Beta: Shenlong (Deb)
The North Road
Duo sighed and tapped the screen on his phone to bring up the GPS app again, only to have the screen dim again a second later. The little battery icon in the corner was blinking between yellow and red, showing that the device was nearly drained, and he, in his infinite wisdom, had packed the charger in one of his many boxes rather than putting it where he could find it right away.
His company was opening a new office, and wanting a change, Duo had accepted the offer to transfer. So here he was with all of his worldly possessions stuffed in his little car trying to find the tiny hotel he had planned to stop at for the night, but the GPS wasn’t working properly and thanks to the heavy snow he didn’t have a clue as to where he was now.
“This isn’t going to work,” he grumbled as the phone finally died and he still couldn’t pinpoint where in his journey he actually was. According to his time schedule he should have already reached the town where the hotel was, but he only saw trees and snow. He hadn’t even seen another car for well over an hour.
He had to have made a wrong turn somewhere.
Pulling onto the shoulder he threw on his emergency lights, popped the trunk, then climbed out into the snow. Making his way to the back of his car he rummaged around in the boxes, trying to remember which one he had put the charger in. He usually charged his phone in the kitchen, so theoretically the charger should be in one of the kitchen boxes.
“Yes!” he shouted when he found the charger in his favorite coffee mug. Not bothering to reseal the box he simply shoved everything in well enough to get the trunk closed again before climbing back into the car.
He plugged one end into the USB port and the other to the phone and waited a moment. Nothing happened. It was then he realized he couldn’t hear the heat blowing through the vents anymore.
“No…” he whined in the realization that not only was the car battery dead, but that he currently didn’t have a jump starter. He had loaned it to a colleague two weeks ago and they hadn’t given it back before he left. In the rush to get tings packed for the transfer he had forgotten all about it.
“Shit, shit, shit!” He slammed a hand on the steering wheel.
He had about three hours until sun down and hadn’t seen a car since lunch. He could sit and wait for a car to come by, but with the battery dead there was no heat. The rapidly falling snow would also make it harder for any passing car to see him, especially with his car also being white, and he wasn’t sure how long the car would stay warm inside.
Though he hadn’t seen any other cars, he had seen fences along with cattle and other livestock.
If there were animals, there had to be people around to take care of them.
He sat in the car a while longer then made up his mind. He scribbled a note to let anyone that might find the car know that he had left because of the dead battery, and in which direction he had gone, then tacked it to the steering wheel. He then bundled up again and made sure he had his phone, wallet and keys before venturing back out.
He knew it was safer to stay with the car, but no one would be missing him. He didn’t have any family or anyone he would really call a friend, and he wasn’t due to start at the new office for nearly a month. They wanted to give him plenty of time to settle in before starting.
He couldn’t risk waiting that long for someone to come looking for him.
Sure that he had everything that he needed and could carry without dragging himself down, he climbed out and made sure the door was locked before heading back the way he had come.
He stayed on the road because there were no curves or dips. Even in the snow he would see a car long before there was any chance the driver could hit him.
After what felt like hours of trudging through the snow he hadn't see any cars, but the trees were thinning out and the fences were coming into view.
He walked along the one to his left until he found a locked gate, and though covered with snow he could see tire impressions in the ground.
Ignoring the ‘No Trespassing’ sign, he ducked through the wood and started following the impressions away from the road.
It seemed endless.
As the sun started to set Duo had begun to regret his decision to leave the road. Ahead there was nothing but white as far as he could see. No buildings and none of the cattle he had seen when he had driven by earlier.
Looking back he had gone far enough that he couldn’t see the fence either, but he could see darkness where the trees were and started debating on whether he wanted to try and find shelter in the trees. Though there was a greater risk of becoming lost that way. Or he could keep following the tire tracks before the snow filled them in and he couldn’t see them anymore.
With a deep sigh he fixed his eyes on the tracks and kept moving.
The sun was nearly gone when he finally saw something.
As he got closer he realized it was an outbuilding of some sort. It was too small to be a barn but didn’t look like a storage shed or anything like that.
He jogged up to it and found the wooden door was locked with a large padlock and there were no windows. He yanked the door in frustration then dropped down to sit in the meager shelter of the overhang.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, nor was he aware of the hoof beats approaching, but he certainly didn’t miss it when the man in the hooded parka suddenly appeared carrying a rather large, double barrel shotgun, leading a very large, dark colored horse.
