by girl starfish
Beautiful + Part 6Two giant stone lions stood at the entrance to the Oracle, white marble skin gleaming in the sunlight. They were awe inspiring as they were intended to be, at once a statement of the Oracle's majesty and a warning to idle travelers. Duo stroked one of his snakes absently as he studied the jaws of the lion closest.
"At least no one can blame me for this," he murmured to the snakes.
He got a slight hiss in response. The snakes were unnerved by the tension radiating off him and had long since unraveled from the plait and were being impossible to calm. Duo couldn't help it. Wufei and Hilde, Quatre who had been so kind, Trowa who'd been left to deal with the vicious Relena, and Heero . . .
He was worried about all his friends.
It wouldn't be so bad, he thought, hesitating before the lions, if he had even one of them with him. One of them to make him believe, even momentarily, that he was not just a monster--
He sighed, taking his first step down the path. No point in hesitating--after all, it was his friends he was doing this for.
The marble dwelling at the end of the path gave the gorgon another pause. Should he knock? Call out? Just go in? There didn't seem to be a door--but it would be very impolite to interrupt the spokesperson of a god--
Duo rubbed his elbow muttering curse words and glaring at the water snake.
"That was totally uncalled for!"
The snake flicked its tongue out. In its opinion, the gorgon had spent far too much time already in indecision. Just get on with it.
However, the snake's bite had a decidedly different consequence.
"Ah, Duo, come in. Perfect timing, you know, I'd just finished the anti-venom."
The gorgon started at the voice, and looked around, searching for its source. "Ah--you were expecting me? Where are you?"
"Come inside, please, and yes, I have been expecting you for several days now. I hope you don't mind if I don't show myself immediately. I may be the priestess of Apollo, but I'm not sure if his protection extends to gorgons and I'm in no hurry to find out."
"Fair enough," Duo shrugged, stepping cautiously into the temple. Following instructions issued by the unseen speaker he soon found himself in a small antechamber in which a concoction of herbs, a bandage and a strange looking object had been laid out.
It was easy enough to tell what the herbs were for. Duo expertly bound the wound, muttering at the unrepentant water snake, then drank the anti-venom quickly.
"What is this?" he asked, picking up the strange object.
It appeared to be wire for the most part, with two glass plates set in it, and two spindly hooks either end. Duo could not fathom what its purpose was.
"Place the hooks over your ears and slide the glass down over your face, rather like a visor for your eyes. How is that?"
Duo blinked. "I can see, but everything's darker--I suppose that would be because of the glass."
"Yes, the glass is tinted so as to hide your eyes while allowing you to see," a woman stepped out from the corridor, and held out her hand. "Po Sally, Oracle, at your service."
"Thank-you," Duo said, shaking her hand. "I'm--"
"Duo, I know."
"I am an Oracle. And yes I do know why you're here, and they're sunglasses, not my invention but an idea of the god's. Now Duo, tea or wine?"
"Tea. Of course. Two lumps, wasn't it?"
"And help yourself to the biscuits."
Duo clutched his cup as though it was a lifeline. "Where--"
"On the table by your elbow."
No wonder Wufei didn't like the Oracle. She's freaky--but cool, Duo decided, as he sipped his tea. It was just the way he liked it. She'd even put out some raw meat for his snakes.
"I did have live mice--I believe that is what pythons prefer, is it not? Unfortunately, they escaped. I won't be able to find them all for several days."
"Ah--that's okay," Duo said, taking quick sideways glances at the Oracle. It was still hard to believe he was looking at someone without the possibility of turning them into stone--all thanks to some tinted glass.
Sally was a tall, no nonsense looking woman, and Duo wondered why they'd even bothered with the lions outside. Sally was enough to daunt any troublemaker. She had olive colored skin, similar to Wufei although her long hair was a much lighter shade.
"Pardon me, but are you and Wufei any relation? Not that I'm an expert on humans or anything but--"
"Our appearance is slightly similar. No, we're not related although we share the same country of origin. In addition, I happen to be well acquainted with the senior members of his clan, including his sword master."
"Really?" Another possible reason Wufei might be less than thrilled about finding the Oracle to be someone he knew . . .
