Getting Away (cont)

I shifted automatically to stand on his right, offering him some shelter from the wind, and it won me a small, oddly sad smile. It made me wonder. Made me remember. Made me wish.

I found myself scanning the area, though I knew we were likely the only people around for miles. ‘Duo,’ I suddenly blurted, before I completely lost my nerve. ‘I was... wondering...’ I hesitated, unsure of my wording, and glanced to see an encouraging look on his face as he waited for me to get it spit out. ‘When we were... waiting, while you were in surgery... Trowa and Quatre... they...’ I floundered again, not sure about what I was trying to get across. He turned to face me more fully, giving me an affectionate smile.

‘What is it?’ he prodded gently.

I sighed and found my fingers running through my hair. ‘Do you... you understand, don’t you, that my... difficulty with public displays has nothing to do with you? I mean... you know...’

‘That you love me?’ he grinned, holding out his hand and I took it without thought. ‘You’ve never refused anything I’ve ever asked of you Heero. I understand.’

It was a little bit of a shock how relieved I felt to hear him say that. How much it had been eating at me sub-consciously. ‘I wish, sometimes, that I were more like Trowa,’ I found myself saying, feeling my fingers clutching at his. ‘I wish I could... ignore what other people think. I...’

‘Hey,’ he said, suddenly looking more serious; almost concerned. ‘None of that is important to me, you know that. I’ve always understood how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Why is this bothering you so much all of a sudden?’

I ducked my head and sighed, not sure why in the hell I’d brought this up. Wasn’t I trying to make him feel better? ‘I guess... watching Trowa perfectly able to touch and comfort Quatre when he needed it... no matter who in the hell was there, just made me start thinking.’

The concern seemed to clear from his eyes and the affection was back. ‘Hold me now?’ he asked gently and I tugged him in against me. ‘You see?’ he whispered softly. ‘You never deny me. All I have to do is ask.’

‘And you don’t mind that I... make you ask?’ I whispered back, surprised by the upwelling of emotion that was threatening me. Surprised that that emotion was letting me stand out in plain sight, and take him in my arms.

‘No, Heero,’ he told me firmly. ‘I’ve always understood. I’ve never doubted you.’ He felt me stiffen and pulled back to look at me. ‘Stop it,’ he commanded.

‘It’s all right,’ I soothed. ‘I gave you every reason to doubt me. Gods, Duo... I couldn’t believe that you even forgave me.’

‘Is that what this is all about?’ he questioned, looking me hard in the eyes. ‘You know it was the drugs that had me... in that place in my head. We’ve talked about this...’

‘I know,’ I grumbled, feeling my voice getting thick despite me. ‘I know. But I just...’

‘You just can’t stop beating yourself up for something that wasn’t your fault,’ he informed me with a small little grin, then came back in close, pulling me tight against him. ‘You’ve always been there to catch me, love. Always been right here when I needed you.’

I was completely caught off guard by how much I needed his reassurances. He’d been struggling for so long, to just get himself through, dealing with the pain, dealing with the frustration, that I hadn’t been willing to burden him with my own stupid needs. I was rather shocked when they all came bubbling to the surface as though my damned defenses didn’t exist. I couldn’t even reply to him without risking breaking down completely. But he knew. Somehow... he knew.

‘I never blamed you,’ he whispered next to my ear, holding me tight. ‘We just got in over our heads for a bit. It didn’t damage us; you know that. I love you as much as I ever have... nothing can change that. Ever.’

I nodded tightly and wished that the pull of healing muscles would let him put his arms around my neck the way he used to. But his arms around my waist were solid and real and I eventually got my breath back and pushed down the tide of feeling that was trying to take me over. When I thought I could let go without completely losing control, I drew back to look at him. ‘I’m sorry...’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘Enough of that,’ he chided. ‘I thought we established a long time ago that it’s all right for you to need things.’

‘Not...’ I told him quite despite the fact that I knew it would probably make him angry. ‘Not right now... Gods, not now. You don’t need to be dealing with me on top of everything else.’

Instead of the glare I’d expected to get, he smiled wryly and shook his head. ‘Maybe thinking about you would help me not think about my own problems so much?’ he suggested, but then didn’t wait for me to answer, slipping out of my arms to take a step back up the dock. ‘Come on,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘I thought we came out here to go for a walk?’

I took his hand in mine, following where he led. His fingers were cold, and I eased close enough that I could slip our linked hands into my jacket pocket. He smiled across at me and headed us on down the path, away from the cabin. We were quiet for a bit and I knew he was just letting me calm down a little. Truth be told, I was somewhat appalled at my own sudden loss of control. I had only meant to reassure him, I hadn’t realized how much the subject matter was going to affect me. Had not thought about how much it was going to remind me of that night... that awful night.

‘Walking,’ Duo scolded, and I realized I’d shivered. ‘Sight-seeing. Communing with nature. Brooding is not on our list of things to do today.’

‘How about deep introspection?’ I queried and thought I would get smacked, but he rewarded my effort with a small smile.

‘Nope,’ he informed me firmly. ‘Somebody told me we were out here to ‘record for posterity’ or some such shit.’

I snorted, and he squeezed my fingers inside my pocket. ‘So, you’ll let me take your picture in front of the lake?’

‘Can’t you find anything better to take pictures of?’ he teased, but something odd crossed his face and I pulled us to a stop.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked gently and could tell he hadn’t meant to let me see that hint of... unhappiness.

He ducked his head and looked away, his shoulders giving a dismissive shrug. ‘Nothing really... just thinking that we don’t have any pictures of... you know; us.’