He stood there, shotgun tucked along his side with the muzzle pointed down and seemed to study Duo for a few minutes before calling out to be heard over the wind, “Can’t you read?”
Duo was confused for a moment then remembered the ‘No Trespassing’ sign.
“Sorry,” Duo called back. “Um, my name’s Duo Maxwell, I got stranded on the road when my car battery died. I was looking for help.”
Though his face couldn’t be seen in the shadow of the hood, he could see the man’s head turn to look back the way Duo had come.
He grunted then said with a nod to the left, “Come on, you can warm up at the house and I’ll call someone about your car.”
“Thanks,” Duo said sincerely as he struggled to his feet. He was exhausted and hungry but thankful that his man had somehow managed to show up when he had.
Duo watched as the man slid the shotgun in a holster on the horse’s saddle, then gathered the reins in one hand before starting off without waiting to see if Duo was following.
In the darkness he hadn’t seen it, but off to his left near the trees was a cabin and just before that a large barn where they stopped first so the horse could be tended to. His host was silent as he settled the animal, making sure it was warm and comfortable before continuing on to the house.
His host opened an unlocked door and stepped inside then gestured for Duo to follow.
In the small mud room the man removed his coat and stomped his boots before opening a curtain that kept drafts from the door from reaching the warm kitchen just beyond.
His host didn’t look anything like Duo had expected. Without the parka he stood a good six inches shorter than Duo, and had a lean, wiry build that made him seem almost small in comparison to how Duo had imagined a rancher would look.
With large blue eyes and a smooth, lightly tanned face, he looked quite young, though Duo expected he was older than he appeared.
His dark hair looked messy and damp and the t-shirt and sweat pants gave Duo the impression that he had jumped from the shower to see what a trespasser was doing around his shed.
Duo removed his jacket as well, hanging it on a spare peg then ventured into the bright, warm kitchen, making sure the curtain was fully closed behind him.
The savory aroma of stew and coffee made his empty stomach clench with want but he ignored it for the time being, preferring to look around.
The cabin was small and from what he could see, it had a cozy, homey feel. A large archway in the wall opposite the mud room opened into the living room where an impressive stone fireplace stood.
All off the walls were done in a warm, honey colored wood and the furniture looked old, like it might have belonged to his parents or even his grandparents, but was perfectly in place in the cozy house.
Venturing further he peeked around the arch before following in the direction the other man had gone. His host had moved across the room stopping at a small table that sat beside the front door, and then began leafing through the book resting on top.
Looking around, Duo spotted two doors on the other side of the room. Both were open to receive the warmth of the fire. The one closest to the kitchen was a bathroom which meant the other room was most likely the bedroom.
The man was standing just past the front door dialing a land line phone. He held the handset to his ear, listened and then said, “Yes, this is Heero Yuy out at Wing Zero Ranch. I have a man out here whose car broke down east on the North Road. He said his battery died.” He paused, listening again then turned to Duo and asked, “What kind of car?”
“A white Ford Focus,”
“A white Ford Focus,” he repeated into the phone. “No, he doesn’t seem to be,” he continued before pausing to listen again. “I’ll let him know, thanks.”
Duo sent him an inquiring look.
“Weather permitting someone should be along to check out your car tonight. If they can find it they’ll call back here.” He seemed uncomfortable having company and made an awkward gesture towards the couch, “You can sit and warm up.” He fidgeted for a second, and then disappeared back into the kitchen.
Duo couldn’t help but smile. Although he had put on a tough front out at the shed with that rather intimidating gun, his apparent shyness was actually charming and even a little cute.
But Duo got the impression that his host would not appreciate being thought of as cute.
He sank down into the comfortable sofa and held his chilled hands out to warm them while he waited for Heero to return or for the phone to ring, whichever happened first.
As comfortable as he had become he almost missed the quiet tread of bare feet as Heero slipped behind him to duck into the bedroom. He emerged several minutes later redressed in a dark flannel shirt and blue jeans. He had even put on a pair of sneakers.
“I apologize,” Heero said as he returned “I’m not used to confronting trespassers while dressed in my pajamas.”
Duo chuckled and rose to meet him, “We weren’t properly introduced. I’m Duo Maxwell, trespasser.”
The corner of Heero’s mouth twitched upwards as he shook his hand, “Heero Yuy, pajama clad rancher.” Duo’s smile widened. Heero nodded towards the kitchen, “Come have some stew.”
“Thanks,” Duo replied gratefully. “I’m starved.”
