better get to sleep. We need to be up and going as soon after dawn as possible. I'm not sure how far we're going to be able to travel per day. We need to at least get from one camping spot to another. We're also going to have to allow time to hunt for meat."
Duo yawned and crawled into his sleeping bag before answering. "You're right. We can pick up supplies at almost any village but meat is going to be a problem. And we don't have any long range weapons, other than our rifles."
"We've got ammo up the wazoo, though. I don't think careful hunting is going to deplete it too much. Just think sniper exercise."
Duo yawned again, making Heero echo him. "Yes, but what's in season? How much trouble will we get into? We ... I forgot to check that out. Stupid!"
Heero smirked. "I didn't. There's no such thing as a season and as long as we only take what we can eat, no one is going to say anything. Go to sleep."
"'K, night." And with that, they both rolled over and fell a sleep in moments.
Morning was, as Duo said, 'Some fucking unholy hour, still dark in the morning.' Heero sighed but agreed. They were both glad of the internal clock that woke them when they wanted, whether they really wanted or not. They scrambled out of the tent in a tangle of limbs and messy hair.
Duo walked down to the small stream to get water. Heero restarted the fire using the coals from last night's fire. Duo had done a good job of banking the fire so it didn't take him long to get a nice blaze. Duo handed him the kettle of water, then got out a frying pan.
They had herbs for tea and a nice filch of bacon so they were going to have tea, bacon and toast. They both knew that the bread wasn't going to last very long so they weren't trying to save it. It would go moldy in only a couple of days without preservatives.
As they were settling down to eat, Duo fished in his pack to find his eating utensils. He was delighted when he also found a small crock of butter.
"Butter! Oh, man, they did sneak in some good stuff. Here." He cut the golf ball sized pat in half and offered the crock to Heero.
Heero took a piece off and buttered the huge slice of toast. He took a bite and sighed. "Man, that is good. Nothing like what we get. Hand me my silverware, will you?"
Duo handed Heero his ESUN issue flatware and asked, "Why do people call it silverware? Most of the time it's steel."
"No idea. Maybe it comes from a time when silver was the fashion for this." He waved his knife. He smiled at Duo's astonished expression. Usually he either ignored such questions or gave a shrug. He realized now that these questions had always been Duo's attempts to deepen their relationship. He wondered why he hadn't noticed before.
"Oh, but, silver blades?" Duo nearly leapt on the offered olive branch.
"No, the blades were steel, bonded into the handle of silver. Now, even the best is all stainless, unless it's an antique. I bet they're a real pain to wash. They all have to be hand washed and polished with a special polish."
Duo grinned. "I bet Relena has real silverware. And the servants to care for it."
"I know she does. Bunch of jobs there."
Heero agreed. They spoke of this and that while they finished their breakfast.
After they ate, they used the rest of the hot water in the kettle to wash their dishes, broke down and stowed the sleeping bags and tent, then went to catch the mules.
Catching the mules wasn't very hard. They were well trained beasts and liked their riders, even the pack mule was ready to be fed his measure of grain and be harnessed.
Heero started sorting the tack as Duo led the mules down to the stream in case they needed a drink. They drank a bit, more as it was offered than any other reason, and Duo brought them back. Heero put the nosebags on them and he and Duo began to harness up. Since they'd been drilled on this as intensively as they'd ever drilled a recruit on arms maintenance, it didn't take them long to get everything in its proper place.
They packed the backpacks that they carried on their riding mules and the panniers the pack mule carried. It didn't take them long to get the panniers and packs in place, take off the now empty nosebags and get the bridles in place.
Heero handed Duo his holster and picked up his own. They were each wearing a chest harness as it was easier to draw from them while mounted. Their long guns were slung from their shoulder also, as any attempts to create a saddle holster had failed. The long magazines hung no matter what they tried.
They left the clearing an hour after waking.
Duo sighed heavily.
"Duo?" Heero now knew that sigh was a signal. A signal that Duo wanted to say something he was afraid Heero wouldn't agree with.
"I think we should stop at every inn we can."
Heero considered this for a moment. "Why?"
Duo leaned forward to pat the white mule he was riding. "I think it's better for the mules. I don't want Snowy to get in the kind of shape we saw some of the trade mules in."
Heero considered this for a moment. Some of the animals that the monastery had were traded in on fresh animals and they were in bad shape, skinny, with saddle sores and poor feet. The stable manager had actually accepted animals and insisted that they be paid for, as he wasn't about to allow these particular travelers any of the monastery's animals.
"Good idea. It's not like we can't afford it. And it'll be better for us too. We need to make sure to take our vitamins though. The diet around here is sadly lacking in vitamin C, and several others. We don't want scurvy or something."
"Right. I'll dig them out of the trunk and put some in each of our packs."
Heero nodded and glanced back at their pack mule. Their trunk was carefully bound onto the top of the pack saddle, supported from each side by the panniers. He was also glad to remember that it was, as the master smith assured them, impossible to open with any tools available to even the best equipped smithy. Their valuables were as safe as they could make them.
After an hour by the sun, Heero decided that they'd been quiet long enough. "I took inventory. But I noticed that you did too." He smirked, he'd known that they both would do their own so he hadn't said anything earlier. "So what do we have that you especially like."
Duo grinned in a way that always made Lady Une flinch. "Well, the ordnance is all low maintenance. Handguns are semi-auto Glock and the long guns are AK-74, not those sissy AK-47's. And ... bestest of all. Someone sent along some of that new formula plastique explosive that uses the micro detonators. And a dedicated controller ... actually several. In case we lose one. And some old fashioned prima-cord. Love that stuff. And I forgot to include all the stuff in my braid in the inventory."
Heero shuddered. He'd watched Duo unload his braid once. It had scared even him, and he didn't scare easily. "That's ok. I really don't want to know. You are seriously scary and officially nuts."
Duo beamed at him. "Why, thank you sir, flattery will get you everywhere."
Heero grinned back at him, the dance was going well.
They rode on until sun noon when they stopped to water the mules and feed themselves. Duo had sliced the last of their bread and 'buttered' it with bacon grease, then made sandwiches with the rest of the bacon they'd fried that morning. He'd stuck the sandwiches in their mess kits. Now he brought them out, handing one to Heero, he took the other and ate it quickly. Heero eyed his sandwich with disfavor, bacon grease butter not being something he favored. But – food was food, so he ate it.
"After we use up the last of the fresh stuff, we'll have to go back to ESUN rations. I'd like to save them as much as we can. If we get into a tight spot, we're going to need them."
Heero nodded. They'd discussed this before, they were going to live off the land and bought supplies as much as possible. The ESUN rations were the newest version of MRE, the ubiquitous and ancient military ration. Heero had to admit that they weren't bad, he'd eaten worse in some canteens, and they beat the hell out of energy bars. But they really might need them later in the journey, when the weather was getting colder and hunting worse.
"Ok, we need to eat everything that might spoil first, but ... I think we'll be at a village in four days."
Duo pulled out his copy of the master map. He'd made it in the scriptorium and had the monk in charge check it for accuracy. They now had two copies and the master. Duo really wasn't taking any chances. "Ok, we're about here. Each one of the campsites has a marker and the symbols are all on the map. So ..." He traced their path with a finger. "Yeah, four days. So ... we've got enough flour and salt for ten. Flat bread, fried dry on the griddle. If we had some lard I could make pita. But we don't, so flat bread it is."
Heero shrugged. "I don't mind flat bread. As long as it's fresh. Too bad we can't make up a day or two worth, but once it gets cold ..." he trailed off with a shudder. "Ugh!"
"Yeah, in spades." Duo stood up, brushed crumbs off his pants and gathered up the kits to put away. "If we ride a bit faster, we'll have time to hunt before dark. Me or you?"
Heero thought as he re-bridled the mules. "Me. You do the domestic stuff today. We'll trade off."
They made it to the camp site with time to spare, time Heero used to bring down four of the rabbit-like animals that the locals called coneys. He cleaned and skinned them, washing them in the clear running stream between the campsite and the woods.
Duo took them, cut them into pieces and stewed them, with cattail roots, wild garlic and carrots. The flat bread was delicious, Duo admitted to kneading the hell out of it. There was also fresh mint tea. Heero vowed to buy some honey or sugar at the village, if it was available, sweet tea was his one real vice.
They spent the next three days riding, speaking of this and that. Duo, Heero found, was a font of useless, and useful, information. He was also really funny, well read and musical. He could sing almost anything that Heero could think of. And he spent hours trying to stump his friend.
Duo took this in good humor but insisted that Heero sing along if he knew the song. He was surprised to find that Heero was a baritone while he was a tenor. They harmonized well. He also found that Heero had a very dry, nearly acidic, sense of humor. He even told Duo that sometimes he thought of Wufei as 'seigi no ryuu', which he said meant dragon of justice. Duo nearly fell off his mule, he laughed so hard.
They approached the village cautiously. They'd been warned several times that some villages were especially nervous at times and you could never tell which one or when. It was best to ride in in daylight, calling out before actually entering the village.
So they rode to the first house on the single, narrow street and Heero called out in his best drill instructor voice, 'Hello, the village.' This call was met by several men running to the head of the street to see who was there. They didn't look particularly suspicious, only curious.
Heero dismounted and walked away from the mules, tossing his reins to Duo. He made sure that the men could see both his hands as he approached them.
"Hello. We mean no harm. We would like to stay in your inn and purchase supplies."
"Well met to you, sir. We have no problem with you entering the village." The headman smiled. "Been traveling in some rough country?"
"No, but the Abbot of the monastery dedicated to Planora warned us that some villages might be a bit wary of strangers. We decided to approach carefully so as not to start something that none of us want."
"Ah! I see. Well, come this way. The inn is on the square, such as it is. There's housing for you and your animals. I hate to ask, but how would you be paying?"
"Hard silver." Heero motioned for Duo to come into the street.
Duo dismounted and led all three mules after him as he joined Heero.
They were led to the small inn, which was neat, clean and well kept, and into the bar. The innkeeper met them there with a smile and said, "What can I do for you today?"
Heero smiled back. He'd finally learned that his face wouldn't fracture if he smiled once in a while. "We need a room for two and housing for our mules."
"Good, good. I'll send my boy out to unharness and groom them. He'll bring all your luggage into your rooms. Tack stays in the stable, but he'll clean it well and see to any repairs."
Duo just shook his head. "It's all in good repair. We've only been traveling for a little while. If he sees anything that needs attending to, he's to bring it to our attention first. Oh, and the pack mule bites."
The innkeeper laughed at that. "Well, it won't be the first time he's bitten nor the last. This way ... I've only got three rooms, all of them will accommodate several people. I've no other guests so take your pick the price is the same. Baths?"
Duo peeked into the first room but turned up his nose a bit. It was lined with bunk style beds and smelled musty. The second room was better, with a huge bed and a fireplace, but it too smelled. The third room was down a short hall, clean, tidy and smelled of lavender. It was also the most defensible of the rooms as the door opened outward, forcing anyone who wanted to enter to step back to open it. It contained one large bed with a truckle under it, two chairs, a table and a small wash stand.
"This one. And we would both like a hot bath."
"I'll have the girls heat up the bath house early, then." He gave a rather sad smile to Heero. It was a shame that two young men like Heero and Duo had picked the only room with a bar on it. "I'm glad you like this room. Most don't as it's too far from the bar for them. Supper is at dusk. Roasted goose, pan roasted vegetables and potatoes mashed with cream and butter. Fresh yeast rolls. And I just broached a new barrel of ale."
Duo licked his lips, having acquired a taste for goose. "Sound delicious. Bath?"
"The bath house will be warm in a while. I'll call you when it's ready. The girls just went down." He paused for a moment. "The girls are not included in the price of the bath; and, as they are my daughters, I'd appreciate it if you treated them with respect."
Heero just nodded, saying, "We never thought they were. I'll treat them as I would want my own daughter treated."
The innkeeper nodded and left to check on the bath.
Duo blew out a breath. "Well. I'll be sure to keep my hands firmly to myself. Not that I'd do anything but I don't want them to even think I might."
"Me neither, besides; they have the wrong equipment for me." Heero watched Duo out of the corner of his eye.
Duo just blinked for a second, then snickered, "I guess I've got the right kind?"
Heero managed a smoldering look, without the scary part. "You do."
Duo looked stunned for a moment, then just said, "Oh."
The bath was everything that could be expected from a small village inn and more. There was only one tub, but it was huge. It also had a bench around the inside and small platforms on the edge for soaps and wash cloths.
Duo had unbraided his hair, put all his stuff in the trunk along with their firearms and locked it. They had carried their swords and tanto down to the bath, as any noble would do.
Now they were relaxing in the tub, soaking off six days of trail dirt and sore muscles. Duo had his unbound hair over the back of the tub to keep it out of the soapy water. He was going to shampoo it later.
Heero smiled lazily. "Why don't you get one of the girls to wash that for you? I know you're particular about who messes with it but ..."
Duo waved a hand in negation. "Don't worry about them touching me. I just don't like pranksters messing with the braid." He turned his head to call out. "Hello? Mistress?"
A head popped over the chest high barrier between the tub and the rest of the room. "Yes, sire, what can I do for you?"
Duo flushed red while Heero snickered until he submerged himself to hide his grin. "Um ... wash my hair?"
"Of course, sire." The girl came around the barrier. "Oh, my. We don't have a washing board, sire. But I can fetch a tub?"
"Fine, but I'm a bit particular about shampoo. I brought my own."
She grinned at him, "I am too, sire, so that's fine. I'll be right back."
She returned quickly with a tub, then turned to the fresh hot water tank to draw a pitcher half full of steaming water. She added cool water to bring the temperature down to something she hoped would be comfortable for Duo.
It didn't take the girl long to get Duo's hair clean, combed out and silky smooth. She left and they both got out of the tub. Heero held Duo's hair out of the way while he dried himself, then took a towel up.
"Here, let me return the favor." Duo gently turned Heero around so he could rub his back with the heavy towel. "There. All dry." He ran one hand over Heero's back in a slow caress.
Heero shivered, and Duo could tell it wasn't from cold. Goosebumps rose along the path his hand had taken.
"We better go. A bath house ..." Heero trailed off. Duo just nodded and finished dressing. Heero followed suit.
Somewhere, a goddess was laughing, courting rituals were so much fun.
They returned to the bar, or common room, and settled at the table in the corner between the bar and one wall. Their food was brought to them by a smiling lady wearing an immaculate apron and kerchief.
"There you go, gentlemen. Oh, and one of my girls will be coming to your rooms later to brush your hair again and braid it up."
Duo grimaced, he hated to leave his hair down but it was still much too wet to braid. "Thank you, ma'am, but my partner will do it for me." Heero's smile was all the reward Duo needed for his offer.
"Oh, very well then, enjoy." And, with that, she returned to her kitchen.
They enjoyed the spit roasted goose, pan roasted mixed vegetables, some of which neither recognized and the mashed potatoes were rich with cream and butter. There was salt and pepper on the table and they used them both on the potatoes but the goose had been stuffed with an onion and herbs.
Duo finally leaned back and sighed. "Man, that was so good. The lady really knows her stuff."
Heero agreed, sipping at his ale. It was good, well brewed and tart-sweet, instead of the thin, sour stuff they'd been warned to expect.
"I'm done eating. Want to return to our rooms so I can braid your hair for you? Or was that just an excuse?"
"No excuse. I'd rather you did it. Come on."
They returned to the room and Duo handed Heero his hairbrush. Heero settled in a chair and Duo plopped down, cross-legged, between his feet. Heero brushed Duo's hair until it was tangle free and smooth, then he divided it and braided it with quick efficiency.
Duo handed him one, which he wrapped around the end of the neat braid.
"Thanks. I hate trying to sleep with wet hair. Besides, if I braid it damp, it gets a musty smell. Bed?"
"Not just yet. I'll light a fire and we can read something. Une sent paper books, remember?"
Heero started a small fire and they set out a couple of candles. This made just barely enough light to read by.
While Heero was doing this, Duo was rummaging the small collection of books. These books weren't actually printed on paper, but on extremely thin sheets of plastic. They were totally opaque and very tough. The printing method meant that a hundred pages were barely a quarter inch thick. The complete works of Shakespeare could be no more than five by seven by three. The small case contained ten books, the complete 500 most recommended books of the last century. They were all the same size, 8 x 10 x 4, but weighed less than four oz.
Duo handed Heero a book, then selected one for himself.
They settled down to read, each planning something.
A knock at the door brought them both back to the present. The innkeeper stuck his head in the door with an apologetic expression on his face.
"I'm so sorry, I'll reduce the charges accordingly." with that he stepped back and motioned for someone to enter the room
A young man, obviously a noble, entered with a half sneer on his face. "I wanted a private room."
The innkeeper's expression hardened. "Well, this is the best I can do. And, if the two young gentlemen object too much, you'll just have to sleep in the next best room with your men. They were here first."
Heero gave the man a glare that could strip paint. "You see here. We were here first and paid for the room to ourselves. You'd better adjust your attitude or you'll be sleeping with the teamsters, don't doubt it."
The lord turned to say something, he was just opening his mouth when he noticed the books they both held. In this culture, anyone in possession of a book was very rich, someone who possessed two was rich, cultured and possibly royalty. He shut his mouth, bowed and said in a conciliatory tone, "My excuses. My only reason being long travel, exhaustion and no expectation of meeting anyone of rank in this small village."
Duo glowered for a moment. "That last is no excuse at all. People who take you in, even if you pay, are worthy of respect."
The innkeeper glowed. The noble sighed.
"But, come in. We'll figure out something." Heero motioned with one hand while handing Duo his book with the other. "Put that away, would you?"
Duo just took both books to their trunk and put them away. He locked the trunk and pushed it up against the foot of the nearby bed.
The innkeeper left and returned with another chair and sheets for the truckle bed.
"One of my daughters will be in to make the bed for you." He started to say more but Duo interrupted him.
"We'll see that he is a perfect gentleman. Don't worry about her."
The innkeeper just bowed and closed the door behind him.
It was opened again almost immediately by one of the daughters of the house. "Good Morrow! You wanted the truckle bed made up?"
Duo nodded. "We did. Here let me hold those for you. There's really no place clean to put them down."
She happily handed Duo the sheets with a little smile.
The nobleman ignored both Duo and the young girl, instead he introduced himself to Heero.
"I am Sir Percival De Morrisy. And you?"
Heero eyed him for a moment then said, "Heero Yuy. Sit." He pointed to one of the chairs and took another for himself.
Sir Percival sat down and leaned one elbow on the table, something Heero didn't approve of. He hated having a table shaken while he was trying to write, so he viewed this with disfavor. He looked pointedly at the elbow then Sir Percival's face. He raised one eyebrow and waited to see what would happen. Sir Percival snatched his elbow off the table, flushing slightly.
Heero just returned his gaze to Duo's derrière. He was distracted again when Sir Percival began to chatter.
"I am on a progression. My father desired it. Do you know if the wenches in this inn are expensive? I'd like to enjoy that one tonight."
Heero glared but it was Duo who actually said something.
"If you even look like you're going to touch one of those girls, or even speak to her, I'll gut you like a fish." His glare would have frightened anyone but one of the other gundam pilots.
Sir Percival turned an alarming shade of red and turned to Heero. "Sir, I demand you keep your servant under control. This is not ... not ..." He stumbled to a halt when Heero started snickering.
Duo gave him a look of such loathing that he blenched. "I'm not a servant." He pulled his braid out of the back of his shirt and waggled it at Sir Percival. "Heero and I are partners. Get off your high horse before you get knocked off it. And just exactly where were you intending to ..." Duo glanced at Heero, "have your way with the young lady?" He glowered at Heero and growled without heat. "Ok, yuck it up, asshole."
Sir Percival glanced from one to the other. "I assumed you would behave as gentlemen and leave the room until I was done." His sullen tone made him sound all of twelve.
"Oh, Christ on a crutch, how old are you?"
"I'm twenty. Why?"
"Because you're acting like a juvenile delinquent." Duo could tell from the puzzled look that the young knight had no idea what he was talking about. "Unknightly. You just don't demand sex from some girl like that. And don't tell me it's droit de seigneur. That's crap. You have no right to steal a young girl's most precious possession just because you're bored and horny. Grow up."
Sir Percival opened his mouth, closed it again and a contemplative expression washed over his face. "Oh, I ... see." And with that he just got up, bowed to both of them and went out into the common room. He had a lot to think about and an ale or two seemed very attractive.
Heero eyed Duo who just shrugged. "I hope the little shit actually thinks. Spoiled nobility was never my strong point. Especially on the catering to front."
Heero snickered. "I'm more of a tell them like it is type, too. So, eat in here or out in the common room."
"Common room. We'll have to keep an eye on the girls and Sir Percival's entourage. Bet they think they're entitled too."
Heero scowled, drawing his eyebrows together into one. "They better not. I'll crack some heads."
Duo fluttered his eyelashes and cooed, "My hero."
Duo laughed lightly. "Moi? Surely not."
Heero laughed as well. "My name's not Shirley. Come on."
They entered the common room to see that it was full of strange men. They seemed to be Sir Percival's guards and teamsters.
Duo led the way to a small table in one corner. The table was situated between the fireplace and the back wall of the room, backed by another wall and had a better view of the whole room than their former table. They settled down comfortably to keep an eye on the room.
It wasn't long before the innkeeper's daughters, along with two boys, began service. This consisted of bringing trenchers to the tables. Each trencher had a goose, vegetables and mash on it. They also brought plates, mugs and pitchers of ale. The teamsters helped themselves quietly but the guards were another story. They grabbed, snatched and made a huge mess.
Duo eyed them, turned to Heero and said, "And can I just say ... Eeeuuwww? That's just nasty. Where the hell did they learn their table manners?"
Heero glanced from Duo to the guards and back. "Yes, you may. And I'll see you the Euw and raise you a disgusting. I have no idea where they learned, or didn't learn, table manners. Let's just keep an eye on them to make sure they know where their hands belong."
"Right." Duo turned back to the room again, just in time to see one of the guards attempt to grab one of the girls.
She danced away but he caught her apron strings and dragged on them. He untied her apron and she scuttled back, leaving him with the apron in one hand and a sour expression on his face.
Duo stepped up behind her and grinned at her tormentor. He wasn't going to let this pass for a second.
"You ought to give the lady back her apron."
The guard just smirked at Duo. "And who's going to make me?"
"I am." Duo grinned back.
Heero settled back to watch his partner work. He'd always liked Duo's economy of motion. The man didn't waste the flick of a finger. Duo just reached out, grabbed the man by the hand and bent it back against his wrist. Cramping his hand back like that was painful and any attempt to get away was extremely painful. After one hard jerk, the guard fell to his knees with a whimper.
"Now, apologize to the lady." Duo's voice was soft but everyone knew that tone. It led to pain and misery if not obeyed.
The guard was smart and apologized quickly. When Duo let go, he scurried into the shadows on the other side of the fireplace where he was greeted with snickers.
Heero smiled at Duo who smiled back a bit sheepishly then turned to the server. "You all right?"
The girl gazed at him with awe. "Yes, Sire. Thank you. Would you like something from the bar? Or some tea?"
Duo recognized this for what it was, an attempt to establish normalcy as quickly as possible.
"Tea would be nice." Heero nodded his approval as Duo returned to their table.
The tea arrived quickly and they sipped it while they watched the room for more trouble.
They continued to sit and watch until the innkeeper started blowing out the lamps on the walls. One of the daughters banked the fire and stopped to tell them that the bar was closed.
Heero rose, stretched and thanked the girl, then turned to Duo. "I'm ready to turn in. You?"
"Me too. Our roomie turned in about half an hour ago."
"I just hope he kept to his bed, instead of trying to claim ours."
Duo just grinned. "He better not have. He'll wind up sleeping in the common room."
"You just going to toss him out?" Heero had to smirk at the thought.
"No. We're both going to. You take heads and I'll take tails and we'll just give him the ol' heave-ho. "
Luckily, for him, Sir Percival had decided to take the truckle bed without complaint or any attempt to establish nine-tenths claim. He was curled up in the bed, snoring softly.
Duo stripped down to his boxers and a t-shirt while Heero went down to just boxers. They both got into bed and were soon sleeping as soundly as they could with a stranger in the bed and an unlocked door. In other words, every time Sir Percival rolled over they both woke up. It led to a miserable night for both of them.
The morning wasn't much better as Duo woke first and tried to slip out of the bed without waking Heero. This didn't work, Heero woke abruptly, jerked and kicked the truckle bed, waking Sir Percival.
"What! Were? What's going on? Who dares?" Sir Percival sat up, groping for a sword that wasn't there. Duo had wisely moved it to the other side of the bed, close enough that he could toss it to the young knight, but far enough away that no one would be stabbed by accident.
Duo just barked, "Stand down! Now!" the young man flopped back on his bed with a grumble and Duo continued, "Sorry about that. I forgot that your bed was there. We should have moved it farther away. We're getting up for breakfast. Go back to sleep if you want."
