Author: Sunhawk
see part 1 for warning, notes, disclaimer

Rain (cont)

It was one of those days that started out... not so great. I happened to have a couple of cats in residence and while it was nice waking up with company again (it had been ages since Reason had just gotten too big for the bed), sometimes it only served to remind me how alone I was.

One of those days where it was going to be more likely that I sat staring at the wall, than actually doing anything constructive.

But, as designed by either the resident vet, the resident busy-body, or maybe just my sub-conscious... I did have obligations to take care of. So I hauled my ass out of bed, fed the cats, pulled on some clothes and went out to take care of the rest of my menagerie. Reason is my dog, and always will be, but I also had a couple of fosterlings in. A couple of shepherd mixes, one of them a big black that would chase a ball for as long as you were willing to throw it, and a buff colored one that showed quite a bit of husky in the blood-line, and had a dark 'mask' that always made him look faintly concerned about something. Nash and Bo respectively, because Miss Deirdre said that every run down shack needed a dog named Bo.

As soon as I stepped outside, Reason was right there at my heel, following me as I scooped the dog food out of the metal trash can that was the only thing that kept the mice out of it, and fed the boys. Nash dug right in, but Bo had to have his pats first. Reason opted to follow me out to the barn while I checked on Buckshot; he was our first horse and my dog hadn't quite decided that it wasn't something I shouldn't be protected from.

There's a lot to taking care of animals, and I guess that was the whole point. I spent the morning either putting food in one end of them, or cleaning up what came out the other. It's a never ending cycle. Reason went to eat once Buckshot was out in the paddock, but was right back on my trail as soon as he was full. Not a year old yet, and his head damn near came up to my waist. Never ceased to amaze me when I thought back to the little ball of fluff he had once been. I suspect that Miss Deirdre lies awake some nights because she's laughing so damn hard, just thinking about it. I hadn't had a clue.

I finished up the morning's chores as I always did, in front of the corner post in the paddock fence. The thing is grey with age, solid as a rock and probably older than anything on the property except the damn rocks. I pulled out my utility knife and marked another score in the wood. Another day. Another sunrise. Tallying my new life in neat little rows. I'd started doing it when I realized I was losing track of time and couldn't even have told you the date. Didn't know the day of the week. It seemed important not to let myself drift completely, though now it was more of a ritual of some damn kind. Just some record that I'd made another day.

Maybe it was a mark of triumph?

With the chores done, I actually considered just going in and going back to bed. The cats would come and curl up with me and I could probably manage to sleep for a few more hours, but I kind of knew what a bad idea that was... I'd gotten my sleep patterns messed up before, and had to deal with bouts of insomnia.

There really just wasn't much else to do in the house since the electricity had been cut off. I could probably spend part of the afternoon brushing Reason, but it had only been a couple of days and I just didn't feel up to the job. Though it made me think about the pillowcase full of collected fur I had in the house and I decided I'd drive into town and drop it off for Dutch's wife. She spun the stuff into yarn and had promised to knit me a scarf in exchange, before winter set in.

I think it was that part of my brain that knows when I need some human contact. It had probably been a week since I'd bothered, and I guess I knew on some level, I'd been avoiding it. I could end up becoming a hermit all too easily and I was well aware of it. And the longer I stayed isolated, the more I thought and the more I thought... well, it was just another of those endless cycles.

Maybe I could even cut a deal with Dutch for some cat food if he was still having problems with his old car. I was getting down to where I was going to have to buy some, and the funds were in less than great shape.

I ran my hand down the fence post, not having enough energy to count the days, and smiled down at Reason. 'Wanna go for a ride, boy?'

His great flag of a tail wagged enthusiastically and he bounced off toward the truck before I even headed that way. It still amazes me sometimes, just how smart animals can be.

Bo and Nash, stomachs full, would spend the rest of the day lazing in the barn or chasing the ground squirrels in the back field, and the cats were safe in the house, so Reason and I climbed into the truck and headed for town.

'Maybe we'll run into Dutch's cousin and I can see if he's got work again,' I mused to Reason and he wagged his tail, though he didn't pull his head in the window. I don't really get what dogs see in that wind rush thing... I'd tried it once, but I just swallowed a bug.

