Down the Road
He loved the open road, but damn, there was not enough time for long drives in the country anymore. With his restaurants busier and more profitable than ever, Heero found he spent more and more time in them, instead of less, despite hiring the best staff he could find. Perhaps he could not relinquish the control, the need to be in the fray and to occasionally step in front of the flames and cook for his customers. It was his dream, after all, but in the process of obtaining that dream he had lost part of himself, the part that had taken time for reflection and country drives and being a young man.
He had woken this morning from a restless night's sleep. Something was unfinished, undone in him and it was making him jumpy. He showered, dressed and headed to the restaurant early, using the extra time before the staff dribbled in to look over the books and the inventory. By noon there was a line out the door of customers waiting for tables, and by two o'clock the reservations were nearly full for the evening meal. But despite the frenetic energy of the restaurant, the delicious, exotic aromas in the air, and the chatter of the customers and wait staff, Heero could not quiet that nagging feeling he had awoken with. That was when he grabbed his keys and walked out the back door without a word to anyone. He needed time to think, to let the road speak to him from behind the wheel of his black, convertible Mercedes.
He was not entirely sure why he was out here, but this detour would only take a few hours. tops. He could be back in time for the dinner rush. The city quickly faded behind him and in turn the traffic and the noise. His mind wandered to work, to plans for an upcoming business trip, and to that night. Before he was completely aware the built environment had turned to grass and then to crops. He had let his subconscious take him where his conscious mind would not.
I've come this far, he thought, fishing out the folded paper in the glove box. On it Trowa had scribbled Duo's phone number and beneath it Heero had written the address which he had found on the internet-21896 Rural Route 12. He knew the road since he had happened down it in recent weeks, but his online search for directions had merely told him that #21896 was 2.1 miles west of the junction at Highway C.
He had passed that junction some minutes ago and now he began to pay closer attention to his surroundings. There were only a few mailboxes along the road to mark his progress as the farms were large and far between. Some boxes stood weathered by time and road dust, others seemed to hold a more honored place signified by the coat of fresh black paint and flowers planted at the post's base. The numbers were definitely going in the right direction--33434. 30028. and down they went with the passing miles, indicating that Duo most likely lived outside of town.
A highway sign warned him to reduce his speed to 50 miles per hour for the upcoming bend in the road. It was then that things started to click into place. This bend seemed familiar, yes, he had come this far once before. Coming around the curve he saw it-that fantastically colored barn, the one he had photographed weeks before. He smiled.
Then, glancing at the mailbox, oddly plain and dull compared to the barn, he saw the numbers in a blur as he drove past. 21896. He hit the brakes and pulled off to the side of the road several hundred feet beyond the farm's driveway. He looked back in the review mirror, wondering. Had he read the numbers correctly? Instead of double checking he decided to go on. The next mailbox would answer his quandary. Sure enough, a half-mile down the road, at the next farm, the mailbox read: 19080. He swallowed as he felt his heartbeat quicken. That barn, that whimsical work of folk art belonged to Duo? He slowed the car and made a U-turn.
In less than a minute he was pulling into the gravel driveway, his eyes scanning the farm stead. There were no vehicles or stirrings to indicate someone was at home. Now he could park his convertible next to the white farmhouse and stare at that incredible barn. Part of him felt the niggling of trespass urging him to leave, but he could not. His only wish was to sit here and stare, marvel at the way the colorful designs made his eyes drift over the entire structure, seeing the barn as canvass, then farm building, and canvass yet again.
The psychedelic fantasy consumed him until he registered a small figure emerging from the very depths of the art. It was Duo, and by the bright streaks of paint on his overalls, it seemed he was the artist who had captured Heero's imagination, making him definitely worth another look.
Heero eased out of his car, more nervous than he had been in years, and walked toward the young man. Duo saw him, but did not seem to recognize him. Heero watched as Duo brushed brown bangs from his eyes and squinted into the late afternoon sun.
"Can I help you?" Duo's eyes squinted hard. "Oh-- Heero. Couldn't see you there for a sec. If you're looking for Trowa he's spending the weekend with Quatre."
"I was taking a drive."
"And a wrong turn. You're a long ways from home," Duo said and chuckled. "I can give you directions back to the interstate."