I thought about it and realized he was probably right. We didn’t have a hell of a lot of snap-shots, and the few that we did have, either he or I had taken them. So one of us was in the picture but not the other. ‘We should fix that,’ I told him, seriously not liking the idea for some odd reason.

He made a derisive noise and actually blushed. ‘Heero, somehow I can not see us walking into Sears and...’

‘We don’t need to,’ I said and looked around until I found what I was looking for. ‘Come here.’

He went where I led him, rolling his eyes in exasperation as I plotted my range and angles and placed him just so, with his back to the lake. ‘Don’t move,’ I commanded and walked back up the path to the stump I had noticed.

‘Yuy,’ he huffed after a moment. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’

‘Camera has a timer,’ I informed him smugly as I bent to check my focus and frame. ‘Now, hold still.’

He didn’t have a reply, just watching me as I set the timer and strode back to join him. I stepped quickly in behind him, sliding my arms around his waist, his arms automatically rose to join mine and he leaned into me almost unconsciously. At the last moment, he tilted his head to look at me and whispered, ‘I love you... so damn much.’

I couldn’t help turning toward him. The picture would later prove to be perfect... though it wasn’t one we shared with anyone else. It’s one of our most treasured possessions, and would end up framed and sitting on our dresser, right in the middle of that stupid doily I’d given Duo as a joke.

We didn’t go too much farther; the path in that direction rather petered out and while the going didn’t become impossible, it would have required a bit of clambering about on the rocks. Duo did let me take his picture in front of the lake, though I knew when I snapped it, that it wouldn’t be one of those shots I would care for all that much. His smile, when he’s conscious of the photographer, is completely different from the one he wears when I manage to take him unaware. And of course, I had to let him take my picture as well, just for fairness sake.

The walk back took a little longer. Partly because after almost an hour, Duo was slowing down, and partly because he got side-tracked by something we heard rustling in the leaves that proved to be some kind of ground squirrel. He was captivated by the little thing and spent five minutes trying to snap a picture of it before it completely disappeared into the underbrush. Watching him stalk the animal, odd grin on his face and his cheeks flushed with the rapidly cooling air, made me wish we had a second camera.

When we got back to the cabin, I tried to get him to settle by the fireplace and rest while I fixed dinner, but he insisted on coming into the kitchen with me to help. He whistled appreciatively as he saw the room for the first time and spent several minutes just poking at the appliances.

‘Bloody hell, Heero,’ he grinned, his head stuck in the refrigerator as he hunted up the package I’d asked for. ‘We could fit half our kitchen into this thing!’ I chose that moment to fire up the stove top grill just for the effect. He didn’t disappoint me; laughing out loud at the ‘epitome of domestic extravagance’.

Though his mood seemed good, I couldn’t help noticing the faint fatigue tremble in his hands as he brought me the packet of salmon, so I mentally altered the menu and settled him on a stool at the island counter to prepare salads while I grilled the salmon and warmed the bread. If he realized that I’d been planning stir-fried vegetables, he didn’t speak of the last minute substitute, only dutifully tearing lettuce and chopping carrots while he kept me company.

Bread in the oven, I had only to oil the fish grate and do the actual grilling; the fish had been marinating all afternoon. I found myself watching Duo work as he carefully trimmed and cut vegetables and I was surprised by the urge to go get the camera and capture the image of him sitting there. I wondered about it; wondered about this sudden desire to preserve moments... to capture memories. It seemed like something I shouldn’t think about too hard.

‘What?’ Duo asked, noticing my scrutiny, I guess, and looking a little embarrassed.

‘I... don’t know,’ I had to confess. ‘Just... I don’t really know.’

He quirked me a grin, pausing in his work. ‘You’re in a weird mood today.’

I snorted and turned away to put the salmon on the grill, at something of a loss to explain my own thoughts.

Salmon is one of Duo’s favorite foods; couple his bit of exercise with that fact, and he managed to eat most of what I put in front of him, though I thought he was going to fall asleep before he swallowed his last bite. I’d suspected how the full stomach would affect him, and had arranged a cozy dinner by the fireplace, incidentally curled up in the cushions together. So I was positioned not only to catch his plate as it slipped from nerveless fingers, but to end up with him pillowed against my shoulder.

I’d meant to clean up the dishes while he napped, and then take us both to bed, but I found myself too damn content with him resting against me, and ended up just sitting there watching the fire and feeling his breath against my skin. Sometimes... since that night, listening to him breathe makes it hard for me to catch my own breath.

He woke a bit later, yawning and stretching and looking chagrined. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured.

‘Don’t be,’ I soothed. ‘It was nice.’

‘We should clean this mess up,’ he said, still looking uncomfortable.

I caught his hand as he reached for the dirty dishes. ‘Leave them... we’re on vacation.’

‘What?’ he gasped in mock surprise. ‘Are you serious, Mr. Clean?’

‘Why not?’ I grinned at him. ‘We’ll take a walk on the wild side and leave them until morning.’

He actually laughed, sitting up to give me an appraising look. ‘You know they’re going to be really gross to wake up to?’

‘Maybe the place has a maid that will come in the night and take care of it,’ I deadpanned, making him shake his head.

‘Never thought I’d live to see the day you turned into a slacker,’ he grinned. ‘Wufei will be shocked.’

I rose and pulled him to his feet. ‘I just want to...’ I began, changing it at the last minute from take you to bed, to ‘go to bed,’ smoothly enough that he didn’t notice the hesitation.

‘Ok,’ he agreed with a show of disapproval. ‘But you’re cleaning that grill after it’s set all night.’

