Getting Away (cont)

It took him a minute to catch the feel of how I was moving with the horse and to match me, and then the ride evened out. He laughed again, though careful not to be as abrupt about it. Tizzy’s ears swiveled our way, but he didn’t start; perhaps he was getting used to Duo’s excitement.

‘Can we go faster?’ Duo prompted, and I had to laugh at him.

‘You heard the man,’ I chided. ‘Against orders.’

There might have been a sigh, I wasn’t sure, but then Duo’s hands were slipping out from under mine, and before I could figure out what he was about, he had his arms stretched wide, flapping like wings, and he was snickering hysterically.

‘What in the world are you doing?’ I asked, a little glad he couldn’t see the amused grin on my face.

‘Fantasizing?’ he offered sheepishly, but then Tizzy took a slight rise in the path and Duo’s arms were back around my waist.

‘Told you to hang on,’ I mock growled at him, but he only laughed.

We were leaving the open meadow and coming into the woods, so I pulled Tizzy back to a walk. The air had been a little crisp, but overall pleasant, until we got into the shadow of the trees where it was much cooler without the heat of the sun. I’m not sure if it was the slight chill, or merely being completely out of sight of the stable yard that prompted it, but Duo shifted closer to me and wrapped his arms tight around my waist.

‘Thank you,’ he breathed next to my ear and I smiled tenderly where he couldn’t see it anyway.

‘You’re entirely welcome,’ I told him, doing my best to put the warmth into my voice.

We just followed the trail for a bit, I let Tizzy set his own pace and we didn’t talk a lot, just looking around at the woods with their fall colors overtaking them, still early enough in the season that most of the trees still held their leaves.

‘It’s so peaceful,’ Duo whispered after a while, voice almost reverent. ‘You can imagine that these trees have been here forever.’

‘One of these days, love,’ I teased gently. ‘When we’re old and retired... we’ll live someplace like this.’

‘Does that mean I can have my own horse?’ he chuckled and I squeezed his fingers.

‘I thought you wanted a dog?’ I asked wryly and was surprised when I felt him go kind of still for a second.

‘You... you remembered that?’ he asked, tone trying for light, but I could tell how surprised he was.

I snorted. ‘I remember everything you’ve ever told me you wanted,’ I informed him. ‘It’s not like you’ll ask me for so very much.’

He didn’t reply, only laid his head against my shoulder and hugged me tight for a minute. When his grasp relaxed a little, I lifted one of his hands up and kissed his palm, before returning our joined hands to my waist.

‘The path splits up here,’ I told him before the mood got too intense. ‘You want to go on up into the hills, or down by the lake?’

He hesitated for a moment, then asked, ‘where do you want to go?’

‘Doesn’t matter to me,’ I said off-handedly. ‘Why don’t we let the horse decide?’

He chuckled, agreeing with the idea, more, I think, out of curiosity to see if the horse would actually show a preference than anything.

When we approached the fork, I held myself absolutely still and let Duo’s unconscious body signals lead the horse where he wanted to go. I wasn’t surprised when Tizzy went without hesitation down the path that led to the lakeside.

‘Damn!’ Duo exclaimed. ‘He really had an opinion?’

‘Maybe he’s just lazy,’ I conjectured. ‘And downhill is easier.’

‘Don’t disparage our horse, Heero,’ Duo said, his tone indignant. ‘He has feelings too, you know!’

‘I apologize to the horse,’ I relented.

‘That’s better,’ he huffed in mock indignation. ‘Bad enough that the poor thing has to live with a name like that to begin with.’

‘Maybe it’s short for something more impressive?’ I ventured.

He snorted and got quiet while he thought about it. After a minute he chuckled, ‘I can’t think of a damn thing that isn’t worse!’

‘So what would you have named him?’ I asked, just wanting to hear his voice, sounding so... unburdened. So much lighter than it had in so damn long.

It took him a second to reply, and when he did, he sounded sheepish. ‘Uhm... Black?’

‘Blacky?’ I asked in bemusement.

‘No... just Black,’ he replied and I hadn’t been mistaken, there was a note of embarrassment in his voice.

‘Well, that’s original,’ I teased and there was a soft snort from behind me.

‘Not really,’ he muttered and since I wasn’t sure where his odd tone was coming from, I dropped the subject.

The path had finally come out of the trees and we found ourselves within sight of the lake. ‘We should be able to see the lodge soon,’ I said and felt him nod.

‘I think I can see the edge of the...’ he began, and suddenly there was a rustle of leaves just to the side of the trail. Tizzy stopped dead and snorted in obvious consternation, ears laid back. At the sudden sound from the horse, a rabbit burst from hiding and darting across the path heading for the trees as though the devil himself were behind him. Tizzy danced in place, tossing his head and pulling at the bit. I brought him quickly to rights, feeling Duo’s hands tighten convulsively, and vaguely aware that he was making sure not to tighten his legs. He’d remembered what I’d told him and was making sure not to interfere with the orders I was passing to our mount.