'We could sure use a bit of cash right now,' I continued, mentally going over our financial situation. I really didn't have that many bills to deal with, not since I'd said screw it with the power. The heat was from the wood stove anyway, and the water came from a well. It was kind of a bitch having to heat water for baths and stuff, but the rest of it was really no big deal. Television just depressed me, and if I needed light I just went the hell outside. Food for me and the boys was about it. A bit of gas money. But things had been getting a little tight since we'd taken on Buckshot. Horses can not live on grass alone, and the scrub grass out there wasn't that plentiful anyway. I'd worked a deal with Old man Sutton for a load of hay, but the grain I'd had to buy. Especially early on, when we'd had to mix a mash for him. It will never cease to shock me what people are capable of doing to animals. Poor old thing was pretty well recovered though, and I was kind of hoping that Miss Deirdre might have some ideas about where he might find a permanent home. It had been something of a kick having a horse around, especially once he'd recovered enough that a personality had started to come out, but I really just couldn't afford it any more. I'd miss him, but I knew I'd get over it... I always did.

I glanced over at Reason. 'Except for you, boy... right? You're here to stay?'

We passed the Richardson's farm just then, and their greyhound mutt raced the truck to the edge of the property, and Reason barked at him as we sped by. I liked to imagine that they kept score. It made me laugh, and it surprised me how... odd it felt. Reason looked at me, as though it surprised him too.

I parked in front of Mrs. Taylor's place, because I'd end up there before I was done in town. Woman would kill me if I didn't stop in at least to say hello. Reason couldn't really go into the stores with me, but it was cool enough for him to wait in the truck, especially with both windows rolled down. It didn't seem to bother him; I think he just liked the new sights and smells, because he always seemed content to sit there with his head hanging out the window, sprawled across the seat like he owned the truck. It kind of made me wonder if there wouldn't come a day that he'd get too big to ride in the front with me.

I did manage to score some cat food from Dutch, though it wasn't for fixing his car. Instead, it was for settling an argument between him and his oldest over math homework. Dutch is way too old-school to half understand what the poor kid was learning, so things get... tense when the boy needs help with his school work. I happened in just before the stomping and yelling part, and managed to derail things before they got ugly, and then explain the problem well enough that the kid actually got it. Dutch was thrilled and I took his offer of something on the house, to make sure the cats would eat the following week.

'Damn new math,' he muttered to me after the boy had left the room. 'Nothin' the kid is ever going to have to use. Why can't they teach them something practical?'

I just laughed at him, it was an old argument, but since I wasn't planning on going into teaching, there wasn't much I could do about it.

'You lock your place up?' he suddenly asked, as he accepted the pillow case full of fur, totally changing gears and taking me off guard.

'What?' I had to ask, and then almost chuckled to realize that I couldn't remember the last time I'd bothered. 'Not much to worry about getting stolen,' I quipped. 'And besides... the boys are there.'

'Well,' he told me conspiratorially, leaning on the counter. 'Some city slicker come into town the other day, and keeps kinda hanging around. Don't seem to want nothin', but don't seem to be movin' on neither.'

I snorted, gathering my sack up and smiling at him. 'Another idjit suckered in by those 'haunted' legends, no doubt.'

He chuckled in return, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. 'No doubt. Gives Stella a bit of business, I suppose.'

'Take the money and just smile and nod wisely,' I advised, making him laugh.

'A fool and his money...' he snickered and I reflected that it applied to suckers too.

I dumped the cat food in the bed of the truck, not trusting Reason not to eat it bag and all, gave him a pat and then headed into the diner.

The day's special was some kind of fish and it smelled so damn good when I opened the door that I almost doubled over from the growl that cramped my stomach. I mentally counted the money I had with me and had to sigh... probably about a dollar short.

'Duo!' Mrs. Taylor greeted me as I settled on one of the stools at the counter. 'Where have you been keeping yourself? You here for lunch or just to say hello?'

I grinned and tried not to drool over the pie display on the counter. 'Can't stay,' I hedged. 'Reason's in the truck and I hate to leave him there for long.'

She gave me a mock frown and swatted at me with the towel she always seemed to have in her hands. 'You need to slow down and eat now and again! You're wasting away!'

'Who has time to slow down?' I teased her and the mock frown shaded over just a bit until I wasn't sure if it was real or not. It took her a moment to respond, and I could practically see the gears going around.

'While you're here, maybe you could do me a favor?' she ventured and there was that sly tone in her voice.

'Sure,' I replied, because who the heck is going to say no to the woman that supplies meals on a fairly regular basis.

'I have this new recipe,' she told me. 'And wondered if you might try it for me... see what you think?'

I'm sure she saw the blush, but she chose to ignore it. I agreed, because what else was I to do, but it was rather embarrassing. I didn't for a minute believe she needed an opinion and I wanted to protest that I freaking had food... just not terribly attractive food. If nothing else, there were still some late season tomatoes in the garden. I hadn't damn well resorted to sharing with the dogs yet.

It turned out to be some sort of casserole dish, and I did my best not to scarf it down so fast I couldn't even offer up that asked for opinion. 'It's really good,' I told her around a mouthful. 'Is that ham? Bet it would be good with bacon too.'