He started to lead me up the stairs, but hesitated, tossing a look toward the front door. He didn’t have to speak for me to know what he was thinking, and we made a quick walk through of the place, checking the latches and locks before heading up the stairs. Old habits.

He took his turn in the bathroom while I quickly unpacked the majority of our things. He came out with another of those odd grins, shaking his head over ‘decadence and opulence’. Then he turned back the covers and undressed while I made use of the facilities. They were everything I’d hoped for, and I found myself rather looking forward to using the hot tub the next evening. I made a mental note to be sure to allow plenty of time to really enjoy it.

The room was dark when I came out of the bathroom, and I undressed in the dim starlight. All the window glass was rather disconcerting, despite knowing that there was nothing on the backside of the cabin but a hill and a lot of trees. I crawled into bed next to Duo, feeling very... exposed. He came into my arms with a dark chuckle, deliberately misreading my discomfiture. ‘Relax, Heero; I covered the fish.’

I chuckled in return, feeling myself relax a bit, more from the familiar weight of his head on my shoulder than his teasing words. It had taken a long time before he’d healed enough to allow us to lie together the way we had since our first days of sleeping in the same bed. I’d been more than a little surprised at how much I needed him curled against me to be able to fall asleep at night. It had been so frustrating when he’d first returned to our bed, to have him so close, but totally unable to hold me or be held. When he’d finally mended enough that he could do more than lie flat on his back, I couldn’t have told you which of us was the more ecstatic.

Feeling the weight of his arm across my chest, the warmth of his body against mine, I was suddenly over-come with a surge of desire. It was all I could do not to reach for him. I was glad for the underwear we’d both taken to wearing to bed, not that they disguised much, but it made me feel a little less... obvious. I found myself wondering about the habit, trying to remember which of us had first started coming to bed without completely undressing, but I couldn’t really recall. It was just something that we’d started doing after Duo had come home from the hospital.

I realized that Duo had grown very quiet and I turned to gently kiss his forehead. ‘You know I love you, don’t you?’ I whispered, fearful that he’d felt my... craving and was feeling guilty. ‘More than anything.’

‘I know,’ he murmured. ‘Heart and soul.’

‘Heart and soul,’ I echoed that ages old ritual and felt him sigh. I think he fell asleep first, but I’m not entirely sure.

I don’t think anybody sleeps all that well the first few nights in a strange place. Houses are individual and they each have sounds they make that are unique. I was used to the noises of our apartment building. The comings and goings of other people, traffic on the road out front, the odd thumping the furnace makes as it turns on and off that echoes faintly through the vents. None of those sounds were present there in the woods, but there were other sounds, unfamiliar noises that would sometimes take me several minutes of lying awake to identify. The crack and pop of the fireplace downstairs didn’t take a moment’s thought, but the sound of an owl in the woods nearby left me staring into the near dark for long minutes. Duo seemed unbothered by the surroundings, sleeping peacefully in the curl of my arm. Though, when I thought about it, perhaps he wasn’t completely unaffected by them, as he usually rolls away from me after he’s fallen asleep, but that night he stayed nestled close. I drowsed more than slept through most of the night.

So it was more than just a little bit disconcerting to wake up with Duo straddling my hips. I moaned quite despite myself, caught completely off guard by his sudden move. It flitted through my mind to wonder how in the hell he’d gotten my shorts off, but then he was reaching to position my cock and I forgot about it.

Duo?’ I groaned, fearful as hell, but consumed with need, knowing I should be stopping him, but not able to. His leg should not have been bearing his weight in that position. He had to be in considerable pain. I knew that. I... knew that.

But then he was settling over me, his body hot and slick, and I wondered how in the hell he’d gotten up to get the lube without waking me. How in the hell he’d managed to prepare himself so well that the penetration was so easy after so damn long. I should have been stopping him... but I couldn’t. All I could do was arch my back and cry out as he impaled himself. I tried to reach for him, confused about why I couldn’t seem to raise my left arm, wanting to hold his hips, wanting to feel him move, but he didn’t need my guidance, he began to ride me, hard and fast. He threw back his head, shaking his hair out all around us, and let a deep-throated moan escape his lips... letting me hear those sounds I loved, the sounds of his pleasure. I was still tangled somehow and only able to reach for him with my right hand, It was somehow difficult for me to find purchase on his slick skin, was hard for me to feel the things I wanted to; the flex of his hips under my hand as he drove me into his body. The play of muscle, the heat of his body, the smooth feel of his... skin. Of his... scars...

‘Oh Gods, Duo,’ I whimpered, on the edge already after so damn, damn long. ‘What are you doing? You’re going to...’

But it was too late, I couldn’t care as I snapped my hips up to meet his almost harsh downward plunges and I was coming, filling him with my seed, thrusting as deep as I could manage into... into...

‘Heero?’ Duo murmured, voice drowsy and confused and not at all where I expected it to be coming from.

The dream dissipated on the next heartbeat, vanquished by the reality of Duo lying next to me. By the reality of my shorts very much, thank the Gods, where they belonged, but suddenly damn wet and uncomfortable.

I let out a shuddering sigh and Duo elbowed himself up to look down at me. ‘Hey... are you ok?’

‘Y... yeah,’ I managed, voice coming out sounding husky and unsteady.

His look of concern deepened for a moment, then something made comprehension dawn in his eyes. Perhaps he caught the sharp scent of semen, perhaps he could just tell from looking at me. A hundred emotions danced behind his eyes then... amusement for a flash of a second, then an almost bitter envy, regret, fear, need... I couldn’t begin to catalog it all... backed with a well of dark depression that frightened me.

