Down the Road
God, his head hurt. It was pounding so hard that the sound seemed to fill his ears, and his room. Duo lifted his head from the pillow and squinted. "Ow," he said, quickly re-burying his face in the pillow to shield his eyes from the daylight. He was not entirely sure how or when he had gotten to bed, but once there he had not moved. He smelled of paint, so no doubt he had not bothered to take his clothes off either.
*Bang.* Bang.* Bang.*
There was that pounding again! Was his hangover building a permanent residence in his brain? And what was that ringing he had heard earlier? Like an alarm, it went on and on, finding its way into his sleep and his aching head. Or maybe it had been the phone? Quatre was probably trying to see if he was still alive. Last night part of Duo had not wanted to be, part of him had felt distant and lost. But he had put that pain to good use, smearing it across his barn in vivid reds and blues.
Slowly he sat up, deciding the best thing he could do was take some Tylenol and go downstairs to make coffee.
"Fuck!" Okay, that noise was not coming from inside his head. He got up from the bed and shuffled over to the window. There was a truck in his drive. Shit, who was here? And what time was it? He squinted at the digital clock. "10:30. No way."
Putting his hand to his forehead he stumbled to the bathroom, took a whiz, downed some pills, splashed cold water on his face and then headed downstairs. By the time he got to the kitchen all he wanted to do was sit and put his head on the table, but he heard voices outside. He peeked out the window, and recognized a guy from town, Jim, a nice enough fellow who worked for the highway department. What the hell was he doing here?
Duo opened the door and stepped outside. "Hey, what brings you 'round?" Just as he asked, he noticed another fellow at the front of the house. "Rick's here, too?"
"Uh, Duo..." Jim started to say, but Duo was in motion to see what was happening. Coming around the front of the house, he saw a large wooden sign on posts, hammered into the ground. His heart sank when he read it, "For sale?"
"Duo... we're sorry. Wilke told us to put it up. Didn't know you were thinking of selling the place."
Duo stared dumbfounded and breathless, reading the words again, and wanting to believe this was all a dream. He had feared this day for weeks, but he never gave up hope that a solution would present itself, that his perseverance would pay off.
"Joe put you up to this?" he asked, looking blankly at the two men.
"It's just a job, Duo. Don't take it personally, okay?" Rick said.
Damn that bank was anxious to get their claws into his property. What was next… an eviction notice? Shaking his head and barely containing his anger, Duo brushed past the lackeys and went back into the house. He closed the door behind him and stared at the kitchen. He was being pushed into a corner. His time was running out and even the little that he had, Joe Wilke was not willing to give him.
Gritting his teeth, Duo picked up the phone and dialed the bank. "Let me speak with Joe Wilke."
"One moment please."
Muzak poured into his phone receiver as he waited on hold. God, he hated elevator music. Did he have to be subjected to this as well?
"Mr. Wilke is in a meeting. Can I put you through to his voice mail?"
Duo sighed. "Fine."
"This is Joe Wilke. I'm sorry to have missed your call…"
Duo growled and hit the receiver against the wall, wishing it was Joe's head. "Listen," he said into the phone. "That sign is not staying on my property, you son of a bitch. I've got six hours to come up with the money and that's what I'm going to do, even if I gotta sell my soul to the devil."
He slammed down the phone and stormed back outside, his face hot and his body vibrating with anger. The workers were gone, lucky for them, or he would have given them a piece of his mind, friends or not. He had to get rid of that sign. There were hammers and saws and such in the barn. He would take the sign down piece by piece if necessary.
The inside of the old barn was cast in blue shadow. Even with a swath of sunlight coming through the open door or finding its way through a crack in the siding, there still was not much light to guide his way. Duo made a mental note to buy electrical wire at the hardware store to run a line out from the house. It would help with seeing into the dark recesses of the barn, and on those nights when he could not sleep and wanted to paint. He had to believe that he would be here tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that. This barn and this farm held too much of his life for him to easily pack up and leave. This place was his shelter, his home-- all he had in the world-- and he had shared it with Heero, foolishly he had opened it up to Heero.
With tools in hand, Duo made a straight line for the sign. On its posts it stood a good eight feet high, the painted letters ten inches or more. No doubt, the bank wanted to be sure passing cars could read it. Duo shook with rage, and with all his strength swung the hammer, claw side down, gouging and denting the wooden sign. After several swings the worst of his anger was released and he set about taking the sign down the old-fashioned way—with a saw. In minutes he had cut through the posts and the sign groaned and toppled backward with a snap to lie flat on the grass. He grinned, pleased with his efforts. He would burn the thing in his brush pile later, but right now he needed to shower and get a move on. With any luck he could talk Whippletree Antiques into buying the bedroom furniture.
