Part 1 - Thaw
The controls of Wing shuddered as another gust of the gale force winds attempted to topple it out of control. Normally, flying through blizzards, even violent ones like this one, presented no problem. However, with the extra weight currently carried, Wing's operational efficiency was reduced. In the corner of his right eye, Heero noted the incoming transmission from said excess baggage.
"Hey, Heero - how much further to the safe house? It's getting chilly in here."
"Not long. A few minutes."
"About time. Deathscythe and I are tired of just 'hanging out' down here. I want to move!"
As if to demonstrate, Duo shook the controls of Deathscythe, as if attempting to pull the gundam up by the right arm currently clutching Wing's undercarriage. The movement caused another shudder.
"Knock it off. It's hard enough to get through this snowstorm without you adding to the difficulty."
On the side monitor, Duo grinned.
"Don't get all fussed up, I was only joking. Sheesh..."
Heero didn't reply. It would be futile. Always looking for the right buttons to push, attempting to find that one little thing that'd push his current target over the threshold of tolerable annoyance, to spark a reaction - typically Duo. Heero was becoming used to the American's constant efforts at getting a laugh, often on someone's - his - expense. It has almost seized bothering him - almost. However, adding turbulence to an already bumpy flight, and by doing so possibly endangering the mission? Unacceptable.
Locating the safe house proved difficult. From a high altitude, the entire area was an endless flat plain of white, obscured by the heavy snowfall. At tree-top level, on the other hand, small elevations in the snow-covered landscape became visible - but only within a short distance. One such heap was their safe house - a cottage buried beneath Mother Nature's cold sheet. Heero set Deathscythe down, and landed Wing next to it. Both machines sank down in the soft snow, all beneath the knee joints buried in the crystallized water.
"Where's the log house?"
Heero just nodded, indicating the pile of snow in front of them with his forehead. If one looked carefully enough, the reddish-brown bricks of the lodge's pipe peered out of all the white.
"Oh, great. Good thing we packed shovels."
After digging for nearly an hour, they came upon wood. Splintered wood. Piles of it. Duo groaned.
"Don't tell me... The damn safe house has collapsed."
"O-kay... then where's the safe house? I take it we weren't supposed to build it on arrival..."
"The cabin is right-" Heero took his shovel, thrusting it into the snow behind the pile, piercing through to the wooden wall behind with an audible thud. "-there."
"Finally, some good news."
"This wood is most likely for the fireplace."
"Yeah, but it's useless - it's completely soaked. There had better be something burnable inside, or we'll freeze to death."
Judging from the position of the pipe, they reasoned they had struck the eastern wall. According to the sketch of the house they'd been shown during their briefing, the door was on the southern side. Recommencement of shoveling began. Two hours later, they had finally found and cleared the door.
The cabin was filled with total darkness, snow pressing against the few windows carved in the log walls. Opposite of the door was the fireplace. Inside, a big, black cast-iron pan hanging by a hook. Two buckets, one of red plastic, empty, one of gray metal, filled with ice - solid ice - stood in front of it. On either side, there was neat stacks of wood - dry, burnable wood. At least, they wouldn't freeze to death....right away. In each corner of the north side was a bed. On the right side of the door, there was a bench with a wash basin. On the other side, there was another door, slightly ajar, facing south. In the center of the log house, an old table with four chairs had been placed. Along the walls, a few old kerosene lamps hung, layers of dust telling how long it had been since they were last lit. After starting a fire and lighting a few of the lamps, they went back to their gundams to pick up the rest of their supplies.
Unpacking his stuff on the right side of the fireplace, Duo continued to show his annoyance with the current mission.
"Why the heck did they send us up here to the middle of nowhere - during a freakin' blizzard, for cryin' out loud?"
"Have you forgotten the briefing already?"
"Nah. I remember. We're in the middle of nowhere 'cause there's an OZ R&D base at the edge of nowhere. Still, I would've preferred to go there directly, just carving the place to pieces right away."
"Our mission is not destruction. It is infiltration and intelligence gathering. This base is not connected to any networks - whatever they're working on, is highly classified. It is unlikely even the Alliance knows of its existence."