‘It’s ok,’ I said, not sure to which of them I was speaking. The horse settled as soon as the rabbit was away from his general vicinity and it didn’t take much urging to get him on his way again.

‘Well,’ Duo chuckled after we’d regained the path. ‘Jumpy sucker; maybe that’s where he gets his name?’

I chuckled with him at the odd notion. ‘Best theory we’ve come up with so far.’

The trail wound through the tall grass, passing right beside the lake at a couple of points, so close I wondered if they ever had to cancel rides on this route because of high water. We were following the same path that we’d seen the riders on our first day, and we did manage to catch a rather impressive view of the lodge. It made me suddenly feel twitchy; wondering if there was anyone sitting up there in the restaurant watching us, as we’d watched those other people. The light glinting off the windows made it impossible to tell. I was more than happy when we reached a stretch of ground that brought us under the cover of a copse of evergreen trees that were growing closer to the water.

While we’d been visible to possible prying eyes, Duo had eased subtly away from me, but as soon as we were swallowed up by the forest again, he was pressed tightly against my back, and on a sudden notion, I asked, ‘Cold?’

‘A little,’ he admitted, albeit grudgingly, from the sound of his voice.

‘Maybe we’ll find some sunshine here in a bit,’ I offered, as the trail was on the rise, and I thought the trees looked like they might thin out ahead of us.

He grunted something that might have been agreement, or might have been simple acceptance of the statement. His head was resting against my shoulder again, and for some long minutes, all I could do was just... feel. I was rather overwhelmed with how damn good he felt molded against me. How good it felt to have him seeking warmth from me. How good it felt knowing how much he trusted me to keep him supported and safe.

How damn good it felt that he was with me. Just that he was still with me.

‘Heero,’ he asked gently. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, love,’ I told him, a little appalled at how thick my voice sounded.

‘Then why are you trying to permanently imbed my fingers into your stomach?’ he said, his own voice somewhere between amused and sympathetic.

I eased off the death-grip I’d unconsciously placed on the only part of him I could reach and muttered an apology.

‘I’m here,’ he said simply, letting me know he truly did understand.

‘Love you,’ I rasped out, then had to just shut up for a minute while emotions settled and calmed a bit. Sometimes lately, it felt like there was a boiling pot somewhere inside me, and I kept being surprised by the things that churned to the surface.

‘I know,’ Duo soothed. ‘Heart and soul.’ He gave me a squeeze and let me have a minute before venturing, ‘Did you pack any soup? That sounds awfully good right now... maybe for lunch?’

‘Yes, I think I did,’ I replied, letting him lead me to safer ground. ‘We can heat it with some sandwiches; that does sound good.’

‘And frugal,’ Duo chuckled. ‘We should probably do our own cooking for the rest of the trip to help offset this ride.’

I turned my head a bit, in an effort to give him a glare, but it didn’t come off without the eye contact. ‘You worry about money too much. We’re fine.’

‘One of us has to worry about money,’ he grumbled, poking me in the ribs. ‘Because you sure as hell don’t.’

‘Why should I worry about it when you worry enough for five people?’ I rejoined and got poked again.

Then Tizzy brought us out of the trees and we realized just how much of an incline we’d been on without really feeling it. The view out over the lake was spectacular. ‘Of all the damn days to forget the camera,’ I muttered and Duo chuckled at me.

‘It is impressive, isn’t it?’ he said softly and I felt him shifting behind me. ‘Are you doing all right?’ I asked.

There was a slight hesitation before he reluctantly said, ‘Just... a little stiff.’

I automatically took the little out of the statement and substituted the word pain for stiff, and figured I had a better assessment. I’d feared that the unaccustomed strain on his thigh would cause him problems, but had been hoping it wasn’t too bad since he’d been showing no signs of discomfort. I should have known he would just ignore it until it got too bad to do so anymore.

But Gods, I didn’t want to spoil the afternoon; it had been so long since he’d had a day like today had been so far.

‘Well,’ I offered cautiously. ‘We could get down and walk around for a bit, if you’d like.’

He sighed softly. ‘But... how will we get me back up here?’

I looked around at the terrain. ‘I think there’s enough rocks around that we should be able to find something to work with.’

‘O...ok,’ he agreed in a tone of voice that told me how badly he needed to get off the horse for a while.

I pulled Tizzy to a stop right there, and after getting Duo to shift back a bit, was able to swing my leg over the horse’s neck and drop to the ground. I made Duo wait while I led the horse off the path and found a tree to tie the reins to, before I went around to help him down. It felt awkward getting him off the horse from what amounted to the ‘wrong’ side, but I didn’t think his bad leg needed the added strain of him trying to swing it over the horse. When we had him perched precariously sideways on Tizzy’s back, I reached up and took him by the waist as he slid to the ground, keeping him from putting too much weight on his leg as he landed.

‘Damn!’ he laughed as he found his balance again. ‘I understand the bowlegged cowboy jokes now!’

I kept a hand under his elbow while we walked up the trail for a few yards; until we were both sure he was steady. Then we left Tizzy contentedly cropping grass and walked out to the edge of the crag over-looking the lake.

