Solitude in White
The generator maintenance took very little time. Almost daily I found myself out in the shed, priming the old Honda Gen 2.4, and obsessively checking it's diesel supply. The first month I'd stayed there, a tornado-like wind blew through the county, ripping out power lines, and plunging most of the area in the dark. I'd been without electricity for three days because I didn't make sure the generator tank and its backup, was filled.
Stopping to stuff snow into the plastic bag I'd pulled from my pocket, I watched the sky darken. The temperature had dropped again, and the wind was picking up. I wondered about making a fire, and went to the wood lot for an armload of logs. There should be enough off the back porch to burn tonight, dry and ready, but proficiency called for the precaution. On the back porch, I stacked the logs, and brushed the snow and dirt from my coat, noticing the washer had finished its last cycle.
An armload of logs, the bag of snow, a couple of wrapped, frozen chicken breast and I made our way into the kitchen. I'd left my boots and coat on the porch, and grimaced when my sock clad foot stepped on a clump of snow. Scowling in annoyance, I tossed the chicken and snow on the butcher-block. A low strain of music wafted across the room, and I looked up surprised. Duo was playing one of my Straus CDs.
The kitchen, dining room and living area was in actuality one large room, divided only by its usual accompanied furnishings. The butcher block separated the kitchen from the dining room, just as the couch separated the dining room from the living space. I could see Duo's towel turbaned head over the top of the couch; he appeared to be reading.
Careful to not track dirt across the floor, I padded around the table to the fireplace. Duo looked over at me smiling. I nodded in return, and set about making a fire. The mechanics of fire building was another one of those long forgotten techniques I'd learned young, and only discovered again while staying at the farmhouse. The thought hovered that maybe the man I was supposed to be was someone who knew the forgotten lessons from my training. I shook it off, and struck the match.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think Winner set all this up for me to take that vacation he's been threatening me with for months."
I looked over my shoulder to see Duo grinning affably. The book he'd been reading he held loosely in one hand and a finger of the other glided over his brow.
"Do they bother you?" I nodded my chin toward his head.
He lowered his hand and flushed lightly. "Not really. It's a bit painful, but nothing I can't handle." He shrugged. "It just feels strange. I've never needed stitches before."
"I'll put some salve on it. It has some numbing properties." I frowned at him and added, "You should try to keep from touching it. Though your hands might appear clean, you could infect the sutures." I stood, and watched the flames catch and burn over the kindling and small wood pieces. Certain the fire wouldn't die while I was gone, I went to my room to change socks and put on my moccasins.
A moc in one hand, it dawned on me I hadn't supplied Duo with either socks or shoe-wear of any sort. Giving into a growl of annoyance, I shoved my foot inside and reopened my drawer. A stop in the bathroom to wash and less than a minute later, I sat on the couch by his side, not saying a word. He looked with surprise at the socks and my old pair of moccasins, but gave me a grin showing his appreciation.
"I brought the salve," I said, holding the small blue jar. He nodded and sat forward, presenting his injured eye to me. "It shouldn't sting, but let me know if it does." I'd opened the jar, and used one of the cotton swabs. Just before I started to apply it, I hesitated and drew back. "You're not allergic to anything are you? Witch hazel? Chickweed? Aloe? Thyme? Lavender? Comfy?"
Duo blinked several times and looked from the jar to my face. "You an herbalist, Heero?"
A derisive snort made its way out before I could stop it. "Not especially. But there are some natural remedies which work better than modern medicine." I held up the jar. "This being one of them. It's a salve a friend of mine makes, but it has several properties to reduce pain, generate skin growth, and prevent infection. It's not a miracle cure, and will only work correctly if you're not allergic to anything it contains."
"Well, if I'm allergic, I'm not aware of it. So, do your best, Heero Yuy. I've trusted you this far." He grinned and turned his eye to me again.