"Yeah... Not destruction - yet. I can always hope for some mayhem later, right?" Again, a broad smile plastered itself across Duo's face, and again, it failed to provoke any response in his partner.
The fire burned brightly, slowly heating up the chilled cabin. The content of the filled bucket was still mostly frozen, but a slight sheen of water had spread across the top of the ice. Outside, the howling winds were already busy covering up the doorway. To avoid being buried in, Heero moved Wing closer to the lodge, using the gundam's shield as an extended doorway roof, and covered the shield and the sides of the makeshift hallway with a big piece of tarpaulin. There was no real need to hide the gundams further. The blizzard made detection by satellite and air reconnaissance impossible, and it would rage at least for a week further - and by that time, they should be long gone. The snow cover and low temperature also covered the heat signatures, and the white blanket unfolding over the machines would soon make them difficult to spot should an OZ patrol dare venture out in the storm, and accidentally come close enough. Even so, Heero opted for placing motion sensors and other warning equipment. Merely a low probability of detection was no excuse for relaxing on security.
After moving all the logs near the fireplace over to the left side, some of the wet wood was carried in to dry. Duo took the empty bucket outside, scooped up some snow, and brought it inside. At least, there would be no shortage of water. Or ice. He dumped the snow in the black pan above the fire, and went out to get more snow. Heated water would be nice - especially since he suspected Heero had packed nothing but emergency rations, probably the dehydrated kind - which meant, the only way to get a hot meal, would be to have some hot water. Heated water would also be preferable for the wash basin - washing oneself in snow could be exotic if one could regain lost heat afterwards - and potentially fatal without that ability.
"So, how did we get this place? Are we 'borrowing' it, or did you buy or rent it with one of your magical bank accounts?"
"Does it matter?"
"I guess not - as long as we aren't disturbed."
As the ice bucket next to the fireplace turned even more viscous, Heero took off the thick outer jacket and pants, designed to keep the severe chills outside tolerable, and advised Duo to do the same.
"If we wear these inside, where it's warmer, the shock of going outside afterwards will be much worse."
"Okay. Better to freeze a little in both places, than to freeze to death in either, right?"
Although said in jest, the sudden loss of the extra layer of cold-resistant clothing, sent shivers down Duo's spine. He immediately approached the fireplace, to reduce and adjust to the temperature change. Heero did not appear to be bothered - even if he was, he would never dare give any signs of it. Professional pride can be a dangerous thing. Over by the fire, Duo was rubbing his hands, causing friction to form heat.
"I need to take a dump - and don't tell me that empty bucket doubles as a toilet..."
Heero nodded towards the second door in the south wall - the one that was slightly ajar - and returned to unpacking. Duo walked over to the door, opened it, expecting to see a wooden bench with a hole in it. He didn't. Instead, there was a monster of a white plastic installation. One could still see the white frost on the seat.
"Oh, swell. Did we pack toilet paper?"
Heero reached down in one bag, grabbed a roll and threw it to Duo, never looking up from the bag he was emptying.
"Thanks. Could you pour some hot water into the sink for me?"
Again, Heero's focus remained at the bags, only giving a curt nod as a reply.
Duo went inside the little annex, and closed the door. Heero half-expected to hear him drop a few curse words upon contact with the cold surface. None came. Not out loud, anyway. Fulfilling his promise, Heero poured some of the heated water from the cast-iron pan into the empty bucket, and proceeded to fill the wash-basin with the warm water.
Duo stood by the fireplace, backside facing the fire, trying to regain some warmth - and reduce numbness. At the table, Heero was busy distributing the content of two dehydrated ration packs in a pair of plastic bowls. Outside, the sunlight had faded away completely.
"Bring some water."
Duo took the red bucket, filled it with heated water from the pan over the fire, and brought it to the table. While Duo poured the water in the bowls, Heero fetched spoons to stir with from one of their bags. They seated themselves at the table. Duo had barely begun slurping up his portion before he was interrupted.
"We should discuss the battle plan."
"What battle plan? I thought you said we weren't going to destroy anything?" Duo took another spoonful of soup - he had no intention of letting Heero disturb his first hot meal of the day.
"Mission tactics, then. The OZ R&D base is a fair distance away."
"We'll still get there and back in a day, right?"
