+ Part 4
Duo stiffened at the doorway, but Heero was already nodding to greetings and raised mugs to his health, and his presence next to Heero was instantly noticed. There were fearful and challenging looks equally peppered among purely astonished expressions.
"They won't dare harm you while you are under my protection," Heero assured him.
He ushered the were lion to a divan that was raised higher than the others and he sat down. Several house cats descended on him, purring excitedly and wanting handouts. Heero handed them off the table. "Damn cats," he muttered and then looked at Duo, who was hunched beside him, apologetically. Duo glared and growled. He wasn't going to be insulted, even by a Prince who didn't seem to know that a were lion was nothing like a cat.
Were wolves served them their meal. Heero dug in quickly, using his hands, but Duo looked at his platter in confusion. It smelled almost like meat, but it wasn't fresh. It smelled like the animals who had died in plains fires.
Heero noticed his hesitation. "It's perfectly safe," he assured Duo. "We have good cooks here."
"Why isn't this creature locked up?" an old voice demanded crossly.
Heero put down his food and scowled at a grizzled were wolf who had a patch over one eye, a chewed ear, and was missing part of a hand. "Warden J. This is Duo of the Sun pride. He is not a servant. He is my guest."
Warden J skewered Heero with an icy, blue eye."If he is a free were, and a guest, then why was it necessary for me to pay for him?"
"I freed him," Heero replied, not backing down.
"A savage from the Savannah, let free to threaten law abiding weres?" Warden J sneered. "It seems I have failed in my lessons to make you a caring ruler over your people."
"Duo hasn't harmed anyone, even though he had very good reason to," Heero informed his guardian. "In fact, I am indebted to him for my life. That alone earned him his freedom."
J looked about him in annoyance as he saw that the other weres were impressed by that revelation. "And where was Chang Wu Fei, your guard, that you should need guarding, my Prince?"
Heero clenched his jaw. Wu Fei had gone to J to explain. The man already knew the circumstances. It seemed that he wanted to put Heero on the defensive, to show his power over him. "Wu Fei is under my orders," Heero growled. "He did as I ordered."
J's eye glittered as if it were a steel trap springing. "Was it your order to leave you alone in a crowded market? Was it your order to allow you to release a dangerous savage from it's cage? And was it also your order to look the other way, while you chased that creature into the forest, where you were attacked by mountain weres? Were those all of your orders, Prince Heero?" He waited, but Heero didn't answer, just panted and glared furiously. "You will be a poor protector of the peace if you cannot even protect and rule yourself., my Prince."
J limped closer and pointed at Duo. "That creature is a savage without manners, without speech, and without respect for laws. It should not be at table with your people, but locked up where it cannot harm anyone."
Heero stood up, hands clenched into fists and nails digging into his palms. "He speaks. He saved my life. He is a were like any other and worthy of the same respect."
"Are you sure?" Treize stepped out from behind the tables holding a flapping hen. He tossed it into the center of the tables and the servants scattered as it landed with a loud squawk. Almost faster than the eye could follow, Duo was over the low table with a bound and down into the center of the tables. He latched onto the hen with hands, claws, and teeth. He bit into steaming hot blood and juicy meat, and he began tearing the hen into chunks, swallowing quickly before anyone could react.
"Are you sure he is the same as any were?" Treize repeated with a smile.
J looked disgusted as the blood and feathers began to spread away from Duo's graphic meal. Heero stared, astonished. It was Quatre who stepped forward gingerly, tail band flashing and a bright smile on his face.
"The prides enjoy a bounty of fresh meat on the Savannah, and they like the challenge of the hunt," Quatre explained. "I think it shows their strength and grace, don't you? Of course, it's messy, but go to the kitchens sometime, and you will see it is not much better there before the meat is cooked and brought out to you." His tail waved gently. "Because their ways are different from ours, it does not make them savages."
Bones crunched loudly between Duo's sharp teeth as he finished off the bird. He sat up then and began cleaning himself with his tongue as he watched everyone warily.
Treize smiled and said. "All the pretty words in the world won't make a lie of what our eyes see, Quatre Winner."
Warden J looked pointedly from Duo to Heero and then he ordered, "Guards, take the were lion and confine him."
"Ignore that order," Heero snapped.