We were discussing the pros and cons of crumbled bacon when the little bell over the door tinkled, announcing a new customer and we both looked that way.

If I had not already been sitting down, I might well have fallen down. As it was, I just about choked to death on the mouthful of potatoes and ham I'd been in the process of ingesting. Mrs. Taylor pressed a glass of water into my hands and I gulped at it, clearing my throat while I stared at the man in the doorway.

I actually wondered if he really had ended up all the way out in nowhere land looking for hauntings. Somehow, even I didn't believe in that kind of coincidence.

'Duo?' he asked and I'm sure I had to be imagining the rather hopeful sound in his voice.

'Heero?' I stammered out and kind of wasn't at all sure how I felt. There was a lurch in my chest that felt a little like... like relief. Like I suddenly realized some part of me had always been hurt that nobody had ever come after me. But there was another part that was kind of... not happy. A little afraid that the accusations and the anger and the betrayal had followed me. 'What are you doing here?' is what I managed, and it came out just a bit flat.

Heero looked uncertain, and took a slow step in my direction. 'I... came looking for you,' he told me carefully, and I've gentled enough animals to recognize the tone. It kind of pissed me off. I wasn't the one who had been screaming obscenities. I really didn't think I was the one who needed gentling.

'So you found me,' I heard myself say and kind of wondered that my voice stayed so steady when my insides were anything but.

'Yeah,' he confirmed inanely. 'I found you.'

It was sort of funny how we just kind of stared at each other. I suspected he might have had other things to say if Mrs. Taylor hadn't been standing right there. But I wasn't sure yet if they were the 'I'm so glad I found you' kind of things, or the 'You asshole' kind of things.

I guess I pretty much missed my cue, because I suppose that should have made it my turn in the conversation thing, but I was too busy remembering the last time I'd seen him, and just why I was not his biggest fan. Remembering what he had thought me capable of. Besides... just parroting my own words back to me shouldn't really count anyway, so it was still his serve on a technicality.

Mrs. Taylor apparently had a problem with awkward silences, because she opted to take the next turn, and I realized that if Heero had been in town for a couple of days, as Dutch had hinted, then he'd probably been in the diner before. 'Are you here for lunch, Mr. Yuy,' she asked politely, though she stumbled all over his name and it came out sounding more like 'you'.

Heero ducked his head, the corner of his mouth twitching just a bit, and then kind of looked at me in a calculating way. 'Well, maybe I could buy an old friend some lunch...' he began and it sort of clashed with what Mrs. Taylor had just done and screamed 'charity' in my mind. I frowned and stood, heading for the door.

'Can't stay,' I blurted, having to step around him and I looked at the floor rather than meeting his eyes. 'My dogs waiting.'

I heard him call after me, but I didn't slow down, I wasn't really surprised when he followed and snatched at my sleeve. 'Duo, please wait...'

I guess I was embarrassed, and a little panicked, and still just totally in shock at seeing a face I'd thought I'd never see again. There were parts of me that were fighting to be thrilled, and parts of me that were sneering in bitter derision. Parts that wanted to believe that he'd really been hunting for me all that time, and parts that were waiting to get yelled at. Accused. Scorned. God knows what the hell my face was doing, because I just wasn't paying that much attention to it, but apparently other people were.

'Is there a problem here, Duo?' a voice asked, all casual and calm, with that hint of threat that only a law-enforcement officer can manage with a smile in place.

I looked up to find the Sheriff standing there, pointedly eyeing Heero's hand on my arm. 'No...' I stammered. 'Not... not really.'

It just made his eyes narrow and I knew he wasn't going to back off until Heero did. 'You sure?' he asked quietly. 'Because it sure looks like there's a problem here.'

Heero let go of my arm, at least, and I took a step back, both relieved and... oddly upset. Then Heero pulled out his wallet and flashed his damn Preventers' badge.

'Everything is fine, officer,' Heero began and I could see Sheriff Tom's eyes widen just a bit despite himself. It made me see red. How the hell dare the son of a bitch barge into my life and then try to turn me into grist for the rumor mill.

'You asshole,' I growled. 'What are you doing, trying to imply that I'm some sort of escaped criminal or something?'

Heero had the good grace to look shocked, panicked almost, and he put the badge away as quickly as he'd pulled it. 'No!' he blurted, not sure if he should be talking to me or to Tom. 'I was just trying to prove I wasn't... wasn't some damn mugger or something!'

Tom might be the town Sheriff, but he's no more immune to the lure of good gossip than the next person. I could tell he wasn't planning on walking away from our little scene as long as something interesting was going on.

