A Christmas to Remember
by Dyna Dee
Glancing away from the headlight-illuminated road for just a moment, Duo looked to the silent man sitting in the passenger seat next to him, his face pinched with concern for the other as he asked, "You okay?"
A torpid sigh and the words "Just tired," were uttered so softly he had to strain to hear them.
"It was a nice Christmas party, don't you think?" The braided man tried again. "Noin did a great job setting things up. The food was good and everyone was happy to see you." Duo's eyes returned to the road and he jerked the wheel just slightly to re-correct his near move onto the shoulder of the road. "Did Une give you your bonus check?"
It wasn't hard to tell by Heero's clipped answers and the stand-offish manner he'd tenaciously clung to during the annual Christmas party that the man was depressed. Recuperating from a job related injury was bad enough, but the slow recovery and being inactive for six weeks was taking a toll on his lover. Keeping his eyes on the road, he reached over and blindly felt for Heero's hand and found it resting on his thigh. Clasping it in his own hand, he let his finger trace the silver band on his lover's ring finger, identical to the one he wore. "I know tonight was hard for you, being surrounded by our colleagues and listening to them talk about their cases, but just give yourself a little more time; you'll be back to work before you know it." Still no response. "I gotta be honest," he added in a brighter tone of voice, "having you home has been great for me and the kids, even though I know we're probably driving you nuts by now."
Another sigh came from the other side of the car before Heero answered. "I like being with you, too. I'm just frustrated by the slowness of my recovery and the inactivity. Listening to everyone talk about their work tonight makes me feel... useless."
"I know," Duo replied with sympathy, "but you're not useless, just recovering. Guess you could consider this a good reason for not getting yourself shot again." He was trying for humor but his attempt fell flat when Heero didn't respond. Humor was something Duo could always use to smooth over or cover up awkward situations, but he found it particularly hard to come up with any real humor when he had his own fears to deal with after almost having lost his lover. He bit his lip, knowing that anything he said on the subject would probably be taken wrong and would do more harm than good. Duo knew that Heero loved his work at the Preventers. It was like a calling to him, an everyday challenge to use his skills and keep them sharpened while striving to keep the peace they'd spent their youth struggling for. Having been an unabashed adrenaline junkie, Duo understood very well the excitement of being a Preventer agent and the addicting rush that came from moving in on a target and taking down a suspect; he'd experienced and enjoyed that feeling as much as Heero.
When they'd first joined the elite peacekeeping organization six months after the last war, he and Heero had been assigned as partners. That partnership lasted three years before Une discovered the true nature of their personal relationship. She'd scolded them in her office and then immediately reassigned them to new partners. Heero was paired with Wufei while he'd been saddled with Craig Davidson, a tall and thin snake-eyed ex-Ozzie with a chip on his shoulder the size of Australia. His enthusiasm for being a Preventer diminished greatly because of the new, unsatisfactory arrangement. Heero, however, adjusted to the changed more easily. Wufei easily filled his shoes as a partner to Heero, for both men shared similar work ethics and an understanding of how their job should be performed.
Not too long after they'd been reassigned, he and Heero had been asked by Relena to escort her to the colonies for a series of public appearances. Glad for a chance to get away from his disagreeable partner, Duo urged Heero to accept the assignment and Une reluctantly gave them the time off. It was during that trip that they met Mr. Spencer Fielding, an affable and wealthy, self-made businessman who happened to be the chairman and founder of the Refuge for Colony Children organization. It was a meeting that would forever change the lives of the two former gundam pilots. Chaperoning Relena in a dual role of friends and bodyguards, he and Heero toured one of the many colony homes established to take in and care for abandoned children. Mr. Fielding, a portly middle-aged man who'd made his millions young and had spent much of his life in the service of children, realized that he and Heero were life partners and urged them to consider adoption. It was a suggestion they'd contemplated seriously, especially after seeing all the children who needed homes.