I opened my mouth to apologize, but he swept it all away for me, grinning widely and laying his head back on my shoulder. ‘Well, at least one of us is gettin’ some.’

I didn’t know how to tell him that it had only made things worse, stirred awake desires that I’d been pushing aside for months. Reminded me rather pointedly of how much I wanted what I just couldn’t have right now. While Duo had offered more than once to help... alleviate my frustration in whatever way he could, it just didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t see how he could manage, without becoming aroused himself, and that just didn’t seem fair. The movements the body made during any kind of sexual act were just beyond him right now. Besides... there was a certain perverse stubbornness that made me want to endure what he had to endure. A certain guilt in being able to do what he couldn’t.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered. ‘For waking you.’

He chuckled. ‘You were panting pretty hard... must have been a hell of a dream.’

‘You...’ I had to tell him, ‘played a fairly predominant part.’ I dared stroke a hand up and down his arm, though I was the one who shivered.

He was quiet for a moment, just long enough for me to regret saying it, then he snickered. ‘Yeah, but now you have to get out of this nice warm bed to go clean up and I can stay right where I’m at.’

‘Asshole,’ I grumbled, playing his game with him, letting him make light of the situation, because there was nothing we could do to make things better anyway.

I left the bed, and his assessment of the trip being unpleasant was accurate; the bedroom air was quite chill. Once in the bathroom, I hurried through the clean-up, not wanting to leave him alone too long; I knew he’d only start brooding.

I was surprised to come back and find him up and digging for clothes.

‘What happened to not having to get out of bed?’ I queried, a little sorry to not be able to crawl back in with him.

A pair of my jeans came sailing across the room at me and I snatched them out of the air. ‘If we hurry,’ he grinned at me, ‘we can get down to the lake before the sun comes up!’

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I grunted, eyeing him dubiously even as I pulled my pants on.

‘Nope,’ he replied, sounding as though he were taking some perverse pleasure in the revelation. ‘Isn’t that what vacations are all about? Sunrises and sunsets?’

‘I thought it was about sleeping in and eating out,’ I said, ever his straight man.

‘That’s a good idea!’ he blurted, stopping with his shirt half pulled on to look at me. ‘I’ll bet the sunrise would be great from the deck at the lodge; how about going down there for breakfast?’

I found myself wondering if his somewhat uncharacteristic exuberance for the dawn was for real, or trying to divert me from something else. Had my... dream bothered him that much? Or was there something more? ‘Do you even think they’re open this early?’ I asked somewhat distractedly and had to reach to catch my knit sweater as it took its trip across the room at me.

‘Only one way to find out,’ he grinned and was heading for the bathroom before I had a chance to answer. I knew he was doing his hair and would be a few minutes, so I finished dressing and took a moment to make a half-assed effort at making the bed before going on downstairs to wait for him.

There was actually more than one way to find out the hours of the lodge restaurant and I looked them up on the pamphlet they always have laying around in places like that. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased or not when I found they did indeed open fairly early. We’d be able to go down, watch the sunrise from the outside deck and then eat breakfast without having to wait too long.

I was just thinking about taking the previous evening’s dishes to the kitchen, when I heard Duo stirring above me and looked to see him coming down the stairs. He was wearing jeans and his red flannel shirt, but still managed to look cold. I couldn’t help assessing him as he made the climb down. He’s usually in decent shape in the morning pain-wise, but the leg in particular has a tendency to stiffen up overnight. I could tell from his gait, from the way he was favoring it, that was the case.

‘We really should do your exercises,’ I told him gently and steeled myself for the look of irritation I was expecting. What he gave me bordered more on pleading.

‘Can’t we leave them until later?’ he asked, and I could not have denied his tone of voice anything. I sighed.

‘We can’t let them go completely,’ I chided. ‘We skipped them entirely yesterday. Your therapist will kill us.’

He grinned at me, seeming unrepentant about the matter and I had to chuckle. I reached out to brush my fingers over his cheek, meaning to tease him, but was stopped by the chill feeling of his skin. ‘You didn’t dress warm enough,’ I frowned, thinking about how much we were probably going to be outside.

He rolled his eyes in exasperation, but waited dutifully while I went and fetched his sweat-shirt. I’d given in on the stretching exercises, but I would stand firm on this. Getting chilled would make him shiver. Shivering made muscles tighten and could lead to another spam. I wouldn’t risk it.

‘It doesn’t even go with the shirt,’ he groused, once it was on him and we were leaving the cabin.

‘Not my fault,’ I informed him unsympathetically. ‘It was the only sweat shirt you packed.’

‘I wasn’t planning on wearing them together,’ he grumbled, but there wasn’t much effort behind the banter, so I knew it didn’t really bother him. I think, once we were outside in the damp, chill early morning air, he was actually grateful for the extra warmth, but wouldn’t have admitted it in a million years.

The drive down to the lodge was strange in the near dark of pre-dawn, and I wondered again what had possessed him. I couldn’t help surmising that there was some connection between his behavior and the previous day’s... almost talk. Not for the first time, and I’m sure not for the last, I found myself wishing I could read his mind. Could tell what it was he was brooding over. I felt a little bit like I was walking a mine field; I knew the triggers were there all around me, but was at a total loss as to just what was going to set them off.

I would have given almost anything to have been able to take his injuries onto myself. Far easier to bear any amount of physical pain, than to have to watch helplessly while he suffered. Though I knew better than to voice that wish out loud.

