Caught in a Web, Part 2
by Kea & Jenn

"I see you have as little taste for Relena's sport as I do," a musical alto said thoughtfully. Its owner stepped into the candlelight, looking Duo over with an appraising eye. It was not the look of a woman admiring a man, but rather like that of a general scrutinizing her troops. Whatever the elegant, dark-haired witch saw, she kept to herself. "I'm glad I didn't bring my husband to this part of the festivities," she confided. "I don't think he would have been able to tolerate it." There was a thread of humor in her tone as she moved to the rail, resting elegant hands on the cool marble.

"I wonder though," she mused, "what is an Ebon-Gray Warlord Prince doing without company at one of Relena's revels?"

The lithe body stopped in mid-pace, stilled as surely as if tendrils of darker Craft had anchored it there. Beneath the skin, though, tensions vibrated, battling the soul-deep approach/avoidance conflict that slammed any Warlord Prince between the eyes when confronted with a dark-jeweled Queen not his own. Duo crammed down the near-lust to serve, the raw desire to remain free, coupled with the sweet entanglement of her psychic scent with those who served her.

Husband, she said. Not a term in wide use in Tereille. He carefully sifted through the taste of her scent, for even though she was someone else's Queen, Prince mentality demanded to know the opposition. He shivered internally when the threads closest to her unwound into a rank to match his own. There were few Ebon-Grays in any of the Realms.

Mother Night. Did that mean the cold-eyed Prince openly wearing a Sapphire earring was her husband?

No, no...he had been escorting a Light-Jeweled Queen, and nothing of Meiran Chang had surrounded that icy presence. He took a mental step back, casting awareness out in large circles through the summer palace and grounds, both relieved and unsettled to feel two answering pings of Prince power. Another muted presence matching the weight of that almost-Black jewel seemed to linger near Relena, but it felt oddly diffused, like trying to catch a clear image of something under several feet of water.

Two confirmed Ebon-Grays besides himself at Relena's party. Duo hadn't been certain two others existed in the Realms. If one was that sly-eyed Prince, the other had to be Meiran Chang's not-entirely-absent husband. As to the third, that mystery had eluded Duo since the day he descended to his post-Offering strength, always taunting him from somewhere just out of his vision. With a mental shrug, he put all of it out of his mind, the Queen behind him the more pressing matter

In one sudden, fluid motion, he turned, the rush of breeze an audible thwoop against the extended sails of his wings. Shadowed moonlight and slippery darkness prowled over his face, giving the beautiful features the appearance of a garish death-mask. He appeared to be some sort of wild, inhuman predator, eyeing her as if uncertain of her relative position in the Blood's food chain. Her scent was luxuriant and intoxicating, but Duo had not lived under the Territory Queen's brutal rule without developing a deep suspicion of women, no matter how good they smelled. In some ways, the lack of trust made seducing them easier.

Her ink-dark eyes spoke not of seduction, but of something he didn't immediately recognize. The death-mask rewarded her with a quirky smile, the shifting of overhead clouds dissolving it back into a winningly masculine face. "If I told you it was performance anxiety, would you believe me?" The words rang with a bitterness that belied their light tone and the maniacally grinning speaker.

Her newly found companion was a fascinating puzzle, little ironies blossoming at every turn. He was tanned but lacked the deeply honeyed complexion of the Eyriens. Likewise, what should have been dark hair and golden eyes to match those wings gave way to bold chestnut and vivid violet, his lengthy hair drawn back in a thick, elegantly ribboned queue that trailed between his leathery wings. No matter the underlying tensions, the smile rang truer than the knife-edged, explosive temper Eyrien warriors were known to possess. Even the clothing he wore--form-fitting pants of black leather and a loose, billowy white shirt, custom-made to accommodate the wings, with sleeves dripping in frothy lace and leaving only enough to a woman's imagination to make her itchy for what lay beneath--broke the pattern, the type of things no warrior would ever don, even in the privacy of his own eyrie.

But his eyes--warrior's eyes--still watched her as though assessing a threat. A threat he didn't entirely understand.