The guards hesitated, uncertain. J and Heero faced off. J saw something in Heero's face that was unbending. He frowned, not sure what to make of it, and then his _expression went guarded as he gave a small bow and said, "I'm sure my Prince will keep him in order. I suppose there is precedence for princes keeping exotic... pets."
Quatre looked uncertain and then he was suddenly confidence itself. "Duo is starved. He's probably been in captivity for days without his accustomed food. I think we can all forgive him his eagerness?"
There were a few sympathetic nods, but for the most part everyone was looking wary and sickened.
"Come, Duo," Heero ordered as he walked around the tables. "We can eat in private."
Duo left behind a pile of blood and feathers as he licked his fingernails and followed Heero. Once they were away from the hall, Heero turned and confronted Duo.
"Why did you do that?" Heero demanded hotly. "I can't believe that you didn't know better. Do you pull down water buck and drag them into your home to tear apart?" Duo's eyes went lidded as if he were as angry as Heero and then he replied, "The little were fox was right, I haven't eaten in days. The were cheetahs thought weakening me would make me easier to handle." His eyes glowed with temper. "They were wrong."
"Now you speak!" Heero seethed. "What was it that kept you from speaking to Wu Fei, to Warden J, to me?"
"Trust," Duo replied simply.
"And now you trust me?" Heero wondered.
Duo's ears flicked and then he replied, "You defended me when it wasn't to your advantage."
"Don't make me sorry that I did," Heero warned, but then relented. "Come with me. One hen can't have filled your belly. Are you that apposed to eating cooked meat?"
"Cooked... I've never had meat... cooked," Duo replied uncertainly.
"Can you at least try it before I try to find a place where you can slaughter my cook's chickens?" Heero asked.
Duo thought about it and the disgusted looks of the others weres. "All right. I'll try." "Good, I'll have the cook send food to my rooms," Heero told him in relief. "I think you made enough of a public appearance today."
Back in Heero's rooms, he gave Duo a rag and some water to clean. Duo did so with the fastidiousness of any house cat, seeming not to like too much of the water on his skin, but liking to be clean all the same. When he was done, he curled up before the fire and looked at Heero expectantly, as if he were the prince and Heero were his servant.
Heero scowled, but he ordered their food and, when it came, he served the were himself and sent the servant out of the room. Putting cooked chicken on a plate and plain water in a cup, he placed it before Duo on a low table. Duo sniffed at it curiously, but his ears were back.
"Try it," Heero urged as he began to take a small piece himself. He almost pulled back a stub as Duo clutched at the plate possessively and showed fangs threateningly. "All right, pig!" Heero growled back and stepped away to give the were his space.
Duo sniffed the chicken again, wrinkled his nose, and then tentatively gnawed, not using his hands at all. It was very savage looking and Heero winced, wondering if Treize might not be right in at least some of what he had been saying.
"It tastes strange," Duo complained. "It doesn't taste fresh and it's hot."
"You'll get used to it," Heero told him.
"I don't want to get used to it! I am not a carrion bird!" Duo suddenly shouted and tossed the entire chicken at Heero's head. Heero ducked and it slapped soddenly against a wall. Duo yanked at his collar and chain. "I am not a beast. I am not a cat! I will not be chained. I will not eat meat that has been left from someone else's kill! I may be an orphan, but I was of the Sun pride and I will not shame the females who raised me!"
"You are an ungrateful savage!" Heero snarled back, short ruffed raised. "I saved you. I protected you! I fed you!"
"You have enslaved me," Duo said, in a quiet, choked voice. He sank down dispiritedly. "You have me captive as surely as the were cheetah's did .If your Warden has his way, I will be someone's rug soon enough or caged for their amusement."
Duo was lying down flat now, face turned towards the fire, chain and braid snaking away from him and reddish brown fur fiery in the light. His sides were heaving and Heero wondered if he were crying. He couldn't imagine the tough, fierce were lion doing that, though.
"I promised that I would see that you returned home," Heero told him. "I keep my promises."
"I didn't hear any promises," Duo replied sullenly, "but I did hear that you were not in any position to make them."