After spending several months weighing the pros and cons, they'd welcomed two toddlers into their home, their lives and hearts. Starla, a blue-eyed, curly-haired blonde, two and a half year old, was shy, sucked her thumb, was afraid of the dark and hadn't successfully been potty trained. Her hard-won smile and her physical appearance reminded both men of their friend Quatre. Dooley, a smiley toddler, was fifteen months old and of a mixed origin. Judging from his straight black hair, darker skin and almond-shaped eyes, the orphanage had listed him as being of both African and Asian descent. The two children, as dissimilar in appearance as they could be, got along well and seemed genuinely attached to each other, and together, they made the Yuy-Maxwell house a real home.
Both he and Heero had often remarked on how difficult it was at times to be the parents of two small children, but they also agreed that there was nothing to compare with the joy the two little ones had brought into their lives. Duo knew that Heero loved the children as much as he did, and there was absolutely no doubt in his mind about how his lover felt about him. Still, with all the love that surrounded him, he and the children hadn't been able to keep back the sporadic bouts of depression Heero had suffered from since his return home from the hospital well over a month ago.
Seeing the sign to the next exit, Duo was suddenly struck with inspiration. His lover didn't comment as they exited the highway early, so the braided man decided it was time to break the silence. "I finished the Christmas shopping during lunch today," he said, keeping his eyes on the road. "I got Dooley the bike he wanted."
That bit of information seemed to snag Heero's attention, for the dark-haired man turned his head to look at his lover. "Not the two-wheeler, I hope."
"Of course not. We agreed that five was too young for a two-wheeler and that he couldn't have one until he could understand the rules of the road. I got him one of those big-wheel bikes, the one with the squirt gun attached to the handle bars. It's pretty cool, if I do say so myself."
"What did you get Starla?"
Duo breathed a sigh of relief; he was finally having a conversation with his lover about Christmas. Because of Heero's surgery, his lover hadn't been able to help with the Christmas shopping and seemed disinclined to even talk about the upcoming holiday or the preparations for it. "I got the play kitchen she squealed over the last time we went to the toy store and some play cookware."
"Sorry I haven't been able to help this year." The monotone quality of Heero's voice bothered Duo. It was a ploy his lover had used during the war to hide his feelings.
"I don't mind, really. But I do miss you being able to shop with me. Maybe you can help me with some of the wrapping."
Heero didn't respond to that, but he did sit up a bit straighter as he peered out the window. "Where are we going?"
Duo chuckled. Heero finally realized they weren't taking their usual route home. "Thought I'd drive you through a neighborhood where Christmas is a really big deal. I read in the newspaper that everyone on the street spends a whole month decorating their homes for display, then take a good part of January to put it all away."
"Seems like a waste of time."
Duo snorted. "It's called a hobby."
The braided man knew Heero, the ever time-efficient person that he was, would never understand the fine art of decorating for the holidays. Sure, they put up and decorated a tree and had a few lights outside their house, but it was a pitiful show compared to what some people displayed. "Well, I thought it might get us into the Christmas mood. We've only got four more days and I want to make Christmas memorable for you and the kids."
He heard Heero take in a deep breath, hold it, and then slowly let it out. "All right. I'll try to get into the spirit of things."
Duo squeezed the hand he held, then let it go in order to make the next turn. Even though Heero hadn't been his usual self, the braided man flet fortunate that his lover was even alive. The well-planned Preventer operation to take down a subversive group, who had previously claimed responsibility for several terrorist acts, had gone horribly wrong. The panel investigating the botched incident determined that the suspects had been tipped off and were ready for Heero and Wufei's team when they made their move. It certainly didn't wasn't the surprise they'd hoped it would be. Ambushed, that was the correct term for what had happened that fateful night. Yet because of their excellent training, only two Preventers had been killed outright. Heero and Wufei, as well as the rest of their team, had all been injured.
Duo had been home with the kids that evening, waiting for word on the arrests when the call came. Frantic to get to the hospital, he'd called Julie, their nighttime sitter, to watch the kids. He had no recollection of how he'd actually made it to the hospital, only that the front desk receptionist had firmly suggested that he take a seat in the emergency waiting room until the doctor could speak with him. It was the longest and toughest two hours he'd spent since the time Heero self destructed in the skies over Deikum Barton's stronghold at the end of the last war.