It wasn’t quite noon yet, but getting close, and we were finally out where the sun could do us some good. Duo turned his face up to it, as though soaking in the warmth, and smiled slightly. We found a big rock not far from the single tree growing that close to the cliff edge and sat down to sun ourselves. It was a beautiful spot, and again I wished I’d brought the camera. It crossed my mind that we probably weren’t all that damn far from our cabin if I wanted to go get it, but then decided against it. We’d have to take the horse off the prescribed trail and I was sure that would be frowned upon.

Duo seemed to be thinking along those same lines, because sitting there leaning against my shoulder he suddenly said, ‘Gods, Heero; will you look at that tree? The way it leans out over the edge? It’s like it’s been here a million years and the land has been changing around it. Do you think it would be too far for me to walk back up here from the cabin to get some pictures?’

I thought about it, trying to estimate the distance, but I couldn’t even begin to guess the lay of the land and what kind of terrain we’d have to walk through. ‘I don’t know love,’ I told him honestly. ‘We can give it a try tomorrow, if you think you’re up to it.’

‘I’d like that,’ he said simply and graced me with a pleased smile that I understood was because I hadn’t dismissed the idea out of hand. But I’d be damned if I would do or say anything that would spoil this day. Not if I could help it.

On a sudden impulse, I leaned in, cupped his chin and kissed him. He responded without hesitation, relaxing into my touch, meeting my languid exploration with his own gentle responses. There was more to it of comfort than of passion. Warmth, rather than heat.

‘What was that for, Yuy?’ he smiled when I drew away.

‘Because I needed to?’ I told him and watched the smile grow a little wicked.

‘You’ve gotten so bold in your old age,’ he teased.

‘You inspire boldness, heart,’ I told him, nuzzling his ear to hide the grin.

He snorted. ‘I knew the poet in you was going to come out today; you’ve been showing all the signs.’

I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to hear him tell me just what those signs were, so I refused to rise to the bait and he quirked a grin, acknowledging the point in his favor.

‘Sun warming you up?’ I asked instead, by way of subject change, and he turned his face back toward the light, his eyes closing, and his grin fading to a soft smile. He hummed an affirmative, putting me in mind of a cat lazing in a warm spot. It took some restraint not to tell him how damn beautiful he looked, washed golden by the light. But he was... a little touchy about those sorts of comments lately, and I let it go. I wished, not for the first time, that I could make him understand how I saw him, and that no damn scar was ever going to change that. Nothing was ever going to change that.

Heart and soul. It had become our anchor, that thing we said to each other. Such a well-used phrase that sometimes the words blurred together, becoming almost a single sound. Becoming... something else; something more. But I never said it without thought. I never said it without understanding the truth of it. Heart and soul, body and mind. He owned me and always would.

I snorted softly, thinking that his notion about my poetic side coming out had obviously had merit. Duo opened his eyes and looked at me. ‘What?’ he queried.

‘Nothing really,’ I hedged. ‘This is just... nice.’

He smiled, nudging gently against my shoulder, and looking around. ‘It is,’ he confirmed in an almost solemn tone of voice. ‘It feels so... private up here.’ But then he was suddenly grinning and he pushed himself up to walk toward the gnarled old oak tree. ‘Though I suppose this pretty much proves that it’s not!’

I rose to follow him, attention more on his slight limp than on his discovery, and it took me a second to register the rope he was suddenly fiddling with.

‘What the hell is that?’ I asked, several somewhat morbid explanations for the presence of the thing leaping to mind. Duo laughed out right at me.

‘Calm down, Rambo,’ he chuckled, flipping the length of rope through his hands. ‘I don’t think this is a crime scene... looks more like somebody’s idea of fun.’

I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. ‘Sometimes people’s ideas of fun can lead to crime scenes, but I don’t...’

‘Yuck, Heero!’ he blurted, not disappointing me. ‘What the hell is that? Preventers’ humor? We’ve stumbled on the local swimming hole... not some kinky bondage murder scene!’ He figured out I was teasing him from the grin, and swatted at me with the end of the knotted rope. ‘Asshole,’ he grumbled, but there was affection in it.

It clicked then, what he was saying, and I looked at him askance. ‘You’ve got to be kidding; from this height?’

He moved a little closer to the edge of the overhang, looking down. ‘It’s not really all that high,’ he opined, and gave the rope a bit of a tug. ‘And the water looks deep down there. That has to be what this is. Look... there’s even stuff carved in the tree!’

I moved in next to him, not liking how close he was standing to the edge, using the carvings as an excuse. ‘Scott plus Jean... Johnny was here...’ I quoted. ‘That’s evidence of swimming?’

Duo snorted in exasperation. ‘No, Mr. oblivious,’ he informed me. ‘It’s evidence that kids come up here. If kids have tied a rope to a tree overhanging a lake... it’s not because they were making pot holders!’

‘Pot holders?’ I blurted, tearing my gaze away from the blocky notation that R.R loves S.S. and blinking at Duo, caught off-guard by the sudden change in direction.