But Sir Percival was made of stronger stuff than that. "No, I thank you. I'm awake. I should check on my men and the animals. I'll join you for breakfast after that, if you don't mind."
"We don't. We'll be packing up directly after breakfast and on our way A-sap." Heero pulled on his pants and rummaged for clean things to wear.
Duo watched him with avid eyes, concealing his interest from Sir Percival, but not Heero. When it was his turn to change, Duo didn't bother to try to hide anything as Sir Percival had left in the middle of his search for clean garments.
"Heero, we have to do some laundry soon. I'm almost down to cleanest dirty."
Heero grumbled slightly but agreed. "Yes, me too. Damn nuisance but I hate wearing dirty clothing on a clean body and I don't trust anyone else to do the job right. Check the map at breakfast. There's a group of hot springs somewhere on our way. We can stop there for a few days and wash stuff, rest the mules and so on."
"Sounds good to me." Duo didn't hide his interest in this idea. The thought of being alone with Heero at a hot spring sounded really nice. Heero noticed and smiled to himself, another step in the courting ritual was completed.
They went out to breakfast, which consisted of porridge of some sort, eggs, bacon, and flat, unleavened bread. The tea was some sort of herbal blend, which was nice. The company was all of the caravaners and very quiet.
It didn't take long before they found that Sir Percival had made his displeasure in the behavior of his men plain and now they were all sulking. Duo announced, sotto voice, that sulking was bad enough in two year olds, never mind men. He collected a few glares but most of the men seemed to take his comment to heart and stopped.
When Sir Percival asked if they would like to travel with his progression they said yes then went to pack their trunk.
When they got back down, carrying the trunk between them, their mules were already waiting for them. The teamsters had saddled and harnessed them, two of them came forward and took the trunk and saddlebags from Heero and Duo. They put the trunk over the panniers and the saddlebags on the backs of their saddles. Duo politely thanked the men and mounted his mule. Heero did the same. They both noticed the looks of amazement on the teamsters' faces.
Sir Percival was, of course, oblivious and called for them to ride out. Heero caught sight of the host and urged his mule over. "Did that idiot pay you?"
"No, my lord, he did not. And I've no way to enforce payment. He said to send a bill to his father." The man's face told Heero what he though of that idea.
"Never mind. I'll pay for him and collect myself. Duo paid for us, right?"
"Yes, my lord. And I thank you for that, and for his protection of my daughter. You are both noble men."
Heero handed over enough silver to pay for their board, nodded and urged his mule into a trot to catch up.
Duo raised an eyebrow at him so he explained, "Our young idiot didn't pay. I paid up for him and I'll collect tonight. Might take a horse in payment. These mules are already wearing out."
Duo sighed. "I was talking to one of the teamsters while you were paying. They're not in the condition we thought they were. He said they'll probably last no more than another week of steady travel before they need new shoes and at least four days rest before we can move on."
Heero sighed. "Well, damn. Not that four days will hurt us all that much but still."
They rode on in silence except for the rattle and squeak of harness.
Heero gave Duo a sideways glance, only to meet his eyes. Duo grinned back at him easily. It was hard for Heero to acknowledge that Duo could possibly be as interested in him as he was in Duo. They both had a lot of baggage weighing them down, but it seemed worth the risk to Heero. He was going slowly as he didn't want to spook Duo, he was, however, pressing his suit as best he could. Especially considering that they were in a strange dimension, at risk of death or disaster at every turn and doing their best to get back home again. He wondered if Dorothy of Oz had felt the same.
Duo's, "Which Dorothy and which Oz?" made him realize that he'd been grumbling to himself.
"Wizard of Oz, old movie. I feel completely out of my depth and off balance."
Duo chuckled a bit. "Me too, pal, me too. I'm just glad our firepower works. It could be worse, maybe."
Heero groaned. "Do not tempt the God of Disaster. Please."
Duo gave Heero a sheepish look. "Sorry."
Sir Percival listened to all this with interest but kept comment to himself. He was learning everything his father had hoped he would, and much sooner than expected. He was a good boy at heart but his father had left his raising to his mother and servants until he was sixteen and ready for knighthood training. That was when the lord realized, to his dismay, that Percival's mother was a snob of the worst sort and had taught his son a sense of entitlement that didn't sit well on the shoulders of someone who would rule a rather large domain. Thus, the progression. The young knight was beginning to realize that he was not what he wanted to be.
Heero and Duo, never noticing Sir Percival's interest, continued to visit, going over prior missions and future plans.
They were all caught by surprise by the bandits' attack.
One of the guards just suddenly fell off his horse, an arrow in his chest. Sir Percival swore and drew his sword. The rest of the guards followed suit. Heero and Duo shrugged their rifles from their shoulders into ready position. They all scanned the trees, searching for their attackers.
It didn't take long to find them as more arrows dropped from the sky. This time, they didn't do nearly as much damage as the men urged their horses into a dancing frenzy making targeting them harder. Still, two more men took arrows, one in the thigh and the other in the shoulder.
Duo pointed and yelled, "There!" then fired several rounds into the trees, a scream resulted as well as some crashing that meant someone had fallen out of a tree. Heero joined Duo in firing into the trees resulting in several more screams. But it didn't stop the constant rain of arrows that fell on their unprotected heads.
Sir Percival was well aware that the only way to get to the archers was to charge the bandits. "We have to charge them. The archers are always behind the main group and under cover. I don't know what kind of weapons those are but even they don't seem to go through dirt. Come!"
Heero nodded and followed the knight at a gallop, Duo by his side. During the charge they both returned their rifles to their backs again and drew pistols instead. Sir Percival rode into the midst of the bandits, sword slashing right then left. He managed to put three bandits out of commission before he was pulled from his horse. Duo stayed mounted and continued to pick bandits off with his pistol while Heero threw himself off his mule, shooting bandits until his magazine was empty. He then drew his sword, which shared pride of place on his back, and continued to wreak havoc. He backed Sir Percival and slashed at anything that got near. Sir Percival did the same thing, both of them working on the premise that anything that attacked them was deserving of a killing.
Duo called, "Heero, archers! Now!" Heero realized that Sir Percival was trying to move them in the direction of the archers, while he, Heero, was trying to get back to the clearing. His battle instinct was telling him to get in the clear where his guns were more effective. He changed direction with a soft, "Damn!"
It didn't take that long to get to the archers, although it seemed like hours. Heero's tumbling roll put him right in the middle of them and he laid waste to the filthy crew with a lot of help from Duo, who'd rushed after him leaving Sir Percival to protect their rear as best he could.
Sir Percival called to his men to close with the bandits, which they did easily, now that the archers were engaged in close combat instead of showering them with arrows. The battle continued for another minute or so, then Sir Percival demanded the surrender of the bandit leader.
This wasn't a very good idea as bandits have all the honor and loyalty of a pack of rabid wolves. Another of the men just stabbed the leader in the back and returned to his fight with one of the guards.
Heero fought like ten demons, slashing archers into pieces while Duo shouted and screamed, swearing luridly and accomplishing just as much damage as Heero did.
The entire battle only took about ten minutes, minutes that stretched in places to seem hours and minutes that flashed by in seeming micro seconds.
Heero glanced about and saw that all the bandits were either dead or fled. "Duo?"
Duo's voice in his ear made him jump. "Right here, man. You ok?"
Heero did a quick check of himself and then Duo, while Duo did the same. "We both seem to be in one piece, outside of a scratch or two."
Duo nodded. "Yeah, you see Percy?" Duo looked around to find Sir Percival checking on his men.
The young knight was doing well, handing out bandages and salve to his men, checking to see that they could either nurse themselves or had a partner to do it for them. Then he found the only dead man in his command. He was the one who'd been shot first. The arrow had pierced his heart.
"Oh, Gilroy. He's dead! Oh, dear Goddess." And with that the young man knelt and dragged the body into his arms, weeping softly. His troop gathered around him, murmuring their confusion and concern.
Heero glanced at Duo, he wasn't very good with this sort of emotion yet. Duo just took over.
He patted two men on the shoulder and drew them from the group with a jerk of his head. He learned that the usual procedure in a case like this was to bury the dead and mark their graves with a simple plank of wood with their name painted on it. If there was time, a cairn of rocks kept beasts from disturbing the grave.
Duo nodded. "Ok, men, get shovels and start digging." At their dismayed expressions he shook his head. "Just one grave. We'll drag the bandits to the other side of the clearing and just pile them up for the crows. Get moving. Heero and I'll deal with the wounded bandits."
But, while Heero had been arranging the digging of the grave, others had been dealing with the bandits. They'd even started the pile of corpses exactly where Heero had wanted it. Duo just shook his head and helped haul bodies.
It took them over two hours to take care of the carnage they'd caused in less than ten minutes. But, when they were finally done, they had a pile of bodies at one side of the clearing and a grave at the other. They'd even managed to gather enough rocks from the nearby stream to make a cairn. Sir Percival spoke the funerary words over the grave and they left, taking the bandits booty with them.
Heero kept a close eye on the troop while Duo kept his eyes on Sir Percival only.
Most of the troop was in fairly good shape, having been in combat before. Two of the younger men were not. They were personal friends of the slain man and this had been their first combat. Sir Percival was not doing very well, either. He'd been taught all his life to be a knight but the tales that had been told to him were tales of honor and glory and had not prepared him for the reality of combat. The blood, guts, pain and death.
When they made camp that night Heero said, "You better talk to Percival, he's a mess. I'll see if I can't speak to ... have no idea what their names are. But you know who."
Duo paused in driving a tent stake into the ground. "Yeah, I know who. I'll see what I can do. Here." He handed Heero their sleeping bags and returned to his task.
When they were all done setting up camp, one of the guards started a huge pot of stew and another started baking flat bread on a griddle. Everyone gathered around the fire to sit and nurse wounds, chat and brag. Sir Percival moved among his men, checking on the wounded and speaking to each man, praising them for their bravery and courage. Heero watched with a tiny smile.
"Seems we don't have to do as much as we thought. He's doing just what he ought."
Duo grinned back. "Knew he was the right sort. Just ... needed a bit of a hint in interpersonal relations of the female sort. Ya know?"
"Yeah." Heero put his hand on Duo's shoulder for a moment and was pleased when Duo leaned into his touch slightly. Things were looking up.
Duo stood and made his way over to Sir Percival as he finished speaking to his last man.
"Got a sec?" Duo put a hand on the young knight's arm.
"Yes, I do. I think. What is a sec?" At close hand, Sir Percival looked exhausted and pale.
"It's a small division of time. A word or two might be a better expression. You look beat."
"I feel as if I've been beaten with clubs. Let us sit in my tent. I'll have some ale brought." Duo frowned, he hated having tired men wait on him. "Don't frown so. My personal servant stayed with the baggage cart. And all the teamsters did as well. Come." So Duo happily followed the knight into his tent and settled on one of his hard folding chairs to drink ale.
It didn't take long for Sir Percival to break down a bit. Duo let him ramble about his mother, her expectations, his father, the mess he was in and how the hell did anyone expect him to know how to go on when his tutors had all been worthless.
Duo listened absently, making proper noises at appropriate times and sipping his ale. When Sir Percival ran down, he just asked, "Who do you want to be? Not who are you expected to be? Or who are you now? Who do you really want to be?"
"I want to be a proper knight like my father." Sir Percival sighed tiredly.
"Then you made a good start today. I saw you with your men. You did good. You checked on them, made sure that they were cared for. Said the proper words over your fallen man and saw that a proper meal was started. Now you get to collapse. It's ok, I swear. Everyone is human. You get to fall apart when it won't affect your men. Now." He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. "Get out of that mail and shit, put on something more comfortable and get some of that stew. It smells great."
While Duo was with Percival, Heero was listening to the two guardsmen. They were doing better now than expected. They'd gotten comfort and solace from their comrades on the ride to the camp. Heero gave them some sage advice and settled in to drink ale and eat cheese with them. He listened to them complain about the food, the sleeping arrangement and just about every thing that any army ever complained about. He agreed that sleeping on the ground sucked, cold food sucked and sergeants sucked. He also agreed that horses that kicked or bit should be stew meat and harness that broke should be replaced rather than mended time out of mind. All in all, it was a good bitch session and made everyone feel much better. The cheese and ale was good, too.
Heero flopped down beside Duo, took the offered tankard of ale and sighed.
"You ok?" Heero nodded, mouth full of cheese and bread. "Talk go good?" Another nod answered this question. "Great. Wonder if the stew is about done. I'm starved."
Heero chewed and swallowed. "Me too. And it does smell good. Dried meat, but still."
"I saw some of the men scrounging for veggies as we traveled. And that flat bread isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect. When are we parting ways with this bunch?"
Heero thought for a moment. "You still want to visit the springs?"
"Yes, I really do." Duo touched Heero's knee as he leaned over to get the pitcher of ale to refill their tankards. "I'd really like to try a bath in a hot spring. I've never even seen one, you know?"
Heero held his tankard for Duo to fill. "I've never either. We'll have to leave the group tomorrow afternoon sometime. There's a fork in the road, we go west while they go north."
Duo put the pitcher down on the ground beside him then sighed. "To bad. I really like Sir Percival and his bunch. But ... we can't do more for him than we already have."
They both nearly jumped out of their skins when his voice said from behind them, "You have done a great deal already. I thank you. I couldn't help but overhear that you intend to go west to the hot springs tomorrow." Duo admitted that this was true. "I wish you would stay with us for longer, but I know you have your own journey to follow. I will take everything you have said to me to heart and attempt to follow your example. I think that you are much wiser than any I have ever met before." He glanced over his shoulder to see that the cook was dishing stew. "Come eat."
They joined the line, taking bowls from a pile and spoons as well. The men started to move aside to allow Sir Percival to go to the head of the line but he just motioned for them to stay in their place, remarking mildly that he'd learned that it was the lord's duty to see that all his people were fed before he ate himself.
When they got seated again Sir Percival said, "I also forgot to thank you for using your magic to aid in the battle. It was ... quite astonishing."
Duo just mumbled, "You're welcome." He and Heero had agreed with the Abbot that trying to explain guns to anyone would just be an exercise in futility.
Heero shrugged, "It's our duty to help protect anyone who offers us friendship. We were glad we could help."
They ate stew, bread and more cheese. They also drank more ale than they really should and everyone headed for bed at Sir Percival's order.
Heero and Duo crawled into their sleeping bags, only removing their boots to do so.
"I wish we were home."
Heero couldn't help it. He reached over and took Duo's hand. "Me too. It's nice here. No smog, no traffic, really fresh food. But ..."
Duo twined his fingers with Heero's. "Yeah, but ... I miss Wufei. I miss Starbucks. And I really hate running down my own meat."
"Exactly. And ... how the hell can anything stuffed with hay be that hard."
"Not the saddle. Go to sleep."
The morning found them up, packed and ready to ride before breakfast was done. They ate the bacon, beans and ubiquitous flat bread, thanking the cook before sitting down. Sir Percival checked animals and men, then called, "Ho, the wagons." to set the group on its way.
They traveled with a minimum of noise, just a few comments between guards or teamsters about the business of the caravan. No one even thought of stopping for lunch, that wasn't the way things were done. They would eat breakfast, travel until near dusk, make a camp and send out hunters, supper was after all the chores were done, usually after dark. So they continued without a halt until it was time to part ways.
Heero dismounted and propped his map against his mule's side. He checked carefully, consulting Duo and Sir Percival to make sure that they were on the right trail. He was not going to get them lost because he was too proud to ask directions. Sir Percival called the head teamster into the discussion because he was the guide for his group.
After they were sure that they were taking the right trail, Heero and Duo wished Sir Percival 'Good journey.' He returned the good wishes. They shook hands all around and remounted their animals. There wasn't much more in the way of parting ceremony, they all just went their ways.
Duo rode in silence for about an hour, Heero was fairly sure as he checked his still functioning self-winding watch.
"I'm gonna miss that kid. Can't believe I got so attached in so short a time."
He sighed heavily, then leaned forward to pat his mule.
"I know. You do get attached quickly. I don't think it's a fault, even if it does leave you open to heartache. You gonna be ok?" Heero watched Duo for a moment, then turned his eyes back to the trail.
"Yeah, I'll be fine. You think it was a good idea to let him keep all the bandits' stuff?" The discussion between Sir Percival and Duo over the spoils had been quick. Duo insisted that they didn't have the resources to deal with it, while Sir Percival insisted that they deserved some of it. They'd agreed to split it by letting both Heero and Duo pick a few valuable but easily portable items and using the rest of their share to help the family of the man who had been killed.
"I think so. He's more honorable than we first thought. I'm sure he'll do what's right."
Duo used a handkerchief to wipe his eyes, then rode on in silence.
They camped that evening in a muted mood. Heero set up the tent and sleeping bags while Duo heated up a pot of stew, made flat bread and brewed tea. Heero went to gather as much wood as he could find. He was sure that Duo at least, would be up late. He didn't understand how Duo could keep putting himself through this but he knew that he did, so he did what he could to help his partner through it.
The rest of the night was by turns, annoying and depressing. Duo brooded and sniffled now and then. Heero did his best to comfort Duo, without being pushy. He finally convinced Duo to come to bed near one in the morning. He fell asleep almost at once with Heero following him soon after.
They woke the next morning tangled in their rumpled bags and each other. Heero actually had Duo's braid wrapped around his neck. Duo's attempt to sit up was what finished awakening him.
"Wait! Lay back down."
Duo flopped back at the hard tug on his hair. "What the heck?" Duo rolled his head to see Heero attempting to disentangle his braid. Instead of being upset, he started laughing.
Heero got himself loose and laughed too. "That was different."
Duo chuckled once more then said, "Sorry, man. That wasn't on the menu."
Heero smirked. "Don't worry about it, I didn't mind. Until I tried to sit up, that is. Not a good way to start the day. Getting strangled, I mean."
Duo shifted to get his wayward braid under control again. "Not cool, I'll agree. But, it was nice otherwise, right?"
"Yeah, nice." Heero met Duo's eyes and smiled again. "We better get up and get started if we want to reach the springs by late afternoon."
So they got up and ate the last of the stew for breakfast, broke camp, saddled and harnessed the mules and got on their way.
Heero found that he was humming softly. He'd found that singing and humming eased his nerves while on long missions in Wing. Yes, he did get nerves; he'd just been trained not to show them. He rarely did it around anyone, but somehow, he seemed to want to.
It wasn't long before Duo joined him, humming along.
Soon after that they were singing together. It was amazing that they seemed to like the same sort of music. But Duo knew some songs that made Heero blush. He claimed they were all taught to him by Sweepers. This was probably true.
So they intermittently sang or hummed, or rode in silence. Neither Heero nor Duo was too worried about bandits, they were too close to the hold of the group they'd slain to encounter another.
They reached the springs in late afternoon and put up their tent. They not only put the sleeping bags in the tent, they blew up the air mattresses as well. Heero took time to dig a fire pit and set the grill over it. Duo knew he was hoping for a fish when he got out a collapsible fishing rod.
"Good luck. I'll dig out the herbs for baked fish, ok?" Duo smiled in anticipation of fish for supper. Heero rarely failed to catch at least one fish.
Heero shrugged, setting up his rod and reel. "I don't have bait but, maybe I'll get lucky."
Duo handed him a shovel, saying, "Here, dig a few worms. Better than nothing, right?"
Heero accepted the shovel, allowing his hand to rest on Duo's fingers for a moment before he lifted the shovel away.
"Thanks. See you in awhile. You need me, just yell."
Duo snorted at that and waved Heero on his way.
When Heero was out of sight, Duo went to mix the dough for flat bread. He'd found that, if the dough sat for a bit, the bread was more tender. Then he went to see what he could scavenge up in the way of fruits or vegetables. Some roots were very like potatoes or cattail roots. And there was a version of wild onions that was very tasty.
Duo was putting the last touches on the flat bread and preparations for the fish when Heero returned. He was sweaty, scratched and soaked. He'd had a great time scrambling over rocks and through brush to get to the best possible spot. He'd dug worms, getting filthy in the process, then he'd caught a huge fish and fallen into the river while trying to bring it to shore. But he had four very nice fish which would feed them for supper and breakfast.
"Here, I cleaned them and everything." He handed them over. Their camp rules were simple, you caught it, you cleaned it. The other partner cooked it. Tomorrow would be Duo's day to hunt while Heero took the camp duties.
"Nice. I found some wild onions. I thought I'd stuff the fish with them. And there is a nice deposit of clay just over there. I soaked some cloth in the stream and I'm going to wrap the fish in that, then coat it with clay and coal bake them. It'll be about an hour. Why don't you go over there, to that warm spot and get cleaned up a bit?"
Heero sighed happily. "Sounds like a plan, be back in half an hour or so."
"Ok, great. And take clean clothing with you. We'll do laundry tomorrow. This place is great. The farther you go up that way," Duo pointed, "the hotter the water is. Here!" Duo tossed Heero a bar of soap.
Heero caught the soap and walked off to the hot spring to take the first hot bath he'd had in more than a week. He had noticed that Duo hadn't taken a bath yet and he knew why. Duo wouldn't take a bath without washing his hair and he hated going to bed with it wet. Tomorrow morning he'd probably spend at least an hour in the hottest spring he could stand.
Duo called out, "Heero, fish is done. Come on, I'm just putting the last of the bread on."
Heero splashed out of the spring, then decided not to bother drying off. It was warm out and there was no need to dry his clean body with a slightly dirty towel. Duo watched in appreciation as Heero ambled casually back to camp, his towel over one arm and his clothing dangling from the other hand.
"You are evil."
Heero smirked, "I've been told that before." He stretched out on the blanket Duo had put down for him, giving Duo a good look at his assets as he did so, all his assets.
Duo felt his mouth go dry. He knew that they'd been dancing around each other for ages but now things were coming to a head a bit more quickly than he'd anticipated. Not that he was unhappy about it; he was just going to have to adjust his own timetable a bit.
Heero, noticing Duo's dilated pupils and odd expression, became concerned, had he misread his friend? "Duo? You ok?"
Duo swallowed, then grinned, "Yeah, more than ok. Just, you surprised me a bit. I didn't expect ... um ... we need to put all our cards on the table and quit all this dancing around. Courting rituals are ok in birds and whatnot but ... I don't like guessing. I don't want to make a mistake and hurt you. Or be hurt. Ok?"
Heero smiled, one of those sweet, secret smiles he reserved for only four people in all the world.
"Ok, I want you. I have for a long time. I was afraid you weren't inclined to men so I didn't say or do much. Then I saw you with that red headed guy ... Hensen? Benson? And I knew I had a chance. But I was scared to push too hard, too fast. You're ... touchy."
Duo snorted. "I'm just ... gun shy, I guess you could call it. Too many people make passes at me because of what I am, and I'm bi, so it gets really bad. I'm more than interested. I ... I just ... wasn't sure either. And I didn't want to lose your friendship because of a ... bad pass. Ya know?"
"I do. Same here. So ... what now?"
"We get off the stick and fuck like bunnies?"
Heero fell flat on his back and laughed until tears ran out of his eyes. Duo joined him, lying next to him on the blanket and holding his sides.
"Well, I guess we both know now. Right?" Duo asked.
Heero grunted, "Meh! Two idiots together."
Duo rolled over and got up. "I'll ... do what? What are we going to do? Really."
"We're going to discover what we want. Do you top or bottom? Are you semi or uke? Do you like it rough? Or does that scare you?"
Duo chuckled. "I'm a switch, sometimes I like it a bit rough, but not too much so. Rough doesn't scare me, but if you get too rough, then don't back off, I get mad. You?"
"I'm a switch too. I don't like it rough, unless I'm in a bad place, then a bit of roughness seems to set me right. But I'm not into D/s, or BDSM. Role playing is fun, as long as we both know what's going on." Heero stood up. "Lube?"
"Got it covered. There's K-Y in the med kits and we can get some special oil at the next village. Condom?"
"Don't need it. I'm what Po calls a neo-virgin. I haven't had relations since training and I've tested clean three times."
Duo laughed a bit. "Trust Po. Me, too. I'm not ... interested in a one-off. And I haven't met anyone I fancy as much as you. Didn't even bother to look. Are we pathetic, or what?"
"Pathetic, definitely." Heero agreed. Duo offered his hand to help him up. "Thanks." He hopped up and draped an arm over Duo's shoulders. "Come on then. Pet names?"
Duo scrunched up his nose. "Maybe. Depends."
Heero tugged on his shoulder to get Duo moving. "As long as they aren't sickly sweet or silly. No honeybun, or pookie for me."
Duo groaned, "No shit. And sweetie pie is right out. But, maybe something?"
"We'll think about it."
They entered the tent hand in hand. Duo stripped off quickly, tossing his sweaty things out onto the ground.
While he was doing that, Heero found the small med kit that they kept in the tent. He extracted two pillow packs of K-Y Jelly and just stood, holding them, to see what Duo wanted to do.
Duo turned and smiled at Heero. "I hope to hell you don't want me to take my hair down. I won't do it, it will get tangled to birds nests."
