"There." I placed my knight and with a sunny smile grinned at a disgruntled Wufei. "Checkmate."
"Very impressive, Quatre," S congratulated me. "O's scholar was able to defeat me."
"Quatre was the better tactician," Wufei said stiffly. "It was a good win." He bowed to me. "I found that most instructive. We must play again."
"I'm at your pleasure," I said, nodding and marvelling at Wufei's restraint. That must have taken a lot of self-control. He'd glared at me savagely the first time I took one of his pawns.
"Well," G sneered. "Now if we're done with the chess, we might move onto the main event -- after supper drinks await us in the saloon."
As I stood up to follow the others a hand tugged me back.
"If we go now we should be able to hide ourselves in that room without G noticing us," Heero said.
I nodded. "I'll excuse myself and follow you in, say, fifteen minutes?"
"Do as you like," J's student shrugged. "Just don't give us away."
I made my goodnights and joined Heero in the studio at the end of the long corridor. Like he'd said the statue was gone.
"These empty crates will make an excellent observation post," Heero said, indicating two wooden boxes side by side. I nodded.
"After you," I bowed.
Heero snorted, and climbed into the closest box. "Baka."
"What?" I asked, climbing into the second.
"Baka. It's a Japanese word."
The crates were just large enough for us to fit inside. Heero hadn't chosen them with a view for comfort. Still we could see most of the room without being visible ourselves. I hope G doesn't take too long, I thought, trying not to think about how badly I wanted to stand up and stretch. This must be rending disaster on my posture --
The door opened.
"In you come," G instructed as Duo entered. "And I must say you behaved much better this evening. Whatever were you thinking this morning? Oh that's right. You weren't thinking."
I heard the crate Heero was hiding in creak.
This could be disastrous. If he lost his temper and revealed himself now --
But he didn't. Duo stood there calmly as G continued to berate him.
"I've told you before, if you talk to people they're going to get suspicious. Don't do anything I don't tell you to." G picked up the white sheet that had covered the statue. "Now . . . be stone."
I stared, then rubbed furiously at my eyes. I did not just see that --
But, as evidence to the contrary, Duo stood as still as rock. To all appearances, he was rock.
"Goodnight, pet," G said with a smirk, placing the sheet over him. "Now, to work."
He sat down at the desk and began to write in the notebook there. 20 minutes passed, in which my back cramps returned, with a vengeance. Not only that, my nose itched.
Finally G stretched, shut his notebook and left.
I sighed in relief, crawling out of the crate. "At last!" I stretched.
"Duo?" Heero was already out of his box, hastening to the statue's -- Duo's -- side. "Is that really you? What did he do to you?"
"That's impossible," I said. "A person just can't become a statue."
"Then how do you explain it?" Heero snapped.
I took a place beside him and reached out a hand to Duo. Cool marble met my touch, unpliable and hard. "It appears I stand corrected," I said. My eyes fell upon Professor G's notebook. "Maybe this will have some answers."
I picked up the notebook and turned to the first page. "Let's see . . . my idiot companions want to wager that perfection in human form can be attained and to that end have arranged to meet at my house next year with their finds. I've decided to sculpt a perfect youth from stone using the old masters as my guide and inspiration. With my masterpiece I hope to set myself up as a latter day Pygmalion -- Pygmalion," I stopped. "Wasn't that the name of a figure from Greek mythology?"
"Hn," grunted Heero, not taking his eyes off Duo. He'd taken the marble form by its shoulders and shaken it in a vain attempt to revive the braided youth.
"Let's see . . . sketches . . . more sketches . . . whoa -- I guess he must have taken a life drawing class." I flicked further forward in the book. "Oh, here's some more notes. 'My little experiment has proven more successful than I could have hoped. Model 2 was successfully animated last night. I have christened him Duo and have undertaken to instruct him in the basics of human behaviour. We covered walking today. By nightfall I hope to have him speaking his first words.'" I put the journal down. "Well, I suppose that would explain why he produces no empathic energy."
"How do we turn him back?" Heero demanded.
"A little patience never hurt anybody," I stated, flicking back through the journal. "Let's see . . . my research would seem to indicate that the strongest commands are the ones that start with the imperative 'be' as in 'be flesh' -- "
I looked up -- and saw that Duo was again his living, breathing self -- and staring at us both in quite some astonishment.
"You -- but you're not supposed to know!" He looked very worried. "G will be upset!"
Heero gathered him into his arms. "Don't worry. I won't let him harm you."