He laughed in delight, and a sudden gleam came into his eyes. ‘Let’s jump,’ he blurted, and horrified does not begin to describe what washed through me.

‘What?’ I yelped and had him by the wrist before I had a chance to even think about it.

‘Oh come on, you stick in the mud!’ he grinned, tugging on the rope and looking up at where it was tied. ‘It would be fun!’

‘Have you lost your mind?’ I exclaimed and had to restrain myself from hauling him bodily away from the edge. ‘You don’t know what in the hell’s down in that water!’

‘Can’t be anything if kids are coming up here,’ he cajoled; his eyes alight with a fire that scared the hell out of me. ‘If anybody’d ever been hurt, they’d have come and cut the rope down.’

I did everything but sputter at him, caught so off-balance by this sudden urge of his that I was left floundering, trying not to yell at him. I wanted to just tell him No! and be done with it, dragging him back to the horse and getting him back down to the stable as fast as I could move. No way in the seven hells was I letting my lover throw himself off a cliff just for the sheer fun of it. But... he was so animated... so excited...

‘What... what would we do with the horse?’ I stalled, trying for reasonable, trying for logic. ‘We can’t exactly convince Tizzy to swing out on a rope and jump in the lake.’

And just like that, I watched the light in his expression dim and fade and go out, and I was left feeling sick, like I’d done something bad. Like I’d just denied him something fundamental. ‘Yeah... you’re right,’ he said, voice somewhere between sheepish and defeated, and he looped the rope back up where he’d found it.

‘I just... I mean...’ I stammered, feeling vaguely queasy and not really understanding what had just happened.

But Duo gave me a smile that struggled its way past wan and managed to attain rueful. ‘Hush, love... it was a stupid idea. I don’t know what made me think of it. Now come on... I’m supposed to be walking around and stretching, not sitting on a rock.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I felt compelled to tell him, following as he stepped away from the tree.

He snorted. ‘Forget it, Heero, it was an asinine notion. Just... never mind, ok?’

There wasn’t much to be said to that; I’d gotten my way, hadn’t I? I certainly didn’t want to talk him back into it, did I? So why did I feel so damn guilty?

We walked along the cliff edge for a bit, turning back before we lost sight of Tizzy. Duo’s limp evened out some, enough that he was almost able to hide it from me, and I let him think he had, because it just seemed to be the right thing in that moment.

We decided to walk the horse for just a bit, and Duo got a little of his humor back, when he took the reins and Tizzy followed us like a dog at heel. But there was still something in the back of his eyes that made me feel bad. Made the day seem... a little less bright.

The trail turned away from the crag and went back into the woods, and according to the map, circled around for a couple miles, winding through the trees before it would bring us back to the stable. I realized after a few minutes, that the ground was changing enough that we needed to get Duo back on the horse before we didn’t have the help of the boulders that had been so prevalent by the cliff.

He seemed to notice about the same time I did, and I saw him glancing around, his steps slowing, ‘Uh... Heero...?’

‘I know,’ I reassured, and was just thinking that we might have to turn around and go back down the trail, when I spotted something even better than a rock. ‘Look there,’ I told him and he grinned.

‘How convenient!’ he chuckled, with just a touch of self-deprecation in it, and led the horse toward the tree stump we’d spotted. When I thought about it, I remembered seeing others, and realized that someone would have had to have done some clearing to make the trail we were on. While it wasn’t going to get him as high as the fence had, the flat surface would be much steadier for him to work with than a rock would have been. Especially since the guy in front pretty much had to get on first, which meant I couldn’t help him a whole lot. I decided to use the stump myself, just so that Tizzy would have some idea what was going on before Duo tried it, and the horse did seem disconcerted by the process, dipping his ears back and trying to side-step.

I regretted the decision when I had to watch Duo laboriously climb up on the stump on his own, lip caught in teeth and looking like he might well have strained something in his good leg, trying to protect the bad one.

The odd... delicacy of his mood, made me bite my tongue on the curse that wanted to pass my lips, as I watched him grimace and force himself up. Though the grin of triumph he wore when he attained the flat top of the stump and turned to me, almost made it worth it. Almost.

‘Ready?’ I asked, pushing all the rest of it aside and grinning for him.

‘Yeah,’ he smiled back, and I’m not sure if he thought I hadn’t seen how much trouble the climb up had given him, or if he was only pleased that I wasn’t going to harp on it.

It took us two tries, and I seriously debated getting down and punching the horse when he shied the first time and almost made Duo fall. Duo laughed at me for the things I said about the animal’s lineage, and Tizzy himself seemed rather skittish after that. I suspect that he was simply picking up on my fear for Duo, though Duo insisted that the beast was insulted. I had to apologize again.

We were quiet as we resumed riding, though somehow the tension had eased and it was more companionable than I would have thought. I had feared that we had spoiled things, ruined the mood of the day. But when Duo was settled on horse-back behind me once more, he didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around my waist, and his body pressed against mine was relaxed and pliant. I laid my hand over his, rubbing gently when I felt the chill of his fingers. He rested his cheek against my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze, trying to let me know, I think, that we were still all right.