“I already ate,” Heero said as he lifted the lid from a crockpot. “So you’re welcome to as much as you want.”
Taking an offered bowl, Duo filled it then carried over to the small table.
After topping off his coffee Heero joined him.
“So how exactly did you end up on the North Road?” Heero asked.
“I’m guessing it’s a back road?” Duo asked in reply, after Heero nodded he continued. “I was supposed to be on the highway but my GPS wasn’t giving me the proper directions. I’m guessing I made a wrong turn somewhere.”
“It’s not that hard around here, the wireless coverage is almost nonexistent. That’s probably why your GPS wasn’t working, and there are about thirty roads like that one. You were actually pretty lucky to end up on mine and even more lucky that you went south. Although it’s not really much more than an access road for my property, it divides the land for my cattle and helps prevent over grazing in some parts. It also makes it easier to get the winter feed truck to them when they’re on the north side. There’s nothing else north before hitting another access road, other than about 400 acres of empty grazing land and my herd of cattle.”
Duo’s face lit up, “If the tow truck can’t get to my car can you jump it with your truck?”
Heero shook his head, “My ranch hand took it into town this morning and he isn’t expected back until sometime tomorrow.”
Duo deflated a bit and focused on his stew. “This is delicious,” he said after a few bites but Heero just shrugged it off.
“It’s just something I threw together this morning.”
“Well, I think it’s fantastic.”
The faint blush on Heero’s face was nearly missed when he ducked his head and took a sip from his mug.
The phone rang then and Heero shot out of the room to answer it. He returned a few minutes later looking thoughtful.
“The truck can’t get to your car tonight, a truck plowing the main stretch blocked access and with the snow still falling, there’s no way for the tow to get down there.”
“Damn,” Duo muttered.
“You’re welcome to use my phone. Is there someone expecting you tonight?” Heero asked.
“No, there isn’t anyone waiting for me. It’s just I’m transferring for work and pretty much everything I own is sitting out on your access road.”
Heero seemed to mulling over something then said, “You’re welcome to my couch for the night and if you’d like I can saddle up Old Mac and ride out to your car and get you some of your clothing or something.”
Duo smiled at the offer, “That’s very kind of you but you don’t have to go through all that bother. I’ll be fine for one night as long as you don’t mind me sleeping in my shorts.”
The blush was back and it took all the strength Duo had not to laugh at how sweet he found it.
Heero vanished again and returned quickly with an armload of bedding that he dumped on the sofa.
“The days start early around here, especially in winter. I’ll need to get to bed soon, but if you want to take a shower the bathroom is just through there,” he gestured to the door. “And you’re welcome to watch TV if you’d like.
“I’m exhausted,” Duo confessed. “Go on to bed, I’ll probably be asleep the second I lay down.”
The room was still dark but comfortably warm when Duo woke to the sound of Heero puttering around the kitchen. A few minutes later the smell of fresh brewed coffee filled the room and Duo sat up. Peering over the back of the couch he spotted Heero sipping from the same mug he had used the night before as he stood by the sink looking out of the window.
Without a single glance towards Duo, Heero set the mug in the sink and left the room though the curtained off doorway.
The clock said 5:30 am.
It was over an hour later when he returned. By then Duo had showered and tidied up the sofa.
“Good morning Heero,” Duo greeted from the couch and received a true smile in return.
“Good morning, Duo. Would you like some breakfast?”
“Can I help?” Duo asked and Heero looked surprised.
“If that’s what you really want.”
Duo hopped up from the couch and went over to his new friend. “Glad to help, just show me where everything is.”
Together they settled at the table getting to know each other a little better, over toast and bowls of warm oatmeal.
Duo was just telling Heero about his new job when the phone in the living room rang and Heero hurried to answer it. A second later he turned the TV on.
“That was my sister Hilde, she works for the Forestry Services. She told me to check the news,” he explained as he changed the channel, finding the 8 am news.
Joining Heero by the TV, Duo watched the bright red warning feed scroll across the bottom of the screen.
“...WINTER STORM WARNING IN EFFECT FROM 1 PM THIS AFTERNOON TO 6 AM SUNDAY...”
“Sunday is four days away,” Duo said shooting Heero a worried look.
“This Hazardous Weather Outlook is for portions of Central Orefield and Deer County. Snow will move into the area this afternoon, and continue overnight. Expected accumulations of 4 to 6 inches are likely by sunrise.”