Wufei's injuries were mostly superficial wounds to his left arm and leg, with the bullets going through the fleshy part of each limb. He'd been lucky and recovered quickly. Heero, however, had been hit in the ribs and side of his head. He too had been extremely lucky. With a punctured and collapsed lung, he'd almost drowned in his own blood before they could get him to the hospital and into the operating room. The head wound had been a deep graze, several inches behind his left temple, and it kept Heero in a coma for three days. Blurred vision and migraines were the long-lasting residual effects of the head wound, and they'd almost been as debilitating as his damaged and collapsed lung. Six weeks of rest and recuperation had been torture for Heero who had always relished being active and engaged, but Duo and their children had relished every moment they had with him, knowing that an inch to the left or incompetence by the emergency medical staff could have brought about a different, unthinkable outcome.
Duo shook those bleak thoughts from his mind. He'd come to terms a few years ago with the fact that they had dangerous jobs, that there was always the potential that one of them could be killed while performing their duty. That was the primary reason why he'd left off being a field agent and gone to part-time work after the two children had come into their lives. He now worked as a tactician and weapons consultant as well as a liaison between Preventer's top teams and the department that provided the necessary equipment needed for the agents to carry out any given task. He was no longer in the trenches, so to speak, but he made damn sure that the men and women putting their lives on the line had top quality equipment when and where they needed it.
The car turned onto the street that was certain to have the power company smiling. The neighborhood was ablaze with a large variety of Christmas lights covering or lining rooftops, lawns and shining on painted characters, both fictional and whimsical, presented on wood cut-outs that had been strategically placed on front yard lawns and roofs. And even though the car windows were closed, the two men could hear the cheery music of the season being blasted out onto the street from someone's home.
Duo drove the car slow enough that he was safely able to turn and view Heero's expression. He was pleased to see his lover take an interest in the overly decorated street. "Have the kids seen this?" Heero asked, his breath causing the cold window to fog up.
"I drove them by here the other night when we got take-out for dinner," Duo answered.
Duo followed Heero's line of sight to a point several houses ahead. Both men observed a woman standing out in front of her house, facing the structure. And even with the background music, her frantic screaming could be heard. "Probably a domestic dispute," the braided man guessed.
Maneuvering the car towards the house, Duo was surprised when Heero said, "Don't stop. Just call it in and let the local authorities handle it. We're in suits and I'm tired. I just want to get home to the kids."
Not wanting to stop and investigate was so unlike Heero, Duo thought. He glanced again at the woman up ahead and sensed that whatever was going, it wasn't just an ordinary argument between her and someone within the house. He suddenly felt a strong, overwhelming urge to pull the car over and offer his assistance. He'd learned long ago to follow such gut instincts, and he did so then by pulling the car up to the curb in front of the house. He immediately received a look of disapproval from his lover.
Leaving the key in the car to keep the heater running, Duo reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He flipped it open and noted that he'd forgotten to turn it back on after the speeches at the party had been given and dinner had been served. After turning it on, the screen told him he'd missed two calls. The sensation of urgency came even stronger, so he ignored the calls and tossed the phone to Heero. "Here, make the call and I'll go see what the problem is." He got out of the car as quickly as possible, wanting to avoid an argument.
Rushing around the car and towards the screaming woman, Duo didn't realize until he was almost to her that the home she was screaming at was on fire. "Somebody please... oh, God, please save the children. My babies... Somebody...Please save them," the woman cried, her hands clutched in her hair while her eyes were wide and filled with terror.
Standing in front of her, Duo took a firm hold of the hysterical woman's shoulders and forced her to look him straight in the eyes. "Where are they?" He quickly assessed her. The hysterical woman was approximately 5'5", was slender in built and looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She was dressed in a pale blue jogging suit that was, like her tear-streaked face, mottled with black soot. "Where are they?" he asked again, giving her a slight shake.
The woman blinked her eyes while gasping for breath, coming back to the here and now. "Basement. They were playing in the basement," she cried, her eyes still wide and frenzied. It took several more moments for the barely coherent woman to explain to him where the door to the basement was located.