There were a small handful of other cars in the lot when we got to the lodge, parked near the back and judging from the plates, I suspected they all belonged to employees. The place was still dark and locked up and I imagined them all in the kitchen preparing for another day of little or no business. Duo led me around the side of the building, our footsteps sounding horribly loud on the wood decking, and took us to stand at the back rail. We probably weren’t far from the table we’d eaten at the day before and I looked down toward the water’s edge, but saw no riders at that hour. It was light enough that I could see the sky was relatively clear, and I could tell the sunrise truly should end up being worth the trip. With the added bonus, I suppose, of not having to cook.

Duo leaned on the rail and looked out across the lake; we could hear the sounds of birds beginning to stir and somewhere out on the water a fish jumped and the splash sounded almost eerie as it echoed against the lodge.

‘Was this ok?’ Duo suddenly asked, voice pitched low as though afraid to disturb the quiet.

‘Of course,’ I assured him, stepping up to stand at the rail beside him so that he could see the smile I gave him.

The smile he gave me in return was little more than the curve of his lips. ‘I...’ he began, then hesitated. This time I held my tongue and just waited. ‘I’m sorry I can’t...’ he floundered again, and when he glanced side-ways at me, I could see the blush and knew what he was thinking about.

‘Don’t,’ I commanded. ‘You know that’s the last damn thing on my mind right now...’ It was my turn to blush when he chuckled out right.

‘Seemed pretty much on your mind about an hour ago,’ he teased, though there was something else underneath the humor in his voice.

I turned toward him, ignoring the first hints of the sun that we had come down here for, and told him firmly, ‘I’m not going to try denying that I want you. I won’t tell you that I don’t miss making love with you... but that is not what’s important right now.’

He frowned, looking out at the lake and not at me, then he sighed rather gustily. ‘You’re missing the sunrise,’ he grumbled.

I snorted and turned away, since my watching him was obviously bothering him. The sun had appeared while I’d been otherwise occupied, and was painting the lake in vibrant shades of gold and orange. As the light crept across us, I could actually feel the heat of it on my skin and beside me heard Duo sigh softly. I glanced at him, and found him with his eyes closed, almost seeming to drink the warmth of it in through his skin. Gods, he was so beautiful... so handsome. With a pang, I realized I had not remembered to bring the camera and could only stare at him, trying to keep the image in memory since I couldn’t commit it to film. I wished in that moment that we’d stayed at the cabin and just gone down to the pier. The sunrise would not have been as spectacular, but I would have been able to put my arms around my lover the way I was aching to do in that moment.

When the need to touch him was almost more than I could bear, I turned away and we watched as the sun climbed up into the sky.

‘Heero,’ he almost whispered after a long while, when the last of the fiery globe had cleared land. ‘What if I don’t get better?’

I turned sharply his way, shocked as hell by the question. I bit down on the almost harsh exclamation that wanted to pass my lips first, taking a breath and trying for something a little calmer. ‘Duo, there’s no reason to think that you aren’t going to make a full recovery. You just have to allow your body the time to heal.’

A frown of consternation creased his brow, and I knew he was irritated with me for what I’m sure he saw as my ‘optimistic view’. ‘Sometimes,’ he sighed, ‘I wonder just how much healing I’ve got left in me.’

‘Duo?’ I breathed and turned his way completely, was actually reaching for him when a loud rattle behind us made us both jump and turn around. The waitress from the day before was opening the patio doors and smiling at us widely. The restaurant was obviously open.

‘Good morning!’ she called cheerily and I pushed down on the urge to tell her to go the fuck away, but when I glanced back at Duo, I could see the moment was already gone.

He followed her into the lodge and I followed him, wishing we hadn’t come. I longed for the privacy to finish the conversation he’d started. But I highly doubted I could retrieve the mood now that we’d been interrupted.

My suspicions were pretty much confirmed once we’d been seated and had placed our orders, when Duo completely changed the subject. ‘We should get all the guys together one of these days and come up here and go fishing or something.’

I opened my mouth to argue with him, to attempt to turn him back to what he’d started, but thought better of it. He obviously didn’t want to talk about it there in the restaurant and it wouldn’t do me any good to push him. It would only guarantee that I wouldn’t be able to get him to talk to me later either. I sighed, rather heavily I’m afraid, and just closed my mouth again.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, voice so soft I almost didn’t hear him. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. Please... just forget it; I don’t know why I can’t shake this damn bad mood.’

It rather surprised me, his acknowledging it, after I’d made it so plain that I would drop the subject if that’s what he wanted. I lay my hand on the table and let my fingertips brush over his. ‘I’d rather you talked to me,’ I told him gently. ‘But if you want me to forget it... it’s forgotten.’

For the space of a heartbeat, I saw something in his eyes that made me think of a little boy, lost and hurting, but then it was gone and he was smiling brightly. ‘You know, it looks like it’s going to be a nice day, what do you think of finding that riding stable this morning?’

‘If you’re sure you wouldn’t rather go back to the cabin and scrub the grill,’ I teased, doing my best for him.

He rewarded me with a smile that had a little more true humor in it, but then our breakfast came and he refrained from replying until the perky waitress was gone. If anything, she was even gigglier than she had been the day before.

Duo had gotten a simple omelet, and I watched him rather carefully as he ate it; he’s somewhat proficient at moving food around his plate without actually eating much of it. I plied him with extra strips of bacon as well, and I wasn’t sure, but I had the impression that he made more of an effort to eat, perhaps attempting to please me to make up for what he termed his ‘bad mood’.