I grunted and touched the swab to his broken eyebrow gently, watching his reaction. Other than a slight jump on the first touch, he held still and seemed to lean into my ministrations. "I used smaller stitches closer together to minimize scarring. Keep it clean and dry, and apply aloe or vitamin E oil to keep the skin supple."
"Not sure if I'd care if it scarred." His breath blew softly over my wrist. "Might add to a more roguish look, eh, Heero?" Though my eyes never moved from my task, I could tell he was grinning again.
"If you say so. I'm more in the habit of preventing them, if I can help it." I finished dabbing the salve, and was satisfied to note that last stitch hadn't been needed. I shifted my gaze to discover Duo had been watching. Feeling the heat climb up my neck, I froze. He was so close. Bare inches separated us.
"You..." he whispered. Clearing his throat, he leaned back slightly. "Thank you, Heero." His eyes never left mine, but with the added distance he created, I felt I could breath easier.
The moment passed, and I stood screwing the lid back on the jar. "I'll go start dinner now," I said, my voice wooden to my own ears. I hadn't taken two steps when Duo called me back.
"Hey, I hate to keep imposing on ya like this, but do you have a brush I can use? I need to do something with this mop before it dries completely." I turned around. He wasn't looking at me but rather his hands as they held the book.
"I have a comb, no brush. Will that work?"
He glanced up and grinned. "Yeah, sure man. Thanks a lot, Heero. I really do appreciate it."
I returned the jar to its place, and picked up my comb. It was my comb. Duo needed to use something, but it was mine. I didn't have a spare. I stared at the teeth, even and smooth, not one out of place, not one hair caught in it. I wondered at what its condition would be like after Duo used it on all that hair.
"It's only a comb," I whispered to myself. The familiar loathing swirled when the stinging began; I was losing it again. Closing my eyes, I fought the tears harboring beneath my lids and forced the hand holding the comb to terminate its trembling. "It's only a comb," I whispered louder, careful to not let my voice carry beyond the bathroom walls. "Letting another use it will not mean you have lost anything." Only when I felt the comfortable bands of my control slip back into place did I return to the living room.
Duo had taken his hair out of the towel, and pulled it over his shoulder. It looked as if he was attempting to finger some of the tangles out and he accepted the comb gratefully. "Hey, thanks again, pal. I can't tell you what a relief it will be to get the mess done." I only nodded and left for the kitchen.
It took me a moment to remember what the bag of melting snow was for, and I felt a flash of annoyance. Holding it over the sink, I drained the water out and resealed the bag before wrapping it in an old hand towel. I stopped behind the couch, and asked quietly as the auto-racer struggled with his hair, "Is your knee swollen at all? Does it still bother you?"
He looked at me through clumps hanging in his face. "Uh, it still hurts, but don't think it's swollen. Why? Got something for it?"
I held up the towel wrapped bag. "An ice pack." I lifted the afghan at his knee, and examined it through the sweats. "It doesn't appear to be swollen, and if it doesn't hurt, then you probably won't need this."
"Ah, go ahead and put it on. I'll check it when I finish combing, and see if it's irritating the skin." I placed the pack carefully, and pulled the afghan back over his leg.
Back in the kitchen, I'd set the chicken on the stove to simmer in a light broth, deciding to make a simple chicken and rice dish. I'd already pulled out a bag of the garden vegetables I'd froze the previous fall and was in the middle of rummaging through the home canned fruits when I heard Duo call my name. I rose from my crouch and headed in his direction.
His eyes lifted from the two Kerr jars of fruit I held, and I could see the amused twinkle in them. "Need more peaches?" I glared at him.
"I'm trying to decide which one will go best with dinner," I replied stiffly.
He looked between the two again and shrugged. "It's fruit, buddy. Either will. If you want to know what I'd prefer, I'd say the peaches. Pears are okay, but the texture grates in my mouth, ya'no?" He flashed a grin.