Heero stared at the young man covered in sweat, dust and paint. Duo looked incredibly sexy in worn overalls, and the unbuttoned denim shirt that drooped off one shoulder absentmindedly, not to mention the heavy work boots with their laces untied. He was definitely not expecting visitors.
"I think I came to see you."
"You think?" Duo swiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing a drop of yellow paint across his cheek. "Maybe a beer will help clear your head. Always works for me."
Heero watched as Duo ducked inside the farmhouse, the screen door smacking on its hinges behind him. A sense of relief rippled through Heero. Had he actually said that to Duo? What did it mean that he had come to see him? What was he doing here? The questions skittered away as Duo returned with two frosty bottles of beer, and wearing a grin that dimmed the sun.
They sat on the house's steps in the shade of a crab apple tree; Duo strategically placed himself one step up from him. The boy had the musky scent of hard work and Heero's nostrils flared as he inhaled it. He believed this moment to be one of the most perfect in his life. He loved art, his parents had instilled a deep appreciation for it, but he never had a knack for it. Sitting in the cool shade with a brew, a masterful folk piece for his view, and the artist beside him was as near to heaven as he could imagine.
"How long have you been working on it?"
"We've been on this idea for about eight months now."
Heero glanced up at Duo. "We?"
"Yeah, I let my canvas speak to me and this one has a lot to say."
"The barn speaks to you?"
"In a way, but I have to use my gut to hear it."
Heero grinned. He liked the sound of that. "Where did you go to art school?"
Duo snorted. "I wish. Never could afford it. I had a decent art teacher in high school and took an oil painting class at the community college, but other than that I haven't had any formal training."
Heero considered that against the art he had seen exhibited in the city galleries. Duo's was as good. "Have you painted anything else?"
"Sure. I've done lots of houses in town. Just got done painting Mrs. Riley's bathroom in pink."
Heero laughed. "I mean, have you done more art?"
"Nah, there's no time for that. I've got the barn and that's enough for me." Duo slid down a step to sit beside Heero, seeming more comfortable with his visitor now. "What about you? What brings you to Timbuktu on a Sunday?"
Heero looked Duo in the eye, and the boy did not flinch. He was as brash as the night they had met. "You've been on my mind and I wanted to see you again."
"I'm a pebble in your shoe, huh?"
"Hey, I hear it all the time. I annoy the crap out of people. You don't need to apologize for a bad blind date. It happens, man."
"I wasn't going to apologize."
"Okay, fine, but you came a long way not to."
Heero took a deep breath. Maybe Duo was right about coming a long way, and his tendency to annoy, but at this moment Heero was finding Duo particularly charming and funny, and he could not help a smile. "Maybe I should apologize for the way I acted that night. You took me by surprise and I didn't handle it well."
Duo blinked, and his features softened as if in understanding. Or was it simply the changing pattern of leaves as the breezy shadows moved on his face? "Were you surprised in a good way?"
"I didn't want to be there on that stupid blind date, but then there you were. And now you're here." A flash of nervousness seemed to skitter across Duo's eyes as he looked away to the safety of the barn.
"Is it okay that I'm here. now?" He was staring at Duo's profile, waiting him out, wanting him to look in his eyes again.
"Yeah," Duo said quietly, his eyes fixed firmly elsewhere.
They sat without words, listening to their own thoughts and the croaking frogs in a nearby pond. A certain understanding had passed between them, but now the trick was to be sure, to take it that next step and see where the path would lead them. But somehow the risk was acceptable to Heero who knew in his heart the greater risk was to not try. After all, Duo had stayed in his mind these weeks. No one had ever done that to him before.
A low rumbling turned Heero's eyes to Duo's stomach. "That you?"
Duo laughed as he patted his middle. "I skipped lunch today. got caught up in what I was doing."
"Do you mind showing me what you're working on?"
"Sure. Quatre's heard it all before, it'd be nice telling someone else."
Leaving their beer on the steps, Duo led Heero around to the side of the barn, a side unseen from the road. The smell of paint was strong here and the wood siding canvas shown mostly of the deep red it had worn for decades. An elaborate, knotted design of a falcon like bird was outlined in white. Its clawed feet and bald head painted in yellow, hence the messy droplets and streaks on Duo's clothes and face.
"Yeah. My ancestors were Scotch-Irish. This is for them."
"It's a powerful image. I'd like to see it when you're done."