Heero just shrugged. "I love seeing it down, but I don't really fancy trying to make love to you with all that," he nodded at Duo's braid, "in the way. I'll wait until you wash it again. I'd like to braid it for you if that's ok."
Duo nodded. "Ok."
Then they both realized what they were doing and snickered at themselves.
"We're just stalling now. How do you want to do this?" Heero settled cross legged on his sleeping bag.
"Who's going to top first?" Duo settled beside him.
Heero thought for a moment, then asked, "Got a coin?"
"What denomination?" Duo, being from L2, never thought of flipping a coin. He'd actually never seen one until he was nearly 12.
"Any, we're going to flip for who tops first."
Duo just handed Heero a silver coin. It was typical of all coins with an engraving on both sides, but unlike traditional Earth coins, one side was a sheaf of wheat and the other a sword.
Heero just asked, "Sword or wheat?"
Heero flipped the coin and they both leaned over to see what side was up. "Wheat!" Duo had to gloat a bit. Heero just smiled.
Duo immediately began to unzip the sleeping bag opposite them. "Here, you unzip this one and we'll lay on one and put the other on top of us. For after. I've got a ... sheet thing." He rummaged in his backpack. "Ha! Here it is. We'll put this under us and toss it aside when we're done. That way no one has to sleep in a wet patch. Good?"
Heero just replied, "Yes, that's fine. Here." He handed over the bag he'd just unzipped.
Duo put it down and then spread the sheet over them both. "Ok, now ... um ... I've never actually done this. How does it work?" He immediately flushed bright red.
Heero sat down beside him and palmed his rather erect penis. "I think tab A goes into slot C. Anything else?"
Duo snarled, a rather kittenish sound to come out of Shinigami. "I know what goes where, ass. Just ... I really don't want to hurt you so we need to figure out all the ... foreplay sort of stuff."
Heero snicker, "I know. But ... you'll have to admit that it was ... funny."
Heero just laughed again. "I believe you're about to fuck mine."
Duo scowled and shook his head. "No, I'm not. Fucking is what two people do in a one-off. I'm going to make love to you. A totally different thing."
Heero's smile lit up the tent. "Ok."
There was some awkward shifting around while they tried to get comfortable. Duo had a snicker fit while Heero stashed the K-Y within easy reach but out of the way of being squashed before they needed it.
Duo tugged at Heero until he was situated comfortably beside him.
Their first kiss was one of those nose bumping, heat twisting disasters that would make both of them squirm in embarrassment for years. But it ended in a sweet kiss that lasted until they had to come up for air.
"Mmmmm, nice. Again?" Duo brushed a lock of hair out of Heero's eye.
The next attempt was much better and Duo took the opportunity to try a little tongue. Heero replied enthusiastically.
As kissing was going so well, Duo added a bit of touch, stroking Heero's shoulders a bit hesitantly. Heero moved into his hand so he increased the pressure a bit. Heero shuddered slightly.
"Tickle?" Duo's question brought a smile to Heero's lips.
"No, feels good. No one touches me much. I ... like it. But only when it's one of us. You know. Others touch me and it's ok, if I know they're going to do it."
Duo ran the back of his fingers down Heero's arm from shoulder to elbow. "I notice that you flinch a bit, if you're touched unexpectedly."
"Have to suppress the reaction. I was trained to react adversely to unexpected touches. I have to keep myself from socking them. Causes all sorts of trouble if you cold cock a twelve year old."
Duo snickered while he rubbed gentle circles on Heero's chest. "Ya think? But I've noticed that you're getting a lot better. There wasn't any trouble at the monastery and they were touching us."
Heero shrugged, then gasped as the shrug caused Duo to run a calloused palm over his nipple. "Ah! But none of them could possibly have been a threat. My ... instincts just shut down around certain sorts of people. Like you guys."
Duo smirked to himself, his ploy of distracting Heero with conversation was working quite well. He rubbed his palm over Heero's nipple again and was rewarded as it peaked quite noticeably.
Heero, for his part, was enjoying everything to the utmost. He wasn't used to being touched so intimately and the careful attentions Duo was showing him made him feel very special. He sighed as Duo bent to his chest and licked one nipple.
Duo continued paying his attention to Heero's nipples. He licked one then the other, then he carefully pinched one while he sucked the other. Heero bucked under him startling both of them.
Heero groaned a bit. "No, just ... wow."
"Mmmm, good." Duo returned to his ministrations, changing sides as he did so.
Heero felt his consciousness begin to fade. He felt floaty and a bit vague, almost like he'd had one too many drinks. He eased back onto his back when Duo gently pushed on him.
Duo leaned down and took Heero into his mouth, Heero's smell filling his nose. Duo sucked softly, gently. Heero smelled of sandalwood soap, salt, and very faintly of mule.
"Very nice." Heero started to say something else but Duo decided that there had been enough chatter in this and sucked harder. Heero lost the train of thought and made a sound that he'd deny forever was a whimper.
Duo continued to suck and lick Heero until Heero had to push him away.
"No? Don't you like it?" Duo looked slightly hurt.
Heero replied, "I like it a lot. And that's the problem. I'm going to blow too soon if you don't slow down. Move up."
Duo moved up to put his head on Heero's chest. Heero grasped Duo's now very hard cock and stroked gently. Duo listened to Heero's pounding heart and felt his hand on his body. It felt amazing. Heero rolled his hand and pinched Duo's foreskin, making him flinch.
"Sorry, sorry. You ok?" Heero noticed that Duo didn't soften.
"Yes, it's ok. Just a pinch. Ease up a bit."
They groped and fumbled their way through the awkward foreplay and wound up giggling like silly teenage girls. Heero enjoyed it as Duo gently fondled his nipples, but didn't like having his testicles squeezed, even a little. Duo loved having Heero suck him but when Heero sucked his nipples he jerked in pain. A murmured, 'Too sensitive.' sent Heero in a different direction.
They learned each other's preferences easily enough.
Finally, they both knew it was time to move things to the next level.
Duo arranged Heero as comfortably as he could, rolling an extra blanket into a bolster and tucking it under Heero to raise his hips a bit.
"Put your legs on my shoulders. I'm not going to make love to someone whose eyes I can't see."
Heero obeyed, looking Duo in the eyes. Duo gazed back, taking all the love radiating from Heero's deep blue gaze and sending it back again.
Duo picked up a packet of K-Y and opened it. Putting a dab of lube on his fingers, he eased one into Heero. Heero did his best to relax and realized that it felt ... interesting. Duo watched Heero's eyes, and seeing no sign of pain, removed his finger, put more lube on it and added a second finger. Heero shifted a bit uncomfortably so Duo waited until he settled again. When he slipped two fingers into Heero, he murmured something.
"Louder, Heero. What?" Duo stopped moving his fingers and just waited
"Feels so good. I didn't much like it when J trained me." Duo cast a furious look at Heero but he just rolled his head from side to side. "No, not a rape, just training my body to do what was needed. But there was no passion, no love. Wasn't unpleasant, just not really good. See?"
Heero's dreamy tone reassured Duo, so he pushed Heero's legs out and back, opening him completely. Duo smeared his aching cock with lube and put the head against Heero's anus. He pushed but Heero was still too tight and he popped off, his cock sliding behind Heero.
"Shit! You ok?" Duo flushed heavily but didn't soften a bit.
"Fine. Maybe you should try three fingers. Move them around, kind of open them out?"
Duo complied, using more lube and winced as he forced three fingers into Heero. Heero grunted a bit but loosened at once. Duo moved his fingers in and out, closing them on the thrust and opening them out as he pulled them out of Heero. Heero finally sighed and nodded.
Duo tried again and they were both awarded for their efforts as Duo slid into Heero without a problem. He found Heero's prostate after a few tentative thrusts. Heero reacted with a yell.
"Oh, yeah!" Duo knew that he was only going to last a few more thrusts so he made every one of them count. Heero came first in a haze of passion, milking Duo into his own orgasm.
They collapsed into a sweating heap with Duo cradled between Heero's thighs. Heero rolled to one side to get Duo off his heaving chest.
"Fuck! That was good. Soooo, good." Duo blinked a few times, then sighed. He flailed a bit, as if he wanted to get up but his muscles didn't remember how. Pushing the wet sheet aside, he fell asleep with another sigh.
Heero got up and used a few wet wipes to do a quick clean up, then flopped down beside Duo, grumbled a bit, got back up and pulled the wet sheet away. Tossing it to one side, he pulled Duo into his arms and fell asleep too.
Duo woke first the next morning. He groaned, mumbled and rolled over. This brought him face to face with Heero who was sleeping so soundly that he didn't notice Duo moving around.
"Oh, man! Talk about fumbling our way to ecstasy. But that was amazing."
Heero grumbled a bit when Duo got out of the bed, the cold draft that blew over his back was uncomfortable. Duo tucked him back in and went out to warm the flat bread for breakfast. He agreed with Heero that it was really better warm.
He warmed the bread, broke the fish out of its prison of clay and brewed tea. He arranged it all on a shield and carried it into the tent.
After nudging Heero with one foot and calling, "Breakfast! Wakey, wakey!" he put the makeshift tray on their trunk and dragged it into the middle of the floor.
Heero sat up, rubbing at his eyes. He winced a bit, then shifted uncomfortably.
Duo noticed at once and said, "Heero? Ok?"
Heero stood up a bit grumpily. "Yes, but the unavoidable consequences of anal sex have made themselves known." With that, he left the tent, leaving Duo laughing hysterically.
He returned quickly, pulled on his pants and settled to eat.
Duo had done a good job of warming the fish and bread. Heero complimented him on it and sipped his tea. He sighed, the tisane was good but he really missed real tea. He and Wufei both had had a go at explaining the difference between tea and a tisane, Duo hadn't really understood but he'd said something that had made Heero glad to be his friend.
"I don't get it. Tea, tisane? What real difference is there? But it really doesn't make any difference. You like what you like and that's that. Sugar?" And he'd offered sugar and changed the subject without batting an eye.
Duo noticed Heero's contemplative expression. "Heero? You ok? No regrets?"
Heero smiled. "I'm fine and no regrets. In fact, I'm sort of sorry we danced around each other for so long."
Duo munched on a mouthful of fish and bread for a moment, then he swallowed and replied, "Probably a good idea though. We were both pretty messed up. The wait gave us a chance to ... level off. We're partners, used to each other, in a way we weren't before. I mean, I think I'm twenty. You?"
Heero shrugged. "About that. But I see what you mean. Rushing into something right after the war? Maybe not such a good idea. I'm looking forward to a life with you. Not just a one-off, or a fling."
"Same here. So. You do dishes while I take a bath?"
Heero just started putting the now empty dishes on the shield without comment. Duo gathered his toiletries and followed Heero out of the tent.
Duo wandered to the pool, thinking about last night. He'd always fancied Heero but he'd never thought he'd get a chance. He'd been happy to have him as a partner in ESUN, they worked well together. Now, he hoped for a chance at much more. They'd be separated as partners but that couldn't be helped. Duo had seriously considered changing departments, later in his career, true. Perhaps he would change earlier than anticipated. He wasn't about to go into the field with any partner but Heero.
Duo eased himself into the hot water and sighed in delight. The water was not only hot but effervescent. He washed his hair twice and scrubbed himself, happily taking as long as he wanted. He wandered back to the camp with his hair dripping all down his back, naked as the day he was born. Heero glanced at him, assessed his physical condition and went back to tending the mules.
Duo settled on a camp stool and started combing his hair dry. It was going to take some time, but Duo hated braiding his hair when it was damp as it got a musty smell sometimes. So he sat in the sun and combed his hair and dreamed a bit.
Heero's simple sentence shattered the calm in the clearing. Duo tensed and started braiding his hair quickly. He didn't want to be in a combat situation with loose hair.
The small group of merchants who rode into the clearing so early in the morning took one look at the glaring men and rode on. They thanked their lucky stars that they didn't seem to be bandits. Heero and Duo never knew what convinced the group of ten or so men to keep going.
"Well, that's good. I guess I'm selfish. I really didn't want to share. Greedy me."
"No, I don't think that's it. We just need peace. We've been soldiers too long. I've been fighting, one way or the other, all my life. I ... we've solidified the peace as much as we can. I want to stop. I just realized that."
Duo sighed. "I've been fighting all my life. I'm tired too. Maybe ... when we get back."
Heero turned and put one finger on Duo's lips. "Not now. After we get back ... or find out we can't ... then we'll discuss this. Not until. Ok?"
"Ok." Duo felt his braid, decided it was dry enough and just walked off, calling over his shoulder. "Laundry. Come on. I'll wash, you wring and hang."
"All right." Heero followed and helped Duo sort, stack and carry the laundry. He just stuck the bar of laundry soap in a pocket.
They walked up the stream a ways and found that they'd camped on the very edge of the hot springs. The clearing they came upon was the size of a football field and filled with hot pots. A cold stream meandered through it and exited on the downhill side. Duo groaned softly.
"What is it?" Heero glanced quickly around the clearing but didn't see anything to make Duo unhappy.
"How long did we say we were going to stay here?"
Heero glanced at Duo then relaxed. "A day, longer if the laundry didn't dry. Want to stay longer?"
"Yeah. How about ... three days, counting today?" Duo eyed the springs hopefully.
Heero gave a jerky nod. "Ok. Three days. You do know that you're still naked, right?"
Duo looked down at his naked self and yelped. He was rarely self-conscious and not body shy but still. He glowered at Heero, who was literally rolling on the ground, laughing his ass off.
"Damn it, Yuy, you ass!" But Duo saw the humor in the situation and his lips started to twitch. It didn't take him long to laugh too.
When they got control of themselves, they found a good place to do the laundry, a place that seemed to have been altered as there was a spot perfect for kneeling and the rock lip of the pool had been carved into a washboard. Duo sorted through the laundry in search of 'cleanest dirty' and pulled on a pair of pants. He knelt down and started dunking a shirt in the pool. He rubbed it with the bar of soap and then rubbed the shirt on the washboard, working up a lather. He rinsed it, handed it to Heero, who wrung it out carefully. He had to be careful or he'd rip it in two, his inhuman strength made that quite possible.
They spent the rest of the morning washing clothing. Heero wrung the water out of everything and hanging it on ropes that were strung between poles hammered into the ground. They only noticed them when Heero started looking for places to hang their stuff.
The weather being what it was, their clothing was drying quickly. The things they had washed first were dry before the last pieces were done. Duo had also brought a duffle and they folded the dry things and put them neatly into it. No sense in washing and folding something, only to let it be wadded up carrying it back home.
The few pieces that were still damp they left hanging while they scrounged the edges of the clearing for something to eat. Lunch was long past but supper would make up for that. If they could find enough vegetables to make soup, which they did. Duo put them all into a bag and remarked that he should have brought the clay immersion pot so they could have cooked it in one of the hottest springs.
Heero offered to go get it but Duo replied that it was too late in the day now but they had enough stuff that they could make two meals.
They took a bath together, in the hottest pool they both could stand. After folding the last of their stuff, they headed back to camp.
Heero took his turn to fix their meal, under Duo's tutelage. He wasn't sure exactly how to fix what they'd found so he was glad to just do scut work. They wound up with a nice vegetable stew, thick with carrot-like roots and potatoes, wild onions and some sort of green that tasted like nothing on Earth.
It took a while for it to simmer into thickness but it was delicious when it did. Heero made the ubiquitous flat bread and tea.
After they ate Duo had Heero kneel on their blanket so he could examine him. He'd noticed that Heero was a bit uncomfortable all day. He'd relaxed during and right after their hot bath but he was still just a bit off.
Duo slipped one lubed finger into Heero's channel. "How's that?"
Heero flinched slightly. "A bit sore. Not bad but not real comfortable either."
"Sorry. I was hoping we could go again but I'm afraid not. I don't want to stress you."
"Ok. I do feel it still but it's not bad."
"We in some sort of race?" Duo gave Heero a look, one that Heero knew meant he wasn't going to be moved.
"No." Heero eased into a sitting position to smile at Duo.
The next two days passed quickly as they wandered around the area, searching for food or just walking for the joy of it.
The mules rested well, staked out to graze every day.
Heero got up with the sun on their last day. He had the mules ready to go saddled and bridled, while Duo made breakfast. They ate quickly and finished packing. Getting the last of their things on the pack mule didn't take more than a few minutes and they were on their way again.
Heero and Duo checked on the map to make sure that they were going in the right direction. They were so, Heero calculated carefully, they were about three days from the next village.
They rode in silence knowing that they were in a different territory now. They pressed the mules all day as the first stop was a long haul from the springs. If they didn't make the camping spot, they'd be camped by the side of the trail without wood or water. They still had some grain for the mules but only enough to last them the three days to the next village. It wouldn't do the mules much harm to go on grass for a day or even a week but it was bad management and the mules expected their grain.
Nothing much happened during the next three days, except that Duo's mule threw a shoe. He walked the last few miles with his saddle and packs on the pack mule to keep from damaging the mule's hoof.
The village they entered was larger than their first stop and had several shops. Duo looked forward to shopping with delight, but first they had to take care of their animals.
It wasn't hard to find the farrier, the horseshoe shaped sign hanging over what was obviously a stable was a dead give away. Heero dismounted while Duo wearily took advantage of the bench by the door. The mules just eyed the open door of the stable with interest.
Heero went in to speak to the farrier while Duo rested. He was in good shape but the slower pace and leading the mule wasn't what he was use to and used different muscles. He was glad to sit on the bench and just watch people going about their everyday business.
Today was not market day so the square was fairly empty with just a few people, both women and men, wandering around, visiting and such. He found the inn, the city center, and a tailor, smith, apothecary, mill house and public well.
The locals were also very interested in the strangers. Heero and Duo were dressed in their usual traveling garb of BDUs, Tac vest, sidearm, sword, and AK or long gun. They looked every inch the young warriors and they had the villagers a bit worried. To them the two newcomers looked, 'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.' Duo idly wondered where the quote came from.
Finally, a liveryman came to take the mules into the stable. Heero followed him and told Duo that he'd made arrangements for the farrier to reshoe the mule and board them for the night. The man would help them take their baggage to the inn.
At the inn, the innkeeper showed them to the best room in the house and waited nervously as they examined it. Their approval made him smile in relief. He gulped then said, "I don't allow weapons in the dining room or bar. If you want, I'll send food up here."
Heero nodded absently but Duo smiled. "We'll leave the swords and guns here. But we both use eating knives of our own. That be a problem?"
"Oh, no. Eating knives are fine. I do have some ..." he smiled deprecatingly, "but I do understand if you'd rather use your own than one of those broken down wrecks. People don't seem to take very good care of them. Midday meal is just done but I might be able to fix you up a platter of broken meats and cheese?"
Heero glanced at Duo, then said, "That would be fine. We'll be down in a few minutes. Ale?"
"No ale, but I have a good mead." With that, he left them to their unpacking.
They didn't unpack much, just enough for the night. Heero relocked the trunk and followed Duo back to the bar. This was the make it or break it of their time in the village. Either the village bullies would try something, they'd beat the hell out of them and spend the rest of their stay watching people scurry away from them, or the village men would keep the bullies away and they'd have a nice time. People would talk to them and not be afraid.
They entered the room, shoulder to shoulder. Duo looked to the left and Heero to the right. Threat assessment only took a second, then they bumped shoulders and walked into the room.
They picked the only table that was situated so that they could only be approached from two sides. That put their backs to walls and each one of them facing a direct line of threat. Heero was facing the door and Duo could see the kitchen with a simple twist of his neck.
The innkeeper came out with a large platter. On the platter there was a roasted chicken and several slices of roast, cheese and bread were still in their whole state. He also brought a pitcher of very cold mead and wooden goblets to drink it from.
"I hope this is satisfactory. My slave girl kept the chicken out for our meal but there's plenty of other stuff for us to eat."
Duo gazed at the man for a moment. "Are you sure? I won't have anyone going without on our account. Especially your slave."
The innkeeper just shrugged a bit. "My girl is a good girl and never goes without. She eats the same as we do."
Heero nodded once. "Glad to hear it." He waived the man away and started carving the chicken.
Duo accepted a piece of breast and a slice of bread. He took a moment to glance around before pouring the mead.
The room was almost empty, the only occupied seat being one by the fireplace. The elderly man seated near the cold hearth was playing some sort of board game with a young boy. The boy was obviously related to him in some way as their noses were identical. The game was slow going as the boy would make a move and the elderly man would sometimes make him take it back and rethink it. The boy would grumble but do it.
Heero enjoyed watching them as much as possible. Duo, not much interested in their doings, watched Heero's quadrant as much as his own.
They ate and watched, finishing the chicken and beef. Duo carved one last slice off the round of cheese and offered half to Heero. "Here. Eat this and the other half of the heel of bread. I'm just about full."
"Ok. Thanks." Heero accepted the proffered food and bit into the bread. "I think the cheese here is fantastic. I wonder why?"
Duo shrugged, "No idea, maybe because they don't give their cows and goats all sorts of chemicals that get into the milk? But the bread molds in two or three days, so that's not so good."
Heero shrugged, "True, but they make the loaves small and they stay good for several more days if the loaf isn't broken. And it's wholemeal."
Suddenly, a shadow fell over their table. They'd both noticed the man enter, of course, but they really hadn't expected such a direct approach. Heero stood up with Duo right beside him.
"Can we help you?" Duo, as usual, took the lead in contact with locals, he was just better at it. Heero tended to glower too much. He was now just doing his best not to.
"Yes. I'm mayor of this village and ... we need to know what it is you want." The man shifted uncomfortably, Heero's glower was making him nervous.
"Heero, stop that." Heero gave the mayor one more speaking look and sat down. "Please, have a seat. There's still a bit of cheese left and plenty of mead. It's very good." Duo busied himself pouring drink and cutting some cheese.
The mayor sat and accepted the drink but refused the cheese saying he'd already eaten.
After a few pleasantries, Duo asked, "Ok, what do you mean by what we want?"
"Warriors always want something. We just need to know what. We don't want trouble." The mayor looked torn between fright and determination.
Duo nodded. "I see. Well, we want my mule shod, a place to sleep, and an opportunity to buy a few things for our trip. We'll pay in coin or trade. You don't start it and we won't have to finish it."
The mayor looked relieved. "Good, good. If that's all you want, there won't be any trouble. This is a nice inn and Goodman Fraks is a good person. We wouldn't like it if you gave him trouble. So this is going to work out fine."
Heero growled a bit at the implied threat in the mayor's voice. The man paled and hurried to say, "It's not a threat, just ... we're a small village with few men and we don't want trouble. It's not worth it to anyone. Please. No trouble."
Duo patted Heero on the arm. "Easy there, big guy." He turned to the mayor. "We don't want trouble either. We're just two lost souls, trying to get home. You're a stop on the way. That's all."
The mayor looked pleased, "I think we understand each other. Have a nice stay in our village."
Heero mumbled, "Thanks." and watched as Duo got up, shook the man's hand and slapped him on the shoulder. The mayor went away, satisfied that there wouldn't be any trouble, as long as some smart guy didn't start it.
As soon as the mayor left Duo pulled Heero out the door too.
"Now that all the formalities are done, let's go shopping. There's an oil that we need and some salve."
Heero knew exactly what Duo wanted that for and he couldn't wait.
So they entered the apothecary. The owner was the only one there. He smiled at Heero, then Duo.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
Duo explained what they needed and what for, without any embarrassment. In this dimension, their relationship wasn't that unusual. Here, they just called it Warrior's Comfort and thought nothing of it. It wasn't that unusual for men to enter a relationship, especially if they were younger sons. In that case, it was actually encouraged, it made for a lot less confusion in inheritance. Abbot, Father Michael had said that, those who didn't enter the priesthood were encouraged to take a male lover. Anything to keep younger sons from trying to take over from the true heir.
The apothecary just nodded and handed over a jar of oil, a pot of salve and a little spatula to scoop the salve out with. He also dispensed some good advice. "Do not be in too much of a hurry. Enjoy it. Also, check for bleeding. If there is any, use the salve at once."
Duo flushed bright red, but Heero, the more practical of the two, just nodded and said, "I do. We'll do what you say."
They paid and left.
After a stop at the farrier's to check on the mules, they just wandered the beautiful village, looking at the houses and out buildings. Duo looked wistful for a moment.
"What? What is it that makes you look like that?" Heero remembered the many times Duo had looked at houses, and families and looked that way.
"I want ... I've never had anything like that. We both live in Preventers quarters. I bet you've even got the same god damn plant I do. All the apartments are the same. Floor plan A, B, or C. Available by pay scale. Sucks. But I'm too paranoid to live much of anywhere else. You?"
Heero nodded and said softly, "Same here. Floor plan A. You?"
"Yeah, A. Butt ugly furniture. Olive green and tan with some brown." He made a disgusted face. "I ever find out who decorated my place and I'm gonna terminate him with extreme prejudice."
Heero gave him a stern look. "Not if I get to him first. My apartment is lime, cream and pink."
Duo groaned. "Oh, man, and I thought I had it bad. What say, when we get back, we take Q up on the offer of that house of his in the Alps."
"Sounds good to me."
And with that they went back to the inn to wash up for supper.