She waited him out, not unfamiliar with the workings of a masculine mind. Unlike her sister Queens in attendance, however, Meiran was largely innocent of what had placed that well-deserved suspicion in the Eyrien Prince's heart. The only male she took to her bed was the one whose ring she wore on her left hand. The others that served in her court did so by their own choosing. In Tereillian courts, the very concept was nothing short of blasphemous.

"I am not in the habit of adopting Relena's custom of accepting a lie when the truth is inconvenient," she replied quietly. The words were said with caution, and rightly so; heard by the wrong person, they would be carried to Relena as sedition. Something about him, however, led her to believe that there was no love lost between the Eyrien Prince and his Queen. "Walk with me?" she turned those velvet dark eyes upon him, accompanied by a gentle smile. "My husband will fret if I wander the grounds unescorted." There was a fond indulgence to the way she said it, as though she expected him to fuss anyway. Perhaps even welcomed it.

From the gentle thrust and parry of her words, he would bet she fenced. None but ones who had handled a blade knew the best way to blunt a defense and score a touch. It upped his estimation of her slightly, and his estimation of her danger to him exponentially. "I never said it was my performance that made me anxious."

"No," she granted him graciously, "you didn't." A sliver of something close to pain flashed in his unusual eyes before it was gone again, and he extended a hand towards Meiran, a hand unadorned except for a small silver ring bearing a chip of his Jewel...and flanked on either side of the stone by two tiny pieces of a different one.

It could have been merely a trick of the light, or attributed to the pervading darkness outside, but those two chips glinted Black.

Smoothly slipping her arm through his, she inclined her head towards the stairway leading down into the gardens. The lantern light lovingly caressed the intricate play of light and shadow in the weave of her wine-hued brocade, casting the aristocratic set of her features in classical relief. She was a beautiful woman, with the dark, elegantly slanted eyes of her native people, the fashionable cut of her dress made exotic by similar cultural touches in the embroidery and the cut of the cloth. Yet, despite the unmistakable air of femininity that surrounded her, her stride, her purposeful grace, even the way her eyes swept the grounds at the foot of the stairs spoke of more than a passing familiarity with the world outside of her sitting room.

"That's a beautiful ring you're wearing," she said idly. "You'll have to tell me who designed it for you." She tilted her head to one side, wearing that fond smile again. "I'm intrigued with the concept, really. How intimate, to wear a bit of your beloved's Jewel." If she made note of the flash of surprise in Duo's eyes, she gave no sign of it. "Do you think my Prince would wear the Gray for me?" she seemed genuinely interested in his response. "Males can be such funny creatures," her tone became slightly aggrieved at that, "his Jewel is the darker and I'm concerned it might become a point of pride. Then again, I suppose he hasn't much choice. I've never met anyone before that wears the Black." It all seemed so light, so conversational, but the mind behind it was the mind of a Queen. A fact that could never be forgotten.

Having been on the receiving end of Relena's sexual appetite--oh, the mechanics made it the other way around, but there was never any question of who was fucking whom with the Red-jeweled Queen--Duo mentally calculated her and Heero's relative stamina, estimating the duration of the aforementioned performance. He glanced back at the strange, sloe-eyed Queen, for once in his life at a loss in how to approach a woman. Meiran Chang--her inner barriers were open enough for him to discern her name and a few other details--was married. Marriage had been rare when Duo was born; now, it was all but extinct, as willfully entering into a contractual relationship that gave a male any semblance of power or equality smacked of heresy. What made her choose fidelity over Obedience?

His own Ring rubbed under the tight leather, making him painfully aware of his own status. Plaything. Pleasure slave. Fuck toy. Whore.

Swallowing another round of bitter bile, he decided that there was time for a short stroll, a few moments indulgence in this deep, sweet psychic scent that didn't turn his stomach or his soul. Her Consort's role definitely seemed occupied, but could there possibly be any room in her court for two more males, males whose talents and experiences consisted of little more than sex and torture?

His thoughts turned back to Heero, and Duo stopped short of reaching out to him. The mental thought-space his lover normally occupied had shifted to nothing but a blank, Black mist. It was the only way Heero could perform for Relena and not continually lose part of himself, descending just that small half-step towards the abyss. Of course, Duo knew that if he tried, Heero could have Relena hot, slick and drowning in her own sweat and desire within the span of a few breaths--Hell's fire, merely breathing the same air had Duo panting more often than not, six hundred years together notwithstanding--but that wasn't his way. She could fuck him, but Heero refused to let her rape him, to steal that which he reserved for Duo alone.