Turning, Duo scanned the side of the house, then ran to the flowerbed while stuffing his braid under his suit jacket. Turning on the hose, he could only hope that the pipes or hose hadn't frozen. They'd had an unusually warm beginning to winter and they were still waiting for the first snow. Much to his relief, the hose made sputtering noises before it coughed out the steady stream of icy water. Without a second thought, he put the hose above his head and gasped with shock after being hit and drenched with the frigidly cold water.
Once he was completely wet, his body shaking from the cold, he threw the hose down and ran towards the front door, only to be stopped short of his goal when his arm was roughly grabbed. He was spun around and came face to face with Heero, who looked uncommonly frightened. "Don't do this, Duo. I've called the fire department. Let them do the job they're trained to do."
Pulling his arm out of Heero tight grasp, Duo replied through chattering teeth, "I ... I c..c..can't, Heero. A minute or two might mean life or death. There are ch..ch..children in there. You know I have to go."
"Let me go instead."
Duo shook his head, they both knew that was impossible. "Your lung isn't fully healed, Heero. You'd be inc..capacitated by the smoke before you got five feet past the front d..d.door. I almost lost you six weeks ago, c..c.an't risk losing you again." Leaning forward, Duo briefly kissed his lover's warmer lips and whispered, "I love you." Before Heero could protest further, he turned and ran to the front door of the burning home.
Once inside, Duo quickly assessed the situation. It appeared that the entire downstairs of the home was engulfed in flames, with the living room furniture and wall ablaze and the ceiling looking pretty damn close to what he'd imagined a burning hell would look like, with a blanket of rolling flames covering the surface. Pulling his jacket up over his head to protect himself against the intense heat and growing flames, Duo placed his wet sleeve up to his nose and mouth, crouched down, and rushed down the hallway toward the direction the woman had said the kitchen was located. His eyes stung from the smoke and he fought against the instinct to turn around and get the hell out of there. But something within him urged him on, reminding him that there were frightened children in the basement, children he could save.
To his dismay, the kitchen was almost as bad as the living room. The wood cabinets and door to the back yard were on fire as were the curtains over the windows. Moving quickly to his right, he located the basement door and coughed violently as his lungs protested against the smoke he'd ingested.
Feeling the door with his hand, Duo was relieved to find the surface cool to the touch, telling him that the fire wasn't in the basement... yet. Flinging the door open, he searched the darkness for the light switch, and not surprisingly, found the electricity was out when he flipped it on. The brightness of the fire in the kitchen helped him find the rail attached to the wall. He grasped a hold of it and began his descent into the dark basement.
The temperature difference between the upstairs and basement was startling but welcome, and there was fresh air, which gave him hope that the children were all right. "Where are you?" he called out after reaching the cement floor at bottom of the stairs, then a long series of coughs followed that small effort to speak.
He forced himself to stop coughing long enough to listen for any reply. He immediately heard the sound of crying coming from the area to his right. He focused on that sound alone - ignoring the roaring fire above - and followed it until he bumped into what felt like a work bench. Bending over, he fumbled around until his hands found two little bodies, which he immediately separated and turned so that he could scoop one up under each arm. Securing his hold on the frightened and crying children, he whispered assurances to them before beginning the trek back towards the dark stairs. It wasn't until he was halfway up the staircase that he heard another noise below, telling him there was another child hiding in the dark. Having his hands full, he really had no alternative but to take the two he held to safety then return for the other. With the need for haste increased, he rushed up the remaining stairs and into the blazing kitchen.
A loud crash coming from the front of the house startled him and caused the frightened children in his arms to cry out in alarm. In their panic, they vigorously squirmed to break free of his hold. From the sound of it, Duo knew the house was collapsing and he was running out of time. He tightened his grip on the two and bolted for the front entrance, having determined that opening the back door to the house would only make things worse by bringing more oxygen into the room and spreading the fire more quickly, possibly endangering the rescue of the other child in the basement.