The trail wound back through the trees, and the air felt instantly cooler when we lost the heat of the sun. I barely had to guide Tizzy, I think he knew he was on his way back to his stall and would soon have his burden off-loaded and was anxious to be rid of us. Though Duo did a great deal more fidgeting behind me, and I understood that his leg was bothering him. Not that he would complain in a million years, but he couldn’t seem to help the slight shifting of his weight, attempting to ease the strain.

His spirits did bounce back a little when the path dipped and we crossed through a stream, seeming to take delight in the water splashing around Tizzy’s hooves. Though when the horse had to make the climb up the opposite bank, I think the sudden jerking movement hurt him. I squeezed his fingers hard in support, afraid to mention it out loud.

‘I’ll make it,’ he chuckled, answering my silent worry.

‘We can stop again, if you... want to,’ I ventured, substituting the word want for need at the last minute.

‘I’m fine,’ he assured me and I let it go.

The spot where we’d stopped had been not quite half-way on the circuit, but I pushed the return trip just a bit for speed, and the stables came into view about an hour later. I think I felt Duo sigh with relief, but I wasn’t sure. The trail came down from a different spot into the same open meadow, and I considered increasing our speed to a canter again, because Duo had enjoyed it so much the first time, but I decided he didn’t need the extra jolting. Rodney had left the paddock gate open for us, and Tizzy headed for it like a homing pigeon.

‘I think he’s in a hurry to get back,’ I told Duo, and only got a distracted chuckle. I repressed a sigh and comforted myself with the knowledge that Duo’s pain-pills were in the car.

As we got closer to the stable-yard, Duo did that subtle shifting thing, his hands unwinding from around me and pulling back to settle only on my hips. My back was suddenly cooler as he eased away from me. I looked toward the gate and saw Rodney standing there, ready to close it behind us, smiling broadly, and it might have been my imagination, but he seemed just a bit relieved to see us return in one piece.

I should have foreseen what happened next, but I didn’t. I should have realized how much Duo’s pride was up, how much he wanted to not look like some kind of invalid in front of this stranger. But I didn’t.

I pulled the horse to a stop near the fence, once we were inside the paddock, fully intending to climb off and hand Duo down the way I had up at the crag, or else use the fence again. But Duo moved before I had a chance to, his hands held tight for a minute and I felt him swinging his leg over the horse’s rump, and I knew he wasn’t intending to let me help him here in front of a witness. Distantly, I was aware of the sound of the gate swinging closed. I’ll never know if my own sudden flash of apprehension contributed to what happened then or not, but Tizzy chose that moment to shift, snorting loudly and stamping a hoof in agitation, I think it caused Duo to put more weight on his bad leg than he’d intended. I’m not sure. All I know is he was suddenly crying out and falling to the ground. I leaned, grabbing for his wrist, but he was already out of my reach. He went down hard.

Tizzy did not react to this sudden turn of events well; Duo’s sharp cry, my own answering curse, my leaning, Duo’s falling... horse ears were laid back and horse hoofs were suddenly churning up dust.

I bit back on any further outcry, and heart in my throat, threw myself off the horse’s back, landing splay-legged over Duo’s curled up form, keeping myself between him and the stamping horse.

Duo wasn’t making much effort to get up, only balling up as best he could and wrapping his arms protectively around his head. I knew he probably just couldn’t manage it.

‘Damn it!’ I snarled to no one in particular, and digging my heels in, planted my back firmly against Tizzy’s flank and pushed for all I was worth. The beast snorted in consternation, caught between me and the fence. I fell on my ass when he suddenly decided that my encouraging him to find someplace else to be, was obviously an excellent idea, and he bolted forward and away. I didn’t care where in the hell he went, as long as it was away from Duo. I barely registered the sound of his hoof beats as he moved off, more concerned with scrambling to my partner’s side.

‘Duo!’ I was surprised at how panicked my own voice sounded and I couldn’t get hold of him fast enough. ‘Oh Gods... are you all right? Did you get stepped on?’ He was uncurling under my hands, getting his breath and his bearings back.

‘I... I don’t think so,’ he managed after a second, and while there was obviously some pain, he mostly just seemed to be a little dazed.

My hands were moving over him in an automatic status verification that was almost as old as I was. He had managed not to bring on an attack, and didn’t seem to have been hurt by the horse at all. My biggest concern, once I’d ascertained that he hadn’t been trampled, was whether the fall had damaged his still healing leg. I was almost light-headed with relief when probing fingers found the bone still intact. Thank the Gods, he hadn’t rebroken it.

‘I’m ok,’ he muttered and I could tell from his tone, that he was getting his wits about him again.

‘Just take it easy a minute,’ I soothed, my heart starting to settle a little as I found him to be relatively unharmed. ‘It’s all right... I’ve got you.’

I slid an arm behind him, supporting him as we got him shifted into a sitting position, and again he told me, ‘I’m all right,’ only his voice was taking on an odd, irritated tone.