The winds caressed his face as they walked--as she talked and he, for once, listened--called to that blood in him that longed to ride upon them. To an Eyrien, the winds were a lover of sorts, partner in a fierce and frenzied coupling that shattered the bounds of gravity. The winds were also an enemy, filling his nose with the soft, musky notes of her perfume as keenly as her feminine psychic scent did his mind. What could it be like to drown in this much Queen power without the stink of cruelty attached to it?

Duo snorted in protest at her description of males--no matter how intoxicating the psychic scent, they all seemed to share some views--but, admittedly, he had to agree. They were funny creatures, himself included. His other hand darted over to protectively touch the ring, his distance behind the smile lessening just a bit. "I'm not sure about yours, he may be snarly about that sort of thing, Prince does," he said, very softly.

Meiran's brow quirked ever so slightly as her suspicions were confirmed. Interesting, so there truly was more between Relena's prized Princes than mere camaraderie. She continued their leisurely stroll for a few more steps, then drew breath to say more. Before she could open her mouth, however, the silence was broken by something else entirely.

"Duo." It was a breath, a soft summons that the wind obediently brought to their ears as though bidden to do so. And yet, for all that the voice was muted in volume, there was no gentleness about it. The quiet had a deadly quality to it, not focused on the bearer of the name spoken, but on his companion. The feeling merely intensified as the shadows coalesced, taking shape and form as they gave birth into the muted lantern light.

Surrounded by the alluring scent of this strange Queen, Duo didn't sense the shadowy approach of his longtime lover until icy, violent cold slithered down his spine, a familiar frozen anger emanating out in concentric circles from a spot just behind him and to his left, amplified tenfold when he spoke his name; most frightening was knowing where that fury chose to target. Heero? Duo asked on a firm Ebon-Gray spear-thread; swirling, Black rage was Heero's only answer. Slightly light-headed from the intensity, Duo retreated almost to the Sapphire before his mind fully cleared.

The Black-jeweled Warlord Prince looked down at the Gray-jeweled Queen, and his expressionless features spoke to her only of pure menace. Dark, fathomless blue eyes raked over her, flicking briefly to the other Prince before piercing through her once again. The message was clear, her presence was not to be tolerated, and he would remove her by force if need be. 

Meiran swallowed hard, realizing that she was clinging tightly to Duo's arm as she reacted to the sheer weight that being within Heero Yuy's aura brought down on her. It was only after she'd calmed that instinctive reaction of prey to predator that she remembered that the Prince was just a man, albeit a formidable one. He was also injured, a livid bruise coloring one elegantly carved cheekbone, blood seeping down his chest from a nasty gash just below the base of his throat.

Without thought to curb them, her instincts stirred her to motion. She stepped away from Duo, stretching out a hand towards the other Prince, freezing in her tracks as he flinched away. "I just..." She swallowed hard, reminding herself that she was a Queen and a warrior. Stiffening her spine, she gave him a gentle smile. "May I?"

Duo reached out a hand to stay Meiran, but she moved even faster than him. When she suddenly stopped, he ran into the back of her, clasping his hands over her shoulders to keep her from falling forwards and into Heero. His own anger at seeing Relena's marks was a small controlled burn in his stomach, but touching the Black-jeweled Prince without invitation could shatter Heero's tenuous control.

Moments measured in heartbeats passed in silence, one after another. The tension increased, the looming thunderhead of the Black threatening the rising strength of the Gray. For Duo, it was like standing on the verge of two stormfronts. He knew one would engulf the other...but the rumble of thunder still sounded in the distance. Please, Heero...

Meiran stood her ground, realizing that her caste meant little, she would live or die at the whim of the man before her, watching her intently with cold, cold eyes. A ring of frost had spontaneously appeared on the ground at their feet, manifesting icy, deadly anger. She closed her eyes as his psychic scent overwhelmed her... probing, questioning. Slowly the anger eased, the temperature of the air around her climbing above the freezing mark. Swallowing hard, she dared to look at him, a breath catching in her throat as he gave her a single, firm nod.