Silence. Heero put his spoon down.
"Maybe - if we start out real early, and keep a quick pace. In this weather, it will take time."
"Whatever happens, I sure don't plan to spend a night outside - and we can't exactly rest at the OZ base, either."
"It's settled, then. We leave early - before daybreak."
"Anything to avoid snoozin' in the snowstorm."
"It will probably take us ten hours to get there, eight to get back."
"Because of the wind, right?"
"I still wish we could use the gundams, save us at least part of the walk."
"You know we can't. Not enough fuel if we have to attack later - besides, we'd be alot easier to spot."
"Yeah..." Duo gave a brief snicker. "18 hours of walking on snowshoes in this blizzard... Well, at least we get to see what the heck those OZ morons are doing up here."
"We'd better. Failure is-"
"...unacceptable. Yeah, got it. Don't worry, Heero - we'll get what we come for. We always do, don't we?" He got no answer.
While the walls kept the wind itself out, the gusts still created howling sounds sending shivers down spines sensitive enough. The temperature was also affected, the fireplace unable to fight it sufficiently. Dou lay in the right side bed, tossing and turning under a pile of blankets, trying to get comfortable in the cold. The aiding effects of the hot meal was fading fast. Sleep might not come easily this evening.
On the left side bed, Heero couldn't sleep either - but not because of the cold. Normally, Duo's unsettlement wouldn't bother him, but the old springs on the other bed were in bad shape, signaling that fact strongly through the soul-slicing sounds produced by even the slightest movement.
"Duo, keep still."
"I can't. It's too cold."
"Then grab another blanket."
"There aren't any left. I could always put on the jacket and..."
"No. You must save that for tomorrow. If you use it now, you'll never last long outside."
The springs squeaked loudly again. It was the final straw.
Duo had been facing the wall, but as he heard rustling in blankets and quilts, he rolled over, seeing an angry Heero stamping quickly across the thin floorboards, barefoot. In contrast, Duo's feet were tucked away in a pair of thick wool socks.
"Heero, I can't help it that the bed-"
Heero reached out, grabbed Duo's right arm with his, and yanked him out on the floor. duo was barely able to keep his balance, wool socks sliding on the slippery wood beneath. Heero's glare aimed right for his eyes, with a mixture of anger, annoyance and... and... Something else. Duo couldn't tell. There was something new in those pools of blue, something he couldn't remember having seen before. Was it fear? Surprise? No...
"I'm not gonna sleep on the floor, if that's what you're thinking - No way I'm gonna-"
Again he was cut off by Heero's actions. Trapped in a steel grip, Duo could barely stumble along as he was dragged over to the other side of the cabin, and tossed into the other bed. Heero walked back across the floor, raiding the blankets and quilts from Duo's bed. A bit bewildered, Duo asked "Are you going to sleep on the floor?"
"No," Heero flatly stated, and while carrying the pillage back; "I have no such intentions."
He piled Duo's covers on top of his own, gesturing for Duo to crawl under.
"We'll share body heat and covers. That way, the cold shouldn't bother you, and your sleeping problems and sub-standard bed shouldn't bother me."
Duo thought about protesting, but knew there was no point. If he had learned anything about Heero, it was his stubbornness and dedication to missions - if they didn't get any rest, they would not be fit for the planned operations the following day. Logic. Nothing more. He turned to face the wall, trying to get comfortable under the covers. Behind him, he felt Heero slip in. Duo suddenly felt one of Heero's arms reach around his chest, the other across his belly, both dragging him close. Again, Duo was about to protest, attempting to tell Heero this wasn't exactly how two guys usually shared body heat, but decided not to. While Heero might not have the warmest of personalities, his body served well as a hot-water bottle. Duo felt warm and comfortable for the first time since they got to the safe house. The cold didn't bother him anymore. That was worth a slight mental qualm. He began drifting slowly into sleep. Halfway between the lands of reality and dreams he thought he heard Heero's warm, steady breath whispering across his ear; barely audible, fading; "Share... body heat... nothing... more..."
Duo slept like the log walls surrounding him that night. Heero was barely able to shut his eyes. By the dying embers of the fireplace, the gray bucket now held nothing but water.