‘Don’t try to get up so fast,’ I scolded, and pressed my hand to his ribs to make sure he wasn’t in danger of lapsing into a muscle spasm.

Heero,’ he hissed then, the irritation tumbling over into trepidation, and I finally registered the warning in it. Glancing up, I found Rodney standing over us, his face a blotchy red and his eyes looking everywhere but at us.

It was not a good time for him to make me feel... defensive. Not a good time at all. ‘Don’t you have a fucking horse to catch?’ I snapped and would probably have said more, if I hadn’t felt Duo flinch.

‘Is...I mean...’ Rodney stammered, looking rather stricken. ‘Is your... friend all right?’

‘I’m fine,’ Duo blurted, before I had a chance to say anything, his own face flushed dark red. He got serious about getting up then, practically forcing me to help him, or get the hell out of his way.

‘Be careful!’ I grumbled, suddenly feeling very out of control and not liking it one bit.

Rodney still wasn’t quite able to look at us, rubbing the back of his neck and staring at his boots. He mumbled something that I didn’t care to catch, but Duo tried on a grin that was so fake, it made me cringe.

‘Sorry about that... didn’t mean to scare your horse,’ he chuckled, doing his best to straighten away from me, though I wasn’t quite ready to let go.

‘No harm done,’ Rodney muttered. ‘You... ah... sure you’re all right?’

‘Fine,’ Duo told him brightly. ‘Bum leg, you know?’

Rodney nodded, his hand still rubbing almost unconsciously at his neck. ‘Well... I guess we should... you know... go back to the office.’

‘Yeah,’ Duo agreed amiably. ‘I’m more than ready to head out for lunch. All that riding makes you hungry, doesn’t it?’ he didn’t wait for Rodney to answer, which was just as well, because the man didn’t look like he could string two damn words together. He was making me uncomfortable, which was pissing me off, and on top of all the rest of it... it just wasn’t a good combination. Somehow, Duo seemed to understand that I wasn’t going to be able to manage anything that might set the stable-owner at ease again, and he completely took over the conversation.

I was still fighting with the overwhelming urge to just sweep him up into my arms and carry him the hell away from that place. But while over-protective is something that I will freely admit to having issues with... I’m not stupid.

He only tolerated my hand under his elbow because his leg was absolutely threatening to give out completely, and the limp was so bad it was almost a stagger.

I barely registered the walk back to the office; head wrapped up in the conflicting urges that felt like they were tugging me in a dozen directions. If we’d only had a few minutes of privacy, I don’t think I would have been so wound up, but the mask Duo had thrown in place for Rodney’s sake was shielding him just as much from me. It stung... even while a part of me wanted that distance. Wanted to slip into whatever role would make the stable-master stop stuttering and looking like he wanted to start his day over again, so that he could never leave his safe little house.

While my head... my common sense, told me that Duo was fine and to just back the hell off, my heart was aching at seeing him in pain, seeing him so embarrassed. And while my gut was anticipating the end of the mood, was mourning the loss of Duo’s smile, there was that other voice that was more concerned with the stranger so close to us, who so obviously had a problem with what we were. That voice, that soldier’s sense, was stuck half-way between wanting to duck and cover and wanting to go on the offensive.

So I was a bit edgy, and knew that Duo was probably right in ‘taking point’. But even that got to me, making me feel guilty that he had to. He should have been leaning on me... should have been able to concentrate on himself, while I handled the situation. It made me feel like I’d failed him yet again.

Somewhere between corral and office, Duo had eased things with his running monologue enough that the businessman in Rodney started coming out. He graciously insisted that Duo sit down while we finished up our business, even dragging a chair over from one of the other desks himself.

‘You sure you didn’t get stepped on?’ the man asked, finally thinking past his discomfort, as he dug my driver’s license out of his desk drawer. ‘It all kinda... happened so fast, I didn’t really see it.’

Duo gave him a rueful little chuckle, rubbing almost absently at his thigh. ‘Good!’ he grinned. ‘The fewer witnesses to my pratfall, the better!’

Rodney dutifully laughed with him, but it was strained. I checked the time, did the math and while I had my wallet out to put my license away, I went ahead and paid the man. I assume I got the amount right, because he just accepted it with a vague nod, barely giving the bills a glance.

I stepped away from the desk, taking a stance next to Duo’s chair, an offer of assistance if he wanted it, but not reaching. I wasn’t surprised when he levered himself up on his own.

‘Well, thanks,’ he said as we headed for the door. ‘Really great place you’ve got here... we had fun.’ It helped that he actually sounded like he meant it.

I was thankful that the car was parked very near the office, though Duo gave me a warning growl when I started to open his door to help him in. ‘Heero... please,’ he grumbled and I just let it go. Turned my back and just let it the hell go.

He has never understood what it does to me to see him struggle.

He was in and settled by the time I got around the car to the driver’s side. I didn’t speak, but fished his pain pills out of the glove box and set them where he could reach them. Not insisting... not forcing... just making them available. I couldn’t think of a thing to say that would make things any better. So I just drove and ached with the loss of Duo’s good mood.