Wordlessly, she moved forward, barely feeling Duo's hands slip from her shoulders. Once again she reached, fingertips hovering over Heero's battered cheek. He stood rock-steady, his eyes no less forbidding, but no longer on the killing edge. Gathering her courage, she touched him, cautiously intruding no farther than his outermost barriers as she gathered Gray-strength to Heal him.

"You have a gentle touch." She started, unprepared for the smooth, bass rumble of his voice. It was pleasant, almost...gentle, as though he were taking pains not to frighten her.

"Better a mother's gentle guidance than an iron hand," she replied almost tartly, using her expertise to wipe the cuts and bruises from his body. The wounds that she knew, without a doubt, Relena had inflicted. Her presence clung to him, sharp-edged and cruel.

"Caution, my lady. The Red Queen doesn't take criticism lightly." He arched an eyebrow as she opened her mouth to protest. Taking her hand, he lifted it away from his cheek and pressed it to his lips for a chaste, courtly kiss. That simple act of thanks performed, however, his eyes moved past her to Duo.

She was forced to wonder what passed between them, once again struck by the realization of just how deep the bond between the two Princes went. It left her feeling as though she were merely an observer, standing on the outside of something that she would never understand. A slight smile curved her lips as she also realized that perhaps others felt that very same way when she was in the presence of her own Prince.

"My lords," she began quietly, watching as their eyes swung towards her as though they'd forgotten her presence completely. "I have left my husband alone for too long. If you would excuse me?"

The Black-Jeweled Prince's expression never changed, still frozen in that impassive, near-forbidding stare. Duo, however, softened some of his companion's look with an open, genuine smile directed at her. I think it would be best if we both spent some time with our Princes. Meiran Chang, thank you. That feather-light touch on the Gray whispered that it wasn't only for Heero that he thanked her. Both Princes sketched appropriate bows, and the Queen drew up her skirts to receive them in curtsy before scurrying out of the topiary maze, the heels of her shoes sounding in rapidly retreating cadence.

"You unnerved her," Duo gently chided as her footfalls grew fainter. Heero shrugged; the matter, for him, was closed. She had not proven to be a threat to Duo; therefore, she still lived. Duo's eyes remained on that spot Meiran had vacated, though, an almost aching sadness shadowing the amethyst depths into purple-dusk. Two strong fingers clasped beneath his chin, turning it upwards to meet that gaze he loved, a silent question written there. "Sorry, just thinking about things we weren't meant to have."

The eyes shifted just a bit, posing a new question. "It hurts," Duo confessed, running a finger over the unblemished cheek that had been starkly bruised only a few moments before. "It hurts to hope that things can be different from how they are. But, if there's one Queen out there that's worth serving, I have to hope." His fingers laced through the back of Heero's hair and gently rubbed in small circles against his scalp.

Breathing deeply, he took the clean, intoxicating scent that was uniquely Duo's inside of him, chasing away Relena's taint, locking it into heart and though there were any chance at all that he could forget it after having even one taste. His head dropped, closing the few inches that parted them in height until his forehead rested against his lover's, eyes closed as Duo's strong, slender fingers tiptoed up the back of his neck. 

"Do you really think she's different from the others?" he asked softly, lashes parting to reveal twin cobalt gems tempered to brittle hardness in Relena's games of pain and punishment. They softened, mental defenses parting easily at Duo's gentle touch...they never completely went down, they just allowed him inside. "Queens don't play at kindness unless they want something...and usually only because they want it badly."

"Do I think she is?" Duo's eyelashes tickled against Heero's as he lowered his gaze, disjointed, half-formed thoughts trickling between them like a small creek. "I'm not sure," he admitted at last, his eyes whispering open. "But she thinks she is, and that rouses a great deal of curiosity on my part. She doesn't like Relena, she's stronger than her, even, so why is she here?"

Dark blue eyes lost their focus, a whisper of Black power brushing against Duo's mind before casting outward. He didn't touch Meiran, merely took another taste of the aura around her, the lingering traces of her psychic scent. That subtle exploration gave his expression a more thoughtful cant, and the tendrils of thought that whirled in his mind varied from wistful to calculating. "A dark-jeweled Queen that opposes Relena," he said at last. "Perhaps she deserves our support for that alone."