'I have to go,' I ground out, feeling the tops of my ears stinging from the embarrassment and I turned to stalk away.

'Damn it, Duo!' Heero called out, frustration plain in his voice. I didn't answer, just jerked open the door to my truck and started to climb in. Then Heero's voice took on a different tone. 'I'm not leaving until you talk to me, Maxwell!' he blurted and I had to sigh.

'You got a God damn car?' I growled, knowing he had to, because there's just no other way to get yourself to Devil's Palm. Not like there's an airport. Or even a bus stop. You have to go up to Twin Forks for that.

He was striding away to get it before I had the truck door slammed shut. Tom came to lean in the passenger window while I waited for Heero to come back, absently ruffling Reason's ears while he asked, 'You need any backup, son?'

It made me smile, though I imagine it was a bit wan. 'Nah, I'm good. But thanks,' I told him. 'Just... a bit of unfinished business from my old life.'

He snorted and gave Reason a last pat. 'Your old life seems way more interesting than I ever woulda guessed.'

It made me laugh. Twice in one day, I remember thinking, how odd.

He headed on into the diner and a moment later, a sleek black rental pulled up in the street beside me. I wasted no more time and headed for home. And if I made sure the clouds of dust I threw up were as thick as possible... can you really blame me?

~~*~~

I cursed myself the whole damn way out to Duo's place; I couldn't believe I'd pulled such a bone-head move as flashing my damn badge. I had just wanted so badly for that man to go the hell away before I lost my chance to really speak with Duo. We'd just gotten out from under the watchful eye of that woman I suspected was 'Applepie' and then run smack into the local-yocal.

Whole damn town was nothing but a bunch of meddling busy-bodies.

Duo probably paid no attention to the speed-limits on the drive out to his place. I suspected it normally took him more than the ten minutes it took us that day. But then... I suppose we'd just left the only person likely to give a shit, back in town.

I was floundering and I knew it. Somehow, in all my planning and plotting for that moment, I had never expected to see so many changes in Duo. It had thrown me. Where the hell was our vibrant, cocky partner? Hell... he didn't even look entirely healthy. And that truck he was driving; I was surprised pieces of it weren't falling off as he bounced it over the rutted dirt road.

I really just don't know why I had never thought of him as... I don't know... suffering?

I had run scenarios through my head where he'd yelled and hit me. Scenarios where he threw himself into my arms. Ones where he had just stood in shock at the sight of me. But I had never thought of him... hiding from me? Running away?

I suppose with his recent track record, I should have, but it just hadn't occurred. And now I couldn't help fearing that he'd disappear on me given half the chance, and I'd have to start the search all over again. And maybe I wouldn't be so lucky next time.

I decided right there, as I struggled to keep sight of Duo's truck through the cloud of dust, that I wasn't leaving him until we got something worked out.

I had to slow down when we left the road and started up his driveway, as the way became more winding and I couldn't see where in the hell I was going through all the damn dust. So Duo was already parked and out of his truck before I was half way up to the... 'house' is probably an unfair term.

I got a good look at the monster he called a dog then, and when it started barking at my car, two more came running out of the barn, eager to join in on the chorus. There was a horse in a fenced in area, that stopped foraging and looked to see what the fuss was about.

Duo was just standing there with his dogs around him, arms crossed over his chest and watching me pull in like he was watching the arrival of the tax man.

It was not the mental image I'd had of his life.

I parked, and when I ventured out of the car, the big white dog redoubled his barking, like he was going to come and eat me. I had no doubt he could. Duo just watched it for a moment before snapping his fingers and calling sharply. 'That's enough.'

They shut up then, kind of like throwing a switch, somehow accepting from Duo that I was on the formal guest list after all. Though the big dog moved back to his side and looked like he wasn't planning on leaving. I couldn't help a glance toward the tiny house, thinking that it was going to be damn crowded if we all went inside.

I walked closer, moving slowly and keeping one eye on the dogs, and Duo just watched me come; his face totally unreadable. I think he'd used the drive out to do some thinking, and all those hints of vulnerability I'd thought I'd seen, were gone. I had thought I'd seen a bit of hope. I hoped I'd seen a bit of happiness. But all that, there or not, was safely tucked away behind a mask that was only... wary.

'It's good to see you,' I finally ventured, when he didn't seem inclined to speak.

He snorted and turned toward the house with a suddenness that made me think he didn't want to deal with the statement. 'If you still want lunch, come on.'

As I'd feared, the dog made the trip into the house with us, and just to add variety, we were met by a pair of cats. I was surprised that they didn't seem frightened of the dog. One of them, in fact, came right up and twined around the beasts legs.