Sally chuckled. "Let's see . . . we've got a good ten minutes before Noin arrives with the materials for your choice so would you say no to a good gossip session?"
"About Wufei?" Even Duo's snakes looked interested.
Sally poured herself a cup of tea. "Didn't think you'd say no. Well, when Wufei was three and still being toilet trained--"
"Wait--he was still being potty trained when he was three?" Duo snickered.
The minutes passed happily.
It was lucky for all concerned that Wufei was currently a rather tasteful statue standing in the middle of a wood guarded by a centaur, and thus oblivious to the conversation taking place in the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Ten minutes later, when Noin arrived, it was to find Duo still wiping the tears from his eyes and trying to regain his breath. Sally was pink from laughing and trying to administer first aid to the little brown snake who had been laughing so much it had bitten its tongue.
"Do you think I need to administer an anti-venom? It did get bitten--even if it was by itself," Sally wondered.
"It'll be fine. I think they're naturally resistant to venom," Duo said, spotting the new arrival. "Who might you be?"
"Noin." The woman extended a hand. "Is that eye-armour?"
"Something like that, only it's there to protect us," Sally said. "Gorgon, and all . . ."
Noin snorted. "Oh, it'd take more than a gorgon to put a stop to me. Furies aren't wimps, you know."
"Excuse me?" Duo said incredulously. "Did you say you were a Fury?"
"Yes. Federation for the Unavenged, Revenge-driven and Ignored, Lieutenant Noin at your service." The woman bowed.
Duo continued to stare. The woman's hair was cropped short in a practical manner, but apart from that there was no hint that she was anything more than an ordinary human woman--
"Is there a problem, Duo?" Sally asked.
"I always thought that Furies were supposed to be, you know, awful and terrifying," the gorgon admitted.
"Oh, and you're wondering why I don't appear to be a hideous hag, right?" Noin smiled. "I'm off duty."
"Oh yes, I have to turn off being a Fury when I'm not needed, otherwise I might terrify the wrong people, very bad."
"So what do you look like when you are a Fury?" Duo asked.
"I'd show you," Noin offered. "But then you'd go out of your mind with terror."
Somehow Duo didn't think she was joking. "I'll pass."
"Good decision," the Fury said, sipping the cup of tea Sally had poured her. "You wouldn't want to share what Wufei went through."
"Of course!" Duo suddenly remembered. "You were the ones that sent him that dream."
"He was a tough case," Noin said, sipping the drink. "I must say I was glad when you turned up and helped him break the curse. I'd hate to see a good soldier like him driven insane, but--" she shrugged.
Duo had so many questions he couldn't keep up with them all. "Insane? And what do you mean, I helped him? He helped me--"
"Noin believes that without meeting you Wufei would not have come to the conclusion that some monsters were worth saving," Sally said. "Your friendship accomplished what three years of Noin's worst dreams couldn't."
"I owe you, gorgon," Noin said. "Which is why I'm helping you out. Sally knew you'd be looking for a way to change your friends back, so she sent to me to prepare some potions for you. Furies are experts on transmutation--we have to be, given that we can kill with our appearances."
"You meanit's possible? I can see Heero again?"
Sally smiled. "That's up to you," she said. "Now, I have to go and prepare."
"What did she mean by that?" Duo asked Noin as the Oracle departed.
"You'll see soon enough," Noin replied cryptically.
Duo hesitated, then asked, "Noin?"
"Why was it so important that Wufei had to save a monster anyway?"
"It's got to do with the reason he was cursed."
"Oooh!" Duo straightened, interested again. "Does this have anything to do with that Meiran chick?"
"Oh, he told you about her?"
"Not exactly. Details, please?" Duo tried his hardest to adopt a pleading look. The effect was ruined rather by the snakes fighting amongst themselves for the best listening point.
"Well, it's kind of complicated. You have to understand Wufei grew up in a place where your family and your clan was all important, and clan honor was maintained at all costs. The Dragon clan suffered a string of misfortunes, and sent a group to the Oracle to ask what they could do to turn their fortunes around. The answer they received was to merge with the White Heron clan. Messengers were sent to the White Heron, and in due time the clans were to be linked--by marriage."