Looking between the two jars, I thought he might be right. I'd never thought of the texture of pears before, but they did feel grainy against the tongue. I rolled it over in my head, wondering how I could have not noticed something like that. When the phone lines were restored, I was going to research why pears felt the way they did, and what to do to make them less abrasive. Peaches for dinner, that was a given.
I had turned back to the kitchen when I remembered Duo had called me for something. Looking back at him, I asked eyebrows drawn low, "Did you need something?"
His lips twitched, like he was trying to keep from grinning - again. "Well, yeah." He held up the end of his braid and waved it in the air. "It won't stay in the plait long without something to hold it, and my elastic broke. You wouldn't happen to have something to tie it off with? Or a rubber band or something, would ya?"
My eyes tracked the tassel of his braid, and I nodded. "I'll find something," I mumbled and set both jars on the butcher block. I knew without checking the chicken would be fine, and the rice was simmering nicely; another five minutes and I could set the broccoli mix in the steamer. Opening the back door, I stepped out onto the porch.
The cold took my breath away. With the heater, stove and fireplace going, the house had warmed up quite a bit. The thought of Duo coming through here to the other bedroom caused a brief pother before I shook it off. Entering the third bedroom, I went directly to the sewing supplies kept in the closet. Though I hadn't been in every drawer of the house, I was fairly certain there weren't any rubber bands and so far, I hadn't come across anything resembling an elastic hair tie. But I did search the bedrooms, and knew in the sewing basket several spools of ribbon of various colors and sizes were kept. I took out the two thinnest types in more or less neutral colors and cut off a length of each. I hoped it would work. I guess if Duo didn't like it, I could go out to the barn and cut a piece of garden twine.
Duo chose the brown ribbon, but held onto the green one. "I'll use it as a bookmark. Then if anything happens to this one, I'll have a spare close-by." When he smiled at me, I smiled back at him. I think I'd discovered the difference between his genuine smiles and the ones given out of habit. I'd decided to return only his sincere ones, and hoped he would make them all sincere.
Lost in thought, I didn't realize Duo had finished tying off his hair and was watching me. When he caught my eye, he gave me another smile. This one was different; the sadness about his lips reflected in his eyes. I wondered at that for a moment only and headed back to the kitchen in time to save the chicken from burning.
I'd set the table for the both of us and was putting dinner in their serving dishes when the light went out, causing Duo to gave a startled yelp. Two oil lamps on the mantle were lit and I brought one over to the coffee table to set near Duo. "I'll go start the generator and the lights will be back on in a few minutes," I told him quietly.
"Don't get lost out there. I can hear the wind blowing, so you know the snow's pretty thick."
"I'll use the guy line, don't worry." And then wondered why I felt I had to reassure him. Shaking it off, I picked up the heavy-duty flashlight on my way out the back door.
~ "Have you ever been afraid of the dark, Agent Yuy?"
"I don't think so."
"You… you're a strong man. I can't imagine you being afraid of anything. Do you fear, Agent Yuy?"
"No, it's okay… I'll be alright."
"You don't have to cry, Miss Relena. I won't let them hurt you."
"I know… I know. But I'm still afraid, Agent Yuy. Would you… could you… hold me? I know you don't… Thank you."
"Hush now, Miss Relena. It will be okay. Everything will be all right. Try to sleep. I'll be here." ~
The night was dark and cold. Though I'd bundled in everything known to man to keep warm, the bitter wind still found a way to sneak inside and I was shivering before I'd even reached the shed. Having primed the generator a few hours before, I thought only of pushing the ignition button and going back to the warmth of the house. It didn't start.
Depressing the start button again, I heard a faint clicking sound and the motor still didn't catch. I gave brief thought as to why I'd bothered getting out of bed; the day hadn't been the best and wouldn't have been missed. The flashlight didn't reveal anything on the surface that could be causing the problem. To pull the access panel from the generator, I had to remove a glove; so deep was the cold, my fingers were instantly stiff and clumsy. For several long minutes, I stared into the guts of the motor, tracing the fuel and electrical lines with the flashlight. Nothing claimed responsibility. I should have known better; it was too dark, and I didn't have the schematics to properly diagnose the cause.