'You want soup, or do you want soup?' Duo prompted, his back to me as he pulled down a pair of cans from the cabinet and began opening them with a handheld opener.

'Soup is fine,' I replied absently, though it was plain it didn't matter. Looking around, I realized that he was preparing to heat the soup over what had to be a wood-burning stove. I blinked at it, and then looked around again, realizing that there didn't seem to be any sign of working electricity.

'Tomato or tomato,' he asked, still not looking at me, and I was sure at that point he was only talking so I wouldn't.

'Tomato I think,' I quipped. 'But don't go out of your way if you're having tomato. Either is fine.'

It made him chuckle, though it was a tight little sound and I noticed him pause, as though he'd surprised himself.

The dog seemed to be settling itself wherever it needed to be to stay between me and Duo. It made me... extremely uncomfortable. I really don't know that much about dogs, so I'll admit my experience is limited, but the monster was easily the biggest animal I'd ever seen outside a zoo. If it seriously decided to attack me, I wasn't sure there was a damn thing I could do.

I felt awkward just standing in the middle of the room, watching him stir up the fire and put the pot on, so I wandered a bit around the place. It was little more than a shack. The living room and the kitchen were really just one big room, sort of separated by not much more than a difference in floor covering. The living room had carpet that wasn't the wall to wall variety, but the kitchen had a linoleum that polite company would have called 'quaint' but was really probably just older than either of us. I could see that there was a bedroom off the living room and another door that, I hoped to God, was a bathroom. Looking at the rest of the place, it would not have been too surprising if I'd found out there was an outhouse somewhere. The suspicion was reinforced when I turned back to find Duo dipping water out of a bucket that sat next to the stove, to mix the condensed soup with. I almost groaned. Though, I suppose, logically if there was no power, there was no way to run any sort of water pump.

'Make yourself at home,' he grumbled, a tiny reprimand for my wandering.

'Sorry,' I muttered, and went back to stand in the kitchen area, trying to contain my curiosity. 'It's just... a lot of this stuff doesn't really seem like you.'

He glanced around, as though he just didn't bother to notice his surroundings all that much. 'Old man Fogerty left most of it when he sold me the place,' he shrugged, slowly stirring the soup and seeming to keep an overly careful eye on it. 'Didn't seem much point in packing it up or anything. Wasn't hurting anything sitting around.'

If he had meant to tell me just how little he had tried to turn the place into a home, he showed no sign of it. I think that was the moment that I really made up my mind that he'd been... less than happy for the last eight months, and I decided that no matter what he did... I wasn't going to let him drive me off. I wasn't going home without him.

He set the pot off the stove then and fetched a pair of mismatched bowls from above the sink. I had to resist the temptation to urge him to take the lion's share as he carefully divided the soup into equal portions. He stepped around me and swung the side up on a folding table, adjusting the movable support, and settling two straight back chairs so that we would be sitting across from each other.

I took the liberty of bringing the bowls of soup from the counter, not wanting to feel quite so much like a guest, and sat them down. Duo glanced at me, seeming a bit more awkward than he had while cooking, and I wondered if he wasn't anticipating the part where we were actually going to have to talk. He went to get spoons and we sat down, the table so small we almost bumped knees. The cramped feeling wasn't helped when the damn dog tried to crawl under the table to lie down on Duo's feet.

Duo finally seemed to have had enough and blurted out, 'Damn it, Reason! Go lay down!' in an exasperated tone. I suspected from the way the dog was acting, that getting to be in the house was not an everyday occurrence. I started to ask about the odd name, but a moment's reflection gave me several somewhat... unsettling notions, and I opted to leave it alone.

The dog slunk off to lie by the door, managing to look like a pouty child. I couldn't help but chuckle, it was an entirely different picture from the somewhat blood-thirsty mental images I'd had up until then. 'He seems well behaved,' I ventured, not wanting Duo to think I was laughing at him.

'You have to train them pretty well when they're going to out weigh you some day,' he muttered, staring down into his soup so he didn't have to look at me. I didn't have the same problem, and took the opportunity to really study him up close.

I'm not going to say he looked like he was wasting away or anything, but there was definitely a... worn quality to him. I'd bet money he didn't weigh as much as he had, though he hardly looked like skin and bones. Just... like a man who was living on the edge of not having enough.

'God, I've missed you,' I heard myself say, and quickly turned my own attention to my soup. I hadn't really meant to say it... not that it wasn't true, but I wasn't sure if it was something he'd welcome hearing. There was a stillness on the other side of the table from me and I could feel him looking at me, but he didn't answer the comment.

'What kind of dog is he?' I asked after a couple of swallows of soup that tasted... a tiny bit scorched. The animals seemed the safer topic. The one more likely to get Duo to actually talk to me.