It seemed like it took forever before he burst out of the front door. Heero, the garden hose in hand, and the children's mother were standing there waiting for them while bystanders with wide, frightened eyes began to gather at the edge of the lawn. Duo ignored everything while gasping for air, taking fresh oxygen into his protesting lungs. The two childern were pulled from his grasp and immediately placed into their mother's open arms. Heero then used the hose to put out any burning embers that had landed on his wet, thoroughly ruined suit. Looking to the distraught woman, Duo took one more deep breath before asking in a raspy voice. "How many more?"
"Two. Two more," she cried, still frantic while clutching the two children to her chest.
Once again Duo was grabbed by Heero before he could make it to the door. "No, Duo!" Heero said sternly, his eyes displaying his fear. "You saved two, but the house is falling down. Going back inside is suicide. The fire department will be here any minute. Please, don't do this. Don't leave me and the kids. We need you."
"Not... enough... time," Duo answered, still trying to catch his breath. He felt horrible for having caused his lover to fear for his safety, but that feeling inside of him was desperately urging him to hurry, that time was running out. "I have to do this. Remember Maxwell Church... and Mary?"
Heero's stiffened a second before his hand loosened its grip and fell limply to his side. The name of the little girl who'd died early in his training because of an error on his part had always affected Heero's emotional state. Duo hated to use it, but he really had no choice. He knew full well that if he listened to Heero and stood by, doing nothing more to help, the two children in the basement would die and their deaths would haunt them both for the rest of their lives. They certainly didn't need to add any more regrets to the long list each of them had written on their souls.
Taking that brief moment of opportunity, Duo turned and ran back into the house and a certain, fiery death. Stepping over a burning beam that had fallen from the ceiling, he once more covered his head, nose and mouth with his jacket and moved down the flaming and debris-strewn hallway towards the kitchen and the basement door. It was like walking the halls of hell, he thought, as the heat of the fire surrounding him burned his skin and the dark smoke filtered into his lungs. Bent in half to avoid the worst of it, he found the basement once again and paused half way down the steps to catch his breath, coughing hard enough, he thought, to expel a lung.
"Where are you?" he called out when he could breath again.
"Here," a tiny, frightened voice answered. It came from beneath the wooden stairs. Moving as quickly as he could, Duo climbed down the remaining stairs and blindly felt his way in the dark to where he believed the children were located. On his hands and knees he crawled under the staircase and almost cried with relief when his hand landed on a trembling knee. "Come on. I'm getting us out of here." His voice was rough and harsh as he spoke, making him sound like some gruesome creature of the night. He hoped it didn't scare the children.
Acting as he had with the other two, he separated the clinging children from each other then maneuvered them so he could tuck them under his arms. Once they were secure, he carefully backed out of the space, hoping that when he stood up he wouldn't knock himself out by banging his head on the stairs above him.
Without the use of his hands, he had to tread carefully back to the foot of the stairs. Once there, he climbed each one blindly and much too slowly for his comfort. When he finally stepped into the kitchen, the children in his arms squirmed and cried out in alarm at seeing walls of fire all around them. Another loud crash came from the living room causing the children to become panicked. To tell the truth, he felt the same way. With the back door now fully engulfed in flames he could only hope their path to the front door hadn't become blocked as well. If it had, there would be little chance of them escaping. With a quick prayer for divine intervention, he ran for the front door. Tucking the crying children as close to his sides as possible, Duo ignored their crying, knowing he couldn't allow himself to be distracted from his goal. He maneuvered them over flaming drywall and wood that had fallen from the walls and ceiling, and through blinding smoke and past flames so hot that he was sure his skin would blister. Somehow, miraculously, he found himself outside of the burning hell and once more in the cold fresh air and in the arms of a fully suited fireman.
Closing his eyes, Duo released his hold on the two crying children while he violently coughed and gasped for clean air. He felt himself being lowered to the ground and a mask was placed over his nose and mouth. He struggled against it for a moment, desperate to breath in the cold fresh air. Then oxygen, pure and sweet, filled his lungs and he relaxed. He coughed violently again and again. His throat was sore and irritated as he struggled to breathe. He could hear voices not too far away, but it was the sound of Heero's voice that he listened for.