The woman on the screen looked down at the paper she had then looked back up at the camera.
“The snow is predicted continue through Saturday evening, before ending after midnight. Additional accumulations of 3 to 5 inches are likely. In all expect close to ten inches of snow before this storm passes.”
“I need to make a call,” Heero said quietly before turning away.
Duo nodded absently, his eyes still fixed on the screen as the warning started from the beginning again.
“Quatre?” Heero said softly into the phone, “Yes I’d like to speak to Trowa.” He paused as he listened for a moment. “Yes I saw the weather… No I want you to stay in town, I can manage here. Yes I’m sure, you don’t need to be out on the road when the storm hits… Okay, I’ll see you in a few days.” He hung up and turned to where Duo was now seated on the couch. “I called Trowa, my ranch hand, and told him to stay in town. I know this isn’t what you want to hear but it looks like you’ll be stuck here for a few more days.”
Duo nodded, figuring as much.
“I need to bring the cattle down from the north so they’ll be easier to tend to when the storm hits.” Heero explained as he started for the kitchen again. “Since Trowa has the truck, I’m going to need to go out there with Old Mac and bring them across the north road. If you want to come with me we can check on your car while we're up there and you can get a few things.”
“Okay,” Duo agreed. “But let me help you out with the animals, at least until your hand can get back here.”
“Dress warm,” Heero said as he started for the back of the house. “I’ll go get the horse ready then come back for you. You can use whatever extra outerwear you can find in the mud room.”
Duo waited just outside the door bundled in a borrowed hat, heavy work gloves that were a little small, and his own coat. The sun was just up, washing the property in a soft blue. The snow was just fluttering in light flurries now but the thick clouds held the promise if the storm yet to come.
He could see Heero appear in the door of the barn leading Old Mac. The huge Draft horse was hitched to a flatbed sled with low, straight sides. It was clear that it was used to transport goods or feed rather than people.
Heero waved him over when he saw Duo standing out back, seeing the signal he jogged over to the man and his horse.
“I ride on Mac when he’s hitched up,” Heero said when Duo got to him. “You can ride up behind me or in the flatbed. It’s your choice.”
After eyeing the height of the horse, Duo took a step closer to the sled. “I’ll go with the sled, thanks.”
Heero seemed to understand and moved around to open the tail gate. Though the side was probably low enough to climb over, the wood was a little slick from the snow so it was safer to go through the back.
Once Duo was in and seated settled towards the front, Heero closed the gate and mounted the horse with a practiced ease.
The horse started to walk and the sled moved smoothly behind him. They didn’t travel far, stopping at the same shed Duo had tried to shelter in the night before.
Climbing down from the horse, Heero moved to the back and asked Duo to stay near the front as he lowered the tail gate again, then went over to the shed and unlocked the large door.
Inside the shed was filled with hay and sacks of feed.
“I’m just going to throw a couple of bales in the sled to encourage the herd to follow us back here since they’re more used to following the truck. Once they’re over I’ll give them a proper feed.”
“I’ll give you a hand,” Duo started to move but Heero waved him off.
“It’s okay,” he said hefting the bale like it was a sack of potatoes and carrying it over to the sled. He set it at the end and pushed it in. As he started over to get another, Duo scooted towards it and pulled it in farther so there was more room for the next one.
Heero added five more before doing up the tail gate, then went back to lock up. Duo settled back where he had been before and soon they were on their way again.
As they moved away from the house the ride in the sled became less pleasant and by the time they reached the gate Duo was more than happy to get out again.
Heero dismounted to unlock the gate, “Which way to your car?” he asked and Duo pointed to the right.
Heero guided the horse through the gate and closed it behind him before climbing back up and taking them down the road. They actually went right past Duo’s car without even seeing it at first. Some thirty feet or so away, Duo saw the black of a tire and called up to Heero.
The narrow road made turning the horse and sled around tricky, but to Duo it was clear Heero had substantial experience and the turn was made without mishap.
A moment later they were pulling to a stop next to Duo’s car.
“You might want to tie something to the mirror to make it more visible,” Heero suggested after Duo had opened the trunk. “The tow truck will be out here right after the storm and plowed up snow might make it even harder to spot.”
“Good idea,” Duo agreed. Pulling a vibrant red t-shirt from his suitcase, he closed it in the top of the driver’s door so it lay flat over the outside of the window. Hopefully it was large enough and high enough off the ground that it would remain visible through the storm.