They found a note telling them that baths were ready for them in the bath house behind the inn.
They went to take their baths, carrying clean clothing with them. They also took their swords.
The baths were attended by two young boys wearing the leather collars of slaves. But they didn't seem abused. They weren't timorous or cringing, in fact, they were bright, smart and cheerful. It hurt Duo that he couldn't do anything to help them.
"Now, sir, I know that look. We're fine. My father sold me so the whole family wouldn't starve. I eat well, have a nice place to sleep and a use beyond my strong back. Come now, smile for me?"
Heero snorted, Duo was a real sucker for a smile like that.
Duo dutifully smiled back and was told that the master, the innkeeper's son, didn't allow any 'warriors rights' but he could give a massage.
They both got massages and took their baths. Talking to the bath house boys was interesting, they knew everything that went on in the village and the kingdom. Heero and Duo found out that they were now in the Kingdom of Lyss.
"How much farther to the Temple of the Portals?"
Both boys squealed, making Heero flinch. Then one, Duo had christened him Red because of his red hair, said, "Travelers. From another existence. I just knew it. How romantic."
Duo snorted and opened his mouth to rebut this but Heero's acidic tone of voice did it much better, "Sure, romantic. In a strange dimension, not sure you can get back home to your friends and family. Having no idea how to act so as not to insult someone. Really fucking romantic."
The boy looked stricken, then whispered, "Oh! I never thought of that." He sighed then apologized, saying, "I've never been out of this village. My parents live just over the hill in the next valley. It just seems so romantic to go somewhere ... different. I'm so sorry."
Duo broke in to say, "I understand. But we really are in a fix, so we're just a bit touchy. Hand me that soap, will you?"
And with that the subject was changed and the two boys cheerfully filled them in on all the local gossip.
After drying off and dressing in clean clothing they headed in for supper.
The inn was now full of cheerful people, men and women, even a few children. The kids were obviously there with parents as not one of them seemed to be more that a few feet from someone with an eye on them.
Heero noticed that their table was empty. It seemed that everyone knew that they liked to sit there. Duo followed him through the room but stopped when he nearly stumbled over a toddler who was sitting on the floor. Heero had simply stepped over the child but Duo couldn't. He had to squat down to see what the kid was eating.
"Eeuuww! Little man, give me that. I don't think Mom will like you eating a bug." Duo tried to get the hard shelled beetle from the little boy but he didn't want to give it up.
A woman a few feet away looked around, then yelped, "Adi, where's Adi?" The man beside her stood up to get a clear view of the room. He saw Duo, crouched down, and pointed, "There. The stranger is talking to him."
Duo looked over at them and announced a bit defensively, "I'm not hurting him. He's trying to eat a bug. Should he be sticking this in his mouth?" Duo finally succeeded in getting the bug away from the boy and held it out for his father to view.
The man laughed, "Not really. It's not poison but it tastes really bitter. We usually let the kids find that out for themselves. Cures them of putting stuff in their mouths pretty quickly. Thanks for seeing to him. Here." He held out his arms for the little boy. Duo scooped him up and passed him over.
Heero, watching with interest, was surprised that the kid didn't cry. Every time he looked at a kid it started crying. Heero shrugged and settled in 'his' seat. Duo joined him and grumbled, "Hungry. How soon is service, do you think?"
Heero lifted his head and sniffed. "Soon from the smell of it. Some sort of pie, I think."
And pie it was; pork and vegetables in a rich, savory gravy redolent of herbs. There was also a wedge of cheese and some apples. The drink was, again, mead.
They ate and discussed the possibility of getting to the Temple of Portals before snow flew. It was looking good, for now, as they were right on the schedule they'd set for themselves.
"Appa?" Duo looked around, then down. He had to grin as there was a small girl standing at his hip, hand out stretched, pointing at an apple.
"You like this?" Duo pointed to the fruit.
The little girl nodded and said firmly, "Appa!" Then she trotted around to Heero and demanded, "Up!" raising her arms to be lifted into the convenient lap so she could see.
Heero picked her up a little gingerly, he was afraid that he'd either hurt her or scare her. But she just giggled and patted his face with her tiny hand.
"All right, my lady, let's see what we can do about an apple for you. Here we go." Duo pulled his knife out of his boot. As they were only having pie, he hadn't gotten it out. He took up an apple and began to peel it. The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch as Duo peeled the apple and cut it into slices while Heero held the child on his lap.
Duo finished with the apple and piled the slices on the side of Heero's plate. "Here you go, my lady. Heero, see if you can't cut her a bit of cheese."
Heero managed and put the cheese on the plate too. My Lady, as she would be for ever more, picked up a slice of apple and bit into it happily. "Sank oo." her little voice proclaimed around a bite.
My Lady finished her apple and part of the cheese, then demanded, "Go!" so Heero put her down and watched her go back to her mother who cast them a beaming smile.
"Well, I guess that proves that we're harmless." Duo grinned at Heero who was gazing after the little girl with an indescribably pleased look on his face.
"Seems so," Heero opined.
After that the whole room seemed to relax. Someone got out a musical instrument that looked like a lute but sounded different. A woman began to sing and some of the others joined her. The song was quick paced and easy to learn, consisting of a long chorus that everyone could sing and short narrative stanzas that the lead singer sang alone.
Heero joined in first, singing along softly. When Duo began to sing, Heero realized that Duo had a beautiful voice. He wondered if Duo had been a choir boy or altar boy at Maxwell Church, then gave up as the lyrics got more and more ridiculous and he began to have more trouble singing instead of laughing.
The next song was a ballad and the one after that a drinking song.
They both enjoyed the singing and were a bit let down when the innkeeper started going around, pinching out the wicks of all the candles and blowing out the lamps. No one complained and Heero noticed that most of the children were asleep. The ones who weren't grumbled sleepily but followed after their parents obediently.
Duo stood up and stretched, yawning loudly. "Oh, man, I didn't realize that it was this late. And I'm beat. Heero?"
Heero just chuckled a bit. "I'm tired too. I'm really looking forward to sleeping in that big bed."
Neither one of them thought about the fact that there was only one bed, huge though it was, they just stripped and tumbled in. Heero pulled Duo into a quick hug. Duo returned it gently.
"You ok?" Heero hoped against hope that Duo hadn't fallen for this village.
"Yes, I'm fine. Nice place but ... I wanna go home. It's nice here, but they don't have ice cream, or hamburgers. Or pizza. No video games, no TV. I know those are all trivial but ..."
"I miss the guys too. Wufei is probably frantic by now." Heero sighed.
"And Q and Trow. They're probably nuts too. See? I just ... I even miss Une."
Heero touched Duo's forehead. "You have to have a fever."
"Idiot." But Duo sounded fond instead of pissed.
"I know. Go to sleep. We'll leave as soon as we can in the morning."
"How much farther is it?" Duo suddenly sounded dejected.
"It's ... about a thousand miles. Should take about three months. That's going to put us traveling in the mountains in early autumn. Probably snow on us. We need to make as much time as we can while the weather is good."
"I know. It's depressing. A thousand miles ... it's nothing much in a car. On a mule ... it's ..."
"Really far. I know. Go to sleep. Worrying isn't going to do us any good."
"Ok. Just..." Duo sighed, snuggled down and tried to sleep.
Heero absently hummed to him until he did, then fell asleep himself. His plans for something different neatly spiked by Duo's worries.
The next morning was also a bit disappointing. Duo woke, mumbled something and rolled over, putting one arm over Heero's waist.
Heero wriggled a bit and nudged Duo, getting him to slide up. This put him in a position where Heero could kiss his forehead. Duo was just beginning to wake up, his erection poking Heero in the thigh, when the innkeeper banged on the door.
"Breakfast is on the table."
Heero snarled like a sabertooth with a sore head. "Fucker. Damnit."
Duo, wide awake now, snickered a bit. "Sorry. I was looking forward to it too. But, doing that here ... maybe not such a good idea. We'll wait until we're camped, ok?"
"Have to be. Come on. Let's get dressed and get going."
The innkeeper greeted them cheerfully announcing, "I thought I'd give you a wake up. Breakfast is ready and I know you want to get an early start. Eat up. Daylight is burning."
The innkeeper ignored Heero's surly demeanor, giving Duo a sympathetic smile. He put breakfast in front of them, whispering in Duo's ear, "No a morning person, eh?" Duo just nodded and hid a snicker in a cup of tea.
They found the mules ready and waiting at the front door. Heero carried the trunk out while Duo paid the innkeeper for their stay and the farrier for the new shoe and boarding for the night.
They rode out ten minutes later, young boys running beside them and shouting good wishes for their journey. The boys stopped at the edge of the village and continued to wave until they were out of sight.
Heero perused the map for a few moments, then sighed. Duo glanced at him, then turned his eyes back to the trail.
"The next town is fifteen days away, unless we take a two day detour. That's in six days."
Duo thought for a moment then opined, "Long haul. Why don't we wait until the turn off to make a decision."
"Sounds good. Sorry about this morning."
"Me too. Maybe I could sneak back and go Shinigami on that innkeeper."
Heero smiled. "He meant well."
Duo just grunted, his irritation plain in the way he shifted in his saddle. Heero smiled and rode on.
By noon Heero was also in a bad mood. They'd been joined, whether they liked it or not, by a train of merchants. The merchants had hired a group of mercenaries to accompany them on the trip, which was to the same town Heero and Duo were headed for. The merchants were pleased to add two more to their guard troupe, while neither Heero nor Duo wanted anything to do with the arrangement but they had no idea how to get away from them without adding days to their journey.
At nightfall, Heero and Duo made their own camp about twenty feet from the merchants. They were just trying to figure out what to eat, they both agreed that it was too early in their journey to start eating MREs but they hadn't had any luck hunting, the noisy merchants had scared away all the game when the captain of the mercenaries came to the verge of their firelight.
"Hello, the camp. May I enter?" The captain waited while the two men looked him over. Finally, Heero nodded once. "I'm sorry to be pushy but we need to reach some sort of agreement. Master Hastus isn't going to let up. He'll follow you or slow down to pace you. He has no idea what he's doing or the difficulties he's causing us all. He's a merchant, with one eye on his gold and the other out for more. He sincerely believes that you'll just knuckle down to his wishes."
"And so?" Duo's cold tone made the captain sigh.
"And so, I'm here to introduce myself, make an offer and see if we all can't come out of this better off than Master Hastus knows. My name is Captain Amuro, and you are?"
Heero eyed the captain and decided that he liked what he saw. "Heero Yuy. That's my partner, Duo Maxwell. We will not integrate into your unit."
"As you wish. We are paid ten silvers for the trip."
Duo cut in before Captain Amuro could continue. "We charge three times that. You go back and tell the merchant that we do. If he agrees, come back. If he doesn't, warn him that we'll take exception to him trying to force the issue." Captain Amuro shivered at the tone of Duo's voice. His expression made it plain that 'exception' could be very painful, for them.
"Very well, excuse me." Captain Amuro left.
Duo shook his head. "I don't like this. That merchant has no idea what he's messing with. One of these days, he's going to pick up the wrong sort, piss them off, and die. I hate this sort of thing. You can't trust his sort any farther than you can throw them. One of us is going to have to stay awake all night, watch and watch."
Heero poked the fire, his sour expression telling Duo that he agreed. "Hn! And we have no idea if the bastard is going to stay in ... what was the name of that berg?"
"No idea. But you're right, he'll use us as long as he can manage it. I just hope he's not planning on going our way for long."
Heero looked grim, an expression matched by Duo. "We'll just have to discourage that. Forcefully, if necessary."
Just then the captain came back, accompanied by the merchant. The merchant started to enter the circle of firelight that marked the perimeter of their camp but Captain Amuro held him back.
"What? You dare?"
"You don't enter someone's camp without asking permission. You're already on thin ice with these men, don't push it." Captain Amuro then asked permission to enter camp, which Heero granted.
Captain Amuro then figuratively threw his boss to the dogs. He let the man make every mistake there was, in one sentence.
"Now, my name is Guild Master Hastus, you will address me as master. I won't be paying you as much as I pay the others, you're too young to know much, so you're only worth one silver for the entire journey to Marmus. Join the troupe, obey Captain Amuro and everything will be fine. Now." He slapped his thighs, preparatory to standing up but Heero's hard tones froze him in place.
"You are not my master. I'll address you however I like. My partner and I were cutting you a break on our pay. We're both accredited knights. Check with the guild. We've been at war in our own dimension since we were fifteen years old. We're not going to Marmus, we're not joining your troupe and we're not obeying the Captain. Sorry, Captain Amuro, but that's the way it is. If you want a fight, bring it on." Heero stood up, looming over the merchant with Duo at his shoulder. "I wouldn't advise it though. Captain, I suggest you get your client out of our camp before something unpleasant happens to him."
Captain Amuro grabbed Guild Master Hustus by the arm and literally dragged him out of the camp, speaking urgently in his ear all the way.
Duo's sarcastic, "Well, that went well. Not!" made Heero sigh.
"So, we pack up in the middle of the night and leave? Or not." Heero didn't fancy trying to sneak off like that.
"Doubt it'd work. We just force the man to pay us what we're worth and make sure the mercenaries know that we're not taking crap from anyone. Damn, I'm tired already."
The next call came about an hour later. They had both resigned themselves to a meal of ration bars when a call came from the darkness.
"Hello. Brought you some food. Permission to enter?"
Duo shifted so his sword was near to hand, while Heero just laid his across his thighs. "Come in."
The cheerful face matched the voice. The man was in his early thirties and well built but he was clearly a teamster rather than one of the mercenaries. "Captain sent me over with this. Don't know why, I'm just a wrangler, not a fighter. He said it'd keep the peace. So, stew, bread, ale, bring the pan to the cook in the morning. Enjoy." And with that, the man left again, obviously coached carefully.
Duo smelled the food, then stirred it carefully. It was obviously taken from a larger pot as there was no skin at the fill line. The bread was all broken pieces that didn't match up. The ale wasn't in a sealed container as they didn't have bottling here.
Heero eyed the food for a moment then said, "One of us eats now. If nothing happens in an hour, the other eats. We do this at every meal. We'll take turns."
Duo nodded. "Fine. Flip for it?"
Heero shook his head. "You go first, you're more resistant to drugs and poisons than I am."
Duo just sighed, nodded and began to eat.
An hour later Heero had his supper, which Duo had kept warm by putting the iron pot near the fire. The bread was easily toasted to re-warm it. Heero admitted that the food was good, and probably safe, but they'd keep to their precautions none the less.
When Duo lost the flip for first guard shift, he spent a considerable amount of time flouncing, fluffing and muttering before he settled to sleep. Heero was just as pissed as he was. They couldn't pursue their relationship when one of them had to keep an eye on the merchant camp. He was seriously considering shooting someone.
At moon high, or midnight, Heero woke Duo and crawled into the warm sleeping bag, sighed and went to sleep, enveloped in the smell of Duo.
Duo watched the sky for a few moments, then decided to do some snooping. He slipped into the other camp, right by the guard. The man was decent but he kept turning around. Why, Duo had no idea but it put his back to his neighbor on a regular basis. Duo just waited until his back was turned and slipped in without a ripple.
Duo found that the merchants were all sleeping in two tents in the middle of the camp. There were four of them, two young, one middle aged and the grand master. The mercenaries were sleeping in scattered groups, each with a small fire. They slept with their feet at the fire and their heads away. The teamsters were all sleeping around two fires near the animals.
He snooped in the merchants tents but found nothing of any interest. The mercenaries weren't of any interest either. But the wagons were interesting. They were full of merchandise. Rolls of leather and cloth, bales of hides, boxes of herbs and spices. And small casks of liquids. They were all neatly stacked and tied in place. Nothing suspicious in any of it. Duo decided that the merchant wasn't hiding anything illegal, nor was he extremely rich. He was just an asshole. Duo shrugged, sneaked out of the camp, checked on their mules and returned to his position in the shadows of their tent.
Morning brought breakfast in the form of more stew and flat bread. The man who brought breakfast also took away the dirty dishes from the night before.
Duo reported everything he'd learned while Heero ate. This leaving an hour between one eating and the other was going to cause difficulties as whoever ate last was going to have to gobble down his food.
Captain Amuro noticed that only one of them was eating and sighed. They had started out on the wrong foot and nothing was going to put that right. The fact that Guild Master Hastus was an egotistical idiot had made it even harder. He had connections in the Mercenary Guild and had looked Yuy, Heero and Maxwell, Duo up on his master list. Since he'd updated it at the temple of Planora before they'd left he was well aware that the Abbot of the main temple had vouched for them himself. He was also aware that they were from a different dimension and that worried him. Who knew what the morals were in their place?
After Heero was done eating, they harnessed their mules and loaded them. Then Duo literally snatched his food out of the hands of a teamster, gobbled it down and handed over the pot. The teamster gave him an odd look but waited patiently as Duo ate. When he took the pot he said softly, "Do not fear your food. We're not that sort, even if the master was."
Duo blinked then nodded but he said rather acidly, "Pardon me. But your boss's attitude does seem to make it a sensible precaution."
The teamster laughed, "Not my boss. The merchant hired us as a team. My boss is the head teamster. We're loyal to him, not the merchant. You can trust us." He winked. "And we're the ones who do all the cooking and washing up. Remember that."
Duo felt a weight lift from his shoulders. If the teamsters were hired as a unit and answered to their head, their food should be safe. Two meals hadn't done them any harm. He decided to discuss it with Heero while they were riding. If Heero agreed, they'd eat together again.
The rest of the day was just boring. They rode together in the middle of the train, between the mercenaries and the teamsters. Unfortunately, that put them where they were subjected to the audio torture of listening to Guild Master Hastus.
The man never shut up. He talked about his gold, his merchandise, his wife, his home, his importance and stature in the guild. He bragged about the profit he would bring and the tithes he would pay to the guild. He speculated loudly about Heero and Duo. Who they really were, how good they were, what those strange sticks were that they kept strapped to their backs, how expensive their swords were and if they would sell them.
Duo silently gritted his teeth and wished the man would lose his voice. He wondered if wishes were magic here and hoped they were.
Unfortunately, they weren't and the merchant's voice grated on everyone's nerves.
Noon saw Duo ready to scream and Heero descended into a state of annoyance that would make even Wufei tread carefully.
Heero kneed his mule into a trot, leaving Duo with their pack mule and a frown on his face.
Heero pulled up beside Master Hastus and snarled, "Shut the fuck up. Every bandit for miles around can hear you."
Master Hastus glared at Heero and snapped, "How dare you speak to me that way? Do you know who I am?"
Heero interrupted him before he could go farther. "Yes, I do. You're the annoying shit that has followed me and my partner until we had no choice but to join you. Now that we've joined you, you'll answer to me or die. I'm sick of this. Now, shut up. If you open your mouth again, I'll tie you up, gag you and put you in a wagon. You hired us, you mind us. You don't mind, we'll either part ways or you'll regret it. That'll be thirty gold, by the way. Each."
And with that Heero returned to Duo, who nearly fell off his mule suppressing his laughter.
Captain Amuro wisely stayed out of it, simply thanking his lucky stars that Heero had managed to keep the damn man quiet. And he wasn't about to lose good troops trying to discipline someone not in his command. The merchants seemed to think differently as the master sent one of the apprentices to tell him to do something about Heero's attitude. All he said back was, "We're not paid for good attitudes, we're paid to keep you safe. Tell the master to shut up, or we'll all leave him. He hasn't paid us yet so we can if we want." The apprentice went away, looking tired.
Duo was pleased to not hear the merchant's voice for the rest of the day.
Camp that night was easily set up. Heero tossed their tent into the air where it did its usual pop into a tent thing. Duo had tried to explain it to Heero, going on and on about carbon fibers and memory metals. Heero didn't care, it worked and that was all that mattered. They staked the tent out and Duo was just about to start a fire when three of the mercenaries joined them.
"Captain sent us to join you. Wants you to get a good night's sleep. One of you stays up and the other sleeps. Not good. Food'll be here in a minute. We'll all eat out of the same pot. Just so you relax." The man grinned, displaying a set of good teeth. "See, we got you figured. You don't trust that merchant. And you're right not to. But you can trust us. See? It's warriors against merchants. Always has been, always will be. They'll cheat you out of your hard earned wages just because they can. And they take advantage something awful. So, we stick together and with the teamsters, against them. Some are good, don't get me wrong. See. Just, this one is one of the bad ones. We didn't take proper measure of him, but we're blackballing him at the guild. Once we get back."
Heero eyed the three men for a minute, then looked over his shoulder at Duo. Duo also eyed the men for a moment, then he nodded. "They're ok."
Heero just sat down, Duo beside him, and nodded to the men. "Sit down, before you fall down."
They laughed companionably at that and settled in various poses of relaxation. They didn't talk much, just an occasional comment on the day.
When the food arrived they left Heero to distribute it, waiting patiently while he served up portions of the ubiquitous stew and flat bread. Duo poured the ale and handed around mugs.
They ate in silence, then Heero announced, "We're bedding down early. Last night was not restful."
One of the mercenaries, a hard faced older man, said, "I know you're young, and in love, but camp rules are ..." He cleared his throat, a bit red faced. "No fucking in the tents. It's not fair to others, see? Not everyone is paired up. So, just no, see?"
Heero nearly snarled at this. He and Duo were too new in their relationship and a great deal too private to be doing anything where they could be heard.
Duo just curled his lip and said softly, "No shit. Good night." The look on his face made all three older men flinch. Heero added his glower to the mix, then pulled the tent fly aside.
They crawled into the tent and right into the one sleeping bag that Duo had put down.
"I ... Duo, I'm sorry."
"Don't sweat it. We'll get there. Eventually."
"Go to sleep." Heero pulled Duo into his arms.
"You too. Fuck, I hate that man."
"Master Hastus will get his. I'll see to it personally."
And with that, they both went to sleep.
The next morning was the same as the day before, except that they had breakfast with the rest of the mercenaries and teamsters. They packed up and were on the trail in less than an hour.
Guild Master Hastus made sure that everyone knew he wasn't pleased with the way things were going and did so loudly. Heero rolled his eyes at Duo and prepared to be nasty.
Duo beat him to it. Shinigami's laugh rang out, making everyone shiver. "I'll kill you myself. Shut up." Then he started speaking Japanese, which scared Heero. "Yamero! Omae O korosu!"
Heero rubbed his face. "Oh, fuck! Now we're in real trouble. Shinigami is out." He went to see if he could bring Duo back down.
He hadn't seen Duo like this since the wars and it scared him. If he couldn't bring Duo down there was no telling what he might do.
"Duo, yamero! Teishi! Duo, he's not worth it."
Duo turned to look at Heero, the expression on his face one of cold indifference. "Oh? No? Really?"
"No! Don't waste a piece of your soul on him. Please!" Heero didn't care one way or the other about the merchant but he knew that Duo would regret this later.
"Ok." Duo casually pushed the trembling man away. "If you say."
Heero carefully approached Duo. "I do say. Come away. He's stupid."
Duo blinked, shook himself, then grinned in that manic way of his and just walked off.
Heero glared at the merchant and snarled, "Consider yourself really, really lucky I managed to talk him down. You'd be nothing but a greasy spot otherwise." He followed Duo calling over his shoulder. "Just be glad he stayed with his mount. Now, shut your mouth."
He wondered how long it would take for the idiot to forget and start mouthing off again.
They rode the rest of the day with the teamsters between the mercenaries and the merchants. The camp was now divided between the merchants and everyone else. Master Hastus had no idea what he had done.
Heero wondered if the man was really that stupid or was it that he'd never actually been in a caravan before. If that was it, what the hell was he doing traveling now?
And the fact was that Guild Master Hastus had never been out of his hometown. His family was well connected, actually having contacts in the royal family, but Hastus himself was considered problematical as his attitude was considered a great liability. He was, however, a great bookkeeper and a marvel with numbers. He was being sent to audit the books at a guild house that wasn't showing the profit it should. He had high expectations, a big ego and an even bigger mouth.
The mercenaries disliked him so much that they didn't even attempt to interfere in the confrontation. They turned a blind eye, just thankful that the man was finally quiet again. He just couldn't be convinced that one, his voice was attracting every ear in the area, or two, his bragging was dangerous. Bandits had ears and they wanted what the caravan had. An attack could be a disaster, and even if it wasn't someone was bound to be hurt.
They rode on until they reached the camping site they'd picked for the night. They had arrived early as Captain Amuro had pressed the pace just to get Heero and Duo away from Master Hastus as soon as possible.
They set camp and Heero realized that Captain Amuro had neatly maneuvered them into pitching their tent on the verge of the main camp, instead of thirty or so feet away. This made him uncomfortable until Duo nudged him and whispered, "I think they're all ok. I don't get any bad vibes off them. Just the merchants. With them, well, let's just say, 'I'm glad I don't have any gold teeth.'"
Heero snickered and replied, "Especially if you sleep with your mouth open. Ok. I'll try to relax."
Captain Amuro also made sure that the camp was arranged so that the main body of the mercenaries was between the merchants and the rest of the camp. He was beginning more and more to believe that they were a real danger to the rest of the camp.