I replaced the panel, and pulled on my glove, making a note to check my fingers back at the house - the pads had lost feeling. My scarf unwrapped itself while I'd been examining the generator, and I wound it round again, tucking it into my collar. At no time had the wind died, and its howling through the shed's eves continued to send shivers down my spine.
Duo was standing by the kitchen door waiting for me with a warmed blanket. My fingers were too numb to hold it closed. Instead, I leaned up against the wall next to the stove, and let the heat seep in, thawing parts of me I hadn't realized were frozen. A slight ringing and the sloshing sound of blood thrumming in my ears kept me from hearing Duo speak; I could see his mouth move.
"What?" I asked, barely hearing my own muffled voice. Seeing Duo draw back wincing, I realized I must have been too loud. It took a moment, but two things dawned on me at the same time; Duo was standing very close to me, rubbing my arms, and I could hear him repeating the same thing.
"Of all the idiotic things! Going out in this cold. Snow blowing like a blizzard... just to turn on a light? Damn fool... should have left you on the porch." I blinked at him in confusion.
"You were reading," I think I mumbled. My brain must have frozen from staying in the shed too long.
He looked up at me, hands stilled on my arms. "Heero? You okay?"
My fingers and toes started to hurt, and I could feel traces of a headache beginning. But I nodded. I would exam myself later for signs of exposure. Duo didn't need to be concern. "Dinner's ready. We should eat."
"Ah, o-okay," he took a step back, off-setting the balance of his bad leg by holding onto the countertop. "You gonna tell me what happened? Why the lights aren't on?"
I'd shuffled around him, clutching the corners of the blanket to my chest and had reached for one of the plates. "Generator won't start."
"What's wrong with it? Do you know?" I could hear him behind me, the scuff-step walk of a half limp and glared at him over my shoulder.
"Stop walking without support. You'll over-exert your knee."
He jerked back in surprise. "What's that got to do with the price of oranges in China?"
"What?" He'd totally confused me.
"We were talking about the generator not working. About the fact it's going to be pretty fucking cold in here before morning, you turning yourself into a God damned Bomb pop, and you're muttering shit about dinner and my knee? You have got to get your priorities together, buddy." Duo's voice sounded angry.
Letting the blanket slide to the floor, I rubbed my forehead, fingers digging into the furrowing skin. The sharp pain precluding a migraine lanced through my head, making me draw a quick breath. It'd been too cold out there, and I'd been exposed too long.
"Here," Duo said softly, wrapping the blanket around my shoulders again. "Let me help get these plates to the table, and we'll eat. Then you can tell me what happened, okay?" His hand rested lightly on my back. He felt so warm.
I dropped my hand to see his face, watch his eyes. He stood so close, and, for the first time, straight without my help. I noticed he wasn't as short as I'd thought; I maybe had two inches on him, his nose was in alignment with my mouth. One of those wild, random thoughts I rarely had flitted through my mind, and I wondered how warm his nose was, suddenly filled with the desire to touch it.
As though he could hear my thoughts, Duo flushed and dropped his eyes. I swallowed hard and whispered, "Dinner's getting cold."
Without moving, he responded, "Yeah, we... we should go eat."
"I think the ignition coil is broke."
He laughed that deep rich laugh and met my gaze again. "You are really something, Heero Yuy." And his smile warmed me.
"Let me help you to the table, and I'll bring our plates." I'd regained the unraveling weave of control, and put another inch or two between us. Giving in, Duo allowed me to support him as he walked to the table.
It wasn't until dinner was half finished before I noticed all the lights. Looking around the room, I realized Duo must have collected all the oil lamps thorough out the house, lit and spaced them where they'd be needed the most. It must have taken some time, with his knee as bad as it was. I wondered why he bothered.
"Oh, so you can smile spontaneously!" I glanced his way to see he was grinning at me, and surprised myself by smiling again.