The cold spray of water on his face and chest eased him. He preferred hot showers, but if he was sticky from a long day of work or roiled in anger then cold was best. The temperature change started on the surface of his skin and seemed to seep through him like rain water through sand. But his core remained untouched, immovable in his anger. Like a red hot coal the anger burned in his belly, making him eager and cocky to face Joe Wilke and the First Bank of Union Grove. But woven into that anger were remnants of something sweeter, something that Duo no longer wished to remember. They were feelings for Heero, feelings that caught him off guard and hit him in the chest, leaving him breathless.
He came out of the shower frustrated with his inability to get his emotions under control, or rather to focus all his energy on the one emotion that fueled his present condition. He opened dresser drawers, leaving them askew as he searched for a clean pair of blue jeans, and a plain, white tee shirt. Once he found them he put them on with jerky movements, nearly toppling over in his attempt to dress quickly. He tucked half the shirt into his jeans and left it at that. He did not care about how he looked today. He was itching for a fight, itching to find a solution and shove it in Wilke's face with glee.
He got into a pair of work boots, but before he headed out the door he thought to ring Quatre. His friend would be anxious for any word of Duo's condition.
"Hey, buddy," Duo said, as Quatre answered the phone at the music shop.
"It's about time you called." There was a hint of amusement in Quatre's voice. Enough to imply that he hoped things were better.
"Yeah, well, my head's pounding… Can gin go bad?"
"Did you drink last night?"
"Yeah, some beer and most of a bottle of Emmy's gin, but my head hurts more than it should. Hey, did you try calling this morning?"
"No, I figured you were sleeping late."
"Hmm..." Duo shrugged. "You gonna be there all day?"
"'Til closing. Say, Duo, I spoke with Trowa last night and---."
"I don't even wanna know. If Bob's sorry that's tough!"
"Bob? Oh, you mean Heero---."
Duo frowned. He did not want to hear that name spoken aloud. It was bad enough that it kept tumbling around inside of him. "Q, was I stupid or what? Getting suckered like that."
"Gosh, I don't know. He seemed nice."
Duo gave a snort. "I don't blame you or anything… I just didn't see it coming. Had I known he was rich I…" He hesitated to finish, because he really did not know how that information would have changed anything. "It doesn't matter now. I got some errands. Maybe I'll swing by later."
"Sure. I'm here if you need to talk."
"Okay," Duo said, smiling. By five o'clock he would either need Quatre's company to console him or to help him celebrate. "Don't work too hard."
Duo took his time getting to the antiques store, not anxious to beg for help. This situation was so unlike the ones he had gotten into as a teenager. Those were most often handled with an apology and being grounded for a few days. Now he was a man, a young one at that, but self-sufficient and able to manage a homestead and acreage. In these parts, lone farmers tended to be older men in their mid-thirties, any older than that and they were married and had some strong sons to help them out. The fact that Duo was so young and on his own gave him a sense of pride, but then he had learned the hard lesson of people's prejudices and how small town talk could ruin you faster than a rattler could strike.
Whippletree Antiques was located on Route 12 at the opposite end of town, so Duo had to drive through Union Grove to get there. He eyed the bank as he drove past, barely refraining from growling when he spotted Joe Wilke's car in the parking lot. The man drove a Lexus--a fucking expensive, top of the line, luxury car. What kind of a car was that to be driving around in a town of 7,500 people? Most people drove pick-up trucks, mini vans, or some variation of a compact car. The way Wilke flaunted his wealth irked Duo to no end. People with money were arrogant bastards as far as he was concerned. One more lesson he had learned the hard way, thanks to Heero Yuy.
Duo had been caught up in Heero and had not cared an iota about the car he was driving or how he was dressed--though he had looked damn good in those tailored clothes. Looking back, maybe he should have cared. If Duo had been paying closer attention, adding it all up, maybe he would have connected the dots and seen that Heero had money, but he would never have guessed about the restaurants. If he had known, would he have played things differently? The farm boy in him said no, that money did not matter, but it might have made him cautious, even suspicious of Heero's intentions. Why would a guy like that care about him? But Heero was out of the picture now. Duo would just have to forget about him and his dark hair, and fiery eyes, and the way he cooked... and made love.
Duo swallowed hard. The memories flooded him and made him ache. He had to remind himself that this was the very reason he did not get involved. Guys lured you in, made you feel all comfortable and safe like, and then found some reason to pull the carpet from under you. Yep, his father had done that to him and his mother, and he had seen plenty of other men screw over people to avoid commitment, and that had made Duo wary.