“If you have any valuables that you’re worried about, there’s more than enough room to bring them.” Heero said after Duo threw his suitcase and a smaller duffle into the sled.
Duo thought about it for a second, then went back to the car and pulled a small cardboard box containing some pictures and mementos from the back seat and added it to the sled as well.
“There,” he said after locking the door. “There’s nothing left in there that I can’t live without.”
After Duo climbed back in Heero looked down the road trying to judge how far the car was from the side road so he could give the tow company a better idea where it actually was should they call back, then did up the tail gate again.
Soon he was up on Old Mac and they were moving once more.
They stopped yet again at the gate and Heero climbed down, then started digging through the large saddle bag.
Duo stood in the sled and called out to him, “Let me help.”
“Okay,” Heero agreed and showed him what to do.
They first unlocked the gates on each side of the road then Heero led Old Mac into the north side and well away from the entrance. When he returned he swung the gate out into the roadway and looped a rope to the end, which was then tied to the fence across the way. The action was repeated with the other gate, making a chute for the cattle to pass from one side to the other without straying down the road.
“Just stay here by the gate,” Heero instructed as he mounted the horse again. “They’re all going to come up at once when they realize I’m here with food. I’ll ride across with Mac and they’ll follow through the chute. I’ll give you a signal with they’re all through and you can close the gate.”
“Got it,” Duo confirmed and moved to the end of the gate where he could slip the loop off to close it when ready.
The snow was thickening as Heero rode off through the other gate and disappeared down an incline. Though the wind was picking up, Duo heard the animals long before he saw them some twenty minutes later.
Old Mac appeared again with Heero safely on his back, and what looked to be well over a hundred shaggy red bovines following along behind trying to make a snack of the hay in the sled.
They obediently walked through the chute into the south acreage, all herded together.
Watching Heero carefully he saw the man raise his arm as a signal and Duo quickly pulled the loop free and closed and locked the gate. Moving across the road he untied the other gate and locked the chain before gathering up the ropes and joining Heero who had ridden back to pick him up.
“About half way to the house we’ll stop and you can dump the bales. The twining is safe for the cattle so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Leaving the tailgate open Duo wedged himself near the front and held on as Heero rode off towards the house, the cattle keeping up and trying to snag bites as they went.
After a while, Old Mac slowed and Heero signaled for him to dump the feed. Bracing, Duo pushed out with his feet and shoved the hay out onto the snow covered ground. Several of the bales broke open on impact and the animals ambled over and started eating.
Scooting down, he pulled the tailgate closed as Old Mac continued back towards the house and his stall in the nice warm barn.
“We need to stop and grab another feed for the cattle before heading back,” Heero informed him as the slowed by the shed. “Don’t bother yourself,” Heero added as Duo hopped out to help.
Duo just smiled and hefted up bale and carried it over as well. The weight of it was shocking, especially after how easy Heero made it look. They had to have weighed a hundred pounds or so each.
He counted around thirty bales in the sled as they moved them from the feed shed to the sled, Heero easily moving most of them as Duo just wasn’t used to carrying so much weight.
The sled was full again and they walked together as Heero led the horse away from the shed and back through the gate a few yards back. They dumped the hay and a protein supplement there before going back.
It didn’t take long for the cattle to show up, and once most of them had appeared the pair started back to the barn where Heero carefully backed the horse up so the sled was parked beside a flatbed cart with large rubber tires that was clearly meant for the same purpose as the sled. Once it was right where Heero wanted it he unhooked the horse before removing the rest of the saddlery and rugging him up.
It was almost 11:30 when they reentered the house carrying Duo’s bags and the box from the back seat. As they set the items on the table they were greeted by a warmth that almost felt too hot after having been out in the cold for the last three and a half hours.
Going back to the mud room they hung up their outerwear, then Heero went to check his answering machine before switching the TV to the weather channel.
The storm warning hadn’t changed for the worse or better.
“The phone lines are down,” Heero informed him when he joined him in the living room. “I’m going to leave my cell plugged in, even though there’s no reception out here most of the time.”
He went into his bedroom then to charge the phone.
Duo glanced over to the console where the TV sat and saw his phone sitting where he had left it when he had plugged it in before going to bed.
“Want some lunch?” Heero asked when he came back and Duo nodded.
So Heero made them a quick lunch of soup and sandwiches and they sat together on the sofa to watch a forensics program.
Just as the hour long show was ending an emergency signal sounded from the TV and the red message began scrolling across the screen again.