"Wufei and Meiran?" Duo guessed.
"Right. Wufei is the son of a very high ranking warrior, and Meiran is a princess. It was a good match on both sides, and neither of the participants were averse to the idea either. They met each other beforehand and had become friends."
"So what went wrong?" the gorgon asked, stroking one of his snakes thoughtfully. "It sounds perfect so far."
Noin sighed. "What happened was that before the marriage took place Wufei saw Meiran in her true form."
"What--you mean she's a monster?"
"No one had informed Wufei of that fact. He was, as one might imagine, both shocked and hurt at being deceived. His family refused to call the marriage off, saying it was necessary for the sake of the clan. Wufei had to abide by the ruling of the Oracle--he married Meiran and left his village immediately after the ceremony. He has not returned since."
"What a mess," Duo said. "I suppose it was Meiran who cursed him?"
"She's a relation of yours, a snake-maiden. Although she doesn't turn people into instant garden decorations, she has some pretty powerful curses."
"Poor Wufei," Duo said sympathetically.
"Although you can't blame Meiran for being upset," Sally said. "She was dead keen on Wufei, anyone could see that, and being publicly jilted is never a nice thing." The Oracle wiped her hands on her robe. "Well, Duo?"
Duo was on the brink of accomplishing something he'd scarcely dared to believe was possible. Not surprisingly he felt as though he might pass out. "You mean--"
"Time for you to make a choice," Sally motioned to the door she'd just come out of. "It's up to you now."
"Hmm," Relena examined the man before her thoughtfully. He was well built, holding a bow, and wearing an expression of extreme surprise. He was also stone. "I think we're catching up with our runaway gorgon."
"Miss Relena!" one of her entourage called to her. "We've found centaur tracks."
"Oh, how lovely for you."
"Would you like to pursue the centaur? They're worth a lot--"
"Do I look like some ruthless money grabbing despot?" Relena snapped. "I'm a proactive business woman here, trying to pursue a sustainable venture, not indulge in some high returns speculating in an eventually limited market. We go to Delphi."
Trowa rolled his eyes inside his cage, inwardly very worried. Where was Duo now? Would he break the spell before Relena caught up with him?
One of the men knocked his cage on purpose. "Worried about your friend, huh?"
"It's you I'm worried about," Trowa said coolly. "Duo's a gorgon, practically impossible for humans to defeat after all--and you're just a human."
"Let's get a move on people!" Relena called.
Trowa frowned as his cage was again shunted forward. Duo--if we get out of this, I'm shouting you and all your snakes to the meal of your choice.
Two eyes watched this scene silently from the bushes. Inwardly, they were in turmoil.
Man, Duo has hot friends, Hilde thought, watching the dryad. Although that girl is scary . . . she's definitely not looking for Duo to help him. Should I go and warn him about her?
She cast a look back at the stone statue beside him. Wufei, even on the brink of being turned into stone, was calm.
No, Hilde decided. I can't leave Wufei--anything might happen. A vandal might come along and--well, you know. And at any moment now the spell could be broken--best to let the scary girl get a distance ahead and then see if she could follow undetected incase Duo needed help.
Hilde expertly and noiselessly began to tie branches together to make a stretcher like construction. She gently lowered Wufei onto it, as she began work on a harness for herself. I'll be helping Duo and protecting Wufei, she thought smugly. No one can argue with that.
Lady Une kept a respectful distance as gifts went flying through the air.
"I have an army of supporters and not one of them can come up with something more original than this?" Treize looked scornfully at a sock before running it through with his dagger. "And don't even get me started on the aftershave! I've got so many bottles of it this year I'm beginning to think someone is trying to tell me something."
"Your Majesty should not need to feel concern over his personal appearance," Une murmured placatingly. "You are the epitome of good hygiene."
Treize sighed, only partially mollified. "Of course, thank-you Une. I'm sorry for losing my temper." He turned his back to her to look out the window. "I'm afraid not even you could make this day a success."
Une smiled. "I beg your leave, Lord. There is one gift you have not yet opened."
"Oh?" Treize turned from the window. "And what gift would that be, Lady?"
The Lord raised one fine eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"You'll forgive me, I hope," Une motioned to the door. "I took the liberty of bringing the gift to your quarters."