"Still," Duo mused thoughtfully, "what would it be like to serve a Queen who heals instead of hurts...?"

As though mind and body worked of their own volition, Heero lifted a hand. He touched his own cheek, seeking the phantom traces of the bruise that Meiran had taken from it. "That dream died for me a long time ago," he said quietly, but his tone lacked the flatness it should have possessed were it completely true. "My loyalty belongs only to you." And yet... the longing of a Warlord Prince for a Queen was a thirst that could be quenched by one drink alone. He pulled Duo more tightly against him, burying his face against the chestnut silk of his hair. For several moments, it seemed he had returned to customary silence. 

I don't know what it would be like...but the hope hurts too much to bear.

Duo's arms tightened protectively, understandingly around Heero, drawing closer to that strong, powerful body that housed the mind and soul he worshipped. No one, least of all Duo, could ever forget what the weight of the Black meant, and yet...laboring underneath the burden of that darkest Jewel was a confused, needy male just like the rest of them. Aside from the threat such an action posed, Duo knew deep down that there was another reason why Heero hadn't tried to break the Ring.

They had nowhere else to go.

A Warlord Prince needed a Queen like he needed air. Without one, he would die. Not necessarily in a day or several or even a year, but he would die. It was only a matter of when. Everything in him centered on his Queen.

Relena was the Territory Queen. As such, she was responsible for, to some degree, each of the Province Queens who gave their loyalty to her, and the District Queens who gave theirs in turn to the Province Queens. She was their head, their focal point. They all sought to emulate her.

Despite that, there was no guarantee that they would follow her in the only way that mattered to them. Though never bending or failing in her cruelty for a second, Relena had consistently allowed them a tiny, inadvertent kindness.

Each other.

"We should go," Heero murmured quietly, sensing that his lifemate was falling prey to his own inner musings. He pulled away, but only to capture Duo's chin, indigo eyes claiming purple-dusk. "It doesn't matter," he said with gentle surety, "not as long as we're together." The pad of his thumb blazed a trail across full, sensuous lips, a path his mouth could not resist following.

Come on, he said silently, inevitably ending the slow, loving caress. "I'm not giving that bitch an excuse to hurt you tonight."

They were together. Mother Night, he would have given up long ago without Heero. Even a dream couldn't outlast the kiss of dawn. "It doesn't matter," Duo echoed, albeit lacking conviction, while drinking deeply, urgently at the well of Heero's mouth. It was the only way to diminish the seductive psychic scent that still lingered long after Meiran had fled. His fingers rained a thousand small touches in one as they gently skipped across Heero's cheekbones before dropping from that beautiful, beloved face, twining with his mate's other hand.

Much as with the ballroom earlier, Duo felt an irrational desire to escape the gardens, escape the whispering hopes that traveled through the leaves of the elaborate topiary. He tugged at Heero's hand, pulling them both in the direction of their rooms. There was just enough time to shed the whore's clothes Relena insisted they don for the private party and stumble into formal wear suitable to the masquerade. "It's too late tonight." The squeeze against Heero's hand was strong but the voice undeniably sad, wistful as it wafted over Duo's shoulder. "She already hurt me."

In a quick, powerful movement that not even the lightning-swiftness of an Eyrien could have evaded, the Black-Jeweled Prince caught his lover against him. Arms wrapped tightly around Duo's slim waist, trapping his furled wings between them, Heero held him there for several heartbeats...just holding on. "I love you," he whispered raggedly in Duo's ear, words meant for no one else in the entirety of the realm save the amethyst-eyed Prince. After a moment, an eternity in which they merely bathed in the rich, dark pool of one another, Heero released him, keeping their fingers tangled together as he took the lead on the path that would take them back to their rooms.

Painted into the chiaroscuro of shadow, the watcher smiled, pausing to drink deeply of the scent of a single ripe, crimson rose before following the same path into the palace at his leisure. So many deliciously tangled webs to weave... all gleaming with the jeweled brightness of blood yet to be shed...

To be continued...

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(The Black Jewels trilogy and all associated concepts are (c) Anne Bishop.)