"Thank you for bringing out the lamps. They make it nice in here."
"Well, you were gone for so long, I thought I was going to have to go look for you. Besides, down in the Caroline's, we may not have the cold and snow, but we have hurricanes about every two years. Hurricane lamps I am very familiar with and they are close cousins to your oil lamps." He was grinning again, his fork poised half-way to his mouth.
Another one of those random thoughts flitted. "Are you a Southerner then?"
He shook his head, chewing and swallowing. "Not really. I spent some of my formative years in the South though, and live there now because the best of the best on the circuit are there. Racing almost year round, that's what I'm talking about."
"Oh, that's right." I'd forgotten he was a pro. I think I'd seen him race on some set while on duty, once, but I couldn't remember exactly. "Nascar?"
"Damn right. Fastest cars and hottest action can only be found at Nascar."
I chewed slowly watching his face. His expressions had become animated and his whole body seem to radiate an energetic glow. Bringing my attention around with a start, I discovered he was waiting for me to answer a question, and I hadn't been listening, only watching him. Panic hovered and I leaned back, uncertain of what to say.
Duo leaned forward, his expression showing concern. "It's okay, buddy, really. If you don't want to come down sometime and stay, I understand. There'll be other races."
The pounding in my heart slowed. I'd misread his intention. Seeing the disappointed look, I blurted, "I'd like to come." He chuckled at my sudden enthusiasm. "I've never seen you race, at least, I don't think I have." He gave me an odd look, his head tilted slightly. "I-I've followed some of the racing news, but haven't had the time to watch or attend a race in many years. Not since... since Earnhart."
A flat look came into his eyes and he turned back to his food. "That long, huh? Well, nothing much has changed. ‘Cept maybe the cars are faster and the regulations a little stricter."
We ate in silence for several minutes; I thought I'd somehow insulted him and didn't know what to say. Duo kept his head low, his eyes on his food and other than the sound of a fork or knife scrapping against a plate, only the logs popping sap in the fireplace could be heard.
Though normally I reveled in silence - it was my bread and butter, I felt desperate to say something, to break the uneasy quiet between us. Grasping for any straw of knowledge I could, I asked a little too loudly, "Who's Winner?"
He paused mid-chew and raised his eyes to look at me. Swallowing, and leaning back in his chair, he asked, "Winner? Do you mean, Quatre Winner? Or winner of a race?"
I thought back to the scant reference. "I believe you were referring to a person. Someone you thought might have set up your accident so you'd take a vacation."
"That would be Quatre then." He chuckled, the flat look no longer present. "Quate, well, it's rather complicated, see." I waited without saying anything, listening to him. "We sort of grew up together... he's kind of like my brother, only now, he sponsors my car." I nodded, hoping to hear more. "He's from Old Money, ya'no. His greats a few greats ago fought in The War, and that's how they refer to it too, in his family. Capital letters and all. Not Quat though. He's as down to Earth as they come, generous and kind to a fault, but ruthless and sharp in business dealings." Duo gave another of his laughs, his eyes twinkling in the lamplight. "Some of his family actually call him "The Yankee" because he doesn't mess around. Quatre's cool, man, and I'll introduce you to him when you come down for a visit."
"He sounds like it." My response was automatic, knowing one was needed but not sure how to keep him talking. Chasing a piece of broccoli around my plate, it clicked. "You don't mean Quatre R. Winner? Of Winner EIC?" At his nod, I suddenly felt faint and would have slipped from my chair had my hand not been gripping the table so tight.
"Heero? Hey Heero, you okay, man?" Duo's face swam before me, and the lights flowed in zigzag patterns around the room.
~"Really, Agent Yuy, it'll be fun. Come on and join us at the pool!"
"No thank you, Miss Relena. I prefer to stay right here."
"But what if I start to drown? Who's going to save me?"
"You can swim more than adequately, Miss Relena. And if you have any difficulties, I have been assured Mr. Winner is very capable of saving you."