He pulled into the gravel parking lot at Whippletree and saw a few cars there. It was a good location for a store, since a lot of couples traveling along the interstate were not interested in stopping at Pete's truck stop, other than to fill up their tanks. Instead, they would exit onto the rural route to find a cozier place to eat and on their way into town would stumble past this pole barn turned antiques store. The building's newness gave it a clean, friendly appearance, helped also by the potted flowering plants at the entrance.
Duo took a deep breath before going into the shop, the two Christmas bells over the door chiming him into existence. Jerry looked up from behind the sales counter and smiled.
"Hey, yourself, Jerr. How's it going?"
Jerry nodded to the store. "Not very busy today."
"Is that unusual for a Friday?"
"I do my best business on the weekends… it's still early, I suppose. What brings you in here? Change your mind about Emmy's furniture?"
"No, nothing like that." Duo leaned against the counter and pretended to look around. He was not very good at asking people for help, but what choice did he have? "Actually," he said, looking Jerry in the eyes, "thought you might be interested in a bedroom set or two."
"Cleaning the place out, are you?"
"Well, it's been two years since Emmy died. I think I'm ready for a change." It was not an out-and-out lie, but it helped him warm up to the truth.
"She had a style all her own. Never could figure why some fella didn't snatch her up."
Duo had his own theories, but he did not want to add to the town gossip. "I need $1,500 for a project, and thought---"
"Whew!" Jerry gave a low whistle. "I just gave you $1,100 for the living room and dining set. What on Earth do you need another $1,500 for?"
"It's a long story… suffice it to say that a job I had lined up fell through. So what do you say?"
"I'd like to help you out, but I can't just now."
Duo stared across the counter, not quite comprehending. "Oh, you probably need to see it first."
"No, it's not that. I used the last of my cash to buy your aunt's furniture. I'm tapped out until after next weekend."
That'll be too late, Duo thought.
"I should make a killing at the big antiques market. That eBay has hurt my walk-in traffic, but the antiques show is still thriving."
Duo was barely listening now. Jerry was his last resort. No one else had this kind of cash available, and as it turned out, neither did Jerry. Duo glanced around the store. He saw three people. Maybe traffic was down.
"I could call Ranney's in Iron City. He does a fair trade in bedroom sets."
Iron City was two hours away. Even if Ranney's was interested, he doubted they would drop everything to look at his bedroom set. "Uh, I kind of need the money today."
"Something got you in deep? You didn't gamble it away at the Elgin casino, did you?"
"No, Jerr. I don't gamble."
"That's smart. People get addicted and lose everything. You give me a call after next weekend and we'll talk."
Duo nodded. "Thanks."
He walked out of the store numb to the core. In the parking lot he got in his truck and sat behind the wheel, dazed. What next? "I've got no choice," he said, turning the key to start the engine. He had $1,600 cash in his wallet. He would take what he had and go to the bank. Maybe Joe Wilke would deal for the rest.
+ + +
Fifty miles never seemed farther than today. Normally, Heero loved getting out of the city and exploring rural routes and country roads from behind the wheel of his car, but not today. Today, he wanted to be instantly transported to Duo's house, to that idyllic, peaceful farm along Route 12.
Miraculously, he had shaved twenty-five minutes off the drive time. He had done it by making reckless decisions, blowing through red lights and driving an average of 80 miles per hour on the country highways. He had a purpose, and despite the high speed at which he traveled, he was able to think clearly and plan what he would say to Duo.
He would start with the apology. Yes, that was the way to go. Duo was an artist, a sensitive soul despite the smart-ass façade. Once Duo softened, then Heero could fully explain the error of his ways and seal the contract for the paintings. In the process, they would be in each other's arms again, and with any luck, Duo would take him up those creaky old stairs to his bedroom where they would make love for the entire afternoon and into the night. The image of their naked bodies entwined stirred Heero and he took a deep breath. He had to slow down, and not just because he was coming up to that final curve in the road before he reached Duo's farmstead.
There, around the bend, he saw it. His lips curved into a smile as the barn appeared in his line of vision. A sense of home filled him with relief, and then he recognized that something had changed. He cocked his head, narrowing his eyes. It was the image on the front of the barn. There was definitely something new there. Slowing down and pulling into the driveway, Heero could not take his eyes off the barn. He put the car in park, turned off the engine, and stared in wonderment and disbelief. When had Duo painted this? If it had been earlier in the week when they were still talking, Duo had not bothered to mention it.