As if on cue the wind picked up causing the shutters to rattle and the snow thickened, falling heavier that it had most of the morning.
“Are you going to need to go out to feed the cattle again today?” Duo asked.
“No, but I will need to tend to Mac and the chickens hiding in the barn. The cattle won’t need anything more until tomorrow, but I will need to go out in the morning to make sure their water isn’t frozen over.”
“How do you manage to do all this on your own?”
“My sister and I grew up doing this; it’s like second nature to me. However, I don’t do it on my own all the time; Trowa is usually here to help me.”
They talked for a while longer and as the day progressed they became even more comfortable in each other’s company.
That evening Duo offered to make dinner and the surprise on Heero’s face made him wonder how often someone did nice things for him.
After supper Heero ventured out into the storm to tend to the animals in the barn and when he returned they settled on the sofa to watch a movie.
By the time it was over they were shoulder to shoulder and Duo wanted nothing more than to drop his head on the other man’s shoulder and never move again. But it was late and Heero was an ‘early to bed’ kind of man and gently excused himself for the night.
The next morning Heero had already been out to the barn and back and had started a meal in the slow cooker before Duo had even woken up.
After breakfast they bundled up again, hitched up Old Mac and started off to the pond where the cattle got their water from when in the south acreage. Though it was still snowing heavily, the large horse had no problems carrying them across the land, and much to Heero’s relief, the water was still fluid and didn’t have any ice that need to be broken up.
They took some time riding along the fence, checking for damage as best as they could as they sought out where the herd had settled themselves. Heero visually inspected the animals to make sure they were all okay before they started back to the house. Even without the sled full of feed the herd started following them back to the gate.
Like yesterday they loaded up at the feed shed and fed the cattle near the gate before heading inside and having their own lunch.
They spent another evening together on the sofa, only this time they started out with their sides pressed together.
By the third morning Duo was adapting to Heero’s routine and woke while the other man was still in the shower, so he slipped off the sofa and started the coffee. He was rewarded with the sight of Heero clad in just a towel, moving to his bedroom after the shower.
Before breakfast he joined Heero in the barn as he cleaned up and fed the horse and chickens.
Then they spent the day doing pretty much what they had done the day before, only it was more difficult now as the snow had been falling nonstop for over three days, and was well over a foot deep out on the flat now.
It took them over an hour longer to get out to the pond and another hour using the tools to open it up so the cattle could reach the water. Duo couldn’t imagine Heero doing this all on his own and was beginning to think it was fate that had caused his car to die when and where it had.
Reaching the house after 4 in the afternoon, they were both grateful to have a hot meal already waiting for them.
The 5 o’clock news informed them that weather was expected to get worse as the evening progressed with an estimated accumulation of an additional 6 inches.
“I’m going to bring Mac in early and settle him for the night,” Heero announced, setting his mug on the coffee table. When Duo moved to follow Heero placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Stay and keep warm, I shouldn’t be long.”
“Want me to pick out a movie and make some more coffee?”
“Sounds good,” Heero replied with a smile then left to bring the shaggy horse in from his small sheltered yard.
Duo finished watching the news broadcast before heading to the kitchen to make another pot of coffee.
Sitting back on the sofa with a warm cup in his hand, he surfed channels for a while before setting the cup down to go to the shelf filled with books and movies, searching the titles for something they could watch when Heero got back.
It was only after he selected a title that he realized that Heero had been gone longer than he had been the night before. He only had the patience to wait another 10 minutes before heading out the back in just his coat with the laces of his boots still untied.
The barn door was open and a sliver of golden light could be seen from inside.
“Heero?” he called out after seeing Mac comfortably settled in his stall and several brown and white chickens pecking at corn spilling from a bag with a split along the side that lay near the stall door.
“Here,” Heero replied and Duo turned to see him seated on an upturned bucket with a pinched expression on his face.
“I slipped coming down the ladder to the loft and landed on my feet wrong. I’ve either sprained or broken my ankle.”
“Shit,” Duo whispered in sympathy. “Do you think you could get back to the house if I helped?”
“Yes,” Heero replied so Duo helped him to his feet.
They moved slowly out the door and Heero waited, leaning against the wall while Duo turned off the lights and bolted the door. They took their time closing the distance between the two buildings and by the time they made it to the house they could barely see in the sudden white of the worsening storm.