As we ate, I dredged up the details of what I’d read in the flyer for ‘Rodney’s Stables’. Duo obviously needed things to distract him. He was brooding too much... thinking about things too much. As much as I wasn’t convinced that riding was a great idea, I wasn’t about to dismiss something he’d shown enough interest in to ask about twice. ‘I think the stable is open in a half an hour,’ I told him. ‘We could go straight there from here... if you’d like.’

He gave me a gauging look, chewing thoughtfully on a bite of omelet. ‘Are you sure you want to?’ he asked quietly.

‘We’re on vacation,’ I quipped. ‘We should do something, and I’m sure as hell not taking you rock climbing.’

‘Water skiing?’ he asked innocently, and managed to grin and chew omelet at the same time.

I snorted. ‘Not on your life. Or mine either, for that matter. We’ll find you a nice, sway-backed, fifty year old mare with the temperament of a saint, and see if you can manage to stay on her. We’ll be fine.’

He actually chuckled, sparing me that quirky little grin he has that tells me he appreciates my efforts. Tells me that we both know we’re just playing a game. ‘What’s sway-backed?’ he wanted to know, and I couldn’t tell if it was part of the game, or if he really was that ‘horse illiterate’.

I sighed theatrically and shook my head. ‘Gods, you’re hopeless. Maybe I can get you a pony on a lead-rope instead.’

‘Funny, Yuy,’ he drawled. ‘Just because your training included fluffy stuff like horse back riding while mine was more... practical, doesn’t make you Roy Rogers.’

‘Doesn’t make me who?’ I blinked across at him, missing the joke. It was his turn to shake his head.

‘Shit, Heero,’ he said in mock disgust. ‘Learn a little history! Roy Rogers? Cowboy actor? Had his horse stuffed for posterity?’

I had to stop eating to look up at him, not sure if he was serious or not. ‘He what?’

The full-throated laugh I won was worth the confusion of feeling like we were conversing in another language, but then an almost wicked smile spread across his face and he leaned forward a little. ‘Wait a minute... we’re not talking Roy Rogers here, are we? You would have been at one of those hoity-toity European schools. We’re talking... britches and tweed coats, aren’t we?’

He managed a passable upper crust British accent on that last, and I felt myself blushing, to his open delight. ‘There were certain standards,’ I grumbled, spearing a piece of fruit.

He repressed a snicker and leaned in a little closer, his voice dropping a bit. ‘Come on... what was it? Those cool knee high boots and the whole thing?’

I chewed slowly on my piece of grape fruit and looked him in the eye, finding that I liked him looking at me that way. It had been a while since he’d looked at me... that way. ‘Right down to the little hat and the crop,’ I finally confirmed and got to see a spark of... something in his eyes.

‘I always liked you in red,’ he said, and his tone of voice was much like a caress.

‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ I managed and we just sat staring at each other for a second, not at all sure how we’d gotten to where we suddenly found ourselves.

‘Would either of you gentlemen like some coffee?’ the perky waitress was abruptly right there by the table, and damned if we both didn’t jump.

‘No thanks,’ Duo replied smoothly, and if he felt as flustered as I did, you couldn’t tell.

We asked her for the check while she was there and finished not long after. While the strange mood was gone, in its wake Duo seemed more at ease, for which I was grateful. Perhaps a diversion really was all he needed.

We took our time driving over to the stable, making sure we didn’t arrive before they even opened. It wasn’t all that far from the lodge, and before long we were seeing white washed fencing on the left side of the road and soon after that we began to see horses in the fields. I noticed Duo sitting forward a bit, eyes taking in everything. I wondered about his interest; I’d never known he had a thing for horses. Though, I suppose when I though about it, he’d always had a bit of an interest in animals in general. Colony brats didn’t grow up with the opportunity to see a lot of them. Particularly not the ones from the less... affluent colonies.

As we pulled into the stable yard, I had to wonder if the place wasn’t closed for the season after all; there wasn’t a soul or vehicle in sight. I parked the car and we got out, I immediately began looking for some sort of office while Duo wandered over to the nearest fence to look at the horses grazing in the field, leaving the technicalities to me.

There was a regular sized door at the far end of the barn and further investigation turned up signs indicating I’d found the right place, but the door proved to be locked. I glanced back at Duo, feeling unsettled that I was going to have to disappoint him, just in time to see a black and white pinto make its unerring way toward him. The animal was obviously used to getting treats from people standing at the fence, and was coming to investigate my partner. I watched as Duo took an almost involuntary step back, caught by surprise, I think, by the forwardness of the beast. But when the animal only stopped at the barrier, leaning its head over the rail and patiently looking at him, Duo retook his ground and reached out a tentative hand to stroke down the horse’s nose. The touch must have been light, perhaps too light for the horse’s liking, and it shook its head, snorting abruptly. Duo jerked back and turned to find me, looking for guidance I suppose in uncharted territory. The lunatic grin he found me wearing must have been reassurance enough, for he turned back and tried again.

I walked over to join him.

‘Try scratching around his ears,’ I said and Duo immediately took the suggestion. The horse lowered its head a little, seeming to enjoy the attention, and Duo grinned widely.

‘They’re damn big, up close,’ he said after a moment, his voice unconsciously subdued, as though he feared scaring the horse away. ‘Makes you wonder why they put up with people sitting on them.’

I chuckled and shook my head; Duo’s thinking never ceases to make me look at things differently. ‘I guess they’re just not that bright,’ I told him.

‘Well, it sure looks like this one could tromp the crap out of a person if he decided he didn’t want to go along with the whole saddle ‘em up plan,’ he said, though most of his attention was on fondling the horse’s ears. He seemed captivated by the creature and it made that pang of regret over disappointing him sting all the more.