"Agent Yuy, you take all the fun out of a vacation. What if I want you to be there? What if I want you to save me?"
"Miss Relena, I am your Security Officer. Protocol requires I maintain professionalism at all times while on duty. I will always be on duty in your presence. I apologize it cannot be any other way."
"Are you... Never mind, Agent Yuy. I-I'm sorry I've been such a trial to you. I'll try to stay professional as well."
"Thank you, Miss Relena."
"You are coming with us to the islands tomorrow, aren't you, Agent Yuy? Quatre's going to have an old fashion clam bake and there will be a dance later. You will dance with me again, won't you?"
"My presence will be necessary tomorrow as part of the security detail. A dance would be distractive. But... ask me again after it starts..." ~
I opened my eyes to see Duo staring wide-eyed into my face. He stood braced against the table, both hands on my shoulders shaking me. For a moment, my control crashed and I was horrified to feel the tears start. I pulled away from him abruptly and jumped up from my seat. "I need to get more wood," I nearly shouted, hurrying out the kitchen door.
The porch was utterly black and bitterly cold. The tears instantly froze on my face and the air I sucked into my lungs burned liquid fire. I wiped at my cheeks with a shaky hand and stumbled forward to the stacked logs. The door opened behind me, and a shaft of light shone a little too bright.
"Heero, I can give you a moment if you want, but I really think you should come back inside. It's too cold out here."
Drawing in a deep breath, coughing with its burn, I shook my head, not caring if he could see the movement. "It's all right. I'll come back inside now." I turned and shuffled toward the light, not daring to look at him.
He closed the door behind us as I stepped through, and we stood side by side, close without touching. I could feel his eyes on me but mine never left the floor. "It looks like we both have a few demons to fight." His tone was soothing, relaxed, and I let his words wash over me, let them drain the pain the memory caused.
"A few demons, yes."
"Heero," his voice was soft, deep and I felt a hand on my arm. "I know you don't know me well, but if you need to talk... maybe I can help?"
I pulled myself together staggeringly - a drunk enacting pretense on too little sleep. "I... there's nothing wrong." I pushed away from the door and willed my feet to work correctly. "You should go rest your knee while I clean up. It will only take a few minutes, then I can get some ointment to ease some of the stiffness out of its ligaments." I think I'd started rambling, but I'd entered the dance and couldn't stop.
Stacking plates, bowls and half-filled glasses on top one another, I carried them to the sink and began to fill it. A soapy rag and a few vigorous rubs later, the table was spotless, the counters clean and the stove as if nothing had been cooked on it. Up to my elbows in sudsy water, I felt his presence.
"Let me help," he extended.
The shuddering wouldn't stop and I gripped the sink ledge, closing my eyes. "I can't," I whispered.
"You don't have to say anything. You don't have to tell me anything, but let me be here. All right? I'll wash dishes, or dry them... just let me be here."
He was close. I could feel the warmth of him, smell my shampoo in his hair, the smoke from the fire and a hint of garlic from the chicken. Without opening my eyes, I leaned into his warmth. Our shoulders touched, supporting one another, and I let the anxiety pass. The tension eased away and I felt warm, if only a small amount. Inhaling deeply, I pulled my hands from the water, and grabbed the towel on the drain.
"You wash, I'll dry. You really should be off that knee."
Brushing his shoulder into mine, he snickered, "Fine, then, you can carry me back to the couch when we're done."
"Deal." He shot me a startled look, but I was already turning away, hanging up the pots and pans above the baker's rack, pretending I hadn't seen. I might have wanted my solitude, resented the intrusion, and might have been unprepared for his flirting, but I didn't want to lose what he was offering me - if only for a little while. For most of a year, I'd locked away memories, stifled emotions and forgot those lessons taught from a lifetime ago. Duo's presence drudged them up, uncovered and dusted them off for some reason, and I had some inkling I'd be moving to the next stage... to the new man I was to be.