'Pyrenees,' he told me, though I'd already seen it on the vet's blog. 'He's not full grown yet. Just a pup still, really; not even a year old.'

Turning around to look at the damn dog, sprawled out in front of the door, I couldn't help saying, 'You've got to be kidding me; he's going to get bigger than that?'

Duo gave out with a dry little sound that might have been meant as amusement. 'Probably; he's not even quite a hundred pounds yet.' he confirmed, and sipped carefully at his soup. I recognized the tricks of stretching a meal to make yourself feel like you ate more than you did. It damn near broke my resolve, but I knew he'd take it badly if I tried to say anything about it. If he'd have left the table for five damn seconds, I'd have poured half my soup into his bowl while he wasn't looking. I felt guilty as hell even eating his food.

'He must eat more than the horse,' I smiled, having food on my mind, and Duo quirked a wry little smile.

'Hardly; Buckshot's been... an education,' he said, eyes still watching his soup more than anything else. 'Reason eats his fair share, but no more than Bo and Nash. There are days...' he let that thought trail off and I let him, not sure I wanted to know.

'Are they... all yours?' I had to ask and it made him snort softly.

'Nope, just my walking white carpet and me, but we somehow seem to have a standing invitation to every stray in the county.'

'Three counties from the sounds of it,' I teased without thinking and I winced when he caught the slip and glanced up at me. I decided to come clean, just to get it out of the way. 'That's how I found you. Your local vet has a blog and she had a picture of a rescued dog she was talking about, and you... were in the background.'

He just sat blinking; trying to process that, and I hoped suddenly that he didn't want to actually look at the thing, because I could only imagine his reaction to being referred to as 'Mr. Tightjeans'. But he was thinking along other lines.

'How in the hell did you find something like that?' he asked, voice incredulous and I had to chuckle.

'Would you believe it was a total accident?' I confessed. 'Sally's niece was using the office printer for a school project on vets. I couldn't believe it... after all these months of searching and hacking and following leads all over the damn country and...' I petered out when I realized that he was blushing fit to catch fire. That might, perhaps, have been a bit more information than I should have imparted.

Or maybe not, damn it. Maybe he needed to know that we'd cared. That we'd hunted for him. That I'd hunted for him.

If we'd been eating something other than soup, I'd have probably stabbed at it in frustration. 'I wouldn't have ever stopped looking,' I told him abruptly, and that pretty much ended the conversation until we'd finished lunch.

I tried to help him clean up, but we were awkward around each other and he finally sent me to sit down in the living room. One of the cats, skittish but curious, crept up to sniff at me. I held out a hand and it ran away.

'Don't mind Gus,' Duo told me, and I looked up to find him standing next to the couch. 'His previous owner had a thing for throwing beer bottles at him. He's a little... jumpy.'

'Ah,' I said, watching the cat watch me from under a chair. It crossed my mind that the cat wasn't the only skittish thing in the room, but I didn't voice the thought.

Duo took a deep breath and sat down on the couch, as far from me as he could get. I think while he'd been rinsing the dishes, he'd gotten resolved to the notion that sooner or later we were going to have to stop dancing around the issue. 'So... what are you doing here, Heero?'

I gave him a wan little smile for the effort of taking the bull by the horns. 'I told you... I'm looking for you. I've been looking for you.' I debating telling him that I'd come to take him home, but decided it was too soon for that.

'Why,' he asked quietly and so many things leaped to mind that I wasn't sure I could say. Because I needed you back. Because you scared me witless. Because there's been a hallow place since you left.

'You are one of us, Duo,' I chided. 'You scared us when you just up and disappeared like that. We still don't really understand what made you run away.'

The look he gave me then made me wonder if my first thoughts wouldn't have been a better option. 'You don't understand?' he asked incredulously. 'What wasn't to understand? My friends were accusing me of... of... some damn terrible things. What was there to stay for?'

'Quatre made a mistake,' I cut in before he could get really wound up. 'But that doesn't mean that all of us...'

'Doesn't it, Heero?' he cut me off, eyes narrowing. 'I didn't see anybody leaping to my defense. Wasn't anybody in that room who wasn't buying into Quatre's little hissy-fit except Trowa.'

'I didn't,' I told him calmly, but I could see he wasn't really willing to hear it. The less skittish cat came and jumped up into Duo's lap, butting its head against Duo's chin until Duo scratched it behind an ear. 'I didn't,' I said again, making it forceful, willing him to believe.

He was quiet a long time, rubbing at the cat's ear. Long enough that the second one crept out, casting side-long glances at me, but joined them anyway.

'Didn't you?' he finally asked, voice deceptively quiet. 'Wufei did. And you never said a damn word Heero.'