"I am intrigued, Lady. What do you have in store for me?"
"Your lordship will have to open the present to find out." Although Une hid it well she was pleased to note that Treize's footsteps had quickened.
"It's certainly big," Treize said.
"Happy birthday, sir," Une said.
Treize was too busy ripping the wrapping off his present to hear her.
He was speechless.
Une smiled secretly as she poured a glass of wine. "Is your gift to your liking, Lord?"
"Very much. Lady--where did you find this? This sculpture is so detailed, intense--" Treize broke off, shaking his head in amazement. "I've never seen art of this realism, this grace--and the model!"
Une smirked. There was no other word for it. "Am I to take your lordship is pleased?"
She almost fainted as Treize kissed her on the cheek.
"Very pleased, Lady. You must have some reward. Take a day off--choose some present for yourself. I know--pick a country! If it's mine, it's yours; if not, I'll conquer it for you."
Une blushed happily. "Merely knowing you are happy is reward enough for me, Lord. I bid you goodnight."
She returned to her room in such a good mood she almost forgot to order a list of the people who had sent Lord Treize socks drawn up for future reference.
The room was dark and didn't smell nice.
"Stop that," Duo told his snakes who were hissing themselves into a frenzy. "It's just a room. It's not going to kill us."
The snakes continued to twist about anxiously.
"You're giving me a headache! Stop it!" the gorgon complained.
Just then a gentle light began to grow. Duo backed up against the wall, snakes frozen as the light grew, gradually illuminating the contents of the room--a long mirror, and a table in front of it with three cups set out on it.
When nothing untoward happened after another moment, Duo detached himself from the wall and approached the table.
The goblets were each different. Duo removed the eye armour to look at them. The first one, a gold cup, was engraved with flowers, and the words 'Tempus fugit.' Duo picked up the glass hesitantly. He sniffed cautiously at the liquid within--then stared. Before him in the mirror he could see a human youth holding a gold cup identical to the one he held---he turned but there was no one there. Frowning at the mirror again, he began to understand as the image returned his frown.
"It must be a reflection of what will happen if I drink the potion," Duo said, staring at the mirror. The image was fascinating, with long chestnut hair that shone in the sunlight. Duo put a hand to the snakes who hissed at him.
"Freaky," he murmured. "I look just like a human."
The reflection sniffed, placing its hands on its hips. "I'll have you know there is nothing freaky about me at all! I'm gorgeous."
"Eep!" Duo backed up against the wall. The snakes hissed wildly.
"Cut that out," the reflection ordered, running a hand through his long hair. He smiled, a beautiful smile that displayed no fangs. "So what are you waiting for?"
"Me?" Duo asked, cautiously detaching himself from the wall.
"Aren't you sick of having people run away from you screaming? Don't you want to be appreciated for what you really are?"
"You?" Duo asked.
"Well, yeah. I am your reflection." The image in the mirror flashed him a brilliant smile. "So, what are you waiting for? Take the potion!"
"If you don't mind I'll have a look at these others first."
"Whatever." The reflection shrugged gracefully. "You'll see. Beauty like mine is the only way to go."
"Sure." Duo was pleased to note the human-Duo reflection vanished as soon as he put the cup down.
The snakes were unanimously voicing their dislike of that reflection.
Duo sighed at the hissing. "All right, all right! I get the message, you don't like him!" He patted the water snake, trying to calm him down. "I didn't like him much either. Anyway, if I got hair, what would happen to you girls?"
This sparked off another round of frenzied hissing. Apparently this thought had not occurred to the snakes.
To distract them, Duo picked up the next goblet. This one was made of bronze with an intricate design of intertwined snakes making up the decoration. As soon as he picked up the goblet the mirror displayed his usual snaked self.
"A potion to make me into a gorgon?" Duo shook his head. "What's going on here?"
"Obviously, there's more going on here than immediately obvious," his reflection shrugged. "This is a test as well as a choice."
"A test of what?"
Gorgon-Duo shrugged, patting his mirror-image snakes. "Can't tell you."
"Can you give me a hint of what I'm supposed to be doing?"
"Nope." The mirror-snakes looked smug. "You have to do this on your own."