Things were disappearing from the packs and he knew it wasn't any of his men. The teamsters were also missing things, but that only proved that it was someone who had access to both camps. In other words, everyone. He grumbled wordlessly and settled in his tent to think until it was time to eat.
If one of the merchants was stealing, it was a breach of their contract. If one of the teamsters was doing this, it meant a flogging. He rubbed his face wearily and wondered if he could void his contract somehow. This was beginning to make his hair go grey.
Supper was served up without fanfare. The merchants, actually just Master Hastus, insisted on being served in their main tent so some poor teamster had to haul a pot of stew, basket of bread and a pitcher of ale over for them. Master Hastus's voice rang out, demanding something other than stew. The teamster left the tent again, with a nasty glint in his eye.
Duo, noticing the man's expression, announced in a flat tone, "I have no idea why people act like that. Ask someone to perform a service then be rude to them."
Heero nodded. "Me neither. Serve them right if they got refused. Someone should tell them to come to the fire and fetch it themselves. I'm keeping an eye on them."
"Me too. Something's rotten around here and I don't like it." Duo watched as the cook of the day dished up stew into bowls and handed them to the next man in line.
"We need to get in line or all we'll get is pot scrapings." Heero tacked himself onto the end of the line with Duo right behind him, earning him a better reputation with the rest of the caravan.
They had the right to go to the head of the line, being knights, placing themselves at the end of the line made them look very good in the eyes of the hungry men. Duo grinned, Heero still didn't understand a lot of things about personal relationships but he was fairly good at troop management. Which was a bit strange but there you were.
When everyone had their food, they settled around the fires to eat. Duo had found out that the Captain made sure that each fire had no more than eight men around it. Having several smaller fires, rather than one large one, kept the troop scattered, making them smaller targets. It also helped avoid the problem of having men that didn't get along at the same fire. He didn't assign fires, he just let the men gather as they pleased.
Each group gathered around their fire, some had tents, other's had lean-tos, depending on the inclination of the group in question. Heero noticed that their fire now had the modern tent he and Duo used as well as a leanto of the sort called a Whelan. This was just a rectangle of canvas staked out so that it was about eight feet tall at the front and two feet off the ground at the back. It kept off the dew and sheltered from the rain, all that was needed in the early summer.
After eating, they sat around the fire for a while, talking idly about the day and tomorrows prospects. They bedded down before moonrise.
Duo woke. The moon was up, flooding the camp with silvery light. He saw a ... something skitter across a patch of open ground and disappear into a wagon. It was three legged, or so it looked, but that didn't make any sense.
Duo quickly put his hand on Heero's mouth. Heero woke with a slight flinch but realized that it was Duo at once. He sat up and looked where Duo pointed. Through the open tent fly he saw the same thing Duo had seen. Something dropped out of the wagon and scampered away, crossing several patches of moonlight on its way back to the merchants' main tent.
Duo glanced at Heero who used combat sign to tell him to go to the captain while he followed the shadowy creature.
Duo slipped into Captain Amuro's tent and up to the sleeping captain. He knew better than to shake the man awake, this wasn't a good idea with a trained warrior. Instead, he blew in his ear.
The captain moved away, rolled over then started. "You're not my wife, so you'd better have a very good reason for this." Duo noted that he kept his voice down.
"I do. Sorry, but I like my throat unslit. Something, something small, went into one of the wagons, then to the merchant's tent. Heero followed it. Now what?"
The captain sighed and reached for his trews. "We go find out what it was doing in the wagon. You know which one it was?"
Duo said he did. When they got out of the tent, the whole camp was in the process of waking up. Someone in the merchants' tent was howling like a banshee. Guess who?
They heard Heero yell, "Shut the fuck up!" a smack, then silence.
Captain Amuro just shrugged. "Seems like your companion has that under control. Now ... let's see what's in that wagon."
They got a couple of teamsters to bring torches, then they pulled the canvas completely off the wagon. They searched carefully and finally found, under the wagon box, a small pile of odds and ends. It was mostly junk really, shiny things, odd bits of cheap jewelry, a mirror and a few buckles and strap tips. It was a complete inventory of the missing things.
Captain Amuro heaved a sigh of relief, no one under his command was stealing. Now all he had to do was figure out who was. Or what.
Heero meanwhile was in a battle with Master Hastus over some sort of monkey-like animal. It was evidently his pet and he let it roam the camp at night. It was just taking anything that attracted its eye. Master Hastus didn't see anything wrong with that, if his animal wanted some sparkly thing, let it have it. Heero, on the other hand, was all for justice and was now on a rant that made Wufei look like a piker.
"See here. You can't just let this little piece of shit take stuff. It's an animal and doesn't know better. It's up to you to control it or suffer the consequences. Justice isn't just a word and the law is the law. Stealing is wrong, whether you're doing the stealing yourself or just condoning it. Captain Amuro will handle this."
And with that, he crossed his arms over his chest and settled down to wait until the captain came to sort things out.
It didn't take long for him to do exactly that. He had the whole camp awake and gathered in front of the main tent in no time. He had torches and flambeaux lit so that the whole area was bright.
He stood in the door of the tent on a small stage so that everyone could see him.
"We've found our thief. Master Hastus has a Hanu. He's been letting it loose at night and it's been helping itself to things. I've had all the booty put out on that table. Line up and see if your missing property is there."
Heero stood by the table to watch and record what belonged to who. It didn't take long for everyone to file by and retrieve their property.
After that, Captain Amuro called for a vote. It was simple, either the merchants controlled their guild master or the mercenaries left. Vote yes or no. The vote was yes, by a resounding one hundred percent.
This put the merchants in a difficult position. Guild Master Hastus was the head of their team and the next in line of command was only a journeyman. The last two men were both apprentices.
This caused a real problem as, unless he was under arrest or something, Hustus was in command. Duo opined that, as the animal was his, Hastus was liable to arrest for theft. Simple, arrest Hastus, stuff him in a wagon and that was that.
He finished his opinion by saying, "I'd put it in a contract from now on that the captain of the troupe is in command of every member of it. No matter whether they're mercenaries or not. So, arrest him and let's get some sleep."
Captain Amuro seized on this at once, had Hastus arrested, chained and put in the mess wagon. He screamed and threatened, but even his own men ignored it. Everyone was tired of his posturing and posing. A threat to bind and gag him got him quiet and everyone went back to bed, worn out by the excitement and broken sleep. Captain Amuro decided that they'd take a day and just rest tomorrow.
"Heero, wake up. Daylight is burning." Duo shook Heero, taking a real chance of getting punched.
Heero was awake in a second. "What? It's late. What's going on?"
"Don't know. The entire camp is still sleeping. Get up. We'll break camp, load up as quietly as we can and get out of here."
"You think we can manage?"
"Don't know but I'd really like to try. I can't deal with this bunch another minute."
So they broke down their camp, got everything back in their trunk and quietly led the mules out of camp. They traveled quite some distance before stopping to harness and pack the mules up. They mounted and went on their way, never knowing that at least four people, including Captain Amuro, watched them leave with sadness. But they had the right to go if they wished.
Duo rode for several miles before he said anything, then he just remarked, "well, that sucked."
Heero agreed, "Yeah, it did. But ..." He retrieved his map from the pocket of his pack. "We're ... two days ahead of schedule and we didn't have to take care of the mules for three days. That puts us ahead on feed too. We won't go to ... Asbull? Yeah, Asbull, we'll just take a straight shot to Lenmark."
"Ok. Can't believe that that idiot Hastus thought we'd agree to escort him all the way to Mus ... Mas ... what ever. It's nearly a month out of our way."
Heero just grunted, put the map away and began planning.
The next week was one of constant travel, chores and strain. The mules were in excellent condition and so was the harness but the constant need to pack, unpack, set and break down camp and the distance between camping sites put a lot of strain on both men.
When they finally reached Lenmark it was a relief.
The town was mid-sized for the dimension, which meant that it had a population of about six thousand people. It also had seven inns and four hostels, twenty bed and breakfast type accommodations and three doss houses. It also had tailors, brew houses, stables, book shops, dry goods stores, and all the other shops and facilities a town that size had.
They took their time and chose one of the seven inns. The inn was large, well appointed and close to the bath house and a good stable. They rented a large room on the second floor at the back. A very desirable location as it was away from the common room and the noise of the street.
Heero unpacked their blankets and sheets and some clean clothing for both of them. They had a lot of stuff in their trunk, ammo, MREs and their money. It also had their camping gear; the tent, sleeping bags and fire starter. The rest of their stuff was in the panniers on the mule. This included food for the mules, bedding, food, clothing and toiletries. The lock on the trunk was, literally, bombproof. It was also pick proof. Duo had remarked one day that he had designed it himself and it was standard on all Preventers secure carry boxes.
Duo opened the window and let the door stay open a crack. The room was sweet smelling and very clean but it needed a bit of fresh air to be really comfortable.
Heero bent down to check the damper in the fireplace. It was closed so he opened it which made a better draft than the open door, so Duo closed it again.
"I'd really like a bath, but ... I don't like those slipper tubs the inns have. It's like ... a lick and a promise rather than a real bath."
Heero laughed. "I don't like them either but there's a bath house just down the street. We're going to take a few coppers and go see about an old fashioned Roman style bath. With a massage. Come on."
Duo didn't wait a second, he just whooped happily and dashed out the door with Heero hot on his heels. The door, unfortunately, wasn't self-locking, something they weren't used to.
Heero followed Duo to the bath house, one step behind him all the way. He enjoyed Duo's happy chatter about the shopping they'd do on the way back from the bath house. He looked where Duo pointed and marked the shops he liked himself, all at a dead run.
They arrived at the baths breathless and laughing.
They were greeted at the door by a smiling woman who asked what services they wanted. Duo just grinned and said, "Bath, massage anything else available that's non-sexual. We're together."
She smiled cheerfully and replied, "I see. So bath, massage, and a private room for after. We supply all needed oils and unguents. This way." She held out her hands for the clean clothing Heero had snatched up before following Duo.
Heero handed them over and the woman put them into a large double hipped basket. She put a bar of soap, towels, washing clothes, a bottle of oil and a pot into the basket and led them into the depths of the bath.
Heero glanced around, holding Duo by one shoulder to keep him from just jumping in. The bath was clean and well lit. The attendants were also clean and cheerful looking. He let go of Duo and pushed him gently to get them both out of the door.
Duo also took his look around, he'd preferred to be deeper into the room first but he humored Heero's paranoia.
They moved to the first station and found that the bath was very like a Japanese or Roman bath. First, they were washed, standing over a grate in the floor. Two of the attendants soaped them from head to toe and scrubbed them with rough cloths, then they were rinsed with warm water which flowed away down the drain beneath the grate. The attendants even washed Duo's hair, commenting on its beauty and length. Duo allowed it gracefully.
After getting clean they were led to a large, hot bath. The bath wasn't just large; it was Olympic swimming pool size large. There were seats scattered about the pool and interesting little toadstool-like tables, attached to the floor somehow, allowed people to actually eat and drink.
Duo found a comfortable seating arrangement in one corner of the pool and settled in to soak. Heero sighed as he rested his head on the rim of the pool. "Mmmmm, nice."
Duo sighed too and remarked, "This is something I'd like to take home with me. Soooo, good."
They soaked for a while, enjoying the hot water and the echoing near silence of the bath. They both started a bit when one of the attendants called them out of the bath for their massages.
The masseuses quickly towel dried and braided Duo's hair, recommending that he unbraid it and let it dry completely as soon as he got home.
The massage was great, Duo moaned and groaned much to the amusement of the masseuse. Heero was silent but enjoyed his massage just as much. He knew the masseuse had to work hard to release the tension in his muscles, and he appreciated it.
Duo made note of both of the masseuses' names and resolved to tip them later.
When both of them were limp and totally relaxed, the masseuses covered them with light blankets and left them in the small room, drawing the curtains to give them privacy.
Heero slipped off the table and took his time arranging the pillows, cushions and blankets into a nest on the warm floor. Then he placed the pot nearby as well as the small bottle of oil. He called Duo softly and when he raised his head and grunted at him he patted the cushions and said, "Come here. It's my turn now. Ok?" Duo brightened and slipped off his table and right into Heero's arms.
Heero eased him to the soft pillows and leaned over him. Kissing Duo was something he wanted to do a lot more often. He kissed like he did everything else, with all the passion he was capable of. They kissed and touched each other in ways that made both of them panting and hard.
Heero found that Duo's nipples were extremely sensitive and he had to be careful not to over stimulate them. He also found that Duo wasn't the screamer everyone though he'd be. He was, in fact, fairly silent, moaning and whimpering softly.
Heero spent quite some time making sure that Duo was ready for the next step. Duo had been so careful to see to his pleasure that Heero wanted to be sure to return the favor. He wanted Duo to have no regrets, just as he had none.
When he was sure that Duo was ready, Heero dipped one finger into the oil and eased it into Duo's waiting body. Duo closed around it tightly and groaned.
"Hurt?" Heero prepared to remove his finger.
"Mmm, no. just feels ... strange. Give me a minute." Duo sighed and tried to relax. Heero helped by holding completely still. Duo finally nodded a bit and said, "Ok."
Heero moved his finger in and out a bit, finger fucking Duo gently. Duo sighed and relaxed completely.
He was still incredibly tight so Heero added another finger and continued to ease them in and out of Duo. Duo opened up like a champ.
Duo whimpered a bit when Heero took his fingers out but answered, "More than."
With that, Heero dipped his fingers into the pot of unguent and anointed himself, covering his hardness with the stuff that would ease his way into his lover without pain.
Duo pulled his legs up to his chest and gazed at Heero with love in his eyes. "I'm ready."
Heero stubbed his erection against Duo and rubbed gently on his perineum, then slid back and entered him with one easy, careful push.
He froze as one stroke was all he could take. If he didn't slow down, he was going to come right now.
"Oh, man, you're so tight, so hot. I'm going to blow right now if I don't stop for a moment. Sorry."
Duo chuckled in his ear. "No sorry. Real compliment. I can break the perfect soldier's control. Love you."
Heero chuckled back and began to move. He moved in and out of Duo at a leisurely pace until Duo was completely relaxed and he was sure Duo was enjoying his attentions. Then he sped up a bit, making sure to get Duo's prostate every time. Duo was now moaning a bit more loudly.
Suddenly, it was all over. Duo convulsed under Heero, clamping down on him tightly. Heero exploded, jerking once then freezing. Then they collapsed in a tangle of sweaty limbs and snickers.
Duo finally caught his breath and said, "Well, there went that bath."
Heero sighed. "That was good. And a quick wash off will take care of the sweat."
So they washed at the washing station, the attendants smiling knowingly, dressed and left the bath house. Duo grumbled softly about his still damp hair.
They took their time going back to the inn, stopping in an apothecary and a tailors. The street vendors were fun but sold mostly trinkets and junk. Duo eyed a ring but turned up his nose when he realized that it was tin.
This gave Heero an idea so he looked around for a jeweler. He saw a tiny shop tucked between a butcher and a tanner so he dragged a laughing Duo that way.
"What? What? Heero, you're nuts." But Duo followed.
Heero opened the door and pulled Duo in. "Rings. I don't care about the mores of society. Do you?"
Duo snorted. "You know damn good and well I don't. What's up?"
"Rings. We're going to get rings." Heero realized that the shop didn't have glass cases, glass was much too expensive in this dimension for that. Instead, everything was displayed behind the counters.
The shopkeeper nodded to them and stood up. Heero told him that they wanted rings and he took a box from under the counter and opened it. It was filled with the same tin rings that the street vendor had.
"No, silver. We can pay. Do you need proof?"
"Please." The shopkeeper had been burned once too often by boys who came in looked at rings, then ran with what they had on their fingers.
Heero took a plaque of silver out of his pocket and showed it to the man. He nodded and turned to take a different box from a shelf.
This box was made differently, instead of just a box; it was filled with trays with little partitions. In each partition set one ring. The shopkeeper put a small square of velvet on the counter top and took out several rings. He put them on the cloth and waited.
Heero picked up a ring, but its ring of posies didn't do anything for either one of them.
Duo poked through the rings and shook his head. "They're all too girly."
The shopkeeper just said, "Ah! You're shield brothers. None of these will do. You should have told me you wanted paired rings. Here." He gathered up the rings on the cloth and replaced them in their box. He took the box back to its place and picked up a different one.
This was the same as the first one but in each division rested two rings. He put them out for Heero and Duo to examine.
Heero picked up one set and Duo another. They examined them but both decided that the rings weren't for them. They examined several other sets and discarded them all. They had nearly lost hope when they found the perfect rings. They were just silver links of chain, flattened into a ring. They were heavy, bold and plain. Heero loved them at once and so did Duo. The deal was sealed when they found that the rings fit them perfectly. Heero paid and they left.
Duo danced around Heero holding out his hand. "It's beautiful. Heero, you think? Very manly and all that shit but still..."
Heero grabbed him and pulled him out of the way of a camel-like animal. "Yes, beautiful in a manly and all that shit sort of way. Pay attention."
Duo laughed again, then pivoted to walk beside Heero, in step. They finished the walk to the inn side by side.
They entered the inn and went up the sturdy stairs. Neither one of them was particularly heavy footed so their soft soled boots made no sound.
It was unnerving to find that the door that Heero was sure he'd closed tightly was now open. Heero touched a stock still Duo on the shoulder and pointed to the left. Duo nodded. They entered the room, Duo moving quickly to the left and standing tall while Heero moved to the right in a low crouch.
Heero glanced around his half of the room, it was empty so he turned to Duo. Duo was glaring at a man, crouched by their trunk. He was obviously attempting to open it.
Heero growled softly and moved to back Duo. Duo just snapped, "Stand up. Now!" The man stood. "Back away." The man backed carefully, he didn't know what kind of weapons were pointed at him but he knew they were killing things of some sort. Heero moved so that the man was in a crossfire between him and Duo. Duo barked, "What are you doing in here?"
"I'm sorry, master. But the door wasn't locked so I assumed that you wanted the room set up. I made the bed but I can't open your trunk to get out anything else. I'm sorry if I intruded where I wasn't wanted."
Heero glanced at Duo who looked the man over carefully. He looked like exactly what he was, a servant of the inn. "What do you mean?" Heero holstered his pistol.
"If you lock the door, we leave things alone. But if the door is unlocked, we make the beds with your sheets, get out clean clothing, pick up laundry. That sort of thing. I'm sorry if I did something wrong. But if you didn't want the service, why did you leave the door open?"
Duo glanced at Heero. Heero shook his head. "I locked ... no, these doors have to be locked with a key. I just slammed it shut. Damn."
Duo turned to the man. "We're from a place where the doors lock when you shut them. You have to set them not to lock. We thought we'd locked it when we left. I'm sorry."
The servant just sighed. "I'm not in trouble?"
Heero shook his head. "No. I apologize." He glanced around the room. "You did a good job. Thank you."
"Yes, sir. Excuse me. I'll ... be leaving now. If you need anything, the bell pull is by the door. Common room has servers to take an order, if you like." He eased out the door and sighed with relief. He also tiptoed down the servants stairs to go to the kitchen and warn the servants there to watch out for the men in room 21.
Meanwhile, Duo flopped down on the bed. "Well, that was ... interesting. Fuck!"
Heero settled down beside him. "Yup, really interesting. My fault. You know ..." Heero stopped to think a moment. "It's the little things that throw you. Doors that don't lock when you shut them. Money. Baths, for god's sake."
Duo nodded, rubbing his head against the pillow. "That's right. It's wearing me out in ways I can't describe."
"Fuck. I'm going to ... Une ..." Heero trailed off.
Duo sighed. "Well, I'm taking a nap. You?"
Heero just started taking his boots off. "Me too."
They both slept for about an hour then got up, put their boots back on and went down to eat some supper.
They stopped in the door of the common room to look around and the whole room shut down like a switch had been thrown. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to look at the two men in the door. They looked like the sort of people no one wanted to piss off. The sort that never made a threat, only promised. They were right.
"Heero, table." Duo pointed out a table that was situated so that they could get their backs to a wall. It was occupied but that didn't make any difference. Heero's glower cleared it in seconds, its occupants scrambling to give the two fierce young men the table.
Heero settled, whispering, "We're not making any friends here."
Duo hissed back, "I don't care. I'm all freaked out. I don't want anyone at my back just now. How could we be so careless?"
"It was my fault. I forgot the doors have to be key locked."
"So did I. Don't take all the blame yourself, there's plenty to go around."
A servant scurried up, looking scared. He asked what they wanted and Duo replied, "What's on the menu?"
"Oh, um ... roast beef. Pork, shredded in a spicy sauce. Roast chicken. Vegetables, bread, butter, ale and wine." He waited for them to order, hoping that the menu pleased them.
Duo thought for a moment, then decided on the pork, while Heero settled for beef. The servant hurried off, happy that they seemed pleased.
They sat silently, side by side, until the food came. The pork was much like pulled pork you could get on Earth. It was hot, spicy and savory. The roast was sliced and arranged on a platter. All the other dishes were family style, carried in on a tray by a heavy set man who just stood, holding the tray until the server finished putting out everything. He then nodded once and went back into the kitchen.
They ate, feeling like they were on display. The whole room seemed to be keeping an eye on them. Heero shifted nervously throughout the meal.
After they finished eating they stayed for a while, hoping for some sort of entertainment. When nothing was forthcoming they returned to their room and went to bed.
The next morning Heero woke to the sensation of being watched. He opened his eyes and realized that Duo was propped up on one elbow, reclining easily on the bed. He was just looking at Heero with such an expression of delight in his eyes that Heero said lazily, "What?"
"Just realizing how damn lucky I am." Duo grinned at him.
Heero laughed at him. "Me too. We getting up?"
"Yeah. We need to leave, you know?" Duo looked sad.
"I know. Some wanna-be is going to challenge one of us, just because. We'll eat, then get supplies and head out tomorrow."
"Good. We ought to be able to avoid a fight that long." Duo sighed heavily. "But we need to take our swords with us. We'll leave the long guns behind."
"Right. Let's go." Heero started dressing. "I was hoping for another bath, but I think we better not risk it."
"I know." Duo pouted a bit. "Sucks."
Heero opened their trunk and got out a few small pieces of silver. They'd decided to cut one of the large ovals of silver into small pieces when they found out that most places would weigh the silver and try it on a touch stone no matter what it was marked as.
They went to the common room for their meal and were greeted with the same sharp looks and silent treatment as the night before. Duo ignored it so Heero followed his example.
They just accepted the eggs, bacon and toasted stale bread as everyone else was eating, shoveled it down and left again.
It didn't take long for them to find a place to buy the compacted cubes of grain and hay tops that was the mules' feed. Duo also insisted on getting some sweet feed for them. Duo made arrangements with the vendor to deliver the stuff to the stable where their mules were housed.
"Heero, if we can find a source of dried beef, we should get some. We can also get some of those dried pea things and Cookie said that he used dried kumos and ... kumos, that carroty stuff?"
Heero sighed, then gave up. Trust Duo to learn all about everything. He did like it that Duo had managed to coax cooking tips out of the teamsters cook. He was very tired of trail rations and cold camp cooking.
"You can get anything you want. I'll need to learn how to cook it too. It's not fair that you do all the cooking. Besides, I hate washing dishes just as much as you do."
Duo laughed at him, then frowned. "Incoming. Don't look particularly hostile but not friendly either."
Heero looked over his shoulder. Three men were approaching them and they looked like city guard to him. "City guard? What do they want with us?"
Duo eyed the approaching men for a moment while Heero moved to stand beside him. "Looks like a move along crew to me." Heero raised an eyebrow. "You know, some bunch who's specialty is telling people, 'Move along, we don't want trouble.' Then making sure that we do exactly that. Damnit!"
The small group stopped in front of them, then split, trying to intimidate them. Heero just looked at the man in the middle, obviously the one in charge.
"What can we do for you?" He just waited, Duo at his side.
"We ... the captain sent us. You..."
Duo realized that the man was having trouble talking as Heero's glare was rapidly reaching incandescent. "Yeah, yeah, we know. You don't want any trouble. Move along. Get out of town." He gave the man a glare nearly as hot as Heero's. "That about right?"
"Um ... yes. We're a small town. We don't like your sort to hang around too long. Some smart-assed young hothead always tries to make a reputation off people like you and they usually get killed instead. It's all sorts of trouble." He took a deep breath. "I hate doing this. You're not doing anything wrong but we ... the town, that is ... need you gone. So ... if you would finish your business and go as quickly as possible. We'd really appreciate it."
Duo just sighed. "Look, man, we don't want trouble either. All we want are supplies for ourselves and the animals. We intended to stay four or five days, have a couple more baths, sleep in real beds and eat food we didn't have to cook ourselves. But we'll be gone tomorrow morning, if we can get supplies. And we won't be cheated either. So, put the word out that we know what stuff is worth and won't be gouged. Ok?"