Faint pink appeared in Duo's cheeks as he again blushed very prettily -- I caught myself sighing wistfully as I put the book down. But still . . .
"That aside, what shall we do? I agree, Duo should be removed from G's control -- but how do we do so? The others will never believe us -- " I could just imagine their response to me telling them that G's pupil was really a statue. Wufei would just smirk, and J would say something like 'It appears soft living was too much for him,' and H would say nothing but be very upset --
"It doesn't matter if they don't believe us," Heero said. "We don't need to tell them anything. They won't believe us -- but they won't believe G either."
"True," I conceded. "But then how do you stop G from taking Duo back?"
Heero cupped Duo's face with two hands and brought the violet eyes up to meet his. "Be mine," he instructed clearly.
Despite my scepticism in folkloric beliefs, I swear I felt a chill go down my spine. Something was about to go very wrong . . .
Duo buried himself in Heero's arms. "I'm yours," he repeated fervently.
"Let's get out of this awful room," I said.
I rose in the morning refreshed and convinced that my foreboding of the previous evening had been incorrect. Far better for Duo to be with one who obviously loved and appreciated him, than with G . . . even if he had no choice. My feeling of unease was just related to the knowledge that G was unlikely to take this lying down, nothing more serious than that.
This feeling of confidence persisted all the way down the corridor until I reached the others in the breakfast room.
"So," said G sourly, "H's pupil finally deigns to join us. And where have you been?"
I looked around. Apart from Duo and Heero, everyone was present. "I'm terribly sorry," I said. "I had no idea you were all awaiting my arrival. If so, I should have risen earlier."
"Join me, Quatre," H requested, and as I sat beside him, whispered to me, "Duo was not in his room this morning when G went to wake him, and he has not been seen yet. G is very cross, and is taking this out on everybody. Just ignore him, and keep your head down."
I complied, feeling very nervous as I ate my breakfast. I was so certain G was going to round on me and accuse me --
"Itís obvious what has happened, isn't it?" Wufei said smugly on my right.
"Is it?" I asked, feeling my heart constrict.
"Heero has not come down yet either," the Chinese youth said. "I'd say that his attraction to G's showpiece proved mutual."
"You think so?" I said uneasily, looking round the table. G was glowering at anyone who caught his eye, J was as smug as G had been yesterday. O looked mildly peeved, H and S were indifferent, and Trowa was nervous, scarcely touching his breakfast.
I found out why moments later, as S announced that Trowa had consented to provide us a demonstration of his acrobatic skills.
As we made out way to the same lawn that Wufei had used to practice his katanas on the previous morning, I caught up with Trowa.
"Relax," I whispered. "If your acrobatic skills are anything like your musical ability, than you should have nothing to worry about."
He gave me a brief smile. "Thank-you, Quatre." He paused, then brushing his fringe aside asked, "Is something troubling you?"
"Huh?" I said, very eloquently.
"You seem somewhat distracted."
"I'm uneasy," I said truthfully. "This business with Duo is weighing on me somewhat."
He nodded. "I know what you mean. G seems mad enough to kill somebody."
I shuddered. He probably didn't mean that, but the words had to me, the certainty of an omen -- "Don't say things like that!"
"I'm getting too superstitious. Forgive me, Trowa. Now, go out there and amaze us all."
"Thanks for your confidence." The corner of his mouth twitched upwards in a droll grin, but didn't hold. "This whole setting puts me off. All of you are so accomplished -- and knowing the collectors will be watching every move I make -- "
"Forget them," I said. "Pretend you're with the circus and this is just another performance."
"That might help," Trowa said. S called him then and he left.
I was right in thinking Trowa had nothing to worry about. The acrobatic feats he performed were graceful, and I'd venture a guess, unparalleled. Even the ultra critical collectors couldn't find fault. Unfortunately, I was too worried to fully appreciate the performance.
Heero and Duo arrived partway through Trowa's acrobatic display. If he'd looked beautiful before, Duo was even more now -- his long hair was worn loose and slightly rumpled, and his clothes were tousled -- he brought to mind the Renaissance expression of a 'pleasant disorder.' His face was made radiant with happiness -- Heero had been good to him, it seemed. J's pupil was likewise more relaxed, and his face had lost the coolness that had made it so intimidating. His eyes had lightened, and his whole appearance was of quiet joy.
However, joy appeared to be the last emotion G was feeling.