"Great," Duo muttered. "Well thanks."
"You know," the gorgon in the mirror said idly, studying his snakes. "In a situation such as this, it's a good idea to make sure you're in possession of all the facts."
"Facts like what?" Duo said, watching as the mirror gorgon picked up the bronze goblet and swirled it around.
"Anything you want to know. We have to tell the truth after all--something Mr 'I'm too sexy for this mirror' over there isn't too pleased about."
"Oh yeah?" Duo smirked. "I knew there was something off about him. What about you? How come you're helping me?"
The reflection shrugged. "Just because I'm a monster doesn't make me heartless, now, does it? You should know that better than anyone."
He did. Duo studied the reflection. "If I drink this potion, will everything be exactly like it was before?"
"That's right. No surprising side-effects, no miraculous lifting of certain spells, no having to worry about split ends or dandruff--"
"Ah," Duo grinned. "I think I see. Does one of these potions have the ability to turn the others back into people?"
The gorgon in the mirror winked and gave him a thumbs up. "Yes. You're getting there, kid."
"Thanks for your help." Duo put the potion down and picked up the golden goblet again.
His human reflection looked pleased. "I see you've decided to make the right choice."
"I want to know something," Duo said abruptly. "If I drink your potion, what will happen to Heero and the others?"
"Oh, forget them!" his reflection chirped, throwing another pretty smile at him, and tossing his long hair. "Looking like this, you'll have all the friends you want!"
"I'll take that as a no," Duo sighed, putting the potion down. "Let's see, not him, not the gorgon, which--by the process of elimination--leaves you."
Duo picked up the third goblet. It was plain, carved from stone, with the word 'Semper' as its only decoration. Duo looked at the mirror and saw it covered in a foggy mist that eventually dissipated to reveal . . .
Scrub that, a statue of Duo.
"You're kidding," Duo said unhappily. "I can't do that!" He put the cup down hurriedly and grabbed the goblet engraved with snakes. "Please tell me that's not--"
"I'm not allowed to tell you much of anything," his reflection shrugged. "It's all up to you now."
The snakes got very rude.
"Shush," Duo told them. "I need to think."
He walked up and down the room, voicing his thoughts as he walked. "I guess it's obvious I have to take the stone potion. I may not like it but there it is. And sure, it'd be pretty neat, not looking like a monster and not turning people into stone, but I can't leave Quatre and Wufei like that, not to mention Heero . . . and all the others."
The snakes sighed, equally depressed.
"This is a mess and no mistake, isn't it, girls?" Duo said, reaching for the stone goblet before he could change his mind. "Bottoms up, huh?"
"Duo? Oh, Duo!"
Duo froze. Only one person had timing this terrible--
"It's me, Relena! Come out Duo, we have some very important matters we need to discuss. Like whether your dryad friend keeps his head."
"No," Duo groaned. "This can't happen now!"
"Don't listen to her!" Trowa yelled. "Think of Heero and Quatre--ow!"
After a pause Relena called out again. "Enough procrastinating. Duo, come here."
"Why?" Duo said, searching for a weapon of any kind. He was defenceless--Relena had soldiers and they were prepared for him. He wouldn't be able to rely on his snakes--unless--his eyes fell on the different goblets.
"No one said I could only choose one--" he whispered, picking up the golden goblet and drinking its contents quickly.
"I have a business proposition for you," Relena purred. "With your face and my marketing skills we could have a very profitable partnership."
"And if I say no?" Duo had to put a hand to the wall to steady himself. He felt a lot lighter--his snakes were gone. He put a hand to the chestnut wisps floating around his face--
"Then you don't see Trowa or Heero ever again."
Duo smirked, picking up the bronze goblet. "Then I have no choice . . . although I must warn you, I think you're going to be disappointed."
The gorgon reflection winked at him. "Let her have it."
Duo grinned viciously in response. Payback.
He stepped into the next room. Noin and Sally were absent--he wondered whether Relena had done something to them or if they'd escaped. Trowa was there, staring at Duo with an expression of surprise--Relena and her men had their faces turned away, observing him through the reflections on their shield.
"Duo," Trowa said. "You look like a human!"