"How? How did this happen?" he heard his lover's voice call out. By the sound of it, Heero was crying. Duo wanted to reassure him that it was all right now. He was out of the burning house and, hopefully, he and the children he'd rescued would be fine.
Feeling himself being lifted, he sensed it was his husband who was holding him. The gentle stroking of his face assured him that it was. "How did you know?" Heero said with a hitching voice that was filled with emotion.
Know? Duo didn't understand what Heero meant. Forcing his eyes open, he saw his love's face above him, lined with worry and something else he didn't fully understand. There were tears streaming down Heero's handsome face. Raising a hand, he made an attempt at wiping them away. "I'm okay," he wheezed, hoping to comfort his lover.
Duo blinked and his eyes shifted from Heero's face to that of the little girl hanging off of Heero's right arm. Her face was smudged with black soot and her blond curls seemed singed, but she was unmistakably his daughter. "Starla? Baby, what... are you...doing here?"
Reacting to his question, his little girl launched herself from Heero's side to rest against his chest. "Oh, daddy," the six year old cried, clinging tightly to his shirt. "I was so scared."
Still not comprehending the situation, Duo looked back to Heero for an explanation, then noticed the other child. "Dooley?" The little boy was clinging to Heero's upper arm while tears smeared the black smudges on his face even as he attempted a shaky smile. Then he too collapsed against his Daddy while Heero shifted to make the adjustment to holding the three of them.
Before his questions could be asked, the woman whose house was burning down stepped into his vision and knelt next to Heero. She looked as stunned as he felt. "I'm assuming you're Starla and Dooley's parents?" she asked in a shaky voice, still trying to gain some control over her emotions.
"Yes," Heero answered, looking dazed and bewildered.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am that you got here when you did. If you hadn't, our kids would have been lost."
Duo was grateful that Heero voiced the question he was aching to ask but was too short of breath to beat him to the punch. "Who are you?"
The woman looked at him in astonishment. "I'm Julie's sister. Your babysitter? Didn't you get her message?"
"What message?" Heero demanded.
"Julie cut her hand with a knife while fixing dinner for the kids. She asked me if I could watch them while she went to the emergency room for stitches. She left you a phone message. Isn't that how you knew to come here?"
Heero turned his astonished eyes back to the man in his arms. "Did you know?" he asked softly.
Duo shook his head, and as the whole situation became clear to his muddled mind, his own tears began to fall. He was experiencing one of those rare moments in life that a person never forgets. If he hadn't taken Heero to see the Christmas lights, hadn't followed the strong urge to stop the car, to get out and help, and then to risk everything by going back after the two children he'd had to leave behind... The implication of what might have happened if he'd let Heero persuade him from acting was too horrifying to think about. They could have lost the two little people who meant the world to the both of them. He knew without a doubt that they would never have forgiven themselves or each other if that had happened.
The sound of a wailing siren could be heard in the near distance, but the little family ignored it. Duo wondered how it was possible for Heero to hold him and the two children in his arms, so tightly and secure, protecting and loving them at the same time. By the tightness of Heero's embrace, he knew that his lover had also recognized the amazing gift they'd been given. Somehow, he knew that something greater than just coincidence was at work here, and he was grateful beyond words for having been lead to where he needed to be. Looking over Heero's shoulder, Duo looked past all the bright lights and cheery decorations that surrounded them, marking the Christmas season, and focused on the starlit heavens above. He sent his heartfelt thanks to the force that had guided him that night, wondering once again if Sister Helen had been watching over him and his family. Duo knew that this Christmas, and every one that followed thereafter, would be more meaningful. He wouldn't need all the holiday trappings to celebrate the season for he had Heero, his own life and that of his children to celebrate and to be grateful for. They'd been given a miracle, one chance in a million to be in the right place at the right time and to make the right choices.
Pulling the oxygen mask from his face, Duo pressed his lips against Heero's ear. "Love you," he whispered, his voice still ragged. He turned his head to his left to kiss his daughter's forehead, and then to the right, doing the same to his son. Slipping the mask back on, he closed his eyes, secure in Heero's arms and in the knowledge that this was going to be a Christmas they'd always remember.