The guard blinked for a moment. "I don't know what this ok is. But you won't be cheated. In fact, I'd like it if you put the screws to the merchants. They make my life miserable with all their complaining and backbiting. I'll be checking up on you. Go. Do your business."
With that, he turned with military precision and marched away, signaling to his men to follow.
Duo put the screws to the merchants, while Heero stood in the background glowering at them. This scared them half to death but wasn't something they could point at with any certainty. He never threatened them, he didn't even talk to them but they felt his anger and cringed. Duo didn't smile or chatter at them either, he just got down to business and squeezed them until they squealed.
Duo finally gave up on trying to get Heero to remember the local names of anything and called them peas, carrots and onions. They wound up with dried beans, pea-things, carrots and onions. He also got dried stew beef and jerky, dried honey, tea and flour. Duo checked the quality and made the merchants package up their purchase in front of him and took it away right then.
They made two trips back to the inn and took their purchases up to their room, carefully locking it after them each time.
On their last return trip, the innkeeper stopped them with a bundle under his arm.
"Your laundry is done. I need you to pay for everything now. I know the city guard told you to move on so ... pay for tonight as well, please." He looked a bit shamefaced but stood his ground.
Heero nodded. "Fine. We'll expect a full breakfast and our animals harnessed and ready at daybreak. We'll be out of your ..." He eyed the man up and down, making him break out in a sweat, "inn as soon as we can manage. We have sliver. I assume that's not going to be a problem." Heero's tone of voice made it plain that it better not be.
"No, no, I can assay your silver myself. I'm an honest man with honest scales. This way." He led the way to a small room that contained a table and desk, there was only one chair so no one sat. The innkeeper took a touch stone from a box and held out his hand. Heero put a small piece of silver in his palm and waited while he rubbed it on the touch stone.
"Well! Nearly pure, that is good. You owe me six urts. This ought to be more than enough." He put the silver in one pan of the scale and put a five urt and a one urt weight into the other. It over balanced significantly on the silver side. "Well, I'll have to cut this." He got a pair of nippers out of a drawer and cut the end off the piece, taking about a third of it. He put it back in the scale and nodded. "Better. It's a bit overweight so I'll have to shave it. Hate doing that but ..." He gave Duo a hopeful look.
Duo considered this for a moment. Shavings were just a nuisance, they were easily lost and hard to get anyone to take. "Tell you what. Give us back some copper and we'll call it square."
The innkeeper had obviously never heard of making change and he gave them a sour look, but he handed over several copper coins with good enough grace and told them that there was berry pie with supper if they wanted any.
They did and said so. The innkeeper handed over their clean clothing and they gathered up the last of their purchases and went back to their room.
Duo spent the time between their return and supper repacking the panniers and their trunk. He wanted everything to be a quick fix so they could be on their way as early as possible tomorrow.
Heero just stayed out of his way, realizing that Duo's frenzy was just a coping mechanism for his disappointment. They'd both counted on staying several days, taking more baths and having some downtime before the hard push across the plains between here and the range of mountains that shielded the Temple of Portals. Now they were going to have to leave tomorrow unless they wanted trouble. Heero felt a bit bad about glowering at the guard like that, he was only doing his job. A job that a bunch of nervous merchants made harder. But, Heero found he couldn't feel really bad because Duo was upset and he felt worse about that.
Heero realized that Duo had said his name at least twice.
"Sorry. What did you say?"
"I said that we should keep our swords near to hand until we're at least three days away from here and go watch and watch at night. What do you think?"
Heero rubbed one hand over his face. "I think you're right and I think I'm pissed. I wanted ..." He sighed. "I wanted to make love with you, eat a few nice meals with you. And in general sort of court you. Now ... fuck, we've got to load and lock again."
Duo sat down on the bed beside Heero. "I know. That's why I'm in such a pissy mood. Damnit. But, fuck, we'll make up for lost time when we get home." He draped one arm over Heero's shoulders and hugged him. "I think I'll have the innkeeper bring our meal up. We don't need the staring and whispering in the common room."
"Ok. Good idea. I'll wait here, or do you want me to come with?"
"I'll go. It's just to the foot of the stairs. You stand in the door." Duo had it all under control so Heero just did as he asked.
The servant that Duo stopped said that eating in the rooms wasn't allowed but Duo just cowed him with a look and said he didn't care. If he had to come down to get food there'd be trouble, if they brought it up there wouldn't. The servant agreed to bring up a tray.
When he showed with the tray, just at dusk, he didn't say anything, he just put the tray on the table and left. Duo eyed the food for a moment but as it was a whole chicken and a small, uncut roast, he didn't say anything.
Besides the roast and chicken there was a loaf of bread, a crock of butter, bowls of roast vegetables and a small pitcher of gravy. A pitcher of ale to drink completed the meal. They ate while they looked over the maps, planning their journey. (And the berry pie!)
When they were done eating, Heero put the tray on the floor in the hall while Duo watched his back. Then they locked the door and went to bed, snuggled in each other's arms.
"Duo. Wake up." Heero bent over to kiss his lover awake only to find that he was already up.
"I'm awake. Been lying here for about ten minutes. Let's go." Duo sat up and pushed the covers down to the foot of the bed. "I'll fold our sheet and stuff, you check to make sure that we haven't left anything."
Heero nodded and scanned the room carefully as Duo folded their bedding and put it into the trunk. He even checked under the bed. Satisfied that there wasn't anything left behind he nodded to Duo who shut the trunk, making sure the lock engaged fully. They'd learned their lesson about locks the hard way.
"Ok." Duo sighed. "That's that."
Heero shouldered the trunk and carried it downstairs.
The mules were waiting at the door, held by a stable man. Heero put the trunk down and waited until Duo put the panniers on the mule, then he put the trunk on and strapped it in place.
The stable had already been paid so they were ready to go. The stableboy agreed to stay with their stuff for a moment so they went back inside and told the innkeeper that they would expect their breakfast in the next few minutes at the bench outside the door. He agreed and hurried away.
Duo, keeping one eye on the stableboy just because, nudged Heero. The stableboy was tugging on the ties of the panniers in a way that didn't look good so he eased over to see what was going on. Heero noticed and followed him.
The stableboy, innocently testing the ties for security, never knew how close he came to missing a hand. Both Heero and Duo had their hands on their swords as they moved to see what he was up to.
When they realized what he was doing they both felt stupid, just because some people in this town were unreliable didn't mean they all were.
Breakfast came just as they were sending the stableboy on his way. The innkeeper put it down on a barrelhead and went back into the inn. He'd been fairly generous with breakfast. There were eggs and bacon, toasted bread and some sort of porridge, but the best part was a nice wheel of sharp cheese. The wheel was small, no more than two pounds if that but it was fresh and sharp. Heero suggested that they wrap it back up in its cloth and take it with them. Duo agreed.
When they finished eating, they packed the cheese into a pannier and mounted up. They left with no fanfare and some hard feelings, on both sides. Not that either Heero or Duo cared about that.
As they left the town, Duo gave several staring merchants a glower that made them shiver and turn away. He knew exactly what a town council was made up of, merchants who put profit above everything. But they were on their way now so he contented himself with a glare and a snarl.
At the gate, a guard glanced at them, then checked something on a list he was holding. Heero snorted and remarked, "We've got at least twenty days travel to get to the mountains. I just hope the town of Aelnesse is more hospitable."
Duo groaned, "Twenty days? Man, sucks. How many miles did you allow for?"
"Fifteen. The mules could manage twenty but that doesn't allow time for hunting and such. Or we'd have to push them really hard. There's a fort ten days out where we can get grain and stay a day. But ... I don't really want to. I'd rather get there very early one morning and be gone again by noon."
"Ok." Duo clucked to his mule to urge it to a steady walk. Heero did the same and they were on their way.
The next ten days were miserable in every description of the word. They traveled hard, urging the mules onward at a steady, ground covering walk. As they averaged about threemiles an hour it took five to seven hours to cover fifteen miles. They would stop to gather anything edible that they came across to supplement their dried goods. Duo would set stew makings to soak the second they stopped. He was cook as Heero just couldn't seem to get the hang of cooking the dried rations they had. This left him with the care of the mules. When he was done with them, he and Duo both set up the tent and secured the panniers and trunk within it.
After setting the tent, they spent the time between putting the stew on and starting the bread either reading or checking harness. They didn't speak much nor did they try to make love. One of them had to be on alert at all times just in case someone tried to attack the camp, not all that unlikely as bandits abounded on the plains.
As it was very hard on the system to change sleeping habits too much or too often, they decided to flip for first and second watch. Heero got first watch and Duo got second, so, after supper and clean up Heero would settle down by the fire to watch while Duo went to sleep. Their watches were still working so Heero had set his alarm to go off at 12:00am. When the alarm went off he'd wake Duo and crawl into the still warm sleeping bag and sleep.
The plains were a hard place, hot in the day and cold at night. Duo wondered if the weather was ever just nice. He hated being cold so he would cuddle up to the fire as close as was safe, wrapped in a blanket that smelled of Heero and keep the fire burning. He listened to the noises of the night, keeping a sharp ear out for anything that didn't belong.
Near dawn, Duo would put the stew near the fire to warm and mix dough for flat bread. Heero would get up when Duo called him and feed the mules, then come to the fire for some tea. Duo made more bread and they shared the warmed over stew. They'd harness and pack the mules, check their weapons and mount up for another hard day of riding.
On the tenth day they pushed hard, riding for three extra hours, then pitching a cold camp. They took the chance of sleeping together for the first time in nine days but the mules were restless and should wake them if anyone entered the camp. They set their watches to wake them at 5am, broke camp and rode out before it was truly light.
They arrived at the fort, named rather unimaginatively Fort Halfway, and rode in the gates before the dew was off. No one did more than glance at them as they rode from the gate to the stable. Heero dismounted and tossed his reins to the boy who had run out of the building for just that purpose. Duo looked around for a moment, then dismounted too. He glanced at Heero, nodded and stood back. Heero told the boy to have the mules shoes checked, then took the trunk off the mule. He also took off the panniers and set them on the ground.
Duo had shopped well and planned ahead. They were nearly out of supplies but still had enough to last another day or two. Perfect.
The panniers were nearly empty and very light. The trunk was, as usual, full of heavy stuff. Heero put it on the ground near Duo while he spoke to the stable master. The stable master looked at him for a moment, picked up one of the mules hooves, then nodded.
Heero went back to Duo and said, "I don't like the look of the mules' shoes. They're getting thin and we'll lose one soon. I had the stableman look at them and they need replacing. We'll have to stay until tomorrow morning. The accommodations here are ..." He glanced at the inn, "up to par ... I think."
Duo eyed the three story structure doubtfully. "Yeah, but how safe is it?"
Before Heero could answer a man in a uniform walked up, in time to hear the question and he answered, "It's as safe as we can make it. There's no gouging, or overcharging, no trouble unless you start it. Your things are safe. Each room has a lock and there's a paid guard on the landing on each floor. He's assigned by me, personally and his honor is unimpeachable." The big man looked from Heero to Duo, then asked, "Satisfied?"
Duo got a bit snotty, he was tired and dirty and didn't really want to sleep in the inn, but there was no place else to go. "If I knew who you are, I might be."
The man laughed softly. Duo eyed him up and down, he liked what he saw. The man was well over six feet tall and wide in the shoulders. He had a slight paunch that spoke of good food and an easy life but the look in his eyes said clearly 'warrior' and 'officer'. He was dressed in dark brown from head to toe with a crest on his breast.
"I'm the captain of the guard here. Altos is my name. We keep an honorable trading post here. No one is cheated, clipped or robbed." He laughed at Heero's disbelieving expression. "It's cheaper in the long run. We get a reputation for double dealing and bad business practices and someone else comes out, builds another fort and we have all sorts of trouble. Happened about seventy years ago and it took ten years to dislodge the other settlement and get our business back. That was in my father's time and bad business it was for all involved. We don't want a repeat." He winked and nodded. "You two keep your swords visible and look like you mean business and you won't have any trouble."
Then he stepped back a step, nearly staggered by the change in the two young men. They went from the appearance of two slightly road worn travelers to two fierce, experienced warriors, ready to take on the whole fort if they had to. He shook his head. "No. I don't expect you to have any trouble. Don't start anything you can't finish and finish anything someone else starts. But be careful. The fines can break you."
Duo snorted. "I doubt that." He picked up one end of the trunk and waited. Heero dumped the panniers on the trunk and picked up the other end.
The innkeeper was happy to see them, pickings had been a bit slim lately as the weather kept the hunters in the mountains and the merchants near the sea. The usual time for travelers in this part of the country was spring and fall. As it was high summer the few travelers were military. The small detachment which was in residence now was bivouacked with the guard in their barracks.
"Hello, young gentlemen, one room or two." He rubbed his hands together hopefully.
Heero eyed him for a moment, decided he looked honest enough and replied, "One. One bed."
"Very good. Do you have your own lock? Or would you like to rent one"
Duo answered that question. "We have a lock. I'll have to examine the hasp and approve it. If it doesn't meet our criteria we'll be replacing it."
The innkeeper looked a bit startled but agreed readily enough. "Very well. But I do think you'll approve. Strongest steel available, bolted through the wall. Please ... this way."
He didn't offer to have someone carry their stuff for them, instead he just led the way to the back of the inn.
The room was small, dim and a bit dirty. Heero sniffed and backed out, shoving the innkeeper out of his way. Duo stuck his head in the door, then turned to the innkeeper and shook his head. "Not acceptable. Too small, too dirty. You do know how a broom works, don't you?"
The innkeeper sputtered a bit but allowed as how the boy hadn't done a proper job of cleaning for a while. He just suggested that they look at rooms until they found something they liked, then they'd talk payment.
They checked several rooms, finally picking one at the back of the inn. That was when they found out that the back wall of the inn faced an outer wall of the fort, there were only about twelve feet between the two. Heero studied the wall of the fort for a moment, then sighed. The walls were not the 'tree stuck in the ground' sort of thing popular in movies. Where would they get trees in this flat, barren ground? Instead it was rammed earth. He decided not to worry about how easily it could be scaled, topped by ladders or breached by a battering ram. After all, hadn't the captain said it was safe?
Duo examined the door and found that it was really secure. It was made of planks of wood, bound with straps of iron, but the method of construction was interesting; each plank was nailed in such a way that any attempt to saw the door apart would meet with failure as all the nails were hammered in at an angle. The chain that bound the door was attached to a metal hasp bolted through the wall, a metal plate on the inside kept the bolts from being pulled out. Duo gave his approval so Heero dug their lock out of the trunk. They put their possessions in the room and locked the chains together.
The innkeeper blinked at the lock, then just shrugged and walked off. He'd deal with them as they dealt with him and so far so good.
Duo immediately went to the dry good store and started looking for necessities. He bought more of the dried vegetables and beans. He also bought the mixed grain that made up the main ingredient of porridge as well as dried apples, cherries and a fruit called demesela. Combined with nuts, the fruit made the porridge much more palatable. He found a small wooden cask of dried honey and added that to his growing pile of goods. Next was flour, salt, tea and spices for the stew.
Between finding what he wanted and haggling, it was noon before he was done. Heero just stood in a corner and watched. He wasn't about to leave Duo alone anywhere in the compound, especially as Duo had silver with him.
Duo handed over silver to pay for their goods, got back a few coppers and pocketed them. He sighed and looked at the pile of goods. It was going to be a bitch getting it back to the inn and he said as much. Heero just shrugged and started picking up things.
They both couldn't have their hands full of packages as they didn't consider that safe, one of them had to have their hands free. Heero, being the stronger of the two, was the natural pick for stevedore so he loaded himself down with all their supplies and headed for the inn with Duo on his heels. Nothing untoward occurred on the way which made a good impression on them.
They packed everything in their panniers, ready to go as soon as possible, then went down for lunch.
Lunch proved to be broken meats from last night's supper, slices of cheese, bread and pickles. Ale to drink and wine on offer but it was extra. They settled for the ale, which was very good, and were soon full and just nibbling on pickles for the lack of anything else to do.
After a bit Heero announced, "We could go check on the mules. I don't want the farrier to pull the trick of not being done in the morning so we have to spend another night."
Duo nodded his agreement and just stood up to follow Heero across the room.
They checked in at the farrier's and found out that the mules were nearly done. The farrier had worked quickly but it was very late to be leaving now and the last mule had just been shod on one hoof so far. They decided that they might as well stay so they left and wandered on.
They rounded the corner of the barracks and found a large yard occupied by about thirty men and boys. The entire garrison that wasn't on duty. Some of the men were playing games of various sorts and the boys were working out under the watchful eye of the arms master.
Heero watched for a while, then stepped into the yard. He and Duo were both bored and needed something to distract themselves with. Duo followed him, in step and one half step behind him and to the right. They automatically took up this conformation now but it wasn't always Heero in the lead.
The arms master noticed them, of course, and came over to ask them what they wanted. Heero eyed the man and decided. Between the reassurances of the captain, the attitude of the innkeeper and the appearance of this man and his troupe, Heero decided to trust. Duo leaned in a bit and whispered, "Good vibes." and Heero was sure.
"We're here until tomorrow. Mules need shod. We're both bored, what do you have in the way of entertainment?"
The arms master grinned at them. "I'm Leon. I'm in charge of training this bunch of thieves. We've got some games of chance, training and board games. No women, I'm afraid. Captain doesn't allow them as all they do is cause trouble."
Heero smirked at Duo. "That's ok. Women don't do it for us anyway." Duo snickered a bit.
Leon just chuckled back. "That's good. Come, I'll introduce you around and you can try your hand at a duel or two. How's that?"
Duo grinned, this was going to be fun.
And it was fun, for Duo, Heero and Leon; it wasn't that much fun for some of the guardsmen. They wound up on the wrong end of Duo's sword, or Heero's. But they took it in good natured fashion, grumbling about knights picking on poor guardsmen.
After spending a couple of hours working with the arms master, they turned to the common guards. They learned the board games they played and taught them some of their own. Duo also taught them mumbledy peg and checkers.
They laughed with the men as Duo whipped Leon at mumbledy peg, getting his knife to stick in the ground one point nearly every time.
Finally Leon ran them off, saying that it was time to get ready to change the guard.
They then went to the bath house and got the sweat and dirt of their journey off them, put on some clean clothing and returned to the inn.
Dinner was noisy, happy and delicious. The off duty guards who could afford it, in other words, the upper ranks, ate at the inn. They were a loud, raucous bunch but friendly and non-confrontational. They recognized the warrior in Heero and Duo despite their young appearance.
There was good food, good drink, and good music. One man produced a guitar-like instrument from a corner and another settled to the harp in the corner by the fireplace. They played while everyone else sang, or tried to. The impromptu serenade broke up when the innkeeper started blowing out the lamps. This seemed to be a universal signal that the bar was closed.
Duo led Heero up the stairs by the hand, whispering naughty things to him as they went.
They undressed and jumped on the bed which creaked alarmingly, not that they noticed. Heero laughed in delight but demanded, "Duo, lock the damn door. We don't need company. Remember the last inn?"
Duo grumbled but got up to bar the door from the inside. He also opened the window, it was getting much too hot in the room, in more ways than one, and he didn't want to sweat to death tonight.
They were in the middle of some very nice foreplay when there was a scraping noise at the window.
A dark shadow loomed in the moonlit frame. It was a man with something in his hand. He waved his knife and snarled, "Give me your money and no one will be hurt."
Duo groaned, eyed the man in the window and snarled, "Trying to fuck here. Asshole." He picked up his pistol from the bedside table and shot him right in the chest.
Heero sighed and growled, "What is it? Some god or goddess just doesn't want us to get it on?" Then he returned his attention to Duo's chest.
But Duo was having none of it, pushing Heero away gently while grumbling, "Fucking buzz-kill. You know we're going to have everyone and his damn brother in here in seconds. Right?"
Heero flopped back in the bed and replied, "You're right, of course. Fuck!" He slammed his fist into the wall, knocking out a huge chunk of plaster, then expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms. But he got up and put his pants on.
He was just in time too, someone was pounding on the door before he could get the button done. Duo opened the door and let in the innkeeper and two guardsmen.
The innkeeper took one look at the dead man and snarled, "How the hell did he get up to the window?" He actually stepped over the body to look out the window. He reached out and pulled up a rope, the grapple was padded with rags, which was why they hadn't heard it strike the windowsill. It hadn't hurt that they were preoccupied at the time.
The two guards were examining the burglar although neither one of them seemed overly upset at his death.
"He's dead." The elder guard stated the obvious as he examined the bullet wound in the corpse's chest.
"But how? There's just this little hole in his chest." The younger guard didn't have any experience to speak of with bodies.
"Well, that little hole is right over his heart. If it was an arrow wound, where'd the arrow go?"
Heero ambled over with a round in his hand. "I'll explain. See?" He showed the round. "This is ammo for our weapons. The brass part contains a powder that explodes. The lead part flies out of our weapon at a very high rate of speed, penetrates and there you are. Enough?"
The sergeant nodded. "If that's how you killed him, the lead should still be in him." He produced a knife and proceeded to dig out the bullet. "Damn. Which one of you did the deed?" Duo stood beside Heero and just waited. "I see." He noticed their tense posture. "Oh, don't worry. You're not in any trouble, there's been a rash of robberies and such, this is our criminal. If you killed him, tough on him. Saves me a lot of trouble. Just need to know for my report."
Duo shrugged, he was feeling cold now and wished they would all go away so he could get warm. "I did. We..." He waved a hand between himself and Heero, "were ... busy. He interrupted and I got ... annoyed."
Heero noticed that Duo was starting to shiver and the sergeant did too. "Get him back in your bed and get him warmed up. I'll order some tea for you." He motioned Heero away from Duo. Heero followed, frowning. "He ever kill before?"
Heero realized what the sergeant was doing and smiled at him. "Yes, but ... it's been a hard few weeks. Sometimes he'll react like this. Me too. He'll be ok in the morning, once he's had time to process."
"Good, good. Hate dealing with first timers. I'll have the tea up in a little. Dose it with some extra honey and ... cuddle him. That's my advice, for what it's worth." The sergeant smiled. "I'll have to call some help. For the body. Won't be long.
Heero went back to crawl into bed with Duo and hold him. "It's ok. No one seems to care much. Home invader gets his due seems to be the general thought."
Duo shivered. "If I hadn't seen him, he could have sneaked up on us and ... and ... fuck, I wanna go home."
Heero hugged Duo hard, realizing exactly what had Duo so upset now. The man could literally have murdered them in their bed, if they hadn't been awake still. "Damnit, me too. Working on it. There's tea coming. I'll stay awake until about three? Then you wake and I'll sleep. That work for you?"
Duo shivered again. "Yeah, that works for me."
The tea arrived just then, carried up by the innkeeper personally. "Here's the tea. Due to the circumstances, your stay is free. Breakfast when you're ready." He sighed. "I'm very sorry for this."
They were interrupted by four guards who arrived with a stretcher and another bearing a bucket and mop. They put the man on the stretcher and carried him out the door while the last man did a down and dirty job of mopping up the blood.
Heero got Duo to drink the tea and settle down to sleep. Heero stayed up, just as he'd promised, and watched Duo sleep. At three his watch peeped and he woke Duo.
Duo nodded. "Yes, just a little freaked. That was so not good. Fucker. Glad the guard is seeing it our way."
"Justice is a bit rough here but ... what the hell. I'm tired. Good night."
Heero eased down in the bed to try to get a couple of hours sleep before they left.
When they came down for breakfast, the innkeeper informed them that the burglar had been identified as a man who was notorious for killing some of his victims. He wouldn't be missed and there was a reward for him. Heero looked at Duo.
Duo just shook his head. "No, we're not sticking around long enough to collect it. Give it to the garrison. Tell them to have a party with it. Breakfast ready?"
The innkeeper dropped the subject and went to bring them their food.
Heero settled shoulder to shoulder with Duo in the tightest corner in the room. They faced the room and waited. The innkeeper brought their food and just put it on the table without comment. He didn't like it that the fort would be spoken of as unsafe. It was very bad for business.
Neither Heero nor Duo understood the problem and they wouldn't have cared if they did. All they wanted was out of the fort as soon as possible.
Their host, knowing exactly what they'd been up to in the night, decided to give them a little 'sweetener' in hopes of easing their anger a bit. So he put a jar in Heero's hand as soon as they were finished eating.
"A little something for later. Good for ... seasoning your ..." He gave up trying to be delicate when he realized that Heero had no idea of the euphemisms of the fort. "It's good for sex. You drink it. A spoonful in your tea before sex will ... help things along. Enjoy."
Heero looked at him a bit blankly, then said, "Thanks." Duo called him so he just turned and hurried off. The innkeeper hoped the aphrodisiac pleased the two fierce eyed young men.
They rode for two days, pushing hard. A mule can manage about three miles an hour but can't keep it up forever. If they really pushed the mules, they could go for most of a day, but that didn't leave time for eating or setting up camp. So they kept their pace to 20 to 25 miles a day.
The mules weren't any happier than Heero or Duo were, but they obediently kept the pace until they entered the foothills.
The next day they rested the mules, feeding them double measures of grain and sweet feed.