After a minute, I heard him pick up the bottle of pills and shake a few into the palm of his hand. He had to swallow them dry, but that was something we’d both learned to do eons ago. I heard the bottle resettled into the little change holder in the dash, then Duo reached across and took my hand.

‘Guess I should have waited for you, huh?’ he quipped and I finally glanced across at him. His smile seemed... hopeful.

I squeezed his fingers, feeling their slight chill, and gave him the warmest smile I could muster, reaching out to meet his efforts at least half way. A little more able to set aside the upset without the prying eyes of a stranger pressing on my protective instincts. ‘You always have been the impatient one,’ I replied and he managed a chuckle.

I dared hope that we hadn’t completely ruined things.

The drive back to the cabin wasn’t so long that Duo slept, though he was looking decidedly sloe-eyed by the time we got there.

‘You still feel like that soup?’ I asked, as I pulled in and parked next to the cabin.

He hummed an affirmative. ‘Sounds nice,’ he agreed.

I was surprised that he let me settle him on the couch by the fireplace while I went to make lunch, but there really wasn’t much he could have helped with anyway, in the preparation of simple soup and sandwiches.

I found him tucked up into the corner of the couch when I returned with our meal, wrapped in one of the many afghans and looking like he was struggling to stay awake. He smiled at me as he accepted his plate.

‘Be careful, it’s hot,’ I told him, and sat down by his feet.

‘Hot would be good,’ he grinned and picked up his mug of tomato soup to cradle for a moment in his hands, blowing on it gently. I sat my own plate aside and took a moment to put a log on the banked fire, stirring the embers back to life. Duo had kicked his shoes off before curling up, and when I sat back down, I pulled his feet into my lap. His hands and feet always get cold when he’s under stress. He quirked an impish little grin and wriggled a bit for maximum contact with my warmth. I picked up my plate with the mug balanced on it once he was settled, and began to eat.

I glanced across at Duo in time to see him take that first sip of his soup and was surprised as something... almost pensive crossed his expression.

‘Is it... all right?’ I ventured, not sure what that fleeting look had been.

He smiled and nodded, the expression banished with an almost shiver. ‘Fine,’ he told me. ‘Just been a long time since we’ve had tomato soup. What made you think to buy some?’

‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged, sipping at my own. ‘It just seemed like something you should take camping.’

‘Camping?’ Duo snickered. ‘Yuy, if this is your idea of camping, we really need to have a talk!’

I continued to feed him straight-lines, letting him tease me until all trace of that strange melancholy was gone, along with everything I’d put in front of him to eat. The fresh-air or the exercise had done wonders for his appetite; and for the first time in a very long time, I was satisfied with what he managed to put away.

But then that exercise and his full-stomach mated with the pain-pills and he drifted off to sleep, right there on the couch.

I just sat with him for awhile, holding his feet in my lap and gently rubbing my thumb along his instep, feeling him beginning to warm. Feeling him completely relaxed.

Then I quietly got up and gathered the dishes, both the ones from lunch and the ones from the night before, and went to clean up the mess. And Duo’d been right; the grill took a nightmarish amount of scrubbing.

I sat with him afterward, there in front of the fire, the heat making me a little drowsy myself. I thought about the day, remembered those moments of Duo’s open delight, wondered about what memories had been conjured up for him. He gets a look about him, when he’s remembering something that I don’t share... something from before our time together, and it always makes me want to ask. Always makes me want to understand. But the memories aren’t often good ones, and probing for information just to satisfy my undying curiosity concerning him, sometimes leads him to think about things he might not have otherwise. While I love gaining pieces to the puzzle that is my Duo... I know better than to go searching for them; they have to be freely given.

He woke some time later, I was vaguely aware that afternoon had turned to evening, but was too content to care about the time.

‘Hey,’ I smiled, and stroked my hand up and down his foot, waiting for him to come fully awake.

‘Hey,’ he rumbled, voice thick from sleep, and his gaze sought me out. A tiny little smile flitted across his lips and he asked, ‘Have I ever told you that you’re a nice sight to wake up to?’

I snorted and let my hand wrap around his ankle. ‘How are you feeling?’

He shifted a bit, stretching experimentally and he grimaced. ‘A little stiff,’ he conceded. ‘But not too bad.’

I sighed. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have...’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘Please, Heero,’ he said, eyes pleading with me. ‘It was worth it. It really was.’

I couldn’t help smiling at him. ‘I’m glad,’ I said simply and he seemed relieved.

We were quiet for a few moments, while he finished waking up. My thumb found the ball of his foot and massaged absently while I watched him orient himself. He gave me a faint disapproving look.

‘You should have waited to do the dishes,’ he scolded. ‘I’d have helped.’

‘Didn’t want to waste a moment of our evening together,’ he replied loftily, refusing to let him feel guilty about it.