“Sit here,” Duo instructed when they neared the dining table and Heero sat. Crouching before him, Duo removed the boot from the injured ankle as gently as he could. It was already swelling and close to twice the size it normally was.
“Do you have any bandages, something I can wrap it with?”
“There should be an Ace bandage in the first aid kit under the sink in the bathroom.” Heero replied.
It only took Duo a few moments to fetch it and wrap the support bandage around the swollen appendage. He propped the foot on the other dining chair, and then a bag of peas from the freezer was wrapped in a dish towel and placed on top.
“Rest here for a bit, then I’ll help you to the couch and you can prop it there on the coffee table while we watch the movie,” Duo said after taking Heero’s boots to the mud room, “Unless you would rather just go to bed.”
“No,” Heero replied quickly. “I want to sit with you and watch the movie.”
Warmly snuggled together on the sofa they watched two movies before reluctantly parting for the night. Duo helped Heero to the bedroom, getting his first real view of the comfortable room, dressed in cool, light shades of blue and gray.
“Do you need any more help?” Duo asked after Heero took a seat on the large bed.
“No, and thank you.” Heero replied. “I’ll be fine for the night.”
“Okay, goodnight then,” Duo’s voice sounded a little disappointed as he left the room, closing the door as he went.
The house was dark and eerily quiet when he woke the next day. For the first time Duo found that Heero was still asleep and a moment later he realized why. The power had gone out sometime during the night.
It was barley 6 according to the wall clock in the kitchen; the weather warning said the storm was expected to start breaking down at 6. As Duo used a match to light the burner on the gas stove he felt a pang of sadness at the idea he would be leaving soon.
He started heating the water for coffee then stood near the sink to watch the dawn wash over the land through the window there, just as he has seen Heero do that first morning.
The herd was closer to the south end this morning. Though the snow was still falling he could see the dark shape of the shaggy cattle standing close together to keep warm.
Heero’s door opened just as Duo was pouring the coffee. The smile of greeting he received as Heero hobbled into the kitchen gave Duo another of those sad pangs.
“Are you okay?” Heero asked, apparently seeing something on his face that revealed how he felt.
“Yeah,” Duo replied. “I’m just wondering if the storm will actually end today like the news said.”
“Oh,” Heero said softly and took a sip of the coffee he had poured for himself. They stood together quietly, each lost in their own thoughts as they watched the day grow brighter. The snow was lighter than it had been and continued lighten as the sun rose.
“I need to go out and take care of Mac.”
“I’ll do it,” Duo said, placing his mug in the sink. “You need to keep off that foot as much as you can until a doctor has seen to it. If it’s broken, you don’t want to make it worse.”
Heero had shown him how to care for the horse the second morning, while explaining many of the other aspects of running a ranch, very much in the same way a teacher taught an eager pupil.
He agreed and so Duo bundled up and trudged through the deep snow to the barn where the big horse waited patiently for his breakfast.
It didn’t take him long to lead Old Mac around to the sheltered winter yard where he could eat the meal Heero had prepared for him the night before, then he cleaned out the stall before heading back to the house.
Heero had made oatmeal with the remaining hot water, and set out several oil lamps for light. He had also turned on a battery powered radio, listening for any news that another storm might be brewing. So far all signs showed that they could expect several nice days before another storm front would hit sometime on Friday evening.
“Mac looks happy that the snow is letting up,” Duo commented after joining Heero at the table.
“He’ll be able to go out in his paddock tomorrow if the weather continues improve,” He replied absently.
Duo took a bite of his breakfast, and then was just about to ask if something was bothering him when they heard the sound of a large truck pulling into Heero’s front drive.
Someone was knocking on the door before Heero even managed to hobble out of the kitchen.
“Heero?” A woman’s voice called from outside.
“That’s my sister, Hilde,”he explained as he started to unlock the door. “She probably got someone to drive her up here in one of the Forestry Service’s plows.”
Sure enough, Duo spotted the huge, green Forestry Service plow sitting rumbling at the end of the drive just before the petite woman pushed her way inside and shut the door. There was a bit of a family resemblance. They both had blue eyes and messy dark hair.
“I saw Trowa in town this morning and he told me you had spent the storm out here alone. I’ve been calling all morning!”
“The phone’s out,” Heero said, then added, “and I’m fine, and I wasn’t alone. Duo has been with me though the entire storm.”
“Duo?” she asked as she spotted the stranger standing in her brother’s living room.
