Disclaimer: Don't own any part of Gundam Wing or the characters, more's the pity. This is for fun...no profit involved.
Warnings: AU , yaoi, swearing, bigotry, some OOC
Pairings: 1X2 eventually, 3X4 also eventually
A/N: I know, "The Academy" is way behind on updates. I have not abandoned it and never will. But this story started pulling at my imagination, and then spilling out, and I went with the flow. I blame Kaeru Shisho, who aided and abetted me all the way! She provided a huge source of feedback, proofreading, editing, and helping me work through plot issues. I just couldn't do without her, ever!
"Sometimes in the early morning—usually in autumn—when the sun hits the dewy valleys, the mist rises to wreathe the hills, giving the illusion of a haze of smoke hanging over them. Likewise in the winter, or early spring, while the lowlands are bathed in morning sun, the clouds often hang so low as to obscure the tops of the hills in a shroud of fog. No wonder the early settlers to these hilly inlands chose to call the town Smoky Hills. But over the decades, the name has come to reflect more than the visual aspect of the area; it describes the very nature of life in these hills…mysterious…secretive…sometimes insubstantial… even fleeting…"
—excerpt from the private journal of Ephraim Barton
Chapter One: New Tenants
When they pulled into the driveway to see an overgrown yard and rundown looking house, Heero came perilously close to turning the vehicle around and taking Trowa right back to the city. Even the estate lawyer's description of a "bit of a fixer-upper" hadn't prepared them for the desolate look of the place.
The auburn-haired man just shook his head. "Don't. We've come all this way. The least we can do is take a look around."
"I know. Just—humor me. Take me inside."
So they went inside—after fighting their way up a weed-choked walkway, cautiously testing the strength of the worn-looking porch steps, and finding them sturdier than they looked.
Inside was even worse. Cobwebs and dust covered almost every square inch of the sparsely-furnished living room, and when Heero pulled the sheet off an ancient couch, the squirrels nesting underneath scurried in several directions, vaulting off walls and chairs before sliding out through the same tiny chink in a window frame that had let them in.
"Cozy," Trowa said with a rueful smirk.
"You have got to be out of your mind! Trowa, I'm taking you back to civilization—where there are clean lodgings, and doctors within driving distance, and—no squirrels!"
Heero looked a bit pale, after the shock of disturbing the wild inhabitants.
"You can go back if you want," Trowa offered. "I'll even go with you, until I heal up and can come back on my own. But it's a six-hour drive, and I fully plan to have a decent night's sleep here before getting back in that car."
And somehow, one night led into the next—until they never did quite make that drive back to where they came from.
It was the day after a holiday; never a good thing when you worked at a post office. But when Postmaster Quatre Winner opened the letter addressed to Postmaster, Smoky Hills, that had been dropped in the local collection box, he knew it was about to get worse.
"Yeah boss?" Duo looked around the corner of the case where he was sorting letters, preparing the mail for delivery on his rural route.
"How long has it been since anyone got mail at the Barton Place?"
"Shit. Years," Duo told him. "Old Man Barton passed away a good two or three years ago. No one's lived there since." His brow drew together in a suspicious frown. "Why do you ask?"
"We've got a patron card for that address."
"What?" Duo exploded, stalking around the case and snatching the offending form from Quatre's hand. He glared down at it, reading the neat handwriting and scowling deeply. "The Barton Place?" he blurted. "Quat—that's ten miles off my route!"
"Actually, it's closer to five," Quatre pointed out.
"Yeah, and we're only supposed to extend delivery one mile per family—a half-mile each way. This would add a ten-mile round trip."
"Yes, but Howard used to deliver there. It's grandfathered in," Quatre noted.
Duo's jaw dropped, and he put his hands on his hips. "Jeezus, Quat, you've gotta be kidding. If I have to drive all the way out there every day, it'll add half an hour to the route."
"I'll make sure your evaluation reflects that," Quatre promised. "I'll send the paperwork in today and make the change effective immediately."
The blonde gave a wan smile. "Sorry, Duo. You know we have to honor the delivery request."
"Why not make 'em get a post office box?"
"Nice try. But you know we can't."
Duo gave his boss a brief, resentful look, and then sighed. "S'pose you're right," he grumbled. "Doesn't mean I have to like it, though." He took the form back to his case, studying the names printed in block letters. "Trowa Barton and Heero Yuy. Weird." He took a bite of his doughnut and a quick sip of coffee from his travel mug. "I get the Barton guy—but who the heck is Heero Yuy? Sounds foreign."
"Japanese, I think," Quatre agreed, resuming his paperwork at his desk.
"Y'think the Barton kid was Dekim's son?"
Duo looked the form over again, frowning thoughtfully. The Barton family had a long history in Smoky Hills. They were one of the originals—a farm family that dated back to the early settlers. Genuine hill folk, if you wanted to adopt the local image of them.
Duo definitely agreed with that assessment. Old Man Barton, the most recent one anyway, had been a crotchety, unsociable hermit, living on his couple of hundred acres of forest and pasture land, and allowing no one to trespass.