Heero got out of the car and had the presence of mind to notice that Duo's truck was not there. He went up to the kitchen door and knocked loudly several times. In the meantime, he could not take his eyes from the barn. The familiar sunbursts and figures were still there, colored in aqua, yellow and orange. But on the left side about midway up, there was something new. It was a heart, he was sure of it, although the shape was loose. Set on a dark blue background filled with tiny sprays of white, stars perhaps, there was a deep, red heart surrounded by sharp angles in gradating shades from red to blue.
Heero stepped off the stairs and walked up to the barn, his mouth agape. Sharp angles… like glass? He swallowed. Yes, broken glass falling away, chipped away from the heart. He took a step back with the realization. Duo's heart was broken? Had Duo come back last night, or this morning, and painted this message in a mad frenzy? Was Heero responsible for the emotion behind the artist's message? It was pure arrogance to think so, but based on their encounter last night and the way Duo had tore out of his restaurant, he could well imagine it was true.
So, now I'm here wanting to apologize and he's nowhere around, Heero thought.
He scanned the farmyard again, but there was no sign of activity. There was a chance that Duo was inside the house watching him, but Duo was a fighter not a coward. If he was home, he would have kicked Heero off his property by now. Undeterred, Heero made up his mind to find Duo. He would pursue him down every country road and in the diners and shops of tiny Union Grove if he had to.
As he walked back to his car his eyes caught sight of two white posts in the front yard. They were new, but what were they? He had not noticed them on the way in, being so focused on the barn. He went over to take a closer look and found a large sign lying on the ground.
FOR SALE: 135 Acres. Contact Joe Wilke at First Bank …
Heero blinked. Duo owned 135 acres? And he was selling it? He looked a little closer at the sign, noting that it had been hacked off at the knees. He was no carpenter, but he knew rage when he saw it. He looked back at the barn, the broken heart, and now this beaten sign. He could not imagine Duo selling this place, not the way he had talked about it. What was going on here?
Not wasting any more time, Heero got in his car and headed toward town. He had no idea how he would find Duo, but how hard could it be? Once he turned onto Main Street he remembered that Quatre worked at the music shop. Yes, Trowa's boyfriend would certainly help him.
In minutes, he found the shop, parking out front. He went inside, hearing a tiny, high toned bell chime above him. There were musical instruments on the walls, everything from guitars to violins to trumpets, and rows of sheet music. The air was cool from the air conditioning, and Heero wondered what it must have been like the day Trowa had stumbled in here and met little blond Quatre.
The chime did the trick. In seconds, Quatre appeared from a back room, his eyes showing a flash of surprise before covering it with a small smile. "Heero."
"I'm the last person you expected, right?"
"Well... yes. What brings you to Union Grove?"
"Duo, of course."
"Of course?" Quatre had crossed the room and was standing in front of him, seeming to appraise him in a way he had not before. Was Heero suddenly worth closer scrutiny?
Heero cleared his throat nervously. "I was at his house and saw the sign… the for sale sign."
"Oh?" Quatre looked surprised.
"Someone sawed it off its posts. Someone who was upset-- like Duo?" He decided not to mention the new artwork on the barn. It had upset him, more than he wanted to admit, and he was not prepared to discuss it with anyone, let alone Duo's best friend. "You mind telling me what's going on?"
"The sign must be new," Quatre said quietly. "It wasn't there yesterday."
"Why would it be there at all?"
Quatre blinked at him, and Heero could see that the young man was hesitant to give him any information.
"Look, I know Duo told you about our fight last night, but I'm here to apologize to him. Do you know where I can find him?"
Now Quatre smiled. "That'd be nice if you apologized, but Duo's really upset. He's got a lot on his mind and I don't know if he'd want to see you."
"A lot on his mind-- like owing the bank money?"
"Yeah, did Trowa tell you that?"
Heero nodded. "Maybe I can help."
"He doesn't want to borrow money from friends. He said that's bad karma."
"How much does he owe?"
Quatre's eyes darted away.
"You're his best friend, and I understand you wanting to protect him, but I need to know."
Quatre nodded. "It's not something he'd admit easily, but it's three thousand dollars."
Heero blew out a breath, stirring his bangs. The amount Duo had requested for the commission was the same amount he owed the bank. But what was pressuring the need for that money?
"He's going to lose his farm, isn't he?"
"I don't know. He said he was behind on the mortgage."
"Enough that the bank would sell the note on his place and put up that For Sale sign."
"God, I hope that's not true."
But Heero now suspected it was true. It all added up. "Where's the bank?"
"It's across the town square from the courthouse. Just two blocks from here."
"Thanks." Heero turned for the door, and just as he was about to leave he looked back at Quatre. "If you see Duo…" He stopped mid-sentence. "Maybe it's best if you don't mention that I'm in town."