"I know," Duo said. "That's kind of the point." He was slightly hurt by the shock in the dryad's voice.
"What happened to your snakes?"
Duo shrugged. "I'm not sure. One moment they were there, the next--"
Relena had by now ascertained that Duo was no longer a gorgon. He had to duck as she threw her shield at him.
"You idiot! You've ruined everything!"
"Well sorry for making my own life altering decisions!"
Relena raged. "Do you have any idea what you've done? This has totally screwed up my long term business projections!"
"She's opened a gallery," Trowa informed Duo. "She's been selling your victims as high class sculpture."
"It was all going so perfectly too!" Relena moaned. "I was even able to make the first repayment on my kingdom." She sniffed. "None of you have any idea how hard it is to run a country! When Milliardo went away it got so hard--all those taxes and banquets and governments and everything. So I took out a little loan--"
Duo judged that neither Relena nor her soldiers were paying that much attention to him. He drank the contents of the bronze goblet.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have spent so much on my wardrobe," Relena mused. "Although when one is a ruler appearances are so important. I'll admit that pink carriage was a mistake though. I can't for the life of me understand how the loan grew so big."
"It happens," Duo said, tapping the last soldier on the shoulder. As the man, annoyed, turned to glare at him, Duo slipped his hand over the man's mouth, and grinned in satisfaction as the man slowly became stone.
"This plan was perfect!" Relena sighed. "I wasn't going to do this forever, you know. Just enough to reclaim my kingdom and amass a modest fortune."
Trowa snorted. "Which is why you sold your own brother?"
"I couldn't let Milliardo know what a mess I'd made of things," Relena sniffed. "After all the trust he put in me." She wiped away her tears. "I suppose I should kill you now, both of you."
"That might be difficult," Duo said. "You don't have any soldiers left.'
Relena whipped her head up to look at him. "What do you mean--oh. Shit."
"I might feel guilty about this later," Duo said, with a grin. "But I sure as hell don't now."
The snakes added their own thoughts, producing a chorus of snaky laughter.
"Enjoy being a work of high quality art," Trowa said with a grin. "We'll be sure to find a good buyer for you."
Relena screeched and tried to lunge at him. All she succeeded in doing, however, was to overbalance. She was completely stone before she hit the floor.
"It's a shame she had to go and ruin a perfectly good statue by scowling like that," Trowa said, as Duo picked the lock on his cage (the keys which Relena had were now stone). "Now no one will want to buy her."
"Well she can forget the dusk concert," Duo said. "There's no way I'm singing to her." He sighed as the lock finally clicked open.
"What's the matter?" Trowa asked.
"For about a minute there, things were perfect," the gorgon replied. "I wasn't a monster, and it looked as though I'd be able to return Heero and the others to normal."
"There is nothing wrong with being a monster. You should be proud of who you are," the dryad replied.
"I know, Trowa, and I am. It's just . . . I don't want to have a relationship with someone knowing I might accidentally kill them at any moment, you know? Being a gorgon sucks."
"I'm sorry--if I hadn't been captured--"
"Don't apologize for that. It was worth it to see Relena's face when she realized what had happened . . . You know, I still have to take the potion to return everyone to normal. When I do that, Relena's going to be free. We ought to take this opportunity to put her on the inside of the cage she's so kindly provided us with," Duo said.
Trowa nodded. "I might add her soldiers in as well," he said.
Duo hesitated, about to return to the room with the mirrors.
"You . . . you've been a great friend, Trowa. I've really appreciated your kindness."
"It's nothing Duo. You're a good friend, yourself."
"Thanks. I--just have fun on your date with Quatre, hmm?"
"Do you really think he'd still be interested?" Trowa asked. "I mean, provided I can find him again . . . Relena sold him to one of the freakiest guys I've ever seen. You would not believe his hair--"
"--dare you do this to me! Don't you know I'm a queen!" Relena screeched, blinking suddenly at her new surroundings. "Huh?" she said eloquently. Around her soldiers began to move, groaning as they caught up with their condition.
"Good and bad news," Trowa observed to Duo. "They've woken up."
He waited for the gorgon's response.
Suddenly concerned, Trowa hurried into the next room. "Duo?"
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