Duo nodded. "Got a ways to go. It's gonna be colorful."
"All your work is colorful."
"Not everyone's a fan. Some of Union Grove's city council call it an eyesore. Too bad for them my farm's not in the town limits." Duo laughed.
There was something exciting and irreverent about the way Duo pushed at the boundaries of society. It made Heero want to forget his tidy little world, and break out of the relentless pursuit of money and perfection. Duo made Heero yearn for a freedom he never realized he lived without.
"You want to stay for supper? I've got fresh veggies in the garden and I'm sure there's pasta or something in the house."
Heero grinned. Now he could show Duo his art. "I'd like that, but let me do the cooking."
"That's right, you're a cook. I'd like to see what you can do," Duo said, leading the way to the vegetable patch.
Heero liked that Duo did not know about his restaurant chain. For once, he was liked just for himself.
+ + +
Duo let the arm full of zucchini and bell peppers fall onto the kitchen counter top. Heero set the tomatoes gently next to them, showing a respect for the soft fruit that Duo found fascinating. Hell, this whole afternoon was fascinating. Out of the blue his blind date from weeks ago, a guy who had for all intents and purposes blown him off, had driven fifty miles to see him. On top of it, Heero claimed that Duo had been on his mind. Shit, maybe Duo had read that final handshake all wrong. That was not a "see ya' loser" handshake, but a "let me think about it" handshake.
Maybe Heero was not the sort of guy who got carried away. He liked to think things out, dip his toes into the water before diving in. No problem. Duo was happy to wade with Heero step-by-step into the deep end.
"Would you like another beer?"
Duo grabbed another cold one, twisted off the cap, and handed it over. "I really need a shower. You mind if I leave you for a bit?"
"Sure. Make myself comfortable, right?"
"Right," Duo said with a smile. Then he looked at the cluttered kitchen table and frowned. The speckled aqua and white laminate table did have a certain charm if you could see it. He so rarely had anyone over besides Quatre that he had gotten slack on picking up after himself. "Let me move this." He gathered the Sunday paper into one large pile and then stuck it in a brown bag for recycle.
"Your kitchen looks straight out of the Sixties."
"This was my aunt's place. She always said, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' So she never updated anything as long as it kept working."
"Very Scottish," Duo said with a chuckle. "I guess that philosophy rubbed off on me. She raised me from the time I was twelve. I should probably get an apartment in town, but I like the elbow room out here."
"I can't see anyone giving up a place like this."
"Yeah," Duo said, softly. He turned and headed out of the room before he got misty-eyed.
Heero did not know, hell, even Quatre was not completely aware of how hard it was for Duo to hang on to this place. He wished staying here was as easy as just wanting it, but the bank had other ideas.
Duo rushed upstairs to the bathroom where he turned on the water for the shower, and then undressed. By the time he was naked and his hair unbound the water was hot and he jumped under the spray with an audible sigh. The layers of dirt and sweat streamed off him and he grabbed the bar of soap and lathered up, making sure to wash quickly and thoroughly. His heart was pounding, and he knew better than to think it was from taking the stairs two at a time.
He needed tonight. He needed Heero to help him forget just for a few hours that he might lose his aunt's beloved farm. Duo had done his best to make the monthly mortgage payments after her death, but in the last year it had gotten increasingly more difficult to come up with the $900 each month, in addition to paying the utilities. It was more than his handyman jobs could support. But right now he chose not to think about his financial troubles. Heero was a dream, and a hell of a lot nicer than Duo remembered. Gone was the aloofness and superiority that had so plagued that night in the city. Whatever barrier there had been between them it now seemed gone or on its way out the door.
In minutes, Duo was drying off and combing out his hair. He walked to his bedroom where he slipped into a pair of faded blue jeans and a light blue striped cotton shirt. It was a little warm for long sleeves, so he folded back the cuffs and pushed up the sleeves. He looked into the mirror and grimaced. Maybe he should just throw on a tee shirt? But Heero was dressed nice enough for Sunday brunch in khaki slacks and an azure pressed dress shirt the color of his eyes. Fuck, those eyes! Heero had the most amazing way of looking at him. It was like a challenge, daring Duo to meet his gaze.
And now that Duo looked more closely at his reflection he saw the streak of yellow on his cheek and temple. He sighed as he retreated to the bathroom and scraped it off with his thumbnail and a little soap.