Duo setup the camp while Heero took the opportunity to hunt. He came back with some rabbit-like creatures which Duo took and set to spit roast over the small fire he'd built in a carefully constructed firepit.
"Well, we've got some time now. My ass is numb."
Heero chuckled. "Mine too. But I really didn't want to stay too close to that fort. I didn't get a bad feeling but who knows who might bribe whom. Then we'd be in the weeds for sure."
"Right. But we've got a lot of money, we could probably bribe back. You know? Like double down. Still, I'd rather not."
Heero nodded poking at a 'rabbit' to see if it was roasting properly. It was, so he turned back to the conversation. "Me neither. Who knows how much money the temple might charge. Or what expenses we might have."
Duo handed him a cup of tea and sighed. "Exactly. And, as we're now in the foothills, we're going to be traveling a lot slower. We've still got about 300 miles to go with only a small village en route. If I figured wrong, we're going to run out of supplies before we get there."
"We've still got plenty of MREs. It's time to stop saving them. I figure we've still got about 500 miles total. Once we get to the temple, they'll have facilities for us."
"Heero. I think we need to just push it. It's getting late in the season and snow is going to be a real problem."
"Right. Tomorrow we start the push. It's going to be miserable at the last. We're not going to stop until we have to. The mules are not going to be happy."
Duo sipped at his tea for a while. Finally, he nodded once, as if he'd made up his mind about something. "Tough. We'll have to sell them anyway. We'll just push them as hard as we dare, then make sure to sell them to someone who'll take good care of them." He glanced at the placidly grazing animals. "Sorry, guys."
With that, they settled down for the night, getting what rest they could before making the last push into the mountains and beyond. The temple was on a plateau so the last hundred miles were going to be uphill all the way.
The next morning, Duo checked their supply of gold and silver. They'd been careful with it and still had more than half, but the last purchase of supplies had exhausted their 'bits' and he knew that he'd have to take time to cut up another oval of silver. They were hanging onto the gold and jewels until the last push when they'd have less time and need to spend more money. The mountains were going to be a bitch and they knew it.
"We might have to trade the mules in on mountain ponies. I'm not sure if they'll be fit or not. They're plains animals, after all. Might not be mountain savvy. We'll just have to hang on and see."
Duo agreed with Heero and sighed. "I hate to treat them like this. Pushing them so hard just ... ok, I'm soft hearted."
Heero smiled. "Me too. I really don't want to do it either. But if we get caught in the mountains after first snowfall, we'll be in real trouble. We only have summer sleeping bags and a few extra blankets. Even with shared body heat it might be too cold. We've got to." He rubbed his face. It was a hard decision to make; go easy on the mules and take the chance of getting caught by the snow and hope that their cloaks and sleeping bags would be up to the test. Or go hard on the mules and possibly break their health or even kill one of them. He didn't like either choice. "We'll give them double rations of grain later in the trip and hope it keeps them strong enough. I just hope to hell one of them doesn't throw a damn shoe."
Duo nodded. "That'd be just great. I don't fancy leading my ride for miles. We'd have to double up on the other riding mule or get caught by snow for sure." He stood up abruptly. "Well, let's get going."
They mounted up and the push into the mountains began. It was a miserable journey on several levels. They had to set and break camp quickly so as not to waste daylight. And they ate a cold breakfast for the same reason.
The foothills were different from the plains, of course, but the worst part was the trail was now rocky and the mules constantly picked up stones which they had to check for before they loosened a shoe. Heero instituted a schedule of stops every two hours to make sure the panniers and trunk hadn't slipped and none of the mules had a stone. They didn't stop for lunch, they never had, and they stopped late in the evening.
Duo had acquired a leather pouch that the storekeeper called a soaking pouch. Before they set off each morning he filled it with dried stuff from their store. He added water and hooked it over his saddle horn, by the time they made camp the food was soft and he dumped it into their stewpot, putting it on the fire to cook as he set up camp.
They tumbled into the sleeping bag to sleep together, giving up watch and watch after the first three days. Duo nearly fell asleep in the saddle which wouldn't have been too bad, except that they were on a section of the trail that was straight up on one side and straight down on the other. That cured them of watch and watch.
The map didn't mark the many small villages on the way, either. There was a village at about three days travel apart. They stopped at every one of them for one short night, paying with copper until they ran out, then cutting up another oval of silver and paying with that.
Heero's estimate of the rate of travel had been – optimistic at best. The rough terrain and the fact that the mules were used to flat land worked against them at every turn.
The first village they entered greeted them without excitement, people just glanced up to check them out, then went back to business. The inn was small, clean and spartan, the innkeeper polite but distant. They were told that there were no supplies for purchase this late in the season but the next village might have something. This was the way it went for the next two weeks.
Then, one of the mules threw a shoe at the point of no return, so they continued on, riding double until noon, then taking turns, changing when they checked the shoes.
On one such stop, Heero checked his map again. He also checked the master map and Duo's copy. Most of the villages they'd come across weren't on the map and they'd been told at the last three villages that they were only a few days from a town.
"Duo, I know you copied these maps correctly but they're inaccurate, at best. Total fabrications at worst. The first leg was accurate but since the fort they're lacking."
Duo glanced at Heero from where he was checking the mule who was missing a shoe. Its hoof was beginning to split. "I was afraid that might be the case. It's usually true in more primitive times that maps were ... by word of mouth, sort of. Someone would go somewhere and come back, tell people about their trip then someone else would draw a map, or the traveler would do so from memory. The Abbot did the best he could for us and damn good it was too. It's just that we're out of range of fact and into someone told someone who drew it. We'll just have to either play it by ear or find someone with a good map."
"We need to just hold on until we reach the town. If three villages say it's within ten days travel they're probably right. How are we doing for supplies?"
"Not too bad. We've got about another two weeks of local stuff and more than a month of MREs, more if we ration down to two a day."
Heero nodded. "We need to travel even faster. There was a heavy dew this morning. Frost is close and we'll be even higher soon."
Duo made a face. "I know. And the innkeeper at the last inn told me that the last fifty miles of the trip to the temple have to be made on foot. So his brother told him. Don't know but ... the way our luck is going, that's probably true."
Heero rubbed his stubbled chin. "Fuck. Well, we'll shoot that horse when it's time. Or not. Come on, better get going."
Duo nodded. It was his time to walk so they started out, Heero mounted and Duo holding onto his stirrup leathers. They traveled this way, turn and turn, until dusk fell. The deeper into the mountains they went the earlier dusk fell, a combination of earlier nightfall and the growing height of the peaks around them.
Duo wearily started a fire and put on the stewpot. He was utterly weary of stew and flat bread. He swore that, at the next town, he was having fowl if he had to kill it himself. And a hot bath. He got back up to help Heero with the mules. The one who'd thrown a shoe was getting more and more resistive as his hoof got more damaged and more painful. Duo felt sorry for the beast.
"We need to get rid of this one at the next village, if we can be sure they'll treat him well."
Heero nodded, his own weariness showing in his face. "Yes, we do. He's going to wind up crippled at this rate. He's limping heavily now and his disposition is turning. I don't blame him but I really don't want to get kicked. How soon will the stew be done?"
"Hour or so. I'll start the bread in a minute."
Heero shook his head. "Don't bother unless you want some. I'm so sick of that stuff I could puke."
"Ok, less work for me, but if you change your mind, I can have some whipped up in about fifteen minutes."
And with that, Duo settled to wrap his arms around his knees and stare into the fire.
Heero joined him as soon as he had the mules staked out to get what graze they could. He hated packing and unpacking and the constant harnessing and unharnessing but he wasn't about to leave the poor beasts in harness, never mind leaving the panniers and trunk on the pack animal. Some people would do so as tired as he and Duo were but he wasn't about to abuse the animals more than absolutely necessary.
They ate in exhausted silence and went to bed, bone weary and well aware that they had it all to do all over again tomorrow.
Breakfast was consumed in quick fashion, Duo didn't even bother to try to heat up the stew. He took the pot down to the nearby stream for a wash while Heero harnessed up the two useable mules. He carried water back to camp and set the stew mix to soaking, then broke down camp, put their gear away in the trunk, careful to make sure it was properly packed and not just stuffed in any which way.
Heero lashed the trunk on top of the panniers and mounted up. They were switching the mules from riding to pack now and the pack mule wasn't too sure he liked being ridden but he was cooperative enough so they both mounted him and rode off.
They made the much spoken about town of Braban by early afternoon. They'd have traveled a bit faster and made it by noon but the mountains made it impossible to see it until they crested a rise then it was there, cradled in the small valley ahead.
They were not surprised to see that it was a walled town. The walls were of quarried granite and more than fifteen feet high. They were topped with wooden palisades and broken with towers at corner and middle of each wall. The middle towers were all gated with several guards at each one. They were stopped politely enough and were asked their business.
When they told the guard that they were on the way to the Temple of Portals they got a commiserating look. The man handed them a small scroll, told them to read it and allowed to enter the town.
They were pointed to several inns by a man, obviously a member of the guard, who followed them until they chose one. He didn't try to hide the fact that he was following them, in fact, he asked them questions and admitted that their answers would get directly to the captain. Since they didn't have anything to hide they answered without hesitation.
The inn they chose had an attendant stable and a farrier. The innkeeper was a dour man who just nodded to all their requests and went away, motioning to a boy to show them to their rooms. Heero shouldered the trunk and Duo carried the panniers. They approved the room, which had a double barred door and windows covered with crossed metal straps, riveted together at each crossing. After locking the door securely, they went back downstairs to see to their mules.
The farrier took one look at the shoeless mule's hoof and said that it was split and he shouldn't travel any more. Heero just nodded and asked if he knew someone who would buy him and take good care of him. The farrier replied that he was in the market for a personal mule and liked the look of the beast. Just then the mule nibbled at his apron strings. The farrier just laughed and pushed his head away, saying, "Leave be, you silly beast." That decided both Heero and Duo that they would sell the mules to this man.
Duo dickered with him for quite some time, both of them enjoying the to and fro of bargaining. Heero stood near by, petting the mules and listening. Finally, the farrier spit in his hand and offered it to Duo, Duo spit in his and shook hands with the man.
"We'll be needing ponies, what do you have?" And with this, another round of bargaining began.
The farrier turned out to be the stable master too and he took them out to the corrals in the back and pointed out several ponies. Duo let Heero pick them while he bargained anew. It didn't take them long to pick four ponies and harness and saddles, trading their equipment even up for the new. They took the price of the mules off the price of the ponies and had to pay a bit more, of course. Duo felt that he'd gotten the best of the deal. The mules were tired and not in top shape but they'd taken the best care of them possible and the farrier gave them a good price. The ponies were fresh and rested and the harness and saddles new. Duo handed over two ovals of silver and announced himself satisfied. Part of the deal included room and board for the two humans for two nights.
They went back to the inn and got clean clothing, then started for the bath house. They met the innkeeper on the stairs. He told them that one of the stable boys had come over to pay for their rooms and had overpaid. He asked if they wanted a refund or some service. Heero glanced at Duo then nodded, "We're almost out of clean clothing." (You said that the innkeeper was a dour woman!)
The innkeeper just shrugged. "You bring down all your dirty stuff and tell the laundress how to wash it." He started to turn away, then turned back. "Oh, and take the panniers to the stable on your way out, or at least leave them with the laundress."
Duo agreed to do that and scurried back up the stairs to dump them out on the floor, stuff the dirty laundry into one and return to Heero. They made their way to the laundry yard and helped the laundress sort their stuff, explaining how to wash it as they went. She was a cheerful woman who promised not to fade anything or rub holes in their underwear. Duo charmed her with flattery and smiles while Heero just listened. They left the panniers with her and went on their way.
The bath house was the same as the first one they'd used except that there were no masseuses. They bathed, washed Duo's hair and put on their clean clothing. Duo announced that they needed to buy supplies so they went shopping.
The shopkeepers were polite in an unctuous sort of way and they were soon resupplied with dried vegetables, meat and rice. There were no pea things, for which Heero pronounced himself grateful. He was sick of the mealy mouth feel of them and their pungent smell and taste had started repelling him. Duo also got more tea and honey.
When they returned to the inn they were informed that the kitchen had caught fire so there was no hot food. In fact, there was no food at all. The innkeeper apologized and handed Duo, the de facto bursar of their journey, several copper coins.
Duo managed to keep his cool until they got back to the room then he just flopped down on the bed and swore.
Heero joined him on the bed and wrapped one arm around his shoulders, rubbing his chest with the other. "Duo, calm down. We'll just eat an MRE and go to bed. We'll be here all day tomorrow and tomorrow night. We'll get used to the ponies and how to tack them and we'll take another bath. We can have spaghetti and meatballs. And coffee. Instant but still ... coffee." His coaxing tone made Duo sigh. "With powdered cream substitute and real sugar. What do you say?"
"I say you're a goof. But it does sound good. Especially the coffee. Sorry I was being such a grump." Duo ran a hand through his bangs. "I need a trim, but I think I'll just ... skin them back and forget about it. Nap?"
"Yeah, I'm beat. We should sleep all we can, while we can. We need the rest to catch up." Heero snuggled against Duo and fell asleep almost at once, Duo right behind him.
They slept the rest of the day away and only woke near dusk to take a toilet break and ask the innkeeper for hot water. They were informed that there wasn't even that as the chimney had caught and burned out the main line.
Duo returned to the room grumpy and thirsty. "Well, this sucks and it's too late to find someplace else. So, what do we do?"
Heero looked at the fireplace in their room. There was a fire hook bolted to the side with a kettle on it. He took the kettle off the hook and said, "Start a fire. I'll get some water. We'll just heat our own and we'll have fuel tabs in the MREs. We'll manage. Calm down."
Duo sighed. "I know I'm acting crazy but ... I've got a bad feeling and ... never mind."
Heero shrugged Duo's attitude off to nerves from being worn out and went off the get water.
Duo built the fire and dug two MREs out of the trunk, carefully shutting it when he was done. One attempt to open the trunk had cured them of laziness in making sure their possessions were secured.
Duo had carefully picked out a Spaghetti and Meatballs for himself and Heero's favorite Beef Stroganoff for him. He had to laugh as he realized that his mouth was actually watering for the taste. "Never thought I'd be salivating over a damn MRE."
Heero returned with the kettle of water and announced that they'd heat the MREs in the boiling water and save the fuel tabs for another use. Then he put some extra towels on the foot of the bed, spread one out and placed the pot of lube on the bedside table. He got the little jar of stuff the innkeeper at the fort had given him and took it back to the fire with him.
Duo eyed the stuff with curiosity, asking, "What's that?"
"The innkeeper at the fort gave it to me. He said it was good for sex. Probably some old wives cure for something or other. But it smells interesting. He said to put it in our tea. Want a taste?"
Duo tasted it carefully. It mostly tasted of cinnamon. "Well, it's not bad. We could put it in our coffee. Like a latte or something."
"Ok. Sounds good to me." Heero put the pot on the hook and pushed it over the fire to boil.
They got out the MREs and opened them. Heero chuckled at the stuff that was in it. They were standard Preventers issue with all the usual things. Including toilet paper.
So they put the bag with their entree into the boiling water. When they were warm, Duo took them out of the water and opened the bags. He poured the food onto plates while Heero mixed their coffee. He added the cinnamon flavored paste to it along with creamer and sugar.
Duo moaned in ecstasy as he forked the first bite of meatball into his mouth. "Oh, god, that's so good. Damn, but it's bad when MREs make your mouth water."
Heero didn't say anything, his mouth was full of noodles.
They ate slowly, savoring each bite fully. Then, after they were done with their main course, they had dessert. Duo had apple crumble while Heero had cookies. They enjoyed their coffee and dessert very much, especially the coffee.
After they were done with their coffee and dessert, Heero led Duo to the bed.
He eased his lover down on it, admiring his brilliant blue-violet eyes and long lashes. He smiled against lush lips then kissed them.
"Mmmm, you taste like coffee. Nice." Heero licked Duo's lip. "Let me in."
Duo opened his mouth with a soft whimper of need. This felt so good already. He obediently replied to Heero's invasion of his mouth with a quick, darting tongue; exploring Heero's mouth eagerly.
Duo ran one hand over Heero's bare chest, Heero's shirt having disappeared mysteriously. He stroked Heero's shoulders while kissing him breathless.
Heero also explored his partner's chest. They were both moaning in need in moments.
Heero slid his hand down Duo's abdomen and grasped his sex. He was a bit surprised when it seemed to wriggle like a snake. He dismissed the sensation as sensory overload and stroked him firmly.
Duo ran his hand over Heero's chest again but Heero flinched back.
"Too rough. Not good."
Heero felt as if someone had run sandpaper over his nipple, yet he knew it was just Duo's calloused palm.
Duo noticed Heero's flinch and whispered, "Too much?" Heero nodded, rubbing his cheek against Duo's. Duo felt as if someone had run a rasp over his face. "Ouch! What the hell?"
Heero shook his head, his bangs tickling uncomfortably. "I don't know." He tried to return his attention to Duo but suddenly found that his once raging erection had faded to near nothing.
Duo suddenly gave a whimper as he felt like he'd been dipped in fire. "Oh, my god. It hurts!"
Heero looked at Duo but all he could see was a haze of green and gold. "Duo, what's going on?"
Duo, curled around himself to try to ease his pain, whispered, "I don't know. Something bad is going on."
Heero's eyes flicked back and forth, trying to see something other than the swirling haze. "Not good. I'm ... it's all green and gold and ..." He shuddered, the swirling hallucinations were making him nauseous. "I don't like this."
Duo groaned as he plunged from fire to ice, shivering violently with cold now. He opened his eyes but everything he looked at was surrounded by star bursts in neon colors. "Oh, fuck. This is bad, very, very bad."
Heero blinked blearily, trying to focus on Duo. All he could really see was a mass of brown that he knew had to be Duo's braid. He grasped it and held on for dear life. If he didn't he was going to be washed away.
"That stuff. The ... stuff. In coffee. Hallucinogenic. Man, we're in deep shit."
Heero licked his lips, tongue sliding awkwardly over them. "You're right. How long?"
"Dunno." Duo rolled to one side and stuck his fingers down his throat. It didn't work. "Ugh! We're in for a bad night."
And they were. They both alternated between chills and fever, hallucinations and clear minds. The entire night, which was supposed to be spent in sensual pleasure and love, was spent instead in agony and confusion. They both finally fell asleep near dawn.
They slept until noon, the single knock on their door told to go the hell away.
Heero was the first to actually become aware. "Duo? Duo!"
Duo opened on eye and groaned. "Fuck! What the hell?"
Heero heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God. Duo, we have to figure out what happened."
There was another, was it another? Knock on the door. Heero answered it carefully, he was still feeling shaky.
The innkeeper peered into the room. "Everything all right in there? We heard noises but when we knocked you said to go away. What's going on?"
Duo sighed and called to Heero. "Just tell them. We don't have much choice. We're both too messed up."
Heero just stepped back and let the innkeeper in. "We ... I don't know what happened. We ate some food that we carry with us. There's no possibility that it could have been bad. We drank stuff from those meals as well. The only thing not from out stores was this. It's some sort of granny stuff. Tastes spicy."
Heero picked up the pot and handed it to the innkeeper. He sniffed it, then said, "I know what this is. It's just something that heightens sensation a bit. It's a mild aphrodisiac. From the looks of it, you barely took enough. Wonder ..." He put the pot on the table. "Get dressed. I'll bring a healer." And with that rather contradictory advice he left.
The next knock on the door was the healer. He asked questions and asked to see their food. They hadn't cleaned up after themselves so all the wrappers and such were still scattered over the floor.
The healer sniffed the entree packets and shook his head. "Nothing wrong here. What else?" The dessert packets were duly examined and rejected as a cause. Then the healer sniffed the pot of paste, remarked that they hadn't taken nearly enough to cause any problems, in fact, there were only about two proper doses in the pot. After that he picked up a pack of instant coffee, Heero didn't like strong coffee so he usually only used half a serving, folding the top down to keep it fresh for later. In this instant it was a very good thing.
The healer carefully poured the powder out onto a small plate and examined it. "I'm not sure what this is. What is it?"
Duo explained about drying coffee and creamer. The healer asked what was in coffee and not surprising to Heero, he knew everything that was in the powder. When he said caffeine, the healer jerked, exclaiming, "Caffeine? That's ... no wonder. Caffeine combined with one of the ingredients of the love potion produces a very powerful hallucinogen. You had a very bad reaction to that." He went to his box and rummaged around a bit. "Here, this will help with the headache. Eat, no alcohol, and rest the remainder of the day. You should be fit to leave in the morning if you want. I wouldn't recommend it but you can." He handed Duo a twist of paper with some powder in it. Duo took it but knew that neither he nor Heero would use it. There were analgesic tablets in the MREs, they'd take them.
The innkeeper was sympathetic and brought up some food for them. He announced that he'd brought coddled eggs in cream, sweet porridge and tea. Stuff that was easy on an upset stomach. They thanked him gratefully and ate their food, still bone weary and starting at everything.
After eating they returned to the bed and fell back asleep, only to wake at dinner time to another knock and another tray of food. The innkeeper gave them a hard look, then nodded as if satisfied in some way by what he saw.
"I'll need you to pay for the extras before you leave, but don't worry about that now. I'll give you a bit of advice as if you were my own sons. Don't leave tomorrow. You're not up to it. Eat and sleep some more. I told the stable master to keep your ponies an extra day. You'll be up and ready to go soon enough." He gave them a small nod and left, leaving them to their food and rest.
The next time they woke it was to sunlight pouring in the window. Heero felt much better although his mouth was fuzzy and very dry.
He got up and pissed, which made him feel even better. Then Duo's brilliant eyes met his and everything was good again.
"You ok?" Heero sat down on the bed and took Duo's hand.
"Yeah, I'm good. Just ... no more ... helpers. Ok?"
Heero laughed softly. "Ok. We go on our own juice or we don't. Stupid thing to do, you know."
"Yeah. That's a roger. Let me up now." Duo sat up. Heero got out of his way and turned his back so Duo could use the commode.
After he was done they cleaned up. The fireplace in the kitchen being repaired made hot water available again and they sent down for wash water. Which came up via a young girl who carried two heavy cans of hot water up for them. They washed up, put on clean clothing and went down to have breakfast, check on the ponies and finish arrangements to leave the next morning.
Heero stopped the innkeeper as he was passing through the common room.
"Excuse me. I'd like to thank you for taking care of us."
The innkeeper just waved this away. "Don't worry. I hate having people die in the inn. Gives us a bad name." He grinned at his own joke and Heero obligingly chuckled. "You should go have a nice bath, then come back here for lunch. Idle around a bit."
They decided to take his advice, except for the visit to the stables. They went there to make sure that the stable master had gotten the panniers and to check on their ponies.
The check wound up as a training session. The stable master brought out the ponies and had them both pet and feed them. Then he showed them, at their request, how to saddle the riding ponies and harness the packs in place. The ponies were smaller than the mules and so they couldn't carry as much. One pony would carry the stuff from the panniers in new ones while the other would carry the trunk. They put the harness on, took it off and did it again. The stable master was pleased to see that it only took them once to get it right.
They returned to the inn proper and settled in the common room for lack of inclination to move themselves up in their room again.
The innkeeper happily obliged them with a tea of mint and ginger, and some slices of cake. They enjoyed the snack and Duo pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket so they could play some cards. Duo always had cards or some game in a pocket and they played two handed solitaire until the common room started to fill up for lunch.
The lunch crowd was composed of laborers, teamsters and stevedores mostly. They were a quiet bunch, only interested in eating and getting back to work. Heero and Duo felt comfortable enough with them that they stayed in their seats near the kitchen. They got nods of recognition from a few people, who had seen them in the stables but mostly they were politely ignored.
When lunch was finished they went back upstairs, dug out their maps and returned to the stables to have the stable master look them over. They wanted him to revise them and put in the villages and towns on the trail between here and the temple.
When they told him they were going to the temple he just sighed. "Not good. It's so late in the season already that it's snowing on the pass. You should wait until spring." He took a look at their faces and sighed again. "Fine! I see your minds are made up."
Duo put an arm around Heero's waist and grumbled, "Not that we don't like it here, but I want to go home."
The stable master looked at Heero for a moment, then turned to Duo. "Well, can't say as I blame you. Not from here, then? I'll take one of these and mark it for you. I'll have it by dinner time. Go on now, I'll get right to work. Scat!"
So they scatted, wandering around the town, window shopping and visiting with a few people. They found a storyteller in the main square and spent the last of the afternoon listening to him.
Dinner was another quiet meal, for which they were grateful. The innkeeper asked what time they wanted breakfast and if they were leaving or not.
Heero consulted with Duo right in the man's face and they decided to leave in the morning so they told the innkeeper to wake them at dawn. He smiled, replied that he was glad to see them better and disappeared into the kitchen.
They got up at the knock on their door and went down to a wonderful breakfast. They packed up for the last time at the inn and took their stuff downstairs. The innkeeper gave Duo the final bill, which he paid along with a tip. The man was properly grateful; he even offered them a stirrup cup after they were mounted.
