I welcome any and all feedback. Once again, I apologize for the time between updates. Previous parts are posted here:|Part 1| |Part 2| |Part 3| |Part 4| My email address is: Leslie Ann Miller

Shamrock Snow, part 5

by Leslie Ann Miller

Dale was unprepared for the vigor of Gussie's counterattack. She barely had time to revel in the success of her tackle before she found herself being heaved unceremoniously to the side. Admittedly, she was not expecting the conductor to be some sort of freakish modern female equivalent of Hercules, with the strength to hurl English majors around like sacks of grain. Even short ones, she thought, as she landed face first in the deep snow. She floundered; laughing so hard she couldn't catch her breath, desperately trying to get to her feet before Gussie could reach her again. She stumbled forward on all fours, hampered by the depth of the snow, but somehow managed to find her feet while still grabbing a handful of snow to compact into a snowball. She whirled, threw blindly at the blur of Gussie's red coat bearing down on her, heard a growl as her snowball found its mark, and turned again to bolt. She managed to put the woodpile between her and the conductor before the snowball fight erupted in earnest, both of them making and throwing snowballs as fast as they could across the barrier of logs.

Dale thought she was getting the upper hand in the fight - Gussie was laughing too hard to throw straight - when the tall conductor suddenly decided to vault the lowest section of the woodpile. Dale barely managed to dodge the older woman's wild grab for her and ran wildly towards a low mound off to the side, hoping that higher ground would give her an advantage if Gussie decided to try to tackle her again.

Gussie's warning cry barely registered in her mind as she started up the side of the small hill. She heard a sharp crack beneath the snow even as she found herself plunging into a gaping black hole in the ground. Oh shit! she thought, just before hitting the bottom.

*****

Gussie watched in horror as Dale disappeared into a hole in the snow, her peal of laughter changing to a cry of surprise that suddenly went silent. She knew immediately what had happened. The slanting wooden hatch to their tornado shelter had been needing repair or replacement for years, and it had undoubtedly given out when Dale unwittingly stepped on it.

Mom is going to be so pissed if I've just managed to kill our houseguest, she thought dazedly. "Dale?" she called, dashing forward, praying that the young woman was not seriously hurt.

The whole door had given away, leaving a huge black hole in the white ground. In the dim light Gussie could barely see Dale lying unmoving among the splinters of the door and the snow at the bottom of the stairs.

"Dale!" she cried again, rushing down the steps, intent on getting to the young woman as quickly as possible. She didn't notice the broken chunk of icy wood on one of the steps about halfway down until she had already stepped on it. It slipped, sending her flying off balance. She barely had the presence of mind to flail wildly - just enough to shift her fall to the side, rather than forward onto Dale.

She crashed onto an empty wooden workbench then rolled off and hit the concrete floor, landing painfully on her right arm. "Oh God," she groaned after a moment, taking inventory of her aching body parts. Her elbow hurt fiercely where she'd landed on it, and her ribs where she'd hit the bench, but everything seemed to be in working order. She opened her eyes… and found a pair of swollen, frightened green eyes staring back.

"Gussie?" Dale asked. "Are you okay?"

"Um… yeah, I think so. How about you?"

Dale was clearly relieved by her answer, breathing an audible sigh of relief. "Yeah, I think so… I banged my head on something on the way down, though."

Worried, Gussie looked at Dale closely. The top of her nose was bleeding slightly again, and she had a scrape on one cheek that was oozing blood as well. But her eyes were bright and alert.

As if sensing her concern, Dale smiled. "That was some rescue, Maestro," she grinned crookedly, "I had this sudden, terrible image of having to explain to your mother how I'd managed to repay her hospitality by killing you."

Gussie laughed, thinking of her own reaction to seeing Dale fall, and tried to push herself up without putting any weight on her sore elbow. "Mom has that effect on people." She flexed her arm gingerly, flinching at the sudden pain. She'd probably strained it, but nothing was broken. "You'd never believe my middle name was Grace, would you?"

Dale snorted, then realized she was serious. "No kidding?"

"It is, really."

"Daisy Dale and Gussie Grace. Quite the pair, aren't we?" Dale managed another grin, then grimaced in pain. "Um, you know, I think I might have lied… my… oh god!"

Gussie realized that Dale had remained in the same crumpled heap at the base of the stairs until that moment when she curled up in obvious agony, reaching for her leg. Gussie's breath caught in alarm, and she slid across the dirty, frozen concrete to the girl's side. "Where does it hurt?"

"My ankle… when I tried to move it… oh crap that hurts!" Dale rolled onto her back, knees bent, still holding her left leg in her hands. "Ow ow ow ow!"

Gussie frowned. "Do you think it's broken?"

"I don't know… I've twisted my ankle before, but… Damn!" Dale moaned, then, much to Gussie's consternation, burst into tears. "I can't believe this is happening!"

Gussie was at a loss. She knew she should offer some kind of comfort in a situation like this, but she had no experience in consoling weeping women. She herself was far too controlled to ever let herself cry… at least in front of others. She'd always considered it a sign of feminine weakness, definitely not a character flaw she'd ever allow another person to see in her, but something told her that Dale was hardly weak. No, this was obviously a combination of emotional distress and physical pain, and she couldn't help letting a piece of her heart go out to the young woman. Awkwardly, she reached out and gently stroked Dale's shoulder through the stiff fabric of her coat. "Hey," she said, at a loss for anything more eloquent.

"I…I'm so s-sorry," Dale sobbed, covering her face with one gloved hand.