It had been common practice for the local kids to dare each other to sneak onto the place and steal one of the "no trespassing" signs to prove they'd been there. To the best of Duo's knowledge, only one person had ever succeeded—his childhood buddy Solo.
Grimacing at the tangent his mind had slipped onto, Duo put the form aside to file later, and set to work marking the new delivery on his sorting case. His brief hope that there'd be no mail for it, and he could put it off for another day, was dashed when he came across a single letter addressed to Trowa Barton.
"Well shit," he sighed, resigning himself to an extra-long drive that day.
His only consolation was that Quatre was besieged with customers, and working just as hard as he was. But at least the postmaster would get to close the place up for a couple of hours at noon, and take a much-needed break. Duo generally worked straight through, though now and then, usually on a heavy day like this one, he'd give himself a fifteen-minute break somewhere along the route and wolf down a sandwich and soda.
With the new stop out at the distant Barton farm, he doubted he'd ever have time for such a luxury again.
The morning flew past as he hurried to sort the mail and pull it down into delivery sequence. Being the day after a holiday, there was more than an average amount, and it was almost noon before he was ready to load his vehicle.
He pulled the Jeep up to the back door of the post office, wheeled the trays of mail out in a cart used for that purpose, and stacked them neatly in the back seat.
When he'd loaded the last tray into his Jeep, he stuck his head back in the door to say a quick goodbye to his boss. "On my way, Quat!" he announced, seeing that the postmaster was still at the counter waiting on customers.
Then, recalling the additional delivery on his route, he threw in a slightly grumpy afterthought. "Don't wait up!"
"Be back before the truck," Quatre called back, darting a glance over his shoulder.
In reality, Duo expected to easily make it back before the truck that came to take their mail in to the main processing plant. While the detour was going to add a good ten miles to his driving, it wasn't going to take as long as his griping had implied. But he felt he had to at least put up some token resistance to the increase in his workload.
Besides, the drive would take him up around the reservoir—a place that was filled with memories, both good and bad, of the years he'd spent growing up in the remote hill town. Seeing the familiar lake was bound to make him remember and dwell on things he tried not to, and he wasn't looking forward to it.
"Get a grip, Duo," he mumbled to himself, pulling out of the post office parking lot and heading for his first delivery.
It was mid-afternoon when Duo turned onto the road leading out towards the Barton farm, and stepped hard on the accelerator, eager to make time and not linger among melancholy memories.
But no matter how fast he drove, he couldn't escape them. He had to pass the spot where the river ran close beside the road, and where the best fishing hole in town was. And a mile further, was where he'd broken down in a beat-up old pickup truck and had to walk the eight miles back to town on a sweltering hot afternoon. There'd been a mountain lion stalking him, too, though he'd never managed to convince anyone of the truth of it. The big cat had trailed along in the shadows under the trees, keeping him always in sight, but never quite getting close enough for him to throw something at. Duo still smarted at the way he'd been scoffed at for telling folks about the big cat.
Still further along the winding road, was the place where Duo and Solo had stolen a deer crossing sign to win a bet with some other boys—and further down, the place Solo had stolen his first kiss.
Duo nearly hit the brakes at that point, tempted to turn onto the side street that ran up along the reservoir to the lookout—to go to a place he rarely visited, even in his mind. Instead, he put the brakes on his errant thoughts, and focused all of his attention on driving.
He cranked up the radio a bit as well, letting the rock and roll blasting out of scratchy speakers provide a needed distraction as he sang along.
When he finally got to the bumpy private road up to the Barton place, he breathed a quick sigh of relief. Almost there.
Not that approaching the Barton farm made him feel any better than driving past places haunted by memories; as far back as Duo could recall, the old farm had been reputed to be haunted by things a lot more substantial.
And while he knew those old stories to be childish superstition, for the most part, fueled by the miserly and anti-social nature of the last resident, he couldn't quite shake his feeling of unease.
"Fuckin' haunted houses," Duo mumbled under his breath, glancing nervously around as he drove up the narrow lane leading to the mailbox. It was a box he recalled from a time that some of the kids had dared each other to steal a piece of Old Man Barton's mail, to prove they'd gotten even that close to the terrifying place. It had been a dilapidated, rickety thing, weathered and worn and on the verge of collapse—in the exact shape of the farmhouse, and supposedly just as haunted.
But when he arrived at it, he was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the old, hand-made wooden mailbox with flaking paint the color of dried blood (and some of the kids swore that's what had been used to coat it), there was a brand new metal box on a sturdy wooden post. The house number was neatly affixed to the side, in those reflective letters most hardware stores sold. It looked like a poster child for the regulations manual—the height, position and markings fitting all postal requirements to a tee.
"Wow," Duo murmured, opening the box and setting the single letter inside. "If we gave gold stars for mailbox installation, these guys'd get a big, fat one."
He found himself smirking as he tossed in a flyer and closed the box, shifting the Jeep into gear and heading back towards civilization.