I blew out a breath, thinking back through all the months to that night. I'd gone over it in my head a million times. 'I should have,' I confessed. 'I understand that now. At the time, I just thought that the whole damn thing should have been between Trowa and Quatre. The rest of us should have just left.'

'I was at the heart of it,' he told me, his voice flat and cold. 'Quatre saw to it that I could hardly not be.'

'But you weren't,' I reasoned. 'He thought you were... but you weren't.'

'Didn't matter in the end, now did it?' he snorted, his attention seemingly completely on the two cats squirming for equal lap space, but his eyes... were a million miles away. 'He took everything from me with his damn lies.'

'He didn't think he was lying,' I told him gently, not wanting to defend Quatre's actions, but not quite able to accept that word. 'He honestly believed what he was saying. He really thought he saw you two...' I didn't know how to finish, so I just didn't. Not like we both didn't know what we were talking about anyway.

There was another one of those moments of quiet before he said, 'I suppose that's why he was so damn convincing.'

'He was hurting too,' I ventured. 'He handled the whole thing in the worst possible way, but he really was in pain.' I hesitated a moment and then said it anyway. 'He regrets it deeply.'

It made him pause, scratching and rubbing and adjusting cats until they both found a way to lie down that suited them. 'I feel for him,' he said tonelessly. 'I really do.'

I sighed and wanted to rub at my eyes, but didn't. 'I'm not defending him, Duo. I'm just saying that he's not exactly come out of this unaffected...'

'He's not the one who lost his whole damn family,' he growled and it made the jumpy cat look up at him uncertainly. Duo rubbed little circles on the top of its head with a fingertip until it laid back down.

'Duo, you didn't lose us,' I tried to reassure. 'You're the one who left us, not the other way around. We would...'

'Didn't I?' he snapped. 'You tell me how the hell anything was ever going to be the same again? Trowa was like a brother to me, but I never would have been able to so much as send him a Christmas card again without Quatre getting suspicious! Even if Trowa did manage to get through that thick head of his, I was... tainted. What choice did I have but to get out of the way so they could work it out? Quatre means the world to Trowa, but they weren't going to get past that as long as I was around.'

The raised voice made the cats nervous and they jumped down, trotting off toward the bedroom and Duo looked faintly guilty, watching them go. By the door, Reason lifted his head and watched us for a moment, before deciding everything was all right, and lying back down.

I sighed and ran a hand over my face, realizing that he didn't exactly know how things had been after he'd left. I wasn't at all sure if telling him was a good idea or not. 'Duo,' I began as gently as I could. 'Trowa and Quatre... they didn't exactly work things out...'

'What?' he asked, blinking at me and looking totally shocked. It was obviously not something he had ever stopped to consider.

'You under estimated your own importance,' I said softly, somehow feeling that it would soften the blow as well. 'Trowa was... very upset when he realized you'd left because of what happened.'

He just stared at me, and I swear I saw the damn color drain from his face. I'd never really seen somebody so shocked that they went pale. I'd thought it was something only from stories.

And then he blurted, 'I have work to do,' leaped to his feet, and stormed out a back door I hadn't even noticed was there.

Apparently, it had not been a good idea at all.

~~*~~

Work. Yeah... all kinds of work. I had lots to do. All kinds of things. And at that moment I needed to do work with a sharp heavy object. I found myself in the woodpile with my ax, a good sized chunk of tree and the motivation to turn the entire thing into woodchips.

The... anger had surprised me. I couldn't remember if I'd ever felt angry before. I remembered the pain and the betrayal and the hurt... but not so much on the anger.

But when Heero had so carefully told me that... after everything I'd given up... after all I'd done to make sure Trowa was happy... that the fucking assholes hadn't even stayed together? Yeah... anger.

Kind of a lot of it.

The damn tree never stood a chance. It was a big ass hunk of sycamore that had come down over at the Richardson place during the last storm. They'd let me have it for the hauling away and cleaning up part. I'd been hacking at it for months, but I attacked it that day like I was planning on finishing the job that very afternoon.

The dogs know to stay clear when I'm in the woodpile, and thankfully, Heero seemed to get it too.

I chopped and hacked and splintered and probably looked like I'd never seen a piece of cord wood before in my life, because it was more about the working off the temper and less about usable firewood.

Is that... just nuts? That almost a year later, I really got mad for the first time? And... not so much for myself, but for Trowa? Or maybe not. Maybe it was me.

How the hell could they have fucked it up after I made sure they had nothing to fuck it up over? I got out of their way... I capitulated. I folded. I left the table. So how did they manage to not win the pot?

Dealer folds, winner takes all. Winner. Son of a bitch, Winner.