‘Duo...’ I began, but was interrupted by the somewhat distant sound of a door slamming. We both turned, a little surprised to hear someone stirring as long as we’d been there thinking no one was around.

There was a farm house further up the stable yard, probably fifty yards away and we saw a man trotting toward us, still pulling a pair of suspenders up over his shoulders as he came. Judging from the state of his hair, he’d just gotten out of bed. Beside me, Duo couldn’t contain a quiet chuckle. ‘I think we woke the poor guy up, Heero,’ he muttered and I couldn’t help laughing in return.

‘It would appear so.’

‘Good morning!’ the guy was hollering before he was half way down the path from the house. ‘Sorry about the place not being open yet! We don’t get a lot of visitors this time of year and I’m afraid I was bein’ lazy this morning!’

I assumed we were looking at the ‘Rodney’ whose stable yard we were purported to be standing in the middle of, and I had that suspicion confirmed when the guy finally came abreast of us and stuck his hand out. ‘Hi! I’m Rodney; what can I do for you gentlemen this fine day?’

Duo was quick to jump in, taking the man’s hand and getting his arm pumped vigorously for his trouble. He’s always been somewhat... protective of me when it comes to social situations. I had a difficult time right after the war, learning the finer points of interacting with outsiders. For a long time, Duo had run interference for me, throwing himself into conversations with abandon to keep me from having to. He’s very skilled at that sort of deflection, managing to take the brunt of the social duties without people even being aware that he is simply making them keep their distance from me. Years of working for the Preventers had forced me to learn to deal, and Duo hadn’t felt the need to ‘guard’ me in quite a while. I wondered, as I watched him steer Rodney where he wanted him, just what had ruffled his defensive feathers. Though I have to admit that it left me feeling... warmed somehow.

Rodney found himself moving toward his own office, as unerringly as a lamb before a sheep dog, but he seemed to take it in stride, managing to keep a running monologue going about the weather, the ‘Missus’, horses, and the strangeness of having tourists so late in the season.

The door was quickly unlocked and lights flicked on, and we followed Rodney into his inner sanctum, an office that looked like it could use the services of both a good maid and a file clerk. There were horse posters everywhere, along with the pre-requisite horse-shoe décor, and evidence that a cat might live there part of the time.

Our host was still filling the air with small talk, obviously buying himself a minute while he got the office opened up, and it took me a moment to realize that Duo had dropped out of the conversation, leaving me the point man. I glanced his way, and found him standing in front of the stable’s advertising poster.

‘So what were you gentlemen interested in?’ Rodney finally got down to business, settling behind his desk. ‘We have several different tours depending on how long you’d like to be out.’

‘Actually,’ I interrupted, before the man could launch into what sounded like a very well rehearsed spiel. ‘We’d like to do a little exploring on our own. I was hoping to just rent two horses for a couple of hours.’

The stable master didn’t quite frown, he was too much of a businessman for that, but a look crossed his face that told me this was an unusual request. I suppose one of their packaged tours would do if we had no other choices, but I honestly wasn’t looking forward to the idea of wandering around the woods with some virtual stranger for the afternoon. But then there was a small sound behind me and I turned to see Duo giving me a slightly flabbergasted look.

‘Uh, Heero,’ he ventured. ‘I don’t think we can afford this...’ He trailed off, obviously embarrassed to be discussing Rodney’s pricing system with the man sitting right there, so I stepped over to look at the poster and Duo hissed softly. ‘It’s going to be over a hundred credits an hour for the both of us!’

I scanned the pricing and saw he was right, no matter which tour was listed, the average cost was in the neighborhood of fifty credits per horse per hour. Which I didn’t see as a problem, but Duo obviously did. ‘It will fit in the budget,’ I assured him and got a faint frown for the effort.

‘Look,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve lived this long without riding a horse... it certainly isn’t going to kill me not to do it now.’

I was opening my mouth to argue with him further, but was interrupted by Rodney clearing his throat. ‘You boys have never ridden before?’ We turned to face him, finding that his business demeanor had slipped and he’d given in to that frown. ‘I certainly can’t just let two inexperienced riders take off on their own.’

I could see Duo getting ready to do his, so sorry, thank you for your time routine, so I stepped in first. ‘Of course not,’ I agreed. ‘I wouldn’t think much of your stable if you would. But I’m not inexperienced and I...’

Heero,’ Duo growled softly, still intent on the cost of the endeavor, and not at all concerned with the other technicalities. I sighed softly, caught between Duo’s desire to go and his trepidation about the money.

‘How about,’ I blurted, before either of them could voice any further objections. ‘We just rent one horse and ride double?’

Duo hesitated, telling me just how much he wanted to do this, and I decided in that moment that I wouldn’t back down from either of them. What Duo wants, Duo gets, as long as it’s within my power to give it to him.

Rodney waffled a bit more, finally agreeing after taking my driver’s license to hold until we returned. I don’t think it hurt that I allowed my Preventer’s id badge to remain visible for a minute while I fished the license out. We received a quick lecture on the local area, were given a map of the trail grounds and had the stable’s marker system explained to us. Then it was finally time to go out and prove I knew the front end of a horse from the back.

Rodney led us through the office and out the back door into a corral, where we were bade to wait while he went for the horse. As soon as the man disappeared into the barn across from us, Duo sighed heavily. ‘Heero, are you sure about this? It’s such a frivolous thing...’

I couldn’t help the cautious brush of fingers over the back of his hand. ‘Nothing that makes you smile is frivolous.’