Duo reined his pony around and led the way through the town. They had entered by the southern gate but they would leave through the western one. The stable master accompanied them on his 'new' mule, smiling happily. He was going to accompany them to the head of the valley to check on the other mules, which were at his father's place, feeding up and resting. He told them that the animals were very good natured so he was going to keep them for himself. This made both Heero and Duo happy, they'd come a long way with the mules and had hated the thought that they had to sell them, possibly to someone who'd mistreat them. The stable master had impressed them as a kind, good man who'd do right by them.
On their way through the valley the stable master talked about their route, showing them on the map from time to time. It only took them three hours to get to the farm, the turn off was just before the gate. They bid the stable master good journey and continued on their way.
This time the first part of the journey was just that, a journey. They traveled easily, the ponies sure footed and hardy. The weather cooperated nicely being warm for the time of year without the usual heavy dew. The towns were spaced so that they could stay in one every third night, so when they ran out of dried goods, Duo didn't replenish their supplies, instead he bought things like cheeses, fruit and meat pies. The pies would stay good for two days and the cheese even longer. The sweet/tart, crisp apples and juicy pears were often gone the same day they were purchased.
They made it to their last stop with surprising ease. The fort that guarded the entrance to the valley of the temple was small but well fortified and had a complement of guards who were sharp and ready. That didn't mean they were impolite or hostile, just efficient. Heero remarked that he approved.
There wasn't an inn, they were just put up in the barracks for the night. They were also told that the path was foot traffic only. It was too steep for any hoofed beast. So, again, they had to part with their animals. This time Duo wasn't too sure of the conditions until a monk came for the ponies and cheerfully assured them that they would be taken care of. Someone would purchase them and they'd be back at Braban in about a month. Heero wondered vaguely how many times the ponies had made the journey from Braban to here and back again.
They consulted the captain of the guard and several of the guardsmen. They all said the same thing, the trip would take ten days by foot if they were in good shape. They could carry all their stuff or sell what they didn't need here. The captain assured them that they would get prime prices as people coming down from the temple needed what they had to get home again.
Duo agreed with Heero that they ought to sell anything they had that blended in with the technology of the dimension so they went through the pile of stuff. They kept the MREs, tent, sleeping bags and their guns and ammo. The backpacks were heavy duty, framed expedition packs capable of carrying up to 200 lbs which they could actually carry fairly easily. They were both gundam pilots, after all. Heero had tested himself once just to see what he could do. He was perfectly capable of carrying 350 lbs every day for at least 10 days. That was how long their camping trip into the Rockies had lasted.
With this in mind, Duo happily gave up their extra blankets, cloaks and any clothing that fit in with the current styles. That left them with two fairly heavy packs, Heero insisted, and Duo agreed that they should divide everything equally. That meant that, if they got separated, each one of them would have some of everything. Duo didn't think they'd get separated but there was a chance of losing a pack. Heero also got the tent and cookstove. Duo had considered giving it up but since it was a tiny thing that worked off the same fuel tabs that the MRE heaters did, they kept it. It only weighed about three ounces and folded down into a box like thing slightly larger than a pack of cards.
They sold everything else for what the merchant offered them. Duo checked their stash and told Heero that they were down to the gems, a bar of gold and two ovals of silver. They'd realized after a while that they weren't going to run out of cash before they got to the temple and they'd been told that the temple would ask for a contribution and accept whatever they could pay.
So Duo made the bargain, only remarking to the merchant that he hoped the man would pass the savings on, instead of gouging some poor wayfarer. The merchant cheerfully agreed, saying that he did try when he could to make sure that his clients got good prices. Duo gave him a sour look and they went back to the barracks to spend one last night in comfort.
Their trunk they sneaked out that night and buried.
Heero watched Duo with some amusement as he dithered with his pack. Duo was as hard and lean as anyone, his silly jokes and wide grin a mask for the warrior within, but he did like his comforts and dry socks were some sort of fetish with him. Heero remembered with some alarm the one time Wufei had made the mistake of scoffing at this, Duo had nearly shot him on the spot, Shinigami on the surface with a vengeance. Now Duo was making sure that his spare dry socks were where he could find them, his water bottle was full and his fruit mix in the proper pocket.
Now that they were going to be on foot, Duo had managed to scrounge up the nearest thing to trail mix there was. Heero actually liked the stuff. It was composed of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and honey. No raisins or chocolate chips, both of which Heero hated. Duo had wheedled a merchant into making a huge bag of the stuff for them. They'd divided it between them, in small portions in cloth bags. It was to prove to be much more valuable than either one of them expected.
They both knew that the trail was going to be hard and both of them wondered why the hell the temple was on this huge plateau, in the middle of mountains that reminded them much more of the Rockies or Himalayas than the Appalachians or Blueridge foothills. They both figured they'd find out when they got there, or not.
So they started out in a wagon that would take them to the trailhead three hours away, then they were on their own. They couldn't get lost or so they were reassured as there was only one trail with no forks and no villages or towns. So they hopped off the wagon and, using the tailgate as a platform, got their packs on their backs and started up the first, gentle slope.
Heero judged that they had eight to ten hours of daylight and, relieved of the necessity of taking care of animals, they could travel for most of it. They made a good start, actually stopping for lunch. They only took about half an hour but it made a nice break and they took up their journey surprisingly refreshed. The afternoon went well, the trail was still fairly easy so they made good time and entered the evening's campsite while it was still light.
They set camp, putting up the tent and just tossing their bags into it. Duo checked their packs, dug out the extra blankets that he'd kept and tossed them in too. Then they settled down to start a fire and eat.
By the time they were through eating and drinking their coffee the sun was down. Duo agreed with Heero that the hot chocolate could be saved for breakfast so they crawled into the tent, arranged the sleeping bags and went to sleep. During the night their luck changed substantially. It started to rain. Not a hard downpour that would be soon over, just a steady drizzle that might last for days.
They warmed their water on the small stove, carefully shielding the floor of the tent with a protective plate of metal. They got a quick, rough wash, drank chocolate and ate their breakfast MRE. They dressed, put away the sleeping bags and blankets, then crawled out of the tent. They wasted no time in getting their packs on and getting their ponchos over them. Then they started their second day.
It drizzled all day and they were soaked to the bone despite their ponchos. Duo grumbled, "I don't care if it is a new miracle fabric, it sucks. I'm soaked and cold. My feet are wet and I bet I get blisters. Dry feet are a necessity. Fuck." He continued to grumble all afternoon, especially as lunch made everything feel worse. They'd warmed up a bit but were soon chilled and miserable again.
Days three and four were much the same, wet, chilly and dismal.
Day five saw the first disaster. Heero slipped on a shale slab and nearly fell over the edge. Duo grabbed him but his pack went over the side. His pack that contained their tent, one sleeping bag and a blanket. As well as Heero's share of the MREs.
They were lucky in one way, Duo had demanded that Heero give him all the trail mix to balance the loads more evenly.
Duo pulled Heero into his arms and moaned, "Oh, fuck. Don't scare me like that. Damnit!"
Heero patted his shoulder. "Sorry. But thanks for the save." He went to the edge and looked over. The pack was barely visible at the bottom of the ravine. It was burst open, the MREs scattered around on the ground, the sleeping bag and blanket were already blowing away.
Heero started to climb down but Duo just yelped, "Heero! Damnit, no! We'll manage without."
So they continued on, cold, miserable and now without their stove, tent, one sleeping bag and the extra blanket, not to mention the food.
They made camp that night and set up a shelter of cut branches to try to keep the drizzle off. It was fairly successful and they slept dry. Sharing the sleeping bag and blanket kept them both warm. They managed to get up early, eat and get back on the trail just at full dawn.
They hiked all day stopping again for lunch. While they were stopped Heero took inventory of their supplies.
"Ok, we've got meals enough that we can have three a day. And that trail mix is going to be a god send. We're burning calories like crazy. I'd suggest at least a handful between meals and before bed. Or we're going to run out of us too soon."
Duo agreed, just remarking, "I'm glad I got it. Now, here." He handed Heero a small bag full of the mix and they were off again.
The next days were grueling, cold and damp from beginning to end. Their feet soon got sore as they couldn't keep them dry. Duo's obsession for dry socks soon made sense to Heero as a simple wrinkle in a wet sock blistered his right little toe. As there were now no dry socks, it just got worse and worse. He was soon limping and by day eight he was using a branch as a crutch and Duo was carrying the pack full time.
Heero was concerned about Duo, he was shivering most of the time now and when they bedded down, Duo was too hot.
"Duo? You ok?" Heero put one hand on Duo's arm to stop him.
"No, I'm sick. But what are we going to do? We can't abandon our stuff. We'll freeze over night. There was frost this morning. You can't carry it."
Heero sighed. "Duo, I can do whatever I have to do. I can carry both the pack and you. All I have to do is use some of the pain repression techniques I learned ..."
Duo cut him off with an angry slash of his hand. "NO! I can manage. It's just flu or something like it. Today is day eight. I'll manage. We'll be there day after tomorrow."
Heero gazed at Duo, making him look up so he could see his eyes. "You sure?" Duo glowered fiercely. "Ok. Come on then. But if you start having trouble breathing, we'll dump everything and I'll carry you."
Duo nodded, grim faced and ill. "Ok, deal."
Heero kept a sharp eye on Duo but he didn't seem to be suffering any difficulties in breathing despite the high altitude so they kept going.
Reaching the temple grounds was anticlimactic, at best. They walked over a rise and there it was, another mot and bailey fort with a larger palisade surrounding a small village. There were also several small manses scattered around the large valley that was at the top of the plateau. Duo remarked that it looked very like an extinct volcano. Heero had to wearily agree.
They limped down to a gatehouse at the base of the rise and were welcomed by a monk who immediately settled Heero on a stool. Heero gratefully removed his boots and let Duo examine his blistered feet. When the monk gently moved Duo aside and suggested that he remove his own boots, he did so, reveling his own blistered feet.
"Damnit! If I'd had more socks, this wouldn't have happened."
The monk agreed genially, "Yes, dry socks are so important. We tell people over and over, but they still show up with blisters and wonder why." He examined one boot for a moment. "And it doesn't help that these boots are nearly worn out." He clucked his tongue in dismay.
Duo grumbled, "I tried, I really did. But, what with the constant drizzle and so many streams ... well, see?" He examined one foot with disgust. "And Heero. I just hope ..."
The monk just shook his head. "I'll have the novice take you on in the pony cart. Directly to the Infirmarian, I think."
So the novice was called and told to bring the cart.
When he arrived, Duo and Heero were both lifted and carried to the cart and settled in with their feet on a clean cloth. Neither one felt embarrassed by this, their feet hurt too much. Their pack was stuffed under the seat and they were off.
Fifteen minutes later they were in the main infirmary with a doctor looking at their feet and muttering.
Heero defended Duo by saying, "Duo said we should be sure to keep our feet dry. But between one thing and another we couldn't."
The doctor nodded. "I see. The rain didn't help." He turned to his assistant. "Bring me some of the yellow cream and bandages. Soft shoes and palanquins. They're not to walk anywhere for two days."
The boy nodded, bowed and walked away.
The doctor returned his attention to Heero and Duo. "You need to keep off your feet long enough for them to truly begin to heal or you'll get infected. I'll have the portal master come to you. Don't worry, it's not that unusual for people to arrive here with various injuries. We'll get you back to your home soon."
Duo sighed. He was still cold and shivering, even though they'd been covered with a blanket in the cart and this room was warm. He sneezed several times and grumbled when he couldn't find his handkerchief. The doctor handed him one from a nearby tray.
"Thanks. Damn cold." Duo blew his nose and sniffled again.
"I'll give you some medicine for that. It'll help the symptoms but won't cure it." The doctor turned away when his aide came back with the requested salve and bandages and sent him away again for the remedy.
Heero sighed with relief when the doctor spread the cream on his feet and bandaged them. Duo glanced over at Heero to make sure that he was getting the proper care and realized that Heero was doing the same thing with him. He grinned at Heero who grinned right back.
"We're going home, Heero. I wonder how long it'll take." Duo looked around the bright airy room.
"Soon, I think. That looks like the portal master there." He pointed out a middle aged man in grey robes who was striding between the beds to their side. "Looks like he's looking for us."
The monk stopped at the foot of Duo's bed. "Oh, dear, you've really done a job on yourselves, haven't you?"
Duo looked a bit shamefaced and replied, "Yeah, we did. Um ... not to rush things, but when can you send us home."
The monk smiled serenely and nodded at the doctor. "As soon as we determine where you belong. For that we need a bit of hair, a fingernail clipping or some similar focus. My name is Portal Master Calvin. Now, I'd like my samples, please." He stepped back to allow the doctor to approach. He explained that he was going to use a sterile pin to prick a finger and get a drop of blood which he would place on a bit of paper. This would provide a focus so that the monks could open the proper portal.
The doctor did his thing and Portal Master Calvin went away, assuring Heero and Duo that he'd have them home in no time and that they were to stay right where they were until they were sent for. They agreed to do that and settled back to eat and sleep.
They were awakened the next morning by the smell of breakfast. Having slept from late afternoon of the day they arrived to early morning of the next day, they were ready to eat anything on offer. They were delighted to see that the tray was covered with bowls of porridge, and plates of bacon, eggs, fried potatoes and toast. The boy who brought their breakfasts called to them in a cheery voice. "Here you go! A nice hot breakfast for you. Eat up, the portal master has found your home." He smiled at them. "I bet you'll be glad to get home again. We'll have you at the proper portal in just a few minutes. As soon as you eat. The doctor will murder me if you don't eat a good breakfast first." His laugh reassured them of his safety.
Duo grinned back at him around a mouthful of bacon. Heero didn't bother to do more than smile at the boy. They both addressed themselves to their food and quickly finished everything they had.
"Mmmm, good. That's one thing I'll miss about this dimension. The food."
Heero raised an eyebrow. The reason the food was so good was that it was all organic and had never been frozen or even refrigerated. The down side of this was that all foods had to be eaten quickly or they'd spoil, leading to several digestive upsets of various degrees of seriousness.
Duo replied to the eyebrow. "I know, I know." Heero was forever getting on Duo for his diet of snacks, pizza, hamburgers and soda. "But this is really good."
Heero just sighed and turned to look out the nearby window. He was so tired, in a way he hadn't been since the war. He'd been keyed up for so long that he felt like he hadn't gotten a good night's sleep in forever.
Duo shook his head. "Tired?" Heero nodded. "Me too. Feel like I've been on guard forever. I'll really be glad when we get home. I want to go back to my apartment and fall into bed. This cold is really getting to me. My chest hurts." He coughed heavily, then sneezed. "Fuck!" Duo flopped back on his bed with a muffled thump.
Heero felt sorry for Duo. None of them were sick very much, the tinkering that had been done to their systems kept that from happening. So when it did, they usually didn't react very well. And Duo was the most patient of them.
"Stop. We'll be home soon. Sally will give you some medicine and you'll feel better." Heero offered this comment hopefully.
"Yeah, right. There's no cure for the common cold. You just have to suffer through it. All six to ten days of it. Arg!" Duo slapped his pillow over his face.
An hour after Duo's grumblings finally died down the portal master returned with a huge smile on his face.
"We've found it. Come along."
Heero shrugged. "We're more than ready. The boy said a few minutes."
"Yes, and I'll have words with him about that. But we're ready for you now." He motioned to the men following him.
There were four men and two carry chairs or palanquins. The two lovers got into the palanquins and were carried to a large open arena where dozens of pairs of pillars stood.
Duo got out the last of their money and handed it to Portal Master Calvin. "Here. This is the last of our money."
Portal Master Calvin didn't even look at it. He just handed it on to another monk with a nod. "Thank you. You'll have to walk from here but it's not far. See the portal that is glowing? That's it."
Duo and Heero eagerly started for the portal, Duo carrying the pack that contained the last of their supplies and the remaining ammunition. Their long arms were still across their backs as well as their swords.
They walked to the portal and stood in front of the glowing rectangle confined between two pillars.
Duo hitched at his pack, then demanded, "Ok, what do we do?"
"Just walk through the portal. The rest is already done. Goodbye, safe journey." He smiled at them and motioned with one hand.
Resolutely they stepped forward and into the glow. Portal Master Calvin smiled at another job well done and began to make arrangements to recover their left behind goods.
Heero stepped out of nothing right back into the warehouse they'd disappeared from with Duo right on his heels. They looked around for a moment, then Duo let out a small sigh. Pointing, he said, "There."
Set on the floor and bolted down to keep the junkies and bums from stealing it was a box. It had a combination lock on it but it didn't take Duo long to figure out the six number combination and open it. Inside was one thing, a cell phone.
Duo pressed one on speed dial and got Une herself. He kept the conversation short and to the point. She scrambled a med-evac unit to come get them. Wufei was there in her office when the call came in and insisted in going along but Une held him back, telling him to go open up Duo's apartment for him. Of course, Sally Po was the attending.
Duo was happily imagining all the things he was going to do when he got back home when Sally arrived.
The first thing he did when she saw him, however, was sneeze. She recoiled from the hug she was offering and exclaimed, "You're sick! Oh, damn." She turned to the medtech and snapped, "Biohazard suits for all of us and a quarantine module for them. Now!" The tech scurried to comply with her orders while both Duo and Heero looked puzzled at the reaction of the whole team. They seemed to be scared half to death of them, not something they were unfamiliar with but not a usual happening with Preventers personnel.
Duo stepped back a bit. "Po? What the hell? What's the matter?"
Sally looked at him sympathetically. "You're sick. We have no idea what the illness is so we have to take precautions that you don't bring something into our world that will be deadly. I'm so sorry but you're going to be quarantined until you're better. Even then, we'll have to make sure that you're not some sort of Typhoid Mary."
Duo sighed. "Fuck. And I was so looking forward to my own bed in my own place. Heero?"
Heero just shrugged. "Me too, but we're both stuck. I've been exposed to you. I was kinda looking forward to your apartment too. I've been living in barracks for the last month or so, my place ... um ... I got evicted for ... stuff."
Duo grinned at Heero. "Yeah? You can tell me all about it." He sighed heavily. "Ok, Po. I've got a cold, my feet are blistered all to hell and I'm tired. Come on, do your worst."
They stood around waiting until the semi showed up with the biohazard suits and the quarantine module. Duo continued to shiver, sneeze and cough. Heero finally snarled, "Po, damnit! At least get him a blanket or something."
Sally started, she was already making plans in her head. "Damn! Sorry, here." She fished around in one of the compartments on the side of the unit and tossed a blanket to Heero. He wrapped it around Duo and kept his arms around Duo's shoulders.
"Mmmm, nice. Heero? When's the thingy coming? I'm tired. I think my fever is rising again."
Heero pressed his cheek to Duo's forehead. "Yeah, it is. We'll be somewhere you can lay down soon." He gave Sally a high BTU glower. "Or else!" She just seemed to snap out of some sort of trance.
She nodded and agreed, saying, "Right! Right! Sorry. I'll be ... um ... over here ... making arrangements." She moved a bit away and dialed her phone. Heero could hear her talking to, first her aide, then Une.
The module arrived on a flat bed. All the medtechs, Sally, and the driver donned the biohazard suits, then Sally helped get Duo situated in the module with Heero at his side.
"Man, I feel like hell, but I'm not dyin'. Just sick as a dog. Damnit! Heero, I'm not going to be separated from you. I swear, if they try, I'm goin' Shinigami on their asses. You tell 'em." And with that he lay down and went to sleep at once.
Heero just conveyed Duo's remarks to Sally and recommended that she take them to heart, the expression on his face convinced Sally that she'd have two very recalcitrant patients on her hands if she ignored their demands. And demands they were, she wasn't making any mistake about that.
It didn't take them long to get the module back to Preventers HQ. When they got to the hospital wing and connected the tube from the module to the quarantine quarters, Duo took one look and snapped, "Nu-uh! No way! Not gonna happen. I'm not spending however much time in that thing. Find a real apartment or I'm going home. And if you think you're gonna stop me ... think again." The snick of a slide backed off the only security man stupid enough to actually try anything.
Sally eyed the miserably spartan, cold, medical quarantine quarters and agreed. This area was for people who were terminally ill, not for someone who was presenting all the symptoms of a cold or the flu. This quarantine was strictly a precautionary measure and to regulations, nothing more.
"Ok, ok! Don't flip your lid. I have another ... Damnit!" She wheeled on the man trying to flank Duo. "Are you suicidal? Idiot. He's got a valid complaint ... just ... give me a second to figure this out."
Her phone rang just then and everyone could hear what was being said as she accidentally punched the speaker button on the side of her phone when she answered it.
Lady Une's voice rang out from the tiny speaker. "What the hell is going on down there? I've got a red alert."
"Duo's having a tantrum. He's sick and I've ordered quarantine until I can figure out what he's got. He's not happy with the quarters and I don't blame him. They're not exactly welcoming."
"Well, fix it! And don't get any of my security men killed in the process."
"Right. Got it."
"Oh, and ... make them happy. I don't care what it takes. Understand?" Une rang off with a click.
Sally just shut her phone and remarked. "Ok, you heard the lady. Let's make them happy."
When she said that one of the aides approached her and whispered in her ear. She got an evil grin on her face and said, "Ooooohhh, yeeaaahhhh. Perfect." She sent people scurrying in all directions then turned to Duo. "Ok, here's the deal. You two put on those suits by the door. Make sure they're properly sealed and come with me."
Duo took one suit off the wall and handed it to Heero. He took the other for himself and got it on quickly. It was more or less a skin suit with a helmet, intended to keep the two of them from spreading whatever it was that Duo had.
Sally led the way down an empty hallway and up to a door. The door had been fitted with an airlock, obviously a very quick, down and dirty job as the sealant was still oozing from around it. She gave them both a grin and told them, "No windows, so that's not a problem. And, I think you'll like it. It's the Imperial Suite. Fully functioning medical apparatus, bathroom to die for and all the electronics even Heero could want." She made a grand gesture, motioning them into it. "And it's all yours for the next thirty days. Courtesy of Lady Une and Preventers."
Duo entered first, sore feet forgotten for now. Heero followed after and looked around. The place was a palace, soft carpets under foot, beautiful furniture scattered around the living area and two open doors that lead to a bedroom and bath respectively.
Duo just wearily started stripping off his clothing and dropping it where it fell. Heero stripped off the enviorsuit and followed him, picking up after. Duo saw the bed and just fell into it.
Heero scooted him over, pulled the covers down and rolled him onto the clean sheets. He pulled the covers up to his chin and patted his shoulder. "Go to sleep. I'll deal from here."
"Feet?" Duo wouldn't rest just yet.
"Mine are fine for now. I'll take off my boots and put on clean socks. I'm sure we can find some. Sleep!"
So Duo did.
Wufei sighed. "Po, what the hell do you want me to do? You're the brilliant mind that decided Duo was a contagion danger."
Sally flinched as Duo howled again. "Damnit! Who'd have though either one of them would be a screamer. And the amount of K-Y they've gone through? It's down right obscene."
Wufei turned to look at Sally, his sour expression making his opinion plain. "TMI, Po, way TMI."
Sally grumbled, "Well, the damn common cold only lasts about a week at most. And his ... only three days. They've been at it like minks ever since. One of the interns counted, little pervert. Eight times a day ... each!"
Wufei turned scarlet. "That's ... sixteen times a day? They take turns, or what." He nearly combusted. "Never mind. Not my business. I don't want to know."
Sally snarled. "Right, and I don't want to hear. Repeatedly."
Wufei blinked as something crashed on the other side of the wall. "What? Never mind, never mind."
Sally sighed. "One consolation." Wufei raised an eyebrow. "Une's office is just there." She pointed to a spot overhead. "Just the next floor up."
Wufei snickered. "And she's insisting on sticking to regs?"
"Like glue. Woman is a bear for abuse, if you ask me."
A final yell and another crash made Wufei sigh, he'd always known that, when those two got together, it would be dramatic.
"I'm going home. When it's time, I'll come get them and take them home."
He left laughing to himself. Une should have known better.
Heero eyed the mess that used to be a very expensive bed.
"Well, that was fun. How do you feel?" He flopped back on the mattress which now rested on the floor.
"Good. You?" Duo picked up a towel and swiped at the sweat on his chest.
"Fine. I'll be glad when we can get back to your apartment."
Duo sighed. "Me too."
"I'm sorry I couldn't keep my promise to get you home." Heero pulled Duo into his arms.
"I'm home, right here, buddy. Home is where the heart is after all." Duo grinned and snuggled down in Heero's arms for some serious snuggle time.
Thanks to Lish and Shadow Shell for the help with the Japanese.
There seems, at first thought to be a contradiction at the end. I stated in the first part of the story that neither Heero nor Duo were screamers. But ... If you were wanting to get home, and a certain someone insisted you go into quarantine, and you knew her *ahem* office was just above the quarantine area, wouldn't you make sure that she knew exactly what you were doing? If you were vindictive Shinigami, that is? *g*