He snorted and rolled his eyes, shifting to push himself upright. I lost the warmth of his legs in my lap then. ‘The poet’s back, I see,’ he accused as he found his way out of the afghan. I held my breath while he gained his feet, but his leg bore his weight. He turned a rather smug look my way, though when he stepped away from the couch, the limp was more than he could hide.

‘Will you let me heat the lotion?’ I asked quietly.

He met my eyes and there was an odd moment before he acquiesced with a tight nod. ‘I need to go to the bathroom first.’

‘Meet you in the bedroom then,’ I smiled, trying to keep my tone light.

It was a difficult thing to stay away while he made his way up the stairs.

Massage, mutual or otherwise. It truly bothered me that his injuries had turned something we used to enjoy doing together, into something that he feared I only did out of obligation. Out of necessity.

Lotion, if you are very careful, can be heated to an almost sinful temperature in the microwave. The trick is in the timing, and you have to be sure to thoroughly shake the bottle before using it. It takes such a short amount of time, I was upstairs and ready before Duo came out of the bathroom.

I take my cues from him in situations like that anymore, much more aware of things like nudity and lighting. He was having one of his more self-conscious days, probably brought on by the embarrassment of his fall, and he came out of the bathroom still in his underwear. I turned away and found the dimmer switch on the bedroom lights while he climbed onto the bed. I left my own jeans on when I joined him.

I probably know enough about medical massage to qualify for a license. During one of Duo’s visits to therapy, his therapist had worked over his leg in a manner I’d never seen before, and had reduced my partner to a quivering mass that I could only describe as ‘relaxed’. I’d inquired and gotten a rather exuberant lecture on scar-tissue, increasing circulation to damaged tissues, and the prevention of adhesions. The man had been delighted to show me some of the simpler techniques, and it didn’t take a medical degree to understand the benefits to Duo receiving a truly deep massage daily instead of just a couple of times a week as his therapist had the time.

Though at first it had been a little awkward, attempting to distance ourselves from a thing that had once almost constituted foreplay. I managed it by thinking in purely medical terms. I’m not sure how Duo handled it, but it never seemed to arouse him, for which I was grateful.

He started out lying on his stomach and when I set to work, he seemed more tense than usual, so I eased into it with a more general massage before moving to my ‘target’ areas. The massage usually follows his stretching exercises, but he didn’t seem interested in doing them, and after a bit of consideration I decided not to push the point. Our time on the trail was probably enough to compensate for the loss of the more disciplined routine, so I let it go. His mood was tenuous enough, I wasn’t about to start an argument over his therapy.

Under my hands, he slowly began to unwind and I was able to identify problem spots by the knots of tense muscle. I’d been right; he’d strained his good leg making the climb back up to horseback while we were out on the trail, and I spent a bit of time on that before I even got to his weak spots.

It took some work to get past the almost-painful part, before he was sighing softly in contentment. That’s the part that makes it all worthwhile for me; a full-body massage is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but once he relaxes enough to start enjoying it... starts making those tiny sounds of pleasure, that’s enough for me. I would work all night as long as he made those soft little sounds.

When I had him rolled over, while I was working on his torso, he frowned slightly and I sat up, afraid I’d hurt. ‘What is it, love?’ I asked gently.

His eyes focused on me and I realized he’d been looking over my shoulder. ‘How long did I sleep?’ he asked, looking a little confused.

‘Not all that long,’ I soothed and bent back to work. ‘Why? What’s wrong?’

‘It just seems later than it ought to be,’ he said, the sound of a shrug in his voice.

‘I think there are clouds moving in, is all,’ I told him, remembering a weather report I’d heard earlier on the radio.

He made a small sound of understanding and grew quiet again.

A million things crossed my mind as I smoothed the warm lotion over his skin. How wonderful he looked, how wonderful he felt, how I loved doing this for him... but nothing I dared share with him that didn’t run the risk of bringing that haunted look back to his eyes. I stopped when he started to show signs of feeling guilty... of getting anxious.

I reached out and tossed a corner of the bedspread he was lying on, over him and smiled. ‘Wait here.’

Then I took myself off to the bathroom to figure out just how a hot tub worked.

It wasn’t one of the huge ones designed for parties or whatever the hell you do with a hot tub that seats six. Was almost more of an extravagantly fancy bath tub. I started the water running and laid out everything I thought we might need, towels and washcloths, our own toiletries from home. When the tub was full, I started the jets and dimmed the lights.

Stepping back into the bedroom I called teasingly, ‘You still awake?’

The husky sound of his affirmation made me wonder.

‘Care to join me?’ I asked and watched just long enough to see him lever himself up on an elbow to look at me. I smiled and stepped back into the bathroom, shucking the last of my clothes and settling myself in the hot water. It really was the most decadent damn thing.

Duo appeared in the doorway a minute later, seeming caught somewhere between discomfort and curiosity. ‘What?’ he quipped. ‘No wine and cheese? No candles?’

‘I did dim the lights for the right atmosphere,’ I informed him loftily. ‘Now, get in here.’

‘So bossy,’ he sighed, but dropped his own underwear and ventured to the side of the tub, looking hesitant.

[back] [cont]