There was a branch with his name on it and I didn't do much more thinking until I'd turned it into those small little pieces that you use to get the fire started in the first place.

As cold as it was, the sweat was running into my eyes, and my shoulders were taking serious umbrage.

I didn't get the thing completely dismembered that day, but I made serious inroads and when I was done... done because I couldn't raise my damn arms any more... I just sat on what was left for long enough that Reason braved the forbidden zone and came to lean against my legs.

I sank my sore hands into his fur and we watched the sun go down together.

The anger was still there underneath the exhaustion and I worried at it a little, trying to understand it. Not flaring so much... just smoldering below the surface, it was a bit easier to think past it.

It was like the rest of the world hadn't been following the same script I'd been given. I'd played my part, but... nobody else had. That was not how I'd intended for things to come out. I was supposed to take the damn bullet and everybody else was supposed to go back to normal. Trowa would have his Quatre, and Quatre wouldn't ever have to deal with me again. They were supposed to be happy. Trowa was not supposed to be alone. Heero was not supposed to be gallivanting all over hell's half acre, wasting his time looking for me.

It made the last eight months sort of... a joke. A big damn joke. One that wasn't really all that funny.

Heero, I suppose, should get points for staying the hell out of my way for as long as he did, but when it started to get dark, he came to stand in the doorway. I could feel him watching me for a while before he finally spoke. 'I don't suppose there's a pizza delivery place around here?' he asked and I imagine he was going for neutral topics.

I snorted. 'And how are you going to call?'

'My cell still has a charge,' he ventured, and it made me chuckle.

'I... really don't know, Heero,' I had to confess. 'There's nothing in town, and Twin Forks is probably too far.'

I swear he sighed, but then he surprised me. 'I... figured out your plumbing system and heated you enough water for a bath.'

'What?' I asked, finally turning to look at him.

'I figured you might want one,' he ventured. 'So I took the... uh... time to haul water from the well and fill the tub. It's not steaming, but it's better than straight out of the well.'

That was for damn sure. I'd done that on more than one occasion when I just couldn't work up the energy to heat that much water. It was a hell of a lot of work just hauling that much in. I couldn't believe I hadn't even noticed him doing it.

'Uh... thanks,' I muttered, and he retreated into the house.

I went around and fed the animals before going inside, knowing I wouldn't want to go back out once I was clean. Reason seemed almost relieved with the return to routine and went to curl in his house for the night when I ordered him to, without any protest.

I had gathered clean clothes and was heading for the bathroom before it hit me that Heero... was planning on staying the night. It stopped me in the middle of my trek toward the tub, and I just looked at him, not sure if I should say something or not.

'I can try to have dinner ready,' he suggested, looking uncertain. 'But I'm not so sure it would be edible. I can't say I've got a lot of experience with a wood burning stove.'

I gave him a tired little smile and didn't tell him that it was pretty hit or miss for me too. 'There's a skill to it,' I confirmed. 'I'll manage something when I'm done.'

'Take your time,' he told me and there was this odd tone to his voice that made me think maybe I'd worried him with the whole wood chopping thing.

He'd said the water wasn't steaming, but he'd done his best and I sank into it with a barely contained groan. It had been a very long damn time since I'd bothered to fill the old claw-foot tub. Baths were usually done with a couple of buckets of cold water, kneeling in the bottom of the tub. I'd forgotten how good it felt to just soak. Especially when I'd abused the crap out of myself, and my arms and back were killing me.

I took the time to unbind my hair, ducking under and giving it a good washing. Nothing quite as uncomfortable as washing your hair in cold water, which is what I usually did, and God knows I probably did a half-assed job in the rush of brain freeze.

And then I just sort of sat and soaked some more, mind totally refusing to stop churning, no matter how much I wished it would.

I still couldn't believe how things had worked out back home. That part just made me want to throw my head back and scream. I very well might have if Heero hadn't been in the house. I wanted Quatre Winner in front of me for just five damn minutes. He's a tough little SOB, but the mood I was in, I had no doubt I could pound him into paste. And right then that sounded like a very fun way to finish off the evening.

But speaking of the evening...

The whole idea that Heero was going to be spending the night was sort of... unsettling. I was already just a little weirded out that he'd obviously been poking around the place enough to have figured out that there was no running water, where the well was, and how one went about heating water for a bath.

Kinda strange to have had him think of that too. Been a long time since I'd had to worry about offending anybody... the boys are really not all that concerned with personal hygiene.

It was kind of... God, I really didn't want to admit it... but it was kind of warming to have him there. To know that he'd been searching for me. That he really had been worried about me.

Until it crossed my mind to wonder what Wufei thought of him being there.

~~*~~

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