"Where have you been?" he hissed, approaching Duo and Heero, his sharp eyes not missing the fact that their hands were joined. "And how did you wake -- you." That was directed at Heero. "You have no right -- "
"To do what?" Heero asked, calmly, leading Duo over to the breakfast dishes. "To court Duo, with his permission and to his happiness? Why not? He is after all entitled to the freedom of choice of any of age human -- "
G spluttered for a bit, almost incoherent with rage. I watched, concerned, as his anger grew. But his answer when it came was controlled. "I must disagree with you, boy. Duo is not at all experienced in matters of the heart -- he is most naïve in regard to the wider world. As his guardian it is my duty to make sure his tender sensibilities are not abused -- he is not yet ready for this sort of commitment. Come here, Duo."
Heero glared poison at G, I groaned inwardly. But Duo's response startled us all.
"Wh-what?" G stared at his charge in astonishment that would have been laughable, had not the situation been so utterly tense.
"I stay with Heero," Duo said, staring up at the Japanese youth with a glowing smile.
There was a moment of calm, as the two of them simply looked at each other. Then G spoiled it.
"You -- how could you! How dare you! Stealing him away from me -- he's -- "
"What?" Heero raised an eyebrow, wrapping his arms firmly around Duo and smirking at G. "A piece of artwork you can own? I think not."
"I'm staying with Heero," Duo stated, a little bit more strongly.
G growled, stepping towards his pupil with every intention of seizing him --
As quickly as I could I grabbed the nearest bottle and stepped between him and the object of his rage. "I think a toast is in order, don't you, everyone?" I said brightly. "Let us wish you two well."
As the others politely applauded, G swore and stormed out of the room. H, after raising his glass in a quick salute to Duo and Heero followed him. The rest joined me in showering the two new lovers in pleasantries.
Heero nodded, eyes fixed on me -- I had the distinct impression he'd seen the ploy for what it was -- an attempt to defuse a nasty situation. Duo however was a merry pink colour, and beaming as he received congratulations -- whether sincere, as was Trowa's hesitant well wishes, or rather less so, as was J's smug congratulation on Heero's 'victory.'
As the fuss subsided, and people began to drift towards their morning occupations, Heero drew me aside. "I have to thank you," he said, his voice pitched low enough not to be carried to where Duo sat entranced as Trowa called wild birds from the garden to rest in his tanned hands. "You helped us back there -- I had you all wrong, Quatre. I thought you wanted Duo for yourself -- "
I held up a hand to forestall thanks. "Heero, I won't deny I find Duo extremely attractive. But beautiful as he is -- I would find a relationship such as the one you share untenable. I wish you luck -- but I have a bad feeling about this. Please," I said, catching his eye to make sure the warning was taken to heart. "Be very careful."
"Why? If you are so attracted to him, how could you not want to have him?" Heero demanded.
"I believe a relation must be founded on more than attraction. Duo, as he is, is incapable of giving more."
"He is not dumb, Quatre. Just new to this world -- like a child. He will learn in time. I will teach him."
"I was not just talking about knowledge, Heero," I sighed, seeing he didn't understand. "Understanding, compassion, reciprocity of feelings -- " I abruptly found myself pinned to the wall by my shoulders.
"He loves me," Heero hissed. "Look at the way he smiles at me -- "
"The way he smiled at G," I answered. "The way he'll smile at anyone who tells him to. No, Heero, if you want your relationship with Duo to be anything more you will have to set him free, give him the power to choose."
"And let him choose you?" Heero's grip tightened. "I think not, Winner." He abruptly let go of me. "We're going, Duo," he said, calling his companion.
"Heero!" I called, hurrying after them, and drawing level with them as they turned into the corridor the bedrooms were situated on. "Wait -- "
"I don't want to talk to you Winner," Heero said stepping into his bedroom without even turning round.
"But you don't understand -- " I lunged forward to try and grab his arm.
My hand was shoved back with such force I was thrown against the wall.
I stared in shock at my attacker.
"Don't touch Heero!" he ordered. "He said he didn't want to talk to you." He then hurried to join Heero inside the room.
I leaned back against the wall, nursing my hand, as I recovered myself. It was quite possible that Duo's expression, set and quite calm, as he'd pushed me, was the most worrying thing I'd seen yet --
I looked up to see Wufei eyeing me sardonically. "This has been a most interesting day. First your ever so interesting discussion with Heero on the merits of free will and then this."
"Wufei," I croaked. "It's not -- "
"You can tell me all about it," the Asian youth continued, in a tone that accepted no arguments, "while I tend your hand."