Heero almost went blind with anger. He kept very still, letting it seethe through him, letting the tension in his balled fists, and the nails driving into his skin, take the brunt of that anger away. If Wu Fei had taught him anything, it was not to strike out in anger, especially when a blow from him could all too easily kill.
When Heero trusted his voice again, he said, "There are people here who think that they rule, but I am Prince in this land and it is my word that is law. They will find that out very soon."
"In the prides," Duo told him, "The strongest male leads the pride and mates with the females. I don't think it is any different here."
"I am strong," Heero told him, "Stronger than Warden J realizes"
There was silence. Heero looked regretfully at the mangled chicken and then settled on a cushion near the were lion."Do you think that your people are looking for you?" he wondered. "I could send a messenger to them-"
"No, they won't be looking for me," Duo replied shortly and turned completely away from Heero.
"No?" Heero was puzzled. He tried to piece together the few things that Duo and Quatre had said about the prides. "If they knew, if they could send people to meet Quatre's caravan, it would hasten your return home."
Duo's tail flicked in agitation. It was a long moment before he said,. "If what you say is true, and I am allowed to return home, I would not be returning to the Sun Pride. I was driven out by the pride leader, Zechs."
"Driven out?" Heero echoed.
The tail curled about Duo, the tufted end near his nose as if he wanted to hide behind it. "I did not challenge his right to the females. I don't know why he drove me out of the pride."
"Were there other males your age?" Heero wondered.
"Yes, when I left," Duo replied thoughtfully. "Solo and an older male, G. Solo had Ruth, one of the females, but G was too old to want any of them. I don't know why Zechs would let Solo stay and make me leave."
Heero considered that and the anguished tone Duo tried to hide. "Perhaps your politics were not what he desired."
Duo did look at him then, frowning. "I don't understand."
"And that might have been the problem," Heero told him. "Did this Solo talk about anything outside of the Pride?"
Duo nodded. "Many times. He thought we were backward and that we should stop living in the brown grass."
"And what did you think about that?" Heero wanted to know.
Duo scowled. "It was stupid!" he growled, flexing claws. "What's better than open sky, a warm sun, and the Savannah?"
Heero understood political intrigue and bringing allies close. "You're lucky that he didn't kill you."
Duo hissed in contempt. "The females wouldn't allow it. Zechs can lead, but they would kill him to protect their cubs." He blushed and looked away. "Even grown cubs."
Heero thought about that, but he didn't stay silent long. It seemed that a meal made Duo relaxed enough to talk. He had to take advantage of that. "If females are so protective, then what made you an orphan?"
Duo curled up as if to protect his heart. "I don't remember. The females told me that they saw me wandering with a gang of older males, but starving for milk..One day, they found me without them and that's when they adopted me into their pride."
A savage from the Savannah, without even a family name to call his own, and recently part of a pride that was declaring war on Heero's people. Heero couldn't have chosen a more unfit companion to be seen with. Quatre was at least wealthy, learned, and perfectly well mannered. This child of the prides killed live chickens in the dinning hall and licked his claws afterwards without concern. Common sense told Heero to turn him over to Treize and beg his warden's pardon. Common sense told him that he was making a mistake that might make his people see him in an unfavorable light. Common sense told him that Duo was dangerous and that he was a fool for getting anywhere near his claws and teeth. A teacher had once told him, though, to follow his emotions, to listen to his heart, and that it would seldom lead him astray.
Heero cautiously approached. Duo twitched and rose to a crouch as if he might take a swipe with his sharp claws. Very slowly, Heero crouched below Duo's level, submissive, and took hold of the iron collar. Duo tensed and his ears went back. Heero found the latch, felt the tiny lock that needed a key. He flexed his strong muscles and the latch parted with the sound of stressed metal and pins. Duo twisted out of the thing and fell backwards almost into the fire. He was panting and wide eyed.
Heero held his hands out in a non threatening gesture, put chain and collar down, and backed away as he said, "I am making a promise, here and now, that I will see you back to your home, alive and well."
Duo exclaimed in consternation, "Why?"
"Because, it's the right thing to do," Heero replied, but he thought, as the were lion settled again, looking mystified, that he couldn't bear for anyone to hurt the were. It shook him, that realization, but he knew that it was the plain truth. Somehow, the were lion had become important to him, more important than politics or winning favor with anyone, including Warden J.
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