Part 3 - Avalanche
By the time they had the cabin in sight, darkness had again descended over the windy white plain. Every step was a struggle, not because of the frosty gales pushing them forward, not because of the flitting snowflakes dancing all around them, blurring the dim reflections of faint light across the surface. It was how the snowshoes sank down in the soft, saggy, newly fallen snow, draining a vital little bit of energy each time a foot went up or down, white sticky flakes either trying to hold the foot back, or deny it any grip in the first place. Both of them were dead tired. Neither of them were willing to show any sign of it. In the struggle of willpower and flesh, crass determination had persevered - so far. It would not last much longer. Both knew. Neither accepted it - Yet.
No smoke came from the chimney. The fire had probably burned out just a few hours after they left. Other than the chimney, the vague shape and corners of the roof were the only part of the lodge still visible, despite the thick white cover. Standing vigil over the door was Wing, kneeling, its left arm and shield together with tarpaulin creating a hallway protecting the door, preventing the snowfall from clogging the entrance. The tarp was already covered in a layer at least a handbreadth thick, still growing. The wet snow stuck easily to the coarse canvas, but not so easily to the two gundams. Still, Deathscythe, standing like a sentinel a bit further away, scythe held as a spear, had gotten white epaulets from the snowfall. As they got to the tarp, Heero took off his backpack and rummaged around in it to find the two data disks before lifting one corner of the plastic cover, motioning Duo to get in.
"Duo, re-light the fire and turn on the gas lamps. I'll transmit the copy of the backup systems and the codes to Dr. J and the others - I'll use Deathscythe. Wing is not in an optimal position to transmit - besides, Deathscythe is better equipped to scramble and shroud the signal. I'll need your access codes."
Duo didn't argue. He didn't raise a fuss, proclaim that his gundam was off-limits - especially for someone who'd scavenged it for spare parts in the past. He was just too damn tired. He recited the codes, and watched as Heero trotted off to the black sentinel before he dragged the two backpacks in after him under the tarpaulin.
Heero turned to see the tarpaulin settle down before resuming the walk. With a "Hn" and furrowed eyebrows he kicked aimlessly in the snow, sending more white powder up amongst dancing snowflakes. He could feel his blood boil, anger and frustration over his conditioning, and of how easily Duo had bypassed all of that training. Despite his efforts to show otherwise outwards, his feelings - his emotions - were not gone, just repressed. However, Duo always seemed to find a way to break all of them free from their restraints, bring them out to full power - unless he made a significant mental effort to hold them back. Or was it that he felt more relaxed around Duo, willing to show a side of himself nobody else had seen? No. No, he couldn't allow that to happen. Soldier first, human second. What if he were to pour his heart out for Duo, not knowing how Duo would react, or how he himself would react - not even knowing what he might say or do in the first place? What is it he felt for Duo, anyway? Respect? Yes. Despite Duo's knack for getting into trouble, he usually got himself out again just as easily. Desire? Definitely. He had proven that to them both already, practically attacking Duo to get... something. Love? He didn't know. He didn't know. He sent another batch of snow skywards.
Deep within his mind, a mantra began repeating over and over again, though slightly changed with each reiteration; 'Mission first, human second. Mission first, life second. Mission first, Duo second.' To abandon his training was impossible - unthinkable. But to at least stretch its boundaries, as long as it didn't endanger any assignments? Heero could settle for that. However, as he reached for Deathscythe's hatch, a single question pushed all the others out of the way - Would Duo?
The inside of the cabin was dark. The air was stale and dry. That would be forgotten soon enough, no longer noticeable once a few minutes were spent inside. The cold was different. Duo disposed of the backpacks by the center table, used a flashlight to seek out and light each of the four kerosene lamps drilled into the log walls. He shuffled away the ashes in the fireplace into the gray metal bucket, stacked up a solid build of firewood under the black cauldron, before searching his pockets for matches. Once the flames began licking the walls of the fireplace and bottom of the cauldron, Duo sat down by the center table, shedding the thermosuit before it would make him too warm and maladjusted to the slowly rising temperature. His skin felt clammy. The cold outside had not stopped him from sweating during the walk, but heating enough water for a thorough wash would take too long, and the idea of a quick snow-bath was not especially tempting. He settled for a quick sweep, wanting to rid himself of at least the strongest indicators he'd been out walking for a full day. The water left in the cauldron was still far from warm, but it would have to do. He stripped, picked up a cloth from his bags, soaked it in the barely lukewarm water and wiped off drying sweat and smells as best he could. Wherever the moist cloth went, goose-bumps followed.