He snorted and shook his head. ‘Gods... you’re not going to get all poetic on me today are you?’

‘Maybe,’ I smiled. ‘Guess it’s all this nature stuff.’

He shook his head again, but I could see the faint flush across his cheeks. I thought I might have pleased him. Then a grin tugged at the corner of his lips and he turned to walk over to the fence. I followed, wondering what he was up to.

‘Well,’ he quipped, gamely attempting to put aside his doubts. ‘If I’m living out my childhood cowboy fantasies, I’m going to do them all.’ Before I could do more than draw a breath in protest, he was climbing the fence to sit on the top rail. I managed not to grab for him, but seeing him move so stiffly was almost painful to watch.

‘Your childhood dream was to sit on a fence?’ I managed after he’d settled himself, obviously not completely comfortable, but not in any serious pain either.

He gave me a scornful look. ‘Hey! It’s my dream... don’t mock it. In all of Sister Helen’s books, the kids were always sitting on the paddock fence and...’

He stopped talking and was suddenly staring past me, a very odd look on his face, so I turned to see that Rodney was back, leading a big black horse.

‘Duo?’ I questioned, not at all sure what that look had been, but when I glanced up at him again, he was grinning like a loon.

‘It’s black!’ he informed me, just as though that explained everything. It was my turn to shake my head, so I did and walked over to join Rodney.

He’d bridled the horse, and that was all. He saw me notice and shrugged apologetically. ‘I don’t have a saddle around here that you could ride double with... unless your friend there wants a serious case of... uhm... chafing.’ The quirky little grin he got then suggested that there was another phrase for the condition he was talking about that was... less polite.

‘This will be fine,’ I told him, and stroked a hand over the horse’s neck to see how he reacted to me. The beast merely turned his head to give me a look, managing to project a somewhat bored attitude. He was a good sixteen hands, and for the first time, I wondered how in the hell we were going to get Duo on the creature.

Rodney had been talking, though I’d let most of it wash over me, an obviously canned speech about riding in general and he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. ‘He’s not a skittish horse, is he?’ I asked when the man paused to draw breath, mostly just to break the flow of words.

‘Tizzy?’ Rodney grinned, patting the horse affectionately on the neck. ‘Nah... not really, though he doesn’t like loud noises much.’

‘He should do then,’ I proclaimed, and plucked the reins deftly out of the man’s hands. Wrapping my fingers in the mane and bracing with the other hand, I vaulted up onto the horse’s back, pleased that he only shifted a bit under the weight. I heard Rodney say something about a mounting block, but realized that Duo would die of embarrassment having to use one after watching me climb on. In retrospect, I wish I’d used one of the damn things myself, but it was too late at that point.

I glanced toward Duo, finding him still perched on the fence, his expression suddenly pensive, and I knew he was thinking along the same lines I was. There was no way in hell he could pull himself up without bringing on one of his attacks. ‘Wait there a minute,’ I called, and moved Tizzy passed Rodney, taking him around the corral once to get a feel for how the horse handled. He was very responsive to knee pressure and by the time I got back around to where Duo sat, I felt comfortable in trying what I’d planned.

It didn’t take much to get the beast angling toward the fence, and I brought him to a halt right in front of Duo, putting a foot out to brace against the rail, making sure Tizzy didn’t get so close that he caught Duo’s legs against the fence.

‘Your ride, good sir,’ I quipped, and watched Duo grin at me in delight.

‘Well,’ he said in turn. ‘It’s not as flashy as that little leaping on thing you did, but beats the hell out of using the kiddy steps.’

I kept a tight rein on the horse as Duo came across, having to exert my control a little as Duo got settled behind me and Tizzy tried to interpret the new signals he was getting from the double load. ‘Try not to shift around too much,’ I told Duo once he was seated and had a good hold on me. ‘The horse takes his instructions from leg pressure.’

I felt Duo nod and then chuckle softly as he realized I couldn’t see him. ‘Got it, Roy,’ he confirmed and I could hear the hint of excitement in his voice.

I walked the horse back over to where Rodney was still watching. He grinned ruefully and scratched at the back of his head, looking up at us. ‘Guess you pretty much know what the hell you’re doing,’ he grinned, and waved me to follow him as he made his way to the paddock gate. ‘Don’t run him,’ he gave us his last warnings as he swung the gate open. ‘And keep in mind that dark comes a lot sooner under the trees than you’d think.’ Behind me, Duo laughed.

‘We can’t afford to stay out that long!’ he called and Rodney laughed with him. I felt Duo wave as we started down the first obvious trail. I could fairly feel his enthusiasm vibrating through him, and couldn’t have told him how damn happy it made me. Though the horse seemed to feel it too, and gave out with an odd little dance. Duo burst out with a bark of laughter, clutching at me for a moment. The sudden sound made horse ears lay back.

‘Watch it,’ I teased him. ‘Tizzy doesn’t like loud, sudden noises.’

‘Tizzy?’ Duo scoffed. ‘The horse’s name is... Tizzy?’

‘That’s what I was told,’ I said dryly. ‘Don’t blame me... I didn’t name him.’

‘That is so... undignified,’ he replied, and again I was struck with how happy he sounded. We were far enough away that I doubted Rodney could still see us, and I was moved to lay my hand over Duo’s fingers where they were laced across my stomach.

‘Hang on,’ I told him and urged Tizzy into a faster gait. Nothing that would qualify as Rodney’s forbidden ‘run’, but faster than the sedate walk we’d been engaging in. I wouldn’t be able to keep it up long, not once we were in under the trees, but Duo’s gasp of delight was worth it.

[back] [cont]