Gussie wasn't sure what Dale was apologizing for, but said, "It's all right." She noticed that Dale was starting to shake from more than just her crying, acutely aware that melting snow was making her own jeans wet, cold, and uncomfortable. "Hey, it's freezing down here. Let's get back into the house. Can you sit up?"

Dale nodded through her tears, obviously trying to get a hold of herself. Finally she sniffed and wiped the tears from her red cheeks. "I…um…I think so."

Careful not to use her injured arm, Gussie helped Dale into a sitting position. Once she was certain that Dale wasn't going to pass out or be sick, she stood up, almost gasping as her ribs protested.

"What's wrong?" Dale asked, frowning.

Gussie cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, nothing, just a little sore from the fall." She held out her good hand to help her guest to her feet.

"You're holding your arm funny," Dale said quietly, shivering noticeably.

Gussie fought the urge to role her eyes. She was, in fact, unconsciously hugging her arm to her body. "I strained my elbow. C'mon, on, I'm freezing my ass off. Let's get out of here."

Dale's eyes filled with tears again. "I'm so sorry. I didn't m-mean for you to get hurt."

"I know that," Gussie said irritably. When Dale looked away, tears spilling over, she chastised herself. She took a deep breath. "Listen, really, it's okay. It was just a freak accident."

Dale snorted between her chattering teeth. "Yeah, and I'm the f-freak."

Gussie frowned. Dale sounded despondent, but she sensed there was more to the comment than simple self-remorse. Unsure how to respond, she held out her hand again. "You're not a freak, just very cold... and hurting. Can you stand?"

Dale looked up and met her eyes again.

Gussie smiled.

Dale quirked a half smile and grabbed her hand, pulling herself up onto her uninjured foot.

Gussie watched as the blood drained from Dale's face, preparing to catch her if she fainted. She kept a steadying hand on Dale's shoulder until the color began to creep back into the young woman's cheeks.

Dale exhaled between pursed lips. "Whoa. I thought I was gonna lose it there for a minute." She tried putting some weight on her injured foot, and Gussie watched as the she went pale once again, biting back a cry of pain. "That's not good," Dale gasped after a moment.

"Here, I'll help you," Gussie said. "Put your arm over my shoulder."

"But you're hurt."

"We're both going to freeze to death if we don't get out of here."

"Go on without m-me," Dale sniffed. "Save yourself. You can bury me after the s-spring thaw."

Gussie laughed. Dale had a habit of saying the most unexpected things, she noticed. And making me laugh. "Are you going to make me carry you?"

Dale's eyes went wide. "God no. Although I have no d-doubt you could. Speaking of freaks, how did you get to b-be so strong?" she asked teasingly, putting her arm around Gussie's shoulders.

Gussie chuckled. "A solid gold orchestra baton." She helped Dale hop forward to the first stair.

"Really?" Dale asked, looking up at her.

Gussie grinned. "No, but don't think I haven't thought about it. I guess it's just genetics."

Somehow they managed to make their way up the narrow stairs without falling down again, Gussie very conscious of Dale's body leaning into hers. It felt different… good… to be lending her strength to help somebody who needed her. Hell, if she were totally honest with herself, she would admit that it just felt good to have that kind of close full body contact with another person.

God, when did I become such an ice queen that nobody even hugs me anymore? She remembered the halfhearted hug that Jill had given her after their last date. It was almost like the woman had been afraid to touch her. Of course, she'd probably been able to sense that Gussie was preparing to break off their relationship. How long had it been since someone had just… tackled her… like Dale? College? Years, her mind supplied. I'm so pathetic.

Her thoughts were interrupted when they reached the top of the stairs. She glanced at Dale and noticed that she looked decidedly ill, and now that they weren't moving, she could feel her shivering uncontrollably beside her. "Well, we made it that far," she said. "Are you okay?"

Dale mumbled something, her eyes looking momentarily unfocused. Then she looked up at Gussie and smiled. "What, you m-m-mean b-besides the C-Christmas curse of the D-damned that seems to have f-found me this y-year?"

Gussie bit her lip. What was the saying about hypothermia? Look for the "umbles"- stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles… It would take a long time to help Dale hop through the deep snow to the backyard. She flexed her elbow. It still hurt, badly enough that she didn't think she could carry Dale all the way in her arms. "I have an idea," she said slowly, wondering if Dale would go for it. "How about I give you a piggy-back ride to the door?"

"Are y-you s-sure that w-won't hurt you?"

"Yeah. Just promise not to kick me, okay?"

Dale nodded without the smile Gussie had hoped for.

Gussie could tell Dale had been dreading traversing the long stretch across the yard, but her lack of characteristic grin at her lame attempt at humor concerned her. "All right, then, hop on!" she said. She repositioned herself and bent her knees to let Dale half jump, half scramble up onto her back. It was awkward, but eventually they got settled into a position where Gussie could support Dale's weight and still lumber forward. Dale had her arms wrapped around her neck, and she could feel the young woman's warm breath on her ear. It tickled, but she didn't want to say anything for fear she'd shift and lose the tentative balance they'd achieved.

"How are you doing back there?" she asked when they were almost to the door.

"Okay," Dale said, but her voice was shaky.

Gussie let her down when they reached the door. "Here you go, door to door service, m'am."

"Thanks," Dale said seriously as Gussie pulled the door open. "I m-mean, really, I'm s-sorry you had to d-do that…"

"Hey, it's no problem. C'mon. I'll help you to the living room." Ignoring the trail of snowmelt they were leaving through the kitchen, Gussie helped Dale limp to the sofa where she gratefully collapsed.

*******


To be continued in part 6