Duo did his best not to think of it. He wanted to focus his mind on something else - anything else. The topic ended up being Heero. Duo had never suspected the recluse pilot could have normal desires - Heero never seemed to want for anything, but now he had shown something he wanted. Him. Or at least his attention, his affection - his love? Duo smiled and shrugged to himself, dipped the cloth in the water and wound it up.
Heero had never appeared to him as the kind of person who'd fall in love. No, that couldn't be it. Still, the thought was appealing. Duo cared for Heero too, but love him? How do you love someone who doesn't even understand what the word means? Despite his own miserable childhood, he had experienced love, at least for a little while. Closing his eyes, he could see their faces. His smile faded, he shook his head, trying to rid himself of the images - the memories that followed those images all ended in sadness and pain. An old saying crept into his mind; 'It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all'. He belonged in the first category, Heero in the second. Duo was far from certain he was the one that was better off.
Absentmindedly, he finished washing, and the room's temperature became bothersome once more. Still wet from the makeshift bath, he felt colder by the second. Duo pulled out a dry towel from one of the bags and dried himself off. He was searching for a clean set of clothes when the door creaked open, a shivering gust accompanying Heero through the door.
Heero came in, stamped his feet to rid as much of snow as possible from his shoes, proceeded to brush off his shoulders and flip back the hood.
Duo nearly had a fit.
"Hey, close the door!"
It was not before then Heero noticed Duo by the bags, wearing nothing but the towel clutched in his hands, covering not much more. Heero's jaw dropped, mouth agape but for a moment, he turned and slammed the door shut. He stood there, staring at the door sill, not daring to move. Duo found what he was looking for, and dressed hurriedly.
Regaining his composure, Heero was at last able to mumble something.
"I... I'm sorry. I should have knocked."
Duo didn't hear him, preoccupied with clothing as he was. The words were repeated, slightly louder. This time, Duo noticed. After casting a perplexed look on his partner, he simply grinned and stated "Heero, since when did you become so shy? You damn well know I'm not."
Not getting any reply, he continued. "Sorry if I sounded harsh, wasn't you seeing me in my birthday suit that peeved me - but you letting in the cold like that - it's freezing enough in here as it is, you know." Hesitantly, Heero answered, shaking his head, still facing the door.
"I'm sorry - I didn't know you were - I should have knocked. I-"
A hand on his shoulder cut him off mid-sentence. Duo had sneaked up on him. For such a loudmouth, he could be eerily stealthy should he so choose.
"Hey, don't worry about it. You can turn around now - if you tell me where you put the extra pair of wool socks, that is."
Jaw again somewhat unhinged, Heero applied whatever he could of this training to regain focus, remain professional, remain strong - and succeeded.
"Third bag from the right, back section."
Duo tiptoed over there, trying to have as little contact with the cold floorboards as possible. As he fished out his objective, he asked "So... did you send the data? Did my pal Deathscythe give you any problems?"
Duo froze. "To what question?"
"Yes, you sent the data, or yes, Deathscythe gave you problems?"
A look of concern came across Duo, as he looked skeptically at Heero, who was still busy trying to get out of his thermosuit.
"Both, actually. I uploaded the data, got a confirmation signal and a note telling us to rest, and reestablish contact in twelve hours."
"And what problems were there with Deathscythe?"
"The hatch was frozen shut. Ice. I took a crowbar from Wing's toolkit and-"
"You did what? Did you pry open my precious Deathscythe with a crowbar?"
Duo was furious, fists clenching, pounce stance engaged. Heero took a step back, otherwise remaining perfectly calm.
"I used the crowbar to scrape off some of the ice. The hatch opened easily after that."
Narrow violet eyes showed no signs of being convinced.
"Look, I didn't put a single scratch on Deathscythe."
"You damn well better not have, Yuy - If you have, I'll give Wing a full custom paint job - all pink."
Heero wisely didn't reply. He wanted to smile, perhaps even laugh, but didn't want to do anything that could provoke Duo to follow through on his threat - something he was all too likely to do, if angered sufficiently. He knew how precious Deathscythe was to Duo - he felt protective of Wing too, but considered it a machine - a tool - not a friend.
Socks applied, Duo stood by the fireplace, taking in as much heat from it as he could.
"So... Now what? I suppose you'd want us to get started with maintenance work on the gundams right away?"
"Well, that's a first."
"I told you - We were ordered to rest - Besides, I looked over the gundams before I got in. Nothing that can't be fixed in minutes. We can leave that for tomorrow."
"Suits me just fine. I'm beat," Duo said, stretching his arms, barely able to contain a yawn. "I know you are too - you're just too stubborn to admit it."
Duo rubbed his eyes, unsuccessful at suppressing a second yawn.
"Well, I'm going to bed."
Heero didn't answer, he was too busy packing away snowshoes, boots and thermosuits.