“Duo Maxwell,” he offered her his hand and the woman eyed him in confusion right before her eyes lit up and she snapped her fingers before pointing at him. “You own the Ford Focus Treize’s crew hauled in to town this morning, the one with the shirt in the door?”
“Yeah, that’s my car.”
“Funny, Treize didn’t say anything about you staying here with Heero.”
“I didn’t talk to him when I called it in,” Heero interjected. “I talked to Dorothy and she doesn’t work on Sunday.”
Hilde nodded in understanding, “Well Mister Maxwell, if you want a lift into town you’re more than welcome to come with me.”
“Heero hurt his ankle in the barn last night; he really should have it seen to.”
Hilde gave her brother the stink eye, “Get your boots and get in the truck.” He opened his mouth but she pointed to the kitchen and he limped away without a word. “He never would have told me,” she confided in Duo. “He hates hospitals.”
“Let me grab my bags,” Duo said turning away get them from where they sat in the corner of the living room.
“Let me help,” she said when she saw that he had three and offered to carry the box for him. He accepted, and since he was already wearing his boots they went right out to put them in the truck.
“Wufei, Heero’s coming into town with us. Can you stay here and keep an eye on things until Trowa gets here?
“Of course,” the dark haired man in the driver’s seat replied before grabbing his coat and climbing out.
By the time the three of them returned to the house, Heero was ready to go.
“Wufei is going to stay here until Trowa gets back.” Hilde informed him as she helped him out to the truck. “I’ll pick him up when I bring you back later.”
Heero sat quietly between Duo and his sister in the cab as the pair talked over him. It took almost an hour to reach town and Hilde drove the truck to the garage where Duo’s car was. She helped him with his things again.
“Thanks for taking care of Heero last night.”
“It was the least I could do after all he did for me.” Duo replied.
She smiled and clapped his shoulder before climbing back into the truck and driving away.
He didn’t get the chance to say a proper goodbye to Heero.
“You own the Ford Focus?” A tall man with auburn hair asked.
“Yeah, thank you for bringing it in for me.”
“No problem. Everything else looks fine so far. If you could give me your keys we can give it a good look over and see if anything needs to be repaired. There are no other cars needing work this morning so it shouldn’t take too long if you want to wait here. If not there’s a restaurant just down the block. You can go get a meal and then come back later.”
“I think I’ll stay,” Duo replied and the man, who introduced himself as Treize, led him to a waiting area with a TV and a few vending machines.
Treize returned a while later, informing him that they only needed to replace the battery because the old one was completely dead.
The bill was settled and less than an hour after arriving in town Duo was on the road again. He had gotten directions from Treize and was finally on the proper highway.
Around 1pm he spotted the small hotel he had planned on staying at when he had gotten lost, but drove right past it. He just wanted to get home. The roads were already pretty clear and if he just kept going he should reach his destination in about six hours.
But as he neared the city the cars became more numerous, everything got louder and his progress slowed to a crawl. It was well after 10 when he finally made it to his new apartment.
It was located in a monstrous, steel gray and glass apartment building that looked more like an office than a home, and everything in the one bedroom was sharp lines and stainless steel.
He hated it.
“I’ll get a few more checks in the bank and move the moment I can,” he told himself after he had a good look around. Too tired to do much more than turn on the heat, he climbed into the bed that was designed more for style than comfort, and fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
He woke at half past 5 wondering why he was so cold, and remembered where he was.
The pang hit him again.
“Damn it,” he cursed throwing the blanket off and going over to the only bag he had brought up from the car. He took out his phone and unlocked it with the intent of calling Heero, only to realize he didn’t have his number.
“Damn it!” he cursed again.
Forgoing the shower, he ran a brush though his hair and threw on some clothes before grabbing his keys and phone. He rode the elevator back down to the parking area and got in his car.
Luck was with him and he missed most of the morning commute traffic making a distance that had taken 11 hours the day before take only 8 hours today. He made it back to the town of Deer Creek just after 2 in the afternoon.
He made one wrong turn trying to find the road that led to the front of Heero’s property, but recognized a landmark when he turned around.
It was almost 4 when he pulled in beside a heavy-duty, rust colored pickup truck that sat in the driveway.
Taking a deep breath he walked up the freshly shoveled and salted path and knocked on the door.
It opened a moment later and Heero was there, surprise clearly written on his face.
“I never got to say goodbye and I realized that I never want to,” Duo blurted and Heero smiled softly.
Gently he took Duo’s hand and led him inside, then closed the door.