With a mischievous smile, Duo asked "You're still good on your offer, I hope? I'd still like to have you to keep me warm tonight, you know."
The thinnest of smiles flashed across Heero's stern face, but he said nothing.
Duo shuffled over to the bed, socks, slick floor and tiredness combined almost making him stumble as he did so. The quilts and blankets piled up there were, like the rest of the room, still cold. As sheets met skin, shivers spiraled up his spine, causing an involuntary shudder. Give it time, he thought with a grin. It will heat up soon enough.
He curled up in a ball, rubbed his legs, waiting.
Closed eyes alone couldn't send him off to sleep. The chills running through his body were too effective at keeping him awake for that. Even so, he kept trying, his mind was more than foggy enough, and other than to shiver or stimulate blood circulation in his legs, he was too exhausted to move. In that haze, it took a while for the trickling sound of water to be recognized. It repeated. Duo opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder, vision still blurry. Over by the fireplace, Heero was following Duo's example of hygiene, bare backside facing Duo. Duo quickly spun around to face the wall. He didn't want to act the Peeping Tom, but...
His heart beat faster, wide-open eyes looking into the patterns of the log walls. Slowly, he peeked over his shoulder once more, eyes devouring all that he could see. Heero dipped the cloth in the cauldron again, and stroked the fabric slowly along one side and down his leg, repeated the move on the other side. The cloth went everywhere, doing all the caressing Duo suddenly felt a craving to do himself. Heero walked over to fetch a towel, and proceeded to dry himself off. Not once did he turn, to Duo's enjoyment - and relief. Duo didn't want Heero to think less of him for watching like that. As Heero slipped on a pair of boxers, Duo could only think of what Heero's rear end looked like without such covers, how his muscles rippled at every move, how-
"Did you enjoy the show?"
The question completely de-railed Duo's train of thought, daydream quickly replaced by reality, awkwardness and embarrassment. Had Heero still not had his back turned, Duo might have seen the thin smile giving away the amusement Heero's tone of voice did not.
"I.. I.." was all Duo could blurt out before Heero turned to face him, grinning, almost laughing. Duo was dumbfounded. Realization struck.
"You - You knew, didn't you?"
Heero folded his arms and leaned against the ledge of the fireplace. "That you were watching? Of course. The way you rustle under those blankets makes it hard not to notice when you're moving around."
Duo pouted mockingly. "...and here I thought you had gone all sweet and shy on me."
"I am shy, Duo. I don't always know how to act, or what to say - but I'm not ashamed nor embarrassed of my body. If I were, would I wear spandex so often?"
Duo snickered. "I guess not - then why did you react like you did when you came in?"
Heero shrugged. "The same reason you just lost your tongue for a moment, I guess - Duo, it just felt a bit... awkward."
Duo laughed. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Guess we'll have to work on that, huh? Now, get your butt over here - Without you under here, the cold will become noticeable again soon."
He lifted the covers with one hand, patted the mattress with the other. Heero accepted the invitation and slipped in next to him. For a while, they just lay there, eyes locked, neither daring to speak or move. Then, Heero slowly inched in, one roaming hand leading loose, gentle fingers along Duo's cheek, rounding his ear, before settling once again amongst the soft, woven strands, pulling Duo even closer. They kissed. Lips barely grazing one another at first, then as soft caresses. Duo let his own hands wander up and down Heero's lover back, muscles, healing scars and old wounds all tantalizing his exploring fingers.
He had just made contact with Heero's soft tongue when he felt something else making contact with his upper thigh. Duo's eyes flared open, and his mind began racing, despite tiredness. This isn't right - not now, not so soon...
He broke the kiss, placed his hands on Heero's chest, as if to hold him back. Voice trembling, he tried to speak his mind. "I... Sorry, but is it okay if we just sleep - that we don't... I - I mean-"
Heero put a finger to Duo's lips, shushing him. Again, a thin smile came across his face, deep blue pools showing no signs of contempt or disappointment. "Sssh. It's okay. I agree. Being close to you is always enough, Duo."
Relaxed by this, and grinning mischievously, Duo replied "Not always, I hope - but for tonight..." Heero nodded, doing his best to fight the sudden heat building up in his cheeks from the innuendo. Duo hugged him before nuzzling against Heero's chest, cheek resting on collar-bone. He felt soft lips touch his forehead as he closed his eyes. The sound of Heero's steady heartbeats and the crackling noises of the fireplace mixed with the sweetest scents of slightly damp skin and burning wood and kerosene, all of it encouraging sleep to an already drowsy mind. Breathing deeply, he at last felt warmth reach every extremity of his body, the cold outside and within but a fleeting memory, the possible perils of tomorrow temporarily forgotten. And he fell asleep.